Monthly Archives: August 2009

Warning: Self Delusion Can be Painful

Punch in the Face ImpactSelf delusion is a remarkably powerful thing.  It’s capable, for instance, of enabling total blindness to basic tenets of physical reality.  At the same time, it’s capable of causing others to believe something so deeply that they’ll think and act in ways precisely in line with what the delusion demands, as if following a script. 

The video below is a terrific illustration of self delusion’s power, both internal and external.  The older gentleman is a self reputed Kiai Master — Kiai being a martial art that requires no physical contact with one’s opponent. The wielder harnesses his or her Kiai (or Chi/Ki) energy to fight instead of using hands and feet.  You’ll see at the beginning of the video that the Kiai Master appears to effortlessly throw his students around the dojo without ever physically touching them. 

Clearly this guy has a big following and plenty of students who believe exactly what he says — and evidently, so does he. So sure is he that his power is real that he offered a $5000 challenge to anyone willing to fight him.  Unfortunately for him, someone took him up on it. 



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On an entirely different topic — I was recently interviewed by, posted here.  It’s a great website for anyone interested in water conservation and other water-related issues.



Filed under Videos

Changing Socrates’ Diapers: An Interview with Author Alison Gopnik

gopnik150At different points in history, baby brains have been described as blank slates, balls of clay, and information sponges—and the debate about which is closer to the mark has smoldered for centuries. Today, the debate is more refined, though no less dynamic, and percolates amidst a commercial sea of products claiming to catalyze genius in junior’s noggin.  Finding grains of truth in this tsunami of misdirection might be one of the most exhausting things already exhausted new parents try to do. Baby is, after all, worth the effort.

Thankfully, incisive minds are on the case, and Alison Gopnik is a pioneer in the pack. Her earlier book, Scientist in the Crib, was a refreshing change from the deluge of speculative “how to” baby books for parents, aiming instead to tell us what science has actually uncovered about the minds of children. Her latest book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life, takes the discussion to a higher level, challenging long-held assumptions about the quasi-consciousness of the infant brain, and showing that a better understanding of how babies think provides richer knowledge of the ongoings in our heads.  She recently spent some time discussing her new book with Neuronarrative.

NN: When I saw the title of your new book, I instantly thought of a baby playing with toys in a similar way that a philosopher plays with ideas. Is that the sort of image you had in mind when you started writing?

Gopnik: Well, partly that, but mostly the thought was that the philosopher should be paying more attention to the babies. Childhood is a significant and profound part of life for all of us but it hardly appeared in 2500 years of philosophy. Fortunately the scientific discoveries of the past thirty years have started to change that,

dd-gopnik03_ph2_0500397321You discuss the different sorts of intelligence that babies and adults possess. Briefly, what characterizes each and how do they differ?

The idea is that babies explore, and adults exploit. I argue that the very purpose of childhood is to give us a long protected period in which we can explore the world without having to act on it.  Babies are designed to learn as much as they can about the world. Adults are designed to take what they’ve learned and act on it swiftly and efficiently.

A lot of recent research has been devoted to plasticity in the adult brain, suggesting that the brain can change in significant ways even in life’s later stages. What distinguishes that sort of plasticity from what we see in the young brain?

The main difference is that adult plasticity seems to be much more “top-down.” It’s the result of intentional processes of attention and training. It also seems to be balanced by inhibitory processes that actually reduce plasticity in other parts of the brain. Young brains seem much more generally plastic and changes in those brains are driven more by bottom-up experience. In fact, you might say that as adults when we pay attention to something we are really intentionally regressing a small part of our brain to its infant state, while we hold the rest constant.

You said in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that “our mature brain seems to be programmed by our childhood experiences—we plan based on what we’ve learned as children.” Some will see in that statement a hint of biological determinism. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “programmed” in this sense?

The thought is anti-deterministic, I think, in that it says that what we learn as children shapes what we can do as adults – it’s not all genetic. But, of course, we continue to be able to learn as adults, we just don’t do it as generally or easily or spontaneously. In fact, much of my recent work has been informed by Bayesian statistical ideas. And from that perspective it makes a lot of sense to be less willing to give up ideas when they’ve been very strongly confirmed by lots of prior experience. But I think science shows that everything is up for revision, in principle, even as adults

parent-9780688177881What’s your impression of the vast “make your baby smarter” industry that’s sprung up in the last couple of decades?  Can we make our babies smarter, or are we just making the creators of these products richer?

I understand where it comes from.  It’s probably the first time in history when most people who have children haven’t had much experience with children before – and they’re understandably anxious. But I do think it’s a sad irony that we spend billions on these basically useless products, and very little to support the caregivers – parents and preschool teachers and babysitters who actually make a real difference to how children grow up.

On a related note, what’s your advice to parents of babies and young children who want their kids to intellectually and imaginatively be all they can be?

I’m afraid this is a case where the psychological wisdom really is pretty banal – talk to your children, read to them, pay attention to them—but not too much. Let them watch you. Give them a rich environment to learn in, with the understanding that from an evolutionary point of view the ideally rich learning environment for babies probably involved large amounts of mud, relatives and livestock. Unfortunately, second cousins once removed, jolly great uncles and friendly pigs are in short supply nowadays. But a sandbox, friends and babysitters, and a bean plant and a goldfish will do very well. And though it’s banal, it’s a lot more than many parents can manage.


Filed under Interviews

I Must Be Guilty – the Video Says So

videoA minor landslide of research from the past few years points to a dismaying fact about memory — it can be manipulated, far more often and extensively than previously thought. One implication of this realization is that eyewitness testimony, a stanchion of our criminal justice system, is no longer beyond reproach. Another is that in a world dominated by endlessly plyable electronic media, you can never be 100% sure that what you’re seeing is what really happened. Two recent studies from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology illustrate that last point nicely.


Forget What You Thought, Believe What You See

In the first study, researchers wanted to know if they could convince people that they’d committed an act they never did.  To accomplish this, they created a computerized multiple choice gambling task for participants to complete, which entailed increasing the winnings from a sum of money as much as possible by answering questions. The money was withdrawn from an online bank based on cues given to participants by the computer program: when they answered questions correctly, they were told to withdraw money from the bank; when they answered incorrectly, they were instructed to deposit money back into the bank. Subjects were videotaped while they completed the task.

Afterwards, participants were asked to sit and discuss the task with a researcher. During the discussion, the researcher said he’d identified “a problem” during the task, and then accused the participant of stealing money from the bank. Some of the participants were told that video evidence showed them taking the money (but they weren’t actually shown the video), while others were shown video “proving” that they took the money. What the participants didn’t know, of course, is that the video had been edited to make it appear as if they did something they had not. Participants were then asked to sign a confession stating that they did in fact take money from the bank when they should have deposited it back.

Participants were given two chances to sign the confession, and by the end of the day all of them did.  87% signed on the first request, and the remaining 13% signed on the second.  Interestingly, even participants merely told that the video showed them taking the money eventually complied with the confession. 


I Didn’t See It, But I Must Have Seen It

The next study used the same principle, but this time to see if people would accuse someone else of doing something they had not.  Again a gambling task was used, but instead of one person completing it, two people placed side by side completed it – sitting not even a foot apart, with monitors in full view of each other. Subjects were videotaped as before, and the video was doctored as before to show one of the two participants taking money.

Afterwards, the “innocent” participant was asked to discuss the task with a researcher, and told that video proof had been obtained showing that the other participant stole money.  In order to pursue action against that person, the researcher said, the innocent participant would have to sign a witness statement corroborating the video evidence. Some of the participants were, as before, only told that the video existed, while others were shown the edited video (and there was also a control group neither told about nor shown video). 

The results:  When first asked to sign the witness statement against the other person, nearly 40% of the participants who watched the video complied. Another 10% signed when asked a second time. Only 10% of those who were only told about the video agreed to sign, and about 5% of the control group signed the statement.

These results point to the alarming power of video to shape and distort memory, not only about others, but about ourselves as well.  In the first study it wasn’t only watching a video that made a difference; merely being told that a video existed made nearly as big an impact. And it’s worth noting that in the second study some of the people who signed the witness statement became so convinced that the other person was guilty that they went on to insert even more details of suspicious behavior, as if they knew the other person was doing something wrong all along.

On the upside, the majority of the participants in the second study refused to sign the witness statement under any circumstances. And clearly there are plenty of examples of bad outcomes prevented, and actual wrongdoers caught, via video evidence.  But if fabricated images lead even a small percentage of people to throw someone under the proverbial bus, concern (though not paranoia) is still plenty warranted.
Wade, K., Green, S., & Nash, R. (2009). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1607

Nash, R., & Wade, K. (2009). Innocent but proven guilty: Eliciting internalized false confessions using doctored-video evidence Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (5), 624-637 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1500


Filed under About Research

Judgments Get Heavy When Weight is on Your Mind

olympic-disaster-2A few years ago I was part of a group that was making a presentation to state health agencies on effective ways to educate the public about air quality.  During our last practice session before the real presentation, one of the older, sly presenters brought in three massive bound documents and dropped them with a thud on the lectern.  Before we started, I asked him what he was going to do with them. He replied, “You’ll see.” 

When it was his turn to present, I did indeed see. Every time he made reference to research backing up his assertions, he lifted one of the documents high enough for the audience to see, and then judiciously dropped it onto the wood surface, just enough for everyone to feel the weight of it.  I never asked him if the documents actually contained the research he was mentioning, but it really didn’t matter. The effect was potent. 

Having just read a new study in the journal Psychological Science entitled, “Weight as an Embodiment of Importance,” I now better understand why. Over the course of multiple experiments, researchers investigated whether judgments of importance are tied to an experience of weight. 

For a bit of theoretical context, consider how many ways in which weight—or facilitators of weight—overtly affect our judgments.  In English, we use the term “weighty” to signify something substantial and important. We also use the term “gravitas” to connote seriousness, an elaboration on our understanding of gravity as a force exerting the power of weight over everything around us (and us).  We also think of weight as the arbiter of physical strength: the more someone can lift—or looks as if he or she can lift—the more impressive. Weight is even a socioeconomic force, as in the size of someone’s car or SUV.  I recall when the Hummer first arrived on the scene, we heard a lot about it being a “six-ton SUV,” as if that specification made it more noteworthy than any other SUV. 

In the study, a group of participants were first asked to estimate the value of several foreign currencies while they held a clipboard. Some held a light clipboard, others held a heavy one.  As predicted, participants who held the heavy clipboards estimated the value of the currencies significantly higher than those who held light clipboards.

The second study repeated the first, but instead of judging currencies, participants were asked to judge the importance of having a voice in an important decision making process (they were given a scenario involving a crucial decision affecting them being made by a university board).  Again, participants holding heavy clipboards judged the importance of having a voice in the decision as more important than those holding light clipboards – a result showing that even something abstract, like making a decision, is tied to experience of weight.

In the final two studies, participants were asked to agree or disagree with arguments of varying strengths.  This is a test of cognitive elaboration, one’s tendency to assume and defend a strong position in light of given factors. The results again showed that people holding heavy clipboards assumed stronger, more polarized positions than those holding light clipboards, and made significantly stronger arguments in defense of the positions. Opinions of those with the heavy clipboards were voiced more vituperatively than the others as well.

What makes this series of studies so impressive is that they cut across tangible and intangible variables (currencies vs. decisions, arguments, etc.) and arrived at a quite consistent result:  experience of weight affects our thinking, and does so without our noticing.  Yet another of the “hidden” but very real forces shaping our thoughts and actions every day of the week.
Jostmann, N., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x


Filed under About Research

And Now for Something Completely Different: Encephalon 74

circusI’ve been following the Encephalon blog carnival for many moons, so I was honored to be asked to host the 74th edition of what has become the premiere showcase for the best of the best in brain and mind blogging.  We’re rabid Monty Python fans here at Neuronarrative, so this edition is crafted in the tradition of that estimable show without equal.  And here we go…

One, being the number of the first section.

Cognitive Daily starts off the carnival with an excellent post called Even non-musicians can express musical intentions with just one note, which addresses the question: Does it take a music expert to convey emotion through music, or can anyone do it?  Per usual, Cognitive Daily does a thorough job of pointing us to the answer, and you’ll come away knowing you’ve definately learned something.

john_cleeseAnd while we’re talking about emotion, let’s silly walk on over to Generally Thinking where we find a post entitled Six Success-Enhancing Behaviours that Good Moods Bring You, which discusses research that teases out six quite pragmatic results of maintaining a sunny disposition. Leaves me thinking that it’s mighty important to always look on the bright side of life.

Over at Brain Stimulant, you’ll discover a trenchant discussion of Free Will and the Brain, which doesn’t only delve into the neuroscience behind one of humanity’s perennial questions, but also a bit of quantum mechanics and a generous portion of philosophy of mind. Weighty stuff this, indeed. 

Before we go on, one question…is this the right place for an argument?

Good. Now, where were we? Ah yes…

I shall now taunt you a second time! 

The Neurocritic comes in with two entries, and both warrant mention.  The first is called  None of Us are Saints that discusses the case of Albert Fish, serial child killer and cannibal who was executed in 1936. He planned a notorious kidnapping and murder in a meticulous fashion but suffered from religious delusions. Was he sane or insane? 

silly walkThe second entry is entitled A New Clitoral Homunculus? (you read that correctly) about a serious fMRI study that mapped the somatosensory representation of the clitoris in 15 healthy women. The study involved electrical stimulation of the dorsal clitoral nerve (all very clinical, no sexual arousal involved. At least none that we can mention here).

For stimulation of a completely different sort, take a wander over to AK’S Rambling Thoughts and read Concepts, Cognition, and Anthropomorphism, an erudite exploration into how the use of symbols and concepts significantly predated the development of language.  Fasten your seatbelts because it’s a solid read.   

Right!  By the way, with all the reading we brain and mind bloggers do, have I mentioned how much my brain hurts? I could really use a good Brain Specialist!

Three shall be the number of the section that you shall count, and the number of the counting shall be three.

Neuroanthropology brings us an excellent post called In Praise of Partial Explanation (and Flowcharts), a stalwart defense of the use of flowcharts and diagramming.  Let me tell you something fellow readers, you’ll not find a more thorough and readable discussion of flow charts and diagrams and how they enable us to make sense of complicated topics. Quote me on that.

Monty_Python-Spot-The-Looney-FCAt Sharp Brains, we’re treated to a piece entitled Preparing Society for the Cognitive Age that’s reprinted with permission from the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.  Discussing the latest questions in the brain fitness field, the article suggests that advances in brain health in the 21st century are not unlike the remarkable advances in cardiovascular health in the 20th century.  Good stuff.

Also from Sharp Brains, we have a worthwhile interview with the CEO of the AAA Foundation on a new cognitive based driver safety program called DriveSharp. Cutting edge and immensely relevant.

Now here’s a question you don’t hear every day: Why do schizophrenics smoke cigarettes? That’s the topic on tap at Brain Blogger,  and it’s addressed splendidly.  Dopamine, attention, memory and sensory gating all cross paths in this well-referenced piece. You’ll finish wanting to learn more, and the author has provided the sources to get you there.

Here’s another question: What sort of delusion, do you think, leads one to want to become a lion tamer? 

And now onto the last scene. A smashing scene with some lovely acting.

Neurospeculation brings us a post entitled A new test for semispatial neglect about an article in the Annals of Neurology that originated from a question asked in a high school classroom.  I won’t give away the punchline, but let me say that they’ve got some smart students at Eastchester High. 

Channel N Video gives us a video submission called Schizophrenic Man Terrifies Kids at Party, below.

You can read more about the video at the excellent site, Channel N, right here.

Finally, the always engaging Dr. Shock brings us a brief but informative post entitled Motives for Online Gaming  that covers a study focused on, as the title suggests, why young adults play online video games.  Here’s a hint: it’s more than just about wearing cool headsets and virtually pistol whipping noobs.


Thanks to everyone who submitted entries for this edition — it has been my distinct pleasure to host. The next edition of Encephalon will be hosted by Ionian Enchantment on September 14th, back on its regular fortnightly schedule. Send your entries to

rabbit_2Now, carry forth with your search for the Grail. Just remember, don’t risk another frontal assault from the rabbit…it’s dynamite! (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?)


Filed under Uncategorized

Dishonesty and Emotion have a Stronger Link than We Think


depressed-office-worker_64Let’s say that you work in an office with several people, and everyone is expected to meet certain performance standards. You’re an outstanding performer, considered one of the best in the firm. A couple offices down from you is a guy named Wendel, and you feel sorry for Wendel because he’s not quite able to meet the performance standards and is always teetering on the edge of losing his job. Your sense of Wendel is that he’s a good guy who just never gets the right breaks, and if he were given more chances to succeed he could probably pull himself out of his slump.

One day, you’re working on a project team with Wendel and notice that he’s screwed up a major report bigtime—big enough that he’s sure to get fired if anyone else sees it—but so far only you have seen it and you have a brief opportunity to cover up Wendel’s mistakes. If you cover them up, in effect lying by passing off your work as Wendel’s, you’ll probably get away with it and Wendel will go on to work another day. If you don’t, he’s finished. 

What will you do?

We normally associate acting dishonestly with causing harm to others, but it’s also quite possible that a dishonest act can help someone, like Wendel.  Under what conditions we’re prone to act dishonestly to hurt or help another is what a new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated.

Researchers created a mock scenario in which study participants were randomly assigned to one of two roles: solver or grader. Each solver was also randomly assigned to a grader. Participants in both roles became either ‘‘wealthy’’ or ‘‘poor’’ through a lottery in which they had a 50% probability of winning $20. This lottery, together with the random pairing of solvers and graders, created four pair types: wealthy grader and wealthy solver; poor grader and poor solver; wealthy grader and poor solver; and poor grader and wealthy solver. After the lottery, solvers solved multiple anagrams. Graders then graded solvers’ work. Graders had the opportunity to dishonestly help or hurt solvers by misreporting their performance. If a grader overstated a solver’s performance, then the solver earned undeserved money. If the grader understated the solver’s performance, then the solver did not earn deserved money.

The results: When a wealthy grader was assigned to a poor solver, the grader overwhelmingly misreported the score to help the solver (about 70% of the time). When a wealthy grader was assigned to a wealthy solver, the grader nearly always reported the score honestly (90%).  On the other side of the coin, when a poor grader was assigned to a poor solver, the grader nearly always misreported the score to help (95%). When a poor grader was assigned to a wealthy solver, however, the grader misreported the score negatively to hurt the solver about 30% of the time. A graph of the results is below.


The reasons for these results, the researchers surmise, are less about financial self interest and more about emotional responses to inequity.  Individuals increase their dishonest hurting behavior and reduce their helping behavior when they are worse off than the other person.  Conversely, they increase dishonest helping behavior when they are better off than the other person. 

What we seem to be back to with this study is the realization that we’re not so rational after all.  Dishonesty, in either direction, appears to be motivated by emotional reaction more than rational evaluations of self interest – at least in the context of relatively small sums of money (it would be interesting to see what would happen if we jacked the amount up a few hundred bucks).

So, not to forget about Wendel – how’d he make out in your mind?
Gino, F., & Pierce, L. (2009). Dishonesty in the Name of Equity Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02421.x


Filed under About Research

The Fruits of Narcissism are Putrid for Employees

Office Space bossNarcissitic Personality Disorder – defined in the DSM-IV as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

Everyone at some point has come in contact with a narcissist, and it usually doesn’t take long to realize that you’d rather be just about anywhere else than in the shadow of his or her monstrous ego.  For the unfortunates who work for narcissists, however, the exit options aren’t so good – and new research reveals the psychological toll this can take.

Researchers at Florida State University asked more than 1,200 employees to provide opinions regarding the narcissistic tendencies of their bosses.  They reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction, higher stress levels, lower levels of effort and performance, and higher levels of depressed feelings about work. Plus, they reported generally negative feelings about the organizations they work for and the work they do.

And it gets worse.

Not only are people who work for narcissists generally miserable, but they also report having to stand by while their bosses exaggerate their accomplishments even if it means disparaging their employees, brag at every opportunity, and only do a favor if they’re promised one in return. 

The net result of all this for the organization is that morale nosedives, followed by productivity. Narcissists might be successful in a lot of things, but it seems that they’re especially good at creating toxic work environments.

Which begs the question, why do companies keep hiring them?  The answer has much to do with perceptions of self-confidence, and a failure to distinguish a healthy level of self-confidence from unhealthy egoism.  The rub is that because narcissists come across as outgoing, self-secure go getters, they naturally grab more attention from employers over less gregarious candidates.  The misperception that managers must be extroverts with robust personalities opens the door for narcissists, who have those traits in spades, to take over teams of employees soon to be made miserable.

The thing about narcissists, though, is that while they seem to be all about success, they really aren’t that concerned with alluding failure.  A study last year indicates that narcissists have a peculiar “approach-avoidance” personality tendency. That is, they are strongly motivated to approach success, but weakly motivated to avoid failure.  This helps explain someone like Bernie Madoff, who was playing a game he was bound to ultimately lose—and take many people with him—and yet kept right on going as if the success would never end.

And to make matters more complicated, there’s decent evidence to suggest that there are at least two faces of narcissism – someone can be an overt narcissist, the kind we usually talk about, but there are also those who are covert narcissists. This study examined the traits of both and found that covert narcissists aren’t necessarily so outgoing and forceful, and can easily slip by the narcissism radar most of us possess. 

In any case, if you work for a narcissist, you have our sincere sympathies. 

Here’s a very interesting counter argument on this study at Scientific Blogging.


Filed under About Research