Monthly Archives: October 2008

The Psychology of Smear

If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve no doubt noticed that the McCain campaign  is engaging in a new and arguably more insidious form of smear. The goal is to create an atmosphere of fear about the possibility of a “foreigner” becoming president.  And not just a foreigner, but one with shadowy ties to the Middle East – that’s right, the dangerous kind.  Why for a certain portion of the population does this strategy work?  An excellent article in The Washington Post discusses research about the subconscious associations that underlie the conclusions people draw about “foreigners” if a particular set of information is presented (as the McCain campaign is presenting now). From the article:

In a new series of experiments, Devos has shown that the “white equals American” bias could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election. (Banaji is a registered Democrat; Devos is not an American citizen.)

During the primary season, Devos, at San Diego State University, along with colleague Debbie Ma at the University of Chicago, found that on a subconscious level, people more easily associated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with being American than Sen. Barack Obama. Clinton is white; Obama is biracial.

Even more remarkably, the psychologists found that the volunteers were quicker to associate former British prime minister Tony Blairwith being American than Obama. Blair is white.

On a conscious level, the participants had no trouble identifying Obama and Clinton as American, and Blair as a foreigner. But Devos and Ma found that the subconscious associations mattered: People who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols. This was true of both Republicans and Democrats.

In a final set of experiments completed just last week, Thierry said the researchers had found an identical pattern when they compared people’s subconscious associations with Obama and his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain. On a conscious level, volunteers said that both Obama and McCain were American, but on a subconscious level, volunteers were quicker to associate McCain with being American than Obama — and the strength of these subconscious associations predicted people’s voting intentions.

“The less you see Obama as American compared to McCain, the less likely you are to vote for him,” Devos said.

It is important to emphasize that the bias uncovered by the studies was subtle, and only one of many factors that go into people’s voting choices. The research in no way suggests that all of Obama’s opponents are racially biased — people who do not find Obama appealing may well reach their conclusions based on policy positions, partisan identification and personal circumstances.

But Devos said the difficulty in seeing African Americans as fully American is clearly a drag on Obama’s prospects, without which he would probably be further ahead in the polls.

The provocative research also may help explain why Obama has proved vulnerable to negative messages that question his identity and his loyalty to America. From the false rumors that Obama is a Muslim and that he refuses to salute the American flag, to the repeated reminders at Republican rallies that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and recent concerns that voters just don’t know enough about him, the attacks that have dogged the Democratic presidential candidate are not the traditional racial stereotypes that have been used against many African American politicians.

“We cannot think of him as frightening or a likely criminal — he is the antithesis of that,” Banaji said. “So when the mind goes searching for reasons to distrust him, the first thing it lands on are the foreign connections” — Indonesia and Africa, places to which Obama has ties.

“Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism,” she said. “You can’t say he is black and unfit to be president, but you can say that he is Muslim and therefore Continue reading…


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Suicide or Twinkies?

Does the suicide rate really increase during an economic crisis like the one we’re experiencing?  Evidently not, as reported in Live Science:

Loren Coleman, an expert on suicides and author of “The Copycat Effect,” notes that suicides actually decrease during times of social and economic stress: “Historical studies conducted by sociologist Steven Stack and others have discovered a noticeable dip in suicides and related violent events when there is society-wide anguish, for example, in times of massive immediate grieving in periods of wars and economic depressions.”

But, what does increase is consumption of comfort foods.

In times of stress, people tend to seek comfort — and comfort foods. People who are worried about their retirement and paying the bills are even more likely to want hamburgers and a night of relaxing on the couch instead of carrot sticks and hitting the treadmill. Add to that the disparity between cheap fast food and expensive healthier food, and the troubled economy will hit not only the wallets but the waistlines of many Americans.

Increased stress and more hamburgers – not a good combination.  But never fear, because when a crisis occurs we can always rely on magical thinking to save us, as discussed in Psychology Today and elaborated on in Mind Hacks

Researchers have also found that levels of superstition and magical thinking increase during times of stress and economic uncertainty. People turn more to astrology and psychics, looking for comfort and reassurance that everything will be okay. Superstitions also give many people the illusion of control over some part of their lives. For people in the grip of magical thinking (which is practically all of us at one time or another), lucky numbers or rituals help us to believe that we are overcoming (or at least gaining an edge over) the seemingly randomness of an uncertain world.

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Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know?  With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.

Garnering excellent reviews from Scientific American Mind, The Wall Street Journal, and Seed Magazine, to name a few, the book has struck a deeply resonant chord. To quote from the Scientific American Mind review, “On Being Certain challenges our understanding of the very nature of thought.”      

In the midst of a dizzying lecture and writing schedule (he’s also a contributor to Dr. Burton was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with Neuronarrative.   

Your book touches on some of the most hotly debated issues of our time—the nature of belief high among them.  What led you to write it and who did you have in mind as the audience? 

I’ve always been fascinated by why some people seem so certain of their opinions, while I seem plagued by a persistent, overriding sense of doubt that my opinions are definitely correct. As neuroscience is increasingly revealing how our behavior has a significant underlying biological component, I began jotting down some personal observations and thought experiments as to how thoughts might be biologically influenced. Most importantly I began to ruminate over how we actually tell ourselves when a thought is correct or incorrect. 

Initially I didn’t have any particular audience in mind other than myself. As you may know, my last several books were novels. I am dreadful with preconceived plots or story outlines; it’s much more fun to start with a character in a situation and simply sit back and see what happens as your fingers type the story.

On Being Certain began in the same general manner. While I was gathering notes, research articles, and generally noodling, I wasn’t even aware that I was writing a book. It took several years of rumination to realize that I was thinking about an aspect of meta-cognition — how we know what we know. It took another couple years before I realized that the “feeling of knowing” was an involuntary mental sensation created by the brain, rather than a logical conclusion to a line of reasoning. 

You say in the book that “we know the nature and quality of our thoughts via feelings, not reason.”  On the face of it, this seems like a difficult concept to swallow, since many of us are prone to think that our ability to reason is what really defines us. How have the book’s challenging assertions, like this one, been received since it came out earlier this year?   

It’s hard to say how a book is received. For starters, I suspected that this would be a quiet book read by relatively few.  I was unprepared for the book to be enjoyed by such seemingly dissimilar readers as traditional Buddhists, Krishnamurti followers, stock traders, science buffs and hard-core skeptics. The common thread seems to be that many of us are now questioning the role and value of certainty and conviction. In part this is probably related to the frightening rise of fundamentalism, both in terms of religious philosophy and political doctrine.

Perhaps the most surprising to me is that the book has also been praised as an exercise in philosophy.  I have no academic background in philosophy; the little that I do know was acquired while writing the book. Perhaps I would’ve saved myself a great deal of time if I had realized that hundreds of years ago philosophers such as David Hume were already describing mental sensations as contributing to our personal sense of knowledge. But then, if I had known this, I might not have written the book.  

You suggest in the book that substituting “I believe” for “I know” serves as a constant reminder of the limits of knowledge and objectivity.  Many people, of course, would rather not do that, believing it somehow weakens their position. I’m curious to know what sort of reaction you receive when putting this suggestion into practice.

At a strictly linguistic level, this may be one of the more difficult points in the book, as the word ‘believe’ strikes fear into the heart of those who pride themselves on being rational. For example, few scientists are willing to substitute the word ‘believe’ for ‘know’ when talking about such nearly universally agreed-upon scientific facts such as evolution. If I were rewriting the book, I might substitute the phrase ‘I think that’ or ‘it is my understanding that,’ rather than using the word ‘believe,’ primarily to avoid the negative connotations normally associated with belief.

Nevertheless, I do feel strongly that we all need to step back from the stance of certainty and make our claims based upon probability. The phrase ‘It is likely that’ is far superior to ‘is absolutely true that,’ even when the odds are 99.999% that you are correct.

One of the peculiar side effects of so qualifying your opinions is the relief that your listeners often experience. On multiple occasions, when giving book readings or talks, I have prefaced an answer with the caveat that I’m not really sure this is correct. Ironically, this admission tends to put the audiences at ease, even less combative in presenting alternative views. At times I have felt a nearly palpable sense of relief from an audience — that it was not going to hear yet another polemic from a “so-called expert.”   

Since we’re so close to electing our next President, one final question about political debates: do you think televised debates play a role in helping people make up or even change their minds, or are they merely tools to reinforce already existing beliefs? 

I am quite cynical about the value of presidential debates as they are presently held. You’d never interview someone for an important job and ask such open-ended questions and accept such evasive, non-committal or tangential answers.

I feel it is the obligation of each interviewer to keep pressing each candidate until they get a specific answer to a question. After all this is a job interview for perhaps the most important position around; it is not a beauty contest or popularity poll.

In this vein, we need to rethink what questions are most revealing. For me, the key element in choosing a president is to see how he/she makes tough decisions under pressure. To evaluate this aspect of character, the debate questions should challenge the candidates to respond to a unique set of problems for which they had not been previously prepared and coached. At present, presidential debates are no more than cynical sound bites designed to make each candidate maximally attractive and to make voters feel good about their candidate for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve written about this in a recent article. The link is 


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The Psychology of Market Panic

NPR has an interesting short interview with Tim Harford, columnist for the Financial Times and author of “The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World”, about why people panic in difficult markets.  Seems this is an affliction men suffer more than women, attributable (once again) to an abundance of testosterone overpowering our better judgment. 

Here’s an article in Psychology Today by David Pincus that focuses on the confidence game inherent in the market. Here’s a snippet:

Albert Bandura has led research into confidence (technical term is “self-efficacy;” for about 30 years now. The central work in this area was based on building confidence in snake phobics, exposing these individuals to Boa Constrictors and assessing which factors most successfully predict their ability to eventually face or handle these snakes. Bandura’s primary result was that confidence beliefs predicted success more strongly than any other factor studied, even past success. So belief is crucial, at the level of the individual, and apparently at the larger scale of this complex network – the collective confidence of people in the markets. In other words, the confidence of individuals is critical, as collectively this confidence emerges at the much larger scale of collective behavior within the economy. Confidence is contagious among individuals, as is chaos and panic. The recent fatal run on withdrawals from Washington Mutual is a clear example. The confidence of the part, the individual, is critical for understanding the confidence of the whole, the collective behavior of the markets and the banks. The reverse is true as well. My inclination to pull out of my 401K, to buy gold and bury it in the back yard will combine with that inclination of others as the market drops in day-to-day 10% chunks, and the value of gold puffs up. And these figures serve to feed the catastrophic collapse and ensuing chaos. Continue reading…

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Using Brain Implants to Think Aloud

The new Scientific American Mind  has a slew of excellent articles, all well worth perusing, including a piece on how brain implants (neural prosthesis) are allowing a small group of paralyzed people to talk by mentally communicating words through a computer, which in turn translates them into spoken words. Here’s an excerpt:

Eight years ago, when Erik Ramsey was 16, a car accident triggered a brain stem stroke that left him paralyzed. Though fully conscious, Ramsey was completely paralyzed, essentially “locked in,” unable to move or talk. He could communicate only by moving his eyes up or down, thereby answering questions with a yes or a no.

Ramsey’s doctors recommended sending him to a nursing facility. Instead his parents brought him home. In 2004 they met neurologist Philip R. Kennedy, chief scientist at Neural Signals in Duluth, Ga. He offered Ramsey the chance to take part in an unusual experiment. Surgeons would implant a high-tech device called a neural prosthesis into Ramsey’s brain, enabling him to communicate his thoughts to a computer that would translate them into spoken words.

Today Ramsey sports a small metal electrode in his brain. Its thin wires penetrate a fraction of an inch into his motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, including the motion of his vocal muscles. When Ramsey thinks of saying a sound, the implant captures the electrical firing of nearby neurons and transmits their impulses to a computer, which decodes them and produces the sounds. So far Ramsey can only say a few simple vowels, but Kennedy believes that he will recover his full range of speech by 2010.

Ramsey’s neural prosthesis ranks among the most sophisticated implanted devices that translate thoughts into actions. Such systems listen to the brain’s instructions for movement—even when actual movement is no longer possible—and decode the signals for use in operating a computer or moving a robot. The technology needed for such implants, including powerful microprocessors, improved filters and longer-lasting batteries, has advanced rapidly in the past few years. Funding for such projects has also grown. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, sponsors research in prosthetics for wounded war veterans.  Continue reading…

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