Does social psychology have a prejudice problem?

The Weekly Standard has a scorching article that takes ‘liberal psychopundits’ to task for suggesting that science supports their view that conservatives are ‘heartless and stupid’.

It comes on the heels of a new study that found that social psychology professors were more likely to be liberal (no surprise there) but rather more shockingly were prepared to openly discriminate against conservative colleagues.

The ‘science blind Republicans’ idea has become particularly popular in some corners of the blogosphere, but as psychologists will tell you, people in White Houses shouldn’t throw stones.

If you want an excellent discussion of why everyone, regardless of their political stripe, is susceptible to the denial of science, a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis on the psychology of political prejudice is one of the best cognitive science documentaries I’ve heard in ages.

Right wingers prefer to deny the science of evolution and global warming, while left-wingers prefer to ignore the evidence on the genetic influence on behaviour and IQ.

Reality, of course, is bipartisan and will smack you in the nose regardless of how you vote.

Link to edition of BBC Radio 4 Analysis on political prejudice.
Link to podcast download page for same.

Artist treats psychiatric hospital stay as art residency

Claude Heiland-Allen is an artist who specialises in mathematical, algorithmic and science-based art. When he was recently admitted to a psychiatric hospital he decided to treat his stay “as an artist-in-residence opportunity” – producing fractal images by freehand drawings.

You can see some of the amazing work on his website.

He explains the background to his unusual residency:

…Claude eventually found himself in a psychiatric hospital, treating his in-patient as an artist-in-residence opportunity, using more old-school media such as pens, pencils and paper to carry on making art despite adversity. It’s hard to draw a perfect circle when sharp drawing compasses are disallowed, but with plenty of time to practice, and inspiration from memories of Euclid, Escher, Coxeter, and many others whose names he should recall, many more images of various designs should be finding their way on to this website sooner or later, along with a few texts inspired by events along the ride.

Some amazing art and his website says more work from his stay is due to appear.

Link to Claude Heiland-Allen’s website (via @yaxu)

The Lancet, [temporarily] seized by irony

The Lancet has just a launched a special collection on how epilepsy is a global health problem particularly in lower-income countries.

According to several of the articles, one of the key problems that drives the medical neglect of people with epilepsy is a lack of accurate information about the condition for health professionals and the public.

How ironic then that The Lancet have put the five key scientific review articles from the series behind a paywall – costing $31.50 each. That’s 157.50 dollars for all five.

According to the figures cited in special collection, in a low income country $157.50 dollars would pay for a year’s epilepsy treatment for up to 31 people (using the cheapest anti-epileptic drug phenobarbital).

In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, $157.50 would pay the monthly salary of a dedicated epilepsy nurse.

Or you can pay for five Lancet review articles that provide not only accurate, evidence-based treatment recommendations for epilepsy but also lament the lack of freely available, accurate, evidence-based treatment recommendations for epilepsy.

UPDATE: The Lancet has announced that all articles are now freely available to anyone who completes the free registration on their site. Credit where credit’s due – an excellent move. Many thanks to them.


Link to Lancet special collection on epilepsy.

Growing up in Broadmoor

Novelist Patrick McGrath talks about his childhood as the son of a psychiatrist growing up in the grounds of Broadmoor – one of Britain’s highest security psychiatric hospitals – in an article for Intelligent Life.

Broadmoor Hospital has a special and undeserved place in the British psyche – stereotyped as ‘the real-life equivalent of Arkham Asylum’.

The reality is vastly different. While dangerous people do genuinely go there, it is primarily a hospital and a particularly state-of-the-art one at that, although it is a very secure place.

With this is mind, McGrath’s article is all the more amazing, as it describes a forensic hospital of generations past where children could live on the grounds and play amid the hospital buildings.

…the family had settled happily into Broadmoor life. The superintendent’s kids—there were four of us eventually—were well pleased with their lot. Kentigern had sculleries, pantries, a meat safe, servants’ quarters, and various sheds and outhouses, including a conservatory where the patients grew tomatoes. The garden was a sprawling expanse of trees and lawns, a goldfish pond with a fountain, a vegetable garden and, best of all, areas of dense rhododendron bushes where you could hide out from the authorities and build a campfire. It was a good place to grow up.

I occasionally work in medium secure psychiatric wards, a ‘step below’ Broadmoor on the risk ladder, and it usually takes me at least 15 minutes to get in through the searches, doors and endless locks. The days when families lived on site are long gone.

McGrath also talks about (in)famous patients and cases that made the media and how they affected their family life.

Interestingly, McGrath has gone on to write several novels that feature psychiatry or madness as central to the plot.

A curious and unique perspective.

Link to ‘A Boy’s Own Broadmoor’ (via MeFi)

The inner object

The Lancet has a wonderful article on how medicine has understood how strange objects have ended up in the body and how this has influenced our understanding of the body and behaviour.

The piece notes that cases where people have swallowed or inserted foreign bodies into themselves have been important for surgery and even anatomy – hair swallowers apparently provided useful “hair casts of the stomach”.

However, it is no surprise that interest turned to understanding why some people put objects into themselves.

Thus, in surgical writings, the foreign body became something from which psychological meaning could be drawn. In 1913, William Clayton-Green puzzled: “Did hair-swallowers desire to do something which others abhorred? Or did they wish to excite wonder and interest and to puzzle their doctors? Or was hair-swallowing a form of psychical tic, occurring in mentally abnormal subjects?” He and his contemporaries struggled to answer such questions. This new interest in a psychological model of the foreign body is also apparent in the case of a young woman, Beatrice A, admitted repeatedly to the Royal London Hospital between 1898 and 1909 for the removal of hairpins inserted into her bladder. On her first admission, the young milliner was described as “[m]ad as a hatter”.

Yet, by 1909, this conclusion did not seem so obvious. Beatrice’s actions were now referred to as a “habit”, and it was noted that no other symptoms of insanity had been observed. Beatrice herself informed the surgeon “that she formerly suffered from an impulse to throw herself out [of] windows [and] once did it. Many years ago however she gave this up for the now harmless amusement of putting hairpins into her bladder.” This unusual explanation appears to have perturbed Beatrice’s surgeons, located as it was somewhere between the rational and the irrational: inserting hairpins did indeed seem less dangerous than falling from a height, but why might she need to do either? Thus articles in the next few decades debated the psychological meaning of foreign bodies, with a wide array of possible explanations suggested from hysteria to malingering, sexual perversion, and “professional swallowing”.

The image is of objects found in the stomach of a “26-year-old woman who was admitted to hospital in 1915, having accidentally swallowed a metal hook 2 weeks previously, since when there had been pain and the vomiting of black material”.

Link to Lancet article ‘Curious appetites’.

Sleight-of-hand causes a moral reversal

Just over half of participants in survey of moral opinions argued for the reverse of what they first claimed when their answers were secretly switched.

The thoroughly delightful study is open-access from PLOS One but is also described in a news piece for Nature.

The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

But the surveys also contained a ‘magic trick’. Each contained two sets of statements, one lightly glued on top of the other. Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged.

Two statements in every hidden set had been reworded to mean the opposite of the original statements. For example, if the top statement read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the word ‘forbidden’ was replaced with ‘permitted’ in the hidden statement.

Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.

About half of the participants did not detect the changes, and 69% accepted at least one of the altered statements.

Don’t miss the video of the ‘trick questionnaire’ in action.

Link to Nature News coverage of the study.
Link to full text of study.

Schizophrenia beyond the brain

The Wilson Quarterly has an excellent article about the rebirth of interest in how social experiences affect the development of schizophrenia.

It’s written by the brilliant anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann, who tracks how the enthusiasm for a completely neurobiological explanation for the disorder has now begun to wane.

It’s worth saying that this extreme neurobiological focus has really been an American phenomenon.

While it’s true to say that psychiatry has taken a distinct neurobiological turn across the world, the mantra that ‘schizophrenia is a brain disease’ and only needs to be understood in terms of brain function has been most strongly championed in the United States.

For somewhat mysterious reasons, and not without a touch of irony, American psychiatry has been subject to quite striking mood swings over the past century.

The ‘Freudian takeover’ only really occurred in the US, and was overturned by the diagnostic manual championing ‘mid-Atlantics’ who created the DSM-III.

Subsequently, a dominant current of thought emerged that mental illnesses could be understood as ‘brain disorders’ – a concept massively promoted and funded by drug companies. Searches for the ‘gene for schizophrenia’ and the ‘brain circuit for depression’ were all the rage, even if they seem a little naive in hindsight.

In Europe, however, social psychiatry – where mental disorders are seen within a social context – remained widely taught. In the UK, it had more an an epidemiological flavour, where on the continent it was more focussed on analysing the cultural meaning of mental illness.

Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s article is an excellent overview of how psychiatry has started to look ‘beyond the brain’, although we’d hope it doesn’t lose sight of it while gazing at the horizon

My only significant problem was that the article repeats the ‘people with schizophrenia do better in the developing world’ claim, which is so over-general as to be useless.

Other than that though, an excellent incisive article and one of the best pieces you’re likely to read in a while.

Link to ‘Beyond the Brain’ in The Wilson Quarterly (thanks Peter!)