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.

BBC Future Column: Why is it so hard to give good directions?

My BBC Future column from last week. Original here.

Psychologically speaking it is a tricky task, because our minds find it difficult to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet.

We’ve all been there – the directions sounded so clear when we were told them. Every step of the journey seemed obvious, we thought we had understood the directions perfectly. And yet here we are miles from anywhere, after dark, in a field arguing about whether we should have gone left or right at the last turn, whether we’re going to have to sleep here now, and exactly whose fault it is.

The truth is we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Psychologically speaking giving good directions is a particularly difficult task.

The reason we find it hard to give good directions is because of the “curse of knowledge”, a psychological quirk whereby, once we have learnt something, we find it hard to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet. We don’t just want people to walk a mile in our shoes, we assume they already know the route. Once we know the way to a place we don’t need directions, and descriptions like “its the left about halfway along” or “the one with the little red door” seem to make full and complete sense.

But if you’ve never been to a place before, you need more than a description of a place; you need an exact definition, or a precise formula for finding it. The curse of knowledge is the reason why, when I had to search for a friend’s tent in a field, their advice of “it’s the blue one” seemed perfectly sensible to them and was completely useless for me, as I stood there staring blankly at hundreds of blue tents.

This same quirk is why teaching is so difficult to do well. Once you are familiar with a topic it is very hard to understand what someone who isn’t familiar with it needs to know. The curse of knowledge isn’t a surprising flaw in our mental machinery – really it is just a side effect of our basic alienation from each other. We all have different thoughts and beliefs, and we have no special access to each other’s minds. A lot of the time we can fake understanding by mentally simulating what we’d want in someone else’s position. We have thoughts along the lines of “I’d like it if there was one bagel left in the morning” and therefore conclude “so I won’t eat all the bagels before my wife gets up in the morning”. This shortcut allows us to appear considerate, without doing any deep thought about what other people really know and want.

“OK, now what?”

This will only get you so far. Some occasions call for a proper understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Giving directions is one, but so is understanding myriad aspects of everyday conversation which involve feelings, jokes or suggestions. For illustration, consider the joke that some research has suggested may be the world’s funniest (although what exactly that means is another story):


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”


The joke is funny because you can appreciate that the hunter had two possible interpretations of the operator’s instructions, and chose the wrong one. To appreciate the interpretations you need to have a feel for what the operator and the hunter know and desire (and to be surprised when the hunter’s desire to do anything to help isn’t over-ruled by a desire keep his friend alive).

To do this mental simulation you recruit what psychologists call your “Theory of Mind”, the ability think about others’ beliefs and desires. Our skill at Theory of Mind is one of the things that distinguish humans from all other species – only chimpanzees seem to have anything approaching a true understanding that others’ might believe different things from themselves. Us humans, on the other hand, seem primed from early infancy to practice thinking about how other humans view the world.

The fact that the curse of knowledge exists tells us how hard a problem it is to think about other people’s minds. Like many hard cognitive problems – such as seeing, for example – the human brain has evolved specialist mechanisms which are dedicate to solving it for us, so that we don’t normally have to expend conscious effort. Most of the time we get the joke, just as most of the time we simply open our eyes and see the world.

The good news is that your Theory of Mind isn’t completely automatic – you can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know. A good one when writing is simply to force yourself to check every term to see if it is jargon – something you’ve learnt the meaning of but not all your readers will know. Another strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like “keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it”)

With a few tricks like this, and perhaps some general practice, we can turn the concept of reading other people’s minds – what some psychologists call “mind mindfulness” – into a habit, and so improve our Theory of Mind abilities. (Something that most of us remember struggling hard to do in adolescence.) Which is a good thing, since good theory of mind is what makes a considerate partner, friend or co-worker – and a good giver of directions.

A culture shock for universal emotion

The Boston Globe looks at the increasing evidence against the idea that there are some universally expressed facial emotions.

The idea that some basic emotions are expressed universally and have an evolutionary basis was suggested by Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

The concept was further explored by psychologist Paul Ekman who conducted cross-cultural research and reported that the expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise were universal human characteristics.

However, these ideas have recently been challenged and a debate recently kicked off in an issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science and the Globe article does a great job of covering the fight and its fall out.

…psychologists Azim Shariff and Jessica Tracy detail accumulated evidence that they argue makes the case for an evolutionary view of emotional expressions [pdf]. Some, they say, may have evolved for a physiological purpose — widening the eyes with fright, for instance, to expand our peripheral vision. Others may have evolved as social signals. Meanwhile, in a commentary, Barrett lays out a point-by-point counterargument [pdf]. While humans evolved to express and interpret emotions, she contends, specific facial expressions are culturally learned.

Barrett believes that the universality of recognizing facial expressions is “an effect that can be easily deconstructed,” if, for instance, subjects are asked to give their own label to faces instead of choosing from a set of words. In another recent paper [pdf] in the same journal, she argues that a growing body of research shows our perception of facial expressions is highly dependent on context: People interpret facial expressions differently depending on situation, body language, familiarity with a person, and surrounding visual cues. Barrett’s own research has shown that language and vocabulary influence people’s perception of emotions. Others have found cultural differences in how people interpret the facial expressions of others — a study found that Japanese people, for instance, rely more than North Americans on the expressions of surrounding people to interpret a person’s emotional state.

A fascinating discussion that tackles a taken-for-granted psychological assumption that is now being challenged.

Link to Globe piece on culture and facial expression.

The peak experiences of Abraham Maslow

The New Atlantis has an in-depth biographical article on psychologist Abraham Maslow – one of the founders of humanistic psychology and famous for his ‘hierarchy of needs’.

Maslow is stereotypically associated with a kind of fluffy ‘love yourself’ psychology although the man himself was quite a skeptic of the mumbo jumbo that got associated with his work.

The association is not so much because of Maslow’s focus on self-actualization, a goal where we use our psychological potential to its fullest, but because of his association with the ‘human potential movement’ and the Esalen Institute.

Esalen had some quite laudable goals but ended up being a hot tub of flaky hippy therapies. If you want an idea of what we’re talking about, you perhaps won’t be surprised to learn that nude psychotherapy movement that we covered previously on Mind Hacks originated from the same place.

Maslow quickly got pissed off with half-baked people that he attracted and but sadly the stereotype stuck.

The man himself was far more complex, however, as was his remarkably profound work, and The New Atlantis article does a great job of bringing out the depth of his life and ideas. Recommended.

Link to article ‘Abraham Maslow and the All-American Self’.

Against the high cult of retreat

Depending on who you ask Naomi Weisstein is a perceptual neuroscientist, a rock n roll musician, a social critic, a comedian, or a fuck the patriarchy radical feminist.

You stick Weisstein’s name into Google Scholar and her most cited paper is ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ – a searing critique of how 60s psychology pictured the female psyche – while her second most cited is a study published in Science on visual detection of line segments.

Although the topics are different, the papers are more alike than you’d first imagine.

Her article ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’ was originally published in 1968 and became an instant classic.

She looked at the then current theories of female psychology, and at the evidence that supported them, and shows that the theories are pitiful – largely based on personal opinion and idiosyncratic interpretations of weak or non-existent evidence.

Moreover, she shows that all known differences at the time could be accounted for by social context and what was expected of the participants, rather than their sex.

It’s a masterpiece of evidence-based scientific thinking when feminist psychology was, and to a large extent, still is, heavily influenced by postmodernism and poststructuralism – theories that suggest that there is no objective reality and science is just another social narrative that has female oppression built into its knowledge base.

Weisstein, who also had a huge impact on perceptual science, had little time for what she considered to be ‘fog’ and ‘paralysis’:

I’m still wearing my beanie hat, aren’t I? I don’t think I can take it off… Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypothesis generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations and replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality…

Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you cannot prove there is one and you cannot prove there is not one. It comes down to a religious and / or political choice. I believe that the current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the feminist challenge to science may appear, it is in fact, a deeply conservative retreat…

Poststructuralist feminism is a high cult of retreat. Sometimes I think that, when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs.

A recent academic article looked back at Weisstein’s legacy and noted that she has been a powerful force in a feminist movement that typically rejects science as a useful approach.

But she was also a pioneer in simply being a high-flying female scientist when they were actively discouraged from getting involved.

Link to full text of ‘Psychology Constructs the Female’.

The chaos behind a legendary portrait

I just found this fascinating account of how Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear while seemingly severely mentally ill, the event that led him to paint one of his most famous pictures.

The account is apparently reconstructed from known events at the time but also has van Gogh’s own description of the event, taken from letters to his sister.

On Christmas Eve 1888, after Gauguin already had announced he would leave, van Gogh suddenly threw a glass of absinthe in Gauguin’s face, then was brought home and put to bed by his companion. A bizarre sequence of events ensued. When Gauguin left their house, van Gogh followed and approached him with an open razor, was repelled, went home, and cut off part of his left earlobe, which he then presented to Rachel, his favorite prostitute.

The police were alerted; he was found unconscious at his home and was hospitalized. There he lapsed into an acute psychotic state with agitation, hallucinations, and delusions that required 3 days of solitary confinement. He retained no memory of his attacks on Gauguin, the self-mutilation, or the early part of his stay at the hospital…

At the hospital, Felix Rey, the young physician attending van Gogh, diagnosed epilepsy and prescribed potassium bromide. Within days, van Gogh recovered from the psychotic state. About 3 weeks after admission, he was able to paint Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which shows him in serene composure. At the time of recovery and during the following weeks, he described his own mental state in letters to Theo and his sister Wilhelmina: “The intolerable hallucinations have ceased, in fact have diminished to a simple nightmare, as a result of taking potassium bromide, I believe.”

“I am rather well just now, except for a certain undercurrent of vague sadness difficult to explain.” “While I am absolutely calm at the present moment, I may easily relapse into a state of overexcitement on account of fresh mental emotion.” He also noted “three fainting fits without any plausible reason, and without retaining the slightest remembrance of what I felt”

Although absinthe is commonly associated with hallucinations and madness, and the author of the article wonders whether it might have helped cause his epilepsy, this is unlikely due to the fact that the effect of absinthe’s ‘special ingredient’ is largely a myth.

The distinctive aspect of the drink, the chemical thujone from the wordwood plant, is actually present in such small quantities that absinthe has virtually no psychoactive effects beyond the alcohol.

However, epilepsy does raise the risk of psychosis and it is suspected that he had temporal lobe epilepsy which is particularly associated with this reality-bending mental state.

Link to AJP article on ‘The Illness of Vincent van Gogh’.

Shifting between the worlds of Carl Jung

The New Atlantis has a wonderful article giving an in-depth biography of Carl Jung, perhaps one of the most interesting, infuriating and brilliant thinkers in the history of psychology.

Variously a pioneering experimental psychologist, a depth-analyst, an asylum psychiatrist and a man submerged in his own psychosis, he had a massive influence on both our understanding of the mind and 20th century culture.

…Jung never slackened in his pursuit of the ultimate — both ultimate good and ultimate evil, which he tended to find inseparable. He was frequently off in the empyrean or down in the bowels of hell, consorting with gods and demons as ordinary men do with family and friends. Few persons conducted such conversations, and most of them were inmates of lunatic asylums. For a time the thought that he might be insane terrified him.

The fear dissipated, however, as he became convinced that his visions were genuinely revelatory and belonged to the primordial psychic reality that all men have in common: the collective unconscious, he called it. Poets and such may get away with beliefs like these, for their madness is pretty well taken for granted, but it was a most unorthodox way for an esteemed psychiatrist to think.

Jung is also probably one of the most misunderstood figures in psychology, largely owing to his tendency to swing between science, poetic genius and outright flakery.

The New Atlantis article is a fantastic exploration of the man and his ideas and one of the best short introductions you could find. Well, as short as you could get with Carl Jung.

Link to ‘Psychology’s Magician’.