Friday, May 30, 2008

Psychology: Babies know what is good for them: But is it nature or nurture?

A kind reader draws my attention to this story by AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein on the ability of infants of six to ten months to judge what is good for them:
Babies as young as 6 to 10 months old showed crucial social judging skills before they could talk, according to a study by researchers at Yale University's Infant Cognition Center published in Thursday's journal Nature. The infants watched a googly-eyed wooden toy trying to climb roller-coaster hills and then another googly-eyed toy come by and either help it over the mountain or push it backward. They then were presented with the toys to see which they would play with.

Nearly every baby picked the helpful toy over the bad one.

The babies also chose neutral toys — ones that didn't help or hinder — over the naughty ones. And the babies chose the helping toys over the neutral ones.

Apparently, the large eyes on the toys played a key role; babies' judgement declined when the eyes were removed.

Lead researcher Kiley Hamlin of Yale said that his research shows that humans have innate (= genetically programmed) social skills but psychology prof David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic says that the behavior is learned:
"Infants acquire a great deal of social experience between birth and 6 months of age and thus the assumption that this kind of capacity does not require experience is simply unwarranted,"

It's hard to know because you couldn't do the study much before six months of age and by then most tots know what's hot and what's not, so to speak. The most interesting part, to me at least, is that the researchers didn't seem to find any babies who were innately self-destructive (= chose the hurtful toy). That suggests that, whatever may be the case with wanting what is good for us, wanting what is bad for us is a behaviour learned later in life.

You can download the video here.

The Yale researchers now want to study animals, to see if the tendency to know what is good for oneself is as well developed. I suspect it is, but I am not at all sure that that will answer the nature or nurture question.

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Psychology: Yale's National Risk and Culture Study tells us more of what we already sensed about how manipulation works

Well, they don't quite call it manipulation. But what they are talking about in the Cultural Cognition Project's Second National Risk & Culture Study: how we are persuaded, usually by organized lobbies, for better or worse:

For example, people are more likely to be persuaded of a problem if they like the proposed solution and they are more likely to be persuaded of the proposed solution by someone who takes a position that the hearer did not expect, while sharing their general cultural views:

Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.

How individuals respond to arguments about the risks associated with mandatory HPV vaccination for school age girls is highly dependent on the perceived values of the persons making such arguments. Individuals who are culturally predisposed to a particular position are even more likely to form that view when it is espoused by an advocate who shares their cultural outlooks. Such individuals are less likely to form that view—and cultural polarization is reduced generally—when a person who shares their values advocates a position on the HPV vaccination that is contrary to such individuals’ cultural predispositions.

It's fun imagining marketing campaigns using these ideas. For example, If someone wanted to convince the public that the mind does not really exist (the materialist position) and therefore manipulation of our mental states is harmless and good for us, it would be better to get a warm, fuzzy therapist to advocate that view than a cold, narcissistic research scientist. (We may feel culturally close to the therapist even if we have lingering doubts about her position.) And she should also hint that we are not - after all - responsible for the things we feel guilty about. (We are more willing to agree to her views if the solution she proposes sounds attractive than if it sounds unattractive.)

By contrast, suppose the cold, narcissistic research scientist said, "Look, my neuroscience research provides no reason whatsoever to think you are not responsible for your bad habits. Grow up and change!" Many people who would actually like to believe that they are in control might be inclined to resist the message.

What feels good and what's correct are constantly being conflated by our society's not-so-hidden persuaders.

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Commentator Dinesh D'Souza on The Spiritual Brain: Including stuff he didn't know

Commentator Dinesh D'Souza blogged on The Spiritual Brain recently:
We find the materialist view ably expressed in Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis. What Crick finds astonishing is that our thoughts, emotions and feelings consist entirely in the physiological activity in the circuitry of the brain. Daniel Dennett argues that "mind" is simply a term for what the brain does. And how do we know that the brain and the mind are essentially the same? The best evidence is that when the brain is damaged, the injury affects the mind. Patients whose brains atrophy due to stroke, for instance, lose their ability to distinguish colors or to empathize with others.

But in his book The Spiritual Brain, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard shows why the Crick-Dennett position is based on a fallacy. Yes, the brain is the necessary locus or venue for the mind to operate. It does not follow that the two are the same. Beauregard gives a telling analogy. "Olympic swimming events require an Olympic class swimming pool. But the pool does not create the Olympic events; it makes them feasible at a given location." Far from being identical to the mind, Beauregard argues that the brain "is an organ suitable for connecting the mind to the rest of the universe."

D'Souza is correct in saying that Mario and I defend the non-materialist position regarding the mind.

He mentions in the review that he had been unaware of the existence of the nocebo effect:
Beauregard also writes about something I didn't know much about: the nocebo effect. "The nocebo effect is the harmful health effect created by a sick person's belief and expectation that a powerful source of harm has been contacted or administered." So if patients are strongly convinced that a particular pill will give them nausea, they frequently become nauseous, even when the pill they have taken is not the one they expected but only a sugar pill.

Yes, and that's why the doctor tells us that a given treatment ""will only hurt a little bit." Naturally, she hopes that is true, but telling us to expect a lot of pain is a sure way to produce more of it (a nocebo effect).

Here are some Hack posts on D'Souza:

"Atheist Dawkins blasted in Skeptical magazine"

"Religion profs who don't know much religion?"

"Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins: Athiesm is simple-minded narcissism"

"Secularism: Early post-mortem results"

Here are some Hack stories on the nocebo effect:

"Does behaviorism work?"

"Prayer studies: From one-way skepticism, deliver us"

"Faith as one of the healing arts"

"If it hurts you more than it hurts someone else, are you just a sissy?"

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Evolutionary psychology: Computer modeller dismisses latest "computer model" of religion

Britain's New Scientist magazine, one of my richest sources of nonsense about religion and spirituality, reports that religion is a product of evolution, according to software designed by evolutionary anthropologist James Dow of Rochester University.

Evolutionary pyschologists, almost all of whom are materialists, fall into two camps: Religion is untrue and useless or religion is untrue but helped our ancestors survive.

Dow is in the second camp, arguing that

Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The problem with any computer model of religion, of course, is that the topic is so vast and varied that any given model is wildly unrelated to real life. One wonders, for example, what to make of a model of religion that assumes that when unbelievers are attracted to believers the results will necessarily be good for the latter. I am reminded of Hebrews 36-38, NIV, on the fate of the heroes of faith:
36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned[a]; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith yet none of them received what was promised.
A friend, Gil Dodgen, who does computer models for a living, wrote to say,
This is utter silliness, and it stuns me that anyone would take this seriously, much less publish it as a "scientific" study. I design real-world computer simulations in my work with a finite-element analysis (FEA) program called LS-DYNA, which is the world's most powerful and thoroughly used and tested program of its kind. It originated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and has been designed and refined over decades by some of the greatest minds in the field.

LSD (as I affectionately call it) models the laws of physics and Newtonian mechanics with utter fidelity, and material properties are well understood, tested and documented, and are modeled accurately as well. LSD is capable of analyzing and simulating extremely complex systems involving all kinds of non-linear interacting dynamics. This program is so powerful that it is used heavily in the automotive industry to simulate car impacts, airbag deployments, occupant injuries, etc.

Yet, even with all this, and a programmer who is experienced and knows what he's doing, the simulations must always be tested against reality to finally validate them. (This way you only have to crash one or two real cars instead of 50 or 60 to get things right.)

So, when I hear about a computer simulation that demonstrates how religion evolved (or how any living system evolved, for that matter), all I can do is roll my eyes in wonderment and disbelief that anyone takes this stuff seriously.

As a final note, I can make an LS-DYNA simulation do just about anything I want, by arbitrarily tweaking parameters and material properties. I have done this on occasion just for the entertainment value. Those who attempt to model biological evolution, religion, or climate change can do the same.

Just for fun, check out this LS-DYNA simulation of a car airbag deploying (a 2 MB AVI file). It's pretty amazing:
Gil has also blogged on this here, saying much the same thing.

The only thing we really know about our ancestors' beliefs about life after death (the afterlife, as New Scientist terms it) is that burials that imply such a belief are quite ancient and widespread. One possible source is, of course, near-death experiences, as Mario and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain.