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David Myers

Our Perception of Sex

Posted by David Myers Expert Mar 29, 2018

Perceptual illusions are not only great fun, they also remind us of a basic truth: Our perceptions are more than projections of the world into our brain. As our brains assemble sensory inputs they construct our perceptions, based partly on our assumptions. When our brain uses rules that normally give us accurate impressions of the world it can, in some circumstances, fool us. And understanding how we get fooled can teach us how our perceptual system works.

 

A case in point is the famed Müller-Lyer illusion, for which the Italian visual artist Gianni Sarcone gives us two wonderful new examples.

 

Many more informative examples can be found amid the 644 pages of the new Oxford Compendium of Visual Illusions. There I discovered a fascinating phenomenon reported by Gettysburg College psychologist Richard Russell.

 

First (with Professor Russell’s kind permission from his earlier article in Perception) a question:

In the pair of Caucasian faces, below, which looks to be the male, and which the female?

Do you (as did I) perceive the left face as male, the right face as female?

 

Many people do, but in actuality, they are the same androgynous face (created by averaging Caucasian male and female faces), but with one subtle difference: the researchers slightly darkened the skin (but not the lips or the eyes) in the left face and lightened the skin in the right face. Why? Because worldwide and across ethnic groups, Russell and others report, women’s skin around the lips and eyes tends to be lighter than men’s. And that means more contrast between their skin and their lips and eyes.

 

That natural, subtle facial sex difference enabled Russell to recreate what he calls “the illusion of sex” with a second demonstration. This time, he left the skin constant but lightened the lips and eyes of the left face, making it appear male, and he darkened the lips and eyes of the right face, increasing the contrast, making it appear female.

Russell suggests that this helps explain why, in some cultures, women use facial cosmetics. Lipstick and eye shadow amplify the perceived sex difference, he notes, “by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute—facial contrast.”

 

While it had been common for astronauts to spend six months at the ISS, NASA wanted to know what happens when humans spend even longer in space. Depending on the orbit trajectory chosen – which depends on how much fuel you want to take with you – a trip to Mars could take 7 to 9 months (Carter, n.d.). And then once you get there, you probably want to spend some time there. Heck, I spend more than a few days in Australia when I travel there, and that’s just 7,744 miles/12,462 km. And then you have to travel home from Australia – I mean, Mars.

 

If you’re NASA and you have identical twin astronauts, there’s only one reasonable thing to do. You put together a team of researchers who are experts in human physiology, behavioral health, microbiology, and epigenetics to find out everything you can about the twins today. Next, you send one of them into space for twelve months. When the astronaut comes back to earth, repeat the measurements for both astronauts. This is NASA’s Twin Study. Mark Kelly* was the twin who stayed on earth; Scott Kelly was the twin who spent a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS)**.

In January, 2018, NASA shared some preliminary research findings from their twin study.  

 

Another interesting finding concerned what some call the “space gene”, which was alluded to in 2017. Researchers now know that 93% of Scott’s genes returned to normal after landing. However, the remaining 7% point to possible longer term changes in genes related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.

 

This makes it sound like Scott’s genes underwent some kind of change. Journalists grabbed hold of this and declared that Scott and Mark were no longer twins since their DNA was not the same. This was not what the researchers meant. NASA clarified:

 

Mark and Scott Kelly are still identical twins; Scott’s DNA did not fundamentally change. What researchers did observe are changes in gene expression, which is how your body reacts to your environment. This likely is within the range for humans under stress, such as mountain climbing or SCUBA diving.

 

What changed were not Scott’s genes, but rather his gene expression – in other words, his epigenetic code.

 

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by scientist and science writer Adam Rutherford is a nice summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we would like to know about genetics and, to a lesser extent, epigenetics.  Our epigenome is what turns genes on and off. Women who have two X chromosomes (that’s most of us) have all the genes on one X chromosome in each of our cells turned off. “In mammals, epigenetic modifications tend to get reset each generation, but some, very limited, rare epigenetic tags appear to be passed down from parent to child, at least for a couple of generations.”  Pregnant women who starved in the Netherlands during the winter of 1944 gave birth to low-birthweight babies (no surprise) who then grew up to give birth to babies who were high-birthweight (surprise). Other research in a rural Swedish community with variable harvests found that boys who experienced a lean year just before entering puberty were more likely to have grandsons – yes, grandsons – who lived longer. But most epigenetic changes are temporary (Rutherford, 2017).

 

In the case of reporting that astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly were no longer identical twins, the journalists were merely reporting what they understood the NASA press release to be saying, so I’m not going to fault them.

 

Earlier this month we read headlines declaring that despite years of research showing that the adult human hippocampus produces stem cells that grow into new neurons, that a new study declares that’s not the case at all. I was poised to pounce on journalists for getting this wrong. But I can’t. Once again, it’s the Public Relations department, this time at the University of California at San Francisco.

 

Now UC San Francisco scientists have shown that in the human hippocampus – a region essential for learning and memory and one of the key places where researchers have been seeking evidence that new neurons continue to be born throughout the lifespan – neurogenesis declines throughout childhood and is undetectable in adults (Weiler, 2018).

 

Rutherford (2017) reminds us that “[j]ournals are not all equal, and publication in a journal is not a mark of truth, merely that the research has passed the standard that warrants entering formal literature and further discussion with other scientists.” This is worth hammering into the heads of our students, our students who are the future writers of press releases, the future writers of news articles, and the future readers of those new articles. Our science journals are just one huge chat room. "Hey! This is what I found!" "Huh. How did find that?" "What if we looked at it this way instead?" "Anna used this other method and found something different. Anyone know why that would produce different results?"

With additional research, we may discover that, indeed, the human hippocampus does not produce new neurons. And we may discover that living in space where a person is subject to the radiation equivalent of 10 chest x-rays a day (Kelly, 2017) does indeed change one’s genes, and not just the epigenetic code. Those who turn to science for definitive answers may find the responses couched in probabilities less than satisfying. But that’s how science works.

 

Here’s a cautionary tale: Everyone knows that tongue-rolling is genetic. If you can roll your tongue, you have the dominant allele for tongue-rolling. As it turns out, everyone is wrong. The research was easy to do. Find a bunch of identical twins and see who could roll their tongues and who couldn’t. If tongue-rolling were completely genetic, each twin pair should be, well, identical in their tongue-rolling ability. Philip Matlock (1952) looked in the mouths of 33 pairs of twins. In 7 pairs, one twin could tongue-roll while the other one could not. And, yes, that date is right; he did this research in 1952. Similar studies in the 1970s found similar results (Martin, 1975; Reedy, Szczes, & Downs, 1971).

If you had asked me last week, “Hey, Sue, is tongue-rolling simply controlled by our genes?” I would have said yes. But now my response is more nuanced. “There’s likely a gene or set of genes that controls it, but there is also probably an epigenetic code that turns that gene or genes on or off for different people. Let me tell you about this interesting research done with identical twins…”

 

The more I learn, the less confidence I have in what I have always known to be true.

 

“Half of what I’m going to tell you is wrong, but I don’t know which half.” I love this quote (or paraphrase?) as it nicely captures the moving nature of science, but I can’t find the origin – and I find that very fitting. My memory says it was something Paul Meehl said to his students, but I can’t find any such reference. A Psychology Today blogger credits an uncited and unnamed surgeon. If you know the origin, please contact me.


References

 

Carter, L. (n.d.). If Mars is only about 35-60 million miles away at close approach, why does it take 6-8 months to get there? (Intermediate). Retrieved from http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/physics/64-our-solar-system/planets-and-dwarf-planets/mars/267-if-mars-is-only-about-35-60-million-miles-away-at-close-approach-why-does-it-take-6-8-months-to-get-there-intermediate

 

Kelly, S. (2017). Endurance: A year in space, a lifetime of discovery. New York City: Knopf.

 

Martin, N. G. (1975). No evidence for a genetic basis of tongue rolling or hand clasping. Journal of Heredity, 66(3), 179–180. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a108608

 

Matlock, P. (1952). Identical twins discordant in tongue-rolling. Journal of Heredity, 43(1), 24. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a106251

 

Reedy, J. J., Szczes, T., & Downs, T. D. (1971). Tongue rolling among twins. Journal of Heredity, 62(2), 125–127. https://doi.org/doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a108139

 

Rutherford, A. (2017). A brief history of everyone who has ever lived. New York City: The Experiment.

 

Weiler, N. (2018). Birth of new neurons in the human hippocampus ends in childhood. Retrieved March 24, 2018, from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2018/03/409986/birth-new-neurons-human-hippocampus-ends-childhood

 

****************

 

*Mark Kelly’s wife is Gabrielle Giffords, the US Representative from Arizona who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.  

 

**”at the International Space Station” – I had a hard time deciding on the right preposition to use. Can one be on a space station if one is really floating inside it, except when Velcro-ed to a wall? In seemed to be a better choice, but felt clunky when I read it. I was ready to settle for at. NASA dodges the entire question and uses “aboard the ISS.” If aboard is good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for me. I’m confident we’ll get this figured out before we head to Mars.

Long ago, I read a jest that most people believe in the shaping power of environmental nurture—until they have their second child.

 

That pretty well sums up the results of a not-yet-published survey of 1000 Americans by an Emily Willoughby-led University of Minnesota team. The researchers report that “educated mothers with multiple children” were particularly cognizant of the heritability of traits, adding: “Parents, after all, have the ability to observe firsthand the results of an empirical experiment on the heritability of human traits in their own home. They can see that their children resemble them along multiple dimensions; furthermore, a parent of multiple children can see how the shared environment does not necessarily make them alike.”

 

That has been my wife’s and my experience as parents of three children who share some of our traits, but who were distinct individuals right out of the womb. And perhaps your experience, too, as you compare your children, or observe your own or other siblings?

 

These researchers noted another interesting finding, related to political leanings: When asked about the relative gene and environment contributions to various traits, liberals more than conservatives saw genetics having a strong influence on psychiatric disorders and sexual orientation. As a result, liberals tended not to view sexual orientation as a choice, and they tended to have more compassionate views of those with psychiatric disorders. Conservatives more often saw a strong genetic influence on intelligence and musical ability, thus suggesting that those with these strengths had been largely “born that way” rather than advantaged by opportunity.

A young man, raising funds for his high school football team, knocked on the door of a Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) researcher. And not just any CTE researcher: a CTE researcher who looks specifically at teenage brains. The two sat down, and the young man learned about how concussions are not necessary to trigger CTE; repeated shots to the head will do it. The young man listened, and, in fact, chose CTE as his research project in English. When I read this NPR story, I was hoping for a better ending.

 

And what did the young man decide about playing football? He’s still going to play. “This is something I love. I dedicate myself to [this]. This makes me healthier physically, mentally. I'm doing what I love, making friends, there's a lot of great experiences that I'm having from this.” He did decide, however, to cut back on boxing, so that’s something.

 

When I read this article I was immediately struck by the power of immediate reinforcement over the potential of bad things happening at some unknown time in the distant future. [As an operant conditioning bonus, in the very first paragraph, the student gives us a great example of discriminative stimuli. “He’d look for lights on and listen for kids’ voices.” Those stimuli signaled a greater likelihood of receiving a donation.]

 

But the reinforcement aside, I wondered about the social psychology of playing an intense team sport, like football. The student said, “I’m doing what I love, making friends, there’s a lot of great experiences that I’m having from this.”

 

In Sebastian Junger’s book, War, the author writes about his experience spending 15 months with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan. Once, when out on patrol, the platoon got into a firefight along a road, taking cover behind a rock wall. Afterwards, Junger asked one of the soldiers if he was scared. He said he was. Junger asked why he didn’t run. He said he stayed because the soldier on his left stayed and the soldier on his right stayed.  

 

While still considering the power of groups, my news feed produced a fascinating article on identity fusion. Research “suggest[s] that extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by 'identity fusion', a visceral sense of oneness with the group resulting from intense collective experiences (e.g. painful rituals or the horrors of frontline combat) or from perceptions of shared biology.” Once a person fuses their identity with the group, all it takes is a threat to the group to lead the person to self-sacrifice. And those groups need to be “local” groups, like a team or a platoon. “Extended fusion” to bigger groups like one’s country can happen, but it looks like it can only happen after “local fusion.” Those who have experienced identity fusion with a local group describe the others in the group as family. It’s common to hear teammates and platoon-mates describe each other as brothers (Whitehouse, 2018).

 

What sacrifices are you willing to make for your family?

 

 

References

 

Whitehouse, H. (2018). Dying for the group: Towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X18000249

In an earlier post, I offered my nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept: negative reinforcement (which is not a punishing, but a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking ibuprofen leads to relief from a headache). 

 

Second place on the most-misunderstood list went to heritability. Students often wrongly think that if intelligence is 50 percent heritable then “half of our intelligence is due to our genes.” Actually, 50 percent heritability would mean that, within the population studied, half of the variation among individuals is attributable to genes.

 

Now my bronze medal award in the most-misunderstood competition: short-term memory. The misuse of the word appeared repeatedly in an otherwise excellent talk I recently heard on care for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. For example, we were told that “They often have good long-term memory for their earlier life, but have lost their short-term memory for what they did yesterday.”

 

The presenter, in very good company, didn’t understand that psychologists define short-term memory as the seconds-long memory of, for example, the phone number we’re about to enter in our phone, or of an experience we’ve just had and are processing for long-term storage. The dementia-related memory problem described was not the result of short-term memory loss. Rather, it demonstrated an inability to transfer short-term memories into long-term storage, from which the person could retrieve the experience an hour or a day later. (Our memory of yesterday is a long-term memory.)

 

Negative reinforcement, heritability, and short-term memory are my gold, silver, and bronze medal winners among psychology’s popularly misunderstood concepts. Perhaps you have other nominees from your experience?

On most subjective and socially desirable dimensions, we tend to exhibit self-serving bias. We perceive ourselves as more moral than most others, healthier than others, more productive at work, better able to get along with others, and even better drivers. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I love me? Let me count the ways.”

 

But most of us also experience a different sort of social misperception that’s biased in the opposite direction. First, a question: Who goes to more parties—you or others?

 

Across 11 studies, Cornell University’s Sebastian Deri and his colleagues found that university students, mall shoppers, and online respondents perceived others’ social lives to be more active than their own duller life. Other folks, it seems, party more, dine out more, and have more friends and fun.

 

Can you imagine why most people perceive their social lives as comparatively inactive?    

 

Our social perceptions, according to the Deri team, suffer from biased information availability. We compare ourselves not to social reality but to what’s mentally accessible. We hear more about our friends’ activities than we do about the nonevents of their lives. If Alexis goes to a party, we’re more likely to hear about that than if she sits home looking over her toes at the TV.

 

Social media amplifies our sense of social disadvantage. People post selfies while out having fun—which we may browse while sitting home alone. Thus, our normal self-serving perceptions are overcome by a powerful social exposure bias.

 

The others-are-having-more-fun finding joins reports by Jean Twenge and her collaborators that the spread of smart phones and social media have precisely paralleled a recent increase in teen loneliness, depression, and suicide. Twenge reports that

Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.”

 

Does your life seem pallid compared to all the fun others seem to be having?  Do you believe you are not one of the socially active “cool” people? Does your romantic life seem comparatively unexciting? Do you wish you could have as many friends as others seem to?

 

Well, be consoled: most of your friends feel the same way.

 

As Teddy Roosevelt long ago surmised, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

My colleague, Lindsay Root Luna, has new data showing that virtues correlate. People’s scores intercorrelate on scales assessing humility, justice, wisdom, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, and patience. Show her a forgiving person and she will likely show you a humble, grateful person.

 

Root Luna’s observations triggered my thinking about other human dispositions that come bundled. First, there are the anti-virtues.

 

As the concept of ethnocentricism conveys, prejudices often coexist: anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-women sentiments often live inside the same epidermis. People intuitively know this. Thus, as Diana Sanchez and colleagues have observed, White women often feel threatened by someone who displays racism, and men of color by sexism.

 

Likewise, people’s tendencies on the “dark triad”—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—are “substantially intercorrelated.” Show Peter Muris and colleagues a narcissist (perhaps your least favorite politician?), and they’ll show you a likely Machiavellian and amoral person.

 

On the brighter side, some good things, in addition to the virtues, also tend to come wrapped in the same skin. Charles Spearman recognized this long ago with the concept of general intelligence (g). Those who score high in one cognitive domain have some tendency to score higher than average in other areas such as reasoning or spatial ability, or even perceptual speed.

 

Athleticism offers another example of packaged gifts. The ability to run fast is distinct from muscular strength or the eye-hand coordination involved in the precise pitching of a ball. Yet there remains some tendency for athletic excellence in one domain to correlate with that in another. Good tennis players may also be better than average basketball players.

 

Surely this does not exhaust the list. Can you think of other examples of correlated good things and bad things?

In the aftermath of the mass murder at a Florida high school, gun safety advocates reminded us that countries and states with the most guns (which are also the places with the most “good guys with guns”) have the most homicidal and suicidal gun deaths. The United States, for example, has more than 300 million guns and a firearm death rate that is, per person, 46 times that of the largely gun-free UK. Unless we’re to assume that Americans are simply more malevolent, surely this has something to do with gun availability. If so, perhaps, to put this as gently as possible, some new gun safety legislation might be appropriate?

 

President Trump offered an alternative idea—opening more mental hospitals that could house would-be mass murders: “When you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution.”

 

Florida Governor Rick Scott concurred about the implied feasibility of identifying high-risk people: “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun. I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.”

 

Although we psychologists might appreciate these extremely high estimations of our discipline’s powers of discernment, the reality is that these aggressors, though harboring anger, have mostly not had distinct psychiatric disorders and their acts are extremely difficult to predict. As one review of 73 studies of nearly 25,000 people concluded, psychology’s “risk assessment tools” have “low to moderate” predictive power. Thus, their “use as sole determinants of detention, sentencing, and release is not supported by the current evidence.”

 

The Florida mass murderer, Nikolas Cruz, is a case in point. Although, in hindsight, it seems obvious that Cruz was a ticking time bomb, a mental health center had deemed him not a threat. True, he was angry and seemingly isolated and depressed, but so are a million or more other teen males—for whom the late psychologist David Lykken in his The Antisocial Personalities offers a tongue-in-cheek solution: “We could avoid two-thirds of all crime simply by putting all able-bodied young men in cryogenic sleep from the age of 12 through 28.”

 

The impossibility of identifying, in advance, high-risk people with mental illness is compounded by the unfairness of a gun ban targeted at “mentally ill” people but not others. Who is mentally ill? A person with a phobia for heights? Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder? An eating disorder? Obviously, society will need to look beyond psychology for gun violence remedies.

Apophenia is seeing patterns in randomness, which may be the mechanism behind conspiracy theory generation. If it feels to me like a set of random events are connected and no one is talking about the connection, then conspiracy must be afoot (Poulsen, 2012). Psychiatrist Klaus Conrad is credited with coining this term in 1958 to describe the descent into psychosis, “Borrowing from ancient Greek, the artificial term ‘apophany’ describes this process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field, eg, being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers” (as cited in Mishara, 2010).

 

But this isn’t a post about conspiracy theories or psychosis.

 

While conspiracy theories and psychosis take our ability to see patterns to whole other level, seeing patterns in randomness is just how our brains work.

 

The visual version of apophenia is pareidolia. Have you ever seen a rabbit in a cloud formation? That’s pareidolia. Have you seen a face in a piece of toast? Also pareidolia.

 

After covering the cerebral cortex, tell students that there is an area in the temporal lobe that is especially good at detecting faces: the fusiform face area (FFA).

 

Show students these 20 objects where faces appear. Ask students to guess whether they think that seeing these objects would cause the FFA to be activated. How could that hypothesis be tested? Give students a minute to think about it, a minute to share with a partner, and then ask for volunteers for their suggestions. This would be a nice time to review independent variables and dependent variables. When you’re ready, tell students that researchers compared such face objects with everyday no-face objects, and found that face-objects activated the FFA (Hadjikhani, Kveraga, Naik, & Ahlfors, 2009).

 

If time allows, describe prosopagnosia (pro-soap-ag-nose-ee-ya; face-blindness). Do students think that the FFA would be activated when people with congenital prosopagnosia look at faces? Why or why not? The FFA is activated, but it doesn’t show habituation. When people without prosopagnosia are shown faces a second time, the FFA shows decreased activation; “Not interesting; I’ve seen this before.” For those with prosopagnosia, the activation is just as great the second time around; “Hey, this is new!” (Avidan, Hasson, Malach, & Behrmann, 2005).

 

Again if time allows, do students think the FFA would be activated in people with autism. Why or why not? For the participants in the study, the severity of their autism varied. For those who had impaired face recognition (about half of their sample, 14 out of 27) , the activation of their FFA was weaker.  

 

For 30 years, researchers have debated whether the FFA is face-specific or whether it is for detecting any complex pattern we’re expert in (Kanwisher & Yovel, 2006). Some recent research has found that the FFA is active when expert chess players look at positions of chess pieces, positions taken from actual gameplay, but not a specific chess piece (Bilalic, 2016). And researchers have also compared expert radiologists with beginner medical students. When the experts looked at X-rays, their FFAs were active (Bilalic, Grottenthaler, Nagele, & Lindig, 2016).

 

While the jury is still out on whether the FFA is face-specific or not, this is a wonderful example of science in action. Researchers describe a finding. All researchers start thinking about what might be the cause of that finding, and they start devising experiments to test their hypothesized causes.

 

References

 

 Avidan, G., Hasson, U., Malach, R., & Behrmann, M. (2005). Detailed exploration of face-related processing in congenital prosopagnosia: 2. Functional neuroimaging findings. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(7), 1130–1149. https://doi.org/10.1162/0898929054475154

 

Bilalic, M. (2016). Revisiting the role of the fusiform face area in expertise. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28(9), 1345–1357. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn 

 

Bilalic, M., Grottenthaler, T., Nagele, T., & Lindig, T. (2016). The faces in radiological images: Fusiform face area supports radiological expertise. Cerebral Cortex, 26(3), 1004–1014. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhu272

 

Hadjikhani, N., Kveraga, K., Naik, P., & Ahlfors, S. P. (2009). Early (N170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects. Neuroreport, 20(4), 403–407. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNR.0b013e328325a8e1

 

Kanwisher, N., & Yovel, G. (2006). The fusiform face area: a cortical region specialized for the perception of faces. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(1476), 2109–2128. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2006.1934

 

Mishara, A. L. (2010). Klaus Conrad (1905-1961): Delusional mood, psychosis, and beginning schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36(1), 9–13. https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbp144

 

Poulsen, B. (2012). Being amused by apophenia. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reality-play/201207/being-amused-apophenia

[A growing body of research suggests that true humility helps us grow intellectually and to learn from and connect with each other.]

 

In his recent essay, “You’re Wrong! I’m Right!,” Nicholas Kristof notes that our polarized culture would benefit from a willingness to engage those who challenge our own thinking and “to hear out the other side.” In a word, our civic life needs a greater spirit of humility. In his recent European Psychologist review of evidence on wise thinking, Igor Grossmann concurs with Kristof: Wisdom, he argues, grows from the integration of “intellectual humility, recognition of uncertainty [and] consideration of different perspectives.”

 

Humility was the animating idea of John Templeton in founding his science-supportive foundation, which declares: “In keeping with the Foundation’s motto, ‘How little we know, how eager to learn,’ we value proposals that exhibit intellectual humility and open-mindedness.” Thanks partly to support from the Templeton Foundation (which—full disclosure—I serve as a trustee), we have a new generation of humility studies with titles such as “Awe and Humility,” “Humility as a Relational Virtue,” and “Intellectual Humility.” From 2000 to 2017, the annual number of PsycINFO-indexed titles mentioning “humility” has increased from one to 85:

 

 

Psychology has a deep history in studying the powers and perils of humility’s antithesis: pride. We have, for example, documented:

  • self-serving bias. We tend to see ourselves (on subjective, socially desirable dimensions) as better than most others—as more ethical, less prejudiced, and better able to get along with people.
  • self-enhancing attributions. We willingly accept responsibility for our successes and good deeds, while shifting the blame elsewhere for our failures and misdeeds.
  • cognitive conceit. We tend to display excessive confidence in the accuracy of our judgments and beliefs.

 

Humility, by contrast, entails

  • an accurate self-understanding. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility is not clever people believing they are fools. Humility allows us to recognize both our own talents and others’.
  • modest self-presentation. When we share and accept credit without seeking attention, we are not (to again paraphrase Lewis) thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less.
  • an orientation toward others. Prioritizing others’ needs helps us regulate our own impulses. With a spirit of humility we can engage others with the anticipation that, on some matters, the other is our superior—thus giving us an opportunity to learn.

 

True humility can be distinguished from pseudo-humility, which comes to us in two forms. One is the pretense of humility: “I am humbled to accept this award . . . to serve as your president . . . to have scored the winning goal.” No, actually, you are proud of your accomplishment—and deservedly so.

 

The other is the delightful new research by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton on “the humblebrag.” Humblebragging is boasting disguised as complaining or humility: “I’ve got to stop saying yes to every interview request.” “I can’t believe I was the one who got the job over 300 other applicants!” “No makeup and I still get hit on!” But such self-promotion usually backfires, they report, by failing to convey humility or impress others.

 

Although religious dogmatism can feed “You’re wrong, I’m right!” attitudes, theism actually offers a deep rationale for the humility that underlies science, critical thinking, and an “ever-reforming” open mind. Across their differences, most faith traditions assume two things: 1) there is a God, and 2) it’s not you or me.

 

As fallible creatures, we should hold our own beliefs tentatively. And we should assess others’ ideas with openness, using observation and experiments (where appropriate) to winnow truth from error—both in our own thinking and that of others. In a spirit of humility, we can “Test everything, hold fast to what is good” (St. Paul).

Just two days after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, a colleague appeared at my office door on the Highline College campus and said, “I just heard 6 to 8 shots and people screaming.”

 

We waved people into our small office building, and then secured the doors. And waited. Campus Security sent out periodic computer pop-ups, texts, and emails with updates – 8 in all, from the first alert to the all-clear. The communication was welcome. A colleague locked in a classroom with her students had a live feed from a local news station playing on the classroom computer.

 

After dozens of police officers spent two and a half hours going over the college’s 80 acres with a fine-tooth comb – no fewer than 8 rifle-bearing officers looked through the shrubbery in front of our building – no victim(s) and no shooter were found. One campus rumor says that it was lunar new year firecrackers, but I haven’t seen anything that looks like an official report yet.

 

Less than an hour after my colleague came to my door, I got a text from a friend in Harrisonburg, VA asking if I was okay. Harrisonburg is 2,804 miles away; Google Maps says I can drive there in “41 hours without traffic.” I did a news search about halfway into our lockdown and found a report by a UK news outlet. While I understand that we no longer rely on the Pony Express to deliver news, I was still surprised at the speed the news traveled. Especially when there were no known victims. Just the promise of tragedy was enough to send the news around the world.

 

What happens when you barricade a bunch of social science faculty in a small space? You get an impromptu interdisciplinary panel discussion on gun violence courtesy of a political scientist, sociologist, and psychologist. I imagine this would make for a popular course.

 

In my Intro Psych class for this coming week, the topics happen to include the availability heuristic and priming. The availability heuristic tells us that hearing about every mass shooting (or non-shooting as it was on my campus) affects our estimates of violence. Our own non-shooting prompted more than one student or family member of a student to report to journalists that they are considering enrolling only in online classes. Being primed with the Parkland shooting likely influenced the perception of the pops heard on my campus as gunshots and the beginnings of a mass shooting. (The pops may have very well been gunshots and not firecrackers, although the police reported finding no shell casings.)

 

Even though, in the end, it appears that the students and employees of Highline College were never in any danger, that doesn’t erase the terror that so many felt at the time. One student emailed her professor the next day to say that she hasn’t been able to concentrate on studying because of the trauma of running for her life. About 24-hours later, I received a text from a colleague suggesting what we should do differently if we were to experience this again; she’s still processing it. Normal responses.

 

“Resources for dealing with a school shooting”

 

The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP; Division 53 of the American Psychological Association) has created a wiki page of resources. They’re working on putting together a Wikipedia page, but in the meantime you can find their resources for professionals, caregivers, educators, and the public on this Wikiversity page. Several of the resources are curated from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). Here’s a direct link to the NCTSN “School Shooting Response” page. The SCCAP Wikiversity page is a work in progress; check it periodically for updates.

My daughter—a socio-behavioural scientist at the University of Cape Town’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation—alerted me last April to a possible crisis. Cape Town’s reservoirs were perilously low. Without replenishment from June-to-August winter rains the city could, reports indicated, “really run dry.”

 

Alas, in this new era of climate change, the hoped-for rains never came. Cape Town, with its nearly 4 million residents, was at risk of becoming the world’s first major city to run dry.

 

In September, with reservoirs at one-third their capacity, residents were asked to limit their water use to 23 gallons per day per person. But in a real life demonstration of the Tragedy of the Commons, fewer than half met the goal—each reasoning that their comparatively minuscule water use didn’t noticeably affect the whole city.

To heighten motivation, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille attempted fear-based persuasion. “Despite our urging for months, 60 per cent of Capetonians are callously using more than 87 litres per day,” she explained at a January press briefing. “We have reached a point of no return. Day Zero is now very likely.” After the initially predicted Day Zero, April 11th, water taps would continue to flow only in the impoverished informal settlements (which use little water per person), in certain vital facilities, and via public taps in 200 designated locations where residents could line up with jugs. Yikes! What would this mean for life, work, and civic order?

 

With fears of the looming threat aroused, conservation norms became more salient. (My daughter recycles her laundry water for her very occasional toilet flushes, adhering to the new Cape Town norm: “If it’s yellow let it mellow.”) To activate and empower conservation norms, Capetonians have used all available media to share water conservation strategies (as if mindful of Robert Cialdini’s research on the power of positive conservation modeling). On a Facebook “Water Shedding Western Cape” group, 132,000 people are sharing tips. Even in workplace and restaurant bathrooms, signs now encourage not-flushing.

 

And to reduce “diffusion of responsibility” (as in the famed bystander nonintervention experiments), the city has posted an online “City Water Map” that can zoom down to individual households and reveal whether their water usage is within the water restriction limit (dark green dot). The effort is not intended to “name and shame,” but rather “to publicize households that are saving water and to motivate others to do the same.” Let’s “paint the town green,” urges Cape Town’s mayor.

 

Will this social influence campaign—combining fear arousal, social norms, and accountability—work? Time will tell. Recent declining domestic and agricultural water consumption enabled Day Zero to be pushed out to June 4th, by which time we can hope that winter rains will be replenishing those thirsty reservoirs . . . and that, thereafter, continuing water conservation can prevent future Day Zeros.

After covering the memory chapter, provide this excerpt from the Michigan Supreme Court case #155245, People vs. Elisah Kyle Thomas, to your students.

 

One evening, as the complainant [victim] walked to a nearby restaurant, he passed a man he did not know.  About 15 minutes later, after leaving the restaurant, the complainant was approached by the man he had passed by earlier.  The man pointed a gun at the complainant and demanded that he empty his pockets.  The complainant handed over $10 but the robber wanted more.  The complainant threw a soda can at the robber and ran. The robber followed, firing multiple shots, one of which struck the complainant in his leg. The complainant went to a nearby church and the pastor called 9-1-1. 

 

In the ambulance, the complainant gave an officer a description of the robber. Another officer canvassed the area and saw the defendant Elisah Kyle Thomas, who matched the description. The officer stopped the defendant but let him go after learning that he had no outstanding warrants. Before letting the defendant go, however, the officer took a photograph of him with her cell phone.  The officer immediately went to the hospital and asked the complainant to describe the robber.  After the complainant gave a description, the officer showed him the photo and asked “was this him?”  The complainant started to cry and said “that’s him.” 

 

And then add:

 

The victim “remembered both that the assailant’s weapon was ‘a black and gray nine millimeter handgun and that the assailant held it in his right hand,’” “the identification occurred approximately a half hour to an hour after the crime,” and “the victim identified the person in the photograph as the assailant within a few seconds of seeing the photograph.”

 

[Note, not to be read aloud to your students: these quotes are from the APA amicus brief. I’d cite it, but citing an amicus brief in APA style is not a straightforward affair. For those of you who love that sort of thing – you know who you are – feel free to figure it out and email it to me at sfrantz@highline.edu. I’ll update this blog post with any version that looks like it could be right.]

 

Now, ask students to take a couple minutes and consider how much they trust the eyewitness’ memory of the robber. If you use a classroom responses system, ask students to render a verdict based on the evidence given: guilty, not guilty, not sure. In pairs or small groups, ask students to identify why they trust/don’t trust the eyewitness’ memory. Invite volunteers to share their thoughts.

 

What happened with this case? The trial court found that the “single-suspect lineup” and asking “was this him?” was suggestive and dismissed the charges. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed and allowed the evidence. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, agreed with the trial court and also – and for good – dismissed the charges (Beattey & Calkins, 2018).

 

The American Psychological Association (APA) filed an amicus brief to the court (read the summary here; read the full amicus brief here) explaining why the identification was suspect: “[t]he victim observed the assailant for a very short time,” “[t]he victim had only a partial view of the defendant’s features,” “[t]he assailant was a stranger to the victim,” and “[t]he robbery was a highly stressful situation.” The reasoning the Court of Appeals gave for reinstating the charges was based on some common misunderstandings of memory. The APA amicus brief addressed these as well: “[t]he victim’s detailed memory of the assailant’s weapon makes his memory less reliable, not more,” “[m]emories degrade very quickly,” and “[t]he victim’s confidence does not indicate that his memory was accurate.”

 

If your students were ready to convict based on the eyewitness testimony, review what the research tells us about memory as it applies to this court case before leaving the chapter.

 

References

 

Beattey, R. A., & Calkins, C. (2018, February). The legal system follows the empirical evidence on eyewitness identification. Monitor on Psychology, 29. Retrieved from http://www.apamonitor-digital.org/apamonitor/201802/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=28#pg31  

David Myers

Killer Immigrants?

Posted by David Myers Expert Feb 9, 2018

Credit President Trump with consistency in cultivating public fears of immigrants:

  • “When Mexico sends its people . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (2015)
  • A January, 2018 DonaldJTrump.com ad offered images of an illegal-immigrant murderer while a narrator referred to “evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes,” noting that “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”
  • “If we don’t get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill … if we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” Trump said two weeks later.

 

Horrific rare incidents feed the narrative, as in Trump’s oft retold story of the Mexican national who killed a young woman in San Francisco (with a ricocheted bullet), or in his February 6th tweet about the unauthorized immigrant drunk driver who killed a Baltimore Colts linebacker.

 

The effect of this rhetoric and these publicized incidents appears in a recent Gallup survey: “On the issue of crime, Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make the situation worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Are they (and the President) right?

 

With 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., there will, of course, be ample opportunities to illustrate both immigrant horrors and heroism. Mindful that emotionally compelling stories can illustrate larger truths or deceive us, I searched for data that would answer this question: Are the President’s words illustrating a painful fact that justifies anti-immigrant views, or are they fear mongering demagoguery? Here’s what I found (drawn from my contribution to an upcoming social psychology symposium on human gullibility):

Immigrants who are poor and less educated may fit our image of criminals. Yet studies find that, compared with native-born Americans, immigrants commit less violent crime (Butcher & Piehl, 2007; Riley, 2015). “Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes,” confirms a National Academy of Sciences report (2015). After analyzing incarceration rates, the conservative Cato Institute (2017) confirmed that “immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population. Even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.” Noncitizens are reportedly 7 percent of the U.S. population and 6 percent of state and federal prisoners (KFF, 2018; Rizzo, 2018). Moreover, as the number of unauthorized immigrants has tripled since 1990 (Krogstad et al., 2017), the U.S. crime rate plummeted.

 

Alas, when pitted against memorable anecdotes, data—which are merely the sum of all anecdotes—often lose. The availability heuristic—the human tendency to estimate the commonality of an event based on its mental availability (often influenced by its vividness) frequently hijacks human judgments. When data on immigrant arrest or prison population proportions are set against this 2.5 minute excerpt from the 2018 State of the Union address—highlighting the teary parents of two daughters reportedly murdered by a gang with illegal immigrant members—which will people more likely remember?

 

Moreover, social psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Paul Slovic recently noted that the White House has also promoted its immigrants-as-killers thesis with misleading statistics. “Nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born,” the President tweeted last month. But that statement, and the administration report on which it was based, were “deeply misleading” the psychologists explain, for two reasons. First, the report excluded domestic terrorists, whom Americans fear most, and was inflated with tenuously relevant terrorism-related activities such as perjury and petty theft.

 

Second, the scary-sounding statistic exploited people’s statistical illiteracy. Consider, they say, that 3 in 4 NBA players are African-American. Even so, “a vanishingly small” percentage of African-American men—less than 0.01 percent—play in the NBA. Thus, knowing only that a man is African-American, the chances are 99.99+ percent that he is not an NBA player. And knowing only that someone has been born outside the U.S., you can be similarly confident that the person is not a terrorist, or a killer.

 

Donald Trump’s fear mongering and repeated misrepresentation of truth has me thinking again of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—a world where repeated falsehoods come to be believed: “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” I do wonder: When Trump proclaims these falsehoods, does he know they are untrue, or does he believe what he proclaims?

 

Pope Francis offered a possible answer, quoting Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others.”

 

One of my goals in teaching the abnormal psychology chapter in the General Psychology course is to focus less on symptoms and etiology and more on what it is like to live with a psychological disorder. In 2016 I wrote about an assignment tied to the Stigma Fighters website.

 

In the February 2018 Monitor on Psychology I learned about the Schizophrenia Oral History Project.

 

This website “is an archive of life stories of persons with schizophrenia.  Our narrators are women and men with schizophrenia who are sharing their lives in an effort to increase understanding and reduce stigma related to mental illness.  Their stories reveal not only their struggles, but their remarkable courage and resilience, their hopes, dreams and talents, and their concern for others.  In addition to documenting their histories, we are sharing their stories in presentations for professionals and the general public.”

 

At the time of this writing, 38 people have shared their stories.

 

As an assignment, ask students to read three stories and identify the similarities they find amongst the stories and the biggest differences. At the end of the assignment, ask students to reflect on what they learned from reading the stories. In class, give students an opportunity to speak with each other in small groups to share what they learned. Invite groups to report out to the class.

 

Pro-tip from my Highline College colleague Ruth Frickle: for the first time out with this assignment, go through the stories yourself to identify ten or so your students can choose from. That will make the number you need to be familiar with manageable. As you use this assignment from term to term, expand the number of stories as you feel comfortable.