Blog Party

What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

We all lie quite often, perhaps as often as once every ten minutes we spend talking to each other.

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We are truly creatures of habit. For our better or worse, our brains are wired to settle into patterns of cue and response.

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Imagination is not a single ability or process. What we call "imagination" refers to many different cognitive tasks, and each one of these draws resources from multiple cognitive systems.

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You are not rational. Many of us look at research on mental shortcuts (heuristics) and biases and think that maybe they explain how "those other people" are wrong, immoral, etc.

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If women didn't forget the experience of childbirth, we would all just have one child.

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Your memories of September 11, the Challenger spaceship explosion, and most landmark events in your life are drastically distorted.

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Why I’m Not a Lady (and No Woman Is): a poem by Sherryl Kleinman

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We swoon at the authority of numbers, failing to understand the limitations of measurement by "disestimating" and "regressing to the moon".

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Prepare to see an overload of shattered misconceptions from You Are Not So Smart, the blog by David McRaney.

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Iskra Fileva: Lying, licensing and living with misfortune

We all lie quite often, perhaps as often as once every ten minutes we spend talking to each other. When we engage in good behaviors, we take that as a kind of “license” to engage in bad ones afterwards. For instance, we are more likely to eat unhealthy foods if we have first taken a vitamin supplement and we are more likely to drive recklessly if we install new safety features on our cars. People willing to expose their vulnerabilities and to risk having their hearts broken are happier than those who aren’t. These are just a few surprising facets of human nature.  There is a group of recent findings, however, which diverge so much from my prior expectations that to call them “surprising” would be to fail to do them justice. They have to do with our remarkable resilience in the face of misfortune: some cancer patients reportedly say that getting cancer has been good for them in many ways, such as helping them to reconcile with their families or to learn to appreciate the value of friendship; people with locked-in syndrome who are completely paralyzed save for the ability to blink report being happy; and even those who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated find ways to accept what has happened and to forgive.

Dr. Iskra Fileva is a philosopher at UNC Chapel Hill focused on rational action and ethics. She spoke on PsychTalk about character, based on a related New York Times piece. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

 

 

Donita Robinson: The power of habit

We are truly creatures of habit. For our better or worse, our brains are wired to settle into patterns of cue and response. While we all vulnerable to some bad habits, we can also cultivate good, healthy habits. It can even extend to our character: every time we choose to do the right thing, we increase our chances of doing the right thing in the future. I find this idea very inspiring and empowering.

Dr. Donita L. Robinson investigates the neurobiology of alcoholism at UNC Chapel Hill. She works with animal models, such as rats, to study the neural effects of alcohol and of drug treatments. She spoke about her work on PsychTalk. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

 

 

Felipe De Brigard: Unweaving imagination

Imagination is not a single ability or process. What we call “imagination” refers to many different cognitive tasks, and each one of these draws resources from multiple cognitive systems. Sometimes we use imagination to conceive of possible social situations, so our ability to empathize both guides and constrain us. Other times imagination means considering alternative ways our life could have been, a process that depends on our autobiographical memory. And sometimes imagination is simply visualization, which is limited by our sensory experiences and short-term memory. Thinking about imagination as a unitary faculty is, surprisingly, wrong.

Dr. Felipe De Brigard is a graduate of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory Lab of Dr. Kelly Giovanello. He is starting postdoctorate work at the Schacter Memory Lab at Harvard. His research focuses on the nature of memory and its relations to other cognitive faculties, in particular perception, imagination, attention and consciousness. He was one of the first PsychTalk guests. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

 

Sai: You are not rational.

You are not rational. Many of us look at research on mental shortcuts (heuristics) and biases and think that maybe they explain how “those other people” are wrong, immoral, etc. To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the science; “we” are not immune. (If anything, research on the “sophistication effect” shows that knowing more about bias makes us more vulnerable to confirmation biases).

Some biases, like the calibration effect, are ones we know how to overcome to some extent with explicit awareness and counter techniques. Others, such as hindsight bias, are ones we know cannot be overcome once you’re affected, but we can try to control our situations to prevent them. And in the case of moral failings, the Milgram experiments show that ‘evil’ actions aren’t just the province of psychopaths; normal people can become monsters (or heroes) due to the situation.

So rather than think of ourselves as supremely rational, moral actors — and the ‘enemy’ as evil and irrational — we have to think about how people interact with the world around them, and how we can really improve those situations. Because we’re the ones who are irrational.

Sai is a neuroscientist, an activist, a programmer, and the co-creator of CogSai. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

 

 

Cindy Bulik: The importance of forgetting

If women didn’t forget the experience of childbirth, we would all just have one child. If we didn’t forget bad experiences or things that people did to us that were unkind, we would constantly avoid experiences and bear grudges. Forgetting is important to the survival of the species and to our overall well-being.

Dr. Cindy Bulik is Director of the UNC Chapel Hill Eating Disorders Program. Dr. Bulik’s new book is The Woman in the Mirror: How To Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are. Learn more at the Woman in the Mirror website; the Woman in the Mirror blog; Exchanges: The UNC Eating Disorders Program blog. You can listen to her speak on Radio in Vivo and on The State of Thing with Frank Stasio. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

 

 

Ginger Campbell: Don’t be so sure

Your memories of September 11, the Challenger spaceship explosion, and most landmark events in your life are drastically distorted.

The Challenger study demonstrates this. It was done by a scientist named Ulric Neisser, who was studying the kind of memories people have for highly dramatic events. Within a day of the Challenger explosion he interviewed 106 students and he had them write down exactly how they heard about it, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he interviewed them again and he found that for 25% of them their second account was significantly different from their original journal entries. In fact, more than half the people had some degree of error and less than 10% gave all the details exactly the same as they had originally.

Before they saw their original journals, most of them were certain that their memories were absolutely correct. In fact many of them, when confronted with what they had originally written down, still had a high degree of confidence in their false recollections. In fact, there was one student who said, “That’s my handwriting but that’s not what happened.” And lest you think that this was an isolated incident, there have been plenty of other documented cases. 

To explore the research on memories of 9/11, see coverage in a New Scientist article and in a feature in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor.

Ginger Campbell, M.D. is the host of the Brain Science Podcast. The excerpt above is adapted from her latest book is Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty.

 

Sherryl Kleinman: No one should want to be a lady

Why I’m Not a Lady (and No Woman Is)
by Sherryl Kleinman

Published in Feminist Frontiers, edited by Laurel Richardson, Verta Taylor, and Nancy Whittier. 2004. McGraw-Hill, p. 94.

Ladies have pale skin,
wear white gloves
they sweep across the top
of the armoire
to make sure the darker-skinned woman
who cleaned it
didn’t forget or cheat.

A lady doesn’t sit
with one leg dangling
over the arm of the chair
like she just doesn’t give a damn.

Ladies don’t fix cars, build bridges, wire houses.
Ladies become First Lady, not President.

Sit up straight, young lady!
Cross your legs (shave them first),
Remove (surgically if necessary)
that frown from your forehead.
Lower your voice.
Smile.

(If anyone asks why you
snuck down to the Ladies Room,
say you had to powder your nose.)

Call yourself a lady
and he’ll protect you,
he’ll respect you,
he won’t leave.

But who protects the cleaning lady?

Wonder why we don’t have
“Ladies Studies”
at the university?

I’ll remain a woman,
keep the basic word
that got so dirty
she wants to clean herself off
and be called lady.

Until a real woman
can earn one dollar on the man’s dollar;
Until a real woman can call her body her own;
Until a real woman can love a woman in peace,
love a man without fear;
Until a real woman can walk the dark streets
with her mind on the stars and not on her back,

I will know that lady is a lie.

 

Dr. Sherryl Kleinman is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she teaches and writes about race, class, gender, sexuality, research methods and emotions.

 

 

Charles Seife: Numbers deceive us

Innumerate thinking takes many forms, and no book exposes them as lucidly as Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. The author, Charles Seife, notes that we tend to misunderstand measurement, which necessarily involves units and a degree of uncertainty stemming from the measuring instrument. Sometimes reported measurements lack units because there is no well-defined quantity to measure: what does it mean for a type of mascara to have “12 times more impact,” as L’Oreal once advertised? Sometimes people treat different units as the same, as New York politicians have done in claiming drastic improvement in their state’s educational performance based on state tests that got easier over time. Even when units are handled correctly, most people misunderstand precision.

The commonest mistake is “disestimation”–assuming an estimate is more precise than it is. Take vote counts: due to all kinds of undercounting and double-counting errors, the margin of error will be at least 2% of the total votes. That means that in cases where the difference in votes between two candidates is tiny—the 2000 presidential election especially—the logical response is to declare a tie. But ties do not sit well with most people, so closely contested elections degenerate into squabbles over hundreds of votes, as if those decisive votes were the only ones subject to error. In one of the most hilarious passages of the book, Seife chronicles the fight over one ballot in Minnesota’s close 2008 Senate race; that particular ballot offered the write-in candidate “Lizard people” but also bubbled in Al Franken for governor, leading to a heated fight among lawyers and a panel of judges about whether “Lizard people” is a valid individual (the decision: yes, he/she is).

Speaking of error, Seife devotes a chapter to undercutting most polls reported by the press. The typical opinion poll will show the percentage of people who gave each response, along with a “margin of error.” The lurking problem with these polls is that the largest source of error is not acknowledged. “Margin of error” as journalists report it is actually just statistical error due to random variation, which depends on sample size. Much more important is systematic error, skewing of the results due to the design of the survey. Examples of design problems include picking a sample that does not represent the population being studied, wording and ordering questions in a way that influences answers, and asking questions which might tempt people to lie. One blaring example of design failure is internet surveys, which can only include people with decent internet access who volunteer to take the survey based on motives that will probably skew their answers. But sadly, people will exaggerate even in careful face to face interviews—that’s why the CDC found in 2007 that heterosexual men somehow have more sexual partners than heterosexual women.

In surveying mathematical failures, Seife offers his own cutesy terminology. Sometimes I find it dull: he calls misattributed causation “causuistry,” which is neither memorable nor easy to say. Other times I found myself chuckling. He dubs fitting inappropriate lines and curves to data points “regression to the moon.” This is a play on the phrase “regression to the mean” that gets across the idea that foisting simple models onto complex data leads to wacky conclusions. Case in point: a 2004 Nature paper extrapolates a linear fit for sprinters’ times to argue that women will surpass men in the next century. Seife rejects that as ridiculous, pointing out that the same linear extrapolation would predict sprinters eventually breaking the sound barrier and surpassing the speed of light. It is only in our over-trusting imagination that numbers can have such persuasive power.

Jose Drost-Lopez hosts PsychTalk. This is his review of Charles Seife’s book, which was also reviewed at NYT, NYT blogs, NPR and the Washington Post. This submission is in response to our blog party asking, What surprising thing have you learned about human nature?

David McRaney: You are not so smart

Prepare to see an overload of shattered misconceptions. YANSS is a blog, a book and a podcast by David McRaney; the blog posts take the recurring format of presenting a misconception paired with the truth. Here is a list of our favorite posts with their openers, which are an education in themselves.

Procrastination

The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.

The Truth: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

The Ben Franklin Effect

The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.

The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

The Overjustification Effect

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Misconception:  You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.

The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others.

Placebo Buttons

The Misconception: All buttons placed around you do your bidding.

The Truth: Many public buttons are only there to comfort you.

Confirmation Bias

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

Ego Depletion

The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.

The Truth: Willpower is a finite resource.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.

The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.