Not the psychology of Joe average terrorist

News reports have been covering a fascinating study on the moral reasoning of ‘terrorists’ published in Nature Human Behaviour but it’s worth being aware of the wider context to understand what it means.

Firstly, it’s important to highlight how impressive this study is. The researchers, led by Sandra Baez, managed to complete the remarkably difficult task of getting access to, and recruiting, 66 jailed paramilitary fighters from the Colombian armed conflict to participate in the study.

They compared this group to 66 matched ‘civilians’ with no criminal background and 13 jailed murderers with no paramilitary connections, on a moral reasoning task.

The task involved 24 scenarios that varied in two important ways: harm and no harm, and intended and unintended actions. Meaning the researchers could compare across four situations – no harm, accidental harm, unsuccessfully attempted harm, and successfully attempted harm.

A consistent finding was that paramilitary participants consistently judged accidental harm as less acceptable than other groups, and intentional harm as more acceptable than others groups, indicating a distortion in moral reasoning.

They also measured cognitive function, emotion recognition and aggressive tendencies and found that when these measures were included in the analysis, they couldn’t account for the results.

One slightly curious thing in the paper though, and something the media has run with, is that the authors describe the background of the paramilitary participants and then discuss the implications for understanding ‘terrorists’ throughout.

But some context on the Colombian armed conflict is needed here.

The participants were right-wing paramilitaries who took part in the demobilisation agreement of 2003. This makes them members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC – a now defunct organisation who were initially formed by drug traffickers and land owners to combat the extortion and kidnapping of the left-wing Marxist paramilitary organisations – mostly notably the FARC.

The organisation was paramilitary in the traditional sense – with uniforms, a command structure, local and regional divisions, national commanders, and written statutes. It involved itself in drug trafficking, extortion, torture, massacres, targeted killings, and ‘social cleansing’ of civilians assumed to be undesirable (homeless people, people with HIV, drug users etc) and killings of people thought to support left-wing causes. Fighters were paid and most signed up for economic reasons.

It was indeed designated a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, although within Colombia they enjoyed significant support from mainstream politicians (the reverberations of which are still being felt) and there is widespread evidence of collusion with the Colombian security forces of the time.

Also, considering that a great deal of military and paramilitary training is about re-aligning moral judgements, it’s not clear how well you can generalise these results to terrorists in general.

It is probably unlikely that the moral reasoning of people who participated in this study is akin to, for example, the jihadi terrorists who have mounted semi-regular attacks in Europe over the last few years. Or alternatively, it is not clear how ‘acceptable harm’ moral reasoning applies across different contexts in different groups.

Even within Colombia you can see how the terrorist label is not a reliable classification of a particular group’s actions and culture. Los Urabeños are the biggest drug trafficking organisation in Colombia at the moment. They are essentially the Centauros Bloc of the AUC, who didn’t demobilise and just changed their name. They are involved in very similar activities.

Importantly, they are not classified as a terrorist organisation, despite being virtually same organisation from which members were recruited into this study.

I would guess these results are probably more directly relevant in understanding paramilitary criminal organisations, like the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, than more ideologically-oriented groups that claim political or religious motivations, although it would be fascinating if they did generalise.

So what this study provides is a massively useful step forward in understanding moral reasoning in this particular paramilitary group, and the extent to which this applies to other terrorist, paramilitary or criminal groups is an open question.

Link to open access study in Nature Human Behaviour.

An alternative beauty in parenthood

Vela has an amazing essay by a mother of a child with a rare chromosomal deletion. Put aside all your expectations about what this article will be like: it is about the hopes and reality of having a child, but it’s also about so much more.

It’s an insightful commentary on the social expectations foisted upon pregnant women.

It’s about the clash of folk understanding of wellness and the reality of genetic disorders.

It’s about being with your child as they develop in ways that are surprising and sometimes troubling and finding an alternative beauty in parenthood.

Link to Vela article SuperBabies Don’t Cry.

rational judges, not extraneous factors in decisions

The graph tells a drammatic story of irrationality, presented in the 2011 paper Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. What it shows is the outcome of parole board decisions, as ruled by judges, against the order those decisions were made. The circles show the meal breaks taken by the judges.

parole_decisionsAs you can see, the decisions change the further the judge gets from his/her last meal, dramatically decreasing from around 65% chance of a favourable decision if you are the first case after a meal break, to close to 0% if you are the last case in a long series before a break.

In their paper, the original authors argue that this effect of order truly is due to the judges’ hunger, and not a confound introduced by some other factor which affects the order of cases and their chances of success (the lawyers sit outside the closed doors of the court, for example, so can’t time their best cases to come just after a break – they don’t know when the judge is taking a meal; The effect survives additional analysis where severity of prisoner’s crime and length of sentence are factored it; and so on). The interpretation is that as the judges tire they more and more fall back on a simple heuristic – playing safe and refusing parole.

This seeming evidence of the irrationality of judges has been cited hundreds of times, in economics, psychology and legal scholarship. Now, a new analysis by Andreas Glöckner in the journal Judgement and Decision Making questions these conclusions.

Glöckner’s analysis doesn’t prove that extraneous factors weren’t influencing the judges, but he shows how the same effect could be produced by entirely rational judges interacting with the protocols required by the legal system.

The main analysis works like this: we know that favourable rulings take longer than unfavourable ones (~7 mins vs ~5 mins), and we assume that judges are able to guess how long a case will take to rule on before they begin it (from clues like the thickness of the file, the types of request made, the representation the prisoner has and so on). Finally, we assume judges have a time limit in mind for each of the three sessions of the day, and will avoid starting cases which they estimate will overrun the time limit for the current session.

It turns out that this kind of rational time-management is sufficient to  generate the drops in favourable outcomes. How this occurs isn’t straightforward and interacts with a quirk of original author’s data presentation (specifically their graph shows the order number of cases when the number of cases in each session varied day to day – so, for example, it shows that the 12th case after a break is least likely to be judged favourably, but there wasn’t always a 12 case in each session. So sessions in which there were more unfavourable cases were more likely to contribute to this data point).

This story of claim and counter-claim shows why psychologists prefer experiments, since only then can you truly isolate causal explanations (if you are a judge and willing to go without lunch please get in touch). Also, it shows the benefit of simulations for extending the horizons of our intuition. Glöckner’s achievement is to show in detail how some reasonable assumptions – including that of a rational judge – can generate a pattern which hitherto seemed only explainable by the influence of an irrelevant factor on the judges decisions. This doesn’t settle the matter, but it does mean we can’t be so confident that this graph shows what it is often claimed to show. The judges decisions may not be irrational after all, and the timing of the judges meal breaks may not be influencing parole decision outcome.

Original finding: Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.

New analysis: Glöckner, A. (2016). The irrational hungry judge effect revisited: Simulations reveal that the magnitude of the effect is overestimated. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(6), 601-610.

Elsewhere I have written about how evidence of human irrationality is often over-egged : For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds


Serendipity in psychological research

micDorothy Bishop has an excellent post ‘Ten serendipitous findings in psychology’, in which she lists ten celebrated discoveries which occurred by happy accident.

Each discovery is interesting in itself, but Prof Bishop puts the discoveries in the context of the recent discussion about preregistration (declaring in advance what you are looking for and how you’ll look). Does preregistration hinder serendipity? Absolutely not says Bishop, not least because the context of ‘discovery’ is never a one-off experiment.

Note that, in all cases, having made the initial unexpected observation – either from unstructured exploratory research, or in the course of investigating something else – the researchers went on to shore up the findings with further, hypothesis-driven experiments. What they did not do is to report just the initial observation, embellished with statistics, and then move on, as if the presence of a low p-value guaranteed the truth of the result.

(It’s hard not to read into these comments a criticism of some academic journals which seem happy to publish single experiments reporting surprising findings.)

Bishop’s list contains 3 findings from electrophysiology (recording brain cell activity directly with electrodes), which I think is notable. In these cases neural recording acts in the place of a microscope, allowing fairly direct observation of the system the scientist is investigating at a level of detail hitherto unavailable. It isn’t surprising to me that given a new tool of observation, the prepared mind of the scientists will make serendipitous discoveries. The catch is whether, for the rest of psychology, such observational tools exist. Many psychologists use their intuition to decide where to look, and experiments to test whether their intuition is correct. The important serendipitous discoveries from electrophysiology suggest that measures which are new ways of observing, rather than merely tests of ideas, must also be important for psychological discoveries. Do such observational measures exist?

Images of ultra-thin models need your attention to make you feel bad

I have a guest post over at the BPS Research Digest, covering research on the psychological effects of pictures of ultra-thin fashion models.

A crucial question is whether the effect of these thin-ideal images is automatic. Does the comparison to the models, which is thought to be the key driver in their negative effects, happen without our intention, attention or both? Knowing the answer will tell us just how much power these images have, and also how best we might protect ourselves from them.

It’s a great study from the lab of Stephen Want (Ryerson University). For the full details of the research, head over: Images of ultra-thin models need your attention to make you feel bad

Update: Download the preprint of the paper, and the original data here

CBT is becoming less effective, like everything else

‘Researchers have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is roughly half as effective in treating depression as it used to be’ writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, arguing that this is why CBT is ‘falling out of favour’. It’s worth saying that CBT seems as popular as ever, but even if it was in decline, it probably wouldn’t be due to diminishing effectiveness – because this sort of reduction in effect is common across a range of treatments.

Burkeman is commenting on a new meta-analysis that reports that more recent trials of CBT for depression find it to be less effective than older trials but this pattern is common as treatments are more thoroughly tested. This has been reported in antipsychotics, antidepressants and treatments for OCD to name but a few.

Interestingly, one commonly cited reason treatments become less effective in trials is because response to placebo is increasing, meaning many treatments seem to lose their relative potency over time.

Counter-intuitively, for something considered to be ‘an inert control condition’ the placebo response is very sensitive to the design of the trial, so even comparing placebo against several rather than one active treatment can affect placebo response.

This has led people to suggest lots of ‘placebo’ hacks. “In clinical trials,” noted one 2013 paper in Drug Discovery, “the placebo effect should be minimized to optimize drug–placebo difference”.

It’s interesting that it is still not entirely clear whether this approach is ‘revealing’ the true effects of the treatment or just another way of ‘spinning’ trials for the increasingly worried pharmaceutical and therapy industries.

The reasons for the declining treatment effects over time are also likely to include different types of patients selected into trials, more methodologically sound research practices meaning less chance of optimistic measuring and reporting, the fact that if chance gives you a falsely inflated treatment effect first time round it is more likely to be re-tested than initially less impressive first trials, and the fact that older known treatments might bring a whole load of expectations with them that brand new treatments don’t.

The bottom line is that lots of our treatments, across medicine as a whole, have quite modest effects when compared to placebo. But if placebo represents an attempt to address the problem, it provides quite a boost to the moderate effects that the treatment itself brings.

So the reports of the death of CBT have been greatly exaggerated but this is mostly due to the fact that lots of treatments start to look less impressive when they’ve been around for a while. This is less due to them ‘losing’ their effect and more likely due to us more accurately measuring their true but more modest effect over time.