Blogging at Psychology Today

Chris and I will occasionally blog at Psychology Today. Our blog there is called “The Gorilla Guys.” When we do, we will post a link on our own blog as well. My first post for The Gorilla Guys blog is on the assumptions people make when viewing the world, using the “door” study that Dan Levin and I conducted back when we were in graduate school at Cornell as an illustration. You can view the post here. I will write more on the topic both here and at The Gorilla Guys.

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PBS Frontline covers the vaccine wars

The PBS program Frontline apparently will air a program on Tuesday April 27, 2010 about the battle over vaccines. You can read the press release to learn more.

I hope that Frontline gives the issue its usual careful consideration and doesn’t give equal weight to those who appear to ignore the science. Take, for example, this quote in the press release from J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue: “There is no real-world study that shows me that those six vaccines didn’t cause my son’s autism.” It’s hard to imagine that there ever will be. Would vaccine critics believe any study that didn’t agree with claims that vaccines cause autism? Large-scale epidemiological studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism. If autism rates are no different with and without vaccination, then vaccines can’t cause autism. Vaccination is not even associated with autism.

Big chest thump to Orac at Respectful Insolence for laying out the difference between scientific skepticism and scientific denialism in his discussion of this Frontline piece. Skeptics accept valid scientific evidence but are open to the idea that poorly conducted or invalid studies might lead to misleading conclusions. Skeptics then look to conduct better studies that could rule out a hypothesis. Denialism involves rejecting any study, valid or not, that runs counter to your own belief system.

The real question, and one we address in The Invisible Gorilla, is why people tend to believe so strongly in an illusory link between vaccines and autism? What leads people to form and then hold onto beliefs about a cause in the face of contradictory evidence?

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Cell phones and driving

For the past week, the Department of Transportation has been running a trial enforcement plan to stop people from talking on the phone while driving. Great idea, with a simple message: “Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other.” The plan is to step up enforcement and ticket drivers in Syracuse, NY and Hartford, CT if they are caught holding a cell phone while driving. According to transportation secretary Ray LaHood, “if a driver is caught with a cell phone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other…It’s time for drivers to act responsibly, put their hands on the wheel and focus on the road.” Reducing the distracting effects of cell phones on driving is a good goal, and LaHood has been an active advocate for trying to eliminate needless distractions. Unfortunately, this enforcement campaign spreads misinformation by implying that it’s the “hand-held” aspect of cell phone use that causes the problem. In reality, the real distraction has nothing to do with having both hands on the wheel — it’s the conversation itself (coupled with the challenge of communicating with someone not in the car). Using a hands-free phone doesn’t eliminate the distraction, and it might even given people a false sense of confidence if they think that switching to a hands-free phone makes them safer.

Most of the laws banning cell phone use while driving have focused inappropriately and exclusively on hand-held phones. Whether or not cell phone use while driving should be regulated is a political question, but the cause of the distraction is an empirical one. Public officials do a disservice when they fail to convey the real reasons why using a cell phone while driving is dangerous.

the limits of cognitive training

A new study published today in Nature by Adrian Owen and colleagues reports the results of a large-scale study done in conjunction with the BBC of the effects of video game playing on cognitive performance. More than 11000 people participated in the study online by playing video games (really, simple cognitive tasks common to commercial “brain training” software) for up to 30 minutes each week for 6 weeks. They completed a battery of standard cognitive tasks before and after the “training” sessions to test for generalized improvements. One group did tasks that emphasize reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Another trained on tasks that emphasized memory and attention. A control group searched online for the obscure answers to questions. The critical question: Would the training tasks have any benefits for cognitive performance on more standard measures? In more simple terms, this is akin to testing whether doing crossword puzzles helps keep your mind sharp.

The results of the study were largely consistent with an earlier clinical trial known as the ACTIVE study—In essence, doing a task repeatedly improves your ability to do the task, but it has little benefit for other aspects of real-world cognition. Owen and colleagues found the performance gains from doing the cognitive tasks were comparable to the gains from searching for trivia online, suggesting that the improvements from doing brain training tasks were minimal or non-existent for tasks other than the ones being trained. In other words, doing crossword puzzles makes you better at doing crossword puzzles, but it won’t help you better recall your friend’s name when you meet him on the street.

This online approach to studying the effects of cognitive training is inherently messy—subjects select themselves to be in the study, they participate only if they want to, there are high rates of attrition, and relatively little possibility for control. The study also tried to include all of the sorts of tasks used in commercial brain training programs, and as a result, it might not have represented any of them too well. It’s also possible that more extensive training would lead to bigger transfer from those simple tasks to more complex ones. A few studies have suggested that extensive training (e.g., 10 – 50 hours) on first-person shooter video games can produce some effects on cognitive performance not specifically trained in the game (e.g., Green & Bavelier, 2003), but other larger-scale studies haven’t replicated many of those improvements (Boot et al, 2008).

Overall, the results are consistent with the idea that brain training programs that offer up a quick fix for the limits on cognitive performance don’t live up to some of their more grandiose claims. It would be nice to think that we could overcome the effects of aging on cognition simply by playing games, but that’s an illusion of potential—we think there are hidden abilities that can be released with minimal effort, but that’s not how cognitive enhancement works. Instead, we can make huge improvements, but typically we improve only on the things we train. Consequently, the benefits of doing simple cognitive tasks for other aspects of everyday cognition are minimal. If you want to improve your ability to do crossword puzzles, then by all means do more crossword puzzles. Just don’t expect that keeping your mind active by doing puzzles will be of much help with any other aspect of cognition. If your goal is to improve your cognitive fitness more generally, you’d be far better off spending the same amount of time walking around the block instead of playing games (Hertzog et al, 2009).

A friendly chest thump to The Research Digest Blog whose post on this study appeared while I was writing this post.

Sources cited:

Owen, A. M., HAmpshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., Howard, R. J., & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test Nature : DOI:10.11038

Ball, K. (2002). Effects of Cognitive Training Interventions With Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 288 (18), 2271-2281 DOI: 10.1001/jama.288.18.2271

Green, C., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention Nature, 423 (6939), 534-537 DOI: 10.1038/nature01647

Boot WR, Kramer AF, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, & Gratton G (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta psychologica, 129 (3), 387-98 PMID: 18929349

Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S., & Lindeberger, U. (2009). Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development: Can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 1-65

witnessing a staged crime

The BBC apparently has conducted a remarkable study looking at how eyewitnesses remember a staged crime. This sort of stunt has been pulled on television many times, including a staged purse snatching on the local NBC news on December 19, 1974 (Buckhout, 1975 — see Loftus, 1996 for a discussion). In that case, viewers were invited to call in to select the perpetrator from a lineup, and 2000 people did. Performance was at chance, even though the subjects in this study were self-selected based on their belief that they had recognized the perpetrator—they voluntarily called in to report who they had seen, something they presumably wouldn’t have done if they were uncertain.

Dateline NBC pulled a similar stunt by having an intruder enter a Brooklyn Law School classroom and steal the professor’s purse. Students in the class were witnesses to the crime, and their eyewitness testimony was distorted by details planted after the robbery by the professor (e.g., that the intruder had an unusual nose).

The BBC study, done in conjunction with Graham Pike of the Open University, took the approach several steps further. First, they had a group of volunteers spend much of the day in a studio taking memory tests before they went to a nearby pub for a lunch break. Little did they know that all the people in the pub were paid actors or stunt people. The unwitting subjects then witnessed an argument that escalated to the stabbing and murder of one of the patrons. Police and ambulance workers were in on the study, and the police then interviewed the witnesses as if the crime were real. The BBC and the reesarchers could then check the effectiveness of the interview techniques against the staged reality of what happened and could look systematically at the distortions and contradictions in the witness testimony.

The study apparently will be part of a 3-hour special series on eyewitnesses airing in the UK that initially aired on April 18. If you’re in the UK, you might be able to view it here. Although it’s not available in the USA yet, you can view the trailer for it and read a detailed description and discussion of the study here.

All of these televised studies and stunts build on extensive research documenting the fallibility of eyewitness memory (see the citations below for review). Although people often are confident they have recalled a crime accurately, different people can remember the same event in different ways, and each person’s memory for an event can become distorted as well.

Sources cited:

Loftus, E. F. (1996). Eyewitness testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Loftus EF (2005). Planting misinformation in the human mind: a 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 12 (4), 361-6 PMID: 16027179

Wells, G., Memon, A., & Penrod, S. (2006). Eyewitness Evidence: Improving Its Probative Value Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7 (2), 45-75 DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2006.00027.x

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Williams syndrome, stereotypes, and misleading titles

A paper just published in Current Biology and discussed extensively in the media was titled:

“Absence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping in Williams syndrome children.”

Williams Syndrome results from the accidental loss of several genes on chromosome 7, and it affects about 1 in 2500 newborns. The symptoms include a characteristic facial appearance, heart problems, and an uneven pattern of cognitive abilities, with some impaired more than others. Additionally, children with Williams can be “hyper-social,” being more willing to approach and interact with strangers.

The title of this new study makes an intriguing claim, implying that this genetic change eliminates the intuitive tendency to stereotype people based on race, but not gender. Based on the title, you might assume that the study used comparable measures of racial and gender stereotyping and found only gender stereotyping, right? Nope. For the racial stereotyping task, 20 kids were shown pairs of pictures that were identical except for skin color. They then heard stories that mentioned a positive or negative adjective (kind, pretty, smart vs. bad, ugly, stupid) and were asked to pick which person the story described. The Williams kids were less likely than a control group to pick their own race for the positive adjectives. Okay. So far, so good. That’s interesting. (Though it would also be nice to see whether this held true for a larger sample of Williams kids of different races—all of these kids were white, and the study was conducted in Marseille, France.)

So, did the researchers use the same method to test gender bias? Nope. “Sex role items assessed the child’s knowledge of typical sex-stereotyped behaviours, and provided a control measure of general conceptual development.” Yup. You read that right. The gender stereoptyping wasn’t testing whether the kids had any systematic bias or stereotyped attitudes. It wasn’t testing whether they had negative attitudes about one sex or the other. Rather, it tested whether they were familiar with typical gender-based behavior. That has nothing to do with whether kids are biased or think the opposite sex is worse, just whether they know that boys are more likely to play with trucks and girls are more likely to play with dolls. (Apparently, the authors used a standardized test of racial attitudes and knowledge of sex roles called the PRAM-II. It would be sad if the standardized test made this mistake too.) If kids weren’t picking up on these patterns of behavior in the world around them, that would be suggestive of a broken mechanism for associative learning!

I would bet that if these researchers had measured familiarity with typical racial differences in interests/behavior, they would have found that Williams kids were aware of those roles too. It’s cool that the Williams kids didn’t associate darker-skinned people with negative words. Why equate racial biases to gender biases in the title if that’s not what you actually did?

For a misleading title of what was otherwise an interesting result, I throw the authors 3 smelly, rotten, stereotypical bananas.

Chest thumps to Not Exactly Rocket Science, who covered the study in some depth.

not paying attention

Here’s an interesting report about a legal case. A teenage snowboarder in Canada collided with a 5-year-old boy, breaking his leg. The snowboarder (James Lee) was fined $30k for being 75% responsible for the collision (the boy’s father was found to be 25% responsible for leading his son onto a steep slope). According to this report, “Lee testified that he had been travelling [sic] down the run relatively slowly, taking wide turns, and he saw nobody before the collision.” That’s entirely possible. He might have been negligent for hitting the boy, but it’s also possible he wasn’t looking for a small boy to be on a steep slope. In that context, the boy might have been unexpected. His experience sounds a lot like a “looked but failed to see” automobile accident.

I have no idea whether Lee was actually negligent for hitting the boy — I haven’t seen the slope and don’t know the context. That said, the judge’s statements suggest that an illusion of attention might have been at play in the legal decision. According to the article, “the judge ruled that because Lee testified he did not see the child or the father before the crash, he was either going too fast or not paying proper attention.” As we know from studies of inattentional blindness, people can pay close attention and still not see something right in front of them. For example, when drivers are looking for cars, they can miss a motorcycle or bicycle even if they look right at it. The judge’s conclusion that Lee was going too fast or not paying attention might be wrong even if Lee never saw the boy. Does that excuse Lee for hitting the boy? Perhaps not—assuming the boy was visible, perhaps Lee should have been devoting some attention to looking for small skiers. But the collision could well have resulted from the limits of attention rather than recklessness.

Oh... we knew...

Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday

They thought we didn’t know? Silly humans. We knew. We just didn’t want you to know that we knew. Sometimes we just play with your minds by supporting your persistent delusion that you can actually predict your own future…

update: For those who didn’t catch the source of the video, it’s from The Onion…

update 2: Once again, reality mimics fiction. Apparently, The Onion was just ahead of its time:

A great neighbor

Here’s a great image caption from a story in the Union Leader about a house fire.

gorilla watching house fire

Firefighters wrap up at the scene of a fire at 15 M. St. in Hampton this morning, where a home was gutted by two fires this morning. Right, Wayne McGowen, who was sleeping in the basement of the house when it caught fire, watches firefighters at the scene along with neighbor Kali Burns, who was dressed as a gorilla. (JASON SCHREIBER)

Big chest thump to John Aravosis at Americablog for catching this one.

Invisible rabbits?!

Apparently, those hairless apes in the Glendale police department thought that dressing a pedestrian up in a bunny suit would make drivers more likely to notice and yield. According to this report, police in Glendale conducted a sting operation by having a bunny cross the road and then ticketing anyone who didn’t yield.

Maybe the paper was just pulling an April fools hoax?! Surely they knew that 6-foot-tall rabbits are invisible.

At least some of the cops reportedly don’t know about invisible rabbits or invisible gorillas:

“The reason that we set it in a bunny suit is that’s clearly an obvious, different and unique pedestrian that would be walking across the street,” Montecuollo said.

Apparently, they’ve even done this before:

Police conducted a similar sting with a rabbit suit about five years ago, he said. Los Angeles police have used Santa Claus costumes.

You’d think they’d learn.