Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Anna Karenina and Psychology

Tam mentioned that Anna Karenina blew her away with its psychological insights (esp. given the time that it was written), so I was probably even more primed than usual to see this kind of thing.

For instance, I liked the way this section dealt with the fact that people do work (this actually comes up very often throughout the book) and how Tolstoy describes his character's experience of it, anticipating the idea of "flow" by over 100 years. The landowner Levin is mowing grass with his peasants:

"He thought of nothing and desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do his work as well as possible. He heard only the swishing of the scythes and saw only the receding figure of Titus, the convex half-circle of mown piece before him, and the grasses and heads of flowers falling in waves about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the swath where he would rest.

Suddenly he was conscious of a pleasant coolness on his hot perspiring shoulders, without knowing what it was or whence it came. He glanced up at the sky whilst whetting his scythe. A dark cloud was hanging low overhead, and large drops of rain were falling...others as well as Levin felt the pleasure in the refreshing rain and merely moved their shoulders up and down.

They came to the end of another swath. They went on mowing long and short rows, good and poor grass. Levin had lost all count of time and had really no idea whether it was late or early. His work was undergoing a change which gave him intense pleasure. While working he sometimes forget for some minutes what he was about, and felt quite at ease; then his mowing was nearly as even as that of Titus. But as soon as he began thinking about it and trying to work better, he at once felt how hard the task was and mowed badly."

Let's see, we have: clear goals, concentrating, a distorted sense of time, immediate feedback, action awareness merging.

Here's Anna's husband after his conversion to Christianity, definitely experiencing motivated cognition:

"Karenin was quite devoid of that deep imaginative faculty of the soul by which ideas aroused by the imagination become so vivid that they must be brought into conformity with other ideas and with reality. He saw nothing impossible or incongruous in the notion that death which exists for the unbeliever did not exist for him, and that as he possessed complete faith--of the measure of which he himself was the judge--there was no longer any sin in his soul, and he had already experienced complete salvation here on earth.

It is true that the frivolty and falseness of this view of his faith were vaguely felt by Karenin. He knew that when, without thinking that his foregiveness was the act of a Higher Power, he had surrendered to his faith, he had experienced more joy than when, as now, he was perpetually thinking that Christ lived in his soul...But it was absolutely necessary for Karenin to think thus; it was so necessary for him in his humiliation to possess at least this imaginary exaltation, from the height of which he, the despired of all, was able to despise others, that he clung to his mock salvation as if it were the real thing."

And doesn't the phrase "clung to his mock salvation as if it were the real thing" (as the way to end a chapter, no less) just seem incredibly modern?

Levin is experiencing the benefits of associational automaticity:

"He did not now recall, as he had done before, the whole course of his thoughts (he did not need to). He at once returned to the feeling that directed him, which was related to those thoughts, and he found that feeling in his soul yet more powerful and definite than before. Now it was not as it used to be with him when he had invented ways of tranquilizing himself and had been obliged to recapitulate the whole train of reflections in order to arrive at the feeling. Now, on the contrary, the feelings of joy and tranquility were more vivid than before and his thoughts could not keep pace with them."

And though it has nothing to do with psychology, I cannot resist sharing this description that I loved (Tolstoy is excellent on physical descriptions):

"The Prince enjoyed unusually good health even for a Prince, and by means of gymnastics and care of his body had developed his strength to such a degree that, in spite of the excess he indulged in while amusing himself, he looked as fresh as a big green shining cucumber."

Mmmm, crunchy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

You Know It's a Long Day When, Part 28

...You see an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (the top journal in the field) refer to the "equation likelihood model (ELM) of persuasion (Petty & Wegener, 1998)" and you start laughing hysterically.

The elaboration likelihood model is quite easily the most well-known and dominant attitude theory of the last 25 years. It is hard to imagine any reader of this article not being very familiar with the model.

Amusingly, a google search on "equation likelihood model" brings up this article and some guy's undergraduate thesis (which has clearly cribbed a lot from this article). It's odd to imagine that his thesis advisor didn't totally bust him on that. I can only suppose that the advisor assumed the word error was the kid's own or simply could not even see the mistake, having made recognition of the phrase automatic due to the ubiquitousness of "elaboration likelihood model" in print.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Perhaps Not That Clearly Valenced

From a review article:

"Participants then categorized a variety of clearly valenced [i.e. obviously positive or negative] words (e.g. "poison" or "gift") as pleasant or unpleasant..."

Let's hope this was done among a non-German-speaking sample.

A Semi-Miraculous Meal

OK, it's not up there precisely with the loaves & fishes, but the evening before my cog exam, my selection of ready-to-eat meals was basically down to zero, and I admit, I was tempted to eat crap. (My favorite crap in this situation being peanut butter and crackers. Mmmm.) But I happened to have the page of recipes I had pulled out of a recent Nutrition Action Newsletter (about the importance of eating veg) sitting on kitchen counter and my eye fell on the salade nicoise recipe. As it happened, the one ready protein I had to hand was a piece of cooked salmon and I was able to scrounge up salad greens, black olives, bell pepper, and red-skinned potatoes (that I boiled), and ingredients for a balsamic vinaigrette dressing from my fridge. (I did not have little tomatoes or red onion.) It was quick to make, tasted pretty good, and perhaps most importantly made me feel like I was doing myself a favor (health-wise) and was still in reasonable control of myself.

Brain food
I am not denying that the meal was objectively healthier than peanut butter and crackers, but that the perception of still having my act together enough to made a good choice was probably more meaningful than the marginal difference to my health in having eaten this better meal this one time. After the fact, it really felt like a symbolic act. Eating peanut butter and crackers for dinner does not make me feel guilty or anything like that (I sometimes do it just as a treat because I enjoy it a lot), but I do recognize that it is often the result of being tired / stressed / ego-depleted and not a conscious choice.

I think it's sort of crazy (though not completely inexplicable) that in our society, we have reached this point at which we so often feel that doing "hard work" (which is often just, you know, doing a normal amount of work that is, in the scope of human history, not really that hard) means that we "deserve a break today" - accomplished by eating some crappy food. I don't know if this is just me being psychologically reactant or what, but when I think of that, I think (1) okay people (self included) simply grow up and (2) the last thing a tired, worn-down person needs after a long, exhausting workday is to chow down on crappy food.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Weird Morning

Yesterday afternoon was my stat exam, which took me 5 hours to complete (and it took several people longer than that). It was hard, but I felt very satisfied when I was finished with it - it was difficult enough to have felt like a worthy challenge but not so hard that it ever felt hopeless. After getting home around 6:00, I decided to take the rest of the day off from work, but kept finding little things to do and got to bed later than I would have liked.

This morning, I woke up around 5:00 disturbed by a sound that I cannot be sure really existed; it wasn't anything I could identify, but may have been one of those sound waves as pressure waves situations in which you almost feel the sound more than you hear it from a distant loud stereo or something. I went back to sleep and was totally knocked out when the alarm went off at the unusually, luxuriously late hour of 7:15. I hate waking up with a headache, and somehow I managed to fall back asleep almost instantly without realizing it was happening. I woke up half an hour later with an immediate feeling of panic, thinking, Damn, I am going to be late for teaching this morning and I haven't even looked at the lab that we're doing! It took me several minutes to realize, Wait, it's only Wednesday. I don't have anything scheduled this morning.

Yesterday was such a long, tiring day that it felt like it lasted 48 hours.

Also, my standing fan in the living room - which a few days ago I realized had become unstable when I turned it off (in the warmer weather, I leave it on 24/7 mostly from laziness) and it instantly fell over - finally gave it up entirely. While I was on the treadmill last night, I started to smell that distinctive, disturbing burning engine smell. I was glad it was just my fan. I brought in the other fan from the bedroom, which I haven't used in weeks since that room is somewhat of an icebox, and have already gotten spoiled by its remote control. Maybe I can actually bring myself to turn this one on and off so I don't run it into the ground as quickly.

Cog Exam

He said the average grade was around 88 or so.

It would be very nice if this turned out to be my lowest midterm grade, as I had felt my performance on the other two tests was better.

Now we are so happy we do the dance of joy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Though I consider it likely that Ran is a good movie, I just could not get past the feeling that I was watching King Lear as a Heroes of Might & Magic campaign. I made it through about 2 hours (over 3 different sessions) and then just ran out of patience with it.

(Oh god. That verb choice really was unintentional, I promise. Clearly my brain needs sleep.)


I thought Tam's post on the weird role the idea of "stupid" played in her childhood and the way it continues to be an issue to her now was interesting, in part because of how hugely it differs from the way "smart" operated in my childhood. I really can't recall "stupid" being much of an issue at all, though I assume we used the phrase an average amount and in typical situations. It certainly was not the primary evaluator of whether something was good or bad. (Although I will admit as a teenager thinking specifically that it was "stupid" that my grandmother had a house rule against using the word "stupid.")

My mom took the position, "Great, you're smart; what are you going to do with it?" And I responded very well to that because I've always been extremely achievement-oriented, which should not come as a surprise to my dear readers. (My high school calculus teacher sees my mom at the public library sometimes and he still has stories to tell about that.)

Don't get me wrong - I don't have any extreme, grandiose feeling like, "With my intelligence and talent, it is my duty to humanity to work to solve the major problems of the world," but that's probably as much about my not feeling like I am actually up to solving those problems as it is about recognizing where the limits of one's obligation to apply their abilities lie. And I mostly think of it as my duty to myself rather than to someone else.

It's interesting, this removed from my childhood, to realize how little it was ever said or implied that being "smart" should give me a pass for anything at all. I know one very smart guy (RM) whose mom told him that he was "too smart" to do the worksheets assigned as homework (sort of like Tam's mom and the fact that writing the spelling words was "stupid") so he didn't do them, and, generally, was a complete underachiever in school. Several times over the years I have had reason to recall how my early attempts to justify to my mom that certain homework assignments were unnecessary for me to do or a waste of my time because I already knew the material were met with my mom's basically unanswerable reply: "If you already know how to do it, then it should be very easy for you to do, so there's really no point in complaining about it. You're luckier than the other kids who will have to work harder at it."

I remember in sixth grade, when I became the school's first top-graded "mathlete" in the weekly competition, a reporter came to the school to interview me for the local newspaper. Among other things, she asked me if I studied or practiced a lot for the competitions, and it was really difficult for me to know how to respond. Truthfully, I didn't do diddly-squat but show up every week and perform, and my default response was to be honest and say no, I didn't study very much, but (1) that felt arrogant to say, (2) I was already specifically feeling sort of bad for a girl in my class who worked really hard and desperately wanted to win but wasn't able to beat me, and I felt like having to read how effortlessly I won would make her feel even worse, and (3) even though I knew that this particular task was not one in which my putting forth a lot of effort was necessary, I had a generalized feeling almost of embarrassment of having to admit that I hadn't really put much into it. So I lied and answered simply "yes" but I was also a bit uneasy of what my mom would say when she read the article. I don't remember what her response was, but I didn't get into trouble for lying.

I will say that under my mom's influence, I was a nicer and less judgmental (about other people, I mean, not in general) person than I became later on, though I believe that I have, in recent years, made some progress toward being more accepting and rumors of my ruthless lack of niceness are exaggerated. But there is no way I will ever be as non-judging of people as my mom is. (That is definitely one of her defining characteristics.)

It has been surprisingly hard to think of what characteristics I feel are central to my identity in the way that "smart" is so critical to Tam. It seems that I value a sense of being competent (perhaps in general, but particularly in the spheres that are important to me) at least as much as, if not more than, being smart. For example, the exchange in one of the Gap Series novels in which the uber-capable female character tells this new super-woman who has joined them "Until you came along, I was the most competent woman I’ve ever met. If you don’t count Nick and one or two other men, I was the most competent person I know." probably resonated with me more than the typical person, and I actually felt a sort of relief that my identity is not as wrapped up in a feeling of competence as it was for her. (And her life was 8,000 other kinds of bad, too.)

Robert suggested that important to my identity is "being right." There's truth to that, though it is much more the process (the way of thinking) that I care about than it is the outcome (the correct judgment). Of course, it's best when you can have both, but I'd rather be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong ones. I'd much rather have my facts shown to be untrue than my reasoning process to have been faulty, although I probably dislike being wrong in either way more than is normal.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Not Feeling the Love

I can't understand why everybody in the world has encouraged me to start using the Firefox browser. It is utterly crashtastic. It's like, oooh, thanks for offering to restart the program with the pages I already had open...since you crash several times per day.

I have never had this kind of problem with Microsoft Internet Explorer. I have had Explorer crash, of course, once in a blue moon, but not this frequent, annoying cycle of crashes that is particularly awful when I am looking through a journal database for articles to read/download for my research (i.e. I am in a groove seriously thinking/working and then interrupted due to an idiotic browser issue, which makes me just want to abandon the god-damn thing and read Doctor Zhivago instead).

So, what gives?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Will We Too Become Our Racist Grandparents?

A body of social scientific research supports the commonly-observed phenomenon of older people being more prejudiced/racist than younger people, and it is often assumed that this difference reflects changing social values toward egalitarianism and acceptance of diversity.

However, my recent reading of the role of automatic and control processes in attitudes has made me question the validity of that assumption.

In very simplistic terms, various social cognitive models suggest that two different (but interacting) mental processes are involved in determining our attitudes. The automatic process involves the activation of a network of associations that have been created by conditioning and is evoked by stimuli without a person's intent (and, sometimes, without awareness). The associative evaluations that arise from this automatic process (aka implicit attitudes) do not necessarily reflect what we would endorse as true. For instance, a person might have a positive implicit attitude for Bud Light due to exposure at a vulnerable age to Spuds McKenzie TV advertisements (a dog on the beach in sunglasses, yay) while not believing that it is in any way true that Bud Light is a good beer or at all a desirable product. Less trivially, a person may (indeed, probably does) have negative associations with black people and positive associations with white people; indeed, black people themselves may have these associations, if to a lesser extent than white people. (Do you doubt that you have this kind of implicit prejudice? Feel free to put your implicit moral superiority to the test on the Implicit Association Test.)

The control stage is a conscious, effortful process of placing one's automatic evaluations under judgment to determine what a person believes is true. For example, one can consider the Bud Light-Spuds McKenzie pairing rationally in the light of other propositional beliefs such as "Spuds McKenzie doesn't even drink beer" and "Bud Light tastes bad" to develop a negative explicit attitude toward Bud Light (e.g. "I don't like Bud Light") that diverges from the association-based response and to behave in keeping with that explicit attitude by not purchasing it. Similarly, a person may have negative associations with black people while recognizing that black people are not actually inferior and not behaving in a prejudicial manner toward them.

But it's important to note that these models often (always? I'm not familiar with all the variants on the theme) state that the default situation is for the control process to merely rubber-stamp the attitude activated by the automatic process rather than place it under rational scrutiny. Therefore, without the consideration of other beliefs, these automatic evaluative associations can become one's attitude, full-stop.

But if the control process is effortful (draws on a cognitive resource), I thought: shouldn't older people, who have deterioration in cognitive resources, be less well-equipped to over-ride the racist attitudes popping up from their automatic process? Could this contribute to the fact that older people are more prone to behave in racist ways? (I have to credit a paper I read for cognitive psychology on the greater difficulty older people have in inhibiting their responses to distracting visual stimuli in a perception task for giving me the idea that they might have difficulty inhibiting their responses to automatically activated associations also.)

Of course, as with a dozen other good ideas I've had on related topics today, I have been beaten to the punch on this question. In a study published in March of this year, an analysis of almost 16,000 respondents on the IAT web site provided support of their (and my) hypothesis that older adults show greater bias against blacks and greater preference for whites on the IAT compared to younger people because older people are less able to control their automatic associations, not because their automatic associations are more extreme (Gonsalkorale, et al 2009).

But wait a minute...I thought that you said that the IAT measures implicit attitudes, which is what automatic evaluative associations are. Now you're saying that people control or regulate those automatic associations in the process that is used to measure the very same associations. That's confusing. Well, yeah, it sort of is, and is a good example of how we need to be careful of equating a process with a measurement of the results of the process. The researchers state: "However, although implicit measures surely restrict the role of inhibitory processes more so than do self-report measures, even here, self-regulatory abilities affect task performance."

The implications of this research are kind of depressing: those of us younger folk who listen with embarrassment and dismay as our elders make weird racist comments may not actually be less implicitly racist than they are, but only better able to keep those (untrue) associations at bay through the application of cognitive effort. Once we're old fogeys ourselves, we may be just as apt to say and do racist things.

To me, this points up the importance of people developing less prejudicial evaluative associations in the first place or having patterns of associative activation that are less negative toward racial or ethnic minority groups (since different stimuli or contexts can cause different parts of your associations to be activated - like thinking of black men when seeing a photo of Denzel Washington vs. a gang member). Is it completely naive to hope that the next generation, growing up in a world in which the elementary school walls will show a line of US Presidents that includes a black man, may be less implicitly racist than our generations are?

A literature search reveals one tiny glimmer of hope in this regard. A July 2009 study found lower levels of anti-black implicit attitudes among non-black college students at the time of the Obama presidential campaign than before, particularly among those who listed a positive role model (e.g. Obama, MLK Jr.) among their list of 5 thoughts that came to mind about black people (measured after the IAT) (Plant et al, 2009). Of course, it is very possible that the various positive Obama phenomena will not yield persistent changes in attitudes, implicit or explicit.


Gonsalkorale K, Sherman JW, and Klauer KC (2009). Aging and prejudice: Diminished regulation of automatic race bias among older adults, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 410-414.

Plant EA, Devine PG, Cox WTL, et al (2009). The Obama effect: decreasing implicit prejudice and stereotyping, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 961-964.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Not Actually So Decrepit As Previously Feared

Leo, that is.

Last weekend, when Robert visited Leo at the bunny hotel / nursing home, Leo was looking a lot better in terms of energy and generally not appearing on death's door. (He was eating when Robert showed up and happily gobbled all the treats offered.) We suspect that he may have just been having a bad pain day the other week when Robert saw him looking so pathetic.

And since everybody else is doing physical therapy these days (including my grandfather, who after his stroke has regained the ability to do sign language with his right arm/hand but still can't move his leg), Leo did some PT also under Robert's direction. As I'm sure I've mentioned, Leo's been reluctant to move around a lot and is hobbling more than he's hopping these days. Robert stood Leo up on his four legs and discovered that instead of his spine curving normally so that his back feet are flat on the ground, Leo's spine stays straight such that his legs are at angle that would make him stand on tiptoe.

It is actually a big relief to me to find out that Leo is not so weak and frail that he can't move around but just has developed a physical disability. This disability may be closely tied up with aging, but is not in itself the kind of thing that indicates he's gone into a final decline. (I had been pessimistic enough about him before that I specifically told Robert that he shouldn't say anything about Leo's current condition until after my exams because I was afraid to have my heart broken.)

And I am told that neither the power of his softness field nor his love of petting has been damaged in any way.


Two down, one to go (next Tuesday). My predictions: social = A, cognitive = B. I would be satisfied with such a result.

I felt like I underperformed relative to my knowledge base on the cognitive exam, partly due to getting zapped on the first two, obviously supposed to be "easy" questions. But over the course of the test period, I did remember enough to get some partial credit. (If this exam had been linear and computer-adaptive like the GRE, question 3 would have read "Most people have how many brains?" with response options 0 and 1.) I was also disappointed that I simply could not think of a relevant experiment for one of the essay questions, but later when looking at my notes realized that the primary experiment was one that I had, on a previous assignment, myself suggested before we discussed this experiment in class. D'oh.

However, I do not feel that I was cheated or had especially bad luck or anything, nor do I feel that I should have studied more. With the massive amounts of information that we covered, and the fact that exams do test performance, which means among other things being able to remember the right things at the right times, it seemed likely that I would get questions that I simply could not in the moment recall the appropriate information to full answer. It's possible that if "study more" had meant study really, really hard throughout the entire semester so that by the time of the exam I was thoroughly familiar with the information I could have ensured myself a very high grade, but within the realistic constraints of having other things to do that are, without doubt, more important than learn to the zillionth degree this material that is outside my research area, it's not like spending an extra day or two studying hard before the exam would have helped appreciably. I figure I just would have forgotten different information.

This being said, I am finally reaching that point in cognitive where everything starts to seem connected, which is always a helpful sign that you have developed a schema to organize information around.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Not a Joke

"Obama Awarded 2009 Nobel Peace Prize" read the headline; it's not The Onion, but CNN.

Alternatively, "Prize Committee to Obama: Thanks for not being George W. Bush."

Obama is reportedly "humbled" by the award. Well yeah I should hope so, given that he doesn't have any actual accomplishments in his scant months as POTUS to make him deserving of such an award. I would like to think that Obama is embarrassed by the extent to which he has become a messianic figure.

Meanwhile, The Onion is on top of other important developments, such as this newly created bird species, though as a birder and a marketing person, I felt that the story was rather weak.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NYC Labeling Law Study

Megan "Four Apples" McArdle comments on (and, helpfully, links to the full text of) a recent study examining the impact of the NYC restaurant labeling law on purchases made by predominantly low-income, low-education minority-race customers at 4 fast-food restaurant chains.

The highlighted results: From examining receipts, the mean calories purchased by customers did not differ before and after the labeling law was passed, nor did they differ from a control group in Newark, NJ, where there is no labeling law (all were around 820 - 850 calories for a lunch or dinner meal). Those who reported that the calorie information did make a difference to their order did not differ in calories purchased from those who said it didn't. Labeling did lead to a higher proportion of customers being aware of the calorie labels, but no noticeable difference on behavior.

I'd say this is not great news, but I still think the celebratory "see, this wonderful study proves my already firmly-held opinions and thus I am right and the busybody public health policy makers are moronz!" tone of the comment section is a bit ... um, inappropriate.

This is one study. In the behavioral sciences, one study is hardly sufficient evidence to make sweeping claims about the effects of anything. I agree, this is not the kind of result that policy makers (and I) would like to see, and yet, it's not very surprising that favorable results were not found among this population. It seems like they purposely chose a population that was less likely to be responsive to the calorie data - they are poor, uneducated, and eat fast food an average of 5 times per week. This is a tough crowd. I agree with the researchers that this is an important population to study, given that they are at high risk of obesity and related health problems, but they aren't the only population we care about. (This is not to fault the researchers but to point out another way that this study hardly settles the debate.)

I could also nitpick the study methodology - they based calorie counts on food ordered, not food eaten; some people who were eating at the restaurants before the labels may have stopped eating there once they knew how many calories were in the food but they could not be included in the study; they looked at fast food but not other restaurants in which the calorie content might be more surprisingly high and hence more likely to give the customer pause* - but I think (on the basis of a very quick read) that this is probably a reasonably good field study for looking at the particular population they are interested in.

* Recall previous posts that cite many studies finding that perceptions of calories become more divergent from actual content the larger the calorie content gets. Also, like some of MM's commenters, I too have sometimes been surprised by how relatively few calories are in some fast food items, like a quarter pound burger or a small french fries. I think there is definitely an effect of food categorization on perceived health value (e.g. hamburgers are "unhealthy" and salads are "healthy") that influences how we react to fast food calorie information.

I was very surprised that they did not report standard deviations to accompany the group means, which I think of as the default reporting style (and I believe is required for many journals); I'd be curious to see if there was a difference in the distribution of calories for the customers ordering from menus with calorie data compared to the other groups. The presentation of calorie data could have led one group of people to purchase even more calories (e.g. those interested in getting the most calorie bang for their buck) while another group purchased fewer calories, for example, without changing the overall mean for the sample. They did report means for various socio-demographically-defined groups, but I wouldn't expect attributes like race and under/over 35 years of age to capture this kind of thing very well.

I would also have liked to see the calorie numbers broken down by things like weight or weight status (i.e. normal, overweight, obese) or dieting / health consciousness status, but they did not collect that sort of data in this study.

But that's OK - I am confident that researchers in this area will be (are) working on and publishing additional articles looking at this issue from a lot of different angles.

Also, Tam might like (as I do) the fact that NYC has rolled out an educational campaign that says, in a less psychological-reactance-inducing way "Eat less." To wit: "2,000 calories a day is all that most adults should eat." I wish them luck.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Some Questions Aren't Particularly Empirical

Overheard this afternoon: "Why is it that the students who need help the least are the ones that come to get help?"

Since this was one personality psychologist talking to another, I think they probably have a pretty damn good idea of why that is, actually.

Monday, October 5, 2009


This weekend, my mom mentioned seeing something on TV about female and male brains. I know that I have a sort of allergic reaction to gender essentialism (which I am using to refer to the belief that men and women are/must be different in many respects that have nothing to do with reproduction and that these differences arise naturally, perhaps inevitably, from genetics/biology), but the entire pop psychology view of the brain, including the sweeping categorizations that are made on the basis of gender, is pretty whack.

On the show my mom was watching, some doctor (note: not a neuroscientist) brought up ye olde "men and women have different brains" chestnut, focusing on the fact that men's brains are more "compartmentalized" to explain some differences in social behavior - if I recall correctly, in expressing feelings or something like that.

I am going to take this "compartmentalized" brain language to be referring to hemispheric lateralization - the idea that the right and left hemispheres of the brain are specialized for (or show processing advantages in) different cognitive functions - and the extent of a person's connection between the hemispheres in terms of neural connections within the corpus callosum, the 250 million nerve fiber connection that allows the two sides of the brain to communicate.

(I am not going to interpret "compartmentalized brain" in its other common meaning of "men store their ideas about sex, love, work, etc., all in different file drawers in their head" because I don't know of a respectable memory model that would support that and the interpretation of "compartmentalization" as emotion suppression is not something I'm at all prepared to address from a brain perspective.)

One thing we do know: the average woman's brain is smaller than the average man's brain, since brain size is correlated with body size. This causes problems in understanding whether some observed gender differences, such as the shape of the posterior section of the corpus callosum, are really due to gender or are simply a matter of brain size. (Also, of course, neuroscientists have not actually found functional differences that correspond to every anatomical difference, so it may not even matter.)

What about the popular notion that men's brains are more "compartmentalized" or show a greater degree of lateralization than women's brains do? This is a continuing source of debate, with various studies showing women (and left-handed men!) to be less lateralized than right-handed men, showing no differences between the sexes, or even showing women to be more lateralized. One review of the literature found that between 5% and 15% of studies have found women to be less lateralized than men are and further noted that even when the differences reach the level of statistical significance, gender accounts for about 1% or 2% of the variability in lateralization. I would not say that is explaining much of anything at all, and especially not about stereotypically male and female social behavior.

Also, note that I used the phrase "show processing advantages" when talking about the two hemispheres of the brain advisedly. People used to think that cognitive functions were very localized to particular parts of the brain, but we now know that there are often multiple ways the brain can accomplish the same function and that many functions are much more generalized than previously thought. Once you get past the popular media summaries of things like "the left hemisphere is for language, the right hemisphere is for spatial processing," you find it's a lot more complicated. Maybe the left hemisphere (LH) is more analytic and the right hemisphere (RH) is more holistic in its processing. But maybe it's more that the LH has an advantage in processing local information and the RH has an advantage with global information. And when it comes down to it, the hemispheres are a lot more alike than they are different.

My mom asked an astute question: Even if there are differences in the brain, how do we know that they are inherent and haven't changed over a person's life? I don't know how to answer that question. Since we're generally studying adults, not infants, to me it does require a leap to infer that differences are genetic, especially since there are plenty of well-documented cases of people's brains "reorganizing" after being damaged, for example.

One thing that is lost in the mass media discussion of neuroscience is that brain science is not straightforward. There are a wide array of different methodologies, each of which is problematic and requires making interpretive leaps. (This is why neuroscientists place so much value on converging evidence from multiple methodologies - animal studies, neuroimaging, electromagnetic recordings, studies of people with brain damage, behavioral studies, studies of neurotypical people, etc.) A lot of what is being measured is very indirect - for instance, functional MRI (fMRI), which is one of the more advanced methods, involves measuring blood flow and blood oxygenation in different parts of the brain and using those measures to infer the activity levels of those brain areas.

In any event, making categorical statements about male and female differences on the basis of linking some perceived discrepancies in behavior to tiny differences in brain anatomy or neural activation rather than, say, socialization is pretty drastic...especially when these supposed behavioral differences are questionable to begin with. (My mom brought up the finding that despite widespread belief to the contrary, women don't actually talk 3 times as much as men do.)

I know that since I study social psychology, I am very interested in and highly aware of how much influence environment and social context has on people's behavior, perhaps to the extent of prejudging some biological/genetic arguments as unlikely without giving them a fair hearing. But all these variants on "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus and because God/Nature/Evolution made them that way!" gets tiresome. And yeah, that does include the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose "female brain = empathizing, male brain = systemizing because of prenatal testosterone levels" thing is not bearing out perhaps as well as it might in the general (neurotypical) population.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Very Useful Link

You should definitely check out The Ultimate Productivity Blog. You may want to bookmark it for later reference, too.

(Via Marginal Revolution)

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Exams: graded.

Two slices of veggie pizza: eaten.

24 poppy-seed banana muffins and 6 servings of bean soup: cooked.

Money transfer: accepted.

4.15 miles: walked.

Tam's blog: read.

Favorite Robert and Leopold photo: swooned over.

Orthogonal contrasts: ignored.

My blog: updated.