Archive for December, 2011

At the end of a year, people like to make lists of top movies, books, etc.  What I plan to do instead is write about the things I learned each year. So, here are some brief highlights of things I learned in 2011:

  • Epigenetics, toolkit genes, genetic switches and how most conversations about heritability are flawed.  I learned a lot about imprinted genes from Charlene Lewis (especially BDNF), about toolkit genes from reading Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful (which I highly recommend) and about all of these topics from (some of) Robert Sapolsky’s lectures on human behavioral biology (which are fantastic, and free on youtube and itunes).
  • Social belonging sits atop the hierarchy of needs.  Sister Y introduced this idea with her blog here: “the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food.”  I have noticed that people are far more likely to want to kill (themselves or someone else) when they have been socially shamed, rejected, or ostracized.  NYU Psychology Professor James Gilligan noted:”The emotional cause that I have found just universal among people who commit serious violence, lethal violence is the phenomenon of feeling overwhelmed by feelings of shame and humiliation. I’ve worked with the most violent people our society produces who tend to wind up in our prisons. I’ve been astonished by how almost always I get the same answer when I ask the question—why did you assault or even kill that person? And the answer I would get back in one set of words or another but almost always meaning exactly the same thing would be, ‘Because he disrespected me,’ or ‘He disrespected my mother,’ or my wife, my girlfriend, whatever.”

    In the same program, Pieter Spierenburg pointed out that murder in defense of your reputation used to be viewed as a pretty minor offense: “Originally around 1300 the regular punishment for an honourable killing would be a fine or perhaps a banishment, whereas punishment for a treacherous murder would be execution.”

  • Evidence in favor of our promiscuous past, the most interesting of which is sperm competition.  I was introduced to this topic in Sex at Dawn.
  • Life cycles of parasites.  I learned about this from Robert Sapolsky and This Week in Parasitism.  I particularly love Toxoplasma and fish tapeworm.
  • Lead and crime.  There are a lot of theories about why crime has declined since the 1990s.  These theories include:  legalization of abortion, tougher sentencing, end of crack epidemic, etc.  But I think the most interesting one is the reduction in lead exposure.  Total lead exposure was a non-decreasing function  from 1900 to 1970.  Lead exposure from gasoline increased sharply from 1930 to 1970.   We know that lead exposure, especially chronic exposure, has neurotoxic effects.  It can be particularly damaging to the frontal lobe.  Thus, we would expect that kids who were exposed to lead would be more likely to engage in impulse crimes when they are young adults.   Jessica Reyes documented the link between lead exposure and crime in the US in this paper.   The graph below, taken from her paper, overlays the lead exposure curve and crime rate curve (with a 22 year lag for lead exposure, because 22 is the average age at which violent crimes are committed, so we would expect childhood exposure to lead to have the largest impact approximately 20 years later):

    I think this is pretty compelling, and a fascinating story.  The League of Nations banned lead pain in 1922, but the US failed to adopt the measure.  The US didn’t take serious action until the 1970s.  To this day, lead paint exposure is a serious problem for people living in old homes in large cities.  I would love to see the lead exposure / crime link investigated using data from other countries.
  • Religion. I learned about the history of god, its relation to changes in civilization (how transitions from polytheism to monotheism paralleled changes from foraging to farming, egalitarianism to hierarchy), lots of cool, related neuroscience, etc.  This is work in progress.  Hopefully I will have more to say about it next year.
  • I found Sister Y’s views on nature very insightful.

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Identity crisis

Based on sexual body size dimorphism, humans are somewhere between a tournament species and a pair-bonding species.

In tournament species, there is a large amount of variability in male reproductive success (the big dude gets the chicks).  For example, an alpha male chimpanzee might sire 30% of the offspring.  In pair-bonding species, there is much less inequality in male reproductive success.

When income inequality increases to an extreme level, people tend to take action against it.  In the US, the top 1% of earners currently account for 24% of all income.  Thus, we have Occupy Wall Street and “tax the rich.”    Similarly, if there is too much income redistribution, people get upset (“That’s socialism!”)

“tax the rich” = “we’re not a tournament species!”

“That’s socialism!”=”we’re not a pair-bonding species!”

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Robin Hanson observed:

Lower “working” class cultures tend to talk more overtly. Insults are more direct and cutting, friends and co-workers often tease each other about their weaknesses. Nicknames often express weakness – a fat man might be nicknamed “slim.”

Upper class culture, in contrast, tends more to emphasize politeness and indirect communication. This helps to signal intelligence and social awareness, and distinguishes upper from lower classes. Upper class folks can be just as cruel, but their words have more plausible deniability.

While this all sounds plausible to me, and is an interesting observation, I couldn’t help but ask myself “where did Robin learn about lower class cultures?”  I am always a little skeptical when upper class folks describe the routine behaviors of lower class folks.   I will explain.

I spend a lot of social time with students and professors.  When I see academic life portrayed in movies, I often dismiss much of it as unrealistic (some of the scenes in The Social Network, for example).  It’s easy to spot and dismiss false portrayals of our own in-group in the media.

However, if there is a group of people that I do not interact much with, a lot of my views of them are probably formed by the media (and by portrayals of them described in my in-group).

Suppose, for example, that poor people are portrayed as being more crude.  If I observe a low income mother swearing at her child at the train station, that might reinforce the belief about crudeness.  However, seeing dozens of other low income mothers not swearing at their children might have little effect.

The opposite is true for my own in-group.  I might know a few people in my SES group who drink heavily and swear around their kids.  But I’d dismiss them as unusual cases, and not think of them when I think of how my peers behave.

Thus, my theory is that we largely ignore the extreme cases when we think of caricatures of our in-group, but let the extreme cases drive how we view our status non-peers.

note:  I’m not saying Robin is inaccurate.  His comments just lead me down this path of thinking.

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Zimbardo’s bad science

What can we learn from the Stanford Prison Experiment?  Nothing, besides how not to do research.   Brian Dunning did an excellent job of pointing out some of the study’s flaws.  Here are a few of them:

  • First, the issue of selection bias… In this case, Zimbardo advertised to students to participate in an experiment about “prison life”. Clearly, a large segment of the general population would be repulsed by such a concept, and you’ve got to have questions about anyone attracted to that idea. Thus, all applicants to the Stanford Prison Experiment were preselected for comfort with the idea of “prison life”.
  • Most of the Stanford guards did not exhibit any cruel or unusual behavior, often being friendly and doing favors for the prisoners. The most notorious guard, nicknamed John Wayne, explained that he was simply trying to emulate Strother Martin’s character from Cool Hand Luke. Other analysts have found it difficult to support Zimbardo’s conclusions, since the allegedly poisonous environment did not affect most participants, and the most notorious participant explained that his motivation came from a completely different source.
  • Zimbardo himself was also criticized for actively participating in the experiment as one of the characters. He was the prison superintendent. Although he may have restrained himself from having any influence on the experiment, the fact that he put himself in the position of ultimate active authority over the guards’ behavior calls this into question. Many designers of such experiments would summarily throw out such a study based on this alone.
  • Some researchers have also questioned why Zimbardo neglected the effect of individual personalities, instead generally attributing all behavior to the prison environment. How did John Wayne’s behavior as a guard compare to his behavior outside the experiment? Was he generally a friendly guy, or might he already have been a royal jerk? We don’t know, so there was insufficient data to conclude that his behavior was changed by the experiment.

John Mark, who was a guard, said this (emphasis mine):

I didn’t think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment—by how it was constructed, and how it played out—to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds—people will turn on each other just because they’re given a role and given power.

Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don’t think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven’t changed my opinion.

It should also be pointed that the ‘experiment’ wasn’t even designed to provide evidence of anything (unlike Milgrim’s experiments).  It’s just putting people in an artificial environment, intervening in various ways to support Zimbardo’s opinions, and watching what happens.  There weren’t different conditions to compare.

This isn’t the only time Zimbardo was an active participant in a study.  In 1969, Zimbardo left abandoned cars in two neighborhoods.  Without saying anything else about it, it should already be clear to you that we will learn nothing from this ‘experiment,’ since we will only have 2 data points (and the locations clearly were not randomly selected).  In the Palo Alto location, nothing happened for a week.  So, Zimbardo decided to take a sledge hammer to the car.  Other people soon joined in.  From this we were supposed to learn something about human nature.

This is the worst kind of research, and yet Zimbardo has been extremely influential.  What’s going on here?  Do we really love his message so much (that ordinary people will do evil things) that we are blind to his methods?

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When congratulate?

Why do people congratulate you for buying a new car?  I find it odd.  So I thought I’d look at the kinds of things people tend to get congratulated for (and not get congratulated for):

I think the most common thing to get congratulated for is an accomplishment, where you used some set of skills you have to achieve a goal (e.g., winning a race or passing a test).  The more unexpected the accomplishment, the more extreme the praise.

Unexpected good news also seems to be something people get congratulated for, even if it resulted entirely from luck (e.g., winning the lottery).  A subset of accomplishment falls under this category.

Expansion of family seems to bring praise (except, perhaps, in cases such as teenage pregnancy).

Buying a new car doesn’t seem to fall into these categories.  You could argue that what people are really doing is congratulating for being able to afford a car.  But then they could congratulate you for having a large savings account.

Perhaps it is about status?  Replacing a beat-up old car with a shiny new one is pretty major status elevation.  I suspect that you would receive more congratulatory remarks for buying a new sports car instead of a station wagon.   My friend tells me that women get congratulated for getting new boobs or for getting new jewelry (if it’s a gift from a significant other).  Are there examples of status purchases that do not result in praise?  Buying an expensive designer suit? $600 jeans? $1000 handbag?

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