BBC Future column: The Psychology Of Tetris

Last week’s BBC Future column. The original is here. There’s a more melancholy and personal version of this column I could have written called ‘I lost years of my life to Sid Meier’s ‘Civiliation’, but since the game is now out on iphone I didn’t have time to write it.

How the secret to the popular game’s success is that it takes advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up and uses it against us.

Shapes fall from the sky, all you have to do is to control how they fall and fit within each other. A simple premise, but add an annoyingly addictive electronica soundtrack (based on a Russian folk tune called Korobeiniki, apparently) and you have a revolution in entertainment.

Since Tetris was launched on the world in 1986, millions of hours have been lost through playing this simple game. Since then, we’ve seen games consoles grow in power, and with it the appearance of everything from Call of Duty to World of Warcraft. Yet block and puzzle games like Tetris still have a special place in our hearts. Why are they are so compelling?

The writer Jeffrey Goldsmith was so obsessed with Tetris that he wrote a famous article asking if the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov had invented “a pharmatronic?” – a video game with the potency of an addictive drug. Some people say that after playing the game for hours they see falling blocks in their dreams or buildings move together in the street – a phenomenon known as the Tetris Effect. Such is its mental pull, there’s even been the suggestion that the game might be able to prevent flashbacks in people with PTSD.

I had my own Tetris phase, when I was a teenager, and spent more hours than I should have trying to align the falling blocks in rows. Recently, I started thinking about why games like Tetris are so compelling. My conclusion? It’s to do with a deep-seated psychological drive to tidy up.

Many human games are basically ritualised tidying up. Snooker, or pool if you are non-British, is a good example. The first person makes a mess (the break) and then the players take turns in potting the balls into the pockets, in a vary particular order. Tetris adds a computer-powered engine to this basic scenario – not only must the player tidy up, but the computer keeps throwing extra blocks from the sky to add to the mess. It looks like a perfect example of a pointless exercise – a game that doesn’t teach us anything useful, has no wider social or physical purpose, but which weirdly keeps us interested.

There’s a textbook psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. In the 1930s, Zeigarnik was in a busy cafe and heard that the waiters had fantastic memories for orders – but only up until the orders had been delivered. They could remember the requests of a party of 12, but once the food and drink had hit the table they forgot about it instantly, and were unable to recall what had been so solid moments before. Zeigarnik gave her name to the whole class of problems where incomplete tasks stick in memory.

The Zeigarnik Effect is also part of the reason why quiz shows are so compelling. You might not care about the year the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded or the percentage of the world’s countries that have at least one McDonald’s restaurant, but once someone has asked the question it becomes strangely irritating not to know the answer (1927 and 61%, by the way). The questions stick in the mind, unfinished until it is completed by the answer.

Game theory

Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

The other reason why Tetris works so well is that each unfinished task only appears at the same time as its potential solution – those blocks continuously fall from the sky, each one a problem and a potential solution. Tetris is a simple visual world, and solutions can immediately be tried out using the five control keys (move left, move right, rotate left, rotate right and drop – of course). Studies of Tetris players show that people prefer to rotate the blocks to see if they’ll fit, rather than think about if they’ll fit. Either method would work, of course, but Tetris creates a world where action is quicker than thought – and this is part of the key to why it is so absorbing. Unlike so much of life, Tetris makes an immediate connection between our insight into how we might solve a problem and the means to begin acting on it.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes a phenomenon, but it doesn’t really give any reason for why it happens. This is a common trick of psychologists, to pretend they solved a riddle of the human mind by giving it a name, when all they’ve done is invented an agreed upon name for the mystery rather than solved it. A plausible explanation for the existence of the Effect is that the mind is designed to reorganise around the pursuit of goals. If those goals are met, then the mind turns to something else.

Trivia takes advantage of this goal orientation by frustrating us until it is satisfied. Tetris goes one step further, and creates a continual chain of frustration and satisfaction of goals. Like a clever parasite, Tetris takes advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in getting things done and uses it against us. We can go along with this, enjoying the short-term thrills in tidying up those blocks, even while a wiser, more reflective, part of us knows that the game is basically purposeless. But then all good games are, right?

A brief reheating of the refrigerator mother

The Telegraph has a well-intentioned but confused article about how child neglect affects the brain and what can be done about it.

What’s the difference between these two brains? asks The Telegraph. “The primary cause of the extraordinary difference between the brains of these two three-year-old children,” says the journalist, “is the way they were treated by their mothers.”

According to the paper “The child with the much more fully developed brain was cherished by its mother, who was constantly and fully responsive to her baby. The child with the shrivelled brain was neglected and abused.”

Firstly, it’s worth saying that reduced brain size is clearly related to neglect and abuse but the images are not a typical representation of this.

These scans were originally published in an article on child abuse by neuroscientist Bruce Perry who drew them from an unpublished abstract [pdf] of a study on neglect in children, which didn’t control for malnutrition or drug exposure during pregnancy.

They’re described as showing CT scans of three-year-olds, one normal and the other neglected who has a head size smaller 97% of children his or her age. This would make him or her almost diagnosable with microcephaly, a neurological disorder of small head size usually caused by a genetic defect.

This difference in brain size has actually been found in those without the genetic defect. In fact, this difference was found in a study of severely neglected Romanian orphans but severe malnutrition was also a significant factor.

In other words, unless you include ‘starvation’ under the concept or ‘poor interaction with the mother’ the scans really don’t represent what typically happens to children who are emotionally neglected.

Oddly, the Telegraph article spins brain development as specifically depending on the mother, giving an undercurrent of traditional mother-blaming.

Neurologists are beginning to understand exactly how a baby’s interaction with their mother determines how, and indeed whether, the brain grows in the way that it should.

The ghost of the refrigerator mother rises again.

The piece is full of other neurological howlers: “Eighty per cent of brain cells that a person will ever have are manufactured during the first two years after birth” is just baffling, considering we are born with almost all the neurons we will ever have.

The number of synapses – connections between brain cells – does increase after birth but at most by about two thirds. The number peaks between about one and four years, depending on the brain area, and then it rapidly decreases as the brain removes unused connections in a process called synaptic pruning.

The words of neuroscientist Allan Schore seem to have be carefully selected to bolster this scientific misunderstanding, despite the fact his actual quotes do not suggest that he thinks brain cells ‘grow’ after birth.

Furthermore, the idea that “if a baby is not treated properly in the first two years of life, the genes for various aspects of brain function, including intelligence, cannot operate” is seemingly a fuzzily remembered misunderstanding of the role of stress on the epigenetics of neural development.

In fact, it looks like the piece has been written to support a government commissioned report by MP Graham Allen developed from an earlier report by think tank The Centre for Social Justice.

Both present the brain scans, somewhat misleadingly, as a reasonable illustration of emotional neglect, and the first report, scientifically, is a bit ropey. The second though, is surprisingly good.

It actually talks little about the brain, doesn’t feel the need to get into mother-blaming, argues that more support is needed for young children below the age of three from early intervention programmes.

This is a valuable approach and a valid point of view, which The Telegraph article is right behind, but neither brain-shrivelling mothers nor scare tactics are needed.

Link to somewhat confused Telegraph article.
Link to scientific review on brain effects of child abuse.

British Psy Ops in Afghanistan

BBC News has an extremely rare article on the UK military’s psychological operations group and their work in Afghanistan.

The piece reports how the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group have been given the Firmin Sword of Peace – an accolade recognising the building of community relations awarded by, well, the UK military.

Get your plaudits where you can, that’s what I say.

Psy Ops is a combination of marketing and public relations with more targeted psychology, sociology and anthropology to measure fast moving social changes and perceptions – largely used to inform strategy and military intelligence at the local level.

The 15 (UK) Psy Ops Group rarely ever features in the media and there’s not a great deal of information about them, although most of it has been collected on this PowerBase page.

In fact, the last time 15 (UK) Psy Ops hit the headlines was when one of their unit was killed in 2008, who was most notable in the media for being the first British female solider to die in Afghanistan.

Except for that, one of the last mentions was in 2003. And now they’re press-releasing an award given to them by their own organisation and talking to reporters.

So why the PR drive? Recruitment, it seems. Commander Steve Tatham notes that “at a time most of the Armed Forces are being cut back, his unit is being expanded”.

Despite the spin, it’s not a bad article actually. Although the Group do give the ‘we’re just telling the truth’ line it does discuss the sort of approaches they take and the problems they face.

Link to BBC News article on UK Psy Ops in Afghanistan.
Link to Ministry of Defence press release.

Hark! What light through yonder neuron breaks

An unintentionally funny first line from a new study on the neuroscience of love.

The lifetime prevalence of romantic love is extremely high, as romantic love strikes nearly 100% of the people at one or more times during their life. As a comparison, the lifetime prevalence of experiencing any mental disorder is “only” 46.4% (National Institute of Mental Health, US).

The paper also has the oddly Shakespearean sounding line

By virtue of using a cognitive task with a full factorial design, we show that the dorsal striatum is not activated by beloved-related information per se, but only by beloved-related information that is attended

In fact, when Shakespeare wrote “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” he was probably thinking of the role of attentional modulation in the neural response to images of your lover based on the finding that activity in the dorsal striatum is only increased when the participants have to notice rather than ignore pictures of their beloved in an fMRI-based oddball task.

Angels! I think I hear the sound of angels!

Link to locked study.

Press Release Spam (an interlude)

Sorry to interrupt your normal psych/neuro programming, but this is just a short note to say that I have retired the email address. If you wish to contact me or Vaughan, please tweet us (details in rightbar).

I’ve retired the email address because of the amount of PR spam I’ve been getting, which has lowered the signal to noise ratio of this account so much it isn’t worth checking anymore. One of the reasons I get so much PR spam is because people like Vocus PR are selling my email address, to publishers and University Press offices, who then send me email about things I’m not interested in. For a while I was collecting the email addresses of these people so I could block them in gmail. My list is here. I invite you to do a search for these addresses and label them spam (warning: this list contains real people from respectable organisations, but since they work in PR I am happy never to hear from them again).

If anyone can think of a good crowdsourced way of breaking the business model of people like Vocus, I’d love to hear from you.

The neuroscience of sexual attractions

A recent edition of radio programme KERA Think has a fantastic discussion on development and the neuroscience of sexual attraction in its many forms.

The programme is a discussion with Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist who raised a lot of eyebrows by finding differences in the brain structure of gay and straight men in a 1991 study.

The science has massively advanced since then and LeVay gives a fascinating and lucid account of what know about the biology of the rainbow of sexual attraction – and where the mysteries still lie.

Link to programme page with streamed audio.
mp3 of podcast.

Deeper into forensic bias

For the recent Observer article on forensic science and the psychological biases that affect it, I spoke to cognitive scientist Itiel Dror about his work.

I could only include some brief quotes from a more in-depth exchange, so for those wanting more on the psychology of forensic examining, here’s Dror on how evidence can be skewed and why these effects have been ignored for so long.

What do you think has been the turning point for the forensic science community in terms of beginning to accept the role of cognitive bias in interpretation of evidence?

I think the clear cut scientific research with actual forensic examiners which was a within-subject experimental design, showing that the *same* expert, examining the *same* evidence, can reach different conclusions when they are affected by bias. The problem was also demonstrated in fingerprinting and DNA, very robust forensic domains.

I think you are very right to say that they have ‘began’. There has been a change, for example, the UK Forensic Regulator is now onboard. But there is still a way to go.

Which area of forensic science do you think is currently most susceptible to cognitive bias?

It will be the forensic science areas in which, as I like to say, the human examiner is the main instrument of analysis. These are most of the forensic domains: fingerprinting, DNA, CCTV images, firearms, shoe and tire marks, document examination, and so on. When there is no instrument that says ‘match’ or ‘no-match’ and it is in the ‘eye of the beholder’ to make the judgement, then subjectivity comes in, and is open to cognitive bias.

Essentially, forensic areas in which there are no objective criteria: where it is the forensic expert who compares visual patterns and determines if they are ‘sufficiently similar’ or ‘sufficiently consistent’. For example, whether two fingerprints were made by the same finger, whether two bullets were fired from the same gun, whether two signatures were made by the same person. Such determinations are governed by a variety of cognitive processes.

The cognitive nature of subjectivity is that it can be influenced and biased by extraneous contextual information. Forensic scientists work within a variety of such influences: from knowing the nature and details of the crime, to being indirectly pressurized by detectives, from seeing the ‘target’, to working within and as part of the police, from computer generated meta-data, to appearing in courts within an adversarial criminal justice system, and so on. The contextual influences are many and they come in many forms, some of which are subtle. So, many, most of the forensic areas are vulnerable.

It seems there is a reluctance to change procedures to minimise cognitive bias. Where does the resistance come from?

There are still forensic examiners who think that are immune to context and do not understand, let alone accept, the existence and danger of cognitive bias. They often confuse ‘bias’ (as in being racist, anti-Semitic etc) with cognitive bias; and this makes some of them think that it is an ethical issue. Forensic examiners rarely, if at all, receive training in this area and in the rare occasions that they do, they get bad training from people who do not specialise in providing training about cognitive bias in forensics.

The forensic community, as the military, police, and so on, are all very hard to change; there is a strong culture within those organisations. It is especially hard to promote change when errors are not as apparent as in other domains. If the police shoot an innocent person, then they very quickly know that they made a mistake, if a surgeon amputates the wrong leg, then they know very quickly that they made a mistake. In contrast, in the forensic domain, in real criminal cases, we do not know the ground truth, and do not really know if a mistake has happened or not. Only in very rare and special circumstances do errors surface (as in the Mayfield and McKie cases).

The courts have basically for the most part blindly accepted most of the forensic evidence. So, the examiners see no reason to change, if the courts accepts their evidence, then that is that. This may be changing. The hope is that judges will be more aware of the danger of cognitive bias and not accept forensic conclusions that are tainted with bias.

Link to further reading from Itiel Dror.

Interviews with interrogators

Author Dominic Streatfeild interviewed many trained military, intelligence and police interrogators for his book Brainwash and I’ve just realised he’s put the full text of the interviews online.

They’re in equal measures fascinating, disturbing and sometimes worryingly relevant, as the ‘war on terror’ still relies on many of the same physical coercion techniques used in conflicts past.

The interviewees discuss their experiences of being interrogated to being interrogators and range from being captured in the Korean War, to counter-insurgency in Yemen, to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, to the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan.

[Interrogation subjects in the world of intelligence tend to construct series of cover stories, like the skins of an onion. Interrogators have to] go through these stories, peeling the onion, trying to get to the core. And eventually, people run out of stories.

The interviews are:

Interview with British Interrogator #1
Interview with British Interrogator #2
Interview with British Interrogator #3
Interview with SAS NCO Trained Interrogator
Interview with Senior Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer
Interview with US Army Interrogator #1

Let slip the coins of war

A fascinating short excerpt from a new study that estimates war and population change in Ancient Rome from finds of stashed coins.

It turns out that the coin hoards are a surprisingly good guide to human behaviour:

The reasons for this correlation are not hard to fathom. People tend to hide their valuables in times of violence and danger. Emergency hoards would later be recovered by the owners unless they had been killed or driven away. As a result, the greater the intensity of warfare, the more hoards are left in the ground to be discovered by archaeologists. For this reason, the time-specific deposition rate of hoards serves as an index of internal instability caused by violent conflict and dislocation.

Coins are useful because, of course, they’re dated. So in other words, finding lots of unrecovered coin stashes from a particular time period suggests there was a lot of war.

The researchers used this measure of war intensity in Ancient Rome to estimate population changes. Neat.

Link to full text of study.

A history of ideas about the brain

Being Human has an excellent article on how ideas about the function of the brain have evolved over the centuries.

The piece is by respected science writer Carl Zimmer who wrote a fantastic book on the dawn of modern neuroscience called Soul Made Flesh.

This new article is a whistle stop tour of how our ideas about the brain have changed over the last three millennia:

For all the cognitive power that the human brain contains, it’s also exquisitely delicate. It has the consistency of custard. When an ancient anatomist decided to investigate the organs of a cadaver, he would have had no trouble pulling out the heart and manipulating its rugged chambers and valves. But after death, the brain’s enzymes make quick work of it. By the time the anatomist had sawed open the skull, he might well be looking at nothing but blush-colored goo. Who could ever think that in that goo could be found anything having to do with our very selves?

The site it’s written for, Being Human, seems to be a think tank funded social network and blogging platform for human nature geeks.

I’m not sure we need another topic specific social networking platform, most of which suffer from the fact people can’t be bothered to reconstruct the cliques they have from existing general purpose platforms (i.e. life), but it does seem to be filling up with interesting content (i.e. ideas).

Link to ‘From Cooling System to Thinking Machine’.

Hallucinations on the radio

BBC Radio 4 has just broadcast a documentary entitled ‘Hallucination – Through the Doors of Perception’ that charts the various ways in which we can experience freewheeling and autonomous perceptions.

You can hear it streamed online here or you can download it as a podcast but only for 7 more days, as like French cheese, mp3s can make you ill if they’re left out for too long.

Despite the fascinating topic, it’s actually a bit dry. It sounds like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery without the witty commentary.

Definitely worth listening to, but probably improved by a stiff drink, or perhaps something a little hallucinatory.

Link to streamed version of hallucinations radio documentary.
Link to shortly to expire podcast page.

Feeling sheepish

Quite possibly the strangest news story I have ever come across. It starts out strange, gets stranger and then finishes on a trumpeting pageant of strangeness. From GhanaWeb:

“People who practice bestiality threaten society”-psychologist

A psychologist at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Rev. Ekow Jackson says people who have sex with animals are potential threats to society.

He says such people have confidence problems and most times fear that their sexual advances towards humans may be turned down; a situation they cannot bear.

Such people may instead use force on the object of their sexual pleasure whether it’s a woman, a baby or an animal.

Rev. Jackson says these people should not just be ostracized or incarcerated but should be given serious psychological or psychiatric attention. He adds that some of the culprits of bestiality may have had troubled childhoods or some unresolved issues from their past.

The psychologist, who is also a minister of the Assemblies of God Church, was speaking in an interview with this reporter after a 35 year-old man, Kofi Agyeman was asked to marry a sheep he allegedly had sexual intercourse with at Wamaso in the Lower Denkyira District of the Central region.

How would we make sense of it all if there weren’t psychologists like Rev. Ekow Jackson to help us out?

Link to sheep news story.

A psychological bias in DNA testing

I’ve got a piece in today’s Observer about how psychological biases can affect DNA testing from crime scenes.

It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s largely because we’ve come to accept the idea that DNA is a sort of individual genetic ‘serial number’ that just needs to be ‘read off’ from a biological sample – but the reality is far more complex.

Despite this, the psychological power of DNA evidence is huge and has misled several investigations that have privileged mistaken DNA results above everything else – including the case of a shadowy transsexual serial killer that led the German police astray.

The piece riffs on the work of psychologist Itiel Dror who was the first to show that the identification of people by their fingerprints could be biased by extraneous information and he’s now found the same with certain types of DNA analysis.

More at the link below.

Link to Observer article on the psychology of forensic identification.

Human error in psychology research: a rough guide

Science writer Ed Yong has just posted the audio of a fantastic talk on problems in psychology research and how to fix them.

The talk was delivered at Bristol University but is remarkably direct and he pulls no punches in pointing out psychology’s scientific flaws.

Interestingly, Yong makes the point that this is not a problem of psychology specifically, because many of the problems – like publication bias and selective reporting – appear across the scientific board, but that psychology is a hot topic because the field is trying to do something about it.

Yong has been doing some fantastic work not only highlighting these difficulties but getting a public debate going about solutions to these problems of research culture.

His talk is an excellent round-up of his own work and the state of play in the fight to change science culture.

Link to post with audio of Ed Yong’s talk.