Although I did not make a substantial number of posts in 2012, the traffic to my site doubled.  Throughout 2012 my blog had 35,819 hits from 31,960 unique visitors, accounting for over 46,720 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the US and visits from people from 165 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, India, and Australia also brought in large contingents.

 

This year the top ranked article was my 2011 post on Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail, which accounted for 50% more hits than this year’s number two ranked article (Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures – the number one post from last year).  The piece on conspicuous consumption, is in my opinion, one of my all time most important pieces.  It addresses our inherent drive to advance one’s social standing while actually going nowhere on the hedonic treadmill.  It delves into the environmental costs of buying into the illusion of consumer materialism and its biological origins (the signaling instinct much like that of the Peacock). The Brainwave piece, also from 2011, compares and contrasts the different measures used to peer into the workings of the brain.

 

Of my posts published in 2012, only two made it to this year’s top ten list: five were from 2010 and three were published in 2011.  Of those eight from previous years, five were also on the top ten list last year.

 

My 2012 review and discussion of the Broadway Musical Wicked topped the list of posts actually written in 2012, but it came in third overall this year relative to all other posts.  This article explores the theme that “things are not as they seem.”  I relate the story told in the show to the political and historical manipulation American citizens are subjected to, and it stirs up unpleasant and inconvenient realities that many would prefer remain unknown.

 

Great interest persists in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article received a number four ranking, down from a number two ranking over the last two years.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved down two notches this year, ultimately ranking number five.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number six this year, versus a number four ranking last year.  My 2011 post Where Does Prejudice Come From? ranked number seven this year, down two spots from its ranking in 2011.  One of my all time favorite posts from 2010, Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is?  returned to the top ten list this year coming in eighth.   In 2010 it ranked number ten, but it fell off the list last year.  My Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number nine this year, compared to a number ten ranking last year.  Finally, in the number ten slot this year,  is my 2012 article Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really?  This post was perhaps the most important post of the year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2012.

  1. Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail (2011)
  2. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  3. Wicked! Things are NOT as they Seem (2012)
  4. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  5. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  7. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  8. Emotion vs. Reason: And the Winner is? (2010)
  9. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)
  10. Happiness as Measured by GDP: Really? (2012)

 

Again this year, the top ten articles represent the foundational issues that have driven me in my quest to understand how people think.   This cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several other 2012 posts that ranked outside the top ten; regardless, I believe they are important.  These other posts include:

 

 

This latter article, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth, pertains to the microbiome, the collection of an estimated 100 trillion individual organisms thriving in and on your body that account for about three pounds of your total body weight (about the same weight as your brain).  These little creatures play a huge role in your physical and mental well being and we are just beginning to understand the extent of their reach.  Modern medicine in the future, will likely embrace the microbiome as a means of preventing and treating many illnesses (including treating some mental illnesses).

 

Although, not among the most popular articles this year, my pieces on the pernicious affects of poverty on child development from 2011 warrant ongoing attention.  If we truly wish to halt the cycle of poverty, then we need to devote early and evidenced based intervention services for children and families living in poverty.  As it turns out, poverty is a neurotoxin.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

 

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort to step away from what we believe to be true in order to discover the truth.

 

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The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year.  A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage.  The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role.  Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.

 

Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.

 

One article in particular far outpaced all other posts.  My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined.  Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list.  The other six were published in 2010.  Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.

 

Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year.  And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)

It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest.  And each was posted with great personal satisfaction.   This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011.  These other posts include:

One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention.   I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written.  As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.

 

The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer.  These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake.  The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.

 

Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development.  Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live.  The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.

 

This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth.  It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings.   It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.

 

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Mahatma Gandhi once said that Poverty is the worst form of violence.  At the very least it appears to be a neurotoxin.  Evidence continues to build a solid case for the notion that poverty itself is self-propagating and that the mechanism of this replication takes place in the neuro-anatomy of the innocent children reared in environmental deprivation.

 

In my article titled The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development I review an article that provides clear quantitative data that indicates that children raised in low SES environments have diminished brain activity relative to their more affluent peers.  The impact of low SES on brain activity was so profound that the brains of these poor kids were comparable to individuals who had had actual physical brain damage.  This data gathered through EEG is a non-specific measure that provides no clear understanding of what underlies this diminished functioning.  In other words, it evidences diminished brain activity, but it does not specifically identify what has occurred in the brain that is responsible for these differences.

 

Jamie Hanson and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University published a paper titled Association Between Income and the Hippocampus in the peer reviewed on-line journal PLoS ONE that points to one possible culprit.  Their study shows in a measurable way, how poverty actually hinders growth of the hippocampus, a very important brain region associated with learning and memory.

 

In non-human animal studies, it has been shown that environmental enrichment is associated with “greater dendritic branching and wider dendritic fields; increased astrocyte number and size, and improved synaptic transmission in portions of the hippocampus” (Hanson et. al. 2011).  This essentially means that environmental enrichment enhances the density and functioning capacity of the hippocampus.  In humans, parental nurturance, contact, and environmental stimulation has been associated with improved performance on tasks (long-term memory formation) greatly influenced by the hippocampus. On the flip side, it has also been demonstrated that stress, inadequate environmental nurturance and low stimulation have the opposite affect (thinning hippocapmal density).

 

Hanson et. al., (2011) hypothesized that hippocampus density would be positively related to gradients in parental income.  Affluent children would evidence more hippocampal density (associated with better learning, memory, emotional control) while their low income counterparts would evidence diminished levels of density.  They used datea from MRI imaging studies to measure the actual hippocampal gray matter density in a large cross section of children (ages 4-18 years old) across the United States.  They also collected data on the income and education level of each participant’s parents.  As a control measure, they also quantified the whole-brain volume and the density of the amygdala, a brain region that does not vary as a function of environmental perturbations or enrichment.   These latter variables were important because they assist in ruling out brain size variation associated with other confounding variables.  They hypothesized that these latter measures would not vary associated with income.

 

The top left brain slice shows a sagittal brain slice with the hippocampus highlighted in yellow and the amygdala in turquoise, while the top right brain image shows an axial slice (with the hippocampus again highlighted in yellow and the amygdala in turquoise). The bottom left brain picture shows a coronal slice with the amygdala in turquoise and the hippocampus in yellow.

 

Their measures confirmed each of their hypotheses.  Amygdala and whole brain volume did not vary associated with parental income but hippocampal density did.  Those with parents at the lower end of the income spectrum evidenced lower hippocampal density than those children from more affluent families.  They wrote that “taken together, these findings suggest that differences in the hippocampus, perhaps due to stress tied to growing up in poverty, might partially explain differences in long-term memory, learning, control of endocrine functions, and modulation of emotional behavior” (Hanson, 2011).

 

The authors carefully noted that this correlation is not necessarily indicative of causation – and that more specific longitudinal measures along with direct measures of cognitive functioning, environmental stress,  and stimulation are necessary to truly understand the association between income and these neurobiological outcomes.  But they also warned that the data set was limited to children unaffected by mental health issues or low intelligence.  As such, the data set likely underestimates the actual hippocampal volume variation because children at the lower end of the income spectrum have disproportionately high levels of these mental health and low intelligence issues.

 

These results confirm and fit with a growing and already substantial set of findings that implicate poverty as a neurotoxin that causes a self sustaining feedback loop.  Poverty seems to weaken the foundation on which fundamental skills and capabilities are built that ultimately facilitate adaptive functioning and positive societal contributions.  A weak foundation hinders such capacities.

 

I have previously posted articles titled Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key, Poverty Preventing Preschool Programs: Fade-Out, Grit, and the Rich get Richer, and The Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Implications of Poverty.  In these articles I review various other studies that address this issue, but I also highlight the steps that can be taken to remediate the problem.  There really is not much question about the needed steps we as a society should take.    A recent series of articles published in the UK’s Lancet, drives this point home!

 

In one particular article, titled Strategies for reducing inequalities and improving developmental outcomes for young children in low-income and middle-income countries, the authors noted that:

 

“A conservative estimate of the returns to investment in early child development is illustrated by the effects of improving one component, preschool attendance. Achieving enrolment rates of 25% per country in 1 year would result in a benefit of US$10·6 billion and achieving 50% preschool enrolment could have a benefit of more than $33 billion (in terms of the present discounted value of future labour market productivity) with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 17·6. Incorporating improved nutrition and parenting programmes would result in a larger gain.”

 

The monetary value alone seems sufficient to motivate implementation.  For each dollar spent on quality preschool programs, we ultimately gain up to $17.60 in labor market productivity alone.  This does not account for the decreased expenditures on special education, incarceration, and other social safety net programs.  Quality preschool programing has been shown to increase high school graduation rates and home ownership rates.  If we as a society, are truly driven to promote human flourishing, equal opportunity for all, and a level playing field, then we must, I argue, take action with regard to providing universal access to quality preschool programs particularly for poor children.  What I propose is not a hand-out, but a fiscally responsible hand-up that benefits each and every one of us.

 

References:

 

Engle, P., L., Fernald, L. CH., Alderman, H., Behrman, J., O’Gara, C.,  Yousafzai A.,  de Mello M. C., Hidrobo, M.,  Ulkuer, N., Ertem, I., Iltus, S., The Global Child Development Steering Group. (2011).  Strategies for reducing inequalities and improving developmental outcomes for young children in low-income and middle-income countries. The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 23 September 2011. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60889-1

 

Hanson, J.L., Chandra, A., Wolfe, B. L., Pollak, S.D., (2011).  Association between Income and the Hippocampus. PLoS ONE 6(5): e18712. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018712

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I’m not an emotional man.  As such, I rarely experience the extremes of sadness or joy.  This is not to say that I do not experience joy or sadness – I do.  I take great pleasure in life and also feel the pain that comes with it.  But, I am very stable and steadfast – very familiar and comfortable with the middle of the emotional spectrum.  Some might say that I am too serious, and that they have.

 

Because of this disposition, I don’t cry very often – in fact it takes a lot to make me cry.  It is not as though I actively resist crying, or that I view it as a weakness.  I just seem disinclined to go to such places.  It is my composition.

 

Lately however, things have changed and I have found myself more inclined to tear up.  My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer about six months ago and has since endured a great deal.  I guess one might say that I too am a bit more vulnerable and raw.

 

The tears that I have shed have not sprung from fear or even from empathy.  I have sustained confidence that she will survive this.  And at times when she has been fearful or just exhausted and frustrated, I have instinctively been her rock.   My tears instead, have fallen quite unexpectedly at times of great relief.

 

I vividly recall meeting with my wife’s surgeon just after her diagnosis and tearing up as he left the office having reassured Kimberly that she will be okay. I held Kimberly firmly in my arms and we both wept.

 

On the day of the lumpectomy I sat with my mother and our college aged children as we anxiously awaited news from the surgeon. At that point in time Kimberly had also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and we did not know whether her breast cancer had moved to her lymph nodes. It was a very tense and scary time. When her surgeon called me out for the post surgical conference, he shared with me the good news that her lymph nodes were clear.  I choked back tears as I thanked him.  The emotional relief emerged forcefully and tearfully when I walked back into the waiting room to share this news with my family. I’m sure that my children have never before seen me in such a state.  A few minutes later, as I tried to share this news with Kimberly’s mother on the telephone, I could not talk and again tears streamed down my recently moistened cheeks.

 

Since that Spring day, Summer has come and gone, and Kimberly has endured prolific post surgical bleeding, mammosite radiation, a reevaluation of her thyroid nodules (negative for cancer), completed 50% of her chemotherapy treatments and I have resumed my steadfastness.  I have been a rock – steady and sure.  Of course this is not completely true.  I am less able to endure violence for entertainment on the television and I have little patience for the malicious or ignorant forays of others.  But generally, I have held it together.

 

Then one day my wife came to me in tears after reading a letter sent to her by my daughter (Meghan), her step-daughter.  I read it and it shook me to my core.  I cried as thoroughly as I ever recall.  She wrote (this is just an excerpt):

 

All of the things you are going through really, really, really suck and it is out of everyone’s control. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before with the flood of cards you have been receiving since mid May. But maybe you haven’t heard what I am going to say…

 

Life is amazing.  We are all so truly lucky to be here. Out of all the stars, out of all the systems WE are here. It is a one in infinity probability. And despite all the suffering, you are here and you are unique; the only one that thinks like you… you are the only one that hears your thoughts… you are the only one here right now experiencing what you’re experiencing and feeling how you feel about it. And maybe that makes people feel lonely, but I feel lucky and I hope you do too.  So whenever you’re having one of those moments when you’re hating everything, “Why me?!” turn it around to “I am lucky to be here and living the life I’m living.” You’re the only person who can have the relationship you have with me, my Dad, with Alec and Paige, with your siblings. With this random chance of us all being in the same time, we are all so lucky… So keep going, hang in there, stay strong, let weakness, vulnerability, and sadness take over when you feel it fitting, but after,  breath deeply (because you are the only one in that moment feeling what you feel, breathing that 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen & remaining percentages, that is your breath and only yours).  We have to cherish and recognize the awesomeness of it all, it is truly incredible and it blows me away almost daily.  So the next time we are all together at dinner or bumming around, take a second to think “Wow, there will be no moment like this, we are truly unique!”

 

My daughter in that moment became the rock and I could let go.   And I did let go!  This morning I read a quote posted on Facebook by a friend that read:

 

People cry not because they’re weak.  It’s because they have been strong for too long.

 

It is immensely touching and life changing when your “child” rises and shows the capacity and wisdom to be the rock.  And I am thankful that I had the capacity to let go of that role in that moment.  I am fortunate to have a wife that helped nurture such love in my daughter, and a daughter who has herself persevered through adversity and grown into an incredible woman.  Meghan is right, we are so very fortunate to be here at all, to be together, to be loved, and to be aware of the uniqueness and improbability of it all.  A wise person of unknown identity once said “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” This cancer has given us the opportunity to appreciate the strength and character of those around us who take turns being the rock.  It is this strength of others that gives me the occasion to let go, and shed some tears.

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Several of my latest posts addressed evidence that challenged some of my long held beliefs about the relative value of parenting style on child outcomes such as mental ability and happiness.   In Ten Best Parenting Tips: But does it really matter? I challenged a recently published study in Scientific American: MIND touting the “ten best” parenting tips.  The relationship between parent reported child outcomes and parenting behaviors was measured using a correlation coefficient.  The author did not, however, control for heredity.  It is well known that genes play out in the expression of personality type and a broad array of complex behaviors.  So why would it not play out in the happiness, health and functioning capacity of children?  If you don’t control for heritability is it not possible that well functioning adults might just pop out well functioning kids?  Well it certainly is!  And might we wrongly attribute parenting style for something actually under the influence of genes?  Yes indeed!

 

I then explored Does Parenting Style Really Matter? and suggested that the current research from behavioral genetics provides a great deal of evidence concluding that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children.  Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remaining 40-50% of the variance (Pinker, 2002).

 

The major problem with the above referenced data has been the admitted narrowness with regard to the age and Social Economic Status (SES) of the participants.  For the most part, the studies on twins and adopted children were conducted on middle class families with little relative diversity.  On top of that, there is a dearth of research focusing on early childhood.  This narrowness limits the generalization of findings across different populations and across age levels.  Clearly, it is conceivable that parenting style will have varying levels of influence on child outcomes across the developmental lifespan.  Over-generalization may lead to faulty thinking and thus very dangerous policy decisions.

 

Throughout my training and subsequent professional development, as a psychologist, I have been exposed to data suggesting that there is a fairly strong positive correlation between Social Economic Status (SES) and mental ability.  The same is true with regard to academic achievement.  The underlying message had always been that environmental determinates were responsible for these correlations.  Again, the problem with this thinking is that the research upon which such beliefs were formed has largely lacked appropriate controls for heritability.  Correlation is not causation and all that jazz!

 

So what happens to the data when children across the SES spectrum are assessed using techniques that control for genes?  One particular study from 2003 suggested that “the heritability of cognitive ability in 7-year-old twins was only 10% in low-SES families but was 72% in high-SES families.”  (Tucker-Drob, Rhemtulla, Harden, Turkmeimer & Fask, 2011)  This suggests that the environment, including perhaps parenting style and experiential deprivation, play a much bigger role in hindering cognitive development in low SES children versus higher SES children.  Further research has found similar, although not so striking, SES differences.  Regardless, research within the field of behavioral genetics “suggests that the environment plays a substantial role in the expression of genetic variance in cognitive ability over the course of child development” (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).  Regardless, questions persist about the degree of influence SES plays in mental ability outcomes and about what point in time the shared environment might affect development.

 

In a new study just published in Psychological Science by Tucker-Drob, et al. (2011) the authors looked at the mental ability of 750 twins (25% identical, 35% same sex fraternal, and 40% opposite sex fraternal), at 10- and 24-months of age.  This sample closely represented US population statistics including a diverse cross section of children across the SES and racial spectrum.  And the results were quite different.

 

At ten months of age, the authors report that the shared environment (the home) played the dominate role in the variance of mental ability scores in all households – rich or poor.  There was very little apparent variation in mental ability attributable to heredity.  At 24-months however, things get a little more complicated.  For low SES children, the environment remains the key variable associated with differences in mental ability.  Perhaps as much of 70% of the variance in mental ability is attributable to the shared home environment.  While for high SES children, genes become the predominant variable associated with the differences in mental ability scores.  Environment still plays a role but much less so.  Smart parents have smart kids unhampered by environmental constraints.

 

Genes by SES

 

Looking at ability gains within individuals between the first assessment at ten months and the retest at 24 months, the high SES children made more gains than those from low SES homes.  The difference was modest; however, a child in poverty is likely, simply as a function of SES, to score one standard deviation below a very well to do child on the mental ability test.

 

These findings suggest that for very young children, environment matters a great deal.  This is particularly true for infants rich or poor; but it becomes much more important for poor toddlers.  Poor kids are more vulnerable to the adversity associated with deprivation.  Many factors have been examined in order to explain this discrepancy.  The author of this current study wrote:

 

“…compared with higher-SES parents, lower-SES parents spend less time with their children (Guryan, Hurst, & Kearney, 2008), are less able to allocate time spent with children in accordance with their children’s developmental needs (Kalil, Ryan, & Corey, 2010), and are less sensitive in responding to their children’s signals (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; De Wolff & Ijzendoorn, 1997).”  (Tucker-Drob, et al., 2011).

 

One particularly illuminating study published by Hart and Risley in 1995 reported “that at age 3, children in professional families heard an average of 2153 words per hour, while children in working class families heard 1251 words per hour and children in welfare families heard only 616 words per hour.   In professional families, parents not only talked more but also used more different words and provided a greater richness of nouns, modifiers and verbs. Parents spent a lot of time and effort asking their children questions, affirming and expanding their responses and encouraging their children to listen and notice how words relate and refer in order to prepare their children for a culture focusing on ‘‘symbols and analytic problem solving’’ (see Hart and Risley, 44 p 133). On the other hand, parents on welfare spent less time talking while they more frequently initiated topics and used more imperatives and prohibitions. These parents were more concerned with established customs such as obedience, politeness and conformity. Working-class families showed a mixture of the two cultures using imperatives and prohibitives while using rich language to label, relate and discuss objects.” (Duursma, Augustyn, & Zuckerman, 2008)  The net effect is that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than do children of professionals by the time they reach their forth birthday.

 

The implications of these differences are profound.  Replication of this research is necessary, but we also need greater clarification of the environmental attributes that culminate in the mental ability discrepancies.  Should these SES differences stand up to the rigors of scientific scrutiny through replication it will be absolutely essential to invest further in early childhood programs.  Jonah Lehrer (2011)  likewise noted that: “Such statistics have led many researchers to highlight the importance of improving the early-childhood environments of poor children. Economists such as James Heckman, a Nobel laureate at the University of Chicago, have long advocated for increased investments in preschool education, but this latest study suggests that interventions need to begin even earlier. One possible model is the “Baby College” administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to equip brand-new parents with better parenting skills.”

 

These findings also reinforce the importance of programs such as Head Start and particularly Early Head Start.  It is concerning that these very programs are often the most vulnerable to budget cuts in difficult times.  I can’t help but wonder if we would prioritize early childhood development differently if the masses and our politicians were truly aware of these issues.  Perhaps we should learn more about this and help spread the word to friends, family, and our representatives.  Are we as a society really willing to passively submit to this self perpetuating cycle of poverty?

 

References:

 

Duursma, E., Augusta, M., & Zuckerman, B. (2008).  Reading Aloud to Children: The Evidence. Archives of Disease in Childhood.  Vol 93 No 7.

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

 

Lehrer, J. (2011).  Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter. Wall Street Journal.com.  1/22/11

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

 

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Rhemtulla, M., Harden, K. P., Turkheimer, E., & Fask, D.  (2011). Emergence of a Gene × Socioeconomic Status Interaction on Infant Mental Ability Between 10 Months and 2 Years. Psychological Science. 22(1) 125–133.

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Have you ever heard someone make an argument that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief?  Does it seem to you like some people are coming from a completely different reality than your own?  If so, then this blog is for you.  I have spent the last year trying to develop an understanding of the common thought patterns that drive the acrimonious spirit of our social and political dialogue.  I am continually amazed by what I hear coming from seemingly informed people.  I have assumed that some folks are either deluded, disingenuous, or downright ignorant.  There is yet another possibility here, including the reality that different moral schema or belief systems may be driving their thinking.  And if this is the case, how do these divergent processes come to be?  I  have learned a lot through this exploration and feel compelled do provide a recap of the posts I have made.  I want to share with you those posts that have gathered the most traction and some that I believe warrant a bit more attention.

 

Over the past year I have posted 52 articles often dealing with Erroneous Thought Processes, Intuitive Thinking, and Rational Thought.  Additionally, I have explored the down stream implications of these processes with regard to politics, morality, religion, parenting, memory, willpower, and general perception.  I have attempted to be evidenced-based and objective in this process – striving to avoid the very trappings of confirmation bias and the erroneous processes that I am trying to understand.   As it turns out, the brain is very complicated: and although it is the single most amazing system known to human kind, it can and does lead us astray in very surprising and alarming ways.

 

As for this blog, the top ten posts, based on the shear number of hits, are as follows:

  1. Attribution Error
  2. Nonmoral Nature, It is what it is.
  3. Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
  4. Moral Instinct
  5. Pareidolia
  6. IAT: Questions of Reliability
  7. Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
  8. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule
  9. Illusion of Punditry
  10. Emotion vs.Reason: And the winner is?

What started out as ramblings from a curious guy in a remote corner of New York State ended up being read by folks from all over the planet.  It has been a difficult process at times, consuming huge amounts of time, but it has also been exhilarating and deeply fulfilling.

 

I have been heavily influenced by several scientists and authors in this exploration.  Of particular importance have been Steven Pinker, Daniel Simons, Christopher Chabris, Jonah Lehrer, Bruce Hood, Carl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell.  Exploring the combined works of these men has been full of twists and turns that in some cases necessitated deep re-evaluation of long held beliefs.  Holding myself to important standards – valuing evidence over ideology – has been an important and guiding theme.

 

Several important concepts have floated to the top as I poked through the diverse literature pertaining to thought processes. Of critical importance has been the realization that what we have, when it comes to our thought processes, is a highly developed yet deeply flawed system that has been shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.  Also important has been my increased understanding of the importance of genes, the basic element of selective pressures, as they play out in morality and political/religious beliefs.  These issues are covered in the top ten posts listed above.

 

There are other worthy posts that did not garner as much attention as those listed above.  Some of my other favorites included a review of Steven Pinker’s article in the New York Times (also titled Moral Instinct,) a look at Jonathon Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in Political Divide, as well as the tricks of Retail Mind Manipulation and the Illusion of Attention.  This latter post and my series on Vaccines and Autism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) were perhaps the most important of the lot.  Having the content of these become general knowledge would make the world a safer place.

 

The evolution of understanding regarding the power and importance of Intuitive relative to Rational Thinking was humbling at times and Daniel Simons’ and Christopher Chabris’ book, The Invisible Gorilla, certainly provided a mind opening experience.  Hey, our intuitive capabilities are incredible (as illustrated by Gladwell in Blink & Lehrer in How We Decide) but the downfalls are amazingly humbling.  I’ve covered other topics such as  happiness, superstition, placebos, and the debate over human nature.

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to put blind-folds on adherents.  Often the blind- folds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

 

Because of our genetically inscribed tendencies toward mysticism and gullibility, we must make extra effort in order to find truth. As Dr. Steven Novella once wrote:

“We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process.”

We must therefore be humble with regard to beliefs and be willing to accept that we are vulnerable to error prone influences outside our awareness.  Recognition and acceptance of these proclivities are important first steps.   Are you ready to move forward?  How do you think?

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I have learned some things of late that have congealed in such a way, so as to leave me in a bit of an existential crisis. One of my most precious beliefs, specifically, the importance of parenting style, as it pertains to child intelligence and personality outcomes, has been relegated to the proverbial dust heap alongside the id, the wandering uterus, and the Oedipus complex.

 

Why would the salience of parenting style even come into question? It seems ridiculous to pose such a question. Of course parenting style matters! It is widely believed that parents can and do shape and mold their youngsters in a meaningful way that plays out in the formation of an adult. But, and this is a big but, the reality is that the impact of what you do as a parent has a much narrower impact than you might think.

 

I discussed this last week in my post Ten Best Parenting Tips: But Does it Really Matter? where I shared the Parent’s Ten (Epstein, 2010) and laid out a question of the quality of the research used to delineate these ten great tips. In that post I noted that:

 

“We are lead to believe, based on the results of [the Epstein study], that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten, produce happier, healthier, and wiser children. But can we really? Is there an illusion of cause here? Are these simply correlations? The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.”

 

Genes are the sticking point. Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study. It is likely that children who have well functioning parents will be likewise well functioning, not because of the parenting style employed by their parents, but because of their shared genes. Well functioning and happy adults breed happy and well functioning children. Ultimately, parenting style, seems to have little impact on such outcomes.

 

The current research from behavioral genetics provides a preponderance of evidence leading to the same conclusion: that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the personality and intelligence outcomes of children! Heredity (genes) accounts for about 50%. A long standing question about the remainder has ultimately pointed in the direction of the child’s peer group whereby they account for 40-50% of the variance on personality and intelligence outcomes (Pinker, 2002). As it turns out, peers are the nurture influence in the nature and nurture interplay.

 

This latter notion runs counter to nearly everything we have been taught regarding human development over the last 100 years (Gladwell, 1998). Freud first put parents at the core of the child’s personality and neurosis development, and there they have remained. Mothers in particular have fielded more than their share of blame with regard to the pathology of their offspring. Cold maternal parenting style, after all, had been blamed for autism. And perfection seeking mothers have been blamed for the development of anorexia in their teenage daughters. We know that these relationships are unfounded. Regardless, the thinking persists, and bad outcomes are attributed to bad parenting whereas good outcomes are the fruit of sound parenting. The problem with this type of thinking is that the research has not born it out.

 

The Minnesota studies of twins and the Colorado Adoption Project have made it clear (Harris, 1998): parents contribute their genes and that seems to be it. When it comes to personality variables such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism, parents affect this only through heritability. Factors like IQ, language proficiency, religiosity, nicotine dependence, hours of television watching, and political conservatism/liberalism are all hugely influenced by genes (Pinker, 2002).

 

How do we know this? Adopted children resemble their biological parents not their adoptive parents (Gladwell, 1998). Also, as Steven Pinker (2002) points out, “Identical twins reared apart are highly similar; identical twins reared together are more similar than fraternal twins reared together; biological siblings are far more similar than adoptive siblings. All this translates into substantial heritability values…”

 

And consider smoking. Who can forget the TV ad portraying a child watching and pondering the emulation of his father’s smoking behavior. The slogan was something akin to “like father like son.” They had it right, but the smoking behavior in front of the child was not the culprit. Children of smokers are two times more likely to smoke as children of non-smokers. What we see is that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes. Adoptive children of smokers do not have elevated rates of smoking, and this greatly diminishes the role that modeling plays in the equation.

 

The psychologist Eric Turkheimer pulled together the unusually robust evidence from extensive studies of twins (fraternal and identical) reared together and apart as well as studies of adopted children relative to biological children and concluded that there are three important laws that help explain the development of personality characteristics and intelligence.  Steven Pinker suggests that these laws constitute the most important discovery in the history of psychology (2002). The three laws are as follows:

 

  1. All Human traits are heritable;
  2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes; and
  3. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

 

So does this mean that what we do as parents doesn’t really matter? And does it mean that my role as a child psychologist helping parents manage very difficult children is a waste of time? This is my crisis.

 

Well … it does matter! How a parent treats and manages a child within the home will affect how the child behaves in the home and how the child feels about the parent. These are important issues. If poor parenting results in difficult feelings for the parent, “these feelings can last a lifetime – but they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998).  Here is the important point “whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us” (Harris quoted in Gladwell, 1998). The home environment is very important for all involved – and parenting style can greatly impact that environment. So parenting style does matter – if only for the establishment of sanity in the home.  It seems to me that treating a child well is an ethical obligation. But if that’s not enough encouragement for treating another human being well, perhaps you should do so, in hopes that when you are old and frail, your children may treat you well (Harris paraphrased in Gladwell, 1998).

 

Pinker (2002) adds an important provision:

 

Differences among homes don’t matter within the samples of homes netted by these studies, which tend to be more middle-class than the population as a whole. But differences between those samples and other kinds of homes could matter. The studies exclude cases of criminal neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and abandonment in a bleak orphanage, so they do not show that extreme cases fail to leave scars. Nor can they say anything about the differences between cultures… In general, if a sample comes from a restricted range of homes, it may underestimate effects of homes across a wider range.

 

We do know that parenting style can have adverse consequences when a child is subjected to neglect or abuse.  This is hugely important!  Its not that parenting style doesn’t matter.  It matters greatly!  Parents can establish a happy encouraging environment, provide for the development of essential skills and knowledge; BUT, again, over the long term, it seems that these contributions do not shape the personality or intelligence of their children.  Their gene’s are responsible for their contributions.  What seems to be more important, when it comes to shaping the genetic contribution, is where a parent raises their child. It’s the peer group that finishes the job. Now that is scary! And I thought my crisis was over.

 

Refeferences:

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Gladwell, M. (1998).  Do Parents Matter? Judith Rich Harris and Child Development. Annals of Behavior. The New Yorker.

 

Lehrer, J. (2009). Do Parents Matter? Scientific American. April 9, 87http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=parents-peers-children

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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What makes a good parent?  Really?  What can we do to ensure that our children grow up happy, healthy and wise?  There is a lot of advice out there – some of which, on the surface seems quite sage.  But history is replete with really bad advice – some based in moral authority and some in the ill formed wisdom of so called experts.  New advice is commonplace and how often have you been confused by the contradictory nature of yesterday’s and today’s tips?  There are enough schools of thought out there to confirm and satisfy almost any advocate of any “reasonably sane” parenting approach and even some not so prudent approaches.  There is a pretty good reason for this variability and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, lets look at a recent article from Scientific American MIND that provides a summary of a scientific analysis resulting in a list of the top ten most effective child rearing practices.

 

In What Makes a Good Parent? the author, Robert Epstein, shares the results of a study on parenting skills that he carried out at UC San Diego, with a student (Shannon Fox).  The results were presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association this past summer.  Epstein and Fox looked at parenting techniques advised by experts, strategies commonly employed by parents, and strategies that seemingly had efficacy in the real world.  They collected their data online from nearly 2000 parents who volunteered to take a test of parenting skills at Epstein’s website: http://MyParentingSkills.com.  The test was devised by Epstein based on the literature, whereby ten parenting techniques that had robust evidence with regard to good outcomes were selected and measured.   Epstein had the 10 skills assessed by 11 parenting experts to further evaluate their validity.    The participants answered 100 questions pertaining to their agreement (on a 5 point agree to disagree scale) with the ten parenting variables (e.g., “I generally encourage my child to make his or her own choices,” “I try to involve my child in healthful outdoor activities,” “No matter how busy I am, I try to spend quality time with my child.”).   In addition to these questions the test asked questions pertaining to important variables such as income and educational levels of the parents, marital status, parenting experience, age, as well as questions regarding the happiness, health and functioning capacity of their child/ren.

 

The results, coined by the author as The Parent’s Ten, make perfect sense to me as a parent of three reasonably well adjusted, happy and successful college students.  They also gel with my exposure to the literature and my experiences guiding parents within my professional capacity as a child psychologist over the last 16 years. Here is an excerpt from the article:

 

Here are 10 competencies that predict good parenting outcomes, listed roughly in order from most to least important. The skills – all derived from published studies – were ranked based on how well they predict a strong parent-child bond and children’s happiness, health and success.

 

  1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
  2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
  3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
  4. Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
  5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
  6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
  7. Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
  8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
  9. Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
  10. Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.

 

Although you may not find these results all that surprising, Epstein suggests that they are because if you look closely at the list you’ll see that the vast majority of the skills are parental personality and/or life skill issues.  As this study suggests, a child’s well-being, it seems, is most closely associated with how a parent treats oneself (e.g., manages stress and maintains a healthy diet and exercise regimen), how one gets along with the co-parent (e.g., maintains and models important healthy relationships), as well as the efficacy of one’s life skills (e.g., sustains income and plans for the future), and how deeply one values education.

 

These “skills” constitute a full 50% of the list and when weighted, based on the degree of association, likely account for a huge and disproportionate amount of the influence on child happiness, health, and adaptive functioning outcomes.  And several of the other “skills” (e.g., affection, respect for the dignity of children, degree of parental control imposed, and even level of spirituality) really are behaviors that are known to vary associated with one other crucial, yet unmentioned variable.

 

You see, the presumption here is that children are brought into the world as malleable blank slates that we can mold through the type of parenting we employ.  The reality is that parents who employ these skills likely do so as a function of their intelligence and personality, which are heavily influenced by their genes.  The truth of the matter is likely that children whose parents care for themselves, have good social skills, and plan for the future will have happier, healthier, and wiser children, but not because of the parenting skills employed during their upbringing, but because of their shared genes.  Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study.  And neither have most of the researchers looking at the relationship between parenting behavior and children outcomes (Pinker, 2002).  The current research from behavioral genetics suggests that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the wellness outcomes of children!  Heredity accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%) (Pinker, 2002).

 

Epstein asks what parental characteristics are associated with good outcomes and finds that women produce only slightly better outcomes than men.  Likewise they found that married individuals produce slightly happier children than divorced parents.  Gay individuals actually report slightly happier children than do straight individuals.  And no differences were noted associated with race or ethnicity, but more educated individuals had the best outcomes.  He notes that “Some people just seem to have a knack for parenting, which cannot be easily described in terms of specific skills.”  He’s got that right!  That knack, although unacknowledged by Epstein, is largely a function of one’s genes.  Temperament is a personality trait that we know is hugely influenced by genes and Epstein notes that “Keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting.”

 

So we have another conundrum.  We are lead to believe, based on the results of this study, that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten,  produce happier, healthier, and wiser children.  But can we really?  Is there an illusion of cause here?  Are these simply correlations?  The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.

 

Next week I’ll delve into this notion of whether how one parents really matters.  This exploration comes with significant discomfort for me as I am a behavioral child psychologist with 11 years of training and 16 years of practice steeped in the belief that I can help parents make a difference in the lives of their children.  I have long accepted the notion that the nature-nurture debate is not an either-or issue.  I see in my life and practice that outcomes are clearly the result of the influences of both nature and nurture.  Regardless, I have held the notion that it is parenting to a large extent, that accounts for a large portion of the nurturing influence.  Now I have to look carefully at the evidence, be willing to shed the ideological notion that we are blank slates, and accept the reality of the situation, no matter how hard and contrary to my beliefs.  This necessitates true intellectual honesty and deep scientific scrutiny.

 

Refeferences:

 

Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).

 

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

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My wife and I recently spent some time in New York City and one of our traditions is to take in a Broadway show. This time we stepped a bit off-Broadway to see the bawdy but Tony Award Winning Avenue Q. On the surface, this show seems silly, but it actually addresses some important issues. Essentially it is about the “coming of age” of young adults stepping out into the real world. The way the show is played out is interesting in that it employs a mixture of human actors, human puppets, and monster puppets – with all puppeteers fully visible on stage. As is often the case in theater, It necessitated suspension of reality and letting go of conventional thinking.

 

The play itself satirized the longstanding PBS children’s show Sesame Street both in format and message. Make no mistake however, this is not a show for children, or even for folks put-off by lewd language or sexual situations. Regardless, it delves headlong into issues that challenge the teachings of Sesame Street, laying bare the notion that everyone is “special.”

 

I couldn’t help but hearken back to a post I wrote entitled Self Esteem on a Silver Platter, that highlights the cost of telling children they are smart. I wonder if there are similar costs to telling children they are inherently special? Obviously, the writers of Ave. Q had the same question in mind.

 

As Princeton, the play’s protagonist, struggled with the reality of entering the world of work and his internalized notion of his own specialness, I thought about my college age children and my own experience when I left a small town to attend college. I have to believe that my experience was not unlike Princeton’s and I’m guessing, is very similar to my children’s experiences, as they make the transition from “Big fish in a small pond – to small fish in a big pond.” It’s a humbling transition.

 

Some of the other issues confronted by the cast and characters include racism and homophobia. Each of these prejudices are attitudes played out in a large part by our intuitive brains. That is not to say that we are powerless over them – we can change these deep seated attributes through concerted effort and appropriate exposure. But it begs the question: “Where do these prejudices come from?” I believe the consensus is clear, prejudices are learned from, and taught by those important people around us who model and mold us throughout childhood. It is also important to understand that there seems to be a natural inclination within us to be suspicious of those who are different from us. This tribal tendency to classify outsiders as threats may stem back to our ancestral roots when outsiders were indeed threats to our very survival: and this successful propensity has carried on due to natural selection. It seems that there is a human inclination to be prejudiced. Compound that inclination with other human brain failings (e.g., confirmation bias), and minimal exposure to diversity, as well as influential bigots, and you have a near certain prejudicial clone. To make matters worse, all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news to feed those prejudices. Racism in our culture is not very subtle. But I digress.

 

The point that I am trying to make is that we all have biases, and that they are intuitive to a degree. Next week I am going to explore the Implicit Associations Test and its implications that support the notion that stereotypes or prejudices are indeed deeply rooted in our intuition. If you have not taken the Implicit Associations Test, do so, particularly the Race Test. You may be surprised by the results. I know I was. This is in fact, one of the sub-plots in Ave. Q – we are all a bit racist, and perhaps a bit homophobic too; although, I will argue to my grave that I do not value people differently based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

 

Ave. Q also deals with schadenfreude, which is the pleasure we gain from other’s pain or struggles. This is a curious proclivity, one I hope to gain a better understanding of. As I think back to childhood, I can recall experiencing a strong compulsion to laugh when a friend was injured through our mutual play. I remember knowing that this was somehow wrong and inappropriate, regardless, there was this deep urge to chuckle. Looking back, I know that it was not a rational response – it was intuitive. The reality is that most of us are at least relieved by the misery of others and we often gain some appreciation that our lives are not so bad after all. The play’s treatment of this very issue normalizes the experience and perhaps explains our societal infatuation with gossip. In my profession, on a daily basis, I see real agony in the lives of the families I work with, and thus find gossip repulsive.

 

One of the major goals of art is to incite thought, and Ave. Q effectively pulled this off. I’d like to say that I have no prejudices, but Ave. Q and the results of my IAT suggest that this may not be absolutely true. In reference to the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book entitled The Invisible Gorilla, I wonder if perhaps there is an Illusion of an Open Mind? I shall not rest comfortably with this illusion, and I am fully committed to overcoming the failings of my naturally selected and intuitive tendencies. The first step is accepting this reality.

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There are many well intentioned folks out there who believe that childhood vaccinations cause Autism. Last week I covered the origins of this belief system as well as its subsequent debunking in Vaccines and Autism. Despite the conclusive data that clearly establishes no causal link between vaccines and Autism, the belief lives on. Why is this? Why do smart people fall prey to such illusions? Chabris and Simons contend in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, that we fall prey to such myths because of the Illusion of Cause. Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

 

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).

 

We all are inclined to detect patterns where there are none. Shermer refers to this tendency as patternicity. It is also called pareidolia. I’ve previously discussed this innate tendency noting that “Our brains do not tolerate vague or obscure stimuli very well. We have an innate tendency to perceive clear and distinct images within such extemporaneous stimuli.” It is precisely what leads us to see familiar and improbable shapes in puffy cumulus clouds or the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. Although this tendency can be fun, it can also lead to faulty and sometimes dangerous conclusions. And what is even worse is that when we hold a belief, we are even more prone to perceive patterns that are consistent with or confirm that belief. We are all prone to Confirmation Bias – an inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.

 

Patternicity and confirmation bias alone are not the only factors that contribute to the illusion of cause. There are at least two other equally salient intuitive inclinations that lead us astray. First, we tend to infer causation based on correlation. And second, the appeal of chronology, or the coincidence of timing, also leads us toward drawing such causal connections (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

A fundamental rule in science and statistics is that correlation does not infer causation. Just because two events occur in close temporal proximity, does not mean that one leads to the other. Chabris and Simons note that this rule is in place because our brains automatically – intuitively – draw causal associations, without any rational thought. We know that causation leads to correlation – but it is erroneous to assume that the opposite is true. Just because A and B occur together does not mean A causes B or vice-versa. There may be a third factor, C, that is responsible for both A and B. Chabris and Simons use ice cream consumption and drownings as an example. There is a sizable positive correlation between these two variables (as ice cream consumption goes up so do the incidences of drowning), but it would be silly to assume that ice cream consumption causes drowning, or that increases in the number of drownings causes increases in ice cream consumption. Obviously, a third factor, summer heat, leads to both more ice cream consumption and more swimming. With more swimming behavior there are more incidents of drowning.

 

Likewise, with vaccines and Autism, although there may be a correlation between the two (increases in the number of children vaccinated and increases in the number of Autism diagnoses), it is incidental, simply a coincidental relationship. But given our proclivity to draw inferences based on correlation, it is easy to see why people would be mislead by this relationship.

 

Add to this the chronology of the provision of the MMR vaccine (recommended between 12 and 18 months), and the typical time at which the most prevalent symptoms of Autism become evident (18-24 months), people are bound to infer causation. Given the fact that millions of children are vaccinated each year, there are bound to be examples of tight chronology.

 

So what is at work here are hyperactive agency detection (or overzealous patternicity), an inherent disposition to infer causality from correlation, and a propensity to “interpret events that happened earlier as the causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 184).  Additionally, you have a doctor like Andrew Wakefield misrepresenting data in such a way to solidify plausibility and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy using powerful anecdotes to convince others of the perceived link. And anecdotes are powerful indeed. “..[W]e naturally generalize from one example to the population as a whole, and our memories for such inferences are inherently sticky. Individual examples lodge in our minds, but statistics and averages do not. And it makes sense that anecdotes are compelling to us. Our brains evolved under conditions in which the only evidence available to us was what we experienced ourselves and what we heard from trusted others. Our ancestors lacked access to huge data sets, statistics, and experimental methods. By necessity, we learned from specific examples…” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 177-178).  When an emotional mother (Jenny McCarthy) is given a very popular stage (The Oprah Winfrey Show) and tells a compelling story, people buy it – intuitively – regardless of the veracity of the story. And when we empathize with others, particularly those in pain, we tend to become even less critical of the message conveyed (Chabris & Simons, 2010). These authors add that “Even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and statistics culled from studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that one personalized case carries undue influence” (p.178).

 

Although the efficacy of science is unquestionable, in terms of answering questions like the veracity of the relationship between vaccines and Autism, it appears that many people are incapable of accepting the reality of scientific inquiry (Chabris & Simons, 2010). Acceptance necessitates the arduous application of reason and the rejection of the influences rendered by the intuitive portion of our brain. This is harder than one might think. Again, it comes down to evolution. Although the ability to infer cause is a relatively recent development, we hominids are actually pretty good at it. And perhaps, in cases such as this one, we are too proficient for our own good (Chabris & Simons, 2010).

 

References

 

Center for Disease Control. (2009). Recommended Immunization Schedule for Persons Aged 0 Through 6 Years. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2009/09_0-6yrs_schedule_pr.pdf

 

Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.

 

Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762

 

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman / Henry Holt and Company: New York.

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