The Choice Engine

A project I’ve been working on a for a long time has just launched:

By talking to the @ChoiceEngine twitter-bot you can navigate an essay about choice, complexity and the nature of our minds. Along the way I argue why the most famous experiment on the neuroscience of free will doesn’t really tell us much, and discuss the wasp which made Darwin lose his faith in a benevolent god. And there’s this animated gif:

Follow and tweet START @ChoiceEngine to begin

Did the Victorians have faster reactions?

Psychologists have been measuring reaction times since before psychology existed, and they are still a staple of cognitive psychology experiments today. Typically psychologists look for a difference in the time it takes participants to respond to stimuli under different conditions as evidence of differences in how cognitive processing occurs in those conditions.

Galton, the famous eugenicist and statistician, collected a large data set (n=3410) of so called ‘simple reaction times’ in the last years of the 19th century.  Galton’s interest was rather different from most modern psychologists – he was interested in measures of reaction time as a indicator of individual differences. Galton’s theory was that differences in processing speed might underlie differences in intelligence, and maybe those differences could be efficiently assessed by recording people’s reaction times.

Galton’s data creates an interesting opportunity – are people today, over 100 years later, faster or slower than Galton’s participants? If you believe Galton’s theory, the answer wouldn’t just tell you if you would be likely to win in a quick-draw  contest with a Victorian gunslinger, it could also provide an insight into generational changes in cognitive function more broadly.

Reaction time [RT] data provides an interesting counterpoint to the most famous historical change in cognitive function – the generation on generation increase in IQ scores, known as the Flynn Effect. The Flynn Effect surprises two kinds of people – those who look at “kids today” and know by instinct that they are less polite, less intelligent and less disciplined their own generation (this has been documented in every generation back to at least Ancient Greece), and those who look at kids today and know by prior theoretical commitments that each generation should be dumber than the previous (because more intelligent people have fewer children, is the idea).

Whilst the Flynn Effect contradicts the idea that people are getting dumber, some hope does seem to lie in the reaction time data. Maybe Victorian participants really did have faster reaction times! Several research papers  (1, 2) have tried to compare Galton’s results to more modern studies, some of which tried to use the the same apparatus as well as the same method of measurement. Here’s Silverman (2010):

the RTs obtained by young adults in 14 studies published from 1941 on were compared with the RTs obtained by young adults in a study conducted by Galton in the late 1800s. With one exception, the newer studies obtained RTs longer than those obtained by Galton. The possibility that these differences in results are due to faulty timing instruments is considered but deemed unlikely.
Woodley et al (2015) have a helpful graph (Galton’s result shown on the bottom left):
(Woodley et al, 2015, Figure 1, “Secular SRT slowing across four large, representative studies from the UK spanning a century. Bubble-size is proportional to sample size. Combined N = 6622.”)

So the difference is only ~20 milliseconds (i.e. one fiftieth of a second) over 100 years, but in reaction time terms that’s a hefty chunk – it means modern participants are about 10% slower!

What are we to make of this? Normally we wouldn’t put much weight on a single study, even one with 3000 participants, but there aren’t many alternatives. It isn’t as if we can have access to young adults born in the 19th century to check if the result replicates. It’s a shame there aren’t more intervening studies, so we could test the reasonable prediction that participants in the 1930s should be about halfway between the Victorian and modern participants.

And, even if we believe this datum, what does it mean? A genuine decline in cognitive capacity? Excess cognitive load on other functions? Motivational changes? Changes in how experiments are run or approached by participants? I’m not giving up on the kids just yet.

References:

Scientific Credibility and The Kardashian Index

 

The Kardashian index is a semi-humorous metric invented to the reveal how much trust you should put in a scientist with a public image.

In ‘The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists‘, the author writes:

I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous

and

a high K-index is a warning to the community that researcher X may have built their public profile on shaky foundations, while a very low K-index suggests that a scientist is being undervalued. Here, I propose that those people whose K-index is greater than 5 can be considered ‘Science Kardashians’

13059_2014_Article_424_Fig1_HTML
Figure 1 from Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome biology, 15(7), 424.

Your Kardashian index is calculated from your number of twitter followers and the number of citations your scholarly papers have. You can use the ‘Kardashian Index Calculator‘ to find out your own Kardashian Index, if you have a twitter account and a Google Scholar profile.

The implication of the Kardashian index is that the Foundation of someone’s contribution to public debate about science is their academic publishing. But public debate and scholarly debate are rightfully different things, even if related. To think that only scientists should be listened to in public debate is to think that other forms of skill and expertise aren’t relevant, including the skill of translating between different domains of expertise.

Communicating scientific topics, explaining and interpreting new findings and understanding the relevance of science to people’s lives and of people’s lives to science are skills in itself. The Kardashian Index ignores that, and so undervalues it.

Full disclosure: My Kardashian Index is 25.

Philip Zimbardo has a theory

“Boys risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo, which simply isn’t true, because some weekends I read.

Yes, Zimbardo has a theory which says that masculinity is being damaged by computer games, the internet, and pornography without an adequate plot line. A key solution: dancing. He’s done a cracking interview in The Guardian which I thoroughly recommend if you are still waiting for your Ritalin to kick in.

“Boys have never been self-reflective. Boys are focused on doing and acting, girls are more focused on being and feeling. The new video-game world encourages doing and acting and not really thinking. Video games are not so attractive to girls.”

Not really thinking? There’s a man who’s never played Bubble Bobble. And finally some sense in the video game debate. Hang up your coat Anita Sarkeesian.

And pornography? “The relative proportions are hard to come by. But for girls, it’s just boring. In general, sex has always been linked with romance for girls – much more than for boys. For boys it’s always been much more visual and physical…”

“With the old pornography there were typically stories. There was a movie, like Deep Throat, and in the course of some interesting theme people were having sex. Now it’s only about physical sexual contact.”

Oh my God! The washing machine has broken in the cheerleaders’ apartment. Now they’ll never get to the game. [Ding Dong] Wait, who could this be?

“It’s always been difficult for boys to talk to girls because you are never sure what they want or what their agenda is. And now without trying or practice it becomes more and more difficult. So it’s a reason to retreat into this virtual world.”

Phil, I know their agenda. They want quality plumbing without having to pay in cash.

“In online porn, the men are incredibly well-endowed – they are paid precisely because they have those attributes. In addition, some of the men take penile injections so they can perform for half an hour non-stop. When you’re a 10 or 15-year-old kid, you say to yourself, ‘I will never, ever look like that or perform like that’.”

I never thought that when I was 15. It’s been adult life that has made the 30 minute mark seem like an impossible dream.

Indeed, he argues that schools are increasingly ill-suited to boys’ needs – another reason for their retreat into cyberspace. In the US, he says, 90% of elementary school teachers are women, while in the UK one in five teachers is a man. “Female teachers can be wonderful but they model skills that girls are good at – fine motor tuning rather than big physical activity. They don’t like boys running around. And, with funding shortages, they’re eliminating gym classes so boys don’t have the time to do physical activity.” He cites schoolchildren being assigned to write diaries as a compositional task. “Boys don’t write diaries! The worst thing I can imagine giving a boy as a present is a diary.”

Fair point, just look at what happened to Adrian Mole.

What can be done to reconnect boys with the real world? Zimbardo has lots of suggestions: more male teachers, more incentives for men to establish boys’ and men’s groups so that the former can get the masculine mentoring they otherwise lack, welfare reform to encourage fathers to remain in the family loop, crowdsourcing initiatives to fund video games that are less violent and require more co-operation, parents to talk to their sons about sex and relationships so they don’t take porn to represent real life.

All genuinely helpful suggestions and then..

My favourite suggestion is that boys learn to dance. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,”

We’re British Phil. WE ARE BRITISH MALES. We look like two legged donkeys drunk on alcopops when we dance. And that’s *after* the dance lessons.

If you actually want to see someone take on Zimbardo’s claims with evidence, I could do no better than Andrew Przybylski from the The Oxford Internet Institute debating him on the BBC.
 

And amazingly, the full Guardian interview is full of even more clangers. Can’t wait for the book.
 

Link to Guardian interview with Philip Zimbardo.

The scan says we add fries and call it a special

Photo from Flickr user Daniel Go. Click for source.Marketing magazine has an interview with the marketing director of KFC who explains why he thinks neuroscience holds the key to selling deep-fried junk food.

“Marketing as a whole is undergoing transformation,” he says. “We now know through neuroscience how people’s brains work and what affects their decision-making. So what we’re trying to do is take the new knowledge and say – this is how we put it together, this is how a brain actually works – and this is how we should be marketing.”

Somebody, please, find me a pizza.
 

Link to Marketing interview.