Imagine Psychology Without People

In 1971, John Lennon released the now-iconic song “Imagine“. In the song, Lennon invites us to imagine a world without religion, countries, or personal possessions where everyone coexists in peace with one another. Now, of course, this is not the world in which we exist. In fact, Lennon apparently preferred to keep this kind of world in the realm of imagination himself, using his substantial personal wealth to live a life well-beyond his needs; a fact which Elton John once poked fun at, rewriting to lyrics to imagine to begin: “Imagine six apartments; it isn’t hard to do. One’s full of fur coats; the other’s full of shoes”. While Lennon’s song might appear to have an uplifting message (at least superficially; I doubt many of us would really want to live in that kind of world if given the opportunity), the message of the song does not invite us to understand the world as it is: we are asked to imagine another world; not to figure out why our world bears little resemblance to that one.

My imaginations may differ a bit from John’s, but to each their own.

Having recently returned from the SPSP conference (Society of Personality and Social Psychology), I would like to offer my personal reflections about the general state of psychological research from my brief overview of what I saw at the conference. In the sake of full disclosure, I did not attend many of the talks and I only casually browsed over most of the posters that I saw. The reason for this state of affairs, however, is what I would like to focus on today. After all, it’s not that I’m a habitual talk-avoider: at last year’s HBES conference (Human Behavior and Evolution Society), I found myself attending talks around the clock; in fact, I was actually disappointed that I didn’t get to attend more of them (owing in part to the fact that pools tend to conceal how much you’ve been drinking). So what accounted for the differences in my academic attendance at these two conferences? There are two particular factors I would like to draw attention to, which I think paint a good picture my general impressions of the field of psychology.

The first of these factors was the organization of the two conferences. At HBES, the talks were organized, more or less, by topics: one room had talks on morality, another on life history, the next on cooperation, and so on. At SPSP, the talks were organized, as far as I could tell, anyway, with no particular theme. The talks at SPSP seemed to be organized around whatever people putting various symposiums together wanted to talk about, and that topic tended to be, at least from what I saw, rather narrow in its focus. This brings me to the first big difference between the two conferences, then: the degree of consilience each evidenced. At HBES, almost all the speakers and researchers seemed to share a broader, common theoretical foundation: evolutionary theory. This common understanding was then applied to different sub-fields, but managed to connect all of them into some larger whole. The talks on cooperation played by the same rules, so to speak, as the talks on aggression. By contrast, the psychologists at SPSP did not seem to be working under any common framework. The result of this lack of common grounding is that most of these talks were islands unto themselves, and attending one of them probably wouldn’t tell you much about any others. That is to say that a talk at SPSP might give you a piece of evidence concerning a particular topic, but it wouldn’t help you understand how to think about psychology (or even that topic) more generally. The talks on self-affirmation probably wouldn’t tell you anything about the talks on self-regulation, which in turn bear little resemblance to talks on sexism.

The second big issue is related to the first, and where our tie in to John Lennon’s song arises. I want you to imagine a world in which psychology was not, by in large, the study of human psychology and behavior in particular, but rather the study of psychology among life in general. In this world we’re imagining, humans, as a species, don’t exist as far as psychological research is concerned.  Admittedly, such a suggestion might not lend itself as well to song as Lennon’s “Imagine”, but unlike Lennon’s song, this imagination actually leads us to a potentially useful insight. In this new world – psychology without people – I only anticipate that one of these two conferences would actually exist: HBES. The theoretical framework of the researchers at HBES can help us understand things like cooperation, the importance of kinship, signaling, and aggression regardless of what species we happen to be talking about. Again, there’s consilience when using evolutionary theory to study psychology. But what about the SPSP conference? If we weren’t talking about humans, would anyone seriously try to use concepts like the “glass ceiling”, “self-affirmation”, “stereotypes”, or “sexism” to explain the behavior of any non-human organisms? Perhaps; I’ve just never seen it happen.

“Methods: We exposed birds to a stereotype threat condition…”

Now, sure; plenty of you might be thinking something along the lines of, “but humans are special and unique; we don’t play by the same rules that all other life on this planet does. Besides, what can the behavior of mosquitoes, or the testicle size of apes tell us about human psychology anyway?” Such a sentiment appears to be fairly common. What’s interesting to note about that thought, however, would not only be that it seem to confirm that psychology suffers from a lack of consilience, but, more importantly, it would be markedly mistaken. Yes; humans are a unique species, but then so is every other species on the planet. It doesn’t follow from our uniqueness that we’re not still playing the same game, so to speak, and being governed by the same rules. For instance, all species, unique as they are, are still subject to gravitational forces. By understanding gravity we can understand the behavior of many different falling objects; we don’t need separate fields of inquiry as to how one set of objects falls uniquely from the others. Insisting that humans are special in this regard would be a bit like an ornithologist insisting that the laws of gravity don’t apply to most bird species because they don’t fall like rocks tend to. Similarly, all life plays by the rules of evolution. By understanding a few key evolutionary principles, we can explain a remarkable amount of the variance in the way organisms behave without needing disparate fields for each species (or, in the case of psychology, disparate fields for every topic).

Let’s continue to imagine a bit more: if psychology had to go forward without studying people, how often do you think would find people advocating suggestions like this:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?…When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

Maybe in our imaginary world of psychological research without people there would be some who seriously suggested that we should not put up with certain lines of research. Maybe research on, say, the psychology of mating in rabbits should not be tolerated, not because it’s inaccurate, mind you, but rather because the results of it might be opposed to the predetermined conclusions of anti-rabbit-heterosexism-oppression groups. Perhaps research on how malaria seems to affect the behavior of mosquitoes shouldn’t be tolerated because it might be used to oppress mosquitoes with seemingly “deviant” or extreme preferences for human blood. Perhaps these criticisms might come up, but I don’t imagine such opposition would be terribly common when the topic wasn’t humans.

“Methods: We threatened the elephant seal’s masculinity…”

So why didn’t I attend as many talks at SPSP as I did at HBES? First, there was the lack of consilience: without the use or consideration of evolutionary theory explicitly, a lot of the abstracts for research at SPSP sounded as if they would represent more of an intellectual spinning of wheels rather than a forwarding of our knowledge. This perception, I would add, doesn’t appear to be unique to me; certain psychological concepts seem to have a nasty habit of decaying in popularity over time. I would chalk that up to their lack of being anchored to or drawn from some underlying theoretical concept, but I don’t have the data on hand to back that up empirically at the moment. The second reason I didn’t attend as many talks at SPSP was because some of them left me with the distinct sense that the research was being conducted with some social or political goal in mind. While that’s not to say it necessarily disqualifies the research from being valuable, it does immediately make me skeptical (for instance, if you’re researching “stereotypes”, you might want to test their accuracy before you write them off as a sign of bias. This was not done at the talks I saw).

Now all of this is not simply said in the service of being a contrarian (fun as that can be) nor am I saying that every piece of research to come out of an evolutionary paradigm is good; I have attended many low- to mid-quality talks and posters at the evolutionary conferences I’ve been to. Rather, I say all this because I think there’s a lot of potential for psychological research in general to improve, and the improvement itself wouldn’t be terribly burdensome to achieve. The tools are already at our disposal. If we can collectively manage to stop thinking of human behavior as something requiring a special set of explanations and start seeing it within a larger evolutionary perspective, a substantial amount of the battle will already be won. It just takes a little imagination.

Does Grief Help Recalibrate Behavior?

Here’s a story which might sound familiar to all of you: one day, a young child is wandering around in the kitchen while his parents are cooking. This child, having never encountered a hot stove before, reaches up and brushes his hand against the hot metal. Naturally, the child experiences a physical pain and withdraws his hand. In order to recalibrate his behavior so as to not avoid future harms, then, the child spends the next week unable to get out of bed – owing to a persistent low-energy – and repeatedly thinks about touching the hot stove and how sad it made him feel. For the next year, the child returns to the spot where he burned his hand, leaving flowers on the spot, and cries for a time in remembrance. OK; so maybe that story doesn’t sound familiar at all. In fact, the story seems absurd on the face of it: why would the child go through all that grief in order to recalibrate their stove-touching behavior when they could, it seems, simply avoid touching the hot stove again? What good would all that additional costly grief and depression do? Excellent question.

Unfortunately, chain emails do not offer learning trials for recalibration.

In the case of the hot stove, we could conclude that grief would likely not add a whole lot to the child’s ability to recalibrate their behavior away from stove-touching. It doesn’t seem like a very efficient way of doing so, and the fit between the design features of grief and recalibration seem more than a bit mismatched. I bring these questions up in response to a suggestion I recently came across by Tooby & Cosmides, with whom I generally find myself in agreement with (it’s not a new suggestion; I just happened to come across it now). The pair, in discussing emotions, have this to say about grief:

Paradoxically, grief provoked by death may be a byproduct of mechanisms designed to take imagined situations as input: it may be intense so that, if triggered by imagination in advance, it is properly deterrent. Alternatively-or additionally-grief may be intense in order to recalibrate weightings in the decision rules that governed choices prior to the death. If your child died because you made an incorrect choice (and given the absence of a controlled study with alternative realities, a bad outcome always raises the probability that you made an incorrect choice), then experiencing grief will recalibrate you for subsequent choices. Death may involve guilt, grief, and depression because of the problem of recalibration of weights on courses of action. One may be haunted by guilt, meaning that courses of action retrospectively judged to be erroneous may be replayed in imagination over and over again, until the reweighting is accomplished.

So Tooby and Cosmides posit two possible functions for grief here: (1) there isn’t a function per se; it’s just a byproduct of a mechanism designed to use imagined stimuli to guide future behavior, and (2) grief might help recalibrate behavior so as to avoid outcomes that previously have carried negative fitness consequences. I want to focus on the second possibility because, as I initially hinted at, I’m having a difficult time seeing the logic in it.

One issue I seem to be having concerns the suggestion that people might cognitively replay traumatic or grief-inducing events over and over in order to better learn from them. Much like the explanation often on offer for depression, then, grief might function to help people make better decisions in the future. That seems to be the suggestion Tooby & Cosmides are getting at, anyway. As I’ve written before, I don’t think this explanation in plausible on the face of it. At least in terms of depression, there’s very little evidence that depression actually helps people make better decisions. Even if it did, however, it would raise the question as to why people ever don’t make use of this strategy. Presumably, if people could learn better by replaying events over and over, one might wonder why we ever don’t do that; why would we ever perform worse, when we could be performing better?  In order to avoid making what I nicknamed the Dire Straits fallacy ( from their lyric “money for nothing and the chicks for free“), the answer to that question would inevitably involve referencing some costs to replaying events over and over again. If there were no such costs to replay, and replay led to better outcomes, replay should be universal, which it isn’t; at least not to nearly the same degree. Accordingly, any explanation for understanding why people use grief as a mechanism for improved learning outcomes would need to make some reference as to why grief-struck individuals are more able to suffer those costs for the benefits continuous replay provides. Perhaps such an explanation exists, but it’s not present here.

One might also wonder what replaying some tragic event over and over would help one learn from it. That is, does the replaying the event actually help one extract additional useful information from the memory? As we can see from the initial example, rumination is often not required to quickly and efficiently learn connections between behaviors and outcomes. To use the Tooby & Cosmides example, if your child died because you made an incorrect choice, why would ruminating for weeks or longer help you avoid making that choice again? The answer to that question should also explain why rumination would not be required for effective learning in the case of touching the hot stove.

It should only be a few more weeks of this until she figures out that babies need food.

One might also suggest that once the useful behavioral-recalibration-related information has been extracted from the situation, replaying the grief-inducing event would seem to be wasted time, so the grief should stop. Tooby & Cosmides make this suggestion, writing:

After the 6-18 month period, the unbidden images suddenly stop, in a way that is sometimes described as “like a fever breaking”: this would be the point at which the calibration is either done or there is no more to be learned from the experience

The issue I see with that idea, however, is that unless one is positing it can take weeks, months, or even years to extract the useful information from the event, then it seems unlikely that much of that replay involves helping people learn and extract information. Importantly, to the extent that decisions like these (i.e. “what were you doing that led to your child’s death that you shouldn’t do again”) were historically recurrent and posed adaptive problems, we should expect evolved cognitive decision making modules to learn from them fast and efficiently. A mechanism that takes weeks, months, or even years to learn from an event by playing it over and over again should be at a massive disadvantage, relative to a mechanism that can make those same learning gains in seconds or minutes. A child that needed months to learn to not touch a hot stove might be at a risk of touching the stove again; if the child immediately learned to not do so, there’s little need to go over grieving about it for months following the initial encounter. Slow learning is, on the whole, a bad thing which carries fitness costs; not a benefit. Unless there’s something special about grief-related learning that requires it takes so long – some particularly computationally-demanding problem – then the length of grief seems like a peculiar design feature for recalibrating one’s own behavior.

This, of course, all presumes that the grief-recalibration learning mechanisms know how to recalibrate behavior in the first place. If your child died because of a decision you made, there are likely very many decisions that you made which might or might not have contributed to that outcome. Accordingly, there are very many ways in which you might potentially recalibrate your behavior to avoid such a future outcome again, very few of which will actually be of any use. So your grief mechanism should need to know which decisions to focus on at a minimum. Further still, the mechanism would need to know if recalibration was even possible in the first place. In the case of a spouse dying from something related to old age or a child dying from an illness or accident, all the grieving in the world wouldn’t necessarily be able to effect any useful change the next time around. So we might predict that people should only tend to grieve selectively: when doing so might help avoid such outcomes in the future. This means people shouldn’t tend to grieve when they’re older (since they have less time to potentially change anything) or about negative outcomes beyond their control (since no recalibration would help). As far as I know (which, admittedly, isn’t terribly far in this domain) this isn’t that case. Perhaps an astute reader could direct me to research where predictions like these have been tested.

Finally, humans are far from the only species which might need to recalibrate their behavior. Now it’s difficult to say precisely as to what other species feel, since you can’t just ask them, but do other species feel grief the same way humans do? The grief-as-recalibration model might predict that they should. Now, again, the depth of my knowledge on grief is minimal, so I’m forced to ask these questions out of genuine curiosity: do other species evidence grief-related behaviors? If so, in what contexts are these behaviors common, and why might those contexts be expected to require more behavioral recalibration than non-grief-inducing situations? If animals do not show any evidence of grief-related behaviors, why not? These are all matters which would need to be sorted out. To avoid the risk of being critical without offering any alternative insight, I would propose an alternative function for grief similar to what Ed Hagen proposed for depression: grief functions to credibly signal one’s social need.

“Aww. Looks like someone needs a hug”

Events that induce grief – like the loss of close social others or other major fitness costs – might tend to leave the griever in a weakened social position. The loss of mates, allies, or access to resources poses major problems to species like us. In order to entice investment from others to help remedy these problems, however, you need to convince those others that you actually do have a legitimate need. If your need is not legitimate, then investment in your might be less liable to payoff. The costly extended periods of grief, then, might help signal to others that one’s need is legitimate, and make one appear to be a better target of subsequent investment. The adaptive value of grief in this account lies not in what it makes the griever do per se; what the griever is doing is likely maladaptive in and of itself. However, that personally-maladaptive behavior can have an effect on others, leading them to provide benefits to the grieving individuals in an adaptive fashion. In other words, grief doesn’t serve to recalibrate the griever’s behavior so much as it serves to recalibrate the behavior of social others who might invest in you.

Of Pathogens And Social Support

Though I’m usually consistent with updating about once a week, this last week and a half has found me out of sorts. Apparently, some infection managed to get the better of my body for a while, and most of the available time I had went into managing my sickness and taking care of the most important tasks. Unfortunately, that also meant taking time away from writing, but now that I’m back on my feet I would like to offer some reflections on that rather grueling experience. One rather interesting – or annoying, if you’re me – facet of this last infection was the level of emotional intensity I found myself experiencing: I felt as if I wanted to be around other people while I was sick, which is something of an unusual experience for me; I found myself experiencing a greater degree of empathy with other people’s experiences than usual; I also found myself feeling, for lack of a better word, lonely, and a bit on the anxious side. Being the psychologist that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder what the ultimate function of these emotional experiences was. They certainly seemed to be driving me towards spending time around other people, but why?

And don’t you dare tell me it’s because company is pleasant; we all know that’s a lie.

Specifically, my question was whether these feelings of wanting to spend more time around others were being driven primarily by some psychological mechanism of mine functioning in my own fitness interests, or whether they might have been being driven by whatever parasite had colonized parts of my body. A case could be made for either option, though the case for parasite manipulation is admittedly more speculative, so let’s start with the idea that my increased desire for human contact might have been the result of the proper functioning of my psychology. Though I do not have any research on hand that directly examines the link between sickness and the desire for social closeness with others, I happen to have what is, perhaps, the next best thing: a paper by Aaroe & Petersen (2013) examining what effects hunger has on people’s willingness to advocate for resource-sharing behavior. Since the underlying theory behind the sickness-induced emotionality on my part and the hunger-induced resource sharing are broadly similar, examining the latter can help us understand the former.

Aaroe & Petersen (2013) begin with a relatively basic suggestion: solving the problems of resource acquisition posed an adaptive problem to ancestral human populations. We all need caloric resources to build and maintain our bodies, as well as to do all the reproductively-useful things that organisms which move about their environment do. One way of solving this problem, of course, is to go out hunting or foraging for food oneself. However, this strategy can, at times, be unsuccessful. Every now and again, people will come home empty-handed and hungry. If one happens to be a member of social species, like us, that’s not the only game in town, though: if you’re particularly cunning, you can manipulate successful others into sharing some of their resources with you. Accordingly, Aaroe & Petersen (2013) further suggest that humans might have evolved some cognitive mechanisms that responds to bodily signals of energy scarcity by attempting to persuade others to share more. Specifically, if your blood glucose level is low, you might be inclined to advocate for social policies that encourage others to share their resources with you.

As an initial test of this idea, the researchers had 104 undergraduates fast for four hours prior to the experiment. As if not eating for 4 hours wasn’t already a lot to ask. upon their arrival at the experiment, all the participants had their blood glucose levels measured in a process I can only assume (unfortunately for them) involved a needle. After the initial measurement, half the subjects were either given a sugar-rich drink (Spite) or a sugarless drink (Sprite Zero). Ten minutes after the drink, the blood glucose levels were measured again (and a third time as they leaving, which is a lot of pokes), and participants were asked about their support for various social redistribution policies. They were also asked to play a dictator game and divide approximately $350 between them and another participant, with one set of participants actually getting the money in that division. So the first test was designed to see whether participants would advocate for more sharing behavior when they were hungry, whereas the second test was designed to see if participants would actually demonstrate more generous behavior themselves.

Way to really earn your required undergrad research credits.

The results showed that the participants who had consumed the sugar-rich drink had higher blood glucose levels than the control group, and were also approximately 10% less supportive of social-welfare policies than those in the sugar-free condition. This lends some support to the idea that our current hunger level, at least as assessed by blood glucose levels, helps determine how much we are willing to advocate that other people share with one another: hungry individuals wanted more sharing, whereas less-hungry individuals wanted less. What about their actual sharing behavior, though? As it turns out, those who support social-welfare policies are more likely to share with others, but those who had low blood-glucose were less likely to do so. These two effects ended up washing out, with the result being that blood glucose had no effect on how much the participants actually decided to divide a potential resource themselves. While hungry individuals advocated that other people should share, then, they were no more likely to share themselves. They wanted others to be more generous without paying the costs of such generosity personally.

So perhaps my sickness-induced emotionality reflected something along those same lines: sick individuals find themselves unable to complete all sorts of tasks – such as resource acquisition or defense – as effectively as non-sick individuals. Our caloric resources are likely being devoted to other tasks, such as revving up our immune response. Thus, I might have desired that other people, in essence, take care of me while I was sick, with those emotions – such as increased loneliness or empathy – providing the proximate motivation to seek out such investment. If the current results are any indication, however, I would be unlikely to practice what I preach; I would want people to take care of me without my helping them anymore than usual. How very selfish of me and my emotions. So that covers the idea that my behavior was driven by some personal fitness benefits, but what about the alternative? The pathogens that were exploiting my body have their own set of fitness interests, after all, and part of those interests involves finding new hosts in which to exploit and reproduce. It follows, at least in theory, then, that the pathogens might be able to increase their own fitness by manipulating my mind in such a way so as to encourage me to seek out other conspecifics in my environment.

The more time I spent around others individuals, the greater the chance I would spread the infection, especially given how much I was coughing. If the pathogens affect my desire to be around others by making me feel lonely or anxious, then, they can increase their own fitness. This idea is by no means far-fetched. There are many known instances of pathogens influencing their host’s behavior, and I’ve written a little bit before about one of them: the psychological effects that malaria can have on the behavior of their host mosquitoes. Mosquitoes which are infected with malaria seem to preferentially feed from humans, whereas mosquitoes not so infected do not show any evidence of such preferential behavior. This likely owes to the malaria benefiting itself by manipulating the behavior of their mosquito host. The malaria wants to get from human to human, but it needs to do so via mosquito bites. If the malaria can make their host preferentially try and feed from humans, the malaria can reproduce quicker and more effectively. There are also some plausible theoretical reasons for suspecting that some pathogen(s) might play a role in the maintenance of human homosexual orientations, at least in males. The idea that pathogens can affect our psychologies more generally, then, is far from an impossibility.

“We hope you don’t mind us making your life miserable for this next week too much, because we’re doing it anyway.”

The question of interest, however, is whether the pathogens were responsible for my behavior directly or not. As promised, I don’t have an answer to the question. I don’t know what I was infected with specifically, much less what compounds it was or wasn’t releasing into my body, or what effect they might have had on my behavior. Further, if I already possessed some adaptions for seeking out social support when sick, there would be less of a selective pressure for the pathogens to encourage my doing so; I would already be spreading the pathogen incidentally through my behavior. The real point of this question is not to necessarily answer it, however, as much as it’s to get us thinking about how our psychology might not, at least at times, be our own, so to speak. There are countless other organisms living within (and outside of) our bodies that have their own sets of fitness interests which they might prefer we indulge, even at the expense of our own. As for me, I’m just happy to be healthy again, and to feel like my head is screwing back on to where it used to be.

References: Aaroe, L. & Petersen, M. (2013). Hunger games: Fluctuations in blood glucose levels influence support for social welfare. Psychological Science, 24, 2550-2556.