Thursday, May 25, 2006

Children's Acceptance of Testimony About the Spiritual and the Scientific

Via Coturnix, I learned about this post and this article about this paper by Harris and Koenig (this is not the final version) in this month's issue of Cognitive Development. I don't know about people in other sciences, but I think this is the first time I've ever seen press coverage of a literature review. It's a very interesting literature review, though, so I'm glad it's getting attention. Only, I wish the whole review was getting attention, instead of one small part of it.

The review focuses on children's acceptance of testimony from adults about things that the children either haven't or cannot observe. They describe several examples of acceptance, and integration into coherent beliefs, of scientific knowledge, including knowledge of the importance of the brain for thought, personality, etc., the roundness of the earth, and the inevitability and permanence of death. They also describe similar examples for spiritual phenomena including God's ability to have knowledge that humans cannot have (e.g., God doesn't have false beliefs, and God can see objects that are occluded), beliefs about the afterlife, beliefs about the origins of humans and other animals (including a discussion of the work of Margaret Evans mentioned in this post). In the grand scheme of things, children's willingness and ability to accept testimony from adults about spiritual matters is very similar to their willingness and ability to accept testimony from adults about scientific matters.

Still, there are differences between the two, and this is the focus of the press report. I'll give you an example of the way children's beliefs about scientific and spiritual entities differ, from the article. In a study by Harris et al.1, children between the ages of 4 and 8 were presented with five different types of entities:
  • Real entities: Things that they can see (e.g., tigers)
  • Scientific entities: Things that they can't see, but have been told exist, such as germs and oxygen.
  • Endorsed entities: Things they can't see, but that are endorsed by parents and other adults, like God, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.
  • Equivocal entities: Things they've heard about, but that aren't often endorsed by adults, like monsters or ghosts.
  • Impossible entities: Red elephants and barking cats... enough said.
For examples of each type of entity, children were asked whether they or other people would say they exist (whether there are any in the world), and then asked to say how sure they were. Children were most likely to say that real entities exist, and were the most confident about this belief, though scientific entities followed close behind in each experiment (and the difference between the two was not statistically significant), and they were the least likely to say that impossible entities exist, and were very confident in this belief as well. Endorsed and equivocal entities fell in between, with children being less likely to say that endorsed entities existed, and to be less confident in their belief in them, than they were for real and scientific entities, but were more likely and more confident for endorsed than for equivocal entities. In other words, children had slightly more doubt about the existence of endorsed entities like God and Santa Claus than they did about scientific entities, despite the fact that both types of entities are unseen, and their knowledge of the existence of such entities is entirely dependent on adult testimony.

Since the existence of things like germs and oxygen are likely no less counterintuitive (or counter to experience) for children who don't have sophisticated scientific knowledge than are things like God and Santa Claus, it's likely that the reasons for the difference in certainty about the existence of the two kinds of entities are pretty subtle, and may have to do with how people talk about them. Harris and Koenig offer the following explanation:
[C]hildren hear people talk in a matter-of-fact fashion about the causal properties of germs or oxygen. Such remarks do not explicitly attest either to the existence of those entities or to the speaker’s faith in their existence. Thus, children rarely hear utterances such as, “There really are germs” or “I believe in oxygen.” Instead they hear claims and warnings that take the existence of the entities for granted, for example, “Throw that away – it has germs” or “He needs oxygen to breathe.” In the case of God or Santa Claus, on the other hand, children may well hear avowals such as “There really is a Santa Claus” or “I believe in God.” Such avowals may lead children to conclude that the existence of these special beings is not altogether beyond doubt. (p. 35)
They also suggest that children may occasionally hear people express doubt about God or Santa Claus, while they would rarely hear people express doubt about the existence of germs or oxygen, and thus children are less confident in the existence of spiritual entities.

So, there is a small difference between children's beliefs about scientific and spiritual entities, and the explanation for this difference may reveal a lot about children's ability to detect subtle cues when assessing testimony from adults. Still, the bulk of the article is actually about the similarity between children's acceptance of testimony on scientific and spiritual entities. It's a really interesting literature review, so if you're into cognitive development, check it out.

1Harris, P.L., Pasquini, E.S., Duke, S., Asscher, J.J., & Pons, F. (2006). Germs and angels: The role of testimony in young children's ontology. Developmental Science, 9(1), 76–96.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Blog I Found and a Question

First, the question. Does anyone know if the DSM-I and/or DSM-II can be found online somewhere? I can't find either of them, and I'm too lazy to go to the library right now. I'm looking for some good psychodynamic definitions of mental disorders for an upcoming post, and I know the first two volumes of the DSM were full of them.

Now the blog. I was scowering the internet for places to eat in Austin, and I came across this blog. It's OK, but it had this interview with another blog, Apartment Food Hobos, that is hilarious. Here's a portion of the interview that expresses how I often feel:
OUTSIDER: What made you decide to start a blog? Aren’t blogs for dorks?

Blogs aren’t for dorks, blogs just re-affirm your sincere commitment to becoming a generational cliché. We deal with the self-loathing every time we post.
And to give you a taste (bad pun) of the blog itself, here's a quote:
The Knight's Vale cheese stank up my life and won my heart. God almighty. A finer cheese I have rarely tasted. Soft and creamy but as pungent as the old dirty foot of a Hungarian gypsy trapped in the South of Spain during WWII. Speaking of pungent, lets talk about smoked salmon. You take a stinky, stinky fish like salmon (--good stinky, I aint hatin') and you increase the stink with the addition of smokeifying. Then you sell it to me for 10 bucks? AHA HA HA HA!! GENIUS!!!
If you love good food, but you're dirt poor, or if you just enjoy good food humor, check out the blog.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

There Is No Green Dot!

I love visual illusions, and this one is really cool (via The Neurophile). I'd never seen it before.

As usual, looking at one visual illusion led to looking at more, and now I've got a headache. Once, I ran an experiment using after effects, and spent hours and hours looking at the stimulus as I was trying to perfect the Matlab code for the experiment. I had a headache for like three weeks.

Oh, and thank you Chicago and Vancouver folks for the restaurant recommendations. Does anyone in either of those cities drink, though? And Austin people, where are you? I know there are good restaurants and bars in that city, and I'm sure that someone reading this knows of at least one of them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mixing Memory on the Road

I hate to trump a cog sci post with a personal one, but I'm going to be doing some traveling over the next couple months, and in the towns I will be visiting, I'm going to be looking for good eats (that's southern for "good food"), and a nice place to get a drink in the evening. I'm going to be in Austin, Chicago, and (potentially) Vancouver. Also Nashville, but I know that city pretty well. So, if you live in one of these cities, or know them well, please drop me an email or leave a comment with suggestions about places to eat and/or drink (and by drink, I don't mean water).

More Linguists on Starlings and Recursion

Those of you still interested in the Gentner et al. paper on starlings learning a context-free grammar might want to read this letter submitted to Nature (and immediately rejected) by Ray Jackendoff, Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum, and Barbara Scholz (via Language Log). This is the letter's conclusion:
The Gentner experiment may help us understand animal pattern recognition and learning abilities, some of them possibly prerequisites for linguistic abilities; but the implications are being considerably exaggerated, especially in popular media accounts with headlines like "Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar."
Ray Jackendoff is definitely someone to take seriously when discussing issues related to the evolution of language (which is not to say that the others aren't; I'm just less familiar with their work). His book Foundations of Language is one of my favorites in cognitive science, largely because of the incredibly lucid and level-headed discussion of the evolution of language in Chatper 8. It may be the only evolution of language discussion out there with those qualities. It helps, of course, that Jackendoff backs it up with 7 chapters of theoretical discussion, clear even to a nonlinguist (though I wouldn't recommend it for people with no background in linguistics). So, when Jackendoff speaks on this topic, I listen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Experimental Philosophy: Morality, Intentionality, and Values (Oh My!)

If you haven't been following the On-line Philosophy Conference (OPC), you should go over and check it out. It has just finished its third of four weeks, and there were some good papers in this round. I was particularly interested in the paper by Joshua Knobe and Erica Roedder titled "The Concept of Valuing: Experimental Studies," because it's experimental philosophy, and it's by Knobe, whose work is easily the most interesting in experimental philosophy.

Before I get into Knobe's work, and the Knobe and Roedder paper, let me tell you a story. When I was in graduate school, I went to see a talk (that sounds weird, doesn't it?) by a pretty well-known philosopher of mind. I won't mention his name, but as a hint, I will say that you can wear him with a dress shirt, and if you're wearing a tuxedo, you're probably wearing him in a bow. I've forgotten the exact topic, but it had something to do with the unity of conscious experience. The talk was filled with counterfactuals, hypotheticals, and little thought experiments. In other words, it was pretty much everything you'd expect from "conceptual analysis." By the end of the talk, it was all I could do to stay awake. I wasn't just sleepy, though; I was frustrated and sleepy, and those two states do not work well in combination. I was sleepy because conceptual analysis is, well, boring. I was frustrated because he was talking about an issue that I felt, and still feel, would be better addressed through empirical, rather than conceptual analysis. And that's not simply because I'm coming at it from the usual scientific perspective, which amounts to, "Yes, but where's the data?" It's also because the unity of consciousness is an empirical topic, and questions about it are empirical questions. So they should be asked and answered that way. When I stood up to ask a question about the potential empirical implications of his position, I probably looked like a raving narcoleptic, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of the philosophers in the room dismissed them. The speaker certainly didn't seem to find them very interesting. But I think they were important questions, nonetheless.

The point of my telling this story is that even before I had heard of experimental philosophy, I was a fan of it. I felt that there were many philosophical questions, especially those pertaining to problems of mind and psychology, that could best be answered by conducting experimental investigations. When I learned of experimental philosophy, I was very excited. Finally, philosophers who recognize that empirical investigation is essential. Then I started to read some experimental philosophy, at first by accident; I stumbled upon a Stich paper in the journal Cognitive Psychology, without realizing he was a philosopher, or that he was doing experimental philosophy. It turns out, they weren't doing quite what I had in mind. They were doing conceptual analysis, and attempting to answer questions that only arise out of conceptual analysis, but they were doing it with an n larger than 1. That's better than doing it with an n of 1, but it still doesn't feel like it's quite right.

The point of my telling you that is this: the one experimental philosopher I've read whose work feels like it is, or at least could be, an example of the empirical approach to philosophy that I've always envisioned, is Joshua Knobe. In fact, he's already used his experimental work to say something about problems that arose out of empirical psychology, and not conceptual analysis in philosophy (see this paper). So that's why I find Knobe's work to be the most interesting in experimental philosophy, and also why I was eager to read his OPC paper. Now I'm eager to talk about it, and since I have a blog, that's what I'm going to do.

Let me start (I say "let me start" in the 4th paragraph; that's funny) by describing some of Knobe's older work on intentionality. His most well-known experiment used the following scenarios (from this paper, p. 3):
Scenario 1: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, 'We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.'

The chairman of the board answered, '‘I don'’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let'’s start the new program.'

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

Scenario 2: The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, 'We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.'

The chairman of the board answered, 'I don't care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let's start the new program.'

They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.
After reading one of these scenarios, participants were asked whether the chairman had intentionally harmed/helped the environment. Eight-two percent of the participants who read scenario 1 said that the chairman had intentionally harmed the environment, while 77% of the participants who read scenario 2 said that the chairman had not harmed the environment. Using this, and several follow up experiments (check out Knobe's homepage for links to his many papers on this topic), Knobe has argued that morality plays a role in our use of the concept of intentionality. I'll say more about these experiments in a moment, but for now, let's move on to the OPC paper.

The OPC paper is, as the title suggests, on valuing. It's a short paper, so you should probably just go read it yourself. Go on, I'll wait. OK, back? Since you've just read the paper, you know that it presents an argument against a view of the concept of valuing in the philosophical literature that Knobe and Roedder put thusly (p. 1):
[T]he concept of valuing can be defined in purely descriptive, non-normative terms.
They argue that, contrary to this view, "moral considerations actually play a role in the concept [of valuing]." They don't claim that moral features are the only, or even the primary features of our concept of valuing, but that, when other features are absent, moral features can determine whether we believe a person does or does not have a certain value. As evidence for their position, they present the results of two experiments. Since you've read the paper (you haven't? Go, now! I'll wait again), you don't need me to describe the experiments, but because I'm a nice guy, I'll do so anyway. In their first experiment, they use these two scenarios (p. 3-4):
Scenario 3: George lives in a culture in which most people are extremely racist. He thinks that the basic viewpoint of people in this culture is more or less correct. That is, he believes that he ought to be advancing the interests of people of his own race at the expense of people of other races.

Nonetheless, George sometimes feels a certain pull in the opposite direction. He often finds himself feeling guilty when he harms people of other races. And sometimes he ends up acting on these feelings and doing things that end up fostering racial equality.

George wishes he could change this aspect of himself. He wishes that he could stop feeling the pull of racial equality and just act to advance the interests of his own race.

Scenario 4: George lives in a culture in which most people believe in racial equality. He thinks that the basic viewpoint of people in this culture is more or less correct. That is, he believes that he ought to be advancing the interests of all people equally, regardless of their race.

Nonetheless, George sometimes feels a certain pull in the opposite direction. He often finds himself feeling guilty when he helps people of other races at the expense of his own. And sometimes he ends up acting on these feelings and doing things that end up fostering racial discrimination.

George wishes he could change this aspect of himself. He wishes that he could stop feeling the pull of racial discrimination and just act to advance the interests of all people equally, regardless of their race.
In the Scenario 3, George consciously harbors values that most people in our society would consider to be morally bad, but "feels a certain pull" towards values that we would consider morally good. In Scenario 4, the opposite is true. George consciously believes he values something we would consider morally good, but "feels a certain pull" towards values that we would consider morally bad. After reading the scenario, the participants were asked whether they agreed with these statement: "Despite his conscious beliefs, George actually values racial equality" (for Scenario 3) or "Despite his conscious beliefs, George actually values racial discrimination" (for Scenario 4). They rated their agreement on a 6-point scale (-3, disagree strongly, +3, agree strongly). Participants' were significantly more likely to agree with the statement for Scenario 3 than for Scenario 4. In other words, they were much more likely to believe that the man in Scenario 3 really did value something they thought to be morally good than they were to believe that the man in scenario 4 valued something they thought to be morally bad.

In their second experiment, Knobe and Roedder used this scenario:
Situation 5: Susan grew up in a religious family, but while she was in college, she started questioning her religious beliefs and eventually became an atheist.

She will be getting married in a few months to her longtime boyfriend. Recently, the subject of premarital sex has come up.

Susan definitely has a desire to have sex with her boyfriend, but whenever she thinks about doing so, she remembers what her church used to say about premarital sex and feels terribly guilty. As a result of these feelings, Susan has not had sex yet.

Because she is no longer religious, Susan believes there is nothing wrong with premarital sex.
They gave this scenario to two groups: members of a Mormon Bible study group, and people in Washington Square Park in New York. As you might expect, members of the Mormon Bible study believed that refraining from premarital sex was morally good, while the Washington Square Park participants didn't really care about premarital sex. And consistent with the results from their first experiment, those who thought that refraining from premarital sex was morally good were much more likely to believe that Susan valued it as well than those who didn't value premarital sex.

So, from these two experiments, it really does appear that, "people's intuitions about an agent'’s values depend in part on moral considerations" (p. 6). The commenter on the Knobe and Roedder paper, Antti Kauppinen, has a different interpretation, appealing to Donald Davidson's "principle of charity." I won't get into that, but you can read the commentary here. Instead, I'm going to argue that the studies don't tell us much about valuation.

Here is the problem I see with both experiments. One of many proper control conditions for these studies would involve a scenario like this:
Scenario 6: Susan lives in Atlanta, where most people are Braves fans. She thinks these people are basically correct. That is, she enthusiastically roots for the Braves, regardless of who they're playing.

Nonetheless, Susan sometimes feels a certain pull in a different direction. She often finds herself feeling like the Cubs are a better team to root for. And sometimes she ends up acting on these feelings and rooting for the Cubs.

Susan wishes she could change this aspect of herself. She wishes that she could stop feeling the pull to root for the Cubs and just root for the Braves.
You'd then give this scenario to people in Atlanta and people in Chicago, and ask them how much they astatementh the statment: "Despite her conscious beliefs, Susan is actually a Cubs fan." You might predict that Chicagoans (who would be Cubs fans, for the most part) would believe that Susan was really a Cubs fan, while Braves fans in Atlanta wouldn't. Presumably Cubs and Braves fans don't have moral reasons for valuing one team over the other (unless they live in Boston), so if this prediction was confirmed, it wouldn't be a result of moral considerations. OK, I know that's pretty silly, but I threw it together as I typed it. If you don't like it, substitute it with a scientist who's feeling a pull towards a rival theory. The point is, if you're going to argue that moral considerations at work, you have to test similar scenarios in which morality is not an issue. It may simply be that people are inclined to believe that people agree with them, and all they need is one piece of evidence to confirm that belief. In that case, it's just motivated cognitionbias my-side bias, an illusion of common ground, or something similar at work. Sure, that could still mean that moral considerations would be at play in intuitions about valuation, which might result in the same philosophical implications knobe and Roebberson believe their position does, but it could also mean that other considerations based on evidence of other common belief could influence those intuitions as well. The problem Knobe and Roedder's experiments is that they don't test any potential psychological mechanisms, and thus we don't know the extent, or the cause, of their results.

That problem's not unique to these studies, either. Knobe's intentionality studies (e.g., the one using Scenario 1 & 2, and those linked at Knobe's homepage) don't test different possible mechanisms, either. One might be able to explain the results of the experiment using Scenario 1 & 2 by reference to research on counterfactual thinking, for example. We know, for instance, that people are much more likely to counterfactually mutate negative events/outcomes. Counterfactual reasoning is also associated with attributions of blame and experiences of guilt and regret. Perhaps people are more likely to attribute intentionality to the chairman in Scenario 1 because they're more likely to reason about it counterfactually (simply because it involves a negative outcome; negative for moral reasons, for sure, but it would be more likely to be mutated if it were negative for any other reason), and thus to assign blame (which might require intentionality), whereas Scenario 2 involves a positive outcome that is not likely to be counterfactually mutated. If counterfactual reasoning is involved in that way, then the implications for our intuitions about intentionality is much different. It's still related to morality through blame, which wouldn't be very surprising, but morality would play an indirect role in the assigment of intentionality through the mutability of negative outcomes. That explanation might not work, but we don't know, because no psychological mechanisms have been tested. And thus, we don't really know how to interpret the data.

As I've arrived at the end of this post, I feel like I've been overly critical of Knobe's (and Roedder's) work. The truth is, I find his experimental designs to be ingenious, and his results often surprising, at least at first glance. And as I said earlier, I think his work is really the most promising in experimental philosophy. Still, there's one more step to take: connecting these experiments more directly with the larger literature on concepts and reasoning, and then testing the predictions of different possible psychological mechanisms in order to tease out the ways in which morality plays a role in intuitions about intentionality and values. Once researchers begin to do that, I'll be the biggest fan of experimental philosophy out there. And if that's not motivation enough, then this might be. Understanding the mechanisms involved will help us to develop a much greater understand our intuitions related to important philosophical issues. If understanding those intuitions is as important to philosophy as experimental, then such work would be of great importance to philosophy.

UPDATE: If you read this post before this update was added, you may have noticed some weird things going on. You can thank Blogger's spell check for that. Hopefully most of them are gone, now.


I just finished watching Judgment at Nuremburg. It was on TV this evening, and I watch it anytime I can, because it's a very good movie (Maximilian Schell is great, if creepy, in his role as the defense attorney). Watching it tonight also served as a sort of cleansing, because I was feeling rather ill after reading this (via Good Math, Bad Math):
And [Bush] will be lying, again, just as he lied when he said: "Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic – it's just not going to work."

Not only will it work, but one can easily estimate how long it would take. If it took the Germans less than four years to rid themselves of 6 million Jews, many of whom spoke German and were fully integrated into German society, it couldn't possibly take more than eight years to deport 12 million illegal aliens, many of whom don't speak English and are not integrated into American society.
When I read this in the Good Math, Bad Math post, I couldn't believe it. Vox Day, the author of the statement, had to have provided a context that made it clear he wasn't really comparing Germany's forceful deportation of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, political dissidents, gays, and the disabled to concentration camps to our current situation with undocumented immigrants. But no such context was to be found in the article. Desperate, I looked to Day's blog, where I found that not only was he comparing the two situations, but he is proud of doing so, and feels it's the only reasonable comparison. He writes (all emphasis, in the form of capitalization, is his):
But apparently today's column gave numerous double-digit IQs the vapors, as they were unable to ascertain that the IDENTIFICATION, FORCED TRANSPORTATION and MURDER of six million Jews in four years by the National Socialists proves that President Bush was absolutely incorrect - and presumably lying - when he stated that IDENTIFYING and FORCIBLY TRANSPORTING twelve million illegal aliens was not possible.

Quite clearly, it is. As for those who find all mention of the National Socialists or the Holocaust inherently beyond the pale, I am certainly open to hearing any suggestions that similarly prove the case. Has anyone else besides the National Socialists been identifying and transporting millions of people lately? Does anyone else put the lie to Dear Jorge? And if not, do we simply pretend that it never happened and that there are no lessons to be learned from it? Wasn't the whole point of the Shoah documentaries and the survivor recordings and the Holocaust museums to make sure that no one ever forgot?
When the Nazis regime is the only regime you can think of to compare to your present situation, red flags should go up. It's hard to separate the lesson Vox thinks we should learn from the Nazis from all of the other "lessons" that led to this one. And if we're really learning the lesson of Nazi deportations, then we'd have to pay attention to how they did it: placing people in cattle cars so crowded that it was not possible to sit, much lay down, and transporting them for days, sometimes even for weeks, without food or water. Sure, we've learned the lesson, Vox: if you want to deport millions of people over a few years, you have to do it the dirty way, and you're going to kill a lot of people in the process.

Also, I think Vox might be happy to know that the Nazis weren't the only ones to use forced deportations. The Soviets, under Stalin, did it by the millions as well, deporting Germans, political dissidents, Jews, and anyone else they didn't like, to the gulag. So, mass deportations over a short period of time are possible. Hitler and Stalin did it, therefore we can do it too! That may be a rational argument, but I can't imagine it's one anyone wants to make.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Unbear... I Mean, Automatic Social Thinking

If you'd clicked on the second link in the last post, you'd have discovered what is now a classic paper in social cognition, "The Unbearable Automaticy of Being" (ugh), by Bargh and Chartrand. Having linked to it, it seems only appropriate to talk about it. In that paper, Bargh and Chartrand describe research demonstrating the automatic activation of what they interpret as stereotypical behaviors through the unconscious priming of stereotypes in thought. It appears that thinking primes action, or in the words of William James:
[E]very representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object.
I've described the Bargh studies at length before (here), so I won't do so again, but I'll quickly summarize a couple of them. In two of the studies, researchers presented participants with a scrambled sentence task, which consists of giving them a set of words and asking them to use those words to form a sentence. In one experiment, half of the words primed the concept RUDE, and half primed the concept POLITE, while in the other experiment, one version had words associated with the concept ELDERLY, and the other words that were age-neutral. When the concept RUDE was primed, participants were quicker to interrupt an experimenter than when the concept POLITE was primed, and when the concept ELDERLY was primed, participants walked more slowly than when they had been presented with age-neutral words. So far, no one has actually tested an explanation of these interesting demonstrations, though Bargh now at least recognizes that it's time to start trying to do so. But each time I've read about these sorts of effects, I've thought about studies showing the reverse effect -- action priming thought (e.g., performing avoidance actions priming negative evaluations). So I wondered if performing stereotyped actions might prime stereotyped thinking.

Well, Thomas Mussweiler wondered that as well, but instead of resting on his laurels like me, Mussweiler actually did the research1. In his first experiment, he "unobtrusively induced" half of the participants to move in a way associated with obesity. I'll let Mussweiler describe the method for inducing this sort of movement "unobtrusively":
The first study was introduced as part of a research project conducted in collaboration with the local lifeguards. The ostensible purpose of this study was to examine how well people are able to move in emergency situations. Participants were asked to perform a number of movements designed to simulate typical movements on board a ship and in water. The instructions were carefully worded to avoid any reference to concepts associated with portliness. Experimental participants were asked to put on a life vest and a set of four gymnastic weights that were wrapped around their wrists and ankles. The experimenter explained that the weights were used to simulate water resistance. The life vest and weights unobtrusively induced participants to move in a portly manner. (p. 18)
The participants then performed a series of actions, like climbing onto a chair. The other half of the participants, the control group, performed the same actions without wearing the vest or weights.

After completing the movement portion of the study, participants were told they were also going to participate in a second, unrelated study on "person perception." The study involved reading a description of a person in "ambiguous terms," and then rating the person on fifteen dimensions, seven of which were associated with obesity stereotypes (based on previous research, e.g., healthy, insecure), and eight of which were not (e.g., musical, articulate), using a nine-point scale. The results are in the pretty graph I made from Mussweiler's Table 1, below:

As you can see, the people whose movements were stereotyipically "portly" rated the person described in "ambiguous terms" higher on traits associated with the obesity stereotype than on traits not associated with that stereotype, and their ratings on the stereotypic traits were also higher than those of the control ("Normal," in the graph) participants. So it appears that performing "portly" movements primed "portly" stereotypes.

In the second study, participants were placed on a stationary bicycle and instructed to either pedal very slowly (experimental group), or pedal at a normal speed (control group). They then read an ambiguously worded description of a person, as in the first experiment, and were asked to rate her on one stereotypic (forgetfulness) and one nonstereotypic (friendliness) dimension. Once again, participants who had performed the stereotypic action, pedalling slowly in this case, rated the person higher on the stereotypic trait than participants in the control group, though it should be noted that the ratings for the stereotypic trait (7.11 and 6.22, on a 9-point scale, for the experimental and control group respectively) were much higher than for the nonstereotypic trait (2.68 and 2.84) in both groups. And one has to wonder whether moving slowly primes only the elderly stereotype, if it primes a stereotype at all. Hell, moving slowly is associated with obesity, too. Might these participants have rated the person higher on obesity-stereotypic traits as well? Why the elderly stereotype specifically? And was the description really neutral with respect to the person's forgetfulness if both the experimental and control groups both thought the person was pretty forgetful (an average rating of 4 or 5 would mean an average level of forgetfulness, but both groups average ratings were over 6)? Unfortunately, the description isn't included in the article, so we can't judge for ourselves.

The third study was almost the exact reverse of Bargh's study. Participants were first instructed to walk in a circle for five minutes (listening to a story on headphones) at either a slow pace (30 steps per minute) or a fast one (90 steps per minute). When the five minutes were up, participants completed a lexical decision task. In lexical decision tasks, letter strings are presented, and participants are told to indicate whether the strings are words or not as fast as they can. Lexical decision tasks are often used as measures of priming. In this study, the participants were presented with 40 letter strings, eight of which were words associated with the elderly stereotype, 8 of which were words not associated with the elderly stereotype, and 24 of which were nonwords. Participants who walked slowly responded to elderly-stereotypic words significantly faster than did participants who walked at a normal speed, once again indicating priming of the elderly stereotype. The data are in the graph below (created by yours truly from Mussweiler's Table 3; latencies are in milliseconds).

So, here we have three demonstrations, using two different stereotypes and two different measures of priming, that the effects Bargh and his colleagues have observed in actions after priming stereotypical thoughts can also be observed in reverse, by having people perform stereotypical actions and thereby priming stereotypical thoughts. At least, that's the standard interpretation. As I indicated in my reaction to Mussweiler's second experiment, I'm somewhat skeptical of this interpretation. It's clear that priming is occurring, but what, exactly, is doing the priming (the movement, the level of arousal, or what)? And what's being primed (single stereotypes, multiple stereotypes, whole stereotypes or just parts, etc., etc.)? As with the Bargh studies, no explanations are actually tested in Mussweiler's studies, so we don't really know the answer to any of the questions raised by the demonstrations. But it does seem to provide another piece of evidence for the tight coupling of action and thought that James mentioned over 100 years ago, as well as for the largely unconscious nature of that coupling. If nothing else, then, these studies provide yet more evidence for my belief that you can find everything we've learned in modern cognitive science in James' writing.

1Mussweiler, T. (2006). Doing is for thinking! Stereotype activation by stereotypic movements. Psychological Science, 17(1), 17-21.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A New Law

I want to propose a new law: no one can ever use a play on the title of a Milan Kundera book again, for any purpose. I've written my senators and congressperson. I hope you will all do the same.

UPDATE: It just won't stop!

Friday, May 05, 2006

On Death and Dread and Doom

Or just dread. You might have heard about the study reported to show that the anticipation of pain can be as bad as the pain itself. It's by Berns et al., and was published in this week's Science. Here is the abstract:
Neurobiological Substrates of Dread

Given the choice of waiting for an adverse outcome or getting it over with quickly, many people choose the latter. Theoretical models of decision-making have assumed that this occurs because there is a cost to waiting—i.e., dread. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we measured the neural responses to waiting for a cutaneous electric shock. Some individuals dreaded the outcome so much that, when given a choice, they preferred to receive more voltage rather than wait. Even when no decision was required, these extreme dreaders were distinguishable from those who dreaded mildly by the rate of increase of neural activity in the posterior elements of the cortical pain matrix. This suggests that dread derives, in part, from the attention devoted to the expected physical response and not simply from fear or anxiety. Although these differences were observed during a passive waiting procedure, they correlated with individual behavior in a subsequent choice paradigm, providing evidence for a neurobiological link between the experienced disutility of dread and subsequent decisions about unpleasant outcomes.
There's good discussion of the article at BRAINETHICS, here, and uh... metadiscussion at The Neurocritic, here and here.

And while we're on the subject of pain, you might enjoy this post at Eide Neurolearning Blog (via Omni Brain), on the role of "sensory-motor incongruence" in certain types of pain. Here's an excerpt:
"In 66% of health volunteers, abnormal sensations of pain (“numbness, pins and needles, moderate aching and/or a definite pain”) or other sensations (“perceived changes in temperature, limb weight, altered body image, disorientation”) were reported following artificially-induced sensory-motor incongruence."
Reading about their methodology, I can't help but be reminded of the famous rubber hand experiment ("Rubber hands 'feel' touch that the eye sees"), though that had nothing to do with pain.

And while we're on the subject of Omni Brain, check out this post on research demonstrating (un)importance of neurogenesis. From the post:
Hen's team zapped mice with a focused dose of radiation to halt neurogenesis in a portion of the animals' hippocampuses. They then placed half the animals in regular cages and half in enhanced environments for 6 weeks before testing their anxiety and spatial memory. To the researchers' surprise, the animals with better accommodations had improved spatial memory skills and were less anxious than mice in smaller confines, despite not having any new neurons in their hippocampuses. "We thought we would see a dependence on neurogenesis in some of the behaviors we saw in the enriched environment, but that's not what we found," says Hen.
By the way, isn't it hoppocampi?

And while we're on the subject of a bunch of blogs by neuroscientists, where are the cognitive psychologists? Are Cognitive Daily and Mixing Memory alone in the blogosophere?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Craving a Cigarette Warps Your Sense of Time

As anyone who's ever tried to quit smoking can attest, craving a cigarette can warp the way you think about just about anything. In a great example of this "warped" thinking in the literature1, sadistic experimenters approached German university students (who, as we know, all smoke) as they were leaving a 90-minute class, and asked if they wanted to participate in a 10-minute experiment. They were told that if they participated, they would get a cup of coffee and would be able to participate in a raffle. Half of the students who agreed to participate were tested in the classroom where smoking was prohibited, and half were taken out into the hallway. When the latter half were taken out into the hallway, the experimenter (also German, therefore also a smoker) lit up a cigarette, and predictably, the students who'd just sat through a 90-minute smokeless lecture quickly did the same, without being explicitly prompted to do so. These were the low need-to-smoke participants. The participants who were kept in the classroom to complete the study couldn't smoke (that's the sadistic part), and were thus the high need-to-smoke participants. The first part of the study completed by all participants was billed as "an investigation of the perception of objects in daily use," and presented them with a page containing 14 pictures of cigarettes of different lengths (between 80 and 90mm, arranged left-to-right by length). The participants were asked to indicate which cigarette "reflected the true length of a standard cigarette." As you've probably guessed by now, the students in the high need-to-smoke condition chose longer cigarettes as representative of the standard cigarette than did those in the low need-to-smoke condition. And that was only a manipulation check. In the main task, high need-to-smoke participants actually seemed to treat money as less valuable than the low need-to-smoke participants (an instance of what the authors term the devaluation effect). If smoking makes money seem less valuable, it's no wonder higher taxes on smoking products don't deter many smoker!

Anyway, warped perceptions of cigarette length, and the devaluation of money, are cool, but this post is about time perception. I'm sure everyone who's smoked has experienced minutes feeling like hours while craving a cigarette. Apparently inspired by stories of this experience from smokers (or having experienced it themselves), Sayette et al2 recently set out to explore the relationship between cigarette cravings and time perception. In their first experiment, participants were divided into nicotine-deprived and non-deprived conditions, and during the initial screening session, participants in the nicotine-deprived condition were told not to smoke for 12 hours before the experimental session, while non-deprived participants were told to smoke as they usually would (to test whether they complied with these instructions, participants' carbon monoxide levels were tested during screening and at the beginning of the experimental session, and the two tests were compared). Upon arriving for the experimental session, participants in the two conditions were given one of two kinds of cues. For the non-deprived participants, a box was placed on the table in front of them, and they were instructed to open it. Inside was a roll of tape, and they were instructed to pick it up and hold it in their hands. The nicotine-deprived participants weren't so lucky. A box was placed on the table in front of them, and they were told to open it. Inside was a pack of cigarettes (their own pack, which they had given the experimenter upon arriving) and a lighter. In an act of unprecedented sadism, the experimenters told the participants to pick up the cigarettes and the lighter, light a cigarette without putting it in their mouth, and then hold it (without smoking it). This was meant to increase their cravings.

While the participants were holding their objects (the roll of tape or the lit cigarette), they completed a 12-item questionnaire, and were then asked how long they had been holding the item (a "retrospective" estimation). After that, they were all told that they could smoke in exactly 2 1/2 minutes, and were then told to indicate to the experimenter when they believed 45 and 90 seconds had passed (a "prospective" estimation).

As every smoker would expect, participants in the deprived condition slightly overestimated the amount of time that had passed in the retrospective estimation, and indicated that 45 and 90 seconds had passed before they actually had, in the prospective condition. Their estimates were different from the non-deprived participants, who actually tended to underestimate the amount of time that had passed. Interestingly, the deprived participants' estimates were more accurate, overall, than those of the non-deprived participants. This is likely because, in the time-estimation literature, people tend to underestimate the amount of time that has passed, just as the non-deprived participants did. The fact that the non-deprived participants were more accurate, and even overestimated how much time has passed, is an indication that the cravings really did affect their time perception. However, the difference between the deprived and non-deprived conditions was statistically significant only in the 45-second estimate, but in each case, the deprived participants' estimates were longer than those of the non-deprived participants.

In their second experiment, a new group of participants (which were called the "experience group") who'd also gone 12 hours prior to the experimental session without a cigarette were shown the box, opened it, picked up the cigarette, lit it, but were not able to smoke it even after the 2 1/2 minute period. They were then asked to sit quietly in the experiment room after 5, 10, 15, 25, 35, and 45 minutes, were asked to rate their "urge to smoke" on a 100 point scale. The nicotine-deprived participants from the first experiment had been asked, right after they had begun to hold their newly lit cigarette that they could not smoke, to estimate their "urge to smoke" at the same time intervals. For this second experiment, these participants were called the "anticipate group."

The comparison of interest is between the ratings over time for the experience group, and the estimate ratings for the anticipate group over the same time period. For the experience group (black bars in the graph below), the "urge to smoke" ratings did not change significantly over the 45 minutes. The anticipate group (white bars), however, predicted that their cravings would increase dramatically over time. The difference between the two groups was significant. Here is the graph of the data (from Figure 1, p. 91):

Now these are experienced smokers, so you would think that they'd have a good handle on how their cravings act over time, but obviously something about having the craving in at this moment distorts your perception of how it will change over time if you do not smoke a cigarette.
The importance of this study for counseling is pretty clear. As the authors note, smoking relapses are closely related to cravings, and if people believe that their cravings will increase over time, and furthermore, actually perceive time as going by more slowly, they will have a harder time resisting those cravings. What's important, then, is to educate people about the actual behavior and effects of cravings, showing them that cravings don't actually get worse over time (though notably, they don't appear to get any better, either). As someone who had to go through the process of quitting smoking, I can definitely appreciate the value of that knowledge. One of the more difficult aspects of quitting is an intense craving that overwhelms your ability to think about much of anything besides cigarettes, and the fear that not only are you going to suffer more, but that if you don't do something about this craving right now, it's going to get worse, and you're not going to get anything accomplished. Of course, this information alone isn't going to get people to quit smoking, but it may help them when they try. And from the experiment I described at the beginning of this post, we also know that offering them raffle tickets for cash won't help, and that really big cigarettes will look extra attractive.

1Brendl, C.M., Markman, A.B., & Messner, C. (2003). The Devaluation Effect: Activating a Need Devalues Unrelated Objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 29, 463-473
2Sayette, M.A, Loewenstein, G., Kirchner, T.R., & Travis, T. (2005). Effects of smoking urge on temporal cognition. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 19(1), 88-93.

Potential Move

I'm talking with ScienceBlogs, home of Cognitive Daily, Pharyngula, Gene Expression, Deltoid, and several other good blogs, about moving Mixing Memory over there. Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily thought moving over there might make for some great opportunities for two cognitive psychology blogs to play off each other, and I think he's right. Plus, moving to ScienceBlogs tends to increase traffic, and I like the idea of exposing more poeple to cognitive science; especially people from other sciences (most of the blogs there are life science blogs, if you haven't noticed). Plus, it gives me an opportunity to get away from Blogger, with which I've had problems since I started. The blogger site would remain open, though, as an archive for all of the Mixing Memory posts that are already here.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this is that since I started this blog, I've relied heavily on the suggestions and advice from readers, and I wouldn't want to make a big move like this without asking for comments. So, what do you think? Let me know in comments or, if you prefer, drop me an email.

P.S. If you're wondering, the meme post is coming (it's probably going to be a few posts), and so is one on theory-theory, though I haven't yet decided whether to do theory-theory generally, or focus on a couple applications, like theory of mind (theory-theory vs. simulation theory, in a 12 round bout) and/or causal reasoning.