A recent twin study looked at educational achievement in the UK and found that genetic factors contribute more than half to the difference in how students perform in their age 16 exams. But this may not apply to other countries.
Twin studies look at the balance between environmental and genetic factors for a given population and a given environment.
They are based on comparing identical and non-identical twins. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, non-identical twins 50%. They also share a common environment (for example, the family home) and some unique experiences.
By knowing that differences in what you’re measuring in identical twins is likely to be ‘twice as genetic’ or ‘twice as heritable’ in non-identical twins you can work out the likely effect of environment using something called the ACE model.
This relies on various assumptions, for example, that identical twins and non-identical twins will not systematically attract different sorts of experiences, which are not watertight. But as a broad estimate, twin studies work out.
Here’s what the latest study concluded:
In a national twin sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, accounts for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores. The significance of these findings is that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.
In other words, the study concluded that over half of the difference in exam results was down to genetic factors.
The most important thing to consider, however, is how well the conclusions apply outside the population and environment being tested.
Because the results give an estimate of the balance between environment and genetic heritability that contribute to the final outcome, the more fixed the environment, the more any differences will be due to genetics and vice versa.
If that’s a bit difficult to get your head round try this example: ask yourself – is difference in height mostly due to genetics or the environment? Most people say genetics – tall parents tend to have tall offspring – but that only applies where everybody has adequate nutrition (i.e. the environmental contribution is fixed to maximum benefit).
In situations where malnutrition is a problem, difference in height is mostly explained by the environment. People who have adequate nutrition during childhood are taller than people who suffered malnutrition. In this situation, genetic factors are a minor player in terms of explaining height differences.
So let’s go back to our education example and think about how genetic and environmental factors balance out.
One of the interesting things about the UK is that it has a National Curriculum where schools have to teach set subjects in a set way.
In other words, the government has fixed part of the environment meaning that differences in exam performance in the UK are that bit more likely to be due to genetic heritability than places where there is no set education programme.
In fact, the same research group speculated in 2007 in a research monograph (pdf, p116) in a similar analysis, that school performance would be less genetically heritable in the USA, because the school environment is more variable.
The U.K. National Curriculum provides similar curricula to all students, thus diminishing a potentially important source of environmental variation across schools, to the extent that the curriculum actually provides a potent source of environmental variation.
In contrast, the educational system in the United States is one of the most decentralized national systems in the world. To the extent that these differences in educational policy affect children’s academic performance, we would expect greater heritability and lower shared environment in the United Kingdom than in the United States.
In other words, all other things being equal, greater equality in educational opportunity should lead to greater heritability.
School performance may be less influenced by genetic heritability in the USA because the educational environment is more variable and therefore accounts for more difference.
Whereas in the UK, the educational environment is more fixed so a greater proportion of the difference in performance is down to genetic heritability.
It’s worth noting that this hasn’t, to my knowledge, been confirmed yet, but it’s a reasonable assumption and demonstrates exactly the question we need to bear in mind when considering studies that estimate heritability – for whom and in what environment?
Forget your end of year run-downs and best of 2013 photo specials, it doesn’t get much better than this: ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13′ from the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog.
As to be expected, some are a little better than others (well, Rolling Stone chose a Miley Cyrus video as one of their best of 2013, so, you know, no-one’s perfect) but there are still plenty of classics.
This one, from a study on parole rulings by judges based on the order of cases and when food breaks occur is particularly eye-opening.
This paper examined 1,112 judicial rulings over a 10 month period by eight judges in Israel. These judges presided over 2 parole boards for four major prisons, processing around 40% of all parole requests in the country. They considered 14-35 cases per day for an average of six minutes and they took two daily food breaks (a late morning snack and lunch), dividing the day into three sessions.
The graph looks at the proportion of rulings in favor of parole by ordinal position (so 1st case of the day, then 2nd, then 3rd, etc). The circled points are the first decision in each of the three decision sessions, the tick marks on the x-axis denote every third case and the dotted line denotes a food break. The probability of the judges granting parole falls steadily from around 65% to nearly zero just before the break, before jumping back up again after they return to work.
Moral of the story: don’t get banged up, make sure your judge has been recently fed, or bring snacks to court.
Anyway, plenty more fascinating behavioural science graphs to check out and no Miley Cyrus. At least, until she jumps on that bandwagon.
Link to ‘The 15 Best Behavioural Science Graphs of 2010-13′
The New York Times has an important article on how Attention Deficit Disorder, often known as ADHD, has been ‘marketed’ alongside sales of stimulant medication to the point where leading ADHD researchers are becoming alarmed at the scale of diagnosis and drug treatment.
It’s worth noting that although the article focuses on ADHD, it is really a case study in how psychiatric drug marketing often works.
This is the typical pattern: a disorder is defined and a reliable diagnosis is created. A medication is tested and found to be effective – although studies which show negative effects might never be published.
It is worth highlighting that the ‘gold standard’ diagnosis usually describes a set of symptoms that are genuinely linked to significant distress or disability.
Then, marketing money aims to ‘raise awareness’ of the condition to both doctors and the public. This may be through explicit drug company adverts, by sponsoring medical training that promotes a particular drug, or by heavily funding select patient advocacy groups that campaign for wider diagnosis and drug treatment.
This implicitly encourages diagnosis to be made away from the ‘gold standard’ assessment – which often involves an expensive and time-consuming structured assessment by specialists.
This means that much of the diagnosis and prescribing happens by local doctors and is often prompted by patients turning up with newspaper articles, adverts, or the results of supposedly non-diagnostic diagnostic quizzes in their hands. There are many more marketing tricks of the trade which the article goes through in detail.
As the initial market begins to become saturated, drug companies will often aim to ‘expand’ into other areas by sponsoring studies into the same condition in another age group and treating the condition as an ‘add on’ to another disorder – each of which allows them to officially market the drug for these conditions.
However, fines for illegally marketing drugs for non-approved conditions are now commonplace are many think that these are just considered as calculated financial risks by pharmaceutical companies.
The New York Times is particularly important because it tracks the entire web of marketing activity – that aside from the traditional medical slant – also includes pop stars, material for kids, TV presenters, websites and bloggers.
It is a eye-opening guide to the burgeoning world of ADHD promotion but is really just a case study of how psychiatric drug marketing works. By the way, don’t miss the video that analyses the marketing material.
Link to NYT article ‘The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder’
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Beware the enthusiasm for ‘neuroeducation’ says Steven Rose in Times Higher Education.
Lots of studies use oxytocin nasal sprays. You can buy it from websites. Neuroskeptic asks does it even reach the brain?
Time magazine finds a fascinating AI telemarketer bot that denies it’s a robot when questioned – with some great audio samples of the conversations.
The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality. Interesting interview with psychologist of moral thinking Joshua Green in Slate.
Brain Watch takes a calm look at the most hyped concept in neuroscience: mirror neurons.
As is traditional the Christmas British Medical Journal has some wonderfully light-hearted science – including a medical review on the beneficial and harmful effects of laughter.
How much do we really know about sleep? asks The Telegraph.
Chemical adventurers: a potent laboratory neurotoxin is being sold as a legal high online. The Dose Makes The Poison has the news.
Not really into kickstarters but this looks cool: open-source Arduino-compatible 8-channel EEG platform.
Did Brain Scans Just Save a Convicted Murderer From the Death Penalty? Wired on a curious neurolaw development.
How the US military used lobotomies on World War II veterans – an excellent multimedia expose from the Wall Street Journal.
New Scientist takes a critical look at the ‘genetics more important than experience in school exam performance’ study that’s been making the headlines.
The Manifestation of Migraine in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Neurocritic on migraine and opera.
It’s a tried and tested technique used by writers and poets, but can psychology explain why first moments after waking can be among our most imaginative?
It is 6.06am and I’m typing this in my pyjamas. I awoke at 6.04am, walked from the bedroom to the study, switched on my computer and got to work immediately. This is unusual behaviour for me. However, it’s a tried and tested technique for enhancing creativity, long used by writers, poets and others, including the inventor Benjamin Franklin. And psychology research appears to back this up, providing an explanation for why we might be at our most creative when our minds are still emerging from the realm of sleep.
The best evidence we have of our mental state when we’re asleep is that strange phenomenon called dreaming. Much remains unknown about dreams, but one thing that is certain is that they are weird. Also listening to other people’s dreams can be deadly boring. They go on and on about how they were on a train, but it wasn’t a train, it was a dinner party, and their brother was there, as well as a girl they haven’t spoken to since they were nine, and… yawn. To the dreamer this all seems very important and somehow connected. To the rest of us it sounds like nonsense, and tedious nonsense at that.
Yet these bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.
No wonder some people value the immediate, post-sleep, dreamlike mental state – known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state – so highly. It allows them to infuse their waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic. Later in the day, waking consciousness assumes complete control, which is a good thing as it allows us to go about our day evaluating situations, making plans, pursuing goals and dealing rationally with the world. Life would be challenging indeed if we were constantly hallucinating, believing the impossible or losing sense of what we were doing like we do when we’re dreaming. But perhaps the rational grip of daytime consciousness can at times be too strong, especially if your work could benefit from the feckless, distractible, inconsistent, manic, but sometimes inspired nature of its rebellious sleepy twin.
Scientific methods – by necessity methodical and precise – might not seem the best of tools for investigating sleep consciousness. Yet in 2007 Matthew Walker, now of the University of California at Berkeley, and colleagues carried out a study that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or “remote associates” as psychologists call them.
Under the inference
Subjects were presented with pairs of six abstract patterns A, B, C, D, E and F. Through trial and error they were taught the basics of a hierarchy, which dictated they should select A over B, B over C, C over D, D over E, and E over F. The researchers called these the “premise pairs”. While participants learnt these during their training period, they were not explicitly taught that because A was better than B, and B better than C, that they should infer A to be better than C, for example. This hidden order implied relationships, described by Walker as “inference pairs”, were designed to mimic the remote associates that drive creativity.
Participants who were tested 20 minutes after training got 90% of premise pairs but only around 50% of inference pairs right – the same fraction you or I would get if we went into the task without any training and just guessed.
Those tested 12 hours after training again got 90% for the premise pairs, but 75% of inference pairs, showing the extra time had allowed the nature of the connections and hidden order to become clearer in their minds.
But the real success of the experiment was a contrast in the performances of one group trained in the morning and then re-tested 12 hours later in the evening, and another group trained in the evening and brought back for testing the following morning after having slept. Both did equally well in tests of the premise pairs. The researchers defined inferences that required understanding of two premise relationships as easy, and those that required three or more as hard. So, for example, A being better than C, was labelled as easy because it required participants to remember that A was better than B and B was better than C. However understanding that A was better than D meant recalling A was better than B, B better than C, and C better than D, and so was defined as hard.
When it came to the harder inferences, people who had a night’s sleep between training and testing got a startling 93% correct, whereas those who’d been busy all day only got 70%.
The experiment illustrates that combining what we know to generate new insights requires time, something that many might have guessed. Perhaps more revealingly it also shows the power of sleep in building remote associations. Making the links between pieces of information that our daytime rational minds see as separate seems to be easiest when we’re offline, drifting through the dreamworld.
It is this function of sleep that might also explain why those first moments upon waking can be among our most creative. Dreams may seem weird, but just because they don’t make sense to your rational waking consciousness doesn’t make them purposeless. I was at my keyboard two minutes after waking up in an effort to harness some dreamworld creativity and help me write this column – memories of dreams involving trying to rob a bank with my old chemistry teacher, and playing tennis with a racket made of spaghetti, still tinging the edges of my consciousness.
This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. I had the idea for the column while drinking coffee with Helen Mort. Caffeine consumption being, of course, another favourite way to encourage creativity!
Ben Goldacre might be quite surprised to hear he’s written a sociology book, but for the second in our series on books about how the science of mind, brain and mental health meet society, Bad Pharma is an exemplary example.
The book could essentially be read as a compelling textbook on clinical trial methodology with better jokes, but the crux of the book is not really the methods of testing medical interventions, but how these methods are used and abused for financial ends and what impact this has on professional medicine and, ultimately, our health.
In other words, the book looks at how clinical science is used socially and how social influences affect clinical science.
For example, this is question I often give students: If a trial is badly designed, are the results more likely to suggest the treatment is effective or more likely to suggest the treatment is ineffective?
Most students, naive to the ways of the scientific world, tend to say that badly designed trials would be less likely to show the treatment works but in the real world, badly designed trials are much more likely to give positive results.
There is nothing in the science that makes this happen. This is an entirely social effect. It’s worth saying that that this is rarely due to outright fraud but it’s those little decisions that add up over time, each of which seems completely justifiable to the researcher, that sway the results.
It’s like if your dad was school football coach. You’d probably get picked for the team more often not because your father was making a conscious decision to include you no matter what, but because he would genuinely believe he had recognised talent where others probably wouldn’t.
For scientists, the treatment they are testing is often their ‘baby’, and the same sort of soft biases creep in between the cracks. And the more cracks there are, the more creep occurs.
On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies are often deliberately trying to promote their product by distorting the evidence for its effectiveness. This often happens within the accepted regulations – the unethical but legal realm – but happens surprisingly often outside the law.
Bad Pharma is not specifically about psychiatry but as one of the medical specialities which is most corrupted by the influence of large pharmaceutical companies, it turns up a lot.
It is both an essential guide to understanding how treatments for mental health conditions are tested and has plenty of examples of how psychiatric drugs have been the subject of spin, over-selling and fraud.
Perhaps the only part where I think Goldacre is being too strong is in his criticism of ‘me too drugs’ which are new drugs which are often molecularly similar but no more effective for the target symptoms than the old ones.
At least in psychiatry, one of the big problems is not so much the effectiveness of the drugs, but their side-effects. Having other compounds which although no more effective may be more agreeable or less risky is a genuine benefit.
Goldacre is clear about this being a benefit, but I think he under-values it at times, especially since a lot of mind and brain medicine involves iterating through medications until the patient is happy with the balance between effectiveness and side-effects.
But this is a small point in an excellent book. It is essential if you want to know how medicine works and doubly essential if you have an interest in the mind, brain and mental health where these issues are both a significant battle ground and often under-appreciated.
I suspect Goldacre would prefer to call the book political rather than sociological, but if you are studying psychology, neuroscience or mental health it is a must read to understand how clinical science meets society.
Next and finally in this three-part Mind Hacks series on science and society – Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman’s The Empire of Trauma.
Link to more details of Bad Pharma.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
C-List celebrity is photographed with a psychology book in her hand and New York Magazine is all over it like Glenn Greenwald with an encrypted harddrive.
The New York Times covers a Dutch scheme to get alcoholics working by paying them in beer. Scheme to get stoners working by paying them in weed probably not as effective.
The British Medical Journal has an entertaining interview with psychiatrist Simon Wessely.
Soaring dementia rates prompt call for global action, reports New Scientist.
Bloomberg reports that the rate of US teens on psychiatric drugs remains steady at 6%. Hey, it could be worse.
Research on illicit drugs is being hampered by daft drug laws says David Nutt in Scientific America. Clearly not the worst scientific censorship “since the banning of the telescope” but the point remains.
Brain Watch has a good round up of discussions surrounding the ‘men and women’s brains are wired differently therefore stereotypes’ study that has been getting everyone’s unisex underwear in a twist.
Electric brain stimulation triggers eye-of-the-tiger effect. Not Exactly Rocket Science has the power-chords (and maybe the power cords – hard to see from this angle).
NPR has one of the few left-brain / right-brain articles you’ll ever want to read. Neuroscientist Tania Lombroso takes a detailed look at the science behind the concept.
The science of hatred. The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent piece on the psychology of genocide and racism.
As a result, I’ve just had a paper published in PLOS Biology that focus on one of the most striking but ignored aspects of hallucinated voices.
Here’s how I describe the central paradox in the paper:
Auditory verbal hallucinations, the experience of “hearing voices”, present us with an interesting paradox: the experiences are generated from within a single individual but are typically experienced as a social phenomenon—that is, a form of communication from another speaker.
Current theories attempt to explain auditory verbal hallucinations as alterations to individualistic information processing—namely, misattributions of internal thoughts as external phenomena due to biases in cognitive monitoring.
The fact that voices stem from an internal source is, of course, clear, but the typical experience of “hearing voices” is not that thoughts seem to be “spoken aloud” but that hallucinated voices have a social identity with clear interpersonal relevance. In other words, voices are as much hallucinated social identities as they are hallucinated words or sounds.
The article discusses the psychology and neuroscience of social processing in the experience of hearing voices and suggests how we can begin to consider this as a central component of the experience in terms of scientific research.
It’s an academic article but should hopefully be fairly accessible to most people with an interest in the science of hallucinations.
Link to article ‘A Community of One’ on social cognition and hearing voices.
London’s film, food and science festival in an abandoned psychiatric hospital is back as the Shuffle Festival kicks off its Winter run.
Hosted in the old buildings of St Clement’s Hospital the festival has an impressive programme including everything from Jarvis Cocker to Brian Cox.
There are also regular talks from working scientists including a couple of standout-looking ones on the neuroscience of religious experience and circadian rhythms.
There’s also a full film programme, DJs, a restaurant, music, theatre and an art gallery with a commissioned show.
As with the summer Shuffle Festival, the profits go to the East London Community Land Trust that will ensure that when the hospital gets redeveloped, affordable housing will be available to the local community. A welcome change from the usual practice of converting London’s old asylums into exorbitant luxury flats.
If it’s anything like last time, it should be awesome. And if you didn’t go in August, this may be your last chance to say you’ve experienced a festival in an abandoned Victorian-era asylum.
The full programme is at the link below. See you there!
Link to the Shuffle Festival.
It’s wonderfully written to the point of being painful and if you’re not good with needles, you’ll probably feel a bit queasy when reading it.
But because each heroin molecule gets transformed into two morphine molecules (hence the medical name for heroin – diamorphine) the feeling can be a little different because the increased concentration can apparently make the high more intense.
Neurochemically, however, the action in each opioid receptor is the same.
As morphine is used more widely in medicine than diamorphine, it is more likely to be abused by doctors and turn up in cases of addiction.
As we’ve discussed previously, addiction and abuse of medical drugs by doctors is linked to clinical speciality – likely due to both knowledge of and access to particular compounds.
The AddictionBlog article is a strikingly written, honest, detailed and psychologically insightful piece if you want a look into this curious corner of medical drug abuse.
Link to ‘What it’s like to take and withdraw from morphine’
By Tom Stafford
The Guardian: Male and female brains wired differently, scans reveal
The Atlantic: Male and female brains really are built differently
An analysis of 949 brain scans shows significant sex differences in the connections between different brain areas.
What they actually did
Researchers from Philadelphia took data from 949 brain scans and divided them into three age groups and by gender. They then analysed the connections between 95 separate divisions of each brain using a technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging.
With this data they constructed “connectome” maps, which show the network of the strength of connection between those brain regions.
Statistical testing of this showed significant differences between these networks according to sex – the average men’s network was more connected within each side of the brain, and the average women’s network was better connected between the two hemispheres. These differences emerged most strongly after the age of 13 (so weren’t as striking for the youngest group they tested).
How plausible is this?
Everybody knows that men are women have some biological differences – different sizes of brains and different hormones. It wouldn’t be too surprising if there were some neurological differences too. The thing is, we also know that we treat men and women differently from the moment they’re born, in almost all areas of life. Brains respond to the demands we make of them, and men and women have different demands placed on them.
Although a study of brain scans has an air of biological purity, it doesn’t escape from the reality that the people having their brains scanned are the product of social and cultural forces as well as biological ones.
The research itself is a technical tour-de-force which really needs a specialist to properly critique. I am not that specialist. But a few things seem odd about it: they report finding significant differences between the sexes, but don’t show the statistics that allow the reader to evaluate the size of any sex difference against other factors such as age or individual variability. This matters because you can have a statistically significant difference which isn’t practically meaningful. Relative size of effect might be very important.
For example, a significant sex difference could be tiny compared to the differences between people of different ages, or compared to the normal differences between individuals. The question of age differences is also relevant because we know the brain continues to develop after the oldest age tested in the study (22 years).
Any sex difference could plausibly be due to difference in the time-course of development between men and women. But, in general, it isn’t the technical details which I am equipped to critique. It’s a fair assumption to believe what the researchers have found, so let’s turn instead to how it is being interpreted.
One of the authors of this research, as reported in The Guardian, said “the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes”. That, for me, should be a warning sign. Time and time again we find, as we see here, that highly technical and advanced neuroscience is used to support tired old generalisations.
Here, the research assumes the difference it seeks to prove. The data is analysed for sex differences with other categories receiving less or no attention (age, education, training and so on). From this biased lens on the data, a story about fundamental differences is also told. Part of our psychological make-up seems to be to want to assign essences to things – and differences between genders is a prime example of something people want to be true.
Even if we assume this research is reliable it doesn’t tell us about actual psychological differences between men and women. The brain scan doesn’t tell us about behaviour (and, indeed, most of us manage to behave in very similar ways despite large differences in brain structure and connectivity). Bizarrely, the authors seem also to want to use their analysis to support a myth about left brain vs right brain thinking. The “rational” left brain vs the intuitive’ right brain is a distinction that even Michael Gazzaniga, one of the founding fathers of “split brain” studies doesn’t believe any more.
Perhaps more importantly, analysis of how men and women are doesn’t tell you how men and women could be if brought up differently.
When the headlines talk about “hardwiring” and “proof that men and women are different” we can see the role this research is playing in cementing an assumption that people have already made. In fact, the data is silent on how men and women’s brains would be connected if society put different expectations on them.
Given the surprising ways in which brains do adapt to different experiences, it is completely plausible that even these significant “biological” differences could be due to cultural factors.
And even reliable differences between men and women can be reversed by psychological manipulations, which suggests that any underling biological differences isn’t as fundamental as researchers like to claim.
As Shakespeare has Ophelia say in Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
The original paper: Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain
Sophie Scott of UCL has some technical queries about the research – one possibility is that movements made during the scanning could have been different between the sexes and generated the apparent differences in the resulting connectome networks.
Another large study, cited by this current paper, found no differences according to sex.
Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neuro-sexism create difference provides essential context for looking at this kind of research.
UPDATE: Cordelia Fine provides her own critique of the paper
Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Psychologists have shown humans are poor judges of their own abilities, from sense of humour to grammar. Those worst at it are the worst judges of all.
You’re pretty smart right? Clever, and funny too. Of course you are, just like me. But wouldn’t it be terrible if we were mistaken? Psychologists have shown that we are more likely to be blind to our own failings than perhaps we realise. This could explain why some incompetent people are so annoying, and also inject a healthy dose of humility into our own sense of self-regard.
In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability. At the start of their research paper they cite a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise. When police showed him the security camera footage, he protested “But I wore the juice”. The hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice you would be invisible to security cameras.
Kruger and Dunning were interested in testing another kind of laughing matter. They asked professional comedians to rate 30 jokes for funniness. Then, 65 undergraduates were asked to rate the jokes too, and then ranked according to how well their judgements matched those of the professionals. They were also asked how well they thought they had done compared to the average person.
As you might expect, most people thought their ability to tell what was funny was above average. The results were, however, most interesting when split according to how well participants performed. Those slightly above average in their ability to rate jokes were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average. Participants who were least able to judge what was funny (at least according to the professional comics) were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.
This finding was not a quirk of trying to measure subjective sense of humour. The researchers repeated the experiment, only this time with tests of logical reasoning and grammar. These disciplines have defined answers, and in each case they found the same pattern: those people who performed the worst were also the worst in estimating their own aptitude. In all three studies, those whose performance put them in the lowest quarter massively overestimated their own abilities by rating themselves as above average.
It didn’t even help the poor performers to be given a benchmark. In a later study, the most incompetent participants still failed to realise they were bottom of the pack even when given feedback on the performance of others.
Kruger and Dunning’s interpretation is that accurately assessing skill level relies on some of the same core abilities as actually performing that skill, so the least competent suffer a double deficit. Not only are they incompetent, but they lack the mental tools to judge their own incompetence.
In a key final test, Kruger and Dunning trained a group of poor performers in logical reasoning tasks. This improved participants’ self-assessments, suggesting that ability levels really did influence self-awareness.
Other research has shown that this “unskilled and unaware of it” effect holds in real-life situations, not just in abstract laboratory tests. For example, hunters who know the least about firearms also have the most inaccurate view of their firearm knowledge, and doctors with the worst patient-interviewing skills are the least likely to recognise their inadequacies.
What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of what psychologists call metacognition – thinking about thinking. It’s also something that should give us all pause for thought. The effect might just explain the apparently baffling self belief of some of your friends and colleagues. But before you start getting too smug, just remember one thing. As unlikely as you might think it is, you too could be walking around blissfully ignorant of your ignorance.
A new series of BBC Radio 4′s All in the Mind has just kicked off and to celebrate 25 years of broadcasting they’ve just had three great episodes looking back on the last quarter century of psychology, neuroscience and mental health.
Each make for a interesting discussion of how science and attitudes have changed.
As per BBC usual, you can access the streamed versions at the links above, but you have to go to an entirely separate page for the podcasts.
And because there are no separate podcast pages for specific episodes, I’ve linked them directly below. Here’s hoping that in the next 25 years, the BBC can fix their website.
This is the first of three posts that will cover three important books about how the science of mind, brain and mental health, interfaces with society at large.
First off, I want to discuss an excellent book called Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind published this year by sociologists of neuroscience Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached.
You may be wondering why we need a social study of neuroscience but it becomes clear when we think of how neuroscience has become important.
It is not just due to what has been discovered. Neuroscience research itself, is only driven in part by scientific discovery.
In the main part, it is driven by a complex mix of politics, business, health care needs and public popularity. That’s what provides the funds and makes the scientific discovery possible and this only moderately, some would say weakly, relates to how far we ‘advance’ in terms of learning.
There is also a common idea that discoveries from psychology and neuroscience form the basis of interventions or changes to society, but much of the time, discoveries from psychology and neuroscience are co-opted to justify changes based on social values.
Here’s a really good example from p196 from the chapter on ‘The Antisocial Brain’ that discusses how the neuroscience of plasticity, the adolescent brain and child psychopathology has been used to justify family interventions.
By way of the brain, then, we reach a conclusion that does not differ greatly from arguments reaching back to the late nineteenth century about the effects of the early years on later propensities to problematic conduct.
From Mary Carpenter’s campaigns for colonies for dangerous and perishing children, through the social problem group and “the submerged ten percent” in the early twentieth century, via the mental hygiene movement in the 1930s, and arguments for setting up child welfare services in the years after the Second World War, to the contentious concept of the “cycle of deprivation” in the 1970s, and the interventions of the Head Start program to the Sure Start program – we find repeated arguments that one should minimize a host of social ills, including criminal and antisocial conduct, by governing the child through the family.
In each generation, unsurprisingly, these arguments are made on the basis of whatever happens to be the current mode of objectivity about the development of children – habits, the will, instinct theory, psychoanalysis, and today the brain.
Each time, the scientific programme is received as if it is a new approach to the problem of child deprivation and delinquency, when the success of these programmes lies precisely in the fact that they are largely the same. In this case, based on the idea that the family is the primary point of responsibility and intervention for poor adolescent behaviour.
Similarly, the success of neuroscientific approaches to problems often depends on how acceptable the implications would seem to potential funders because the money has usually to be agreed before significant lines of inquiry can be started.
This is why non-medical behavioural genetics research gets such as hard time. It’s not that it’s necessarily worse science in terms of its empirical methods but it reminds people of unsavoury practices like eugenics that run counter to prevailing values.
Neuro tracks exactly these sorts of interactions through history and between prevailing current interests. It is also brilliant technically, however, and you will actually learn a great deal about neuroscience methods from the book.
From the history and development of brain scanning techniques, to psychiatric drugs, to the rhetorical role of animal models in understanding mental illness, to how our notion of ourselves is changing in light of advances in brain sciences – it’s remarkably wide in scope.
Sociology is famous for its gobbledebook jargon, and this book has none of this, but its only drawback is that it is, in the end, an academic book and is sometimes written without much thought for the general reader.
But if you can tolerate the academic language, it is essential reading. If you want to understand neuroscience – rather than just facts about neuroscience – Neuro is probably one of the most important books you could read.
And the same goes if you are a neuroscientist or just interested in how we, as a society, are integrating the study of the brain into how we live.
Next in this three-part Mind Hacks series on science and society – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.
Link to more details about Neuro.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Science News reports on a ‘brain training’ app that actually seems to be a data gathering tool for big data neuropsychology research. Interesting if not a bit ethically dubious.
The US Military’s science wing DARPA wants to fix broken brains and restore lost memories. Interview with deputy director in Science.
Wired Science launches a new neuroscience blog called Brain Watch written by Mind Hacks alumnus Christian Jarrett.
Important piece in Nature about the Many Labs Project which did a mass replication of psychology studies find 10 out of 13 held up.
Slate has an excellent, explicit discussion of the results from the UK’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.
Neurobonkers has an excellent piece reviewing the psychological biases that affect forensic science analyses.
Robots, the ‘uncanny valley’ and identity. Interesting piece in The Telegraph.
The Las Vegas Sun reports on a couple being released from prison after 21 years as evidence for ‘ritual satanic abuse’ based on ‘recovered memories’ and un-validated physical examinations is deemed to be flawed.
A new NeuroPod podcast has hit the wires – this one being a special from the 2013 Society for Neuroscience conference.
Discover magazine reports on a study finding that surprisingly, the more two negotiators match each other’s language styles, the worse things are likely to go.
In 2006, journalist Quinn Norton had a magnet implanted in her finger so she could ‘sense’ magnetic fields.
An article on the ABC Radio National website shows how this simple concept has been taken to its next level by the body modification community to find new ways of integrating magnetic fields into our senses.
Before I was prepped to have a magnet inserted in my fingertip, I had a conversation with my piercer, Kyla Fae, about placement…
I had thought that the only possibility was the finger, but apparently there are many fleshy parts of the body that are viable placement options.
‘I haven’t performed any in genitals, but I’m well aware of people with them,’ said Ms Fae.
‘If you’ve got a magnet in your lady garden or whatever, it will vibrate away near big speakers.’..
Some enthusiasts are also starting to get magnets that act as mini speakers implanted next to their ear. All it takes is a magnetic coil disguised as a necklace, an amplifier and MP3 player to have music piped straight to your brain.
Now imagine that in an MRI scanner. Fast Spin Echo sequence for the win.
Link to ‘Taking body modification to the extreme’.
By Tom Stafford, University of Sheffield
Business Standard: Violent video games make teens eat more, cheat more
Scienceblog.com: Teens ‘Eat more, cheat more’ after playing violent video games
The Times of India: Violent video games make teens cheat more
Playing the violent video game Grand Theft Auto made teenagers more aggressive, more dishonest and lowered their self control.
What they actually did
172 Italian high school students (age 13-19 years old), about half male and half female, took part in an experiment in which they first played a video game for 35 minutes. Half played a non-violent pinball or golf game, and half played one of the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto games.
During the game they had the opportunity to eat M&M’s freely from a bowl (the amount they scoffed provided a measure of self-control), and after the game they had the opportunity take a quiz to earn raffle tickets (and the opportunity to cheat on the quiz, which provided a measure of dishonesty). They also played a game during which they could deliver unpleasant noises to a fellow player as punishments (which was used to measure of aggression).
Analysis of the results showed that those who played the violent video game had lower scores when it came to the self-control measure, cheated more and were more aggressive. What’s more, these effects were most pronounced for those who had high scores on a scale of “moral disengagement” – which measures how loose your moral thinking is. In other words, if you don’t think too hard about right and wrong, you score highly.
How plausible is this?
This is a well designed study, which uses random allocation to the two groups to try to properly assess causation (does the violent video game cause immoral behaviour?).
The choice of control condition was reasonable (the other video games were tested and found to be just as enjoyed by the participants), and the measures are all reasonable proxies for the things we are interested in. Obviously you can’t tell if weakened self-control for eating chocolate will mean weakened self-control for more important behaviour, but it’s a nice specific measure which is practical in an experiment and which just might connect to the wider concept.
The number of participants is also large enough that we can give the researchers credit for putting in the effort. Getting about 85 people in each group should give a minimum of statistical power, which means any effects might be reliable.
As an experimental psychologist, there’s lots for me to like about this study. The only obvious potential problem that I can see is that of demand effects, subtle cues that can make participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how they should behave. The participants were told they were in a study which looked at the effects of video games, so it isn’t impossible that some element of their behaviour was playing up to what they reasonably guessed the researchers were looking for and it doesn’t look like the researchers checked if this might be the case.
You can’t leap to conclusions from a single study, of course – even a well designed one. We should bear in mind the history of moral panics around new technology and media. Today we’re concerned with violent video games, 50 years ago it was comic books and jazz. At least jazz is no longer corrupting young people.
Is our worry about violent video games just another page in the history of adults worrying about what young people are up to? That’s certainly a factor, but unlike jazz, it does seem psychologically plausible that a game where you enjoy reckless killing and larceny might encourage players to be self-indulgent and nasty.
Reviews suggest violent media may be a risk factor for violent behaviour, just like cigarette smoke is a risk factor for cancer. Most people who play video games won’t commit violent acts, just like most people who passive smoke won’t get cancer.
The problem is other research reviews into impact of violent entertainment on our behaviour suggest the evidence for a negative effect is weak and contradictory.
Video games are a specific example of the general topic of if and how media affect our behaviour. Obviously, we are more than complete zombies, helpless to resist every suggestion or example, but we’re also less than completely independent creatures, immune to the influence of other people and all forms of entertainment. Where the balance lies between these extremes is controversial.
For now, I’m going to keep an open mind, but as a personal choice I’m probably not going to get the kids GTA for Christmas.
@PeteEtchells provides a good summary of the scientific (lack of) consensus: What is the link between violent video games and aggression?
Commentary by one researcher on the problems in the field of video game research: The Challenges of Accurate Reporting on Video Game Research
And a contrary research report: A decade long study of over 11,000 children finds no negative impact of video games
Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
If you only read one psychology article in the next few months, make it the startling and unsettling Atlantic piece on how ‘people analytics’ is being applied to managing, selecting, and promoting employees.
The idea behind people analytics is that job performance can be measured and predicted by analysing the huge amount of behavioural data generated by the digital tools we use or from specifically designed online tests.
The prediction part comes from analysing data across employees to find out, for example, what characteristics best predict a good team leader, or a poor performer, or someone who needs a specific sort of support or intervention to develop.
The potential power of this data-rich approach is obvious. What begins with an online screening test for entry-level workers ends with the transformation of nearly every aspect of hiring, performance assessment, and management. In theory, this approach enables companies to fast-track workers for promotion based on their statistical profiles; to assess managers more scientifically; even to match workers and supervisors who are likely to perform well together, based on the mix of their competencies and personalities. Transcom plans to do all these things, as its data set grows ever richer. This is the real promise—or perhaps the hubris—of the new people analytics. Making better hires turns out to be not an end but just a beginning. Once all the data are in place, new vistas open up.
In other words, the idea is to develop software that can identify predictors of specific behaviours and use them as the basis of management decisions.
Essentially, you have become a data series in a profit-making algorithm.
It is an important and fascinating article that is worth reading in full as it heralds a future of human resources that will be driven by ultra-personal data.
Link to Atlantic article ‘They’re Watching You at Work’.
Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:
Prosthetics to replace amputated hands can fall into the uncanny valley reports Science News.
The New York Times covers the nascent science of female aggression.
Can gambling machines prevent addiction? asks Scientific American Mind. Answer: of course. Will they? No.
NPR has an excellent piece by neuroscientist Tania Lombroso on whether pictures of brain scans have persuasive power. Only sometimes, it turns out.
The Dream Catcher. Matter has an in-depth piece about sadly over-hippied but genuinely fascinating subject of lucid dreaming.
io9 covers the psychology experiment that led to the phrase “thinking outside the box”.
Brain scans teach us nothing of morality says philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel in a street-fighting review of Joshua Greene’ new book.
NPR reports that your chance is being murdered is heavily to who you have in your social network.
Neuroscientist Kate Mills sets out a programme for understanding the interaction between networked culture and the adolescent brain in a talk from the Serpentine Gallery.
A series of ‘bizarre delusions’ from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia described in a new paper just published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine:
“Some rays are there in me, which create magnetic field and I have the power to affect TV signals. Body is producing charge; whenever I touch anything I get electric current. Some heavenly body comes and makes me powerful and communicates with me.”
“My hands are changed into cat’s paws.”
“I have some special power, if I call the Sun then it will come to me, whenever I look at the Sun, it smiles back at me.”
“My rib-cage is left behind in the bathroom; while I was bathing it got washed away.”
“The heart is moving round the clock in different areas of the trunk.”
“A ray directly from “Delhi University (DU)” used to teach me the engineering course.”
Delusions are one of the central symptoms of psychosis and despite the fact that they can be both distressing and disabling, are often quite amazing in their complexity and content.
Link to article from Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.