The Drug Addictions Of Mice And Men

In my post, I mentioned the very real possibility that as people’s personal biases make their way into research, the quality of that research might begin to decline. More generally, I believe that such an issue arises because of what the interpretation of some results says about the association value of particular groups or individuals. After all, if I believed (correctly) that people like you tend to be more or less [cooperative/aggressive/intelligent/promiscuous/etc] than others, it would be a fairly rational strategy for me to adjust my behavior around you accordingly if I had no information about you other than that piece of information. Anyone who has feared being mugged by a group of adolescent males at night and not feared being mugged by a group of children at a playground during the day understand this point intuitively. As a result, some people might – intentionally or not – game their research towards obtaining certain patterns of results that reflect positively or negative on other groups or, as in today’s case, highlight some research other people as being particularly important because it encourages us to treat others a certain way. So let’s talk about giving drugs to mice and men.

Way to set a positive example for the kids, Mickey

The article which inspired this post was written by Johann Hari, and the message of it is that the likely cause of drug addiction (and, perhaps, other addictions as well) is that people fail to bond with other humans, bonding instead with drugs. This is, according to Johann, quite a distinct explanation than the one that many people favor: that some chemical hooks in the drugs alter our brains in such a way as to make us crave them. To make this point, Johann highlights the importance of the Rat Park experiment, in which rats placed in enriched environments failed to develop addictions to opiates (which were placed in one of their water bottles), whereas rats placed in isolated and stressful environments tended to develop the addictions to the drugs readily. However, when the isolated rats were moved into the enriched environments, their preference for the drug all but vanished.

The conclusion drawn from this research is that the rats – and, by extension, humans – only really use drugs when their environments are harsh. One quote that really drew my attention was the following passage:

“A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

I find this interpretation to be incomplete and stated far too boldly. One rather troublesome thorn for this explanation rears its head only a few passages later, when Johann is discussing how the nicotine patch does not help most smokers successfully quit; about 18% is the quoted percentage of those who quit through the patch, though that percentage is not properly sourced. From the gallup poll data I dug up, we can see that approximately 5% of those who have quit smoking attribute their success to the patch. That seems like a low number, and one that doesn’t quite fit with the chemical hook hypothesis. Another number sticks out, though: the number of people who attribute their success in quitting to support from friends and family. If Johann’s hypothesis is correct and people are like isolated rats in a cage when addicted, we might expect the number who quit successfully through social support to be quite high. If addiction is the opposite of human connection, as human connections increase, addiction should drop. Unfortunately for his hypothesis, only 6% of ex-smokers attribute their success to those social factors. By contrast, about 50% of the ex-smokers cited just deciding it was time and quitting cold turkey as their preferred method. Now it’s possible that they’re incorrect – that has been known to happen when you ask people to introspect – but I don’t see any reason to assume they are incorrect by default. In fact, many of the habitual smokers I’ve known did not seem like people lacking social connections to begin with; smoking was quite the social activity, and many people started smoking because their friends did. That is, they might developed their addiction through building social connections; not through lacking them.

Indeed, his hypothesis is all the stranger when considering the failure of people using the patch to successfully kick their habit. If, as Johann suggested, people are bonding with chemicals instead of people, it would sound as if giving them the chemicals in question should correspondingly cut down on their urge to smoke. That it doesn’t seem to do so very much is rather peculiar, suggesting something is wrong with the patches or the hypothesis. So what’s going on here? Is addiction to cigarettes different than addiction to opiates, explaining the disconnect from the Rat Park results to the cigarette data? That might be one possibility, though there is another: it is possible that, like quite a bit of psychology research, the Rat Park results don’t replicate so nicely.

“Reply still hazy; try controlling for gender and look again”

Petrie (1996) reports on an attempted replications of the rat park style of research that did not quite pan out as one might hope. In the first experiment, two groups of 10 rats were tested. The first group was raised in isolated conditions from weaning (21 days old), in relatively small cages without much to do; the second group was raised collectively in a much larger and more comfortable enclosure. These enclosures both contained food and water dispensers, freely available at all hours. In order to measure how much water was being consumed, each rat was marked for identification, and each trip to the drinking spout triggered a recording device. The weight of the water consumed was automatically recorded after each trip to the spout as well.  The testing began when the rats were 113 days old, lasting about 30 days, at which points the rats were all killed (which I assume is standard operating procedure for this kind of thing).

During that testing period, animals had access to two kinds of water: tap water and the experimental batch. The experimental batch was flavored with a sweetener initially, whereas on later trials various concentrations of morphine were also added to the bottle (in decreasing amounts from 1 mg to 0.125 mg, cutting by half each time). Across every concentration of morphine, the socially-reared rats drank slightly more than their isolated counterparts: at 1 mg of morphine, the average number of grams of experimental fluid consumed daily by the social group was 3.6 to the isolated rats 0; at 0.5 mg of morphine, these numbers were 1.3 and 0.5, respectively; at 0.25 mg morphine, 18.3 and 15.7; at 0.125 mg, 42.8 and 30.2. In a second follow up study without the automated measuring tools, this pattern was reversed, with the isolated rats tending to drink slightly more of the morphine water during 3 of the 4 testing phases (those numbers, in concentrations of morphine as before, with respect to social/isolated rats were: 4.3/0.3; 3.0/9.4; 10.9/17.4; and 33.1/44.4). So the results seems somewhat inconsistent, and the differences aren’t all that large. The differences in these studies did not even come close to the original reports of previous research claiming that the isolated rats drank up to 7-times as much.

To explain at least some of this difference in results, Petrie (1996) notes that some genetic differences might exist between the rat strains utilized between the two. If that was the case, then the implication of that is – like always – that the story is not nearly as simple as “bad environments cause” people to use drugs; there are other factors to think about, which I’ll get to in a moment. Suffice it to say right now that, in humans, it seems clear that recreational drug use is inherently more pleasant for certain people. Petrie (1996) also notes that the rats tended to consume the same absolute amount of morphine during each phrase, regardless of its concentration in the water. The rats seemed to much prefer the sweetened to the tap water by a huge margin when it was just sucrose, but drank less sweetened water when the morphine (or another bitter additive) was added, so it’s likely that the rats did not quite enjoy the taste of the morphine all that much. The author concludes that it’s probable the rats enjoyed the taste of the sugar more than they enjoyed the morphine’s effects.

An affinity many humans seem to share as well

The Petrie (1996) paper and the cigarette data, then, ought to cause us some degree of pause when assessing the truth value of Johann’s claims concerning the roots of addiction. Also worrying is the moralization that Johann engages in when he writes the following:

“The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live — constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.”

This hypothesis of his seems to strike me as the strangest of all. He is suggesting, if I am understanding him correctly, that people (a) find human connections more pleasurable than material items or drugs, like rats, but (b) voluntarily forgo human connections in the pursuit of things that bring us less pleasure. That is akin to finding, in terms of our rats, that the rats enjoy the taste of the sweetened water more than the bitter water, but choose to regularly drink out of the bitter one instead, despite both options being available. It would be a very odd psychology that generates that kind of behavior. It would be the same kind of psychology that would drive rats in the enriched cages to leave them for the isolated morphine cages if given the choice; the very thing Johann is claiming would not, and does not, happen. It would require that some other force – presumably some vague and unverifiable entity, like “society” – is pushing people to make a choice they otherwise would not (which, presumably, we must change to be better off).

This moralization is worrying because it sheds some light on the motivation of the author: it is possible that evidence is being selectively interpreted so as to fit with a particular world view that has social implications for others. For instance, the failure to replicate I discussed in not new; it was published in 1996. Did Johann not have access to this data? Did he not know about it? Was it just ignored? I can’t say, but none of those explanations paint a flattering picture of someone who claims expertise in the area. When the reputations of others are on the line, truth can often be compromised in the service of furthering a social agenda; this could include people stopping the search for contrary evidence, ignoring it, or downplaying its importance.

A more profitable route research might take would be to begin by considering what adaptive function the cognitive systems underlying drug use might serve. By understanding that function, we can make some insightful predictions. To attempt and do so, let’s start by asking the question, “why don’t people use drugs more regularly?” Why do so many smokers wish to stop smoking? Why do many people tend to restrict most of their drinking to the weekends? The most obvious answer to these questions is that drinking and smoking entail some costs to be suffered at a later date, whether those costs be tomorrow (in the form of a hangover) or years from now (in the form of lung cancer and liver damage). Most of the people who wanted to quit smoking, for instance, cited health concerns as their reasons. In other words, people don’t engage in these behaviors more often because there are trade-offs to be made between the present and future. The short term benefits of smoking need to be measured against their long term costs.

“No thanks; I need all my energy for crack”

It might follow, then, that those who value short term rewards more heavily in general – those who do not view the future as particularly worth investing in – are more likely to use drugs; the type of people who would rather have $5 today instead of $6 tomorrow. They’d probably also be more oriented towards short term sexual relationships, explaining the interesting connection between the two variables. It would also explain other points mentioned in the Johann piece: soldiers in Vietnam using (and then stopping) heroin and hospital patients not suffering from addiction to their painkillers once they leave the hospital. In the former case, soldiers in war time are in environments where their future is less than certain, to say the least. When people are actively trying to kill you, it makes less sense to put off rewards today for rewards tomorrow, since you can’t claim them if you’re dead. In the latter case, people being administered these painkillers are not necessarily short term oriented to begin with. In both cases, the value of pursuing those drugs further once the temporary threat has been neutralized (the war ends/they end their treatment) is deemed to be relatively low, as it was before the threat appeared. They might value those drugs very much when they’re in the situation, but not when the threat subsides.

It would even explain why drug addiction fell when legalization and treatment hit Portugal: throwing people in jail introduces new complications to life that reduce the value of the future (like the difficulty getting a job with a conviction, or the threats posed by other, less-than-pleasant inmates). If instead people are given some stability and resources are channeled to them, this might increase their perceived value of investing in the future versus getting that reward today. It’s not about connecting with other people per se that helps with the addiction, then, as much as it’s about one’s situation can change their valuation of the present as compared with the future.

Such a conclusion might be resisted by some on the grounds that it implies that drug addicts, to some extent, have self-selected into that pattern of behavior – that their preferences and behaviors, in a meaningful sense, are responsible for which “cage” they ended up in, to use the metaphor. Indeed, those preferences might explain both why addicts like drugs and why some might fail to develop deep connections with others. That might not paint the most flattering picture of a group they’re trying to help. However, it would be dangerous to try and treat a very real problem of drug addiction by targeting the wrong factors, similar to how just giving people large sums of windfall money won’t necessarily help them not go broke in the long term.

References: Petrie, B. (1996). Environment is not the most important variable in determining oral morphine consumption in Wistar rats. Psychological Reports, 78, 391-400.

Real Diversity Means Disagreement

Diversity is one of the big buzzwords of the recent decades. Institutions, both public and private, often take great pains to emphasize their inclusive stances and colorful cast of a staff. I have long found the displays of diversity to be rather queer in one major respect, however: they almost always focus on diversity in the realms of race and gender. The underlying message behind such displays would seem to suggest that men and women, or members of different ethnic groups, are, in some relevant psychological respects, different from one another. What’s strange about that idea is that, as many of the same people might also like to point out, there’s less diversity between those groups than within them, while others are entirely uncomfortable with the claim of sex or racial differences from the start. The ambivalent feelings many people have surrounding such a message were captured well by Principle Skinner on The Simpsons:

It’s the differences…of which…there are none…that make the sameness… exceptional

Regardless of how one feels about such a premise, the fact remains that diversity in race or gender per se is not what people are seeking to maximize in many cases; they’re trying to increase diversity of thought (or, as Maddox put it many years ago: “people who look different must think different because of it; otherwise, why the hell embrace anything? Why not just assume that diversity comes from within, regardless of their skin color, sex, age or religion?“)

Renting that wheel chair was a nice touch, but it’s time to get up and return it before we lose the deposit

If diversity in perspective is what most people are after when they talk about seeking diversity, it seems like it would be a reasonable step to assess people’s perspectives directly, rather than trying to use proxies for it, like race and gender (or clothing, or hair styles, or musical tastes, or…). If, for instance, one was hiring a number of people for a job involving problem solving, it’s quite possible for the person doing the hiring to select a group of men and women from different races who all end up thinking about things in pretty much the same way: not only would the hires likely have the same kinds of educational background, but they’d probably also have comparable interests since they applied for the same job. On top of that initial similarity the person doing the hiring might be partial towards those who hold agreeable points of view. After all, why would you hire someone who holds a perspective you don’t agree with? It sounds as if that decision would make work that much more unpleasant during the day-to-day operations of the company, even if it was irrelevant to the work they do.

Speaking of areas in which diversity of thought seem to be lacking in certain respects, an interesting new paper from Duarte et al (2015) puts forth the proposition that social psychology – as a field – isn’t all that politically diverse, and that’s probably something of a problem for research quality. For example, if social psychologists can be said to be a rather politically homogeneous bunch, this could result in particular (and important) questions not being asked as a result of how that answer might pan out for the images of liberals and their political rivals. After all, if the conclusions of psychology research, by some happy coincidence, tend to demonstrate that liberals (and, by extension, the liberal researchers conducting it) happen to have a firm grasp on reality, whereas their more conservative counterparts are hopelessly biased and delusional, all the better for the liberal group’s public image; all the worse for the truth value of psychological research, however, if those results are obtained by only asking about scenarios in which conservatives, but not liberals, are likely to look biased. If some liberal assumptions about what is right or good are shaping their research to point in certain directions, we’re going to end up making a number of unwarranted interpretative conclusions.

The problems could mount further if the research purporting to deliver conclusions counter to certain liberal interests is reviewed with disproportionate amounts of scrutiny, whereas research supporting those interests is given a pass when their methods are equivalent or worse. Indeed, Duarte et al (2015) discuss some good reasons to think this might be the state of affairs in psychology, not least of which is that quite a number of social psychologists will explicitly admit they would discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. When surveyed about their self-assessed probability of voting either for or against a known conservative job applicant (when both alternatives are equally qualified for the job), about 82% of social psychologists indicated they would be at least a little more likely to vote against the conservative hire, with about 43% indicating a fairly high degree of certainty they would (above the midpoint of the scale). These kinds of attitudes might well dissuade more conservatives from wanting to enter the field, especially given that the liberals likely to discriminate against them outnumber the conservatives by about 10-to-1.

“Don’t worry, buddy; you can take ‘em”

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but if these ratios were discovered elsewhere – say, a 10:1 ratio of men to women in a field, and about half of the men explicitly say they would vote against hiring women – I imagine that many social psychologists would tripping over themselves to try and inject some justice and moral outrage into the mix. Compared with some other explicit racist tendencies (4% of respondents wouldn’t vote for a black presidential candidate), or sexist ones (5% wouldn’t vote for a woman), there’s a bit of a gulf in discrimination. While the way the question is asked is not quite the same, social psychologists might be about as likely to want to vote for the conservative job candidate as Americans are to vote for a Muslim or an atheist if we assumed equivalence (which is is to say “not very”).

It is at least promising, then, to see that the reactions to this paper were fairly universal in at least recognizing that there might be something of a political diversity problem in psychology, both in terms of its existence and possible consequences. There was more disagreement with respect to the cause of this diversity problem and whether including more conservative minds would increase research quality, but that’s to be expected. I – like the authors – am happy enough that even social psychologists, by in large, seem to accept that social psychology is not all that politically diverse and that such a state of affairs is likely – or at least potentially – harmful to research in some respects (yet another example where stereotypes seem to track reality well).

That said, there is another point to which I want to draw attention. As I mentioned initially, seeking diversity for diversity’s sake is a pointless endeavor, and one that is certainly not guaranteed to improve the quality of work produced. This is the case regardless of the criteria on which candidates are selected, be they physical, political, or something else.  For example, psychology departments could strive to hire people from a variety of different cultural or ethnic groups, but unless those new hires are better at doing psychology, this diversity won’t improve their products. Similarly, psychology departments could strive to hire people with degrees in other fields, like computer science, chemistry, and fine arts; that would likely increase the diversity of thought in psychology, but since there are many more ways of doing poor psychology than there are of doing good psychology, this diversity in backgrounds wouldn’t necessarily be desirable.

Say “Hello” to your new collaborators

Put bluntly, I wouldn’t want people to begin hiring those from non-liberal groups in greater numbers and believe this will, de facto, improve the quality of their research. More specifically, while greater political diversity might, to some extent, reduce the number of bad research projects by diluting or checking existing liberal biases, I don’t know that it would increase in the number of good papers substantially; the relative numbers might change, but I’m more concerned with the absolutes, as a field which fails to produce quality research in sufficient quantities is not demonstrating much value (just like how the guy without a particular failing doesn’t necessarily offer much as a dating prospect). In my humble (and no doubt biased, but not necessarily incorrect) view, there is an important dimension of thought along which I do not wish psychologists to differ, and that is in their application of evolutionary theory as a guiding foundation for their work. Evolutionary theory not only allows one to find previously unappreciated aspects of psychological functioning by considerations of adaptive value, but also allows for building on previous research in a meaningful way and for the effective rooting out of problematic underlying assumptions. In that sense, even failed research projects can contribute in a more meaningful way when framed in an evolutionary perspective, relative to failed projects lacking one.

Evolutionary theory is by no means a cure-all for the bias problem; people will still sometimes get caught up trying to rationalize behaviors or preferences they morally approve of – like homosexuality – as adaptive, for example. In spite of that, I do not particularly hope to see a diversity of perspectives in psychology regarding the theoretical language we all ought to speak by this point. There are many more ways to think about psychology unproductively than there are of doing it well, and more diversity in those respects will make for a much weaker science.

References: Duarte , J., Crawford, J., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 38, 1-58.

No Such Thing As A Free Evolutionary Lunch

Perceiving the world does not typically strike people as a particularly demanding task. All you need to do is open your eyes to see, put something in your mouth to taste, run your hand along an object to feel, and hearing requires less effort still. Perhaps somewhat less appreciated but similar in spirit is the ease with which other kinds of social perceptions are generated, such a perceiving a moral dimension and intentions in the behavior of others. Unless the cognitive mechanisms underlying such perceptions are damaged, all this perceiving feels as if it takes place simply, easily, and automatically. It would be strange for someone to return home from a long day of work and complain that their ears can’t possibly listen to anything else, as they’re too worn out (quite a different complaint from not wanting to listen to someone’s particular speech about their day). Indeed, we ought to expect such processes to work quite efficiently and quickly, owing the historical adaptive value of generating such perceptions. Being able to see and hear, as well as read the minds of others, turn out to be pretty important tasks when it comes to the day-to-day business of survival and reproduction. If one was unable to accomplish such goals quickly and automatically, they would frequently find themselves suffering costs they could have avoided.

“Nothing to it; I can easily perceive the world all day”

That these tasks might feel easy – in fact, perception often doesn’t feel like anything at all – does not mean they are actually easy, either computationally or, importantly, metabolically. Growing, maintaining, and running the appropriate cognitive and physiological mechanisms for generating perception is not free for a body to do. Accordingly, we ought to expect that these perceptual mechanisms are only maintained in the population to extent that they are continuously useful for doing adaptive things. Now for us the value of hearing or seeing in our environment is unlikely to change, and so these mechanisms are maintained in the population. However, that status quo is not always maintained in different species or across time. One example I used for my undergraduate evolutionary psychology course of when this is not the case involves cave-dwelling organisms; specifically, organisms which did not always live in caves exclusively, but came to reside there over time.

What’s notable about these underground caves is that light does not reach the creatures that live there regularly. Without any light, the physiological mechanisms designed to process such information – specifically, the eyes – no longer grant an adaptive benefit to the cave-dwellers. Similarly, the neural tissue required for processing this visual information would not provide any advantage to the bearer either. When that adaptive value of vision is removed, the value of growing the eyes and associated brain regions are compromised and, as a result, many cave-dwelling species either fail to develop eyes altogether, or develop reduced, non-functional ones. Similarly, if there’s no light in the environment, other organisms cannot see you, resulting in many of these cave dwellers losing any skin pigmentation as well. (In a parallel fashion, people tend to lose track of their grooming and dressing habits when they know they aren’t going to leave the house. Now just imagine you would never leave the house again…)

Some recent research attempted to estimate the metabolic costs avoided by cave-dwelling fish who fail to develop functioning eyes and possess a reduced optic tectum (the brain region associated with vision in the surface-dwelling varieties). To do so, researchers removed the brains from surface and cave varieties of Pachon fish and placed them in individual respirator chambers. The oxygenated fluid that filled these chambers was replaced every 10 minutes, allowing measurements to be taken on how much oxygen was consumed by each brain over time. The floating brain/eyes of the surface fish consumed about 23% of the fish’s  estimated resting metabolism (for smaller fish; for larger fish, this percentage was closer to 10%). By contrast, the eyeless brains of the cave fish only consumed about 10% of their metabolism (again, for the smaller fish; larger fish used about 5%). Breaking the numbers down for an estimate of vision specifically, the cost of vision mechanisms was estimated to be about 5-15% of the resting metabolism in the surface fish. The cost of vision, it would seem, is fairly substantial.

Much better; just think of the long-term savings!

It is also worth noting that the other organs (hearts, digestive systems, and gonads) of the fish did not tend to differ between surface and cave dwelling varieties, suggesting that the selective pressure against vision was rather specific, as one should expect, given the domain-specific nature of adaptive problems: just because you don’t have to see, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to circulate blood, eat, and mate. One lesson to take from the current results, then, is to appreciate that adaptive problems are rather specific, instead of being more general. Organisms don’t need to just “do reproductively useful things”, as such a problem space is too under-specified to result in any kind of useful adaptations. Instead, organisms need to do a variety of specific things, like avoid predators, locate food, and remove rivals (and each of those larger class of problems are made up of very many sub-problems).

The second, and larger, important point to draw out from this research is that all features of an organism – from physiological to cognitive – are not free to develop or use. While perceptions like vision, taste, morality, theory of mind, and so on might feel as if they come to us effortlessly, they certainly do not come free. Vision might not feel like lifting weight or going on a run, but the systems required to make it happen need fuel all the same; quite a lot of it, in fact, if the current results are any indication. The implication of this is idea is that we are not allowed to take perceptions, or other psychological functioning, for granted; not if we want to understand them, that is. It’s not enough to say the such feelings or perceptions are “natural” or, in some sense, the default. There need to be reproductively-relevant benefits the justify the existence of any cognitive mechanisms. Even a relatively-minor but consistent drain on metabolic resources can become appreciable when considered over the span of an organism’s life.

To apply this thinking to a topic I’ve written about recently, we could consider stereotypes briefly. There are many psychologists who – and I am glossing this issue broadly – believe that the human mind contains mechanisms for generating beliefs about other groups which end up being, in general, very wrong. A mechanism which uses metabolic resources to generate beliefs that do not correspond well to reality would be a strange find indeed; kind of like a visual mechanism in the surface fish that does not actually result in the ability to navigate the world successfully. When it comes to the related stereotype threat, there are researchers positing the existence of a cognitive mechanism that generates anxiety in response to the existence of stereotypes that result in their bearer performing worse at socially-important tasks. Now you have a metabolically costly cognitive mechanism which seems to be handicapping its host. These would be strange mechanisms to posit the existence of when one is not making (or testing) claims about how and why they might compensate their bearer in other, important ways. It is when you stop taking the existence of cognitive functioning for granted and need to justify it that new, better research questions and clearer thinking about the matter will begin to emerge.

References: Moran, D., Softley, R., & Warrant, E. (2015). The energetic costs of vision and the evolution of eyeless Mexican cavefish. Science Advances, 11, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500363

Tilting At The Windmills Of Stereotype Threat

If I had the power to reach inside your mind and effect your behavior, this would be quite the adaptive skill for me. Imagine being able to effortless make your direct competitors less effective than you, those who you find appealing more interested in associating with you, and, perhaps, even reaching inside your own mind, improving your performance to levels you couldn’t previously reach. While it would be good for me to possess these powers, it would be decidedly worse for other people if I did. Why? Simply put, because my adaptive best interests and theirs do not overlap 100%. Improving my standing in the evolutionary race will often come at their expense, and being able to manipulate them effectively would do just that. This means that they would be better off if they possessed the capacity to resist my fictitious mind-control powers. To bring this idea back down to reality, we could consider the relationship between parasites and hosts: parasites often make their living at their host’s expense, and the hosts, in turn, evolve defense mechanisms – like immune systems – to fight off the parasites.

 Now with 10% more Autism!

This might seem rather straightforward: avoiding manipulative exploitation is a valuable skill. However, the same kind of magical thinking present in the former paragraph seems to present in psychological research from time to time; the line of reasoning that goes, “people have this ability to reach into the minds of others and change their behavior to suit their own ends”. Admittedly, the reasoning is a lot more subtle and requires some digging to pick up on, as very few psychologists would ever say that humans possess such magical powers (with Daryl Bem being one notable exception). Instead, the line of thinking seems to go something like this: if I hold certain beliefs about you, you will begin to conform to those beliefs; indeed, even if such beliefs exist in your culture more generally, you will bend your behavior to meet them. If I happen to believe you’re smart, for example, you will become smarter; if I happen to believe you are a warm, friendly person, you will become warmer. This, of course, is expected to work in the opposite direction as well: if I believe you’re stupid, you will subsequently get dumber; if I believe you’re hostile, you will in turn become more hostile. This is a bit of an oversimplification, perhaps, but it captures the heart of these ideas well.

The problem with this line of thinking is precisely the same as the problem I outlined initially: there is a less than perfect (often far less than perfect) overlap between the reproductive best interests of the believers and the targets. If I allowed your beliefs about me to influence my behavior, I could be pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions I would rather not go in. Those who would rather not see me succeed could believe that I will fail, which would, generally, have negative implications for my future prospects (unless, of course, other people could fight that belief by believing I would succeed, leading to an exciting psychic battle). It would be better for me if I ignored their beliefs and simply proceeded forward on my own. In light of that, it would be rather strange to expect that humans possess cognitive mechanisms which use the beliefs of others as inputs for deciding our own behavior in a conformist fashion. Not only are the beliefs of others hard to accurately assess directly, but conforming to them is not always a wise idea even if they’re inferred correctly.

This hasn’t stopped some psychologists from suggesting that we do basically that, however. One such line of research that I wanted to discuss today is known as “stereotype threat”. Pulling a quick definition from “Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group”. From the numerous examples they list, a typically research paradigm involves some variant of the following: (1) get two groups together to take a test that (2) happen to differ with respect to cultural stereotypes about who will do well. Following that, you (3) make salient their group membership in some way. The expected result is that the group that is on the negative end of the stereotype will perform worse when they’re aware of their group membership. To turn that into an easy example, men are believed to be better at math than women, so if you remind women about their gender prior to a math test, they ought to do worse than women not so reminded. The stereotype of women doing poorly on math actually makes women perform worse.

The psychological equivalent of getting Nancy Kerrigan’d

In the interests of understanding more about stereotype threat – specifically, its developmental trajectory with regard to how children of different ages might be vulnerable to it – Ganley et al (2013) ran three stereotype threat experiments with 931 male and female students, ranging from 4th to 12th grade. In their introduction, Ganley et al (2013) noted that some researchers regularly talk about the conditions under which stereotype threat is likely to have its negative impact: perhaps on hard questions, relative to easy ones; on math-identified girls but not non-identified ones; ones in mixed-sex groups but not single-sex groups, and so on. While some psychological phenomenon are indeed contextually specific, one could also view all that talk of the rather specific contexts required for stereotype threat to obtain as a post-hoc justification for some sketchy data analysis (didn’t find the result you wanted? Try breaking the data into different groups until you do find it). Nevertheless, Ganley et al (2013) set up their experiments with these ideas in mind, doing their best to find the effect: they selected high-performing boys and girls who scored above the mid-point of math identification, used evaluative testing scenarios, and used difficult math questions.

Ganley et al (2013) even used some rather explicit stereotype threat inductions: rather than just asking students to check off their gender (or not do so), their stereotype-threat conditions often outright told the participants who were about to take the test that boys outperform girls. It doesn’t get much more threatening than that. Their first study had 212 middle school students who were told either that boys showed more brain activation associated with math ability and, accordingly, performed better than girls, or that both sexes performed equally well. In this first experiment, there was no effect of condition: the girls who were told that boys do better on math tests did not under-perform, relative to the girls who were told that both sexes do equally well. In fact, the data went in the opposite direction, with girls in the stereotype threat condition performing slightly, though not significantly, better. Their next experiment had 224 seventh-graders and 117 eighth-graders. In this stereotype threat condition, they were asked to indicate their gender on a test before than began it because boys tended to outperform girls on these measures (this wasn’t mentioned in the control condition). Again, the results found no stereotype threat at either grade and, again, their data went in the opposite direction, with stereotype threat groups performing better.

Finally, their third study contained 68 forth-graders, 105 eighth-graders, and 145 twelfth-graders. In this stereotype threat condition, students first solved an easy math problem concerning many more boys being on the math team than girls before taking their test (the control condition’s problem did not contain the sex manipulation). They also tried to make the test seem more evaluative in the stereotype threat condition (referring to it as a “test”, rather than “some problems”). Yet again, no stereotype threat effects emerged at any grade level, with two of the three means going in the wrong direction. No matter how they sliced it, no stereotype threat effects fell out. Their data wasn’t even consistently in the direction of stereotype threat being a negative thing. Ganley et al (2013) even took their analysis just a little further in the discussion section, noting that published studies of such effects found some significant effect 80% of the time. However, these effects were also reported among other, non-significant findings. In other words, these effects were likely found after cutting the data up in different ways. By contrast, the three unpublished dissertations on stereotype threat all found nothing, suggesting the possibility that both data cheating and publication bias were probably at work in the literature (and they’re not the only ones).

     ”Gone fishing for P-values”

The current findings appear to build upon the trend of the frequently non-replicable nature of psychological research. More importantly, however, the type of thinking that inspired this research doesn’t seem to make much sense in the first place, though that part doesn’t seem to be discussed at all. There are good reasons to not let the beliefs of others affect your performance; an argument needs to made as to why we would be sensitive to such things, especially when they’re hypothesized to make us worse, and it isn’t present. To make that point crystal clear, try and apply stereotype threat thinking to any non-human species and see how plausible it sounds. By contrast, a real theory, like kin selection, applies with just as much force to humans as it does to other mammals, birds, insects, and even single-cell organisms. If there’s no solid (and plausible) adaptive reasoning in which one grounds their work – as there isn’t with stereotype threat – it should come as no surprise that effects flicker in and out of existence.

References: Ganley, C., Mingle, L., Ryan, A., Ryan, K., Vasilyeva, M., & Perry, M. (2013). An examination of stereotype threat effects on girls’ mathematical performance. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1886-1897.