Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’
Adam Smith once famously observed…
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
– Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759
He is a member of a stream of observers of the human condition, stretching back to the ancient Greeks, who believe that an innate goodness is at work in us all. But is it so?
Behavioral economists have revolutionized the standard view of human nature. No longer are people presumed to be purely selfish, only acting in their own interest. Hundreds of experiments appear to show that most people are pro-social, preferring to sacrifice their own success in order to benefit others. That’s altruism.
If the interpretations of these experiments are true, then we have to rip up the textbooks for both economics and evolutionary biology! Economic and evolutionary models assume that individuals only act unselfishly when they stand to benefit some way. Yet humans appear to be unique in the animal kingdom as experiments suggest they willingly sacrifice their own success on behalf of strangers they will never meet. These results have led researchers to look for the evolutionary precursors of such exceptional altruism by also running these kinds of experiments with non-human primates.
But are these altruism experiments really evidence of humans being special? Our new study says probably not…
Read more– and draw your own conclusion– at “Does behavioral economics show people are altruistic or just confused?”
[TotH to Mark Stahlman]
* P.J. O’Rourke
As we calculate the angles, we might spare a thought for Johannes Schöner; this is both his birthday (1477) and the anniversary of his death (1547). A priest, astronomer, astrologer, geographer, cosmographer, cartographer, mathematician, globe and scientific instrument maker, and editor and publisher of scientific texts, he is probably best remembered today (and was renowned in his own tine) as a pioneering maker of globes. In 1515 he created one of the earliest surviving globes produced following the discovery of new lands by Christopher Columbus. It was the first to show the name “America” that had been suggested by Waldseemüller– and tantalizingly, it depicts a passage around South America before it was recorded as having been discovered by Magellan. In his roles as professor and academic publisher, he played a significant part in the events that led up to the publishing of Copernicus’ epoch-making “De revolutionibus” in Nürnberg in 1543.
New Smyrna Beach, Florida: Home to an astounding 238 attacks, this Florida beach consistently records more shark attacks than any other beach. However, despite that alarming number, there has yet to be a fatal attack. Most of the bites are from young bull sharks nibbling for what they think is food. New Smyrna Beach is part of Volusia County, Florida. A very popular beach, many claim that the reason the number of attacks is so high is simply because the number of people in the water on any given day is so high as well. Fishermen, swimmers and surfers flock to the beach whenever they get the chance and never seem deterred by reported attacks.
* Champion open water swimmer Mark Warkentin
As we think it’s safe to go back in the water, we might send brainy birthday greetings to David “Wex” Wechsler; he was born on this date in 1896. During WW I, as a young psychologist assisting Edwin Garrigues Boring in testing army recruits, Wechsler was frustrated by the inadequacies of the Army Alpha Tests (designed to measure abilities of conscripts and match them to suitable military jobs), concluding that academically-defined “intelligence” did not apply to “real life” situations. After leaving the military– and more years of research– he developed the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, (WAIS) and introduced deviation scores in intelligence tests. He later developed the Wechsler Memory Scale, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, and Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence. The WAIS is the most commonly administered psychological test today.
“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not”*…
Controversy is essential to scientific progress. As Richard Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Nothing is taken on faith, all assumptions are open to further scrutiny. It’s a healthy sign therefore that psychology studies continue to generate great controversy. Often the heat is created by arguments about the logic or ethics of the methods, other times it’s because of disagreements about the implications of the findings to our understanding of human nature. Here we digest ten of the most controversial studies in psychology’s history…
From “the Stanford Prison Experiment” and “the Milgram ‘Shock Experiments'” to “Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience” and “Libet’s Challenge to Free Will”– The British Psychological Society‘s “The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever published.”
(Lest one wonder whether all of this has any purchase in the real world, this review of Hooked…)
* Carl Jung
As we brace ourselves on our lab benches, we might spare a thought for Gustav Theodor Fechner; he died on this date in 1887. A philosopher and physicist with a keen interest in human behavior, Fechner is recognized (with Wilhelm Wundt and Hermann von Helmholtz) as the founder of experimental psychology. He formulated the rule known as Fechner’s law–that, within limits, the intensity of a sensation increases as the logarithm of the stimulus– a result indicative of his approach to studying the relationships between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they cause. His approach, which came to be known as Psychophysics, has been influential ever since.
Lisa Wade, in Pacific Standard:
Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue. In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy. Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.
Thanks to an email from University of Southern California professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects. These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality. So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).
Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect. They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious. It did.
Read the noisome news in full at “Smelling Something Fishy Makes People More Suspicious.”
* Lyall Watson (in Jacobson’s Organ)
As we hold our noses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” opened in the Ctaskills in New York State. The organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair– or Woodstock, as it is remembered– had hoped to sell 50,000 tickets; but by the week before the event, had moved 186,000. A last-minute change of venue presented them with a hard choice: hastily erect more/stronger fences and install additional security on the new site (the famous Yasgur’s Farm) or offer the event for free. The night before the event, with attendees already arriving in huge numbers, the promoters cut the fence. Ultimately an estimated 400,000 people enjoyed a (somewhat rainy) weekend of performances from 32 acts. It was, as Rolling Stone opined, a defining moment in Rock and Roll.
“An uninspiring canvas becomes a glamorous masterpiece when it is reattributed to a better-known artist”*…
Cornell psychologist James Cutting wondered why it is that when a work of art is considered “great,” we too often stop thinking about it for ourselves…
The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.
Cutting wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.
Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.
Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure”…
Get the complete picture at “Why the Mona Lisa Stands Out.”
As we cathect on connoisseurship, we might send fantastic birthday greetings to Roger Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937. Probably best known for his Amber series, Zelazny was a prominent member– with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Harlan Ellison– of the American “new wave” science fiction movement; he won three Nebula awards and six Hugo awards. In 1976, Zelazny helped Philip K. Dick, who wasn’t able to continue on his own, finish Deus Irae; having learned in the process of Dick’s financial straits, Zelazny voluntarily reduced his royalty from one-half to one third.
Readers can tender their own trepidations, and see them turned into cartoons like these…
Illuminating the dark night of the soul: Deep Dark Fears.
As we wrestle with our demons, we might spare a thought for Marie-Louise von Franz; she died on this date in 1998. A student of, and long-time collaborator with Carl Jung, von Franz practiced in Switzerland, where she founded the the C. G. Jung Institute (in Zurich).
As her obituary in The New York Times observed, she believed, with Jung, that “all humanity shares a collective unconscious of genetically replicated archetypal forms reflecting and embodying the entire spectrum of human aspirations, feelings, fears and frustrations,” and that these archetypes are played out in dreams. In The Way of the Dream (one of her two dozen books and monographs), she claims to have interpreted over 65,000 dreams.