Just another site

Category Archives: Psychology and politics

(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (,

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at
Also see for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at


What do you mean: ‘hardwired’?

In a previous post I talked about some research which was (mistakenly, I think, and so do the original researchers) presented as revealing ‘hardwired racism’ in the brain. Whatever that research means about racism, or, however weirdly, what racists think it means, that started me thinking about what ‘hardwired’ might really mean. Here’s an online definition:

hard-wire (härdwr); tr.v. hard-wired, hard-wir•ing, hard-wires
1. To connect (electronic components, for example) by electrical wires or cables.
2. To implement (a capability) through logic circuitry that is permanently connected within a computer and therefore not subject to change by programming.
3. To determine or put into effect by physiological or neurological mechanisms; make automatic or innate: “It may be that certain orders of anxiety are hard-wired in us” (Armand Schwerner).

The first meaning is almost literal, though ‘hard’ metaphorically implies more permanence than just ‘wiring’ as a verb by itself; the second meaning is metaphorical, in that there are unlikely to be any actual wires involved, but still factually follows on from the first. Even here, some of the ‘wiring’ could actually be logic programming, but programming which isn’t accessible to change. So it’s ‘harder’ programming than the ‘firmware’ in your camera, which can be changed, but is left unchanged in normal use, and the software I’m using to write this (though strictly speaking Windows and Word are firmware, from the description I’ve just given).

The third meaning here is completely metaphorical, and it’s always necessary with metaphors to be very careful to work out where the metaphorical meaning stops. Metaphors are innately dodgy and misleading, as Terry Pratchett has Carrot Ironfoundersson point out: “…Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I have been learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative” (Pratchett, 1989, p183).

Also there are two different meanings under 3): a) to put into effect by physiological mechanisms, and b) to make automatic or innate. I don’t see that b) follows from a) and I’ll argue that through below.

I think there are two kinds of hardwiring that neuroscientists and psychologists talk about. One kind derives from the basic physiology of certain sensory and mental processes, and is likely to be shared with other animals, because that’s just the way these things have evolved to work. Basic visual processes in humans are like this, as is the link between brain activity, the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, the release of adrenaline/epinephrine into the blood, and at least some of the effects of that release. It is easy to see how some of these basic mechanisms could be evolutionarily modified from a basic plan from species to species. Since Pavlov’s day, we’ve been learning more and more about the physiology and neuroscience of eating and satiety, and probably all mammals share some of the same basic processes, but it would make sense if it were balanced differently for continuous eaters like pandas and shrews, the complex feeding patterns of grass-eaters, or opportunistic omnivores like humans, and we have a hard-wired explanation of obesity built round this*. That roughly corresponds to 3a), and does certainly contain some automatic and innate mechanisms.

The other idea about hardwiring is sociobiological and is evolutionarily vaguer. Certain patterns of behaviour are more likely to lead to the production of reproductively successful offspring, and so are naturally selected. This only works in Darwinian terms if that pattern of behaviour is innate and automatic, such that it can be genetically transmitted and maintained. Other patterns of behaviour which are equally advantageous could be passed on culturally, and might well be selected and maintained, but here we’re talking about memes and behaviour that isn’t innate and automatic, that it can still evolve by a process of cultural selection. So how can you tell which is which? In some cases, like the excellence of traditional music, the evolutionary success of the book, and the story of the rat bone in the restaurant meal, it’s pretty clear that this is memeic (is that the right word?) evolution, but in others, like altruism, reciprocity, and male promiscuity** it seems to me that it could logically go either way. Sometimes the argument seems to me to be circular: how do we know it’s naturally selected? Because it’s a common feature of human behaviour? Why is it a common feature of human behaviour? Because it’s been naturally selected! I think this logic applies almost as well to using books instead of clay tablets as it does to behaviour in prisoner’s dilemma games.

More convincing supporting evidence might come from studies that show similar social/psychological processes in non-human mammals to those in humans, especially those which can be neatly fitted into evolutionary advantage arguments. Patterns of behaviour which can be described as reciprocity, cheating, and grudge-bearing, as discussed by Dawkins (1981) would be an example. What doesn’t count as supporting evidence is fantasies of the lifestyle of pre-human or early human hunter gatherers, where ‘hardwired’ gender differences are held to derive from the habits of cavemen going out hunting mammoths (and having a bit on the side, as shown by the well-known principle that ‘what happens on the hunt stays on the hunt’), while the cavewomen (cavegirls?) stayed home, gathering berries and digging roots – and caveyouths demonstrated their breeding fitness by rites of passage which involved wrestling with dinosaurs, probably.

There is a useful discussion by Thomas Martin of the background to the hardwired metaphor and what it might mean for human nature from an anarchist point of view here: It’s worth reading the first part for a summary of where the idea in sociobiology/psychology comes from and then, as he points out in the intro (below), the implications that might have for our understanding of the nature of human nature:

In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, “hard-wired” — yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
Martin (2006: intro)

There are some bits of Martin’s account I disagree with strongly, especially the idea that genes might ‘want’ to do anything, which he raises later, and you might not want to get into the anarchist thinking at the end, but it does discuss some of the problems that this idea gives to psychologists – and recognises that we may have to accept some inbuilt, evolutionarily selected, forms of behaviour.

But even if you accept that some aspects of our psychology are, metaphorically, hardwired, that doesn’t mean that they’re rigidly fixed. One of the most clearly hardwired bits of our behaviour is the ability to see yellow. In our retinas, we don’t have receptors for all the different colours of light. All we have are cells which are most responsive to red light, to green light, and blue light. So we can’t detect yellow light as such. Pure yellow light that falls on the retina stimulates both the red sensitive cells and the green sensitive cells to roughly the same degree, and when we get this ‘equal red, equal green’ signal, we see it as yellow. But we get the same signal if equal amounts of red and green light fall on the retina at the same time, which is why the television screen, which only shows red, green or blue light, can show us what appears to be a bright clear yellow. Now, we know about the ‘wiring’ of this. We can identify the colour sensitive cells, and we can even track the signals through to where they are combined in the brain to generate a ‘yellow’ channel. This goes beyond vague metaphorical hardwiring: if nerves be wires, then we know what the wires are. We can also trace the evolutionary background to this ability by comparing our visual system and retina with that of other mammals. But, although hardwired, this isn’t a fixed, rigid system. Old-fashioned incandescent room lighting is much yellower than sunlight, but when we are in an incandescently lit room we don’t see the yellow bias, and we see the range of colours that we might see in sunlight. Our responses to the signals from our retina are substantially shifted to compensate for the changed colour of light – without realising it. You can see how big the shift is by taking a photo with a camera in incandescent light (with ‘auto white balance’ turned off). It looks distinctly yellowish, where to us the scene looks as though it was illuminated by white light. As we get older, the fluid in our eye becomes tinged with yellow – so the whole world becomes yellower as you get older – but we’re not aware of this. The only place it shows up is where older people find difficulty in making out white letters on a yellow background, or vice versa.

OK, that’s unconscious, cognitive overriding of hardwiring – maybe by other systems which we might regard as being hardwired too. But here’s another example of how hardwiring can be modified and overridden by cultural and individual variation.  Our bodies have evolved to cope with ethanol, a naturally occurring poison which has a range of damaging effects. Our livers can remove it from the bloodstream and we have an enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, to support the breakdown of alcohol to less dangerous substances. I guess if you’re being picky, you could say that this is hard-moleculed rather than hardwired. But since we enjoy some of the toxic effects of alcohol, we found ways of supplying alcohol in sufficient quantity to temporarily overwhelm this system, and cultural patterns to encourage, reward and control this overdosing. And metabolism fights back, as it’s well designed to do, by increasing the amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in the system, but the determined drunk just ramps up the input. We quite quickly develop the technology to move from 5% alcohol to 15% to 80%, and also provided a cultural overlay which makes Bollinger and Laphroaig more expensive and more desirable than straight 13% and 40%. OK, there are genetic (hardwired) differences in people’s ability to metabolise alcohol, but it’s clear that cultural factors are important in the role alcohol plays in our lives.

*I’m not sure that this is quite the same as saying that individual differences in obesity are ‘genetically determined’. My first interpretation of the genetically determined explanation was that it must derive from rapid evolutionary change, so that, sometime, in the twentieth century, there was an environmental/cultural change such that fat people got much more sex than thin people, so fatness was rapidly selected for, rather like the way the colour of the peppered moth changed with pollution levels over the last two hundred years. In retrospect, I think I’d oversimplified things, but I’m still in favour of lots of sex for fat people.

**The gender difference here might be overplayed. Traditional wisdom sometimes has it otherwise: see Willie McTell’s Married Man’s a Fool (If He thinks His Wife loves No-one Else But Him), evolving into the Ry Cooder version: On the other hand, it’s traditionally well-known that All Men Are Bastards, but that probably covers more than just infidelity.

Martin, Thomas (2006) Anarchism and the Question of Human Nature Social Anarchism Issue 37

Pratchett, Terry (1989) Guards! Guards! London: Corgi

Scientists discover hardwired racist centre in our brains!!! Not

Or: are Daily Mail reporters hardwired to misrepresent psychology stories? Probably not.

This started out as a story about the Daily Mail misrepresenting some neuropsych research (why is that news?) but as I looked into it and thought about it, it involved some other issues.

The starting point is a Daily Mail story “Racism is hard-wired into our brains” about some research at New York University recently published in Nature Neuroscience (Kubota, Banaji & Phelps, 2012). I picked it up in The Guardian, initially in a letter to The Guardian from the three authors of the original journal article thanking The Guardian for a piece it had run in criticism of the Mail story, and making it clear that they did not say what the Mail said ‘scientists say’.

As I followed up the story, though, I found an account of how the original research is part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,  and (conversely) how lefty’s (sic) and the BBC only object to ‘hardwiring’ when it’s about race [not discussed in this post: I might get back to it later]. It also started me thinking about ‘hardwiring’ (a word which was widely used in reports of the research, though it wasn’t in the original press release) and what it means and implies. So, below is an account of the original misreporting, then stuff about the Jewish plot. A thoughtful (I hope) bit about the concept of hardwiring will make a future post.

OK, start with the research and the Mail story. Here’s the abstract for the original paper, titled The Neuroscience of Race:

Abstract: As the racial composition of the population changes, intergroup interactions are increasingly common. To understand how we perceive and categorize race and the attitudes that flow from it, scientists have used brain imaging techniques to examine how social categories of race and ethnicity are processed, evaluated and incorporated in decision-making. We review these findings, focusing on black and white race categories. A network of interacting brain regions is important in the unintentional, implicit expression of racial attitudes and its control. On the basis of the overlap in the neural circuitry of race, emotion and decision-making, we speculate as to how this emerging research might inform how we recognize and respond to variations in race and its influence on unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.

This paper is at, but you need a subscription (or £22) to view the full paper. There’s a Nature News piece (essentially a press release)  How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? By Mo Costandi at (Costandi, 2012), with quotes from Liz Phelps, one of the authors, where I think most of the later press stuff came from. The original paper is a review of other research which suggests that the regions of the brain involved in making decisions about the race of a person overlap with the regions of the brain involved in emotion: “there’s a network of brain regions that is consistently activated in neuroimaging studies of race processing. This network overlaps with the circuits involved in decision-making and emotion regulation, and includes the amygdala, fusiform face area (FFA), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).” (Constandi, 2012)

Yes, so?

Well, there’s a background in “the implicit association task, which measures initial, evaluative responses. It involves asking people to pair concepts such as black and white with concepts like good and bad. What you find is that most white Americans take longer to make a response that pairs black with good and white with bad than vice versa. This reveals their implicit preferences” (Constandi, 2012). This is a pretty well-known finding in psychology now, and implicit association measures are used quite a lot (including studies I find very unconvincing about whether people present their ‘true selves’ online – but that should be another post). Phelps mentions a 2000 study which showed a link between this kind of implicit preference measure with the brain areas mentioned above. Constandi doesn’t reference it, but it must be a paper in J Cognitive Neuroscience titled Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation by Elizabeth Phelps & six others (Phelps & al, 2000):

Abstract: We used fMRI to explore the neural substrates involved in the unconscious evaluation of Black and White social groups. Specifically, we focused on the amygdala, a subcortical structure known to play a role in emotional learning and evaluation. In Experiment 1, White American subjects observed faces of unfamiliar Black and White males. The strength of amygdala activation to Black-versus-White faces was correlated with two indirect (unconscious) measures of race evaluation (Implicit Association Test [IAT] and potentiated startle), but not with the direct (conscious) expression of race attitudes. In Experiment 2, these patterns were not obtained when the stimulus faces belonged to familiar and positively regarded Black and White individuals. Together, these results suggest that amygdala and behavioral responses to Black-versus-White faces in White subjects reflect cultural evaluations of social groups modified by individual experience.

As far as I can make out, the 2012 paper is reviewing a number of similar stories, which show that a) Whites may show (not consciously recognised) prejudice against Blacks, and b) emotion-relevant areas of the brain show activity when they’re doing that. Phelps suggests in the Constandi interview that some of this activity might be related to resolving (presumably unconscious) conflicts which arise when ‘right-thinking’ people feel stirrings of racial prejudice. This might fit with those good old 70s social psychology ideas of cognitive dissonance (someone must have done a fMRI study of cognitive dissonance, surely? I’d like to hear of it, if they have). So, overall, this looks like studies which sort-of, more-or-less, probably (remember that fMRI isn’t very precise, and there are a lot of calculations and assumptions that go into those nice coloured brain pictures) relate brain activity to psychological processes which we already have a pretty good knowledge of: interesting, but not very surprising.

But if it’s in the brain, it’s much more significant than if it’s in the behaviour, or so the Mail (and lots of others) think, so evidence about racism in the brain is more convincing than evidence from what we do. In the press release, Phelps points out that we already know that’s there’s lots of evidence of unintentional (or implicit) bias against African-Americans in US society. The way the research should process, she says, is: “We need to investigate how our implicit preferences are linked to the choices and decisions we make. We want to use this knowledge to reduce the unintended consequences of race bias — the things we do that aren’t consistent with our beliefs.” (Constandi, 2012). The title of the Nature News piece is How the Brain Sees Race, which doesn’t seem to reflect the piece well, but it gets worse when translated by the Daily Mail:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it

  • Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions
  • Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes
  • Racism operates below the conscious level

By Rob Waugh (at–people-racists-knowing-it.html)

If you take the specific points made in the headline and subheads, and number them:

Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain (1) – and people can be prejudiced without knowing it (2)
Same circuits that allow people to judge ethnic groups also drive emotional decisions (3); Even ‘right thinking’ people can have racist attitudes (4); Racism operates below the conscious level (5),
then four out of the five are not unreasonable (well, 3 is a bit dodgy: what do you mean by ‘judge’, here – and who decided that ‘judging’ was the most significant interaction between cultures?) – it’s just the big ‘hardwired’ headline that comes out of nowhere. 2 and 5 say the same thing, and are only slightly different from 4, but that’s just sloppy sub-editing. But ‘hardwired racism’ is what sticks in perceptions of the article: when I was searching for more information for this post, I found lots of repeats of the Mail headline in other newspapers and posts around the world, and it seems to have been preferred to the headline that Nature News used.

A bit further down, the Mail claims: “Brain scans have proved that interactions with people of other ethnic backgrounds set off reactions that may be completely unknown to our conscious selves.” It then goes on with quite a lot of quotes from Phelps which aren’t the same as the ones in the Nature News piece (as I’ve noted previously, newspaper quotes about science stories are often taken straight from PR material, so credit to the Mail for doing that – though you’ll see below that they didn’t research the story completely), but were quotes from the original paper – which seem to fit with the story I’ve given above, and with the Nature News piece (she goes on a bit more about the social importance of research like this in these quotes than in the Nature News piece), and not with the beginning of the article. A couple of years ago, when I got one of my classes to review psychology stories in the press, they often found that the main story was reasonably accurate and informative, but the headline and opening often distorted the story considerably, and they noted that this happened quite a lot with the Mail.

What made this story interesting to me was that Elizabeth Phelps and the other authors took the trouble to repudiate the false message of the Mail story. They wrote to The Guardian in response to a Guardian article also criticising the Mail’s version. Maybe they wrote to the Mail too, but I can’t find any hint of that on the Mail’s page for the article. It’s worth giving their letter  in full:

As the authors of the recent Nature Neuroscience article on the neuroscience of race, we would like to express our gratitude for the Guardian’s critique of an article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Racism is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain”. The Guardian’s response, by Richard Seymour (Comment is free, 27 June), is an accurate and responsible representation of the review article. Although the content of the Mail’s article consisted of quotes from the original piece, the paper did not contact the researchers for comment on the scientific conclusions. The sensational title that the Daily Mail selected not only misrepresents the science, but is also damaging for intergroup relations. By using the word “hardwired” the Mail title implies that racism is innate.
As the Guardian article accurately cites, race attitudes are largely culturally determined and shift over time. It is our opinion that the Daily Mail’s title was irresponsible and we applaud the Guardian’s efforts to stand with the scientists and accurately represent research.
Jennifer Kubota, Mahzarin Banaji, Elizabeth Phelps  New York University

(this is at, and The Guardian article by Richard Seymour is at

Right on, Jeni, Mahzarin and Liz.

The ‘Jewish conspiracy’ part starts here

In looking for material online about this research, I came across stuff which makes the Mail’s version look reasonable and balanced.

Here’s a blog headline and opening:

Jewish Scientist Nears Physical Cure For ‘White Racism.’ A Nanotechnology Lobotomy?

Time is running out for a white race already brainwashed into accepting, even welcoming their own fate.
‘Racism’ will be cured by future proceedures such as nano-tech operations to lobotomise areas of the brain as well as to alter DNA to ‘breed out’ the ability to discriminate within the white brain:
“Racism, says a leading Jewish scientist, “is ‘hardwired’ into the human brain – and people (Ed: in the terms of political correctness this means whites) can be prejudiced without knowing it.” Says Dr Elizabeth Phelps, of New York University. [I can’t find this quote from Phelps elsewhere: I think it’s probably constructed from the Mail headline]

I originally found this in the Our Weapon is Truth blog, posted on June 27, but then I found exactly the same stuff (including the missing double quote the third para) in Pragmatic Witness, posted on June 28, and Endzog, possibly the original source, posted on June 26. I wish my stuff was picked up and recirculated so quickly. The Weapon is Truth URL is – but you don’t have to go there: I read this stuff so you don’t have to.
I think the ‘wiping out the white race’ logic is that if we reduce white racism, then whites will inevitably be overwhelmed by other races (because the other races are innately superior?), or maybe ‘whiteness’ will be bred out of the world through miscegenation. The piece somewhat over-interprets Phelp’s quotes, I think:

In a sentence which betrays the plan to alter the human genome and the brain of individuals Dr Phelps says that “The finding may force researchers to think about racism in entirely new ways, and the findings published in Nature Neuroscience could lead to fresh ways of thinking about unintended race-based attitudes and decisions.”

Sorry, run that by me again? I’m always striving for ‘fresh ways of thinking’ in myself and others – but I hadn’t thought of trying altering genomes or nano-surgery. Nano-surgery? Here’s how it will work:

Here is such an application in development. One day, created to mimic bacteria and attuned to eat away fixed portions of the brain before dissolving, it could be dispensed through a tablet to offending schoolchildren or thought-criminals like Emma West or having been genetically engineered to target Caucasians, perhaps even released into the water supply in short bursts:

(Emma West is the drunk-racist-abuse-on-tram person: I had to look that up)

Don’t worry guys: we haven’t discovered the hardwired centre of racism in the brain, the kind of tumour-attacking nanotechnology described in the video wouldn’t work for ‘eating away’ the racism centre (though if you could find a racism neurotransmitter, I can imagine that it might be possible to nanofocus on that), and I can’t begin to imagine how you could alter the human genome to affect any of this (to move some bits of the brain away from others?) even less what Kotaba & al’s research has got to do with that. The ‘white race’ (whatever that is) is still safe.

OK, these people are fruitcakes, and what they say doesn’t make sense – but the kind of thing the Mail headline writers do (thoughtlessly, maybe, when it comes to science stories) gives them something to lever against. So I wish the Mail would be more thoughtful (and accurate) in how it headlines psychology research.

On the other hand, there’s no guarding against delusion: who’d have thought that the National Cancer Institute’s syrupy cancer-busting nanotechnology promotion would have inspired fantasies of eating away schoolchildren’s brains?

Constandi, Mo (2012) How the brain views race: How do our brains respond when we see someone of a different ethnicity? Nature News, 26 June 2012

Kubota, Jennifer T, Banaji, Mahzarin R & Phelps Elizabeth A (2012) The neuroscience of race Nature Neuroscience 15, 940–948

Phelps, Elizabeth A., O’Connor, Kevin J., Cunningham, William A., Funayama, E. Sumie, Gatenby, J. Christopher, Gore, John C. & Banaji, Mahzarin R. (2000) Performance on Indirect Measures of Race Evaluation Predicts Amygdala Activation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(5), 729–738

Phelps, Elizabeth A. & Thomas, Laura A. (2003) Race, Behavior, and the Brain: The Role of Neuroimaging in Understanding Complex Social Behaviors Political Psychology 24(4), 747-758

Which moral values drive your vote, and where’s your starting point?

After you’ve read this, check out the comment by my colleague Thom Baguley below (if you can’t see it, click on the title of this post to go to its ‘permalink’ version, which shows comments at the bottom. Gives a link to a useful debunking post by Andrew Gelman on the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog (no, it’s good and interesting, really).

Interesting piece in this Wednesdays’ Guardian* by Jonathan Haidt (** giving a psychological line on why “working-class people vote for the political right, even when it appears to be against their own interests”. Haidt suggests that political choice is a moral choice as much as an economic one, and that right-wing parties “often serve up a broader, more satisfying moral menu than the left”.

This comes out of research by the group represented at

a group of professors and graduate students in social psychology at the University of Virginia, The University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California. Our goal is to understand the way our ‘moral minds’ work.

Haidt’s idea is that there are several dimensions of morality:


…and different political messages appeal to different aspects. So left-leaning messages often promote caringness, and to some extent fairness, while right-leaning messages promote liberty, loyalty, respect for authority and religion, and to some extent fairness. From this point of view, the right-wingers have the advantage of a wider range of values to promote. [psychologically-explainable Guardian errors: Haidt discusses this by analogy with the range of tastes we can detect: sweet, sour, salt, etc, and the article says that ‘conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals’: at least it keeps the metaphor unmixed, I guess. This is an association error, not a Freudian slip]

I said ‘to some extent fairness’ for both sides, because both sides focus on unfairness. On the right it’s the unfairness of spongers and benefit cheats (in the UK, anyway. In the US, this seems to include the unfairness of people who haven’t bought health insurance getting cancer treatment for free). On the left, it’s the unfairness of enormous rewards for people who aren’t seen as being useful to society. Quite a lot of the online discussions/slanging matches about the occupy movement and the 99% vs the 1% show these different orientations clearly.

Haidt claims that a good deal of people’s political are influenced by how strongly they feel about these different ‘flavours’ of morality, and the yourmorals group that he is associated with have quite a bit of research to show that people who identify themselves as being on the right and on the left do show different sensibilities to the different aspects. You can check that for yourself on the yourmorals site: after registering (anonymously, but with some demographic information), you can take lots of their tests, including the moral preferences questionnaire. When I did it, I came out higher on the care/harm dimension than 102,000 liberals and much higher than 21,000 conservatives (note that one personality difference between liberals and conservatives is that he latter are less inclined to waste their time with academic tomfoolery like this, by a ratio of 6 to 1), and much lower than either on sanctity/degradation – and I’m probably well to the left of most US liberals (Haidt explains that ‘liberal’ means something different in the US, not spineless, snivelling, selling-out posh-boy tuition-fee raisers, though he puts it more politely. The yourmorals site also introduces the word ‘socialist’ very gently, explaining that in some countries it is a respectable term for some people with left-wing views, presumably hoping that US respondents won’t be put off by it). Go & try it yourself, along with several other interesting measures on the site.

Haidt concludes:

When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine. The left in the UK and USA should think hard about their recipe for success in the 21st century.

All this makes sense to me, and fits broadly with traditional psychological approaches to political choice, like the authoritarian personality ( [Yes, I know there’s a lot more to it, but this post is long enough already]. In the few political arguments I get into (never seems to do any good), it often comes down to ‘position X leads to this moral wrong’, to which the other person responds ‘So? That’s not what’s important: it’s this moral wrong which we should be worried about’ – and the differences in the moral wrongs and rights people think significant do seem to correspond with the kind of dimensions Haidt is proposing. Maybe it would be a good idea to try to show how socialist policies do support those other moral dimensions. That might require some thought and ingenuity, or maybe just some lying.

But is there another factor, which you could call something like adaptive level? What’s accepted as a basic, obvious, taken-for-granted level of things like caringness, loyalty, sanctity? Probably everyone agrees that stamping on babies is unacceptable, but Haidt gives the example of cruelty to animals:

For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

What about denying care to someone who is ill or injured unless they can pay for it? From my UK perspective, requiring payment for basic health care seems a bit like charging people for oxygen: it’s just unacceptable – and the UK political debate is around how health care – free at the point of delivery – should be organised, and how far it should extend, not about whether some people should be denied health care. The way I write about is shows my bias: it feels more appropriate to write ‘some people denied health care’ than ‘some people given health care’: the second phrase doesn’t seem to carry any information, like ‘some people have bodies’. ‘Some people denied champagne and Rolex watches’ and ‘some people have champagne and Rolexes’ works the other way.

From this side of the Atlantic, the idea that people should want to block access to free care seems perverse, and going beyond moral issues – but in the US, that’s a definitely debateable issue of freedom and fairness. In the same way, my Finnish friend was surprised that we dared to charge little children for food while they were in school: “Finnish people would find that just unacceptable” (Finland doesn’t charge tuition fees at universities for EU students, either – they have some idea about education being freely available to all – nutcases). It seems reasonable to suggest that moral issues are debated about some fixed, arbitrary start point, and this start point is culturally variable, but then we need an explanation and mechanism for his start point. Is it just custom and practice? Maybe if read some more of the papers from this group I’d get some idea about that.

Small methodological point: when I was doing the questionnaires on the yourmorals site, I found that they had comments boxes at the end like:

Was anything on this page unclear, or do you need to explain anything about your answers?

Was anything unclear in this study, or is there something we should know about your answers before we analyze your data?

Isn’t that sensible? I often use any comment box I can find to point out unclear things, or why the answers the questionnaire allows me to give misrepresent my position, because usually questionnaires don’t seem to have any interest in how respondents think about things like this. I suspect that means I get identified as some kind of contrarian weirdo whose responses should be junked. Nice to see researchers having the courtesy to ask – and probably improving their measures as a result (though it’s always possible that the analysis says IF ‘textincommentbox’ THEN ‘dumpresponses’)

*I don’t get all my psychology from The Guardian, though it may look that way, but my ‘Psychology & the Media’ option group found that there’s a great deal of psychology discussed in the everyday press, often with enough information to enable you to trace the publications (or at least the press releases) behind it, and this is a good example.

** Haidt will email you copies of quite a few of his papers from this site. He also helpfully tells you that it’s pronounced ‘Height’. Thanks for both of those things, Jonathan.

How Neuroscience Appears in the Mainstream Press: some empirical support for my prejudices

A paper published this month in the journal Neuron by O’Connor, Rees and Joffe (2012): Neuroscience in the Public Sphere is a fascinating content analysis of how neuroscience has been presented between 2000 and 2010 in six mainstream UK newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, and Guardian.
On the basis of other research by Racine and colleagues (referenced in the article) they point out that there are three main stories in representation of neuroscience research:

Neurorealism describes the use of neuroimages to make phenomena seem objective, offering visual proof that a subjective experience (e.g., love, pain, addiction) is a “real thing.” Neuroessentialism denotes depictions of the brain as the essence of a person, with the brain a synonym for concepts like person, self, or soul. Finally, neuropolicy captures the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas.

I have complained in previous posts about the logical flaw in neurorealism, and I guess the habit of illustrating articles with a generic fMRI image of the brain (which I also hate) is an example of neuroessentialism.
O’Connor et al’s paper goes further than this, however, with fascinating detail of trends and content:

The data revealed that the number of articles published per year climbed steadily for most of the decade (Figure 1) [in original], despite drops in 2007 and 2009. Table 1 [in original] displays the percentage of articles that discussed different subjects. The most frequent category of subjects to which the media referred was brain optimization: 43% of all articles discussed enhancement of or threats to brain function. Thirty-six percent of articles referred to psychopathology, 24% to basic functions, and 14% to applied contexts. Fourteen percent discussed issues related to parenthood and 12% individual differences, while sexuality and morality both appeared in 11% of the sample.

They identified three main themes: brain as capital, brain as index of difference – so explaining differences between people in terms of differences in brain function – and thirdly, and what I’ll focus on here, brain research as proof of particular phenomena or beliefs.

The final theme captures the deployment of neuroscience to demonstrate the material, neurobiological basis of particular beliefs or phenomena. This was presented as evidence of their validity and was sometimes used for rhetorical effect. This theme traversed most of the code categories but was particularly salient within applied contexts, basic functions, sexuality, and spiritual experiences.

Two sub-themes here. First, neuroscience research tells us what is ‘natural’, and what is natural must be right… ” In social discourse, what is “natural” is often equated with what is just or right: implicit in the descriptive “is” statement is a normative “ought” statement.”  …the other is assuming that if you can show a neurological correlate of something, then that is a complete and sufficient explanation for it, even if the phenomenon is something which obviously also relates to social and historical factors:

For example, research on the analgesic effects of religious beliefs was used to explain how religious martyrs endure torture (Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2008); the tenacity of historical figures like Winston Churchill and Emmeline Pankhurst was attributed to their alleged possession of a gene linked to stubborn behavior (Daily Mail, January 3, 2008); and a study showing that informational overload can “crowd out” empathy was presented as evidence that social networking websites like Twitter “rob people of compassion” (Daily Mail, June 3, 2009). These were examples of overextensions of research, with implications drawn far outside the original research context. This overextrapolation of research was not limited to idle speculation but sometimes extended to calls for concrete applications. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and owner of a chain of private brain-scanning clinics, has suggested in the US press that all presidential candidates should have their grey matter probed. This, he suggests, would help to steer clear of a future Adolf Hitler (cursed with “faulty brain wiring”) or Slobodan Milosevic (who suffered “poor brain function”). (Times, January 7, 2008)

The authors point out that this is a powerful rhetorical technique:

The media data provide a naturalistic analog to experimental findings that brain-based information confers a scientific aura that obscures an argument’s substantive content (Weisberg et al., 2008). The ability to simulate coherent “scientific” explanations through cursory reference to the brain meant that neuroscience was exploited for rhetorical effect. Due to the size and range of the media sample, it was impossible to directly compare media coverage with the corresponding neuroscience research to precisely establish the extent they diverged. However, it seemed clear that research was being applied out of context to create dramatic headlines, push thinly disguised ideological arguments, or support particular policy agendas.

… and understanding of this has implications for scientists:

Rather than a one-way flow of information in which scientists passively impart “the facts” in a press release, the public engagement process thus becomes a dialogue in which scientists interact with, influence, and are influenced by society. Awareness of the public impact of neuroscientific information should also be encouraged within the policy sphere. Incorporation of neuroscientific evidence into policy debate should be closely monitored to ensure that the contribution is substantive rather than purely rhetorical and that neuroscientific evidence is not used as a vehicle for espousing particular values, ideologies, or social divisions.

I’ve quoted extensively from this article, because what it says is worth repeating. It seems clear and evenhanded, and is short and quite readable. It covers more topics than the one I’ve picked out, as well. Follow the link above and you can read it for yourself.

I found this article by following a post on the Neurobonkers blog: “New paper slams UK media for routinely misrepresenting neuroscience research to further ideological agendas”
Nneurobonkers looks as though it’s an interesting and entertaining blog, and I think I’ll try following it. “New paper slams UK media for routinely moisrepresenting” is a bit strong, perhaps. I’m tempted to believe that the Daily Mail might routinely misrepresent things to further ideological agendas, but that’s my prejudice. When my ‘Psychology and the Media’ option students studied psychology reporting in the popular press a couple of years ago we actually came to the conclusion that Daily Mail articles on psychology were comparatively quite accurate and informative, though the headlines for those articles did often seem to misrepresent the research. Can’t believe that The Guardian would misrepresent anything, though – but they do use that stupid brain picture a lot.

Update: Just noticed a useful blog post by, which gives information on the Racine & al research mentioned above, and other similar stuff, and a devastating example of how neuro information is misunderstood and misused (and misrepresented, it seems), in Cordelia Fine’s criticism of an assertion in Louann Brizendine’s bestseller The Female Brain that women are more empathic than men because they have more mirror neurones than men. Brainblogger’s post is worth reading if you thought the stuff above was interesting.

Full article reference:
O’Connor, Cliodhna,  Rees, Geraint & Joffe, Helene (2012) Neuroscience in the Public Sphere, Neuron 74, (2), 220-226

Refs mentioned above from the article:
Racine et al., 2005 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2005). Nat. Rev. Neurosci6, 159–164. PubMed

Racine et al., 2006 Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., and Illes, J. (2006). Sci. Commun. 28, 122–142. PubMed

Racine et al., 2010 Racine, E., Waldman, S., Rosenberg, J., and Illes, J. (2010). Soc. Sci. Med71, 725–733. CrossRef | PubMed

Rubinstein et al., 2001 Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E., and Evans, J.E. (2001). J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 27, 763–797. CrossRef | PubMed

Final note: I’ve copied and pasted these references from the original journal articles, so they’re obviously in correct form for the journal. That form leaves out the title of the paper: seems particularly unhelpful, but I’m too lazy follow them through and find the titles for you. You can get an idea of the topics from the way they’re cited in the paper and the quotes above.

Was: Cognitive Psychology as the science of killing people; now: Neuroscience as the science of….

In this week’s lecture, I’ll present the case that the rise of cognitive psychology in the 50s and 60s, and then the development of computational models in psychology in the 80s, and cognitive neuroscience more recently, were heavily financed by the military, because they helped to provide the knowledge required to enable soldiers to operate increasingly complex weapons systems, and more recently to replace soldiers with smart weapons.

I admit that my view of the development of cognitive psychology may be biased because many years ago, as a hard-line pacifist, I refused to apply for an attractive post-doc research job (in visual search, the topic of my PhD thesis) because it was financed by the Navy – and maybe my career has been downhill ever since. I’m still a hard-line pacifist: show me a war and I’ll march against it (never seems to do much good)*.

But, every time I start thinking this is just an eccentric personal concern, something comes along which reminds me that psychological research is useful to the military, they do finance it, and it is something to be concerned about.

An example from 2008: ‘You really can smell fear, say scientists’ (  an article in The Guardian by James Randerson. Great study involving parachutists’ armpits and brain scanners, looking for a ‘fear pheromone’ (psychologists know how to have fun). And the fourth paragraph reads:

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – the Pentagon’s military research wing – raising speculation that it is a first step to isolating the fear pheromone for use in warfare, perhaps to induce terror in enemy troops. But DARPA denied that it had any military plans for fear pheromones or plans to fund further research into the field.

I was preparing this year’s lecture, and thinking that example was a bit dated, when along came (7 February 2012): Rise of the man-machines: how troops could plug their brains into weapons, by Ian Sample in The Guardian. That’s an over-sensationalist title: like most articles like that, the title should have a compulsory ‘sometime, maybe’ added at the end, but it’s a serious article about a just-released report by the (UK) Royal Society which “considers some of the potential military and law enforcement applications arising from key advances in neuroscience”. The intro to the report is at, and the full report is at:

From The Guardian article:

The authors argue that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.

The article quotes Vince Clark, a US researcher who is using transcranial direct current stimulation to enable soldiers to spot targets more quickly, as saying:

As a scientist I dislike that someone might be hurt by my work. I want to reduce suffering, to make the world a better place, but there are people in the world with different intentions, and I don’t know how to deal with that.
If I stop my work, the people who might be helped won’t be helped. Almost any technology has a defence application.

Clark’s work is also potentially useful for dementia sufferers, so I hope he makes a lot of progress in time for it to be useful to me, but still…. (Actually another article by Sample the same day: points out “How dementia drugs could be used by the military”.)

Both the article and Royal Society report are fascinating reading, but I was struck that the Royal Society’s first recommendation for the scientific community is:

There needs to be fresh effort by the appropriate professional bodies to inculcate the awareness of the dual-use challenge (i.e., knowledge and technologies used for beneficial purposes can also be misused for harmful purposes) amongst neuroscientists at an early stage of their training.

So, that’s what I’m doing in my lecture (and here). All you early-stage neuroscientists, think about this. Just saying.

* Bring home our boys from Iran. I’d like to claim you read it here first, but Mad Magazine got there before me.

Good luck with that, Vince. You, me, and most Miss World contestants, they say.

Do you have to be mad to become a mass killer?

Interesting piece in Friday’s The Guardian by Simon Baron Cohen (a big name in research on autism) discussing the sanity or otherwise of Anders Breivik who shot and killed 69 people, mainly teenagers, who were at a left-wing summer camp on Utoya island in Norway.

My comments here are related to next Tuesday’s ‘Ways of Being Mad’ lecture, though I’ll say near the beginning that cases like Breivik’s aren’t the main point of the lecture. For those interested in ‘serial killers’, I guess Breivik isn’t one – ‘mass murderer’, maybe – but do you have to be mad to do such a crazy, appalling, heartless thing?

Baron Cohen reckons not, even though:

…if we could ask the court psychiatrists why Breivik murdered children, they would, according to this week’s reports, say it is because he had paranoid schizophrenia. This diagnosis, if confirmed by independent clinicians, has surprised some people following the case because the 1,518 pages of Breivik’s manifesto do not appear to be the incoherent output of “thought disorder”, but instead read like a rather linear, carefully crafted tome. It is the work of a man with a single vision, a single belief that he wishes to prove to the world in exhaustive detail, and in a logical fashion.

[….] If we had asked Breivik why he murdered all those young people, he would have said it was to draw attention to his manifesto aimed at saving Europe from the Muslims. Indeed he emailed his deeply disturbing “2083: A European Declaration of Independence”, to more than a thousand people 90 minutes before he bombed the government buildings in Oslo and just before he went out and shot all those people on the island camp.

He reckons the issue is in lack of empathy:

….those with antisocial personality disorder (including psychopaths) typically have [….] no trouble reading other people’s thoughts and feelings (intact cognitive empathy) but other people’s suffering is of no concern to them

and he goes on to discuss his ideas about the genetic and experiential origins of this lack of affective empathy, but:

….low affective empathy is not sufficient to explain such cruelty, because there are people with low affective empathy who do not go on to commit such acts.
Low affective empathy is the precondition for cruelty, interacting with other factors. In Breivik’s case, his deeply held (and frightening) ideological convictions may have been one extra ingredient in the deadly mix.

He ends by comparing Breivik with the young Hitler, who started his revolutionary career with an ‘irrational’ act:

At 8.30pm on 8 November 1923, Hitler (then aged 34) burst into the largest beer hall in Munich, fired a shot into the ceiling and jumped on a chair, yelling: “The national revolution has broken out!” Breivik also thought he was starting a revolution. When arrested, Hitler wanted to use the trial to make political speeches, just as Breivik hoped to do.

So, a psychopath, lacking in empathy, driven by racist intolerance (against Jews or Muslims, or whoever you can find) – but was the difference that Hitler was a shrewd political operator, and knew that he needed to save the heartless mass murder for later, while Breivik was a bit thick and unrealistic in thinking that the Norwegian people would rise up behind him? Or maybe Hitler seized the right time – economic collapse and chaos in Germany in the 20s – while Breivik should have waited until next year, for this century’s economic collapse and chaos?

Mmmm.. not sure. I go along with most of Baron Cohen’s analysis, but how dim/obsessed would you need to be to think that killing a load of children (presumably to intimidate their lefty parents and other ‘multiculturalists’) would serve to rally the forces of ethnocentric hatred behind you? There has to be some distortion of reality, surely – but does that count as being mad (or madder than Hitler?).

Today’s newspaper: some spoilers for Schools of Thought later in the year

Just a post to show how the kind of thing we talk about in Schools of Thought comes up in the mainstream press (well, The Guardian, anyway). Today (Mon 20th  November)  there are two stories about topics which we’ll be taking up later in the year:
About the ideas behind the Siri personal assistant on the latest iPhone (you know you want one). Two themes here. The original voice recognition/artificial intelligence/natural language recognition research was financed by the US military, along  with most of the rest of cognitive psychology (as I’ll discuss in Cognitive Psychology as the Science of Killing People), and also how it’s possible to build computer systems which mimic how we understand everyday speech (something which it is still a big problem for psychology to understand). Christina will be talking about the usefulness of the computer simulation approach in The Rise and Fall of Computational Psychology.

The other story:
is about a veteran forensic psychotherapist who uses a psychoanalytic/Freudian approach. The subheading and first few paragraphs sound as though it’s about really weird ideas, but read on – it gets more sensible. The point here, apart from the intrinsic interest, is that this is a three page article about a psychoanalyst – in 2011. I’ll be arguing that Psychoanalysis is Alive and Well next term (well, maybe more accurate to say that Psychoanalysis’s Zombie is Differently Alive* and Still Shambling Among Us).

*Who is trying to rehabilitate the undead by (politically correctly) calling them the differently alive?

Racism and Sexism Linked, Scientists Find (and Are We Repressing Something?)

Another ‘who would have guessed?’ story, maybe – but it led me to another forgetting/changing the past story. That story is a long way down the page, but the long lead-in to it is a bit interesting

Prejudiced attitudes are based on generalised suppositions about certain social groups and could well be a personality trait. Researchers at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) have confirmed the link between two types of discriminatory behaviour: sexism and racism. They also advise of the need for education in encouraging equality.

As I read through this story, I thought “but haven’t they heard about The Authoritarian Personality* (AP), the famous post WWII study which looked at the links between anti-Semitism, other forms of ethnocentrism (AKA racism, roughly), political beliefs, personal beliefs and upbringing?” I guess maybe the original researcher knew about it, but that knowledge doesn’t come across in the press release.

Very roughly (the story is complicated) the AP researchers were looking for the roots of anti-Semitism: not surprising in research financed by a Jewish organisation in California in the late 1940s. They used several personality/opinion scales, and showed a significant relationship (remember all the issues about what that might actually mean) between anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, conventional ideas about sex and gender roles (a woman’s place is in the home), support for those in authority, and punitiveness towards those who broke society’s rules – and also far-right, anti-democratic values (using the F [for Fascism] scale). They also proposed a link between all those values and family dynamics and harsh discipline in childhood, and tied the whole ‘Authoritarian’ syndrome together with a Freudian/psychodynamic explanation to do with repressed and projected aggression. This research has been very controversial over the years, and took a slightly comic turn, in the 1950s, when the Enemies of the World changed from (sort-of) right-wing Fascists to (sort-of) left-wing Communists, and a UK researcher discovered the ‘authoritarian of the left’ to match the ‘authoritarian of the right’.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in methodology, kinds of explanation in psychology, and how political values are intertwined with ‘scientific’ psychology. Lots of the conclusions were questioned, and the whole package wasn’t really accepted as an explanation of racism and far-right values (especially the harsh upbringing bit), but I think the finding that these various prejudiced attitudes were to some extent associated held up. The best account I know is in Roger Brown’s book Social Psychology (first edition: not in the second edition) published in 1965. I can’t find any version of this available online. I’ve got a copy (bought new for my second year undergraduate social psych class when it was an exciting new book). I could loan out a photocopy of the chapter, maybe. I used to teach about the AP as a young psych lecturer in the 70s and 80s, but it’s sort-of dropped into the mists of history now. The whole of the (long, quite hard going, but wide-ranging) first volume of original report on the research is available on-line at the American Jewish Committee archive:
The E (ethnocentrism) and A-S (anti-Semitism) scales are at (this links them together as the E scale, but I think the first set of items were a separate scale in the original research). The statements you’re asked to agree or disagree with are pretty vile – maybe we’ve come some way in the last 60 years.

OK: what’s my point here?

Well, first, we’ve known for a long time that different aspects of racism go together, and were associated with conventional gender values in 1940s USA (what we’d call sexism today) so the Basque result isn’t surprising. The original AP suggested that authoritarianism was associated with over-positive self-image: the Basque researchers are reported to be surprised that racism wasn’t associated with low self-esteem – perhaps they hadn’t picked up the link with the AP, after all.

A bit more interesting – to me, anyway – is what I found when I started looking for modern information on the AP. There are quite a few short, fairly simple, not very academic accounts available online. The accounts seem to focus on the Fascism, anti-democratic aspect, and problems with the upbringing explanation, and downplay or leave out anything about the whole spectrum of attitudes, particularly various forms of racism, and how they might be associated and might be associated with political values. Examples:
(this summary starts with “Adorno et al. (1950) proposed that prejudice is the results of an individual’s personality type” – fair enough, but prejudice isn’t mentioned again)

Wikipedia gives a pretty good account, I think (it often does), but that plays down the prejudiced attitude stuff, too:

Seems like a clear case of (psychodynamic) repression to me – why won’t we recognise the study of racism as a vital part of a study which started as an inquiry into anti-Semitism? Are we not prepared to face up to something here?

* T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt Sanford (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, Studies in Prejudice, Volumes 1 & 2 Harper & Brothers

†Maite Garaigordobil at The University of the Basque Country. There’s no proper reference in the release (I hate that: this is why getting into the habit of proper referencing is part of being a good member of the academic community). Maite seems to publish mainly in Spanish, but a quick scan of the papers she lists on her web pages doesn’t show one that looks like this one, either in Spanish or English – please do let me know if you locate the original.

Is bilingualism good for your brain?

An article by Erica Westly in July/Aug 2011 Scientific American Mind ) suggests recent research shows that children who speak two languages are more flexible and creative in (admittedly lab-based) tasks than monolingual children, and don’t show any intellectual or linguistic delay (Kovács & Mehler, Adi-Japha & al). A sidebar by Lauren Migliore also points out that bilingualism seems to protect against cognitive decline in old age (research by Bialystok at York U, Canada).
Not surprising really, except that I remember lots of research about the cognitively damaging effects of being bilingual – but maybe that was done  in a culture that saw poor ‘immigrants’ (the most obviously bilingual group) as being inferior. There was another multilingual group – of classicists, diplomats, royalty (I guess Prince Philip speaks English, Danish and Greek, at least), and other members of the social elite – but they were ‘gifted polyglots’.
The article points out that the idea of bilingualism being intellectually damaging wasn’t visible in the US in the 19th century, when it was very common in a nation built on immigration, but it’s a more acceptable idea in monoglot countries like 20th century USA and the UK. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more open in our thinking now – or maybe more psychological research is being done by people who aren’t from monoglot anglo/US backgrounds (note the names of the researchers mentioned above).
Note for Schools of Thought students: another politics/psychology/society interaction? Remember that it was in the first part of the 20th century that psychology was mobilised to ‘scientifically’ declare immigrants to the US intellectually inferior in other ways.
This new research fits my prejudices – I always suspected  that people (even if poor and foreign) who could speak several languages were smarter than me, who has a bit of French, less Latin, and hardly any Finnish*. Maybe it also helps to explain all those brilliant musicians from West Africa, where it seems pretty usual to speak several languages.
Could also be bad news for lazy Anglophone academics like me, who rely on  the fact that Academic English (not the same as UK English, but close) has become the new Latin of the academic world (but maybe not for long).
Another thought: how much does the difference in languages matter? Compared with other world languages, Northern European languages are more-or-less dialects of the same basic form – apart from Finnish, which comes from a different root entirely. Does being bilingual in Finnish and French give more intellectual advantages than being bilingual in English & French? And Sorhai, Tamasheck, Peul, Dogon, French, English and probably a few more (as were spoken by Ali Farka Touré) could be better still.

*En puhu Suomea, anteeksi. No, olen Englantilainen