Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cold and Lonely

Here's a lovely little bit of social psychology. It shows that some of our common metaphors correlate with a genuine association in experience, in this case between social exclusion and physical coldness. If you don't have a subscription, you can currently get a preprint of the paper here. Among other mentions of this research in the media, is this piece in the New York Times.

This is the abstract:
Metaphors such as icy stare depict social exclusion using cold-related concepts; they are not to be taken literally and certainly do not imply reduced temperature. Two experiments, however, revealed that social exclusion literally feels cold. Experiment 1 found that participants who recalled a social-exclusion experience gave lower estimates of room temperature than did participants who recalled an inclusion experience. In Experiment 2, social exclusion was directly induced through an on-line virtual interaction, and participants who were excluded reported greater desire for warm food and drink than did participants who were included. These findings are consistent with the embodied view of cognition and support the notion that social perception involves physical and perceptual content. The psychologicalexperience of coldness not only aids understanding of social interaction, but also is an integral part of the experience of social exclusion.

The paper does pretty much what it says on the box. In experiment 1 a total of 65 subjects (undergraduate students, the rat of social psychology) were told they would perform a series of unrelated tasks. In the first they recalled either an experience where they felt very socialy excluded, or socially included. Then they were asked to estimate the temperature in the room. Subjects who had recalled being excluded gave lower estimates (their mean estimate was about 2.5 degrees Centrigrade lower) than subjects who had recalled being included.

In experiment 2 a total of 52 subjects played the popular cyberball game (in which a virtual ball is passed between the player and two virtual players, with the fraction of passes to the subject being a proxy for levels of inclusion). They were then asked to rate the desirability of 5 different products including a warm drink and a warm food and a cold drink and a cold food. Excluded subjects rated the warm food and drink as more desirable (by about 1 point on a 7 point Likert scale) than controls, while rating the cold food and drink neither better nor worse.

So if you're wondering whether your guests feel welcome or not, ask whether they want tea or a soda...

As so often with social psychology, the interesting result is described in terms of a fairly qualitative theory sketch in terms of 'schemas'. It would be good to know more about this from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience.

For related articles on this blog, see this one on morality and cleanliness (also with Chen-Bo Zhong as first author), and this one on social support and the perception of gradients.

Disclaimer: I have no idea whether the Jackie Frost Ensemble, or the "Cold Lonely Blues" are any good - the album cover image was just one of the top few hits for 'cold lonely' on Google Images.

Chen-Bo Zhong, Geoffrey J. Leonardelli (2008). Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold? Psychological Science, 19 (9), 838-842 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02165.x

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Praxis number 5

PraxisWelcome to the 5th issue of the Praxis carnival – the carnival that’s about the work of science. I got a bunch of interesting contributions, and thank all who took the trouble. The next issue will be hosted by PodBlack Cat on the 15th of January 2009.

BY THE WAY: I was doing nicely working on hosting this carnival, until over 90% of the submissions arrived with only one day, and that a weekend when I was traveling and being a full-time dad, before the publication deadline.* Some did not really get a proper look over, and this is a shorter than usual edition of Praxis. I'm going to pass everything in the pile that didn't get a fair look in time to PodBlack Cat who is hosting the next edition. And maybe Blog Carnivals should be like many other kinds of events - the deadline for submission being some definite time that is more than a nanosecond before publication?

A couple of general topics came up more than once, and I’ll chat about those first, then finish with the strays and orphans where only one contribution was on a specific topic.

First up, the important matter of the representation of women in science. This includes simple numerical representation, but also the self-presentation of women, and what others think and say about it, and what that makes female scientists think about themselves. One of the postings is at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess by Dr Isis, and the other by Dr Free-Ride at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

Really, the fact that these discussions take place at all shows that there is still a problem. Men seem only discuss what being a scientist does to their image of themselves as men to make jokes – at least if they survive high school. But blogs are a great way to have some of the discussion we need to have about this. (Still on gender, although not representation in the same sense, Drug Monkey has a thoughtful piece on the tendency towards male-based research.)

Then there are a couple of pieces about seminars. First a good piece by Dr Isis about the importance of going to seminars, including ones that aren’t in ‘your’ area. Then there’s one in Uncertain Principles about the problem of scheduling seminars, and a poll at FemaleScienceProfessor on the same topic. As most of us know, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence and strongly held opinion about these scheduling questions. It would be nice to see some actual science (y'know, with measurements and stuff) on this topic.

Turning to the strays and orphans there’s a fine piece about Open Access (OA) written in the form of a letter from the future by someone battling with the costs imposed by rent-seeking copyright hogs at The Quantum Pontiff. There are various arguments for OA, but I think the best one is the one directed at the self-interest of the publishing scientist, who only loses by limiting access. And this is a lively and original presentation of that argument.

The Skeptical OB writes on the costs of politicians embracing alternative medicine (Booo!) in the case of former SA president Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. This piece reports on the important recent PNAS paper attempting to quantify the human cost of the denialism and foot-dragging over the causes of AIDS, and prescribing antiretrovirals. (They reckon around a third of a million lives, 35 thousand infants born infected...)

Michael Nielsen has a lively discussion of the '10,000 hour rule', as pushed into popular discussion by Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers". There's good evidence that 10,000 hours of 'deliberate practice' is what it takes to get to be top at anything, and Nielsen asks what this might mean in the case of science.

Another piece on MudPhudder deals with the problem of choosing a research project. (There’s a related post on choosing a topic.) Both are important questions for the fledgling scientist.

Gobbledygook has a selective and diverting digest of the results of a survey of over 30 blog posts responding to 10 questions about science blogging. There are also links to the 30+ original posts.

Finally a fairly narrative piece at PodBlack, where the next issue of this carnival will be hosted, partly about dealing with pseudoscience, but also about the challenges of surviving research trips.

Actually no, that's not final. There's also the announcement relating the latest round of the Open Laboratory, at A Blog Around the Clock. The announcement is that the deadline has been reached, the review process is underway, but you can get links to earlier editions of this initiative, and look at the submissions.

So that's the latest Praxis. Please report link bugs and other mishaps - I'll fix them as fast as I can.

* And I made the error of letting text intended to end up as html anywhere near Microsoft Word, and ended up with a mess and a foul temper. When, oh when, will I learn?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lint interview

Well, my cup runneth over. There's also an interview with Jeff Lint in this issue of All The Rage (opens as PDF).

Choice excerpts include:
LINT: [...] So my idea of an acceptable hero is some sort of a spider with multiple eyes like rally car headlights who, when issued an order, will jet tears of hilarity from the entire bank of eyes and tell a friend later while adapting a submarine for spaceflight: 'I hadn't the heart to obey such a moron.' You know. This means that a different sort of story happens - the characters aren’t blandly reactive and the story isn’t a machine.
AG : You killed a stranger.
LINT: No I didn’t kill him. I sort of barreled into him on a sunny day and broke the front end of his face.
AG : His nose?
LINT: He’d probably call it that. Anyway, it was hard work and paid nothing. The situation didn’t allow either of us much latitude. And it wasn’t very encouraging.
There's also a page of adverts from an issue of The Caterer that are bound to evoke uneasy nostalgia here.

LINT the Movie

Fans of Jeff Lint (and who wouldn't be one) will be pleased to hear that there's a forthcoming movie about the author of such baffling and remarkable works as "The Stupid Conversation". You can check out the MySpace page of the movie.

Note that it is the movie, and not Lint himself, who is 92 years old and in the South of the United Kingdom. Lint's age, not to mention the number of times he has died and the precise circumstances in each case, remain hotly disputed. It is unlikely that the film will shed any light on these matters, although it is to be hoped that it stokes the flames with suitable lack of effort.

(The inclusion of Chekov in the poster is unlikely to settle ongoing arguments over Lint's never filmed episode of Star Trek, that so vexed Gene Roddenberry.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #4

Here's Carnival of the Africans number 4. There weren't very many true submissions, and so this roundup is partly based on my foraging for entries. The next issue of this carnival will be hosted by 01 and the Universe on 28 December.

First up, an article on the mythical Tokoloshe (a sort of Southern African leprechaun) at 01 and the Universe, making a few telling observations on the low empirical content of Tokoloshe claims, and offering the plausible hypothesis that good old normal monkeys could explain some of the putative 'data'.

Second, a useful bit of news about an early attempt at a regular sceptics get together in Johannesburg. Better still, the get together takes place in a pub. You can read about it, and if you're anywhere near Jo'burg figure out how to join in, at Acinonyx Scepticus.

Third, is a short but important notice over at Irreverence, regarding an attempt published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, estimating the preventable deaths caused by HIV denialism and other dreadful triumphs of politics over science in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki, and his chosen health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. The main bottom lines: 330,000 deaths, and about 35,000 preventable infections of infants.

Fourth, a robustly written article over at Prometheus Unbound, regarding an incident where the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) pulled the plug on one of its own scientists, a Dr. Anthony Turton, who was scheduled to give a keynote address at a conference in Pretoria recently. Turton is an environment specialist, and the talk (which I've read) was about water supply, water quality, and water security in SA. This is only one of a number of worrying encroachments on academic freedom in SA right now.

Fifth, also from Prometheus Unbound, is a spirited notice of some post-modern anti-science smoke blowing from South African philosophy professor Pieter Duvenage. Claassen, who writes Prometheus, seems to think that he's onto an affliction that affects all philosophers, though. Surely shome mishtake? There are plenty of robustly naturalist philosophers (Dennett is perhaps the most obvious example) and there are even a few in SA. My mate Dave gave an impassioned defence of naturalism in his inaugural lecture back in April, and he's a professor of philosophy.

Sixth, and finally for this carnival, is a piece over at The Skeptic Detective, working through a story doing the rounds by email reporting therapeutic benefits -- for treating a cough -- of rubbing Vicks Vaporub on the feet. Sure looks like bollocks to me, and the detective shows why the claims amount to nothing in the form they're stated.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


PraxisI'm hosting the next issue (number 5) of the Praxis carnival here. The issue comes out on 15 December.

Here are the guidelines for the carnival.
Here is the hosting schedule.

Carnival of the Africans #4

So, as I mentioned a little while ago, I'll be hosting the next Carnival of the Africans here at Effortless Incitement. Send submissions, within a day or so, since the carnival takes place on Friday, to

As the guidelines for the Carnival say:c
The aim is to showcase the best blog posts on science, academia, and scientific skepticism by Africans or on Africa.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oh crap...

... there I was striving for accessibility:

blog readability test

TV Reviews

InPHO Taxonomy

The Indiana Philosophy Ontology project (InPhO) recently luanched a beta version of its 'Taxonomy Browser' which is a useful portal for browsing and accessing philosophical resources on line. It includes links to articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as Google, Google Scholar, and other searches. It's pretty cool - and mostly automatically compiled, although they admit a little 'human feedback'. There's a more detailed explanation of how it works here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor...

I could survive for 1 minute, 28 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor

Created by Bunk

Jacob Zuma fears God, and thinks you should too

I have a pet theory that some influential groupings in the ANC in South Africa have opted to give Jacob Zuma (hereafter simply JZ) a longer leash since the 'resignation' of Mbeki, to let him do some damage to himself. I have no evidence for this theory, it's simply an interpretation of what seems to me the difference between his public style before and after.

My local newspaper ('The Mercury' in Durban, South Africa) today includes a front page story with some rather choice quotations. JZ was apparently addressing about 500 religious leaders outside Polokwane in the Limpopo province. He's quoted as saying that "We need to teach people to fear God". In case there's any doubt that he means all people, he goes on to say that "even those who are not religious ... must learn to fear others. We must also learn to fear our ancestors".

JZ apparently claimed people would behave better if they had an imaginary friend who they thought was watching and scary. He suggested that the way to make people have scary imaginary friends was to enforce compulsory morning prayer in schools, and urged the religious leaders to "speak out" when the government enacted laws that were "not in line with the teachings of God".

This is all very bizarre and ridiculous. Religious folk hardly agree on any substantive moral questions. Round up ten or twenty senior religious figures ask ask whether women should be able to act as priests, attend university, dress as they please. Ask whether the death penalty is OK, whether homosexuals should be allowed to adopt, whether eating crayfish is OK, etc. We're supposed to improve morality at large by ordering children to listen to the blatherings of a constituency -- the clergy -- that's farther from univocal than a sack of parrots on acid. Go Cope, go. (That's Cope the 'Congress of the People' - which as I write doesn't seem to have a web page. I'll add a link if I find one.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #4

So, I'll be hosting the next Carnival of the Africans here at Effortless Incitement. The guidelines don't indicate that there's a dedicated email address for submissions to the Carnival, but I'll apply the sharp pointy end of my foot to the soft fleshy end of Meadon and see if I can find out more. Bottom line about the Carnival is:
The aim is to showcase the best blog posts on science, academia, and scientific skepticism by Africans or on Africa.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The will to blog...

So, I lost the will to blog for a while. Various reasons, but I think I feel it coming back again. I'm hosting two carnivals over the next few weeks, for a start, and I've read a couple of papers that I feel like writing up.

I'm sort of amazed to see that there are still 25 subscribers. Stick around, though - things should liven up again.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Daily Show - 3 September, Sarah Palin gender card

Here's a fine example of Jon Stewart at work, getting highly effective comic (and also serious) mileage out of juxtaposing utterances by the very same people.

Friday, September 5, 2008


I'm at a conference, with only intermittent access to the blagopipes, and so posting may be a bit slow until next week. Then again, if there are dull sessions I may write some articles on my laptop and publish them as soon as I get access.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders

ResearchBlogging.orgHere's a fascinating paper that got some attention when first published a few months ago, although mostly in short blog pieces that quote the abstract in full and assert "this is cool". Here's an attempt to be more detailed. The paper finds that relatively specific differences in life circumstances are associated with differences in cognitive processing styles. I say that the differences in life circumstances were specific because the research subjects were from the same national, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic group. The subjects were "members of three communities in Turkey’s eastern Black Sea region whose daily economic activities are governed by varying degrees of interdependence" (p. 8552). The differences in cognitive processing style related to degrees of holism in "attention, categorization, and reasoning" (abstract).

As the authors of this paper note, there's an existing body of work suggesting relationships between degree of social inter-dependence and aspects of cognitive style. Much of this work focussed on comparing East Asians and Westerners, who tend to differ in cognitive style, but who also tend to differ in many ways (including languages, and educational systems) as well as in the hypothesised extent of interdependence thought to explain the differences in cognitive style. For an account of much of this research see R.E. Nisbett's 2003 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why (Free Press, New York). The fact that the present paper (Nisbett is one of its authors) considers groups whose differences far more narrowly concern interdependence is a significant advance. The paper also addresses some concerns that the measures of cognitive style in earlier work lacked ecological validity.

As the authors note:
"Farming requires harmonious group collaboration. Moreover, farmers are largely sedentary; they are tied to the land they cultivate and, thus, to fixed communities. These factors are likely to encourage a high degree of social interdependence. In contrast, herding activities do not require much cooperation, but rely on individual decision making and autonomy. Moreover, herders are much less sedentary; their capital can be moved to any location with enough nutrition for animals. Herding communities are therefore unlikely to exert much pressure toward cooperation or conformity. Instead, they foster individualistic or independent social orientations" (p. 8552).
The study used a number of measures of cognitive style, including:

(1) The Framed Line Test (p. 8553f).

The figure above is figure 1 from the paper (p. 8554). The left panel represents the test - subjects are shown a square with a line descending from the middle of the top side. They are then asked to draw a line on a second square of a different size, with two different instructions: to draw a line of the same absolute length, and to draw a line that is the same relative length (compared to the sides of the triangle). To do better at the first task it helps to ignore the context (the square) and focus on the line, whereas the opposite holds in the second case. As the right hand panel (illustrating mean length error in millimeters for each task) shows, the herders made comparatively larger errors in the relative task, and comparatively smaller ones in the absolute task.

(2) A categorisation task (p. 8554).

In this task subjects repeatedly said which two of three depicted objects belonged together, where two of the three (e.g. a glove and a scarf - see panel a in the figure below) shared a mostly categorical relationship, whereas another two (e.g. a glove and a hand - again, see figure below) shared a mostly functional or contextual relationship. As predicted herders showed less of a tendency to opt for functional/contextual pairings in favour of categorical ones.

(3) Similarity task (p. 8554,5).

In this task, which I won't describe in much detail, it was found that Farmers and fishermen “more often perceived similarities based on holistic judgments of family resemblance” whereas herders preferred to decide similarity on the basis of a “unidimensional rule”.

This is all very interesting - although the effect sizes for differences in 'cognitive style' are not large, they're present, and they're apparently related to the sort of differences in level of social interdependence that informed the design of the study. It's also important in a number of ways. These differences might well be important at least near the margins for the effectiveness of things like public health campaigns, teaching methods, political decision making, and advertising. We need to know more, including more on how early in life the differences are measurable, and how enduring they are, for example whether differences are still measurable after one, or five, or more years following a change from one level of interdependence to another.


Nisbett RE (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why (Free Press, New York).

A. K. Uskul, S. Kitayama, R. E. Nisbett (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (25), 8552-8556 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803874105

Monday, September 1, 2008

Encephalon #53

Encephalon number 53 is out, over at Ionian Enchantment, where Michael Meadon is in the midst of some kind of hosting frenzy. Among the highlights are a very good (and very very long) piece on Wilder Penfield at Neurophilosophy, and something on the widely reported recent Nature Neuroscience study on predictions of hits or misses in basketball from short video clips of the beginnings of shots, at Neuronism. Two of my recent articles about chimps also made the cut, one on self-distraction, and one on consolation.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #1 is out...

So, the somewhat oddly named Carnival of the Africans (which is a carnival, and is African, it's just also sceptical and naturalistic, which you can't tell from the title, which could just as well go for a festival of anti-naturalist woo-lovers) is out. Cheers to Michael Meadon for the initiative, and let's hope it's a success. Among other things there's an article by leading SA sceptic George Claassen on Angus Buchan which includes preliminary results of a national survey on religious and other supernatural beliefs, and Owen Swart's (unsuccessful) "homeopathic suicide attempt" in a series of video clips. Wim Louw has an article on basic tools of the sceptic over at his blog too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Handy Research Blogging list of Effortless Incitement posts

One of the main things I do with this blog is write up peer reviewed science that seems interesting to me. (Then submit entries to carnivals in case any of it interests anyone else.) Research Blogging.Org is a cool initiative that aggregates blog articles meeting certain criteria, including being based on peer-reviewed research that the blog author undertakes to have read properly, and be trying to say something more than "this is cool" or "this sucks" about. I find their feed to be one of the most useful that I've got, and also find their criteria a useful discipline when writing articles about papers that I've found interesting. I've just found that there's a digest page for my blog (I'm one of their registered blogs, which you have to be to generate the Research Blogging citation). It's a handy list containing only postings that are about peer-reviewed research, and an indication of how much traffic (not much so far) is getting to me from their aggregator.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Byrne & Eno at it again :-)

So this isn't science, and it isn't woo-bashing, but by golly I'm pleased to report it: Brian Eno and David Byrne have made another album.

Everything that Happens, Will Happen Today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Technology and the economics of reading 2.0

This article is about how various kinds of technology at the same time as making things to read more available, can make it more difficult to get proper reading done. It is a second attempt at a topic I wrote something about a little while ago (here’s version 1). This version is substantially longer and I think better.

In the first version I acknowledged an article I remembered but could not find by Tim van Gelder. In correspondence with him I figured out what the article was, and he sent me a PDF. His article is called "Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science", and as far as I can tell it isn't available on the web. (I've suggested to van Gelder that he post it on his blog, and I hope he does.) The paragraph that got my thinking going is the following one:
My mother was a philosophy major at the University of Melbourne some 25 years before I arrived to do the same degree. In those days, there was often only one copy of a book or article, and it was in the library. She went there to read it, and anything she took away had to be in her head or in her laboriously handwritten notes. This forced her to distil the text down to its essentials; and she did this time and time again. Today, almost nobody does it; if something is worth reading, it is worth copying first. In the library at the University of New South Wales students make 15 million copies a year (cost: 400 large trees). Photocopying fosters the illusion that knowledge has been acquired. The mental effort of comprehending and remembering has been postponed, often forever. These days teachers arrange to have class materials copied in advance, to save students the trouble. As a result, students get much less practice digesting a text. They are losing the disposition and ability to do such basic things as identify the main point and the main line of argument. They cannot form a critical response because they never engage with the reasoning in the first place.
I think van Gelder is onto something important here. What I found when I returned to his text, though, was that the way I'd "remembered" it included a more explicit economic concepts (not many, mind you), and I realised that was mostly the way I'd been thinking about it, and a product of my own research interests. So what I offer here are some reflections largely provoked by reading van Gelder's remarks a few years ago, but adding to them, and in some ways suggesting corrections to them. I don't actually think that the key problem is that copying fosters an illusion of knowledge acquisition, but that availability -- of texts and distractions -- does something to the value of individual reading episodes. In case it's not already obvious, I'm mostly talking about academic reading here, although some of the points probably generalise.

When I was an undergraduate student it was regularly the case that a key reading for a course with over 100 people in it was only available in a part of our main university library called the "Reserve Room" items on reserve could not be taken out, but only used for limited periods of time in the Reserve Room. There were waiting lists for high-demand items, and although it was possible to use your time to make a copy of the text, what most people did most of the time was sit down and give it a good thorough reading. This often meant trying to make notes in sufficient detail to make it very unlikely that a second trip would be needed. As a doctoral student I had a similar experience working at the British Library, which is not a lending library. On mornings when I worked there, I'd approach my reading with a view to doing everything so thoroughly that I'd not need to go back.

Now, in common with many people, I have close to permanent access to large numbers of versions of things that I believe I need to read, and yet seem to spend less of my time than ever before engaged in the sort of serious, deeply focussed reading that I've just described. The access I'm referring to amounts to the following: on my office PC, and my laptop, I have substantial numbers of dowloaded articles, with something around 100 of them at any time in one way or another designated as "things to read soon". I can print any of them with almost no delay, and take the laptop with me. Without doing anything, then, I have significantly more material that I want to read on hand right here and now, than was available to me in the old Reserve Room, or than I could have hoped to get through in a week at the British Library. So why am I not reading more things, but with the same intensity? I admit, a lot of other things have changed. I'm older (maybe dumber), have a bunch of responsibilities I didn't have before, and so on. It seems clear to me, though, that besides those differences, there's something important about the different reading situations -- the old ones, and the ones I routinely face now.

The first thing is that in the two cases above (the old Reserve Room, and the British Library) the costs of wasting, or semi-wasting, a reading session were quite high. In both cases it meant waiting at least hours, and maybe days, before a second chance. Making use of the chance itself took up a decent amount of time. The delays could have serious 'knock on' effects, if work I was planning on doing later on was dependent on what I'd been hoping to find out in the reading session. This is just not the way it is when I can start reading just about any time. If I procrastinate for 20 minutes, I can almost always start again in 20 minutes.

How is this an economic phenomenon? Well, it drives down the (apparent) costs of procrastination - and if our sometimes fickle and unreliable selves are thought of a buyers of procrastination, we can expect ourselves to buy more of the same thing when the manufacturers lower the price.

A second thing that is dangerously seductive is the almost free availability of various ways of "foraging" for things to read. Again, let me compare two cases.

Back in the day, when I read something I'd regularly encounter references to other works that it seemed I should read too. Mostly I'd make notes about that fact, and later make the results of a bunch of such note-takings the basis for a trip to the library. If I was already working in the library, I'd very occasionally get up and look for the document right away. But mostly the costs of searching around didn't seem worth interrupting my work for, and so I'd wait until I had enough on the "things to find" list to justify a proper expedition. Now if I'm reading a paper and see a reference to an interesting looking article, I can be reading the abstract of the paper within a few seconds if I'm online, which I almost always am. If the abstract looks important, I can be downloading the paper into my "things to read later" tray. I can do a quick search to find papers citing the paper I've found, look to see if any of them are important. Or find the web page of one or more of the authors to see if they've done other cool stuff I "should" know about. Sometimes I don't even finish one paragraph of an article before getting side-tracked like that, and after 30 minutes I've read hardly anything, but skimmed a pile of titles and abstracts, and added 20 papers to the "things to read" pile. It's close to going backwards, and relative to old-style reading it is clearly inferior.

This foraging is important - a key part of reading is working out what to read. But it shouldn't be allowed to eat into the reading process too much, at the risk of displacing proper reading with the kind of superficial knowledge that comes from having seen a bunch of abstracts and done little else. Even people who're honest about the fact that they've not yet read anything properly (and so not endorsing the "illusion" that they've acquired knowledge) may find it hard to stop being distracted and foraging to much eating (reading) too little. You need to invest some time in prioritising, and cheap foraging might (at least for some people) make it harder to settle on what to do, because you have a wider range of things that you "could" read at any moment, and so can more easily spend time browsing before settling down.

Again the phenomenon is partly economic - when the costs of foraging get lower, you'll buy more of it. And it's seductive in a way that other kinds of procrastination like fooling around with social networking aren't, because it really is a part of the working process.

A third problem (related to the above, but different) is the frankly awesome availability of distractions with close to zero start-up costs. One key distraction is socialising. Again, when I was a nipper working by myself at night if I wanted to mess around there was less TV to chose from, and social interaction usually meant making a phone call, or maybe wandering around the university residence to see who else was awake and trying to bug them (with mixed success - I was less charming then). Now I typically have two email accounts and facebook running in tabs on my browser at the same time as I've got a PDF of a paper open in another application, or a draft of something I'm writing open in a word processor. The occasional knock on the door or phone call of someone else looking for escape has been replaced with the steady pinging of mail notifications from a network of friends and acquaintances in almost every time zone, who I can also bother more or less ad lib. Again, a tempting product (and also one that is important to some extent) has been made cheaper.

So what can we do? How is it that anybody gets any proper reading done (since many clearly do)?

I think there are a few things.

First, we can make more of an effort to be clear with ourselves about the costs of delay are. It's not hard to keep track of costs when they're obvious things like having to make additional trips to libraries, it takes more effort to keep aware of the opportunity costs of the wasted hour you're right in the middle of it when it seems as though you can start work with no cost at the end of the hour. But our time is at least as scarce as ever. It also helps to me more clear about why pseudo-work like foraging can be counter-productive. Having definite targets so that you can tell whether you're falling short of them helps too.

Second, we can manufacture scarcity in various ways. Go to lunch (without a laptop!) taking only one article to read. If you don't read that one, you've failed, and you can't mask the fact so easily because there's no citation index (or facebook) to mess around with, or giant folder of downloaded articles to organise and browse. I've found that a terrific place to get reading done is in meetings. It really is possible, with only a little practice, to keep track of a basically administrative meeting and participate in it while reading something unrelated. And in meetings where you really are mostly expected to sit still and keep quiet, reading becomes a merciful release from the tedious and often inefficiently conducted business at hand. Part of manufacturing scarcity is raising the costs of distractions, and even small barriers can be helpful. Work off-line, or at least close down email and social networking stuff, for fixed periods.

These three suggestions are presented impressionistically - in some cases I know of peer-reviewed research that suggests they really would help, but in others I'm pretty much saying something about what I try to do, which seems sometimes to work. I'd welcome more research on academic reading from a behavioural economic perspective, and especially work on strategies and interventions to encourage intense critical reading.

Something I'm also very interested in is how all this plays out for new students, who've mostly never experienced the sorts of scarcity that give me the backdrop for assessing the effects of the current situation. It seems to me that many of them are far less likely to get any proper reading done than they should be. I'm just not sure what to begin to think about how to help that.


van Gelder, T. J. (1998) Penicillin for the mind? Reason, education and cognitive science. Preprint No. 1/98, University of Melbourne Department of Philosophy.

Top cartoon - "Hard Read" from the Perry Bible Fellowship.

Effortless Incitement readership update

So here's another roundup of the Effortless Incitement readership (the first one is here). This is a matter that likely doesn't interest anyone except me, but there's no better place to write about it. Since I started tracking with Google Analytics, I've now had 714 visitors, and 1063 page visits, from 50 countries, still only two of them African countries. The USA and UK account for about 50% of traffic so far, and including South Africa the three account for nearly 2/3rds of visits.

My technorati rank has grown steadily - back on August 3 it was 787,635, up from 1,287,256 when I first registered there, and now it's at 518,149. The'authority' of this blog has reached the dizzying heights of 13. Only a tiny fraction of visitors comment - I'm not sure what that's about, and don't know what ratio of visits to comments to regard as healthy. (That last sentence is a very flimsy pretext for posting the Bristol Stool Chart.) The blog itself, or individual articles have been picked up at sites that I admire, which is gratifying. The fraction of visits that are referrals is picking up as well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dawkins vs. Meadon

So there's a somewhat unseemly spat going on at Richard occasioned by some criticism of Dawkin's new documentary by Michael Meadon, who earlier took issue with some of the pedagogy in the show. I thought that some of Meadon's remarks where a bit on the bracing side, but left the matter alone mostly because I'd not yet had a chance to see the film and so wasn't qualified to engage. But there's something here that can be remarked on without seeing the film at all. Dawkins responded to Meadon by saying (see the comment thread):
That is a bloody lie. I tried to persuade those children to abandon their belief in CREATIONISM. That is NOT the same as persuading them to become atheists. I was scrupulously careful to do no such thing.

I suspect that you didn't watch the documentary at all, but read one of the critics, such as Libby Purves, and believed her.

Please apologise NOW. As an educator, I feel extremely strongly about this.
Well, no. At most Dawkins had grounds to believe that according to his view Meadon was incorrect. A justified assertion to the effect that someone is lying requires something else - it requires grounds for believing that they believed what they were asserting to be false, yet asserted it anyway. Dawkins had no such evidence, and although Meadon (who had indeed watched the film) has, on further watching and considering the responses to his original post, retracted some of his claims, last I saw Dawkins was still tiresomely insisting on calling him a liar. Dawkins has no grounds for doing so. Such evidence as is publicly available strongly suggests that Meadon (in general an admirer of Dawkin's work, which he follows enthusiastically through his blog) had absolutely no mendacious intent. At best Dawkins is bullshitting (in the sense of Frankfurt - asserting something for reasons other than concern with truth). I don't see any way to read his response where it doesn't turn out pretty mean, although the discussion continues.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Two notable pieces on BPS research digest

I've found myself reading the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog more and more. There's a brisk flow of brief write ups of psychology research, focussed on peer-reviewed publications. I used to get there from the Research Blogging feed. (This is a cool aggregator of blog posts on peer-reviewed research, which you should check out if you're not already aware of it.) But I ended up there so often I've subscribed to BPS in its own right.

Here are two recent articles well worth looking at (had I but world enough and time, I'd consider blogging both of the papers they refer to):

(1) Recent research suggests that people who volunteer for psychology experiments / surveys are generally more stable and outgoing than those who don't. We need better recruiting strategies to get after the sulking neurotics.

(2) It also seems that self-perception of how well you are doing something impacts on your assessment of others who you are observing. So don't just try to impress folks - have them check you out while they're doing something well.

Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood

ResearchBlogging.orgThere's a body of data, some of it contested, relating eye colour, or eye colour at some ages, with personality traits. Among other things its been reported that there are associations between dark eyes and traits like extroversion (Gentry et al, 1965), and that among kindergarten children below certain ages blue-eyed children were disproportionately likely to be extremely withdrawn (Rubin and Both 1989). Apparently researchers in the area came to agree that eye colour had very little to do with adult personality (e.g. Rubin and Both, 1989).*

There are some speculations regarding mechanisms that might connect eye colour and personality, relating to the fact that production of some substances involved in eye pigmentation is associated with production of other substances (including norepinephrine and cortisol) that are known to have their own associations with behavioural differences.

After reviewing some of the literature just mentioned the authors of this study point out that there are other significant differences between irises besides their colour, including the number and other properties of features called 'Fuchs' crypts', 'contraction furrows' and 'pigment dots' (see figure below). They sought to investigate whether the mechanisms associated with frequency of these properties were also implicated in behaviour. If they were, then there could be systematic correlations between iris features and personality.

Here's a figure illustrating the iris features, from the paper, via MindHacks:

One example of the sort of pleiotropy at issue here is the gene Pax6, which is apparently involved in the process of muscle-cell differentiation in the iris, and hence some of the visible iris features noted above, and also expressed in the brain with one Pax6 mutation being associated with disinhibition, impulsivity and other traits. Pax6 is also associated with production of dopamine neurons, in turn known to be important for a variety of cognitive processes, including some relating to learning, patience, valuation, and response to risk -- all related to personality.

So if some genes are expressed both in ways that bear on what irises look like, and on personality, there might be correlations between the two. This won’t necessarily be the case. There are multiple causal processes on each side, and room for any single factor common to both to get driven away from showing interesting or detectable correlation. There’s an empirical question here, and the present paper has a go at it. There’s a lot of detail that I won’t try to cover – here’s the main story in sketch form.

428 human undergraduates had their irises imaged, and incidence and properties (e.g. size) of the iris features noted above coded. They also completed the NEO PI-R, an instrument based on the ‘Five-Factor’ model of personality (where the five factors are neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness). Each factor was assessed in a way that measured six specific factors (in the case of neuroticism the specifics concern: anxiety, angry-hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, vulnerability).

The study included two main analyses. One was a correlational analysis focussed on associations between individual iris characteristics and specific factors in the NEO PI-R. The other was a cluster analysis looking for relationships between overall iris properties and whole personalities. Both found interesting results, even though the effect sizes were (as expected) generally small.

A number of significant correlations were found in the variable based analysis, including between furrows and 'impulsiveness', furrows and 'self-discipline', crypts and 'warmth', crypts and 'positive emotions', and crypts and 'tendermindedness' (I've only listed associations significant at p<0.01 - others were found at p<0.05).

In the person oriented analysis a number of clusters of iris feature types were found, and a number of them had significant correlations with personality measures. It's more difficult to summarise these results in prose, and the pre-publication PDF annoyingly won't allow copying to the clip-board.

This is interesting. There are a few sorts of follow up I'd like to see:
  1. The same general thing, but with behavioural (delay discounting) measures of impulsivity.
  2. Direct measurement of the genetics, with the same personality measures.
  3. Attempt to find out whether people are sensitive (likely unconsciously if at all) to any of this. One could manipulate images of faces replacing or otherwsie changing the irises, and see whether this alone made differences in respect of attractiveness, perceived mate-worthiness, etc. It could be that folks don't notice this, but if there is a decent visible indicator of personality lying around, there's a chance individuals sensitive to it would have been at an advantage.
Here's the text of the abstract:
Variable and person-oriented analyses were used to explore the associations between personality and three previously untested general iris characteristics: crypts, pigment dots and contraction furrows. Personality data, as measured by the NEO PI-R and ratings of iris characteristics from 428 undergraduate students were collected. Crypts were significantly associated with five approach-related behaviors, i.e., feelings, tendermindedness, warmth, trust and positive emotions, whereas furrows were associated with impulsiveness. These findings suggest that because Pax6 induces tissue deficiencies in both the iris and the left anterior cingulate cortex, Pax6 may influence the extent people engage in approach-related behaviors. The results from using a person-oriented analysis suggested that people with different iris configurations tend to develop along different personality trajectories. Future longitudinal studies, twin-studies and genetic association studies, may benefit from collecting iris data and testing candidate genes for crypts and furrows.
This paper has been written up elsewhere, including at MindHacks, and BPS Research Digest.

* The references here are in the first paragraphs of the paper. I'd put them in full here, but as I said above the "article in press" PDF is locked to copying to the clipboard.

LARSSON, M., PEDERSEN, N., STATTIN, H. (2007). Associations between iris characteristics and personality in adulthood. Biological Psychology, 75(2), 165-175. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.01.007

Friday, August 22, 2008

IDiots at their mendacious games again...

As PZ Myers notes, there's a good post at Panda's Thumb called Von Neumann, Berlinski, and evolution: Who’s the hooter? It turns out (again, or should I say yet again) that defenders of ID are helping themselves to the usual mix of selective quotation, selective attention to the facts, wish-fulfillment driven bullshitting (in the sense of Frankfurt) and outright dishonesty. This is worth paying serious attention to: their 'mistakes' are not mistakes in the innocent sense - the fact that they all trend in the one direction (misrepresenting science, misrepresenting specific historical figures, leaving out the bits of context and background that you have to leave out to get even a fake case for ID off the ground) tells you something is driving the process. In this case it sure isn't natural selection - just the kind of systematic deliberate distortion that would end a scientific career, but turns out to be no obstacle to advancement among those of "faith".

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Praxis #1 is out!

I mentioned a little while ago that a new carnival was starting, called Praxis, and about the work of science. Well, number 1 is out, at A Blog Around the Clock. Check it out - there's a lot of articles in it, and I won't try to pick one or two highlights here. In fact I've hardly scratched the surface myself.

The next edition will be on September 15 at Life 3.0.

The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays

The picture on the left shows two different judo competitors, just after winning a bout. One of them is sighted, the other congenitally blind. Can you tell which is which?

It took longer than it should for the case that facial expressions of emotion are largely human universals to be made (in fact wider than human, and conserved across many species). Paul Ekman is a leading figure here, and his introduction to one of the many editions of Darwin's The expression of the emotions in man and animals (Ekman introduced edition on Powell's here, eText edition here). Expression of emotion isn't simply universal - cultural differences can modify and mask it. Also, there's ongoing work on what sorts of basic emotions are relatively universal - early work focussed on states like happiness, fear and disgust. This paper considers highly relational states, in particular pride and shame.

There's some work already suggesting that the non-verbal expresions of pride and shame are fairly universal within humans, and between humans and some other species. (Think of inflated chests, raised arms, strutting, etc., for pride.) One key question not yet rigorously tested is whether displays of pride and shame universally follow actual successes or failures. If they do, that's encouraging news for functionalist accounts of the purpose of such displays in social signalling.

This paper presents the results of an elegant and beautiful attack on the question. There are few cases of success and failure clearer than sporting events with two individual competitors. Typically there's one clear winner and one clear loser. Also, participants in some sporting events are congenitally blind. Quoting the abstract of the paper:
"Specifically, we tested whether sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals across cultures spontaneously display pride and shame behaviors in response to the same success and failure situations—victory and defeat at the Olympic or Paralympic Games."

Data for athletes from 37 nations participating in judo matches at the 2004 Olympics and Paralympic games was gathered and coded. The codes showed good inter-rater reliability. Figure 1 below shows the results for a selection of non-verbal behaviors including tilting the head back, smiling, forming fists, etc. among 108 episodes involving sighted athletes (some individuals were recorded more than once).

Figure 2 shows the same measurements for 12 congenitally blind athletes.

There's some striking congruence, especially in the narrowing chest and slumped shoulders of losers, and in a selection of the behaviours of winners. But there's also more - the nationalities of athletes were used to assign them ratings on a number of cultural dimensions, including individualism vs. collectivism, secular-rational vs. traditional, and survival vs. self-expression. The data thus produced turned out to be interesting too. Again, quoting the formulation in the abstract:
"...culture moderated the shame response among sighted athletes: it was less pronounced among individuals from highly individualistic, self-expression-valuing cultures, primarily in North America and West Eurasia."

As the authors note, their findings don't settle the questions, even though they're interesting and important. One limitation is that while it seems reasonable to suppose that winners felt pride and losers shame, this wasn't directly measured. Also, the presence of an audience in all cases leaves open the possibility that the behaviours were in some sense "intentional social communications", although as they also note this seems considerably less likely for the congenitally blind. There's more to find out, but it does seem very likely that there's a significant universal component to the non-verbal expression of pride and shame, that may go on to be subject to cultural modulation.

This research has also been written up elsewhere, including BPS Research Digest, Wired and MindHacks.

Here's the full text of the abstract:
The present research examined whether the recognizable nonverbal expressions associated with pride and shame may be biologically innate behavioral responses to success and failure. Specifically, we tested whether sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals across cultures spontaneously display pride and shame behaviors in response to the same success and failure situations—victory and defeat at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Results showed that sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from >30 nations displayed the behaviors associated with the prototypical pride expression in response to success. Sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from most cultures also displayed behaviors associated with shame in response to failure. However, culture moderated the shame response among sighted athletes: it was less pronounced among individuals from highly individualistic, self-expression-valuing cultures, primarily in North America and West Eurasia. Given that congenitally blind individuals across cultures showed the shame response to failure, findings overall are consistent with the suggestion that the behavioral expressions associated with both shame and pride are likely to be innate, but the shame display may be intentionally inhibited by some sighted individuals in accordance with cultural norms.
(The answer to the opening question is, incidentally, that you can't tell by looking and that as it happens the athlete on the right is the congenitally blind individual. This pair of images is figure 3 in the paper.)
Tracy, J.L., Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(33), 11655-11660. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802686105

Encephalon #52

Encephalon number 52 is just out, in a Q&A format, over at Ouroboros.
There's plenty of good stuff in the roundup, including a useful piece on
grandmother neurons over at combing cognits, and something on the neural
basis of social attachments at Neurotic Physiology. The next issue of the
carnival will be hosted by Michael Meadon at Ionian Enchantment.

Brains ... brains ... brains ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Take Spurtotox!!!

So, there's a moderately amusing tool to create a spurious advert for a non-existent drug over at CEDRA, which is kinda fun to play with. It's worth going through the process once to see how your choices are used. Here's the ad for Spurtotox, a highly desirable cream.

And here's Jeffitol, a Jeff Lint tribute that rather strains the limits of the canned humour that the site is based on.

Sadly there's no option to save the result as an image file, or even a decent print option. Always a drag to see a decent idea with its own bootlaces wrapped around its neck.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Miracle!

Even my own robust scepticism has been shaken by this very convincing manifestation of the risen (or rising) Christ on the back end of a dog of indeterminate breed but, it seems, considerable charm:

After messing about with bits of cooked beef, the damp on building walls, pieces of toast, etc., this really is a return to the sort of 'burning bush' form attributed to the super-being during the earlier heyday of his career. (Hat tip to Michael Meadon.)

Praying for lower gas prices

As this piece on BBC News reports, some members of the God Squad who have been praying at gas stations in the US are claiming that their petitioning is responsible for the recent fall in gas prices. Besides being all at once a fine example of the 'post hoc ergo propter hoc' (after this therefore because of this) fallacy, and a redundant 'explanation' (since there's the old supply, demand, action of speculators, etc., story as always) this really suggests a dreadful failure of imagination when it comes to what these folks like to ask their imaginary friend for.

How about they prayed for fuel that didn't help cook the planet when it was used? Coal that burned cleaner? A distribution of fossil fuels that didn't give so much power to misogynistic creeps?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Google Images Dylan Search String Challenge

Sometimes I chuck odd sets of words into Google to see what comes up, especially under Images. You can find some pretty peculiar stuff.

(For example, and in case anyone was curious, the top result (on 15 August 2008) on a Google Image search for [quantum arse camera] is what is alleged to be a picture of Morrisey's posterior with "YOUR ARSE AN ALL" written across it in an unspecified pigment. The proportions in the image suggest that it was not taken recently.)

One of my sets of words returned only three image results, the top one of Bob Dylan smoking a joint. The set is [yodel metaphysics jelly deflowered]. Can anyone find any other odd looking strings that return images of famous rock stars (ideally his Bobness) consuming narcotics?

(The Tubes are an odd place - changing one word in the the set to [yodel metaphysics jelly dildo] gives 11 images, two of them of cats, and one of a concentration camp.)

SA Science and Scepticism Carnival

So Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment was, according to my mate Dave, all long-faced today over the fact that a day or two had passed after his rallying call about pro-science and woo-smiting bloggers in (or from, or in other unspecified ways connected to) South Africa, and I still hadn't waxed joyful over it here at Effortless Incitement.

(At the time Dave neglected to point out that this was a very good illustration of Effortless Incitement - in this case vexing by inactivity. Failure to do anything at all is, of course, not the only way of achieving effortlessness, as Jeff Lint fans are well aware.)

Anyway, the initiative is a welcome one. The ANC figured to leave evolution out of school biology for more than the first ten years of democracy. (Thereby simply keeping the biology part of the travesty of a school science curriculum left by the ideological whack-job architects of Apartheid.) Leaving that aside, levels of basic comprehension of science are low, and levels of credulity for spooky, magical, and other 'super'-natural things depressingly high. (See the second half of this post for a preview of a recent study on the topic.)

Michael wants to get up a carnival of SA sceptics and woo-smiters, and (a) is looking to find participants and hosts and stuff, and (b) desperately needs help improving on the rather clunky name proposal that's on the table now ("South African Science & Scepticism Circle").

I hereby suggest (since my first proposal went down like a streaker at Easter Mass at the Vatican) the following:

Southern Exposure. (Regrettably also the name of a group in NZ dedicated to exploring "Polyamory, Intimate Communications, BDSM, Alternative Lifestyles and more...")
[The] Sceptics of the South.
[The] Southern Fried Sceptics.

And, finally for now:

The Azanian Rational and Scientific Expeditionary force (Or the A.R.S.E. Carnival for short) .

Also, I'll be hosting the thing, whatever it's called, in late November.

Friday science clip: Robot with "Rat Brain"

This is very, very, very cool:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

BPSDB - Danie Krugel

One of the most famous pseudo-science figures in South Africa is Danie Krugel, he of the box that apparently does some unspecified quantum wotnot, in order to variously locate subjects (which he failed miserably to do in the case of Madeleine McCann), substances, detect tumours and so forth. (There's a fair bit about Krugel on the blog-o-pipes, including this and this.)

I just learned from Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment that Krugel has apparently managed to get some SA academics to sign up to a murky vague but nonetheless enthusiastic endorsement of his apparatus, on the basis of a sketchily specified and frankly awful seeming 'experiment'. The article Michael sent me is this one at Yet Another Sceptic’s Blog. Michael's taking up the case - partly by contacting some of the academics who signed the report - I'll note any progress here. And if I can find the time I'll get into asking some pointed questions of those who signed on the line.

Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees

ResearchBlogging.orgConsolation behaviour is interesting in various ways. Why do some individuals spend effort going and doing consoling things to some others? Why, for that matter, don't they sometimes? Why does it sometimes help? When doesn't it?

One promising arena for shedding some light on these questions is observation of the smarter non-human social primates. (There are plenty of open avenues of enquiry here - one of my earlier posts on this blog relates to the effect of social support on perception of geographical slant, which is relevant to the "what does it do" question. I'd like to see some good neuroscience on some of this.) Chimpanzees sometimes enage in consoling behaviour, and it's possible to observe who consoles who, after what, and measure a host of other socially important considerations in detail that would be at least very difficult in humans.

Here's the abstract of the current paper:
Consolation, i.e., postconflict affiliative interaction directed from a third party to the recipient of aggression, is assumed to have a stress-alleviating function. This function, however, has never been demonstrated. This study shows that consolation in chimpanzees reduces behavioral measures of stress in recipients of aggression. Furthermore, consolation was more likely to occur in the absence of reconciliation, i.e., postconflict affiliative interaction between former opponents. Consolation therefore may act as an alternative to reconciliation when the latter does not occur. In the debate about empathy in great apes, evidence for the stress alleviating function of consolation in chimpanzees provides support for the argument that consolation could be critical behavior. Consistent with the argument that relationship quality affects their empathic responses, we found that consolation was more likely between individuals with more valuable relationships. Chimpanzees may thus respond to distressed valuable partners by consoling them, thereby reducing their stress levels, especially in the absence of reconciliation.
Note here that reconcilliation occurs between the conflicting parties, and is not what this study is about.

Here, roughly and leaving out a lot of detail, is what the authors did with a well-established group of chimpanzees varying in size from 26 to 32 members over the course of the study:

  1. Observed aggressive conflict, defined as "any interaction involving a bite, hit, brusque rush, trample, chase, or threat in addition to screaming" (p8559). (Obviously a longer list would be needed for research subjects with access to firearms, lawyers, bagpipes and medium sized pieces of iron-mongery.) Conflicts were further analysed to determine who "won", since losing is taken to be more stressful.
  2. Measured post-conflict (PC) stress by counting rates of self-grooming and self-scratching, both known to increase under stress. (As before, for subjects who can buy dumb stuff on E-Bay, bang tools together in their shed, etc., a richer coding scheme is required.)
  3. Measured consolation behaviours, by counting affiliative interactions, defined as "kiss, embrace, grooming, finger-in-mouth, gentle touch, or play". (Exercise for the reader.)
  4. Measured relationship quality between different pairs of chimps, using coding methods developed for use with mother-infant relatioships.
The details I've left out are important - this kind of primatology is tough, and depends on laborious examination and encoding of recordings of interaction and activity, before any analysis can begin. (It involves amounts of crushingly dull drudge work impossible before the invention of the scientific underclass known as the 'graduate student'.) The analysis here also depends on some specific policies dividing up time for coding purposes, and more specifically classifying episodes of consolation as a function of time since conflict.

Subject to the various coding schemes and data collection policies, the authors collected data on 234 pairs of episodes (ones involving post-conflict behaviour and matched controls lacking it) for 22 recipients of aggression, involving 129 distinct pairings of individuals in the original conflict. The sophisticated analysis (detailed in the paper and the supplementary materials) established the main finding: that consolation reduces stress, and that the best predictor of the effect of consolation was relationship quality: it's worth more to be comforted by those who matter to us. The two figures below summarise some of the main results.

For another article on chimpanzees on this blog (not about consolation) see Chimpanzees use self-distraction to cope with impulsivity.

And for anyone who doesn't know, the picture at the top is Philippe from Achewood (used without permission) . He's got his own blog here.

Fraser, O.N., Stahl, D., Aureli, F. (2008). Stress reduction through consolation in chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(25), 8557-8562. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0804141105

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Two good new psychology related blog posts

Here are two posts worth looking at:

(1) First, Ed over at Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on an elegant study on the effects of wearing red in sporting events. Unlike previous studies, many of which have focussed on statistical analyses of real games, this one is a proper experiment, where qualified judges scored tae kwon do matches, shown to them on video. The cool idea was using digital editing to swap the coloured panels on the competitor's kit around, so being able to show an effect for the very same performances. Fighters wearing red got more points.

(2) Then there's a short report over at the BPS research digest, on reduced cognitive performance (especially selective and sustained attention) in subjects engaged in an emergency drill. This helps shed some light on why so many die in emergencies. (There's a related article at Cognitive Daily on working memory and choking under pressure.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Recent blog articles I've read

Just a short nod to two recent blog articles that I found worthwhile:

(1) A report on how visualising an achievement from the perspective of onlookers does more for motivation to succeed that visualising it from the achiever's perspective, over at Sports are 80 percent mental.

(2) Something on the evolution of schizophrenia over at Neuroscientifically Challenged.

I've got some more social psychology write ups on their way - just having a crazy busy time, so not getting that much writing done.

Chimpanzees use self distraction to cope with impulsivity

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is an interesting and important paper about a strategy for dealing with impulsivity that has not previously been documented in non-humans. Here's the abstract:
It is unknown whether animals, like humans, can employ behavioural strategies to cope with impulsivity. To examine this question, we tested whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) would use self-distraction as a coping strategy in a situation in which they had to continually inhibit responses to accumulating candies in order to earn a greater amount of those rewards. We tested animals in three conditions in which they were sometimes given a set of toys and were sometimes allowed physical access to the accumulating candies. Chimpanzees allowed the rewards to accumulate longer before responding when they could divert their attention to the toys, and they manipulated the toys more when the candies were physically accessible. Thus, chimpanzees engaged in self-distraction with the toys when such behaviour was most beneficial as a coping mechanism.
One of the most persistent ways in which people make poor decisions is by being impulsive. In the behavioural sense, impulsivity amounts to a temporary preference for a smaller reward that is available sooner over a larger one that is available later. (There are more complicated impulsivity constructs in psychiatry and personality psychology - they're not what I'm writing about here.)

This is a dangerous kind of preference to have - it's by definition inconsistent with some of your own preferences over longer ranges, making us open to exploitation, and setting us up for regret. There's a substantial pile of evidence across various species that the discount function describing the decline in the present value of a reward as delay to delivery increases is approximately hyperbolic. Only an exponential curve (so called because the delay term appears as an exponent) has the property that the relative value of rewards at different delays stays constant without ever going to zero. Hyperbolic curves, instead, can lead to temporary preferences (see figure below):

George Ainslie (e.g. 2001) describes a number of strategies that people can use to try to fight inconsistency, including managing attention, preparing emotion, making side-bets and using other committment devices, and chosing
according to rules that connect future rewards and present temptations in different ways. One of his own key experiments (Ainslie 1974) showed
something related to committment as a way of dealing with impulsivity is observed in pigeons: some birds trained that pecking one key would lead to a smaller sooner reward, and another a larger later one, learned to peck an additional key earlier on that had no effect except to remove the temptation of the smaller sooner reward.

This paper is specifically concerned with managing attention as a way of dealing with temptation. As the authors note there is some evidence that human children can adopt self-distraction as a strategy to help them not give into temptation in an experimental setting where refraining from taking an immediately available reward leads to greater reward accumulating later on. Although nobody has attempted to see whether Chimpanzees can do the same thing before, other work suggesting that chimps use behavioural strategies to cope with other kinds of stress suggested it would be worth looking.

The key experiment was quite simple: candies accumulated steadily in a dispenser, but when the dispenser was taken, accumulation stopped. So waiting led to greater rewards, but there was a growing temptation. In some conditions the chimps had toys available - the hypothesis was that toy use would increase during the waiting intervals, suggesting that play was a behavioural strategy for dealing with temptation. In a variation the chimps had no control over the dispenser, because it was out of reach - toy use in that condition was taken as a baseline measure, to be compared to cases where toy use could have been related to resisting temptation.

The results are fairly clear: toy use in the 'toys available' condition was greater (for three out of four of the chimps) when it was up to the individual chimp how long to wait. As the authors conclude:
"This is the first evidence indicating that non-human animals can use a behavioural strategy to reduce their own susceptibility to ongoing temptation."
This is cool stuff. It will be interesting to see how much sophistication in managing impulsivity can be found in other non-human animals when these and other means are made available.

References (besides the 'BPR' tag):

Ainslie, G. (1974) Impulse Control in Pigeons, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 21: 485–489.
Ainslie, G. (2001) Breakdown of Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, T.A., Beran, M.J. (2007). Chimpanzees use self-distraction to cope with impulsivity. Biology Letters, 3(6), 599-602. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0399