We humans are very good at dividing ourselves up into groups. We accomplish this in a multitude of ways. Even within homogeneous groupings we tend to find subtle ways to carve people out. It is far easier however, when people vary by gender, ethnicity, race, class, neighborhood, region, nationality, religion, and/or sexual orientation. For some reason we are drawn to and comforted by others that share physical resemblance, culture, attitude, values, history, important symbols, and affiliations. Conversely, we are threatened by those in the outgroup. Why is this? What drives us to carve out, cast away and divide our fellow human beings into camps of “us” and “them?” Is it a byproduct of socialization or perhaps a part of our nature?
I saw this very clearly growing up in a small rural town in Western New York. Even though we were all white middle class Christian kids for the most part, we effectively divided ourselves into camps – some actively participating in the parceling and others passively falling victim to it. There were the popular kids, the tough kids, the village kids, and the farm kids. And as we became more “sophisticated,” the parcels emerged with more universal group titles such as the heads, the jocks, the brains, the nerds, etc. Some kids traversed multiple groups quite effectively while others fit into no group at all.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I was immersed with young adults who parceled out their peers in even more “enlightened” ways. I went to SUNY Geneseo where the student body was very similar to that of my home town, again, largely a white middle class subset of New York State – but a bit more diverse geographically and religiously. The most striking division was imposed by students from Westchester County, Long Island, and New York City who looked at their fellow New Yorkers emanating from any location west of the Hudson River as being inferior. This “geographism” was shocking to me. I was clearly in the inferior outgroup.
On top of that, there were sorority and fraternity groupings, valuations made by respect for one’s major, and more subtly by the size of the town one came from. All this being said, I enjoyed college, learned a lot, and have great respect for the institution today. I am not singling out any one town or university – I suspect that my experience was no different than that most kids encountered growing up. The point is this – we are seemingly driven to parcel ourselves. Even during my doctoral training in Cincinnati there was “geographism” whereby people from Kentucky (just across the Ohio River) were cast in a relative negative light by Ohioans much as New Yorkers downcast people from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. On another level, think about the antipathy between cat lovers and dog lovers. Then there are Yankee fans and Red Sox fans (insert any sports team where fans divide themselves with similar acrimony). It is every where!
I was very fortunate to have a mother who encouraged me to respect diversity and not to judge others by group affiliation. She spoke out against or talked with me privately so that I would not emulate other role models who were not so open minded. I have always been thankful for her influence. And because of her I have in maturity always tried to emulate her. It’s not always easy – but I do try. Something tells me that one’s level of prejudice is not simply a function of having a great role model or a bad one. This tendency is so universal and plays out in very subtle ways that are not always evidenced as explicit overt racism or sexism.
Evidence, as it turns out, is increasingly supporting my hunch. Group prejudices are evident even in pre-vocal babies (Mahajan, 2011). This growing body of research has been supplemented by an ingenious set of studies of prejudice in nonhuman primates published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The primary author, Neha Mahajan, from Yale University, was kind enough to share with me her paper entitled The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques.
The researchers conducted seven different in-vivo experiments to explore whether old world monkeys, with whom we shared a common ancestor more than 30 million years ago (Hedges & Blair, Ed., 2009), evidence human-like intergroup bias. This preliminary work establishes that we do share this trait, suggesting that prejudice may in fact be a part of our very nature. It appears that prejudicial thinking has been adaptive from an evolutionary perspective or at least has been a vestigial stow away linked with some other trait that has been naturally selected.
There is some danger in this notion. If we accept prejudice as a part of our nature, we may be more inclined to devote less effort to address it from a social perspective. The authors are careful to point out, however, that previous research has established that prejudices can be re-mediated through exposure and teaching or conversely entrenched through poor modeling. These results do not diminish the influence of nurture, instead the authors highlight the importance of understanding that our brains are pre-wired for prejudice. I have discussed human prejudice before within the context of the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) that suggests that our biases are implicit (unconscious). Although implicit attributes are difficult to measure, there is good reason to believe that we do universally, inherently, and unknowingly harbor biases. We must accept this and build programs upon this understanding with targeted evidenced based strategies to combat such erroneous thinking. It is part of who we are – and once again, evidence of how flawed the human brain is. Hate, bullying, homophobia, and racism – they all are part of our “monkey-brain.” Here’s hoping we can rise above it.
Grewal, D. (2011). The Evolution of Prejudice: Scientists See the Beginnings of Racism in Monkeys. Scientific American: MIND. April 5.
Hedges, S. B., & Blair, S. (Eds.). (2009). The Timetree of Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Mahajan, N., Martinez, M. A., Gutiezzez, N. L., Diesendruck, G., Banaji, M., & Santos, L. R. (2011). The Evolution of Intergroup Bias: Perceptions and Attitudes in Rhesus Macaques. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 100, No. 3. 387-405.
When I hit the publish button for my last post Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing I felt a tinge of angst. It took a few days for my rational brain to figure out (or perhaps confabulate) a reason; but, I think I may have. Perhaps it should have been immediately obvious, but my outrage likely clouded my judgment. Anyways, that angst wasn’t due to the potential controversy of the article’s content – I had previously posted more provocative pieces. What I have come to conclude is that the nature of the controversy could be construed as being more personal.
It is not hard to imagine that there is a very real possibility that people I love may have been hurt by what I wrote. This left me feeling like a hypocrite because what I have continually aspired to communicate is that “true morality” should promote human flourishing for everyone. Although the overarching message was consistent with my goal, the tone and tenor was not.
I was inspired by a blog post written by a family member that touched the nerves of my liberal sensitivities. Further, and more importantly, I believe that what he wrote was likely hurtful to others in my family. A couple of my tribal communities (moral and kin) were assaulted, and I responded assertively.
The whole purpose of my blog “How Do You Think?“ has been driven toward understanding such diverse and mutually incompatible beliefs that do in fact transcend my family and the world in general. In this particular situation, however, I placed several family members in the crux of just such a moral juxtaposition.
I am certain that much of what I have written over the last year may be construed as offensive to some from a variety of different tribal moral communities. But one thing I am equally certain of, is that attacking one’s core moral holdings is not an effective means of facilitating enlightenment.
I responded to my relative’s pontifications with moral outrage and indignation. I was offended and mad. That is what happens when core beliefs are challenged. We circle the wagons and lash back. But this does nothing to further the discussion. I should have known better. And, that error of judgment may have lasting familial consequences. This saddens me, and I am sorry.
So then, how are we to cope with such diametrically opposed perspectives?
If you have consistently read my posts you are likely to have come away with an understanding of the workings of the human brain, and as such, realize that it is an incredible but highly flawed organ. What is more important to recognize, is that these flaws leave us prone to a variety errors that are both universal and systematic. The consequences of these errors include Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Pareidolia, Superstition, Essentialism, Cognitive Conservatism, and Illusions of all sorts (e.g., Attention, Cause, Confidence, Memory, Efficacy, Willpower, and Narrative). The down stream consequences of these errors, paired with our tribal nature, and our innate moral inclinations lead us to form tribal moral communities. These communities unite around ideologies and sacred items, beliefs, or shared history’s. Our genetically conferred Moral Instincts which are a part of our Human Nature lay the ground work for us to seek out others who share our beliefs and separate ourselves from others who do not. This is how the divide occurs. And our brain is instrumental in this division and the subsequent acrimony between groups.
This is perhaps the most important concept that I want to share. Systematic brain errors divide us. Understanding this – I mean truly understanding all of these systematic errors, is essential to uniting us. Education is the key, and this is what I hope to provide. Those very brain errors are themselves responsible for closing minds to the reality of these facts. Regardless, the hopes that I have for universal enlightenment persist and I hope to endeavor ever onward opening minds without providing cause to close them. I fear that I have taken a misstep – spreading the divide rather than closing it.
Please know that Human Flourishing for all is my number one goal. Never do I intend to come off as judgmental, hurtful, or otherwise arrogant or elitist. When I do – please push back and offer constructive criticism. We are all in this together – and time, love, life, peace, and compassion are precious. This is the starting point – something that I am certain we share. Don’t you think?
I am a caring and compassionate man with deep concerns about humanity. Of utmost importance to me is the issue of human flourishing, which roughly translated, incorporates wellness, happiness, success, and adaptive functioning not only for the individual, but for society in general. Individual flourishing necessitates societal flourishing and vice versa. One does not rise at the expense of the other. Promoting human flourishing has been my life’s work.
I see around me much acrimony, the source of which often ascends from moral inclinations from diverse cultures. This concerns me, as one ought to suppose that morality should promote human flourishing. Should it not instill virtue and wellness for all? Unfortunately, the moral teachings of the world’s religions pitch one belief against another. And it does not take much effort to see that virtually all ideologically based moral systems actually inhibit human flourishing for many.
At the core of these issues are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters. Deeper still, at the root of many erroneous human inclinations, is a flawed brain that makes us vulnerable to ideology and likely to sustain beliefs without good reason.
Our brains sustain vestigial mechanisms that render us prone to all sorts of cognitive errors and illusions. As a major consequence, we are inclined to hold on to belief systems regardless of substantive evidence to suggest that we just might be wrong. This Cognitive Conservatism is a universal human attribute, and it plays out as we disregard, devalue, discredit, and/or out-write ignore evidence that contradicts previously held beliefs. At the same time, we gladly take in evidence that confirms our beliefs. This is an undeniable truth about the human condition.
Suffice it to say that our brains are belief engines leaving us vulnerable to mysticism and disinclined to accept aggregated evidence. As such, our moral guidance has been historically guided by intuition (how things seem) as opposed to reason (how things actually are). As a result, our intuitions in modern times are often wrong. We tend to be compelled by anecdotes and stories rather than data. We have relied on intuition and apparent correlations to guide us, and only recently has the scientific method entered our consciousness (circa 1400).
Another problematic inclination stems from our tribal tendencies. Because of this we have developed a wide variety of diverse and often incompatible moral doctrines. We have for fear of cultural insensitivity and accusation of bias, been pressured to accept as “moral” such atrocities as genital mutilation, genocide, and the demonization of homosexuality. Although we might not view such acts as moral, the perpetrators certainly do. This Moral Relativism, I believe is a grave error, particularly when you look at the subsequent consequences relative to human flourishing.
In some cultures it is acceptable to engage in honor killing. For example, to torture, mutilate, or kill a female family member who has been a victim of rape is considered honorable. Or consider martyrdom. Suicide bombers fully believe that they are serving their God by killing infidels. They further believe that they and 70 of their closest family and friends will be granted eternal bliss in the afterlife for doing God’s benevolent work. Can we rightfully accept that either of these acts advances human flourishing? Is it truly acceptable to condone either act because it is believed to be morally acceptable by their culture? Is disapproving of these acts culturally insensitive or indicative of bias?
Using the same logic, is it acceptable to limit the expression of romantic love to only those that happen to be from the opposite sex? Does rendering homosexuality illegal or immoral, promote or hinder human flourishing? I suggest that it accomplishes the latter. And are not the origins of the beliefs that render homosexuality wrong, wrought from the same belief mechanisms that encourage martyrdom or honor killings?
If I am driven to use evidence to guide decisions regarding what promotes or diminishes human flourishing, one has to ask the question: “Is science biased?” I recently read articles by morality guru Jonathon Haidt who suggested that indeed this may be the case. He didn’t really argue that the data rendered by Social Psychologists was flawed. He simply argued that the scientists themselves (in the field of social psychology) are heavily skewed to the liberal left. The problem I have with his argument is that scientists use evidence to guide their beliefs, and as such, end up sharing liberal inclinations. Does that render them biased? I believe not. There is a substantial difference between those that base their beliefs on evidence and those that base their beliefs on ideology. It is more true to say that ideologues are biased because their beliefs that are unprovable and generally devoid of any real evidence. This, I believe, is far more dubious.
Speaking of bias, I recently read an article written by a Roman Catholic Priest that derided National Public Radio (NPR) as being biased on par with right wing conservative media outlets. The context of the argument was NPR’s inclination to cover the issue of homosexuality in a way that condoned it. Because the author holds the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and NPR comes off as pro gay marriage (as well as taking other pro “liberal” positions), the author suggests that NPR, as an institution, is biased. I could not disagree more with this notion. NPR may have a liberal slant, but this does not automatically imply that it is biased. I would argue that at NPR there is a stronger inclination to use evidence-based, rather than ideologically-based reason to guide its reporting. Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do? Somehow, because the evidence does not support the moral inclinations of the church, or those of social conservatives, it is biased? I think not!
This accusation of bias is wrong at a profoundly deep level! Even if 90% of scientists are secular liberals, that does not render the facts that they expose as biased. There is only one truth – and if the truth does not fit one’s beliefs, that doesn’t render it less truthful. Moral relativism opens the door to multiple truths and renders evidence meaningless. If we condone such thinking, then who are we to judge those who brought down the World Trade Center towers as “evil doers?”
Likewise, who are we to diminish the quality of life of a small but no less significant portion of our population because they happen to be born gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Within consenting relationships, does gender really matter? Can it be argued that making same sex intimacy illicit, diminishes human flourishing? Yes it can, and it most definitely does!
When ideology crosses a line that diminishes human flourishing it has gone too far. I am reminded of what I wrote in Surprise Chautauqua after listening to Bishop John Shelby Spong.
“Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures. His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story. He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral.”
I am incensed when religious doctrine results in human suffering. This is particularly true with regard to the Catholic Church who squandered any hope of offering moral guidance with regard to sexuality when it systematically aided and abetted pedophiles. The Catholic Church should be granted no more moral authority than radical Islam. Their respective track records with regard to promoting human flourishing are abysmal. Only when we have the courage to stop turning a blind eye toward social injustice and stop condoning systematic human degradation (because it is consistent with a religious “moral” teaching) will all of humanity be able to truly thrive.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Cognitive Biases
, Cognitive Conservatism
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan? A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers. Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy. Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases. Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit). Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake. Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake). Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.
The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us. Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible. We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world. Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways. Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.
Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all. It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events. Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views. The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations. Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.
History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies. In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures. All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods. How else could they make sense of such tragedies? This seems to be how we are put together.
A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children. They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish. They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression. This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.
In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs. What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall). But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events. So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment? Bering suggests that:
“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”
So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.
“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”
When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.” We desperately need to understand. Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.
“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”
The implications of this understanding are profound. We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time. We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility. As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.
Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true
Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262
Evolution has conferred upon us a brain that is capable of truly amazing things. We have, for thousands of years, been capable of creating incredibly beautiful art, telling compelling tales, and building magnificent structures. We have risen from small and dispersed tribal bands to perhaps the dominate life force on the planet. Our feats have been wondrous. We have put men on the moon, our space probes have reached the outer limits of our solar system, and we have people living and working in space. We have literally doubled the life expectancy of human beings, figured out how to feed billions of people, and eradicated some of the most dreadful diseases known to human kind. We can join together in virtual social communities from remote corners of the world, and even change nations using Facebook and Twitter. This list could go on and on. We are very capable and very smart beings.
Our mark on this planet, for the moment, is indelible. Yet, despite our great powers of intellect and creativity, we are incredibly vulnerable. I am not referring to our susceptibility to the great powers of nature as evidenced in Japan this last week. I am referring to an inherent mode of thinking that is core to our human nature.
It is pretty certain that nature-nature will destroy our species at some point in the future, be it via asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, climate change, microbiome evolution, or the encroachment of the sun’s surface as it goes red giant in five billion years. Of all the species that have ever lived on this planet over 99% have gone extinct. What’s living today will someday be gone – there really is no question about it. But the question that remains is: “Will nature-nature do us in – or will human-nature do it first?”
We have evolved over billions of years to our current homo sapien (wise man) form, and for the vast majority of that evolutionary period, we have had very limited technology. The development of primitive stone and wooden tools dates back only tens of thousands of years; and reading and writing dates back only several thousand years. What we do and take for granted every day has only been around for a minuscule amount of time relative to the vastness of incomprehensible evolutionary and geological time. These facts are relevant because our brains, for the most part, developed under selective pressures that were vastly different than those we live under today.
Much as our appendix and coccyx hair follicle are remnants of our evolutionary past, so too are some of our core thought processes. These vestigial cognitions play out both as adaptive intuitions and potentially quite destructive errors of judgment. We would like to think that as an advanced thinking species, our ability to use reason, is our dominate mental force. Unfortunately, this most recent evolutionary development, takes a back seat to lower and more powerful brain functions that have sustained us for millions of years. I have previously written about this reason versus intuition/emotion paradigm so I won’t go into this issue in detail here; but, suffice it to say, much of what we do is guided by unconscious thought processes outside of our awareness and outside our direct control. And again, these life guiding processes are mere remnants of what it took to survive as roaming bands of hunters and gatherers.
Ours brains came to their current form when we were not in possession of the tools and technologies that help us truly understand the world around us today. Early survival depended on our ability to see patterns in randomness (pareidolia or patternicity) and to make snap judgments. Rational thought, which is slow and arduous, has not played out in a dominate way because it failed to provide our ancestors with the survival advantages that emotional and rapid cognitions did. As such, our brains have been programmed by evolution to make all kinds of rapid cognitions, that in this modern time, are simply prone to error.
We are uncomfortable with randomness and chaos and are driven to pull together causal stories that help us make sense of the world. Our brains are correlation calculators, belief engines, and hyperactive agency detection devices – all inclinations of which lead us to develop polytheism to help explain the whims of “mother nature.” All cultures, for example have also developed creation myths to help explain how we came to be. We are a superstitious lot driven by these vestigial remnants.
It is easy to see how powerful this inclination is. Look at the prevalence of beliefs about things like full moons and bad behavior. And how about bad behavior and acts of nature? Pat Robertson blamed Katrina on homosexuality and hedonism. One wonders what the Japanese did to deserve their most current tragedy. I’ve already heard talk of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an antecedent. Like mother nature would align with the United States to punish long past deeds against us! If mother nature cares at all about herself, I wonder what we have coming for Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Likewise, people blame vaccines for autism and credit homeopathy for their wellness. I could go and on about our silly inclinations. We are prone to Confirmation Bias, Spinoza’s Conjecture, Attribution Error, Illusions of Attention, and the Illusions of Knowledge and Confidence. In the same vein, we are manipulated by the Illusion of Narrative also known as the Narrative Fallacy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (a philosopher, author, statistician) coined the phrase “Narrative Fallacy,” which is an encapsulation of this very discussion. We have a deep need to make up a narrative that serves to make sense of a series of connected or disconnected facts. Our correlation calculators pull together these cause and effect stories to help us understand the world around us even if chance has dictated our circumstances. We fit these stories around the observable facts and sometimes render the facts to make them fit the story. This is particularly true, for example, in the case of Intelligent Design.
Now that I am aware of this innate proclivity I enjoy watching it play out in my own mind. For example several weekends ago I went cross country skiing with my wife, Kimberly. We were at Allegany State Park, in Western New York, where there are nearly 20 miles of incredibly beautiful and nicely groomed nordic ski trails. Kimberly and I took a slightly different route than we normally do and at a junction of two trails, we serendipitously ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in quite some time. It was an incredible and highly improbable meeting. Any number of different events or decisions could have resulted in forgoing this meet-up. Such events compel us to string together a narrative to make sense of the sheer randomness. Was it fate, divine intervention, or just coincidence? I am certain it was the latter – but it sure was fun dealing with the cognitions pouring forth to explain it.
I would really like to hear about your dealings with this inclination. Please post comments detailing events that have happened to you and the narratives you fomented to make sense of them. This is a great exercise to help us understand this pattern detection mechanism, so, have some fun with it and share your stories. At the very least, pay attention to how this tendency plays out in your life and think about how it plays out in your belief systems (and ideological paradigms). I’m guessing that it will be informative.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Intuitive Thinking
, Rational Thought
, Spinoza's Conjecture
We all love a good story. Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out. It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature. It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world. This latter tendency troubles me. Why? Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.
This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world. Understanding this is paramount!
I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog. I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs. And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based. I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain. This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view. I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity. But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.
I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality. Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us. Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth. Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.
Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs. We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own. I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature. But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”
We as a species are better than that. We know how to over come these inclinations. We have the technology to do so. It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively. It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature). It necessitates the scientific method. It requires open peer review and repeated analyses. It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle. It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.
I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests. Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.
My positions are not based on ideology! They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.
Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference. My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking. This is a huge and critical difference. Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one. Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality. Enough is enough!
Posted by Gerald Guild
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Erroneous Thinking
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Intuitive Thinking
, Spinoza's Conjecture
We humans are a unique species – capable of both incredible compassion and unequaled brutality. We are also unique in the degree to which we congregate in social communities. Social Psychologists refer to this propensity to gather as we do, as being ultra social. Unlike other ultra social species (e.g., wasps, ants, bees, termites, and naked mole rats) who band together in kin-based groups for procreation, we humans join together for other more complex reasons. (Haidt, 2008) Those things that bind us, it is argued, are also the things that fuel our brutality.
We are particularly good at joining together when in competition with other groups (Haidt, 2011). Evidence suggests that this has been true since the very beginning of humankind, and it is evidenced today by family loyalty (e.g., I can bad mouth my brother but an outsider cannot), cliques that form in schools (e.g., jocks, heads, nerds), by community organizations (Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, Rotarians), by the spirit surrounding high school, college, and professional sports teams, as well as by Churches (e.g., Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, Fundamentalists, Unitarians), Mosques (e.g., Shia and Sunni), and Synagogues (e.g., Orthodox Jews, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist). We also see this in civic pride (by town, city, region, and state) national pride (patriotism), in the gatherings of individuals by racial affiliation, by sexual orientation, by professional affiliation, ancestral heritage, and political affiliation. We bind together and join with people who share important beliefs, values, allegiances, interests, histories, and/or symbols.
There is substantial evidence to believe that this proclivity to be drawn together, and at the same time, to be divided into camps, is driven by morality. We humans have evolved, it seems, innate moral values that transcend all cultures. I have discussed this in Political Divide, Moral Instinct, Moral Foundations Theory, and Human Nature at the Core of the Political Divide in an effort to understand the vast differences in thinking evidenced within and across our cultures. Even among my family members, all of whom I dearly love, their are vast differences that often leave me perplexed. Jonathon Haidt’s research on Moral Foundations Theory, his talk at TED, and his recent controversial statements about bias in the social sciences inspired this post and have helped me come to grips with the deep divisions throughout society and within my family.
First, I must provide a brief recap of Moral Foundations Theory. According to Haidt (based on an extensive review of the research across multiple disciplines), the five universal morals include: (1) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (2) fairness/reciprocity (equal rights, justice, and fairness for all); (3) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (4) authority/respect (clear lines of authority, uniform expectations, and appropriate deference to the law and authority figures); and (5) purity/sanctity (clear and pure social morals in step with piety, as well as revulsion of disgust/carnality).
You see, across the five universal morals, people differ in the degree to which they value each moral. This is evidenced most clearly in Haidt’s research on the degree to which Liberals and Conservatives deviate on their weighting of the importance of each specific value. See Political Divide for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.
Click on Figure to enlarge
Liberals seem to value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity above the others, devaluing ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. They look out for the little guy and highly value equal rights for all. They also value diversity, are open to experience – tending to enjoy creativity and novelty. They may see harm in overreaching government intrusion (e.g., Patriot Act), danger in blind nationalism, and the injustices in puritanical religions and free market capitalism (particularly for those at the bottom – namely: women, children, and minorities). Think of places like New York City or San Francisco where diversity and creativity abound and are in many ways celebrated. Conservatives tend to look at the social entropy and degradation in such places as evidence of immorality.
Conservatives tend to hold all of the values on an equal level. They do value harm/care and fairness/reciprocity but less so than Liberals. But unlike Liberals, they do highly value ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. As a result they tend to value social order, restraint, and conventions all held together by a strict authority. They value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups (Haidt, 2008). Liberals tend to view such systems as repressive, invasive, and constrictive.
Liberals and Conservatives join together in their respective camps forming what Haidt (2011) refers to as Tribal Moral Communities. Such banding is not unique to those with strong political affiliations – this proclivity transcends society. And what characterizes a Tribal Moral Community is a grouping of people who rally around sacred objects and principles (e.g., the flag, patriotism, freedom, religion) in such a way that their sacralized truths render them blind to the truths held by the outgroup.
Conflict and brutality can arise when the people rally around the certainty that their moral position is correct. Threats to a Moral Tribal Community tend to incite its constituents to become intuitive theologians, employing reason not to find the truth but rather to defend their moral position. They tend to circle the wagons around their belief systems becoming rigid and impervious to input (especially facts that challenge one’s position). (Haidt, 2011)
To make this more concrete lets look at a few examples of Tribal Moral Communities. Of particular note is the conservative stand denying anthropogenic global warming because of the implications it has on their free-market ideology. Belief in an ideology blinds adherents to the evidence.
Lets also consider the conflict between fundamentalist Christians and Scientists who contend that, based on a huge convergence of objective evidence from astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, that the universe is over 13.67 billion years old, that the earth is 4.56 billion years old, and that all living organisms are interrelated, having evolved by means of natural selection to their current forms over billions of years. Because the Bible is considered sacred text – scientific evidence that undermines the word of God is often vilified rather than objectively scrutinized.
And then there are the proponents of vaccines and the anti vaccine folks, Socialists and Capitalists, Free-Market and Keynesian Economists, Christians and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choice Advocates, the LGBT Community and religious conservatives, the Hutus’ and Tutsis of Rwanda, the Zaghawa and Tama tribes of Chad, the Sunni and Shia of Islam, Al Qaeda and the US, Iran and the US, North Korea and the US, and I could go on and on. At the core of each of these divisions is a moral divide that stirs both binding forces that fuel patriotism and in-group loyalty and blinding forces that have the potential of negating the moral standing of, or even the humanity of those in the out-group.
It is this capacity that has fueled humanity’s most brutal behavior. Picture in your mind, images from Auschwitz,from the lynchings of African Americans in the South, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and from 9/11. All of these were fueled by moral authority.
Of course there are degrees of effect associated with Tribal Moral Communities. Dr. Haidt has gone out on a limb to challenge his own professional community. He has noted that according to Gallop polls over the last ten years, 40% of Americans consider themselves Conservative, 20% Liberal, and 38% Moderates. Yet in the field of Social Psychology, approximately 90% are acknowledged Liberals – with less than 1% acknowledged Conservatives. He contends that this narrow political perspective weakens the field, although he did not suggest that the research to date has been flawed. He suggests rather, that it would likely be bettered if more conservatives were in the field to bring the richness of diversity that it currently lacks. (Haidt, 2011).
There are other important gradients to consider. Here in the United States for example, rarely do Buffalo Bills fans and Miami Dolphin fans brutalize one another. But African Americans, Gays, Jews, American’s of Middle Eastern descent, and even doctors employed at family planning clinics have not been so lucky.
Clearly morality binds, but is also blinds. Every body believes that their moral perspective is the correct moral perspective, and given the brutality we see among us, it is certain that we all cannot be right. Our certainty and righteousness unites us into teams that have the effect of amplifying that certainty and righteousness. This binding also has the propensity to divide us and ultimately blind us to reality. Therefore, for any sacralized issue, if we want the truth we must be willing to step away from ideology and open our minds to the possibility that we may be wrong or at least partially wrong and that the outgroup may be right or at least partially right. That is the first step, if you are truly interested in the truth.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
Haidt, J., (2008). The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. A Talk at TED.
Haidt, J. (2011). The Bright Future of Post Partisan Social Psychology. Talk given at the annual conference for the Sociaty for Personality and Social Psychology.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (2008). The Moral Instinct. The New York Times. January 13, 2008.
Several times over the last couple weeks I have been asked about brainwaves and other measures of the brain. For example, what differentiates a CAT Scan from an EEG, MRI, fMRI, and a PET Scan? And what about those beta, alpha, theta, and delta brain waves? What are they all about? What do these technologies really measure and what can we infer from them?
Before I address these questions, it is important to understand that the brain is an incredibly complicated electrochemical organ composed of an estimated 100 billion neurons (brain cells) interconnected by 100 trillion synapses. Brain activity occurs through a complex interplay of electrical activity within each cell and chemical activity across the synapses (minute gaps between neurons). Once a neuron fires it sends an electrical signal the length of the cell where it releases specific chemicals (called neurotransmitters) into the gap between itself and neighboring neurons. Those neurotransmitters may traverse the gap and attach to neighboring cells’ dendrites (nerve firing receptors), and perhaps trigger a continuation of the signal (via electrical responding) within those adjacent neurons. Every thought we have, every sight we see, everything we feel, taste, and smell occurs through this chain of events.
Obviously, the complexity of this series of events are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to understand this basic and fundamental fact before one can hope to differentiate the various brain measures. It is also important to understand that there are a number of biological systems that service this neuronal network (e.g., glial cells, veins, and arteries). The glial cells in particular are referred to as “housekeeping” cells protecting, supporting, providing nutrition for, and facilitating communication among the neurons. These cells are the most abundant cells in the brain, but they are not considered to be neurons (MedicineNet, 2004).
At a basic level, brain activity can be measured by the apparent electrical conductivity going on among the neurons. This is what an Electroencephalography (EEG) measures. A series of electrodes are placed on the scalp where they detect and measure this electrical activity. EEGs have been used for years for diagnostic purposes primarily for epilepsy. Formerly, this technique had been used for measuring the impact of strokes and tumors. This function has been replaced by more sophisticated technologies that image the brain (CAT and MRI Scans).
EEGs are relatively inexpensive but valid measures of brain activity. This technology was used in the research I discussed in my last post (The Effect of Low SES on Brain Development), but they can also detect brain death. When someone refers to brain waves, they are referencing the brain activity measured via EEG. Various states of arousal are associated with specific patterns of electrical activity that when measured denote specific wave patters. Those wave patterns are widely known as Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta as shown in the image on the right along with the associated arousal states.
These universal brain wave states reflect neuronal activity levels associated with cognitive and bodily activity levels. If you are sleeping yet not dreaming, your brain’s activity level is likely to be represented by high amplitude low frequency Delta waves. At the other extreme, an awake and alert state is likely to be indicated by high frequency Beta waves. These states are not mutually exclusive and any may coexist at any time based on arousal levels.
Much pseudoscience focuses on selling strategies to accomplish “preferred” brain wave states, with little actual data to substantiate claims. Proceed with caution in this realm.
CAT Scan of Brain
Whereas the output of an EEG is a series of wavy lines, newer technologies actually allow us to image the brain itself or at least proxies of activity. A computerized axial tomography scan, a CAT or CT scan, is an x-ray procedure that combines multiple x-ray images with the aid of a computer to generate cross-sectional views of the internal organs and structures of the body. The image at right is a CAT Scan from Cedars-Sinai.
“Imagine the body as a loaf of bread and you are looking at one end of the loaf. As you remove each slice of bread, you can see the entire surface of that slice from the crust to the center. The body is seen on CT scan slices in a similar fashion from the skin to the central part of the body being examined. When these levels are further “added” together, a three-dimensional picture of an organ or abnormal body structure can be obtained” (MedicineNet.com, 2011).
MRI Image of Brain
Although CT technology is helpful to look at the structure of the brain and to identify pathologies, it is just a snap shot in time, giving no information about the processes going on within the structure itself. This is also the case for MRI Scans. Non-invasive Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnets, radio frequency pulses, and a computer to produce very detailed pictures of organs, soft tissues, bone and virtually all other internal body structures without ionizing radiation (x-rays). MRIs provide higher resolution images than x-ray, ultrasound or CAT scans (RadiologyInfo.org).
But, if you want to know what is going on in the recesses of the brain you need a functional MRI (fMRI) or a PET scan. The fMRI uses the same technology as an MRI but rather than creating a structural image of the tissue itself, the fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain in order to identify, in real-time, specific locations of brain activity associated with thoughts, external stimuli, or activity. Changes in blood flow captured on a computer, help scientists understand how the brain works. The image above and to the right are fMRI scans showing brain activity in empathy-generating centers of the limbic system in normal individuals (left) and in psychopathic individuals (right) when they are exposed to violent images (Credit: Department of Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Heidelberg).
Composite fMRI Images
The image on the left shows areas of brain activity associated with being in passionate love (“Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American. Graphic by James W. Lewis, West Virginia University).
The current state of the art is this fMRI technology because of its superior resolution relative to a PET Scan that formerly comprised the only imaging technology that also indicated brain activity.
PET Scans or Positron Emission Tomography, is a metabolic imaging tool that is based on molecular biology. PET scan images detail biochemical changes in the body’s tissues, as it traces the body’s metabolic activity. Unlike the newer fMRI technology, PET scans necessitate injections of radioactive material into the body. Since brain activity involves an increase in blood flow, more blood and radioactive material is reflected in the subsequent images. The differences between PET and fMRI scans can be seen by comparing the PET scan image below and the fMRI images above. The PET Scan below was published by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. They discovered a key mechanism in the brains of people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) dementia. The study is the first to document decreases in the neurotransmitter dopamine in those with the condition, and may lead to new, more effective therapies (see HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered).
This article spans the current brain measuring, imaging, and mapping technologies. Each approach has specific applications and unique advantages and disadvantages. The major advantages of MRI technology include the resolution of its images and the fact that use does not involve x-rays or any radioactive dyes or contrasting agents. However, because MRI machines use 12 to 35 ton magnets, individuals with ferrous metal implants are necessarily excluded from MRI scans for obvious reasons. There are other devices out there with variations on the MRI theme, each serving very unique imaging niches. I won’t go into those here.
An MRI costs on average between $1100 and $2700 (depending on geographical location, facility, and body area imaged), while a CAT Scan costs between $700 and $3000. An fMRI costs up to $2000 per imaging hour. PET scans run between $3000 to $7000. These costs do explain in part why wide-spread use of these imaging technologies are not common in large research projects. They also obviously contribute to the high costs of medical care. But, oh what wonders they offer in our efforts to understand the most complicated thing known to humankind.
Brandt, R. (2007). What can Neuroscience tell us about evil. Technology Review. MIT
Brookhaven National Laboratory. (2004). HIV Dementia Mechanism Discovered. Brookhaven National Laboratory News.
Cedars-Sinai. (2011). CT Brain with or without Contrast.
Fischetti, M. (2011). Passionate Love in the Brain, as Revealed by MRI Scans. Scientific American. “Graphic Science: Your Brain in Love” February 2011 issue.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (2008). New Imaging Techniques That Show the Brain at Work: Brain Scans That Spy on the Senses.
MedicineNet.com. (2011). Computerized Axial Tomography.
MedicineNet.com. (2004). Definition of Glial Cell.
RadiologyInfo.org. (2010). MRI of the Head.
Posted by Gerald Guild
| Tagged: Neuroscience
It has long been known that children from homes at the lower end of the Socioeconomic spectrum do more poorly on intelligence and achievement tests than well off children. These less fortunate children also tend to do more poorly in school, have increased learning and behavioral disorders, and increased drop out rates. A great deal of effort has been directed toward understanding these differences, and mounting evidence points squarely at the effects of environmental deprivation. You might think that this conclusion is a “no brainer,” but, for some time, it has not been so clear. Some researchers have found evidence to implicate genetic factors for these differences. Over the last several years more conclusive evidence is pointing at environmental rather than genetic determinates.
Last week I discussed some ground breaking evidence from behavioral geneticists that asserted that environmental determinates play a crucial role in mental ability scores, but only for Low Socioeconomic Status (LSES) children. I noted that “For [LSES] 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 (HSES)] 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.”
Questions have persisted for quite some time as to what factors influence these differences. Research to date has implicated variables like parental attention, number of words spoken in the home, access to books, and familial stressors; however, the actual physiological or anatomical mechanisms (e.g., neurocognitive processes) that result in these discrepancies have remained elusive. You see, many factors have been found to correlate with the underachievement of LSES children, but not until a study by UC Berkley Neuroscientists, did we have conclusive direct evidence of how these factors may actually produce neurological differences that play out in these cognitive, achievement, and behavioral gaps.
Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and School of Public Health report in a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that typically developing nine- and ten-year-olds who only differ in terms of SES, have detectable differences in prefrontal cortext responsiveness. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is known to be involved in problem solving and creativity.
In a press release about this study it was noted (Sanders, 2008):
Children of high SES show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (M. Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)
Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.
“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”
Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”
Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”
These scientists suspect that “stressful environments” and “cognitive impoverishment” are responsible because in previous research on animals, these very factors have been shown to affect development of the prefrontal cortex. “UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.”
These factors lead to important differences in brain functioning. As the lead author noted in an interview: “Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.” (Sanders, 2008)
One question that arose in my mind as I reviewed this paper was whether something other than SES was responsible for this effect. I asked Dr. Robert Knight this question:
“The HSES and LSES kids differed in both prefrontal cortex response level and standard scores on intelligence test subtests [Intelligence data was also collected as part of the study. On multiple incidences LSES children obtained significantly lower subtest scores than HSES children.] Is it not possible that genetic traits (i.e., lower IQ) might be responsible for the lower prefrontal cortex activity level, not SES?“
Dr. Knight referred this question to the led author, Dr. Mark Kishiyama, who responded in personal correspondence:
“This study was designed to reveal the effects of poverty on brain function rather than to identify specific causes. While we cannot rule out the potential effects of genetic factors, on the basis of prior evidence, we proposed that the primary influences were environmental (e.g., stress and a cognitively impoverished environment). There is considerable evidence in both human and animal studies indicating that stress and environmental factors can contribute to disruptions in brain development. In addition, we believe that these effects can be reversed with early childhood interventions (see also Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).“
The implications of these findings are profoundly important and grim. If we accept these results and do nothing, then we all are complicit in perpetuating the cycle of poverty. We know that there are important differences in how LSES and HSES children are raised. Education, training, and intervention programs must focus on narrowing this gap. I contend that parent education programs like Baby College administered by the Harlem Children’s Zone must must be closely examined and if shown to be effective, replicated on a broad scale. I also contend that programs like Early Head Start and Head Start should focus their efforts on proven strategies that close these gaps. This is essential in order to build a just society whereby we all get a more fair shot at rising up and contributing fully to society.
Kishiyama, M. M., Boyce, W. T., Jimenez, A. M., Perry, L. M., and Knight, R. T. (2009). Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 21:6, 1106-1115.
Sanders, R. (2008). EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids. UC Berkley Press Release.
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.
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?
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.
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