What’s going to be ‘fit’ in the future?

You have probably all heard Darwin’s classic theory of evolution by natural selection. One element you might be less familiar with, only recently being considered equally or even superior in credibility to his initial ideas, is evolution via sexual selection. By a similar mechanism, favoured traits are passed down to subsequent generations. But instead of increased survival via capturing prey or running from predators, the factor determining what gets passed down comes from within the species. Individuals compete for access to mates. Traits which they find attractive are selected for and passed down, along with preferences for them. The process continues and the traits become more and more exaggerated.

Such a preference is seen in birds. Females prefer males with long tails. To see if the tails offered anymore than being attractive, experimenters found the short-tailed birds who weren’t getting a lot of attention, and stuck some artificial long tails on them. They made the tails so long and heavy the birds couldn’t move or fly. BUT these immobile creatures got a LOT more action.

What does this mean for humans? We are a lot more complicated than the species i described above. Culture has a lot to do with what we like and dislike in a partner. Women who migrated from South Africa to Newcastle went from favouring large to slim people within a year, because of contrasting relations with wealth. What we find fit is passed down and can run wild, becoming increasingly and increasingly more exaggerated. Such a mechanism is thought to underlie the evolution of intelligence. The handicap principle is the phenomenon whereby someone’s genes are so good they can afford to waste time doing other things, rather than finding food or running from predators. We don’t technically NEED as much language as we use. We just enjoy a good gossip. Culture; art, music, poetry is all something we evolved because we liked the fact our partners could afford to ‘waste’ so much time doing such things.

Previously, mates have been chosen based on what parents felt was most suitable, economic status, religion and perhaps even personality. What are we prioritising now? Will tinder affect evolution? Instead of getting to know a potential partner, we chose them based on a 2 second attractiveness judgement of their face. Our ancestors preferences led us to find healthy, feminine faces more attractive, providing better quality offspring.

The complexity of our minds (unlike the unfortunate birds who favoured the heavy tailed sluts) means we can actually be flexible in what we like and don’t. We can choose what to prioritise. One could go down the gold-digger route/ favour muscle mass/ a Dad bod. Whatever we choose, the traits become more and more dramatic. So choose wisely.

Advertisements

An evolutionary approach to why we have to have terrible people

Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests our species develop characteristics which are most likely to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. Humans have exceeded previous species in the evolutionary timeline because of our unique capacities. For example, we have developed a larger neocortex to allow us to communicate, enhancing our ability to point out dangers. The capacity for language is universal across our species. However, we exhibit huge differences in our genetically-linked personalities, which are associated with higher or lower chances of finding a partner and succeeding in life. If evolution says we should only pass on the characteristics that improve our survival and reproductive chances, why are we not all identical?

There are 2 key mechanisms behind the maintenance of variation in our personalities; trade-offs in costs and benefits and frequency-dependent selection. The most common descriptions to explain people, which you have probably come across on buzzfeed, is the big 5 (although, its recent rival HEXACO is on the rise). OCEAN is the acronym used to categorise individuals along different dimensions; Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

When you’re somewhere in the middle, where you lie on the spectrum of these traits has minor pros and cons in daily life. To illustrate such a trade-off, being open to experiences and highly extraverted increases your chances of finding a mate, but finding too many mates could lead to some STI-related problems. Being highly conscientious is useful in a job-setting, but extreme self-control reduces the likelihood of engaging in spontaneous opportunities. If you are agreeable you might be more popular in a group, with your greater awareness of other’s mental states. But, sadly, unconditional trusters are often outcompeted by their disagreeable associates. Neuroticism is typically thought of as a negative trait, associated with psychiatric disorders. But it is also associated with academic success. What about the rarities? How about personality extremes? In its greatest form, openness to experience is associated with schizophrenia. But, schizotypy, schizophrenia’s very minor form, lends to creativity, which is advantageous. Circumstances will influence with these pros and cons to influence whether or not characteristics will facilitate or impair reproductive and survival chances. There are advantages and disadvantages to these components of our character, which means we’ve maintained a bit of everything.

To outline the other mechanism at work, frequency-dependent selection, I’m going to talk about fish. In salmon, different types of males use different reproductive strategies. Dominant males do a bit of groundwork, have a flirt, and fertilise a few eggs, with the female’s permission. Such salmon mature earlier so are larger. Sneaky males mature later and look more like females. When the dominant males are carrying out their wooing techniques, the sneaky males swim in and fertilise a large number of eggs. They pass on their genes without doing any of the bringing up. The frequency of each type of male varies. If there are too many sneakers, they get caught and their population goes down. If there are too many dominant ones, competition increases. Meanwhile, the sneaky fish are nailing fertilisation; competition in wooing amongst the dominant fish has the female fish highly occupied, away from their eggs. Subsequently, the dominant male population creeps back down. Hence, relative frequencies of each type of male can eb and flow, but there will always be a bit of both.

Maintenance of variation in human personalities can operate via a similar mechanism. Too much of any one type leads to too much competition. But if a trait is rare, this individual can thrive. To illustrate, think about sociopaths. In its extreme, disagreeableness is a sociopathic trait. When rare in the population, sociopaths can do well, passing this trait onto their offspring. When in a smaller group, sociopaths are more noticeable and less successful. Criminals are successful when there isn’t many of them and the population is large. When they are successful and they prosper, reproducing more frequently, they become more highly represented in the population. When more highly represented, they are more likely to be caught and be less successful, so the trait goes back down until successful again. Hence there will always be some bad people, but the population will stay small, relative to everyone else, because we have built a society which means they can’t be overly successful. So if you feel like there are a lot of bad people in the world at the moment, frequency-dependent selection says this can’t last for long.

Should Freud have a place in psychology?

‘Ah psychology. You study Freud?’ ‘What are your thoughts on the Oedipus complex?’

Freud is one of the many reasons psychology’s seen as, to put it politely, a fluffy subject which many roll their eyes at. To put misconceptions to bed, Freud is a name associated with little credibility. Why is it still hanging around?

Oedipus complex: a desire for sexual involvement with a parent of the opposite sex

Freud’s famous idea of the Oedipus complex stemmed from him becoming aroused after seeing his mother undress. It should be noted he didn’t see much of his mother growing up; he had a nanny.

Psychoanalysis

Freud’s therapy of choice is heavily criticised. Whilst it isn’t more useful in helping people overcome mental health problems than having some one to one time with a good listener, its investigation facilitated the discovery of memory’s constructivist nature. Turns out, if influenced in a particular way, one can invent and believe ‘memories’ of childhood abuse which are implanted.

The unconscious mind

In contrast to Freud’s beliefs that traumatic events can be repressed into the unconscious, they remain conscious and difficult to disengage from. For example, if I asked you not to think about a white bear, you would think about a white bear. Ironically, if you tell yourself not to think of something, you will think about it more than if I were to just casually mention white bears. The imposition of control triggers 2 processes, an unconscious searcher and a conscious distractor. The searcher finds white bears, to make sure you aren’t thinking of them. The distractor finds other things for you to think about, but gets tired. When your distractor gets tired, you revert to your less effortful processing, which is flagging up white bears left right and centre.

Freudian slips

George Bush famously said ‘We’ve had some sex..Um..setbacks’, accidentally referring to his affair with his Secretary of State. He is not alone in proneness to mention other thoughts going through our mind, but such slip-ups are not restricted to sexual innuendos. In an experiment where participants were hungry they accidentally said they were going to ‘eat’ library books instead of read them. Environmental intrusion can also occur. If you were looking at a sign that said ‘food’ you might accidentally say this instead of ‘good’, for example.

To clarify, psychology students don’t study Freud and cling to his ideas. But, his work prompted further investigation to correct his mistakes, which teaches us about memory and unconscious processing. For that, we thank him.

‘Psychologically speaking do stupid people know that they’re stupid? Or are they too dumb to realise?’

The answer to this savage question, which a friend sent to me a few days ago, is surprisingly complex. Whilst highly intelligent people are more accurate in guessing their smartness, self-estimations of IQ are universally poor, with most variation attributable to personality differences.

Much like the phenomenon of stereotype threat, which I outlined in my previous post, performance on intelligence tests has a self-fulfilling nature. It can be enhanced or impaired by how intelligent the person feels they are. Estimations of intelligence are derived from previous experiences. Self-estimations are part of your stubborn self-concept, which, according to self-consistency theory, is pretty robust. Hence, intelligence estimations cannot be changed by a single test. Even if your estimation goes down immediately after one, it will creep back up about 2 weeks later. This rebound effect is pretty helpful. Whilst a disastrous exam can leave you feeling as though you are going to fail everything you ever do, this shouldn’t last too long. By the time the next exam rolls around you’ve (hopefully) finished beating yourself up.

Research suggests personality factors are the strongest predictors of self-estimations of intelligence, ironically exceeding IQ scores. Introverts and agreeable (considerate) people are typically more accurate. Those high in neuroticism (anxious) are prone to underestimations, whilst extraverts can overestimate how clever they think they are. There are also differences between men and women; women are more prone to underestimations. In light of stereotype threat, where knowledge of the stereotype you align with impairs performance, this is a troubling finding (see previous post). As it would be expected, narcissists and psychopaths are prone to self-enhancement; overestimating their intelligence.

Beliefs regarding intelligence also contribute to performance on IQ tests. Endorsing the incremental theory of intelligence, which postulates intelligence is malleable and can be improved with interventions, is associated with positive school grades. Phrasing instructions for tasks in experiments so that they emphasise this idea can reduce the effects of stereotype threat, tackling self-fulfilling prophecies which impair performance.

Back to the question; do stupid people know they are stupid? It depends on their personality. Low intelligence is something a psychopathic narcissist, with tendencies towards extraversion and disagreeableness (not a combination you want in a best friend), would fail to recognise. Believing intelligence is fixed, as opposed to malleable, would exacerbate overestimations in such cases.

But is overestimating your intelligence a bad thing? Having positive illusions of self-enhancement, such as falsely overestimating your intelligence, is associated with increased happiness. Also, if you believe intelligence is malleable and not fixed, your performance on intelligence tests is more likely to improve. Further, bigging yourself up with self-enhancement facilitates task performance. Ignorance is bliss.

Bîrle, D., Dulca, R., & Vernon, A. (2017). STUDENTS’THEORIES ON INTELLIGENCE. IMPLICATIONS REGARDING SCHOOL GRADES AND ACADEMIC SATISFACTION. Romanian Journal of School Psychology10(19), 70-81.

Furnham, A., & Gasson, L. (1998). Sex differences in parental estimates of their children’s intelligence. Sex Roles38(1), 151-162.

Furnham, A. (2001). Self-estimates of intelligence: Culture and gender difference in self and other estimates of both general (g) and multiple intelligences. Personality and Individual Differences31(8), 1381-1405.

Furnham, A., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & McDougall, F. (2003). Personality, cognitive ability, and beliefs about intelligence as predictors of academic performance. Learning and Individual Differences14(1), 47-64.

Furnham, A., Moutafi, J., & Chamorro‐Premuzic, T. (2005). Personality and intelligence: Gender, the Big Five, self‐estimated and psychometric intelligence. International Journal of Selection and Assessment13(1), 11-24.

Gold, B., & Kuhn, J. T. (2017). A longitudinal study on the stability of self-estimated intelligence and its relationship to personality traits. Personality and Individual Differences106, 292-297.

Jacobs, K. E., Szer, D., & Roodenburg, J. (2012). The moderating effect of personality on the accuracy of self-estimates of intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences52(6), 744-749.

Mabe, P. A., & West, S. G. (1982). Validity of self-evaluation of ability: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of applied Psychology67(3), 280.

O’mara, E. M., & Gaertner, L. (2017). Does self-enhancement facilitate task performance?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General146(3), 442.

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), 556-563.

Schütz, A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2017). Positive Illusions and the Happy Mind. In The Happy Mind: Cognitive Contributions to Well-Being (pp. 177-193). Springer, Cham.

Visser, B. A., Ashton, M. C., & Vernon, P. A. (2008). What makes you think you’re so smart? Measured abilities, personality, and sex differences in relation to self-estimates of multiple intelligences. Journal of Individual Differences29(1), 35-44.

Stereotyping: a self-fulfilling prophecy

Google has fired employee James Damore for neurosexism; asserting that gender gap differences in technology are due to biological causes. He is not alone in holding such beliefs. Yet, they need to be challenged. First; Damore’s claims are not empirically supported. Second; perpetuating claims of hard-wired sex differences, which map onto stereotypes, has harmful consequences.

Damore refers to Baron-Cohen’s ‘Essentialist Difference’ theory. This postulates men are hard-wired for analysing systems (systemising), while women are hard-wired for analysing people (empathising). It is now recognised evidence fails to support the presence of substantial differences between ‘male’ and female’ brains. Baron-Cohen developed his ideas from 2 main sources of evidence. First, a study of 1-day-old babies found boys looked at mobiles for longer than faces, whereas girls looked at faces for longer. This has not been replicated. Second, Baron-Cohen devised a questionnaire to assess empathising and systemising ability, finding men typically have a higher systemising quotient and women have a higher empathising quotient. In recent years this has been largely rejected as invalid, because the traits are measured using stereotypical statements, eg:‘I try to keep up with the current trends and fashions’. Its therefore unsurprising his study elicited stereotype-consistent responses.

So, why do we find differences between the sexes’ ability to empathise and systemise? There has been a recent shift towards a social approach to gender, as something constructed by social and cultural factors. Children are born into blue vs pink, cars vs dolls and train sets vs sylvanian families. Even LEGO has ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ targeted branding, which influences what they build. When children are dressed in clothing of the opposite sex, adults choose toys for them accordingly; inferred gender affected how the children were treated. From birth boys are exposed to more systems and girls are exposed to more faces. The socialisation of children into gender roles is highly likely to facilitate the development of gender differences.

Favouring a social approach has a huge advantage over a biologically determinist one. It prevents the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, which causes stereotype threat. This is the phenomenon whereby being reminded of a stereotype, which you associate with, influences performance. Priming the stereotype alters the individual’s behaviour, in line with its associated characteristics. The phenomenon of stereotype threat has been replicated across different settings. African Americans perform worse on intelligence tests when asked to state their ethnicity. White Americans perform worse at basketball. With regards to gender, girls and women perform worse than men on maths tests when asked to indicate their sex before taking the exam. When gender identity is not prompted, this gap disappears. Stereotype threat can be applied to technology too. In addition to test performance, when under stereotype threat, women’s learning and knowledge acquisition is impaired.

Damore’s manifesto and beliefs provide fuel for the self-fulfilling prophecy of stereotyping. Neurosexist claims back up stereotypes where men exceed women in technological abilities, which causes women to underperform, which leads to their underrepresentation in the field, which supports their beliefs. To break the cycle, put down the pink LEGO and paint the room green.

Why Trump struggles with climate change

Donald Trump does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. He has stated that global warming is a ‘Hoax invented by the Chinese’. Following Trump’s scepticism on the issue,  the US federal department is censoring use of the term. Trump’s personality, religion, political view and cognitive business predispose his rejection of scientific evidence.

Religion

Trump’s faith is associated with denial of evolution and climate change. In a 2015 study, 37% of white evangelicals said there’s no solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer.

Personality

in a psychological analysis of Trump’s personality, his trait profile revealed high scores on extroversion and low agreeableness; factors associated with stubbornness and irrational beliefs.

Political view

As a Republican, Trump is vulnerable to contrary belief updating in light of evidence. Belief polarisation is the process by which 2 people can respond to the same evidence in opposite ways. Previous research found the corrective information ‘no WMDs were found in Iraq’ resulted in contrasting views based on previously-held beliefs and political standing; liberals endorsed the correct belief; there were no WMDs, while conservatives became even more likely to believe Iraq had WMDs, conflicting the statement they were presented with. Consistent with this, active distrust of climate scientists drives contrary updating amongst US conservatives. In contrast, liberals correctly update their beliefs with the evidence presented.

Stretched cognitive resources

Processing scientific evidence requires mental effort. It is easier to accept information which is consistent with the beliefs one already holds. If someone already believes one conspiracy theory, rejecting science, it is easier to accept another. When one’s mind is occupied, the effort of processing new information can result in its rejection or, as mentioned above, belief polarisation.

Amongst beliefs denying scientific theories, is the rejection of evolution. Surprisingly, intelligent design; believing everything is made for our use, is not something that arises from cultural influence. Children raised in cultures unconnected to religions matters are just as likely to believe everything is guided by a supreme being. This belief is driven by the cognitive bias of promiscuous teleology; the idea things are designed for a purpose. Children like teleological explanations because they are simple. For example, ‘God made rocks pointy so people know not to sit on them’ is easier to accept than the scientific alternative. With formal education, we overcome this cognitive default. When cognitive resources are stained, such as in adults with Alzheimer’s, we resort to these explanations. Creationism has an intuitive appeal. Likewise, conspiracy theories, often simpler than science suggests, appeal more strongly to our cognitive default. Conspiracy theories require less cognitive resources to process than scientific explanations. Further, when they fit snugly with one’s beliefs, even less attention is needed.

Following the discovery of cognitive biases for intelligent design, the curriculum changed so evolution was taught earlier; at 10-11 instead of 14-15. But, with many still denying the presence of global warming, perhaps this isn’t early enough…

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/religion-plays-a-bigger-role-in-evolution-skepticism-than-climate-change-denial-study-finds_us_5851a541e4b092f08686f307

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tops.12186/full

https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2016/mar/31/intelligent-design-popular-evolution-creationism

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17958715

Beware: The Backfire Effect

 

 

‘Should you finish a course of antibiotics?’

‘Drinking a few times a week ‘reduces diabetes risk’.’

Recently, headlines reporting ground-breaking findings in health research have dominated the news. However, often, findings are later proven wrong. Flaws in our thought processing mean these headlines should come with a warning. Ironically, when the media corrects misinformation, this can result in a backfire effect, whereby the original claim is believed more, and continues to influence behaviour.

In 2003, the US government officials stated there was no doubt that Suddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). No weapons were ever found. All original media reports about possible sightings were later corrected with the absence of weapons widely reported. Despite this, these false beliefs persisted 3 years later (Kull et al, 2006). Unfortunately, clinging on to implanted misinformation has societal consequences. One such example is a study published in 1998 suggesting a link between MMR vaccines and autism. Since, the media has reported there was insufficient evidence to support original claims, the article was officially retracted because the author had a significant conflict of interest, and the author was found guilty of misconduct and lost his licence to practice medicine. However, the original myth is still endorsed. This year, a centre set up for autism research employs individuals who claim ‘vaccines are toxic’, despite the lack of evidence and dangerous implications. The misinformation has resulted in less children being immunised, which has led to a marked increase in vaccine-preventable disease and preventable hospitalisations deaths and substantial costs for the NHS (Larson et al, 2011).

Why is correcting misinformation so difficult? First, lets debunk a myth. Memory is not a tape camera. False memories are terrifyingly easy to implant. Simply adding in a childhood story, of being lost in a shopping centre, to a book of true tales collected from friends and family, can lead to this being ‘recalled’ several interviews later (Loftus, 1997). Instead of being exact replications of episodes in our lives, memories are reconstructions based on schemas of previously stored knowledge. Schemas are composed of concepts and the relationships between them. We have these knowledge structures for everything and they influence our daily behaviour.

To explain what i mean by these funny terms I shall talk you through a little restaurant scenario. Imagine you’ve booked a table for 4 at a restaurant you’ve never been to before, and a large 40-year-old man comes over and asks you what food you would like to order. Your response is slower than normal, because this man is inconsistent with your schema’s predictions. You probably expected to have been served by a young slim female waitress. You have learned this stereotype based on previous experiences. In your head, the concept of ‘waitress’ was strongly connected to ‘young’ and ‘girl’. If the same situation occurred again, you’d be slightly less surprised to have a male waiter, having built a connection between ‘man’ and ‘restaurant’, and perhaps be faster at responding you hadn’t yet had time to choose your food. You will have accommodated this new experience into your restaurant schema to leave you better equipped for future experiences. Without such alterations, when the routine is always the same, differences are harder to manage. You probably find restaurant situations filled with awkwardness are less frequent now you have tackled this little feat multiple times. I have sidetracked a lot from headlines in newspapers. But, hopefully you can now understand how your previous experiences shape your typical behaviour, and frequently activated schemas are difficult to shift away from. But, gradually, experiences help us adapt and change to deal with new experiences and we built up connections which challenge our stereotypes and expectations.

This reconstructive nature of memory sounds like an evolutionary problem, but it saves us time and energy. Rejecting correct information makes our brains sound useless and irrational. But, flip-flopping easily would be more useless. We have built up evidence to support our beliefs which bias us when faced with new information. Being skeptical is usually efficient. But of course this system is far from perfect. The reconstructive nature of memory caters to the stubbornness of our beliefs. In the Iraq example, Republicans are more likely to continue to believe the presence of WMDs in Iraq despite retractions (Kull et al, 2003), because the connection between these concepts is stronger.

Schemas make it more difficult for us to accept new information, but are not the only mechanism at play. How the media frames the correcting misinformation affects how influential it can be. Negation claims are usually futile. The Innuendo Effect (Wegner et al, 1984) is where qualifiers, words such as ‘not’, are processed differently to the key concepts of the claim. This means even if the claim states the word ‘not’ the connection between the concepts ‘WMD’ and Iraq’, for example, are still strengthened because this schema is activated. Correcting misinformation requires a lot more than negating claims. How about the credibility of the original source? Unfortunately, The Sleeper Effect (Hovland and Weiss, 1951) means we tend to lose track of where we acquire our information from. Whether its The Tab, the Daily Mail, or The Sunday Times, headlines leave their mark.

So how can we overcome backfire effects? Lewandowsky identifies several recommendations (Lewandowsky et al, 2012). Breaking connections between concepts is difficult. We prefer an explanation over no explanation. Therefore, providing an alternative explanation can help correct misinformation, particularly if the counter argument is generated by the individual. But, this is not always possible. Myths are usually endorsed when we know little about the topic, to fill causal gaps. In these cases, preexposure warning and fostering skepticism has been proven effective. It is important to raise suspicions about the rationale behind claims, for example bare in mind the being able to reduce antibiotic prescriptions would be an ideal outcome of research. Being aware of these effects and understanding the uncertainty of scientific conclusions helps us correct misinformation (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). So, bare in mind our mind’s imperfections when you pick up the paper.

Hovland, C. I., & Weiss, W. (1951). The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Public opinion quarterly15(4), 635-650.

Kull, S., Ramsay, C., & Lewis, E. (2003). Misperceptions, the media, and the Iraq war. Political Science Quarterly118(4), 569-598.

Kull, S., Ramsay, C., Stephens, A., Weber, S., Lewis, E., & Hadfield, J. (2006). Americans on Iraq: Three years on. The WorldPublicOpinion. org/knowledge networks poll15.

Larson, H. J., Cooper, L. Z., Eskola, J., Katz, S. L., & Ratzan, S. (2011). Addressing the vaccine confidence gap. The Lancet378(9790), 526-535.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest13(3), 106-131.

Loftus, E. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American277, 70-75.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Defeating the merchants of doubt. Nature465(7299), 686-687.

Wegner, D. H. (1984). Innuendo and damage to reputations. ACR North American Advances.

‘The Reason I Jump’

51tVfmAsybL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

‘…Your speech is taken away. Explaining you’re hungry, tired, or in pain, is beyond your powers…your mind is a room where twenty radios are blaring out voices and music. The radios have no off-switches or volume controls…sensory input is flooding in too… The fabric conditioner in your sweater smells as strong as air-freshener fired up your nostrils. Your comfy jeans are now as scratchy as steel wool…the floor keeps tilting like a ferry in heavy seas, you’re no longer sure where your hands and feet are in relation to the rest of you…your head feels trapped inside a motorbike helmet three sizes too small…your father-who’s right here in front of you-sounds as if he’s speaking to you from a cell-phone, on a train going through lots of short tunnels, in fluent Cantonese…your sense of time has gone, rendering you unable to distinguish between a minute and an hour…For those people born onto the autistic spectrum, this unfiltered, scary-as-hell reality is home.’

This enlightening insight into the autistic mind is taken from David Mitchell’s introduction to ‘The Reason I Jump’. The author, Naoki Higashida, was 13 when he wrote this little book; an FAQ on what it is like to have the condition, intertwined with short stories. The book has been described as ‘One of the strongest bridges yet constructed between the world of autism and the neurotypical world’ (Charlotte Moore, The Sunday Times’). Mitchell has a son with autism.  In his introduction he emphasises how helpful Higashida’s perspective was for him and his wife. He was recently interviewed on BBC news, reading a heartwarming extract from Higashida’s more recent publication; ’Fall Down 7 Times Stand Up 8’, where he manages to verbalise ‘Carnation’ and ‘Buy’ so he can give his Mother flowers for Mother’s Day for the first time.

Following recommendations of work colleagues, I hastily bought ‘The Reason I Jump’ a few years ago and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. After seeing the interview I promptly fetched the book. It took me no time at all to read, especially considering the effort required to simply write the book. Higashida does not have sufficient speech for a dictation or the focus to use a computer. Therefore, he selected each character on an alphabet grid drawn on paper, while someone sat beside him transcribed the words he formed.

The book dismantles preconceptions, demonstrating people with autism have empathy, humour and imagination. Higashida’s empathy is extraordinary for a 13 year old, let alone with the additional challenges autism imposes on him. His storytelling reflects anticipating his reader’s emotions and manipulating them,  hoping to, in his words; ’Connect with your heart’. Throughout the book Higashida reiterates the importance of being patient and supportive with him and others like him. Breaking the antisocial unempathetic stereotype associated with autism is a crucial step.

Where did this myth originate? Baron-Cohen’s theories: ’Mindblindness’ , ’Lack of theory of mind’ and the ‘Extreme male-brain’ once dominated the literature. He suggested the autistic brain was specialised for systemising, caused by prenatal testosterone exposure. He argued autism is the inability to represent others’ minds, including their thoughts and feelings. Along with refrigerator mothers and the MMR vaccine, Higashida’s writing alone shows this misconception that individuals with autism have little empathy and emotion should be put to bed.

‘Whenever I overhear someone remark how much I prefer being on my own, it makes me feel desperately lonely.’

‘I wrote this story in the hope that it will help you to understand how painful it is when you can’t express yourself to the people you love’.

‘The hardest ordeal for us is the idea that we are causing grief for other people’

‘The thought that our lives are the source of other people’s unhappiness, that’s plain unbearable’

Baron-Cohen’s ideas have been popular for a long time, suggesting they must have some support.  Experimental evidence in the form of a task regarding a smarties tube. Yup. Children are shown a smarties tube which contains pencils and asked ‘If someone who hadn’t seen what was inside was asked what they thought this contained, what would they answer?’. Impulsively, young and autistic children respond ‘pencils’. Naturally, this means they are unable to represent the mental states of others and have no empathy. Even typing that question had me out of breath; its a lot of language to process. One must also inhibit the impulse to say what they have just seen. There is so much more to this task than recognising the other’s belief must be different to their own. Also, the biologically determinist ‘extreme male brain theory’ is not supported by recent research. Studies have failed to find a relationship between prenatal testosterone exposure and autistic traits (Kung et al, 2016). Simply evaluating the validity of Baron-Cohen’s devised task and an autobiography of someone with autism makes it obvious which voice we should be listening to.

‘The Reason I Jump’ is not the only published insider’s voice which persuades you theres a lot more behind the a speechlessness of autism. ‘Carly’s Voice’ tells the tale of a nonverbal child who was thought to be unreachable until typing ‘HELP TEETH HURT’ on a computer. Now, she offers help to parents through an FAQ on her website and, like Higashida, is also a storyteller. As David Mitchell points out, each story is only one insight to the world of one individual with autism, but every insider’s guide improves our understanding. Having inaccurate preconceptions is impeding how we treat and support individuals with autism. Typical adults have difficulty interpreting the mental states of individuals with autism (Edey et al, 2016).

The level of ignorance surrounding something which affects 1 in 45 is astonishing; clearly, it is the neurotypicals that are ‘mindblind’’.

.https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/new-government-survey-pegs-autism-prevalence-1-45

Edey, R., Cook, J., Brewer, R., Johnson, M. H., Bird, G., & Press, C. (2016). Interaction takes two: Typical adults exhibit mind-blindness towards those with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of abnormal psychology125(7), 879.

Higashida, N. (2013). The reason I jump: the inner voice of a thirteen-year-old boy with autism. Random House.

Kung, K. T., Spencer, D., Pasterski, V., Neufeld, S., Glover, V., O’connor, T. G., … & Hines, M. (2016). No relationship between prenatal androgen exposure and autistic traits: convergent evidence from studies of children with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and of amniotic testosterone concentrations in typically developing children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry57(12), 1455-1462.

Explaining the FOMO phenomenon: put the phone down

Summer holidays are particularly difficult for those susceptible to the panging fear of missing out. You feel you should be having the time of your life. In fact, you’ve barely left the sofa, and, most critically; your phone. Ironically, we install social media to keep in touch and prevent missing out. In reality, scrolling Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter facilitates cognitive biases and physiological responses which team up to make you feel utterly rubbish. If you are suffering from this common sickness, hopefully this can persuade you turning off your phone for a day will help you recuperate.

Us humans are dreadful at judging probabilities. Decision-making relies on cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind, which is enhanced by information prominent in the news or that which triggers greater emotional responses. One cheery illustration of this is the most feared ways to die. 6 of the top 10 results in a US survey were terrorist attacks, shark attacks, aeroplane crashes, murders, natural disasters and falling; highly unlikely causes compared to tobacco use, poor diet or physical activity, and alcohol, for example. The chances of being attacked by a shark, even if you live close to the ocean, is 1 in 11.5 million. In contrast, at the time of  the survey, poor diet and physical inactivity accounted for 16.6% of deaths in the US. Participants asked themselves ‘How easily can I think of an example?’, leading to overestimating causes which were more emotionally memorable and prominent in news articles (Dale, 2015).

FOMO operates by a similar mechanism. Even before heuristics are involved, social media sites are biased to show people having a good time. Most people are far more likely to post Snapchat stories and Instagram photos of parties and festivals than of the 7th episode on the 4th season of ‘RuPals Drag Race’. So, when you ask yourself ’What are people doing this Summer?’ remember the proportion of couch potatoes is considerably higher than you first thought.

Humans are programmed to be sociable. Our larger neocortex, which distinguishes us from our ape predecessors, is thought to underlie the complexity of our social communication. Our language enables us to communicate more complex and sophisticated ideas; a superiority which accounts for human’s success. Within our language, we align social rejection with physical descriptions, such as feeling hurt and having a broken heart. Recent evidence suggests these phrases are more than metaphorical. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is an area of the brain responsible for the felt unpleasantness of physical pain. Merely a computer game which simulates social exclusion is sufficient to promote physiological responses in this region. When participants were left out of a ball-tossing game, the magnitude of dACC activity correlated with self-reports of social distress (Eisenberger and Lieberman, 2004).  Consistently, social support, which reduces social pain, is associated with reduced physical pain. So, fear of missing out has a biological basis, causing a neurological response analogous to physical pain.

Fortunately, recovery has a simple solution. Put your phone down, see some people and you will be cured.

Dale, S. (2015). Heuristics and biases: The science of decision-making. Business Information Review32(2), 93-99.

Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in cognitive sciences8(7), 294-300.

Why have so many fallen for Love Island and should we be worried?

‘It’s sending subliminal messages’ ‘It’s porn’ my Auntie after reading an article in The Guardian.

The hour long lecture was insufficient to prevent the show from gracing my TV screen every day at 9pm. However the pang of guilt led me to look into what it is about the show that has over 2 million people hooked.

One particular study asked adults to rate their favourite parts of a similar 24-hour surveillance show; Big Brother (Hill, 2002). Emotional moments and times in the confession room following conflicts, where false personas break down, were most popular. As with Love Island, these moments of emotional realism are those which everybody ends up talking about, such as when the contestants are feeling insecure or overwhelmed. Following these clips, viewers judged whether a moment was truly authentic using what they knew of the contestant, what they knew about themselves and how they would act in a similar situation. This debate of how ‘real’ the contestant is behaving is a fundamental aspect of reality television and one which captures us. Often a key source of debate is whether they are ‘putting it on’ for effect, or demonstrating their true self. Whilst acknowledging individuals are acting differently because they are being filmed, viewers are actively seeking out authentic moments. Disclosures of true emotions entice viewers the most. These moments were more popular than sexual scenes, challenging the argument that Love Island is watched purely for its voyeuristic content. The search for the truth behind the personalities and relationships acted out for the camera has viewers transfixed. Hunting for emotional realism allows viewers to establish the true personalities of the contestants, providing the foundation from which the viewers can relate to the people on the show.

As the contestants become more relatable, a second addictive mechanism is triggered; experiencing joy through vicarious experience. Sensitivity theory (Reiss, 2000a) suggests our 16 basic desires, such as for romance, can be satisfied through watching someone achieve this. Those who have lower interpersonal interaction are more likely to watch reality television to satisfy a need for companionship and use it as a basis for social interaction with others (Papacharissi and Mendelson, 2007). This brings us to the simple mechanism of positive reinforcement; the experience of joy becomes associated with the show, increasing the likelihood of watching the show to repeat this feeling. Viewers experience joy as the contestant’s desires are satisfied. Further, when they can strongly relate to the contestants, the connection to the vicarious experience is stronger.

So, we understand the mechanism behind reality television addiction, but is the compulsion to watch Love Island harmful? Is it sending subliminal messages? Is Love Island changing how we think and behave? Social learning theory suggests we are more likely to imitate observed behaviours if they are rewarding for the individual observed, suggesting watching Love Island will increase our preoccupation with seeking companionship. This is a very simplified explanation. There is some evidence that exposure to violence on television increases aggression (Coyne, 2016). However, this is a longstanding debate in the literature; findings are hugely inconsistent. Therefore, we should adopt a sceptical approach to whether content of what we watch on television truly influences our behaviour. If it does, effect sizes are small. Real life experiences are far more influential in shaping our behaviour, which is illustrated in language acquisition. Live exposure cannot be substituted by television exposure. Infants who observed the same content on a television screen instead of through interactions with a real person did not acquire the new language (Conboy et al, 2015). Therefore, if Love Island is sending subliminal messages about relationships, they are far less significant than the relationships we are exposed to in real life. Watching more reality television is associated with increased motivation to feel self-important, romantic and friendly in the real world (Reiss and Wiltz, 2004). However, it could simply be that people who are more concerned with these elements of their life are more gratified by vicarious experiences by watching the show, so are more addicted to it.

So perhaps, instead of interpreting the shows popularity with the cynicism of The Hunger Games, perhaps we should acknowledge our fascination with these shows just reflects our social nature and gives us something to talk about. 

References:

Conboy, B. T., Brooks, R., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2015). Social Interaction in Infants’ Learning of Second-Language Phonetics: An Exploration of Brain–Behavior Relations. Developmental neuropsychology40(4), 216-229.

Coyne, S. M. (2016). Effects of viewing relational aggression on television on aggressive behavior in adolescents: A three-year longitudinal study. Developmental psychology52(2), 284.

Hill, A. (2002). Big Brother: the real audience. Television & New Media3(3), 323-340.

Papacharissi, Z., & Mendelson, A. L. (2007). An exploratory study of reality appeal: Uses and gratifications of reality TV shows. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media51(2), 355-370.

Reiss, S. (2000a). Who am I; The 16 basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Reiss, S., & Wiltz, J. (2004). Why people watch reality TV. Media psychology6(4), 363-378.