Sunday, April 30, 2006


First up is an older post that I had meant to link to way back when, but forgot, so I'm linking to it now. It's a post from Cognitive Daily titled "Seeing and awareness, or how fear can bypass the visual system," which describes an experiment in which participants exhibited a fear response to fear-inducing faces without a conscious experience of having actually seen the faces:
What Morris's team found is that although the amygdala showed more activity during unseen fear-inducing faces, other areas of the brain associated with conscious visual activity were more active when the faces were seen. The mask [the effect making it difficult to consciously perceive the faces] appeared to disrupt the conscious visual process, but not the process that led to the fear reaction. The masked images were sensed -- detected by the eye -- but not perceived. The researchers identified a separate neural pathway which activates the amygdala, independently of visual cognition.
On to something more recent, there's an interesting post by John Hawks on culture, communication (animal and human), and the relationship between human culture and other animals. It's very thought-provoking.

At Brainethics, there is a post with a link to and discussion of a paper by Fisher and Marcus on the evolution of language. Here is the paper's abstract:
The human capacity to acquire complex language seems to be without parallel in the natural world. The origins of this remarkable trait have long resisted adequate explanation, but advances in fields that range from molecular genetics to cognitive neuroscience offer new promise. Here we synthesize recent developments in linguistics, psychology and neuroimaging with progress in comparative genomics, gene-expression profiling and studies of developmental disorders. We argue that language should be viewed not as a wholesale innovation, but as a complex reconfiguration of ancestral systems that have been adapted in evolutionarily novel ways.
On a non-cognitive science related note, Brandon has two posts over at Siris about the Texas revolution, the first on Lorenzo de Zavala, and the second on Juan Seguín. It had been a while since I'd thought about Seguín's story, but I'm glad Brandon reminded me of it. Seguín was at the Alamo, but after Santa Anna's army had laid siege to the mission, Travis sent him to Goliad to get reinforcements. He returned after the battle, and was charged with burying the dead defenders. After the revolution, he went into politics, but when Texas became a state, he was forced to return to Mexico, where he was arrested and forced to fight in the Mexican-American war on the Mexican side. What I find so interesting about his story is that it's one among many that shows how complicated the story of the Texas revolution, and Texas' subsequent independence and annexation, really were. Instead of the clean elementary school textbook picture of brave men fighting for freedom against a crazed (and cowardly) military dictator, it was actually a big mess of social, political, and ethnic conflicts.

This post at blac(k)ademic, inspired by discussion of the Duke rape case, takes the position that gender does not trump race. The post is very thought-provoking in itself, but it also reminds me of one of the issues on which I've been meaning to actually explore empirically (as in running actual experiments; anyone want to help with the design?). The issue is this: people who are not the subjects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression on a regular basis tend to have a more difficult time perceiving instances of those forms of oppression, especially when those instances are subtle, as they so often are. In the extreme, this leads to white people actually believing that racism is no longer a problem, and men believing that sexism is dead, and straight people being ignorant of the very idea of heteronormativity. This probably seems obvious to some of you, but as far as I can tell, there is no empirical research on the issue. In her post, blac(k)ademic is discussing the tendency for white feminists to ignore, or at least de-emphasize race when gender is also at issue. In the post, and the comments, you'll find many frustrated exhortations about the race-unconsciousness of mainstream, white-dominated feminism. I wonder whether this is an instance of what I just described: white women, who are subject to pervasive discrimination themselves for reasons of gender, being less sensitive to issues of race because they simply don't have to deal with them in their own lives. One might think that being the object of discrimination would make people more sensitive to discrimination in general, but if my own theory is right, that wouldn't be the case, and it would mean that even for white feminists and others fighting discrimination against groups to which they belong, a great deal of dilligence is required to perceive and take into account other forms of discrimination.

Oh, and I almost forgot, at Crooked Timber, you can read a passage from Karl Marx's one attempt at fiction (written when he was 19). I have to say, it makes me feel a little better about my own youthful attempts at fiction writing.

LATE ADDITION: The Neurocritic discusses a new study on video game violence.

Online Philosophy Conference

The Online Philosophy Conference has begun, and you can read the first papers and commentary here. Of the papers already up at the site, Kelly and Stich's titled "Two theories about the cognitive architecture underlying morality," and Michael Cholbi's commentary on the paper, might be of particular interest to Mixing Memory readers. Kelly and Stich are arguing for a largely nativist approach to moral psychology, which will always give me pause. I'm an empiricist at heart, and while the tendency to focus on innate intuitions is growing in moral psychology research, I can't help but feel like the inference to innate architectures, primarily from evidence of domain specificity (with the occasional "poverty of stimulus" argument thrown in for good measure), is a bit premature. But among the new wave of post-rationalist theories of moral psychology, there aren't really any good empiricist theories, except perhaps some of the connectionist ones. I sometimes wonder whether this is in part a reaction to the overly-empiricist theories of Kohlberg and his disciples, but since this new wave is still very young, I'm sure there's still time for a good empiricist to come along and shake things up.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Is It OK To Laugh at Rush?

No, not the band (it would be perfectly OK to laugh at them), but Rush Limbaugh, who is in trouble again for prescription drug-related crimes. Over at Shakespeare's Sister, which has never been the most mature progressive blog, they're laughing at him. My reaction to this was that laughing at someone for having a drug problem is beyond the pale. Granted, the man is totally morally bankrupt, and there is a certain poetic justice to him having a drug problem when he's been so hypercritical of drug addicts (am I the only one who wonders whether his harshness towards drug addicts is a part of his denial of his own drug problem?), but I just can't bring myself to laugh at anyone for having a problem that can cause so much suffering. I can't imagine anyone who's been close to someone with a drug problem laughing about it either. However, in the comments at Shakespeare's Sister, no one agreed with me, and I was labeled a conservative troll for voicing my opinion. Everyone disagreeing with me, and my saying you shouldn't laugh at anyone, even a conservative, for having a drug problem, apparently makes me a conservative. Now, I don't consider myself a conservative, and I've never been called one before (pinko commie is an epithet I've heard more frequently), but maybe I'm wrong. Have Limbaugh's sins made it OK to laugh at his suffering? I can't help but feel like that position smacks of some seriously old-school Protestant ressentiment, but that could just be me. What do you folks think?

Chomsky's Take on Starling Grammar

Here's what Chomsky had to say about the starling paper, in a LiveScience article (via John Hawks):
"The article is based on an elementary mathematical error," said Chomsky, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They are overlooking the fact that there are many intermediate systems that are ignored in mathematical linguistics because their properties are empirically irrelevant.

"Based on other work done 50 years ago by George Miller, Chomsky thinks further research would show that the birds are not grasping linguistics in the way the new study concludes. "It has nothing remotely to do with language; probably just with short-term memory," Chomsky told LiveScience.

The ability for the starlings to sort through the patterns may also just be a benefit of natural selection, a process responsible for the origin of new species and the adaptation of organisms to their environments, as proposed by Charles Darwin.

"That aside, if someone could show that other animals had the basic property of human language, it would be of very little interest to the biology of language, but would be a puzzle for general biology," Chomsky said. "It's expected that if a species has some ability that has real selectional advantage, it will use it."
I wonder, as I did with the counting explanation, whether a simple short-term memory explanation (and one based on outdated work, apparently, though I suspect Chomsky merely mentioned Miller, and the reporter ran with it) could account for the generalization. Maybe it could, but to do so, I think you'd still have to say something about pattern recognition. The question, ultimately, is whether the pattern they're pattern recognition has anything to do with context-free insertion (self-embedding, in the paper).

Also, I feel a little bit better about my post now that I've seen Chomsky express a similar conclusion to mine: the ability, if it exists, didn't evolve in birds (or, in all likelihood, any other nonhuman species) for linguistic purposes, so if the starlings really do recognize context-free recursion, the question is, what do they use that ability for?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Starlings and Recursion

UPDATE: The actual linguists at Language Log have posted on the Gentner et al. paper, here and here, and they're less impressed with the results than I am. Since they're linguists, you should probably just read their post instead of this one.

UPDATE II: A really good discussion (much better than mine, and no, I'm not just being modest), and critical evaluation of the experiments can be found here. The one thing I wonder is whether the explanation there (simple counting) would account for the generalization to
A3B3 sequences. It might, but I'd have to think about it a bit more.

A few years ago, Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch wrote a paper in which they argued that the "only uniquely human component of the language faculty" is recursion, and on top of that, recursion is the only component of the language faculty that is not co-opted from other perceptual systems (though they believe that even recursion evolved for other purposes). It turns out that recursion recursion may not be uniquely human after all. A paper by Gentner et al. published in yesterday's issue of Nature shows that, in the authors' words:
European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar.
What does that mean? I'll try to explain. Since I'm not a linguist, I'll probably get something wrong. Feel free to point out my errors.

In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Chomsky specifies a hierarchy of grammars for formal languages, with those at the top being the most inclusive grammar, called Type-0, or unrestricted grammars, and at the bottom, the least inclusive, called Type-3 or finite-state grammars, which are grammars that can be decided by a finite-state machine. In essence, a finite-state grammar includes rules that allow you to add elements (words, morphemes, phrases, or whatever) either at the beginning of a string or at the end. For example, you could start with the word "Chris," and at each step add a new word after the last word in the sequence, perhaps based on a rule specifying which word you should choose based on the last word, and come up with a sentence, like say, "Chris should stick to psychology."

Two steps up from finite-state grammars in the hierarchy is the Type-2 grammar, or the context-free grammar (the next level up is context-sensitive, at Type-1). Context-free grammars can have rules that add elements (again, these can be any linguistic element) at the beginning and end of strings, but also in the middle of strings. So, a context-free grammar would allow you to produce the sentence, "Chris should stick to psychology," and then add, in the middle of the sentence, "Chris really should stick to psychology."

One of the important arguments in Aspects is that the grammars of natural languages are not finite-state grammars. In order to model natural languages, you need at least a Type-2, context-free grammar. It's upon that argument (and the work done based on it between 1956, when Aspects was published, and 2002) that Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch are building. The type of recursion they're talking about is the type that is possible in context-free grammars. They are arguing that the only uniquely human component of the language faculty is the recursion of context-free grammars.

If that description doesn't make sense, then check out this graphic presentation from the Gentner et al. paper (Figure 1):

Gentner et al. used two elements of starlings' songs, rattles and warbles (here's a recording of a starling song, which also contain whistles not used in the stimuli), and produced two grammars, one finite-state grammar defined as ABn in the figure above, and the other a context-free grammar, defined as AnBn in the figure (an example sequence might be rattle-warble-rattle-warble). They then used operant conditioning to train half the birds to respond to the A2B2 (e.g., rattle-rattle-warble-warble ) sequences, and half to the AB2 (e.g., rattle-warble-rattle-warble) sequences. If the starlings could tell the difference between the two grammars, and thus can accurately respond to one or the other, it would mean that humans are not unique in this ability. And though it took the birds bit longer (about 3000 trials) than it usually takes for starlings to be trained to classify songs, nine out of the eleven birds they trained did learn to classify the two types of grammars. Furthermore, all nine of the birds who learned to classify the two types of grammars were also able to classify A3B3 (e.g., rattle-rattle-rattle-warble-warble-warble) and AB3 (e.g., rattle-warble-rattle-warble-rattle-warble) sequences, though not A4B4 or AB4. This implies that the birds who had learned to recognize the grammars were able to generalize that learning, and recognize longer strings. So there were memory limitations (most humans can recognize strings with more than 6 elements).

What does this mean for Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch's claims? Well, here's what Gentner et al. concluded:
Although uniquely human syntactic processing capabilities, if any, may reflect more complex context-free grammars or higher levels in the Chomsky grammatical hierarchy, it may prove more useful to consider species differences as quantitative rather than qualitative distinctions in cognitive mechanisms. Such mechanisms (for example, memory capacity) need not map precisely onto strict formal grammars and automata theories. There might be no single property or processing capacity that marks the many ways in which the complexity and detail of human language differs from non-human communication systems.
In other words, the Hauser et al. claim that the recursive component is unique to the human language faculty needs to be qualified. The recursive component itself is not unique to humans, though the complexity of that component may be. This may mean that the language faculty (in Hauser et al.'s narrow sense) involves more than just recursion.

While the authors don't address it, I think their research might also say something about one of the other major claims of Hauser et al. It's unlikely that starlings use context-free recursion in their everyday singing and song recognition, as evidenced by the fact that it took them longer than usual to learn to recognize the context-free grammar sequences. So it's also unlikely that starlings evolved the ability to recognize recursion for the purposes of singing/song-recognition. Instead, the ability probably evolved for some other reason. Hauser et al. suggest that it may have evolved in humans for faculties other than language as well, and give as possible examples number computation, navigation, and social relations. I don't really know anything about European starling social relations, or their ability to compute numbers, but navigation certainly seems like a possibility for the evolution of recursion in birds. While it's not direct evidence, the fact that recursion may have evolved in birds for reasons other than language production and comprehension means that, even if it evolved separately in humans (and it likely did, as Fitch and Hauser found no evidence that cotton-top tamarins could recognize context-free grammar sequences), it could have evolved for use by faculties other than language in our evolutionary history too.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

And Now for Some Good Research

After exposing you to some really bad research, I felt a rather intense pang of conscience, and decided I should at least mention some good research. It just so happens that I read about some this morning. It's a pretty easy read, so instead of writing a long post about it, I'll just link you to it, and give you the abstract:
Does geometry constitute a core set of intuitions present in all humans, regardless of their language or schooling? We used two nonverbal tests to probe the conceptual primitives of geometry in the Mundurukú, an isolated Amazonian indigene group. Mundurukú children and adults spontaneously made use of basic geometric concepts such as points, lines, parallelism, or right angles to detect intruders in simple pictures, and they used distance, angle, and sense relationships in geometrical maps to locate hidden objects. Our results provide evidence for geometrical intuitions in the absence of schooling, experience with graphic symbols or maps, or a rich language of geometrical terms.
I figure math people, and those interested in cross-cultural research, will find this interesting. Unfortunately, the paper contains no cute pictures of monkeys playing with toys, though.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Monkeys Playing With Boys and Girls Toys: One for the Annals of Really Bad Research

I've been known to be critical, perhaps overly so, of the media's bad science reporting, because it's, well, bad. But what is the media to do when the science itself is really bad? Since my advice to the media (which no one in the media has actually read, of course) is usually to listen to scientists, I don't really have an answer to that question, because when there's bad science, there's a scientist doing it. If the media listens to that scientist (and it's his or her work, so why wouldn't they?), they're probably not going to know it's bad science, even when it's really bad, as in the case of the study I'm about to describe (really, really, really bad). I suppose they could contact other scientists who are not involved with the research, and ask them about it, but that means finding a person who's not only read the study, but also works in an area close enough to that of the study to actually be able to evaluate it. And that's just too much work when you have deadlines.

Inevitably, then, we'll get bad science reporting that's not actually the fault of reporters. Like this (via Omni Brain), which can also be found here (via Ozarque). The article reports on this study by Gerianne Alexander and Melissa Hines. First, what does the press article say? Things like this:
Just like human boys and girls, male monkeys like to play with toy cars while female monkeys prefer dolls, a research project has shown.

This intriguing discovery is one of many signs of deep-rooted behavioral differences between the sexes that scientists are exploring with the latest tools of genetics and neuroscience.
Where did the reporter get this idea? From Alexander, who is quoted in the article as saying things like:
The differences apparently date far back in evolutionary history to the time before humans and monkeys separated from their common ancestor about 25 million years ago, said Gerianne Alexander, a psychologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, who led the experiment published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

"Vervet monkeys, like human beings, show sex differences in toy preferences," Alexander wrote in the report. "Sex-related object preference appeared early in human evolution."

Alexander speculated that females of both species prefer dolls because evolution programmed them to care for infants. Males may have evolved toy preferences that involve throwing and moving, skills useful for hunting and for finding a mate.

Now that's some pretty provocative stuff! Though the paper was published in 2002, the press articles are pretty timely, coming soon after Larry Summers' remarks about his daughters' behavior upon being given toy trucks to play with. The findings would seem to confirm Summers' generalization from his own experience. When a scientists says something that bold, based on findings he or she has published, I feel duty-bound to go check out the paper itself. So I did. And in it the claims are no less provocative. Take this, from the abstract:
The results suggest that sexually differentiated object preferences arose early in human evolution, prior to the emergence of a distinct hominid lineage. This implies that sexually dimorphic preferences for features (e.g., color, shape, movement) may have evolved from differential selection pressures based on the different behavioral roles of males and females, and that evolved object feature preferences may contribute to present day sexually dimorphic toy preferences in children.
Wow! I don't know about you, but I can't wait to read more. But before I get to the experiments themselves, consider the motivation. The problem the paper is attempting to address is this: why do human boys and girls tend to prefer different toys, as several previous studies have shown? There are two general classes of answers: the essentialist position, which says that gender is largely biological, or based on genetic differences interacting with the environment (including culture); or the constructionist position, which says that gender is largely cultural, or a product of socialization. Based on the quotes above, Alexander and Hines obviously lean towards the essentialist position. And I have to applaud them for their choice of approach. If they were Evolutionary Psychologists, they'd have done a survey, but as actual scientists, they adopted a comparative approach. The idea behind the study, then, is that if gender differences in preferences are due largely to evolved differences in gender roles, then we might find similar preferences in other primate species, because they exhibit similar differences in gender roles. So they look at another primate species.

Here's what they did. They picked six different toys based on previous research on male and female preferences in human children. Two of the toys are "masculine" toys (an orange ball and a toy police car), two are "feminine" (a human baby doll and a red cooking pot) and two are gender neutral (a stuffed toy dog and a picture book). Fourty-four male and 44 female vervet monkeys were then individually presented with each toy in two or three sessions (the first being used to familiarize the monkeys with the toys). Each item was presented by itself, for five minutes, to each monkey in each trial. The experimenters recorded the number of times each individual approached the toys, and the number of times they came into contact with them (which counts as playing with the toys).

Consistent with the prediction of their essentialist hypothesis, the male vervets played with the ball and the car more than the female vervets, and the females played with the doll and pot more than the males. Furthermore, dominant males played with the "masculine" toys more frequently than less dominant males, and less dominant males played with the "feminine" toys more frequently than the more dominant males. Here are the graphs from the paper (from Figure 1, p. 471):

So it's pretty straightforward, right? Boy monkeys like boy toys, and girl monkeys like girl toys. The findings lead Alexander and Hines to conclude:
Our data suggest that this interest varies with the sex of the animal and across sex-typed toy categories derived from empirical studies (Berenbaum & Hines, 1992; Connor & Serbin, 1977; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974) of sex differences in children's object play. Children's toys, therefore, appear to have differential value for males and females of at least two primate species, vervets and humans. (p. 473-474)
and thus:
In view of this evidence, our findings suggest that object features or functions associated with human sex-typed toy categories may have adaptive significance for males and females. In addition, evolved, specialized recognition systems for these object characteristics may direct object preferences in some primate species. (p. 474)
But before we get all excited, let's take a step back. First, we need to take a closer look at the data. Notice that it's in percent of total contacts. This is because male vervets had many more "contacts" than females. We don't get the absolute data, though, so we can't tell whether males actually played with the female toys less often, or just at a lower frequency relative to their overall amount of playing. Furthermore, males appear to have played with the two "masculine" toys and the cooking pot, a "feminine" toy, with about the same frequency, and with the furry dog only slightly more than these three. They played with the baby doll less than the two "masculine" and other "feminine" toys, but about as frequently as they played with the picture book. So it appears that, with the possible exception of the doll, the males didn't really care whether the toys were "masculine," "feminine," or "neutral." Do only female vervets have specific sexual preferences for toys (objects)? That's not what the authors concluded, but it would be hard to say otherwise based on their data, wouldn't it?

And then what about the toys themselves? The "feminine" toys include a baby doll and a red cooking pot, and the "masculine" toys an orange ball and a police car. Wait a minute, a cooking pot and a police car? What the hell do these have to do with evolved gender roles in vervet monkeys (putting aside, for a moment, the same questions about a human baby doll and a ball)? I suppose one could argue that cars have been designed to appeal to men, and thus have masculine forms (though I recall reading several years ago that the engineers at Jaguar based their body designs on the female body), but a cooking pot? It's shape is a product of cultural evolution, designed to afford holding the to-be-cooked substance, and handling without coming into contact with the part directly exposed to the heat. But vervets don't cook! So what is it about the pot that could possibly be consistent with vervet gender roles? Vervets don't drive, either, so the same question could be asked about the police car. And as Katherine noted in the comments at Omni Brain, there were two types of dolls, a dog and a human baby, neither of which are of the same species as the vervets, so why would they prefer one over the other (do they perceive the human doll as more like vervets than the dog doll? that's an empirical question that their data does not address)? The male vervets appear to have preferred the dog, while the female vervets played with both dolls about equally. What does that mean? I don't know, but I do now that it's more than a bit of a stretch to say that it means "that object features or functions associated with human sex-typed toy categories may have adaptive significance for [male] and [female]" vervets.

Given these problems, what do the authors have to say about the specific object preferences? For the female preferences, they write:
Female rhesus monkeys have been found to show a preference for the characteristic "reddish-pink"’ facial coloration of infant vervets compared to yellow or green. Consistent with this female color preference, girls are also more likely than boys to prefer warmer colors (i.e., pink and red) to cooler colors (i.e., blue and green) (Minamoto, 1985 cited in Iijima, Arisaka, Minamoto, & Arai, 2001). A preference for red or reddish pink has been proposed to elicit female behaviors to infants that enhance infant survival, such as contact (Higley, Hopkins, Hirsch, Marra, & Suomi, 1987). The hypothesis that reddish pink or red may be a cue signaling opportunities for nurturance and thus eliciting female responsiveness could explain our finding of greater female contact with both the doll (with a pink face) and the pot (colored red). (p. 475)
And for males:
Toys preferred by boys, such as the ball and police car used in this research, have been characterized as objects with an ability to be used actively (O'Brien & Huston, 1985) or objects that can be propelled in space (Benenson, Liroff, Pascal, & Cioppa, 1997). Preferences for such objects may exist because they afford greater opportunities for engaging in rough or active play In humans, these characteristics have in turn been suggested to relate to targeting or navigating abilities (for discussion, see Alexander, in press) that might be particularly useful for males for purposes of hunting or locating food or mates (Eals & Silverman, 1994; McBurney, Gaulin, Devineni, & Adams, 1997; Silverman & Eals, 1992). As suggested for females in regard to object that signal nurturance, males may therefore have evolved preferences for objects that invite movement.
Call me crazy, but it looks like their own explanations for their data actually undermine the conclusions they derived from it. According to them, the females weren't playing with the cooking pot and baby for any reason associated with the objects' human "femininity," but for reasons associated with species-specific gender roles (nurturing infant vervets with reddish faces). Furethermore, their explanations don't actually explain anything. They argue that males may enjoy moving things like cars and balls. But wait, the males also liked the pot and the stuffed dog. Is it easier to move stuffed dogs than baby dolls? I don't think so. And the females played with the brown dog as often as they played with the pink-faced baby doll. Why is that?

By the time I reached the end of the paper, I was forced to conclude that the authors' conclusions had absolutely nothing to do with their data whatsoever. While the female preference for "feminine" toys is obvious, the males don't seem to have a gender-preference at all. Furthermore, the female preference can't be explained by reference to any features of the objects themselves, and even if it could, it would be a result of feature preferences that are species-specific (e.g., the pink face of the baby and the red color of the pot), and thus wouldn't tell us anything about the origins of human gender-specific preferences. In short, the data tells us zilch, zero, nada, nothing. It's a terrible experiment, but in the hands of the press, with some overly-eager scientists who ran a silly experiment and then came to conclusions that had nothing to do with it giving the press quotes, this research becomes a profound revelation into the origins of human gender. Ugh.

Cognitive Comedy

Undoubtedly, some of you are Chomsky (qua linguist) fans, and some of you are, like me, Ali G fans. If either is the case, or both, then you have to check this out: Ali G interviews Noam Chomsky (via Omi Brain). The very fact that Ali G somehow manages to get into the man's office and get him on camera is, by itself, hilarious, but the interview is pretty funny too (if you didn't see the "bilingual" joke coming, slap yourself).

Monday, April 17, 2006

To Parents

If you're a parent, and especially if you're a parent of a child who's been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you might want to check this out (from an email I received earlier): and the Psychology Department at the University of Tennessee at Martin are conducting a second survey on the causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). This survey is for mothers of children with ASD as well as mothers of normally developing children who are ten years of age or younger. Mothers who participate in the survey will receive a free ABA program to teach their child to follow directions as well as free ABA mini programs for common problems like sharing. To take the survey please go to Thanks

Dr.Gary Brown
Professor and Chair

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Links, Easter Edition

I've been busy, busy, busy; too busy for lengthy posts, but not too busy to link to some of the cool stuff out there in the blogosphere and beyond. And since it's Easter, I feel duty bound to start with this website in which ground-breaking Peeps research is described. I was particularly impressed with the findings of the "Reaction to heat" experiment, which led the researchers to conclude:

Furthermore, observations of Peep biochemistry indicate a molecular structure unlike any other terrestrial organisms yet encountered, leading to the obvious conclusion that Peeps are not of this world (Mulder & Scully, et. al. 1996). In addition, while early evolutionary biologists have suggested that the lack of variation in the peep population was due to an ancient bottleneck event, we suggest the more likely scenario of the founder effect phenomenon during terrestrial colonization.

Fascinating work.

Then, to continue with the Easter theme (while avoiding any religious content whatsoever, and throwing in a gratuitous link to Heo Cwaeth), Heo gives us Yeats' "Easter 1916," a poem about the characters of the 1916 Easter rebellion in Ireland, about which most of us probably know very little (I do know that the Germans provided the Irish with guns and ammo, and that it was bloody, though ultimately affective). But you don't need to know much about the historical event to grasp the message of ordinary people, bound by little more than a common homeland, can come together to do profound things. The attitudes of the poem present quite a contrast with contemporary American apathy. And besides, as Settembrini says in The Magic Mountain, literature is about beautiful words, and Yeats is a master of beautiful words.

OK, that's all the Easter I can stomach. Next up are two posts from John Hawks, the first of which links to a 1947 article on chimpanzee economics. The second is a link to this post at Afarensis on new world origins.

Then there's this post at Neurofuture, which links to a whole bunch of interesting science podcats, including one of V.S. Ramachandran discussing his work on aesthetics (which I blogged about long ago here, here, and here), and an interview with Michael Gazzaniga on "Ethics in the Age of Neuroscience."

And finally, I got an email the other day asking me about representation and memory retrieval. The email was from someone who works with two prominent cognitive scientists, who both work on representation and memory retrieval, so I suspect the emailer knows a little about the topic, and can learn about it from people who know a whole hell of a lot more about knowledge representation and memory than I do (or than just about everyone else, for that matter, since their work defines one way of modeling retrieval). Still, I think it might make for an interesting post, because how you theorize information is represented in memory, to a large extent, how you theorize information gets retrieved from memory, and that means it defines how you think about memory period. It would take several posts to lay out all of the issues, but I thought I might also approach it a different way. I'd been thinking about linking to classic or otherwise important papers in cognitive science, and seeing if people wanted to discuss them (perhaps over at the Yahoo group). So the first paper I'll try is John R. Anderson's "A spreading activation theory of memory." Anderson was the 2004 winner of the Rumelhart Prize, largely for his work on ACT cognitive architecture, and its later variants, and this paper presents the ACT theory of memory. If you want to read it and talk about it, then head on over to Yahoo.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Updated Blogroll

I drank way too much coffee this morning, got a little bored, and totally rearranged the blogroll. So, check it out, and let me know if you think there's a blog I should add. If you're on it, and think I put you in the wrong category, tell me. Categories are fuzzy things, and I'm bound to have misclassified some of the instances at the category boundaries.

Oh, "The Lesser Sciences" is a joke, so I don't want to get any nasty emails from physicists.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hostile Media Effects

Here are two things that, when taken together, cry out for explanation. Over the last five decades, study after study of media bias has found little or no evidence of systematic bias in either direction1, and a meta-analysis of bias studies over 6 decades, using several different measures of bias, found no bias in newspaper reporting, and only a miniscule, inconsequential right-wing bias in magazines, and left-wing bias on television2. Yet, while in 1988, only 12% of the public believed the media to be systematically biased3, that percentage has grown steadily over the last two decades, with 62% of Americans believing the media to be biased in 20054. And in almost every case, the perceived bias is towards the opposition. How is it that, over the same period in which studies have consistently shown a lack of media bias5, more and more people have come to believe that it exists, and that it favors their opponents' viewpoints? My reaction to the belief in media bias has usually been to assume that perception of bias was a result of people holding extreme views, and that as a result, anything to the right or the left of them, even if it's firmly in the center, will be perceived as bias. While this explanation might have worked in 1998, when only a few Americans believed the media to be biased, it doesn't work when the majority holds that belief. So, I had to look deeper to find an explanation.

If people tended to believe that the media was biased in favor of their own views, it would be easy to explain. There is an extensive literature on "assimilation bias," or the tendency to perceive neutral information as favoring one's own views. Since most perceptions of media bias are in the opposite direction, however, this explanation won't work. In fact, in one study, participants were presented with the exact same information either in the form of a journalist's report or a student's essay6. When reading the context of a journalist's report, participants perceived the information to be biased in favor of the opposition, but when reading the same information in the context of a student's essay, they tended to see it as neutral or as supporting their own position (assimilation bias). So there must be something about the context of mass media that elicits the perception of bias that is inconsistent with the way in which we usually interpret information. And that means it's not going to be easy to find an explanation. But many researchers have been trying, and I'm going to try to summarize some of what they've found.

Serious psychological study of perceived media bias began in the mid-1980s with studies by Vallone, Ross, and Lepper7, and by Perloff8. In both studies, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian participants were presented with television news coverage of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and subsequent fighting. The pro-Israeli participants believed that the coverage was biased in favor of the Palestinians, and that it would make neutral observers feel less favorable towards their side, while the pro-Palestinians were convinced the coverage was biased in favor of the Israeli side, and that it would hurt their image in the eyes of neutral observers. This is despite the fact that when neutral observers did view the coverage, in Perloff's study, they failed to perceive any bias, and their opinions of the two sides stayed the same. Vallone et al. termed this the "Hostile Media Phenomenon," or "Hostile Media Effect" (HME from here on out). After the publication of these two studies, research on the HME took off.

Both the Vallone et al. and Perloff studies looked at one specific issue, and used as participants people who had strong opinions about that issue. Subsequent research has shown that even those who have only a moderate involvement in a particular issue will tend to show the HME, though at a lower rate, and that both strong and moderate partisans will show the HME for general (e.g., liberal vs. conservative) viewpoints in addition to specific issues9. As is often the case, though, for the first decade or so after the initial finding of the HME, researchers tended to focus merely on demonstrating that it exists in a particular domain, rather than trying to figure out why it exists. And research on the mechanisms and factors involved still hasn't gotten very far. But the literature does provide some hints.

First off, the nature of the information, and its presentation, seem to be important. Obviously, any political issue is game, but it appears that political issues that are presented as conflicts (e.g., between ethnicities, between social classes, etc.) are particularly prone to elicit the HME10. On top of this, there are clear social and individual factors involved. In an analysis of data from a nationwide survey, Eveland and Shah11 found that the following factors were associated with HME:
  • Gender: Males are slightly more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than females.
  • Income: as income goes up, perception of hostile media bias goes down.
  • Political party: Republicans are much more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than Democrats.
  • Strength of identification with a party: Strong partisans are somewhat more likely to perceive a hostile media bias than moderates.
  • Political involvement: the more involved you are in politics, the more likely you are to perceive hostile media bias.
  • What Eveland and Shah call "Safe Discussions": The more time you spend talking about politics with people who share your views, the more likely you are to perceive hostile media bias.
They also found an interaction between political party and "safe discussions," such that the more "safe discussions" Republicans had, the more likely they were to perceive bias, while the number of "safe discussions" Democrats had did not affect the probability that they would perceive bias. They argue that this interaction is likely due to the fact that "liberal bias" is such a common Republican talking point that it's likely to come up fairly frequently in discussions between Republicans. Interestingly, a couple variables that you might have thought would be associated with HME were not. Education showed a small, indirect relationship (i.e., as education went up, HME went down), it did not approach statistical significance. I might have predicted that as education went up, HME would go down. And since "safe discussions" make HME go up, it would be natural to predict that "dangerous discussions," that is, discussions with people who disagree with you, would make it go down. But they found only a small, non-significant relationship between the two.

Of course, the question that interests me is, what cognitive (and affective) mechanisms are involved in the HME? The research on this question is incredibly muddled, so I'm not going to talk about it in any detail. Suffice it to say that for every cognitive mechanism hypothesized to be involved, there's a paper presenting data that indicates it's not. I suspect that motivated reasoning is involved, though no direct evidence for this currently exists. If it is involved, it would mean that people are probably selectively retrieving memories of media coverage when they're reasoning about media bias, and that their interpretation of specific instances is biased as well12. This doesn't explain why the HME seems to be specific to the media and, as in the Gunther and Schmitt paper cited above (footnote 6), disappears when the same information is placed in another context. This is probably a result of the beliefs about the media that trigger motivated reasoning in the first place, and these beliefs are probably the result of complex socio-cultural factors. In addition, Gunther and Schmitt argue that their data may indicate the influence of the "perceived reach of the information." This may be true, and would explain why people are quick to claim that the coverage will hurt their side's image in the view of others, but it says little about the mechanisms involved in this reasoning, or even why the "perceived reach" has an effect at all. I imagine that near future research will explore people's beliefs about the media bias, and how those who exhibit the HME reason about information presented by mass media, more thoroughly, and perhaps we'll soon have an answer to the mechanism questions. Until then, we'll have to be satisfied with what the literature has told us: lower middle class, strongly partisan Republicans who spend a lot of time hanging out with other Republicans probably think there's a liberal bias in the media. Duh!

Let me end with a note on what inspired this post. First, there's that dizzingly surreal show on Fox News on Sunday evenings (I forget which one it is), during which a panel of mainstream media journalists, on a mainstream media TV network, talk about how biased the mainstream media is. Then there's the comments section of this post at The Volokh Conspiracy, in which the "liberal media" meme is tossed about with abandon. You won't find anything you haven't already seen, there, but the two combined made me want to talk about the HME. I don't think posting about it will change anyone's mind, really, as responses by those who believe the media to be biased to the research showing that it isn't are generally the same. Most of the time, the response I hear is something like this: "I don't care what the research says, because all I have to do is turn on the TV to see the bias with my own eyes." Others make at least a feeble effort to criticize the research, usually by saying the research itself must be biased, claiming that most people employed by mainstream media outlets are registered Democrats (a fact that might lead you to predict bias, but which is not itself an indication of bias), or citing the fatally flawed Groseclose and Milyo study linked in footnote five. But none of that speaks to the fact that over a period of more than 40 years, the Groseclose and Milyo study is the only major one to find systematic bias in the mainstream media, or to the empirical research on HME, in which people clearly perceive bias even when balance has been purposefuly included in the stimuli, and perceive it only when it's in the context of media coverage.

Of course, even when I'm not frustrated with "biased media" nonsense in blog comments and on Fox News, I still find the HME interesting, and empirical research on it important. I'm interested in it, and motivated reasoning in general, because I wonder about the role of schematic processes. But the research is also important because, more and more, the belief in media bias is having serious affects on our political process, and the media itself. The media, responding to claims of bias, seems to be taking extra pains to avoid looking biased by giving voice to opinions that have no real factual merit as contrasts to facts and opinions that are concentrated on one side of the political spectrum (e.g., in the evolution vs. Intelligent Design debate). Politicians, particularly on the political right, take advantage of the increasing distrust of a media perceived as biased, by blaming failures on the media, and dismissing negative claims those in the media make about them or their policies. So discovering, and countering, the processes and mechanisms involved in the HME will have very real practical implications.

1E.g., Woodard, J.D. (1994). Coverage of elections on evening television news shows: 1972-1992. In A.H. Miller & B.E. Gronbeck (Eds.), Presidential Campaigns and American Self Images. Boulder, CO: Westview; Mantler, G., & Whiteman, D. (1995). Attention to candidates and issues in newspaper coverage of 1992 presidential campaign. Newspaper Research Journal, 169(3), 14-28; Domke, D., Fan, D.P, Fibison, M., Shah, D.V., Smith,S.S., & Watts, M.D. (1997). News media, candidates and issues, and public opinion in the 1996 presidential campaign. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 74, 718-737; Shah, D.V., Watts, M.D., Domke, D., Fan, D.P., & Fibison, M. (1999). News coverage, economic cues, and the public's presidential preferences: 1984-1995. Journal of Politics, 61, 914-943; Waldman, P., & Devitt, J. (1998). Newspaper photographs and the 1996 presidential election: The question of bias. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 75, 302-311.
2D'Alessio, D., & Allen, M. (2000). Media bias in presidential elections: A meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 50(4), 133-156.
3Eveland, W.P., Shah, D.V. (2003). The impact of individual and interpersonal factors on perceived news media bias. Political Psychology, 24(1), 101-117.
4See the Gallup Poll detailed here.
5I ignore this study by Groseclose and Milyo for the obvious reason that its methodology is not only worthless, but downright nonsensical.
6Gunther, A.C., Schmitt, K. (2004). Mapping boundaries of the hostile media effect. The Journal of Communication, 54(1), 55.
7Vallone, R.P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M.R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.
8Perloff, R.M. (1989). Ego-involvement and the third person effect of televised news coverage. Communication Research, 16, 236-262.
9E.g., Dalton R. J., Beck, P. A., & Huckfeldt, R. (1998). Partisan cues and the media: Information flows in the 1992 presidential election. American Political Science Review, 92(1), 111-26.
10Price, V. (1989). Social identification and public opinion: Effects of communicating group conflict. Public Opinion Quarterly, 53, 197-224.
11Eveland Jr., W. P., & Shah, D. V. (2003). The impact of individual and interpersonal factors on perceived news media bias. Political Psychology, 24(1), 101-117.
12Schmitt, K. M., Gunther, A. C., & Liebhart, J. L. (2004). Why partisans see mass media as biased. Communication Research, 31(6), 623-641.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Culture and Perception: The Role of the Physical Environment

Every time someone asks me about cultural differences in cognition, be it a student, a blog reader, or my mother, I cringe. I mean, sure, I can tell them about the various differences that have been observed in the laboratory, and point them to books like The Geography of Thought, but inevitably, they'll ask what causes the observed differences, and I have to tell them I don't know. No one does, really. The problem is that there hasn't been much experimental work designed to determine what might be causing these differences. Most of the empirical work amounts to demonstrations that the differences do exist. I usually tell people that there are a few possible explanations for the differences. The first possible explanation is that the differences are innate, that is, that something about the differences in the genetic make up of Europeans and East Asians, for example, causes differences in perception, conception, and reasoning. However, there's no evidence whatsoever for innate causes, so we can probably rule this type of explanation out. The second possible explanation is that there are differences in the environments of Europeans and East Asians, and that these differences somehow cause differences in cognition and perception. A third possible explanation is that the cognitive and perceptual differences are due entirely to differences in culture that arose purely by historical accident. And finally, a fourth explanation, along the lines of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is that language differences cause cognitive and perceptual differences.

The problem, for researchers, with these last three levels of explanations is that they would all interact, and it would be difficult, if not impossible to tease them apart in practice. And of course, there are all sorts of observed differences, which may all have different causes. The best we can do, then, is look to see whether manipulating something from the environment, culture, or language (which, I know, isn't really separate from culture, but neither is the environment) affects a particular cultural difference. This won't tell us where that level fits in the causal chain, but it would at least be positive evidence that it fits in it somewhere. For example, by manipulating an hypothesized effect of culture, like fear of isolation, we can show that one factor resides at the level of culture, or by showing that cultures with different numbers of color terms perceive colors differently, we can show that language has some influence. Having talked about those levels in previous posts, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the potential role of the environment this time. Again, looking at one level doesn't exclude the other levels, because we don't know how the different levels might interact. It just says that that level plays a role. So the purpose of the research I'm going to describe is not to show that perception is the cause of cultural differences in cognition and perception, just that it might be one among many.

One interesting observed difference between Europeans an East Asian (e.g., Japanese and Filipinos) has to do with attention and perception. The difference is usually framed in terms of analytic vs. holistic perception. For example, in one experiment1, Japanese and European American participants were first given a square (which served as the frame) with a line inside it (see the figure below). That square was then removed, and they were given an empty square different in size from the original, and asked to draw a line inside it that was either the same length as the original line (absolute condition) or that had the same length relative to the frame (relative condition).

Figure 1 from Ishii & Kitayama (2003).

The European American participants were significantly more accurate than the Japanese participants in the absolute condition, while the Japanese participants were significantly more accurate than the European American participants in the relative task.

In another experiment2, this one on "change blindness", European American and Japanese participants were presented with moving scenes. In each scene, there were large, "rapidly moving" foreground objects set against a static background scene. In one condition, aspects of the objects in the foreground changed, while in others, aspects of the static background changed. European Americans were significantly better than the Japanese participants at detecting changes to foreground objects, while Japanese participants were better at detecting changes to the background.

These findings, and others, have been used to argue that Europeans tend to focus their attention on objects, independent of context (i.e., to attend and perceive analytically), while East Asians focus on the context (attending and perceiving holistically). But again, they just demonstrate the difference, and weren't designed to assess any causal hypotheses. However, these findings do contain clues. Miyamoto, Nisbett, and Masuda3 noted that in the change blindness experiment, when the participants were shown Japanese scenes, both the European Americans and Japanese noticed more changes to the background than to the foreground objects, and when the scenes were American scenes, participants from both cultures detected more changes in the foreground objects. Might there be some difference in typical scenes to which people from the two different cultures are exposed, then, and might these differences influence the adoption of particular attentional styles?

To answer this question, Miyamoto et al. first gathered photos of scenes from similar contexts (schools, hotels, and post offices) from six cities, three in the U.S. and three in Japan. For each country, one of the cities was a small city (population less than 5,000), one medium-sized (population ~100,000), and one large (population ~8,000,000). Examples of the photos are below. They hypothesized that at each city-size, the Japanese scenes would be more "complex" and "ambiguous" than the American scenes. This, they further hypothesized, would cause the Japanese scenes to prime the holistic, context-focused attentional style observed in East Asian participants in previous experiments, while the American scenes would prime the analytic, object-focused attentional style observed in American participants. To test the first hypothesis, they used two measures of complexity and ambiguity. For the first, they presented participants with 82 photos, 41 of Japanese scenes and 41 of American, and asked them to answer the following four questions about each photo (on a 5-point scale):
  • "How ambiguous is the boundary of each object?"
  • "How many different objects do there seem to be?"
  • "To what degree do there seem to be parts of the scene that are invisible?"
  • "To what degree is the scene either chaotic or organized?"
Answers to these four questions were highly correlated, so they combined them together to form a composite score of "complexity-ambiguity." On this score, the Japanese scenes were rated as significantly more complex/ambiguous than American scenes. Using a computer program designed to detect objects in photographs, they then counted the number of objects (excluding things like leaves) in each scene, and consistent with the ratings, found that the Japanese scenes contained more objects than the American scenes.

Having shown that the Japanese scenes were indeed more complex and ambiguous, Miyamoto et al. conducted another change blindness study to test their second hypothesis. In this study, culturally neutral scenes were presented to both Japanese and European American participants. In each scene, changes occurred either in the background or to foreground objects, as in the previous change blindness experiments. In this experiment, though, participants were primed with either Japanese or American scenes prior to viewing the culturally neutral scenes. Miyamoto et al. predicted that priming them with scenes from Japanese cities would prime holistic attentional focus, and the American scenes would prime analytic attentional focus, regardless of whether the participants were Japanese or American.

As in the previous change-blindness study, Japanese participants in this study perceived more changes to the background, overall, than American participants, though both American and Japanese participants detected about the same number of changes to foreground objects. In essence, Japanese participants detected more changes than American participants. More importantly, when primed with scenes from Japanese cities, both the American and Japanese participants detected more changes to the background than when they were primed with American scenes, and when primed with American scenes, Japanese participants detected more changes to foreground objects than when primed with Japanese scenes. American participants' detection of changes to foreground objects did not differ as a function of the type of priming image.

Overall, then, the data is consistent with the second hypothesis, that the different types of scenes in the two countries contribute to the differences in attentional style between the two cultures. Miyamoto et al. don't really offer any reasons why this might be. Perhaps the greater complexity in the Japanese scenes makes attending to specific objects more difficult, or makes each individual object slightly less salient, thus making it easier and more effective to attend to the overall context. They do, however, make it clear that differences in the complexity and ambiguity of the scenes is not likely to be the only cause of the differences in attention, and that there may be cultural factors that influence what types of scenes predominate in a particular culture, though they don't speculate on what those factors might be. In the final analysis, then, the study doesn't tell us a whole heck of a lot. At least the study provides a step in the right direction though, in that it shows that there are environmental factors at work in shaping cultural styles in attention and perception. So, while the study doesn't add anything to my answer to questions about cultural differences in cognition, it at least lets me feel more confident in telling people that environmental factors are one type of potential cause.

1Ishii, K., & Kitayama, S. (2003). Selective attention to contextual information in Japan. Poster presented at 25th Annual meeting of Cognitive Science Society; Kitayama, S., Duffy, S., Kawamura, T., & Larsen, J.T. (2003). Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: a cultural look at new look." Psychological Science, 14(3), 201-206.
2Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R.E. (In Press). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science.
3Miyamoto, Y., Nisbett, R.E., & Masuda, T. (2006). Culture and the physical environment: Holistic versus analytic perceptual affordances. Psychological Science, 17(2), 113-119.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Links out the Wazoo

Welcome to this week's links post. First off, you may have heard about the study by social psychologists involving linguistic analysis of interviews by Kerry and Edwards during the 2004 campaign, and Gore during the 2000 campaign. A link to the paper (via Coturnix) is here. A more comprehensive analysis by the same research team, which compares Kerry, Edwards, Bush, and Cheney, can be found here. The analyses are undertaken using a program called LIWC (pronounced Luke), which stands for Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. The program looks for the 2300 words and word stems in its dictionary (as of the 2001 edition; I believe the 2006 edition may have more), and divides them into 73 different categories. Previous research has correlated these categories with specific variables, such as cognitive complexity or honesty. So, your LIWC "scores" are meant to indicate how "honest" or "intelligent" (cognitively complex) your speech is. There are problems with this method, particularly in the procedures involved in correlating word categories with variables, but it makes for interesting reads. If you want to play with an abridged version of LIWC yourself, you can enter any text you like into the window at this website, and it will give you a short LIWC analysis.

Some of you may be aware of the ongoing debate about a face recognition module. Several studies have suggested that part of the right fusiform gyrus, an area of the brain in the temporal lobe, is specifically designed to detect and recognize faces. The area has been dubbed the "fusiform face area," or FFA. The debate is over whether this area is specifically designed to detect faces, or is instead simply an object-recognition area that detects certain kinds of complex (and perhaps highly familiar) shapes. Stephen of OmniBrain links to an article about the most recently published research on the problem. The authors of the paper offer a model from the object-recognition perspective that does a good job of accounting for the evidence used to argue for the existence of a face-recognition module. Unfortunately, the actual paper is not available without a subscription, but here is an excerpt from the abstract to whet your appetite1:
We present a neurophysiologically plausible, feature-based model that quantitatively accounts for face discrimination characteristics, including face inversion [difficulty recognizing upside-down faces] and "configural"” effects. The model predicts that face discrimination is based on a sparse representation of units selective for face shapes, without the need to postulate additional, "“face-specific" mechanisms.
Next up, Richard of Philosophy, et cetera, has a very interesting post on "open relationships," which is followed by some very good discussion in the comments section.

Joshua Knobe, who consistently produces experimental philosophy's most intriguing results, has a short post about one of his recent studies on "Psychopaths and Moral Responsibility," at The Garden of Forking Paths.

Speaking of philosophy, at his blog, Brian Leiter links to this review of a collection of essays on the history of philosphy and analytic philosophy. It contains the following quote:
Analytic philosophy, Garber holds, has moved from its initial heady insistence on solving problems by logical analysis to its current watery demand for precision and rigor. It is currently in a state of crisis. Its practitioners are doing Kuhnian normal philosophy but the paradigm itself is coming unraveled. What properly and fully contextualized study of the past can do is to show us the many different things philosophers were doing in working on the problems we take as central.
Leither asks for comments, and Jason Stanley obliges, with a post titled "What Crisis?"

And finally, Tony Brown of GNIF Brain Blogger links to this interesting talk (Real Player) by Francis Crick on consciousness.

Unfortunately, no updates in the "Medieval Women I Adore" series as of yet, but go read Heo Cwaeth anyway.

1Jiang, X., Rosen, E., Zeffiro, T., VanMeter, J., Blanz, V., & Riesenhuber, M. (2006). Evaluation of a shape-based model of human face discrimination using fMRI and behavioral techniques. Neuron, 50(1), 159-172.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Motivated Cognition in Relationships, or How Motivated Cognition Can Save Your Marriage

It's easy to see why research on motivated political reasoning/cognition has gotten a lot of attention in the blogosophere lately. It fits nicely with our intuitions about how people interpret political information (and by people, we mean other people, because our political decisions are all perfectly rational), and you don't have to look very far to see instances of motivated political reasoning. This week's news about Tom Delay, for example, has highlighted the fact that liberals are often all too ready to assume Delay is guilty, while conservatives, faced with the same facts, are equally ready to assume that Delay's legal troubles are the result of a liberal conspiracy to harm a prominent conservative. But you know, all this talk of motivated political reasoning is kind of depressing, and it gives motivated reasoning a bad rap. So I thought I'd talk a little bit about motivated reasoning in another domain, romantic relationships, where the good it can do is more apparent.

To start, think about what romantic relationships are. In most cases, two individuals who are likely to be very different from each other (at least on basic personality dimensions1) commit to each other in a way that has a the wide range of practical implications, concerning finances, careers, child rearing, location, etc. On top of all that (and perhaps because of it), we are generally pretty emotionally invested, staking much of our quality of life on the quality of our close relationships. So it's in our best interest that these relationships be satisfying. Contrary to the common wisdom (even among psychologists, especially therapists), though, realism and satisfaction tend to make poor bedfellows, with our satisfaction decreasing as our awareness of our partners' faults increases2. Right away, then, we can see how motivated reasoning might be good for romantic relationships. If you want to be satisfied in a relationship, then you're going to be motivated to see your partner in a positive light. Or, as Shakespeare put it in A Midsummer Night's Dream (a quote stolen from Murray et al.3), "Things base and vile, holding no quantity, Love can transform to form and dignity. Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."

In what ways is motivated reasoning used in relationships? I'm glad you asked. Let's start with attributions. Fincham and Bradbury4 conducted a 12-month study involving 130 couples in which the effects of different types of attributions on marital satisfaction were measured. They found that when participants attributed positive behaviors by their partners to situational factors, and negative behaviors to the partners themselves (as opposed to situational factors), their relationship satisfaction was significantly lower, 12 months later, than for participants who attributed positive behaviors to their partners, and negative behaviors to the situation. In other words, satisfied participants interpreted bad stuff as being caused by the situation, and positive stuff as being caused by their romantic partners.

Showing that differences in attribution affect relationship satisfaction is great, but maybe in relationships that are working, the good stuff really is more attributable to the person, and the bad stuff more attributable to the situation. To show that people are using motivated reasoning, we'd have to show that, at least in some cases, their perceptions of their partners seem to diverge from reality. This would indicate that they're selectively choosing the facts on which they base their perceptions in order to arrive at the desired conclusion. The first line of evidence for this divergence from reality comes from research showing that most people believe their own romantic partners to be more virtuous than the average5. Of course, most people's partners can't be better than average, but as Murray et al. (reference in footnote 3) point out, this could simply be the result of accurate perception of one's partner, and inaccurate perception of what the average is. So, in order to look for unrealistic perceptions, they conducted a study expressly designed to compare people's perception of their romantic partners to two converging measures of "reality." First, they gathered 77 married and 28 cohabitating couples, and gave each partner two tests (27 items in all) measuring positive and negative attributes. Each partner rated both him or herself, and his or her partner on each attribute. This allowed Murray et al. to compare partners' perceptions of each other to their self-perceptions. The participants also completed a test measuring their satisfaction with their relationship.

To add another measure of "reality," each couple was asked to provide the name of a friend who could evaluate both the two partners and the quality of their relationship. Murray et al. tracked those friends down, and sent them the two tests completed by the couples, and asked them to complete them for both members of the pair. Each friend also rated how close they were to the couple with whom they were friends, and how close they were to the couple. Thus, Murray et al. could compare the partners' perception of each other and their self-perceptions to the perceptions of their friends, with self-perceptions and friends' perceptions creating two measures of "reality." If motivated reasoning is at work, we'd expect partners' perception of each other to diverge from both self and friend perceptions.

What they found is pretty straightforward. Partners' self-perceptions and their friends' perceptions of them were very similar, indicating that they could both be used as accurate measures of reality. They also found that there was a small relationship between both self and friend perception and relationship satisfaction. People who perceived themselves as having more positive attributes, and fewer negative attributes, and whose friends perceived themselves as having more positive and fewer negative attributes, had partners who were more satisfied with their relationships. Thus, people were more satisfied with relationships when their partners had a lot of positive attributes (duh!). More importantly for our purposes, though, there was a statistical interaction between the two measures of "reality" (self and friend perceptions) and partners' perception of each other, on the one hand, and relationship satisfaction on the other. People who were unsatisfied with their relationship tended to see their partners as having fewer positive attributes than their partners and friends, while people who were satisfied in their relationships tended to perceive more positive attributes than either their friends or partners. Put differently, the perceptions of the dissatisfied were more negative than reality, and the perceptions of the satisfied were more positive than reality.

This association between perceptions that diverge from reality in one direction or the other, and relationship satisfaction, is pretty clear evidence of motivated reasoning in relationships. In the case of a satisfied partner, he or she is motivated to believe that his or her partner has a wealth of positive attributes, while a dissatisfied partner is motivated to believe that his or her partner has few positive attributes (thus making it possible to attribute the relationship problems to the other person, and justifying one's dissatisfaction). The question, of course, is whether satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) causes motivated reasoning, or motivated reasoning causes satisfaction. I don't know of any experimental work on the relationship between the two, to date, so the causal question is still unanswered. However, I suspect that it works in both directions. The more satisfied you are, the more motivated you are to see your partner in a positive light, and the more you see your partner in a positive light, the more satisfied you'll be.

Of course, being motivated to see your partner in a positive light, and thus selectively interpreting the facts so will do so, isn't always a good thing. It likely causes us to overlook many faults that might one day cause problems in our relationships. Still, the evidence that being realistic about our partners' faults is harmful to relationships is overwhelming. And that's not really very surprising. If we all focused on the things we don't like about our partners, no relationship would last very long. So all in all, you should be wary of thinking too poorly of motivated reasoning. It might save your marriage one day.

1Lykken, D.T., & Tellegen, A. (1993). Is human mating adventitious or the result of lawful choice? A twin study of mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(1), 56-58.
2Huston, T.L., & Vangelisti, A.L. (1991). Socioemotional behavior and satisfaction in marital relationships: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(5), 721-733.
3Murray, S.L., Holmes, J.G., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D.W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends' perspectives to married partners' views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620.
4Fincham, F.D., & Bradbury, T.N. (1993). Marital satisfaction, depression, and attributions: a longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 442-452.
5Murray, S.L., & Holmes, J.G. (1997). A leap of faith? positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 586-604.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Notes on Blogrolling

OK, I feel a bit silly writing this post, because this is not exactly a big time blog, but I've been getting a fair number of link requests lately, so I thought I should say something about how I decide whom to link on the blogroll. First, I have to know your blog exists, so feel free to send me an email, especially if you write a lot about cognitive science, any area of psychology, philosophy (any phenomenologists out there?), biology, or just about any other science or academic discipline (hell, I've got a medievalist on the blogroll!). Also, I'm really into feminist blogging, because while I've read a lot of feminist academic writing, I find that I learn as much, if not more, from reading the ideas and perspective of "rank and file" feminists, and while, as I said, this is just a podunk little blog, I would like to do my part to get other people to learn from them as well.

Second, I have to have read your blog for at least a little while. Usually what this entails is subscribing to the feed of a blog that I've just learned about and reading it for a few days. The reason for this is that I make a big to-do about the responsibility of academic bloggers, and while I may not always live up to my own ideals ("Bilingualism = Multiple Personality Disorder?" That's just an irresponsible title designed to get people to read me), I have to at least make sure you're not telling people things like, they "didn't even fire up the thinking parts of their brains." Also, racism, sexism, homophobia, and/or believing that linguists are better than cognitive psychologists are automatic grounds for exclusion.

Third, I'm both lazy and absent-minded. That means it's possible, even likely, that I have learned about your blog, read it, and liked it, and then forgotten to link it. If that's the case (as it was with, say, Cognitive Daily, which I'd been reading forever and had forgotten to link!), and you still want me to put you on the sidebar, then bug me as much as you want. If, after persistent nagging, I still haven't put you on the blogroll, and haven't given you a reason, then feel free to throw solid objects at me. My friends will tell you that's the best way to get me to do something.

Fourth, if you really want me to link to you, leave comments here. I love discussion. I've got some great regular commenters, but would like more. If you comment here regularly, I can virtually guarantee you you'll end up on the blogroll (as long as you're not talking about "thinking parts of the brain," of course). If you have been commenting here a lot, and I haven't blogrolled you, then see the previous paragraph.

Fifth, there's more to linking than blogrolling. I may have a post on a topic that you two have written about. Even if your post disagrees with everything I said in mine, send me a link. I'd be happy to put it in an update or in one of my new link posts.

And finally, tell me how wonderful I am. I'm a sucker for flattery. Heck, even if you don't want to be on the blogroll, or don't actually have a blog, you should probably be telling me how wonderful I am on a regular basis anyway. (This last one makes all that talk about having a "podunk blog" seem like feigned modesty, doesn't it?) I'm kidding, of course, but I do like feedback, even negative feedback (especially negative feedback, in many cases, as long as it's constructive), so give me as much feedback as you want. As with participating in discussions here, giving me feedback (again, even the negative kind) will so ingratiate you to me that I'll almost certainly link to you.