Monthly Archives: September 2009

Author Ray Kurzweil on the Web Within Us

Futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, visits Google’s Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss his book “The Web Within Us: When Minds and Machines Become One.” This event took place on July 1, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.


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Got Pain? Take Two Photos of Your Loved One and Call Me in the Morning

handsBefore our first son was born, my wife and I took labor preparation classes at the hospital.  The instructor suggested that when the big day arrived, husbands (or partners) should bring to the hospital a photograph of someone or something that their wives love (kids, pets, family members, etc).  While in labor, the instructor said, the photo will help the soon-to-be mother cope with the pain. 

This seemed like decent counsel to me, though probably more of a “good feeling” suggestion than a scientific one.  I’ve just come across a new study, however, that injects some sound science into the advice.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, investigated whether the pain-reducing effects of social support can be activated with a photograph of a supporter instead of the real thing.  Previous research has demonstrated that activating mental representations of individuals can produce effects similar to the person being there. But in this study researchers wanted to know if a photograph could produce an effect similar to someone in pain holding a loved one’s hand — a  higher benchmark to achieve.

The subjects were 28 women in long-term relationships.  They were brought into a testing room and their partners were brought into another to have photos taken.  The women underwent testing to determine their pain thresholds via thermal stimulation. Once the thresholds were established for each subject, they were then exposed to a series of conditions while experiencing pain, including (1) holding the hand of their partner as he sat behind a curtain, (2) holding a squeeze ball, (3) holding the hand of a stranger, (4) viewing a photograph of their partner on a computer screen, (5) viewing a photograph of a male stranger, and (6) viewing nothing.  Subjects rated each condition’s unpleasantness on a 21-box numerical scale (the Gracely Box Scale, used in similar previous studies).

Here’s what happened: As expected, holding their partner’s hand resulted in significantly reduced pain ratings when compared to holding an object or a stranger’s hand.  Viewing their partner’s photograph also produced significant pain reduction when compared to the object and stranger conditions. Interestingly, viewing a photo was also marginally MORE effective than holding their partner’s hand.  The graph below shows the results.


What seems to be happening here is that our brains can be primed to conjure mental associations with being loved and supported just by viewing a photo — and this priming is potent enough to actually reduce how much pain is felt.  And, as the results suggest, in some cases a photo may be even more effective than the real thing.
Master, S., Eisenberger, N., Taylor, S., Naliboff, B., Shirinyan, D., & Lieberman, M. (2009). A Picture’s Worth: Partner Photographs Reduce Experimentally Induced Pain Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02444.x


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If You Want to Catch a Liar, Make Him Draw

interrogationA man accused of a crime is brought into a police interrogation room and sits down at an empty table.  There’s no polygraph equipment in sight, and the typical two-cop questioning team isn’t in the room either.  Instead, one officer enters the room with a piece of paper and a pencil in his hands. He sets them in front of the suspect, steps back, and calmly says, “draw.”

That’s a greatly oversimplified description of what could happen in actual interrogation rooms if the results of a recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology are widely adopted. The study is the first to investigate whether drawing is an effective lie detection technique in comparison to verbal methods.

Researchers hypothesized that several tendencies would become evident in the scribbles and sketches of liars not found in those of non-liars. For instance, they suspected that liars, when asked to sketch out the particulars of a location where they hadn’t really been to meet someone they hadn’t really met, would provide less detail in their drawings. They also suspected that the drawing would seem less plausible overall, and would not include a depiction of the person they allegedly met.  

Finally, they hypothesized that non-liars would use a “shoulder-camera” perspective to draw the situation – a direct, line-of-sight view that previous research suggests is more indicative of truth telling. Liars, they suspected, would use an “overhead-camera” perspective, indicating a sense of detachment from the situation.  

Subjects were given a “mission” that included going to a designated location and meeting a person with whom they would exchange information. In all, four different missions were conducted. The particulars of the missions were constructed such that about half of the participants would, when interviewed, be able to tell the truth about what happened, and half would have to lie (the researchers used a fabricated espionage theme to work this out – very clever).

During the interview, subjects were asked questions about their experience, as would happen in a normal interrogation, and also asked to draw the particulars of their experience.  Results of the verbal responses could then be compared to the drawn responses to determine which were more effective in identifying liars.

Here’s what happened: No significant differences in level of detail were found between verbal and drawn statements, but the plausibility of truthful drawings was somewhat higher than deceptive drawings. A similar difference in plausibility was not evident between truthful and deceptive verbal statements.

More interestingly, significantly more truth tellers included the “agent” (other person in the situation) in their drawings than did liars (80% vs. 13%).  In addition, significantly more truth tellers drew from a shoulder-camera view than liars, who by in large drew from an overhead view (53% vs. 19%). In verbal statements, more truth tellers also mentioned the agent (53%) than liars (19%).

Using the “sketching the agent” result alone, it was possible to identify 80% of the truth tellers and 87% of the liars – results superior to most traditional interview techniques.

The main reason drawing seems to be effective in identifying liars is that they have less time to work out the details. Someone who is telling the truth already has a visual image of where they were and what happened (even if it’s not perfect, which of course it never is), but liars have to manufacture the details. It’s easier to concoct something verbally than to first visualize and then create it on paper.
Vrij, A., Leal, S., Mann, S., Warmelink, L., Granhag, P., & Fisher, R. (2009). Drawings as an innovative and successful lie detection tool Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1627


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When it Comes to Trusting Authority, Moral Conviction and Religiosity Part Ways

PASOne of the consistent elements in political discussions is the influence of religious belief on attitudes toward government. And typically it’s assumed that a high degree of religiosity is synonymous with a high degree of moral conviction – they’re popularly thought to go hand-in-hand.  So, if someone’s attitude toward governmental authority is influenced by his or her religiosity, it should logically follow that this attitude is further buttressed by his or her moral conviction; the influence should be the same. 

But is that true?

A new study in the journal Psychological Science sought to find out how religiosity and moral conviction influence attitudes toward authority.  A survey was administered to a representative sample of 727 Americans, ages 19-90, to asses the degree of trust or mistrust people have in major decisions made by the Supreme Court (in this case, physician assisted suicide, a.k.a ‘PAS’).  The sample drew from a wide socioeconomic and educational background.

Measures evaluated via the survey included:

  • Support or opposition to PAS
  • Level of strength or weakness of support or opposition (to gauge attitude extremity)
  • Overall level of moral conviction
  • Trust in Supreme Court to make decisions regarding PAS
  • Length of time it takes to give an opinion on level of trust in Supreme Court (to reveal the degree of visceral emotion linked to this opinion; more emotion = less time)
  • Level of overall religiosity

Here’s what researchers found out:  First, the stronger a person’s moral conviction, the less they trust the Supreme Court to make a judgment about PAS.  Conversely, the higher the degree of a person’s religiosity, the MORE they trust the Supreme Court to make a decision on this sensitive issue. 

Just to be clear about that — the results for moral conviction were exactly the opposite of those for religiosity. 

Also, the stronger a person’s moral conviction, the faster they responded to the trust question, indicating a visceral reaction as opposed to a more considered one.  Likewise, the higher the degree of someone’s religiosity, the faster they responded to the trust question.  So in the case of both moral conviction and religiosity, responses were significantly visceral.

At least two major implications can be drawn out from this study. The first is that the typical assumption that religiosity and moral conviction are necessarily synonymous is false. Moral conviction in this study was strongly linked to distrust in legitimate authority, while religiosity was strongly linked to trust in legitimate authority.

The second implication is that morally convicted people don’t merely “react” to decisions with which they don’t agree. Instead, it’s clear that they don’t trust legitimate authorities to make the right decisions in the first place.  Their reaction is simply a projection of a predisposition already strongly held. 

The one crucial area this study didn’t tease out fully enough, in my opinion, is where religiosity and moral conviction overlap. Presumably, level of moral conviction would trump level of religiosity on attitudes toward authority (at least it certainly seems this way) – but it’s also possible that religiosity has a moderating effect on moral conviction’s influence in some cases.  It would have been useful to see this worked out more carefully in the study; nevertheless, the results are telling.

UPDATE:  It’s always great when an author of a study reviewed here comments on the post.  Dr. Linda Skitka, one of the authors of this study, left the comment below, which provides an important clarification.  Many thanks!

I’m one of the authors of this article. FYI: we did test whether religiosity moderated the effects of moral conviction, and it did not–in other words, the effects of moral conviction on trust in the Supreme Court did not change as a function of whether the perceiver was low or high in religiosity. We measured both general religiosity, as well as whether people’s feelings about PAS were based on religious convictions, and got the same pattern of results regardless of which way we operationalized “religiousness”. Interestingly (and counter-intuitively), about one-third of those whose attitude about PAS reflected a strong religious conviction did not report that their attitude about PAS was a strong moral conviction.
Wisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009). Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1059-1063 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.x


Filed under About Belief, About Morality, About Religion, About Research

Never Underestimate the Power of Conformity

Apologies for the radio silence – I’m traveling this week and net time has been limited.  For now, take a look at the video below made by a social psychology student at Mississippi State University for an experiment on conformity to gender roles.  What’s amazing isn’t just that person after person does exactly what the signs tell them, but some of them actually stop and go through the other door when they see that they’re about to violate the rule.  Below that is a video updating the famous Asch conformity test. 



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The Closer You Are, the More I Believe You

Video_CameraLet’s say that you’re watching a taped television show in which someone is being interviewed about an alleged theft she may or may not have committed. She offers a detailed explanation as to why she’s innocent, and you as one viewer among many are left to decide if she’s telling the truth. 

Now let’s say that instead of watching her on broadcast television, you’re watching her live on closed circuit television. Only you can see her being interviewed about the alleged crime – it’s just you, a TV monitor and a woman in a room telling her story.

Finally, imagine that instead of watching her on any sort of television, you are sitting across the table from her, listening to her explain why she’s innocent.

Under which of those three conditions do you think you’d find the woman more believable?

The answer may have much to do with a dynamic called the “vividness effect,”  which suggests that vivid testimony—that which is perceived as emotionally interesting, concrete and proximate—will be paid more attention, perceived as more credible, and better remembered than “non-vivid” testimony.  By this argument, if you are listening to someone tell a compelling story of their innocence in person—the condition that offers the greatest proximity and opportunity for emotional engagement—you are more likely to find her credible than you would if watching her on a TV screen (assuming, that is, that the televised presentation hasn’t been edited and enhanced to artificially inflate its vividness).

A new study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology tested this theory by having adult observers watch children testify about an experience in specific detail.  One group of children testified about a real event (an encounter with a stranger that the researchers had staged); another group testified about an imagined event (an imagined encounter with a stranger). 

Adults observed the children in three conditions:  (1) a live interview (2) a live closed circuit TV interview (3) a videotaped interview. The adults were asked to evaluate the testimony across several criteria, including how plausible and convincing it was, how confident they believed the child to be, and whether the child’s testimonial style was defensive, straightforward, natural, or nervous.

The results:  Across the board, children testifying in the live interview,  whether they were describing the real or imagined event, were perceived in more positive terms than children in the closed circuit TV and videotaped conditions.  In turn, children in the closed circuit condition were perceived more positively than those in the videotaped condition. By far, the most significant gap was found between the live and videotaped conditions, suggesting that the displacement of proximity inherent in videotaping drastically reduces vividness, and along with it, believability. 

The most obvious implication of this finding is how courtroom testimony is perceived. In some countries, witnesses are allowed to testify via closed circuit TV rather than having to face the defendant and a courtroom full of observers in court (an arrangement offered particularly to children who have experienced trauma).  This study suggests that witness credibility could be handicapped if anything but live testimony is presented.

One interesting twist – after the study, children were asked to rate how nervous they felt in person versus being videotaped. As might be expected, they generally reported being less nervous when videotaped and found the non-live interviews easier than the live interviews. Yet, adults perceived the videotaped children as more nervous and less confident than those in the live interviews, which suggests a predisposition to perceiving the videotaped interviews as less credible – the believability bar was higher for non-live interviews from the start.

In other words, we’re conditioned to perceive things that are videotaped with more skepticism, and convincing us otherwise isn’t easy by any stretch.
Landström, S., & Granhag, P. (2009). In-court versus out-of-court testimonies: Children’s experiences and adults’ assessments Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1606

.       .         .        .

Wanted to let you know that I’ve started a new blog on the True/Slant network called Brainspin.  I’ll be focusing there on what technology is, or isn’t, doing to our heads.  Neuronarrative will continue with regular programming here as usual — no changes — I’ll just be writing a few more posts each week at True/Slant as well.  Please visit when you can, we’re going to have some serious fun over there.  Thanks!


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If You’re Feeling Warm and Fuzzy, It Might Just be the Coffee

couple-happy-holding-coffee-150If you have a falling out with someone and they start ignoring you, they’re “giving you the cold shoulder.”  If you feel emotionally close to someone, you have “warm feelings” towards that person.  We’re accustomed to using metaphorical language like this to describe human relationships, but do these words also imply more literal meanings?

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated whether the actual experience of warmth or coldness influences our perception of social relationships.  In other words, are temperature differences tied to differences in social closeness and social distance? 

The study included three experiments; in the first, participants entered the lab and were handed either a cold or a warm beverage.  They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire (which was just a prop for the study), and then asked to select a person they knew and rate their relationship with that person on a scale called the Inclusion of Other in Self, designed to determine the degree of closeness between the subject and the person he or she selected.  At no time were the subjects made aware why they were holding a warm or cold beverage — all they knew is that they were being asked to complete a few questionnaires. 

The results: subjects holding the warm beverage had a significantly higher level of perceived closeness to the individual they selected than subjects holding the cold beverage, bearing out the hypothesis that physical warmth is tied to perception of social “warmth.” 

The second experiment investigated whether watching film clips in a warm or cold room influenced the choice of language used to describe the film, with the hypothesis being that warmer temperatures will influence subjects to use more concrete language (such as “John punched David”) versus more abstract descriptions ( “John is angry with David”).  The results were that subjects watching in the warm room did in fact use more concrete language to describe the film than subjects in the cold room, who used abstract terms to describe the same clips. Previous research has shown that use of concrete language strongly correlates with a sense of social proximity, whereas abstract language correlates with social distance.

I notice similarities in these results with those of a study discussed here, which indicates that physical experience of weight influences perception of weight (you might recall that one, where subjects held either a heavy or light clipboard while evaluating amounts of foreign currencies and importance of decisions).  Taken together, these studies offer strong support for the argument that our perceptions are influenced by multiple factors lurking outside our conscious grasp. 

All of this reminds me of a a stunt from the Penn and Teller show “Bull Sh**”, that shows how the experience of being in an expensive restaurant and given elaborate descriptions of the food by a well-versed waiter influences perception of taste. The effect in this case is more direct than those in the studies cited above, but still in the same ballpark. [upfront warning, the clip is full of expletives — if you’ve ever watched the show you know what I mean.]
IJzerman, H., & Semin, G. (2009). The Thermometer of Social Relations: Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02434.x

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