Violating the prime directive

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an in-depth article that explores the controversy over social priming, which suggest that our behaviour can be changed by exposing us to certain concepts.

The most famous study in the genre was led by psychologist John Bargh, who is the focus of the story and who found that people walked more slowly down a corridor after reading words associated with being old.

A failed replication of this study and the subsequent online reporting led Bargh to get a bit hot under the collar which was the tipping point for growing skepticism concerning social priming.

The article is a very good account of that, although one drawback is that it doesn’t distinguish very well between ‘priming‘ – an extremely well replicated effect and one of the bedrocks of psychology, and ‘social priming’ – the subtype which is now in doubt.

The idea behind classic priming is that if you activate a meaning, perhaps just by experiencing it, related meanings will also become activated. This activation will be less strong for less related meanings.

Because we access meanings that are activated more quickly, you can test effect in reaction time tasks.

For example, if you see the word ‘apple’ you will subsequently identify the word ‘orange’ more quickly because they are related in meaning. The word ‘aeroplane’, however, will be unaffected. In other words ‘apple’ will prime ‘orange’ but not ‘aeroplane’.

There are various ways of testing this but it boils down to the fact that in terms of priming meaning, the effect is not at all controversial. It’s extremely reliable and can be seen in many sorts of tasks – verbal, visual, auditory and so on.

However, social priming suggests that concepts about people or identity (such as being old or being a professor) affect complex behaviours (such as walking speed or test performance).

Furthermore, several of these experiments have suggested that the meanings can be primed in ways that rely on analogy or metaphor – for example, that people who feel lonely will spend more time in a hot shower as they are primed to need ‘warmth’.

Many people find some of these effects implausible and, as the article makes clear, the skeptics are now attempting to replicate some of the most well-known experiments to very mixed results.

If you’ve not been following the wires, when a research team couldn’t replicate Bargh’s study everything kicked off and hangbags were flailed around by Bargh, a Belgian research group, Nature, a Nobel prize winner and the internet.

Bin your copies of Kuhn people, this is how science really works.

Link to Chronicle article on social priming.

Culture of the digital playground

Photo by Alex Washburn. Click for source.Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has spent several years researching hacker culture, hanging out with coders, geeks and cypherpunks to understand the beliefs and boundaries of the community they inhabit.

If you want a flavour of what Coleman has been working on her interview in Wired is a good place to start but the best place to get the low down is in her book Coding Freedom.

You can buy it from your regular tax-avoiding online retailers but in the spirit of the culture it discusses it has been open licensed so you can download the full version online as a pdf.

Coleman is currently researching the culture of Anonymous and you can read a brilliant article by her on the revolutionary online chaos collective which has just been published in triplecanopy.

Expect more from her on this in the near future.

Link to Wired interview with Gabriella Coleman.
pdf of her book Coding Freedom.
Link to her article on Anonymous ‘Our Weirdness is Free’.

Lives Scientific

The BBC Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific has just broadcast programmes on two of the most interesting cognitive scientists in the UK – developmental psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith and robotocist Noel Sharkey.


Karmiloff-Smith is a psychologist who has made an important contribution both to the deep theory of infant brain development and has been active in many down-to-earth debates about child development.

In the programme she makes a fascinating case for why banning TV for infants isn’t really helpful but how kids TV programmes could be made to be much more useful for their cognitive development.

The Noel Sharkey programme is also fantastic. Apparently before becoming a specialist in artificial intelligence and robotics, he was an electrician, gigging musician and psychiatric nurse.

In his interview he discusses how AI has evolved in its approach during his time as a researcher and where it falls down in terms of capturing the human mind.

Both definitely worth listening to.

Link to Annette Karmiloff-Smith programme page and audio stream.
Link to Noel Sharkey programme page and audio stream.
Link to podcast page for both.

In the middle of a conflict

One of the things I quickly discovered while working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia, was that while there is lots of research on people who have experienced armed conflict in the past, there was very little information on the mental health of people living in active conflict zones.

With MSF colleagues, we’ve just published a study that goes a little way to correcting that.

The majority of research on how war effects civilians is done on refugees or in post-conflict situations. Practically, this makes sense, as collecting data during an armed conflict can be both difficult and dangerous.

However, MSF in Colombia runs almost all its clinics in exactly this situation. The fact there was little research on which to base our interventions made my job a little challenging at times, but as we were also collecting systematic data on each consultation this also gave us a great deal of internal information on which to base decisions.

During my time there, we set ourselves the task of analysing and publishing some of this data to make sure others could benefit from it. This study has just appeared in the journal Conflict and Health.

The study looked at how symptoms of mental illness were related to experience of direct conflict-related violence (exposure to explosives, threats from armed groups, deaths of loved ones etc), violence not directly related to the conflict (domestic violence, child abuse etc) and what we called ‘general hardships’ – such as economic problems and poor social support.

We predicted that the more someone was exposed to violence from the armed conflict, the worse mental health they would have, but what we found was a little different.

Experience of the armed conflict was more linked to anxiety while non-conflict violence was more related to aggression and substance abuse. Depression and suicide risk, however, were represented equally across all of the categories.

This is interesting because a lot of conflict-related mental health interventions are focused on trauma and PTSD, where as our study and various others have found that trauma is only one effect of being caught up in an armed conflict.

It’s worth saying that being ‘trauma obsessed’ is really just a American and European condition – as I’ve discussed before, Latin American psychology in particular has a strong tradition of looking at problems on the community level rather than always aiming to treat the individual victims.

It’s worth saying that the study used clinical data, rather than data from a specifically designed study, so there is still a need for a systematic approach to the problem. But as study of over 6,000 patients who were seen in areas of active conflict, we hope it’s a useful contribution.

By the way, MSF’s work continues in Colombia. Everyday there are medical and mental health teams spending days, weeks or months in conflict zones to work with the local population who would otherwise have no access to healthcare. In over 60 countries around the world the organisation does something similar in very difficult conditions.

They also do lots of important research particularly into medical problems that often get neglected.

The majority of the staff are from the local country and they invest a lot into training.

Do drop them a donation if you get the chance.

Link to MSF Colombia study on the armed conflict and mental health.

2013-01-25 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

The interesting concept of a ‘possession trance disorder’ diagnosis is discussed by Neurocritic.

BBC News video reports on how Brazil is considering a law to forcibly remove crack addicts from the street into rehab.

Goodbye PDD-NOS, hello Social Communication Disorder. A sneaked-out DSM-5 change for the autism spectrum is covered by Cracking the Enigma.

Nature reports that Henry Markham’s Human Brain Project which is supposedly aiming to ‘simulate the human brain’ (but actually, isn’t) gets kazillion dollar funding.

The DSM-5 will cost $199 a copy, reports DSM-5 in Distress. That’s like 50c a diagnosis.

Brighton Science Festival has a fantastic day on the Science of Sex on 9th February.

China’s One Child Policy may have altered the personality of a generation according to research reviewed by the Nodes of Ranvier blog.

Time magazine on how the tactics used in ‘troubled teen’ reality TV programmes are know to make adolescents worse.

Is there a right age for first sex? an interesting study is briefly covered by Providentia.

Discover Magazine reports that data storage in DNA has become a reality. Sony to sue RNA strands for piracy.

A new Nature NeuroPod has hit the wires. Psychology and Sherlock Holmes, movement and memory.

Colossal has some wonderful abstract 3D sculptures that transform in cylindrical mirrors. Have to be seen.

Compare and contrast: high heels make women’s walk more attractive to males / historically women adopted high heels from male fashion to masculinise their outfits. Found: an evolutionary psychology infinite loop!

A retrospective editing of consciousness

A new study has found that conscious experience can be altered retrospectively, so that experience of visual information can be changed almost half a second later by manipulating where our attention is drawn.

The research, led by cognitive scientist Claire Sergent, involved asking people to stare at a centre point of a screen with two empty circles either side.

At some point, one of the two circles would fill with randomly oriented stripes for just 50ms (one twentieth of a second) and afterwards the participants were asked to say which direction the stripes were pointing in.

Crucially however, each time this happened, one of the two circles would dim either before or after the stripes appeared.

This would happen at different times – from 400ms before the stripes appeared, up to 400ms after the stripes appeared, and the dimmed circle might appear on the matching side to the stripes or on the opposite side.

Dimming one of the circles grabs your attention. It makes you instantly focus more on whichever side of space it happens.

For example, if the left-hand circle dims, it grabs your attention, and if the stripes then appear on the left, you’re more likely to make a correct judgement about which direction they’re pointing because you’re already focused on this area. But if the stripes subsequently appear on the other side, you’re distracted and you do worse.

The key discovery from this experiment was that this also happens if the dimmed circle appears after the stripes. Up to 400ms seconds after.

In other words, you perceive the original visual details that would otherwise have escaped consciousness if your attention is drawn to the area after the picture disappears. It’s like a retrospective editing of consciousness by post-event attention.

This suggests that consciousness isn’t ‘filtered’ sensory information, but an active ‘conclusion’ drawn from information distributed across senses, space and time.

Link to locked scientific study.
Link to open-access commentary from same journal.

BBC Column: Are we naturally good or bad?

My BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. I started out trying to write about research using economic games with apes and monkeys but I got so bogged down in the literature I switched to this neat experiment instead. Ed Yong is a better man than me and wrote a brilliant piece about that research, which you can find here.

It’s a question humanity has repeatedly asked itself, and one way to find out is to take a closer look at the behaviour of babies.… and use puppets.

Fundamentally speaking, are humans good or bad? It’s a question that has repeatedly been asked throughout humanity. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated whether we have a basically good nature that is corrupted by society, or a basically bad nature that is kept in check by society. Psychology has uncovered some evidence which might give the old debate a twist.

One way of asking about our most fundamental characteristics is to look at babies. Babies’ minds are a wonderful showcase for human nature. Babies are humans with the absolute minimum of cultural influence – they don’t have many friends, have never been to school and haven’t read any books. They can’t even control their own bowels, let alone speak the language, so their minds are as close to innocent as a human mind can get.

The only problem is that the lack of language makes it tricky to gauge their opinions. Normally we ask people to take part in experiments, giving them instructions or asking them to answer questions, both of which require language. Babies may be cuter to work with, but they are not known for their obedience. What’s a curious psychologist to do?

Fortunately, you don’t necessarily have to speak to reveal your opinions. Babies will reach for things they want or like, and they will tend to look longer at things that surprise them. Ingenious experiments carried out at Yale University in the US used these measures to look at babies’ minds. Their results suggest that even the youngest humans have a sense of right and wrong, and, furthermore, an instinct to prefer good over evil.

How could the experiments tell this? Imagine you are a baby. Since you have a short attention span, the experiment will be shorter and loads more fun than most psychology experiments. It was basically a kind of puppet show; the stage a scene featuring a bright green hill, and the puppets were cut-out shapes with stick on wobbly eyes; a triangle, a square and a circle, each in their own bright colours. What happened next was a short play, as one of the shapes tried to climb the hill, struggling up and falling back down again. Next, the other two shapes got involved, with either one helping the climber up the hill, by pushing up from behind, or the other hindering the climber, by pushing back from above.

Already something amazing, psychologically, is going on here. All humans are able to interpret the events in the play in terms of the story I’ve described. The puppets are just shapes. They don’t make human sounds or display human emotions. They just move about, and yet everyone reads these movements as purposeful, and revealing of their characters. You can argue that this “mind reading”, even in infants, shows that it is part of our human nature to believe in other minds.

Great expectations

What happened next tells us even more about human nature. After the show, infants were given the choice of reaching for either the helping or the hindering shape, and it turned out they were much more likely to reach for the helper. This can be explained if they are reading the events of the show in terms of motivations – the shapes aren’t just moving at random, but they showed to the infant that the shape pushing uphill “wants” to help out (and so is nice) and the shape pushing downhill “wants” to cause problems (and so is nasty).

The researchers used an encore to confirm these results. Infants saw a second scene in which the climber shape made a choice to move towards either the helper shape or the hinderer shape. The time infants spent looking in each of the two cases revealed what they thought of the outcome. If the climber moved towards the hinderer the infants looked significantly longer than if the climber moved towards the helper. This makes sense if the infants were surprised when the climber approached the hinderer. Moving towards the helper shape would be the happy ending, and obviously it was what the infant expected. If the climber moved towards the hinderer it was a surprise, as much as you or I would be surprised if we saw someone give a hug to a man who had just knocked him over.

The way to make sense of this result is if infants, with their pre-cultural brains had expectations about how people should act. Not only do they interpret the movement of the shapes as resulting from motivations, but they prefer helping motivations over hindering ones.

This doesn’t settle the debate over human nature. A cynic would say that it just shows that infants are self-interested and expect others to be the same way. At a minimum though, it shows that tightly bound into the nature of our developing minds is the ability to make sense of the world in terms of motivations, and a basic instinct to prefer friendly intentions over malicious ones. It is on this foundation that adult morality is built.