Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does social psychology need an Alan Sokal? Does it now have one?

Blogger John Rosenberg explores this topic in a new discussion of the anti-conservative bias in social psychology. By new, I mean this doesn't just go over what Jonathan Haidt already point earlier this year, but points to a concrete case where social psychologists assume that the definition of a good person is a person who supports affirmative action and the banning of violent video games. Sadly, the primary author, Krishna Savani, doesn't appear to be an Alan Sokal in waiting. Maybe next year we'll have one.

When four psychoanalysts in a row fall asleep on you

I don't have time for a long blog post this week, but here's a case study of psychoanalysis from a patient's point of view. Found via

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Switch and push order effects in moral judgments: An experimental philosophy quandary

You may be familiar with the trolley problem. If not here are two variations and you should pick at random which order to read them in--in other words, you might want to read them in the order I present them or you may want to read the second one before the first one, so pick an order at random and then start reading.

A runaway trolley is about to pass you on a railroad. You are at a railroad switch. If you do nothing, the trolley will proceed along line A and kill five people. If you activate the switch, the trolley will be diverted to line B and kill one person. Will you activate the switch?

A runaway is about to pass below you, while you stand atop a small cliff. There is a fat man standing next to you. If you do nothing, the trolley will proceed along line A and kill five people. If you push the fat man onto the track, he will be killed, but his body will stop the trolley, thus preventing the deaths of the five people. Will you push him?

Philosophers have been using these questions for years, but recently they've discovered that your answers to these questions actually depend on the order in which you read them. Why? Because the answers to the switch scenario are less stable, and they ascend or descend depending on what came before. But answers to push are quite stable. Psychologists (and now philosophers too) call these order effects, because the order in which you ask the questions changes the results. Eric Schwitzgebel has an enlightening blog post about this problem and its implications.

This is an even worse conundrum for psychologists, who are ultimately trying to study moral choices in the real world. In the real world, there are an infinite number of possible precedents to moral scenarios. And in the real world, you're not dealing with fictitious scenarios but real ones, so the realism may aggravate or ameliorate the effect too.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blogging has been light, but here's something about the American Anthropological Association’s witch hunt

Not just a witchhunt, but--on a parallel track--part of a continuing war between evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists. The story begins here in 2000 with a fictitious story about a measles epidemic about the Yanomamo. Much has been published about this in the last 10 years and now there's a new paper out Robert Kurzban, an evolutionary psychologist, summarizes it and notes its implications for evolutionary psychologists. I'd recommend the summary, but if you prefer the full paper, it's here in pdf form and the abstract is:
In September 2000, the self-styled “anthropological journalist” Patrick Tierney began to make public his work claiming that the Yanomamö people of South America had been actively—indeed brutally—harmed by the sociobiological anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the geneticist-physician James Neel. Following a florid summary of Tierney’s claims by the anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) saw fit to take Tierney’s claims seriously by conducting a major investigation into the matter. This paper focuses on the AAA’s problematic actions in this case but also provides previously unpublished information on Tierney’s falsehoods. The work presented is based on a year of research by a historian of medicine and science. The author intends the work to function as a cautionary tale to scholarly associations, which have the challenging duty of protecting scholarship and scholars from baseless and sensationalistic charges in the era of the Internet and twenty-four-hour news cycles.
Note that Kurzban's post is worth reading even if you do read the whole paper.

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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mirror Neurons and the Domino Effect

No, not that domino effect. I'm referring to the scientific phenomenon of one groundbreaking work that topples the conventional wisdom about a topic. Not only that, it also leads to a burst in research on that area--a pattern similar to that in the adoption of innovation. Tversky and Kahmneman did it. Lakoff and Johnson did it. And in 1992, Rizzolati did it--with the discovery of mirror neurons. Here's an overview of the research spawned by the mirror neuron discovery. Particularly interesting to me is the research on mimicry, which could explain a lot of the conformity research in social psychology:
Mimicry, linked to mirror neurons, makes monkeys bond. The idea that mimicry helps humans bond is well-accepted, but the first controlled experiment, with a monkey, came last year, Ferrari says. In that study, reported in Science, his team presented monkeys with a token and rewarded them with treats if they returned it. The monkeys had a choice of returning the token to either of two investigators, only one of whom was imitating the monkey. The monkeys consistently chose to return the token to the person who imitated them and spent more time near that investigator.