I don’t know if you caught it the other night when you were watching the news while skimming your email, checking your twitter and RSS feeds, and updating your Facebook status, but there was an interesting story about multitasking.  Silly me, who actually watches the news anymore? Anyways, much of the recent buzz on this endemic behavior (among the technologically savvy) is not good.  Multitasking is a paradox of sorts – where we tend to romanticize and overestimate our ability to split attention among multiple competing demands. The belief goes something like this: “I’ve got a lot to do and if I work on all my tasks simultaneously I’ll get them done faster.”   However, what most of us fail to realize is that when we split our attention, what we are actually doing is dividing an already limited and finite capacity in a way that hinders overall performance. And some research is showing that chronic multitasking may have deleterious affects on one’s ability to process information even when one is not multitasking (Nass, 2009).


Advances in computer technology seem to fuel this behavior.  If you do a Google search on multitasking you will get a mix of information on the technological wonders of machines that can multitask (AKA computers) mixed with news regarding how bad media multitasking is for you.


Think about it.  There has been increasing pressure on the workforce to be more productive and gains in productivity have been made lockstep with increases in personal computing power. Applications have been developed on the back of the rising tide of computer capacity, thus making human multitasking more possible.  These advances include faster microprocessors, increased RAM, increased monitor size, the internet itself, browsers that facilitate the use of multiple tabs, relatively inexpensive computers with sufficient power to keep open email, word processing programs, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and YouTube. Compound these tools with hardware that allows you to do these things on the go. No longer are you tethered to the desktop computer with an Ethernet cable.  Wifi and 3G connectivity allow all the above activities almost anywhere via use of a smart phone, laptop, iPad, or notebook computer.  Also in the mix are devices such as bluetooth headsets and other headphones that offer hands free operation of telephones.


Currently, technology offers one the ability to divide one’s attention in ways inconceivable only a decade ago. The ease of doing so has resulted in the generalization of this behavior across settings and situations including talking on cell phones while driving, texting while driving, texting while engaged in a face to face personal interactions, and even cooking dinner while talking on the phone. Some of these behaviors are dangerous, some rude, and all likely lead to inferior outcomes.


Don’t believe it? If you don’t, you are likely among the worst skilled of those who multitask. “Not me!” you may claim. Well research has shown that those who routinely multitask are also the most confident in their ability to do so (Nass, 2009).  But when you look at the products of these “confidently proficient” multitaskers, you find the poorest outcomes.


Multitasking involves shifting attention from one task to another, refocusing attention, sustaining attention, and exercising ongoing judgment about the pertinence and salience of various competing demands. Doing this successfully is exceptionally difficult and is likely well beyond the capacity of most typical human beings. Our brains can only generally concentrate on one task at a time, and as such, multitasking necessitates devoting shorter periods of time on dissimilar tasks.  As a result, overall effectiveness, on all tasks is reduced.


Researchers at the University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, including Professor David E. Meyer, point out that the act of switching focus itself has deleterious effects. When you switch from task A to task B you lose time in making the transition and the completion time of the transition itself increases with the degree of complexity of the task involved. Depending on how often you transition between stimuli, you can waste as much as 40% of your productive time just in task switching (APA, 2006).


Shorter periods of focus reduce overall time on task and each transition reduces this time further. Dr. Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London in 2005 discovered that his subjects experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ when distracted by incoming email and phone calls. This effect size was “more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana” and was similar to the effects of losing a night’s sleep (BBC, 2005).


As for the negative long term affects of multitasking, Dr. Nass noted that:


“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.”


Nass (2009) has found that these habitual multitaskers have chronic filtering difficulties, impaired capacity to manage working memory, and slower task switching abilities. One must be careful to avoid the Illusion of Cause in this situation. Correlation is not causation and we must avoid inferring that multitasking causes these cognitive declines. The reverse may be true or other undetected variables may cause both.


Much of the research in this area is in its infancy and thus limited in scope and depth, so it is prudent to be a bit skeptical about whether or not multitasking is bad for you. But with regard to the efficacy of multitasking – when you look at the issue from an anecdotal perspective, apply the tangentially related evidence logically, and then consider the data, you have to conclude that multitasking on important jobs is not a good idea.  If you have important tasks to accomplish, it is best to focus your attention on one task at a time and to minimize distractions.  To do so, avoid temptation to text, tweet, watch TV, check your email, talk on the phone, instant message, chat on Facebook, Skype, or otherwise divide you attention. If you believe employing these other distractions helps you do better, you are deluding yourself and falling victim to the reinforcement systems that make multitasking enjoyable. Socializing, virtually or otherwise, is more pleasurable than the arduous processes involved in truly working or studying.


You can likely apply the same principles to plumbing, cooking, housework, woodworking, etc.  The key to success, it seems is to FOCUS on one task at a time, FINISH the job, and then move one.  You’ll save time, be more efficient, and do a better job! Remember – FOCUS & FINISH!




American Psychological Association. (March 20, 2006). Multitasking: Switching Costs.


BBC News (2005). ‘Infomania’ worse than marijuana. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4471607.stm


Keim, B. (2009). Multitasking muddles Brains, even when the computer is off. Wired Science News for Your Neurons. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/multitasking/#ixzz11LfOUISp


Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 106, no. 37. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583


Nass, C. (August 28, 2009).  Talk of the Nation: National Public Radio:  Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112334449


Seldon, B. (2009). Multitasking, marijuana, managing? http://www.management-issues.com/2009/9/21/opinion/multitasking–marijuana–managing.asp


Why do you sometimes choose that scrumptious chocolate desert even when you are full?  Why is it that you are sometimes drawn in by the lure of the couch and TV when you should be exercising or at least reading a good book?  And why do you lose your patience when you are hungry or tired? Do these situations have anything to do with a weak will?


What is willpower anyways?  Perhaps it is your ability to heed the advice proffered by that virtuous and angelic voice in your head as you silence the hedonistic diabolical voice that goads you toward the pleasures of sloth or sin.   Or perhaps, as Sigmund Freud once contended, it is your ego strength that enables you to forgo the emotionally and impulsively driven urges of the id.   These images resonate so well with us because it often feels as though there is a tug-of-war going on inside our heads as we consider difficult or sometimes even routine choices.  Often, reason prevails, and other times it does not.  What is really at play here? Is it truly willpower? Is it really a matter of strength or even of choice?


As it turns out, like all issues of the human mind, it is complicated.  Studies within the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience are offering increased clarity regarding this very issue.  It is important to understand however, that the human brain is composed of a number of modules, each of which are striving to guide your choices.  There really isn’t a top down hierarchy inside your brain with a chief executive who is pulling and pushing the levers that control your behavior.  Instead, at various times, different modules assert greater amounts of control than others, and thus, the choices we make, do likewise vary in terms of quality over time.  As a result of advances in technology and understanding, we are becoming increasingly aware of the key variables associated with this variation.


At a very basic level we know of two major (angelic v. diabolical) driving forces that guide our decisions.  Within and across these forces there are multiple modules emitting neurotransmitters that ultimately influence the choices that we make.  Broadly, the two forces are reason and emotion.  As I discussed in previous posts, What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does not Rule and Retail Mind Manipulation, there is not actually a true competitive dichotomy between these two forces; instead, there appears to be a collaborative interplay among them. Regardless of their collaborative nature, we do experience a dichotomy of sorts when we choose the cheeseburger and fries over the salad, the chocolate cake over the fruit salad, or abstinence over indulgence.


Now that I have clouded the picture a bit, lets look at one study that may help reintroduce some of that clarity that I mentioned.


At Stanford University, Professor Baba Shiv, under the ruse of a study on memory, solicited several dozen undergraduate students. He randomly assigned the students to two groups. For conveniences sake, I will label the groups the 2 Digit Group and the 7 Digit Group.  The students in the 2 Digit Group were given a two digit number (e.g., 17) to memorize whereas those in the 7 Digit Group where tasked with a seven digit number (e.g., 2583961).  In Room-A, each individual, one subject at a time, was given a number to memorize.  Once provide with the number they were given as much time as they needed to commit the number to memory.  They were also told that once they had memorized the number that they were to go to Room-B, down the hall, where their ability to recall the number would be tested.  As each individual student made the transition from the first room to the testing room, they were intercepted by a researcher offering them a gratuity for their participation. The offer was unannounced and provided prior to entering the testing room (Room-B).   The offer included either a large slice of chocolate cake or a bowl or fruit salad.


One would expect, given the random nature of group assignment, that those in the 2 Digit group would select the cake or fruit salad in the same proportions as those in the 7 Digit group.  As it turned out, there was a striking difference between the groups.  Those in the 2 Digit Group selected the healthy fruit salad 67% of the time.  On the other hand, those in the 7 Digit Group selected the scrumptious, but not so healthy, cake 59% of the time.  The only difference between the groups was the five digit discrepancy in the memorization task.  How could this seemingly small difference between the groups possibly explain why those saddled with the easier task would make a “good” rational choice 67% of the time while those with a more challenging task made the same healthy choice only 41% of the time?


The answer likely lies in the reality that memorizing a seven digit number is actually more taxing than you might think.  In 1956, Psychologist George Miller published a classic paper entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” whereby he provided evidence that the limit of short term memory for most people is in fact seven items. This is why phone numbers and license plates are typically seven digits in length. Strings of letters or numbers that are not logically grouped in some other way, when approaching seven items in length, tend to max out one’s rational processing ability.  With seven digits, one is likely to have to recite the sequence over and over in order to keep it in short term memory.  It appears that those in the 7 Digit Group relative to the 2 Digit Group had reached the limits of their rational capacity and were less likely to employ good reason-based decision making with regard to the sweets. Those in the 2 Digit Group were not so preoccupied and were likely employing a more rationally based decision making apparatus.  They made the healthy choice simply because they had the mental capacity to weigh the pros and cons of the options.


An overtaxed brain is likely to fall back on emotional, non-rational mechanisms to make choices and the outcomes are not always good.  When you are cognitively stressed – actively engaged in problem solving – you are less likely to make sound, reason-based decisions regarding tangential or unrelated issues. That is one of the reasons why we “fall off the wagon” when we are overwhelmed.


And if you compound cognitive preoccupation with fatigue and hunger – then you may have more problems.  You know those times at the end of the day when you are tired, hungry, and really irritable?   Your muscles are not the only tissues that fatigue when they are not well nourished.  Your brain is a major consumer of nutritional resources – and it, particularly the reasoning portion of your brain, many scientists believe, does not tolerate glucose deficits.  Your grumpiness may be the result of the diminished capacity of your brain to employ reason in order to work out and cope with the little annoyances that you typically shrug off.


So, it seems, willpower is one’s ability to use the reasoning portion of your brain to make sound healthy decisions.  Studies like the one above, suggest that willpower is not a static force.  We must accept the limits of our willpower and realize that this source of control is in a near constant state of fluctuation – depending on one’s state of cognitive preoccupation, fatigue and perhaps blood glucose levels.  It is very important that you know your limits and understand the dynamic nature of your rational capacity – and if you do, you may proactively avoid temptation and thus stay in better control of your choices.  Relying on your willpower alone does not provide you with dependable safety net.  Be careful to not set yourself up for failure.




Krakovsky, M. (2008). How Do We Decide? Inside the ‘Frinky’ Science of the Mind. Stanford Graduate School of Business Alumni Magazine. February Issue


Krulwich, R. & Abumrad, J. (2010). Willpower And The ‘Slacker’ Brain. National Public Radio: Radio Lab. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122781981


Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The Psychological Review. Vol. 63, pp. 81-97.


Moral Foundations Theory

24 September 2010


Last week in my article entitled Political Divide, I introduced Jonathon Haidt’s work and the theoretical framework that attempts to explain the current pervasive and seemingly intractable political acrimony within the United States. Haidt and his colleagues offer the Moral Foundations Theory, the implications of which, suggest that this divide is a result of a moral relativism of sorts – whereas one’s moral composition essentially drives one’s political affiliation. Despite the perspective from each of the polar extremes, individuals in the opposite group are not in fact amoral, instead, Haidt et al., (2009) claim that they have different valuations of five universal morals. According to Haidt, the five universal morals include: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).


From a political perspective, liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity – while conservatives value all at a uniform lower level. Haidt’s research consistently and empirically suggests that these moral inclinations are strongly linked to the aforementioned political tendencies (2009). I thought it would be helpful this week, to look more thoroughly at the five universal morals in relation to some political hot button issues. I am interested in getting a better understanding of what morals drive the support and/or condemnation of these issues?

At the core of the divide are two foundational issues. The moral values of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are referred to by Haidt, et al. (2009) as Individualizing Foundations where the emphasis of one’s moral imperative is on the rights and welfare of all individuals. Features of this foundation include “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm” (Haidt, 2009). The second, Binding Foundation, weighs more heavily moral issues such as ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The implied outcome of focus on these variables is increased social cohesiveness and social order. Rather than focusing on individual equality and personal rights, the emphasis of the Binding Foundation is on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-retraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.


Let’s look at some of the issues and lay them out relative to these foundational issues.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Those inclined to value Individualizing Foundations would be inclined to see the policy, as it stands, as ridiculous because it presumes an inherent difference in capability based one’s sexuality. The moral valuation of equality and fairness as well as distaste for discrimination drives the belief that one should not be devalued or discriminated against based on whether one is heterosexual or homosexual. Whereas one inclined to have more relative valuation of authority, purity, and ingroup loyalty, may have more concern about what religion has to say about homosexuality, sensitivity to maintaining the orderliness and comfort of an “all” heterosexual force, strong revulsion of those who engage in sexuality that is different than their own, and respect for the authority of the status quo.


Gay Marriage
Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, the community, and God” is the argument made by those with stronger relative Binding Foundations. One may argue that the Bible asserts this sacred relationship as being one only between a man and a woman. Purity, sanctity, ingroup loyalty, and authority all drive this belief. But again, one with Individualizing Foundational thinking might devalue the importance of the above moral inclinations in preference of the values of fairness and equality. One might argue that love is love, and any two individuals who love one another, should have the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities of any other two humans, regardless of the gender of the individuals involved.


Stem Cell Research
This issue may boil down to the difference between fundamental religious beliefs driven by strong relative valuation of purity and sanctity. It also reflects one’s inclinations to believe whether one has a soul or not and when, in fact, the soul is unified with the body. The issue of the soul is a complicated one with intense importance to some and little to no relevance for others. Those who foresee the potential benefits to those who are harmed by grave diseases value stem cell research because of this potential and may be among those that are less concerned about sanctity.


This highly personal issue again, in many cases, boils down to the sanctity of life. Those inclined to support a woman’s right to choose, likely value individual rights and foresee the potential harm that unwanted pregnancies may bring to a woman. They also place the important responsibility of one’s body solely in the hands of the woman. Rape or incest, as well as danger to the mother, in particular, are seen as being important situations where a woman should have the right to choose. Yet many equate abortion with murder, and for many this could not be further from the truth. There are clear and distinct differences here and both sides claim that morality is on their side.


Health Care Reform
One may argue that health care is, or should be, a fundamental human right: and that all people, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, race, sex, or ability should have access to medical services. Others, it seems, hold that it should be a privilege of success. The former represents morality that is based in thinking that highly values equality and fairness. The latter notion, however, is based in vigilance for freeloaders – an aspect of the Binding Foundation.


The Bush Tax Cuts
Those with an Individualizing Foundations mindset generally value a progressive tax structure due to the perceived fairness of it. They believe that those who hold the most wealth should bare a greater share of the burden of caring for the less fortunate among us. They also may argue that the wealthy accumulate their capital as a result of the work performed for them by those who are the less well off. The well to do also benefit from the infrastructure laid down by governments. Regressive taxes it is believed, disproportionately burden the poor with a greater share of the tax load. Diminished government spending also disproportionately affects the poor with regard to education, health care, nutrition, and housing. This cost savings to the wealthy leads to greater income divergence and as a result, subsequent increases in murder, theft, assault, school drop outs, substance abuse, spousal abuse, unwed mothers, and so on. This fundamentally challenges the notion of fairness and reciprocity. On the other hand, those with a Binding Foundational mindset recoil at the notion of freeloaders who cheat the system and are enabled by their government. They may see entitlements as fundamentally flawed handouts that encourage social decline as manifested by AFDC that encourages single parent families. There is an underlying belief that those with wealth are solely responsible for their position in life and that it is unfair for them to have to care for the lazy freeloaders among us. Part of this may stem for the increased valuation of authority and to a certain degree, ingroup loyalty. Some may believe that the wealthy have succeeded because of their internal attributes and work ethic. While the poor, may be likewise responsible for their positions in life because of their own character flaws. Purity may play a role in this.


Issue by issue, the Moral Foundations Theory can be used in such a fashion to account for such moral divergence. Be the issue, immigration, privatization of social security, corporate bailouts, you name it, this model helps explain it. I’m sure there are weaknesses with this model and I hope you are inclined to share your impressions. But for me, I am more inclined to look and listen more deeply knowing that opposing positions are not essentially rooted in baseless principles. How do you think?




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

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Political Divide

17 September 2010

The state of affairs in the United States when it comes to politics seems intractable.  I used to believe that a person’s political position could be easily placed on a traditional left – right continuum.  However, if you watch the political pundits on TV, this no longer seems possible.  Apparently there are two distinct mindsets with little or no room for overlap.  The most vociferous of those on the conservative right often hold those on the left in contempt for being socialist, immoral, elitist, unpatriotic, pro baby killing, pro-entitlement, anti-gun, pro-tax, and pro-big government.  Likewise, many liberals just can’t understand the narrow-minded, selfish, corporatist, nationalist, bigoted, anti-populist platform of the right.  The folks on the right just don’t seem to understand why people on the left would see any value in “entitlements,” or support gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, Keynesian economic policies, embryonic stem cell research, or value the environment over business interests.  And the Friedman Free Market  economic policies that promote business and capital accumulation in the hands of a few just baffle many of those on the left.  The differences are vast and the emotional divide is scary deep.


When it comes to social situations, politics can be a deadly third rail.  Often, people are deeply entrenched in their ideology, and cannot find a healthy place to begin discussing diverse perspectives. The issues take on a significance much like religion.  Either you get it or you don’t.  And if you don’t, well you are an outsider.


This divide has driven much of my curiosity regarding how people think.  I know, respect, and love people on both sides of this divide.  I’ve been looking for a way to bridge the gap or at least come to terms with why such divergence exists.  I wrote a blog post earlier this year called Moral Instinct and in it I referenced Jonathon Haidt’s work.  Dr. Haidt is a Professor of Social Psychology in the  Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.  He studies morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures.


In 2008 he published an intriguing paper called What Makes People Vote Republican?  More recently Haidt published Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).  This paper explicitly deals with, from an empirical perspective, the essence of my question.  Haidt starts his paper with:

“Political campaigns spend vast sums appealing to the self-interests of voters, yet rational self-interest often shows a weak and unstable relationship to voting behavior (Kinder, 1998; Miller, 1999; Sears & Funk, 1991). Voters are also influenced by a wide variety of social and emotional forces (Marcus, 2002; Westen, 2007). Some of these forces are trivial or peripheral factors whose influence we lament, such as a candidate’s appearance (Ballew & Todorov, 2007). In recent years increasing attention has been paid to the role of another class of non-self-interested concerns: morality. Voters who seem to vote against their material self-interest are sometimes said to be voting instead for their values, or for their vision of a good society (Lakoff, 2004; Westen, 2007). However, the idea of what makes for a good society is not universally shared. The “culture war” that has long marked American politics (Hunter, 1991) is a clash of visions about such fundamental moral issues as the authority of parents, the sanctity of life and marriage, and the proper response to social inequalities.”


Haidt’s contention is that this culture war boils down to an issue of differing moral schema. Some might argue that it is purely an issue of degree of morality – both sides can legitimately claim a moral high ground (at least from their vantage points). As it turns out, morality is nuanced and necessitates a more complex understanding than what has traditionally been understood to be a singular concept quantified by a matter of degree. So it is not as though Republicans are more moral than Democrats (or vice versa), it is that Republican values differ in emphasis relative to Democratic values.


To make this more concrete, I need to expand upon the discussion of morality.  A common conceptualization of morality from the late 20th Century was put forth by the Berkley psychologist Elliot Turiel who said that morality refers to “prescriptive judgments of justice, rights, and welfare pertaining to how people ought to relate to each other” (Haidt, 2008).  This definition might resonate with some – particularly those with liberal tendencies, but it misses several core issues that are important to a substantial subset of the population.  Haidt (2008) notes that morality is more than the golden rule,  it has to do with “….binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.” These latter issues constitute the divide in the culture war, driving the conservative platform on issues relevant to God, Gays, guns, and immigration (Haidt, 2008).   The people on the right tend to hold a moral imperative to foster a unified and morally ordered society.


Each side of the debate holds deep convictions regarding what makes up a good society.  Liberals seem to hold morals consistent with a “contractual society” championed by John Stuart Mill, whereas a “…Millian society at its best would be a peaceful, open, and creative place where diverse individuals respect each other’s rights and band together voluntarily to help those in need or to change the laws for the common good” (Haidt 2008).


Conservatives tend to hold values more in line with sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who valued social order, restraint,  and conventions all held together by a strict authority.   “A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one’s group over concerns for outgroups” (Haidt, 2008).


Haidt has been conducting research into what have been identified as five universal morals (similar in concept to those laid out by Mill and Durkheim) including: (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty – (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (“mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates” Haidt, 2008); and (e) purity/sanctity (“related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble” Haidt, 2008).  Millians and liberals tend to value care and fairness at a higher level than their conservative counterparts and hold a lower valuation of ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sancity – while conservatives value all at a uniform level.  See Figure 1 below for the distribution of values by political affiliation as reported in Graham, Haidt, and Nosek’s (2009) paper.

Haidt (2008) notes:

“In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.”


I found that my moral value scores lined up perfectly with my political affiliation.   You can see for yourself where your values fall relative to your political affiliation by taking the Moral Foundations Questionnaire at www.YourMorals.org. If you look at the data you’ll see that strongly conservative folks are not more moral than strongly liberal folks, it is just that they weigh the universal morals differently.  It is these tendencies that leave individuals in both groups questioning the morals of the other group.  On all moral domains there is divergence.  If you look at the issues individually through the lenses of those with divergent perspectives it is not difficult to see how liberals could judge conservatives as amoral and vice versa.   When looking at this social divergence from the framework that Haidt puts forth, the divide becomes less enigmatic.


Go to Haidt’s website and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and see how your results fit with your political affiliation and then let me know how you feel about your score and the subsequent implications.  Next week I’ll delve a bit deeper into Haidt’s paper entitled Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (2009).




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


The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) is a very popular method for measuring implicit (implied though not plainly expressed) biases. Greenwald, one of the primary test developers, suggests that “It has been self-administered online by millions, many of whom have been surprised—sometimes unpleasantly—by evidence of their own unconscious attitudes and stereotypes regarding race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” (2010). It purports to tap into our unconscious or intuitive attitudes at a deeper level than those that we are able to rationally express. The best way to get an idea of just what the IAT is, is to take it. If you haven’t done so already, go to the Implicit Associations Test website and participate in a demonstration of the Race Test. It takes about ten minutes.


I tend to have a skeptical inclination. This in part stems from the training that I benefited from in acquisition of my PhD in psychology. But it is also just part of who I am. Psychology is, in itself, a rather soft science – full of constructs – and variables that are inherently difficult to measure with any degree of certainty. I learned early in my training that there are dangers associated with inference and measuring intangibles. In fact, my training in personality and projective measures essentially focused on why not to use them – especially when tasked with helping to make important life decisions. Why is this? All psychological measures contain small and predictable amounts of unavoidable error – but those based on constructs and inference are particularly untenable.


This is relevant because as we look at thinking processes, we are dealing with intangibles. This is especially true when we are talking about implicit measures. Any discussion of implicit thought necessitates indirect or inferential measures and application of theoretical constructs. So, with regard to the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), one needs to be careful.


Currently, increasing evidence suggests that our intuition has a powerful influence over our behavior and moment to moment decision making. Books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer point out the power of intuition and emotion in this regard. Chabris and Simons in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, make a strong argument that intuition itself sets us up for errors. Gladwell perhaps glorifies intuition – but the reality is, it (intuition) is a powerful force. Gladwell uses the story of the IAT as evidence of such power. Essentially, if the IAT is a valid and reliable measure, it provides strong evidence of the problems of intuition.


I am motivated to shed some light on the IAT – not because of my personal IAT results, which were disappointing, but because the IAT has the risk of gaining widespread application without sufficient technical adequacy. Just think of the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory and the breadth and depth of popular use and appeal that it has garnered (without a shred of legitimate science to back it up). Real decisions are made based on the results of this instrument and frankly it is dangerous. The Meyers-Briggs is based on unsubstantiated and long out-of-date Jungian constructs and was built by individuals with little to no training in psychology or psychometrics. This is not the case for the IAT for sure, but the risks of broad and perhaps erroneous application are similar.


The authors of the IAT have worked diligently over the years to publish studies and facilitate others’ research in order to establish the technical adequacy of the measure. This is a tough task because the IAT is not one test, but rather, it is a method of measurement that can be applied to measure a number of implicit attitudes. At the very foundation of this approach there is a construct, or belief, that necessitates a leap of faith.


So what is the IAT? Gladwell (2005) summarizes it in the following way:

The Implicit Association Test (IAT)…. measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think. According to the test results, unconscious attitudes may be totally different or incompatible with conscious values. This means that attitudes towards things like race or gender operate on two levels:
1. Conscious level- attitudes which are our stated values and which are used to direct behavior deliberately.
2. Unconscious level- the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before you have time to think.
Clearly, this shows that aside from being a measurement of attitudes, the IAT can be a powerful predictor of how one [may] act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.

So here is one of the difficulties I have with the measure. Take this statement: “The IAT measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level, or the immediate and automatic associations that occur even before a person has time to think.” Tell me how one would directly and reliably measure “unconscious attitude” without using inference or indirect measures that are completely dependent on constructs? I am not alone in this concern. In fact, Texas A&M University psychologist Hart Blanton, PhD, worries that the IAT has been used prematurely in research without sufficient technical adequacy. Blanton has in fact published several articles (Blanton, et al., 2007; Blanton, et al., 2009) detailing the IAT’s multiple psychometric failings. He suggests that perhaps the greatest problem with this measure concerns the way that the test is scored.


First you have to understand how it all works. The IAT purports to measure the fluency of people’s associations between concepts. On the Race IAT, a comparison is made between how fluent the respondent pairs pictures of European-Americans with words carrying a connotation of “good” and pictures of African-Americans with words connoting “bad.” The task measures the latency between such pairings and draws a comparison to the fluency of responding when the associations are reversed (e.g., how quickly does the respondent pair European-Americans with words carrying a “bad” connotation and African-Americans with words connoting “good.”). If one is quicker at pairing European-Americans with “good” and African Americans with “bad” then it is inferred that the respondent has a European-American preference. The degree of preference is determined by the measure of fluency and dysfluency in making those pairings. Bigger differences in pairing times result in stronger ratings of one’s bias. Blanton questions the arbitrary nature of where the cutoffs for mild, moderate, and strong preferences are set when there is no research showing where the cutoffs should be. Bottom line, Blanton argues, is that the cutoffs are arbitrary. This is a common problem in social psychology.


Another issue of concern is the stability of the construct being measured. One has to question whether one’s bias, or racial preferences, are a trait (a stable attribute over time) or a state (a temporary attitude based on acute environmental influences). The test-retest reliability of the IAT is relatively unstable itself. Regardless, according to Greenwald: “The IAT has also shown reasonably good reliability over multiple assessments of the task. …. in 20 studies that have included more than one administration of the IAT, test–retest reliability ranged from .25 to .69, with mean and median test–retest reliability of .50.” Satisfactory test-retest reliability values are in the .70 to.80 range. To me, there is a fair amount of variance unaccounted for and a wide range of values (suggesting weak consistency). My IATs have bounced all over the map. And boy did I feel bad when my score suggested a level of preference that diverges significantly from my deeply held values. Thank goodness I have some level of understanding of the limitations of such metrics. Not everyone has such luxury.


As I noted previously, the IAT authors have worked diligently to establish the technical adequacy of this measure and they report statistics attesting to the internal-consistency, test-retest reliability, predictive validity, convergent validity, and discriminant validity, almost always suggesting that results are robust (Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, 2010; Greenwald, et al, 2009; Lane, et al, 2007) . There are other studies including those carried out by Blanton and colleagues, that suggest otherwise. To me, these analyses are important and worthwhile – however, at the foundation, there is the inescapable problem of measuring unconscious thought.


Another core problem is that the validity analyses employ other equally problematic measures of intangibles in order to establish credibility. I can’t be explicit enough – when one enters the realm of the implicit – one enters a realm of intangibles: and like it or not, until minds can be read explicitly, the implicit is essentially immeasurable with any degree of certainty. The IAT may indeed measure what it purports to measure, but the data on this is unconvincing. Substantial questions of reliability and validity persist. I would suggest that you do not take your IAT scores to heart.




Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or fabulous? Monitor on Psychology. July. Vol 39, No. 7,  page 44.


Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., Christie, C., and Gonzales, P. M. (2007). Plausible assumptions, questionable assumptions and post hoc rationalizations: Will the real IAT, please stand up? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Volume 43, Issue 3, Pages 399-409.


Blanton, H., Klick, J., Mitchell, G., Jaccard, J.,Mellers, B., Tetlock, P. E. (2009). Strong Claims and Weak Evidence: Reassessing the Predictive Validity of the IAT. Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 94, No. 3, 567–582


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


Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.


Greenwald, A. G. (2010).  I Love Him, I Love Him Not: Researchers adapt a test for unconscious bias to tap secrets of the heart. Scientific American.com: Mind Matters.   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=i-love-him-i-love-him-not


Greenwald, A. G. (2009). Implicit Association Test: Validity Debates. http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/iat_validity.htm


Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 97, 17–41.


Lane, K. A., Banaji, M. R., Nosek, B. A., & Greenwald, A. G. (2007). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: IV. What we know (so far) (Pp. 59–102).  In B. Wittenbrink & N. S. Schwarz (Eds.). Implicit measures of attitudes: Procedures and controversies. New York: Guilford Press.


Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


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.


Over the last two weeks I’ve dealt with the issue of vaccines as they pertain to Autism. I first dealt with the back story and then addressed why such an illusion of cause has persisted despite the efforts of the scientific and medical communities. Although I have made reference to some of the data, I thought it would be prudent to put forward some particularly relevant facts and statistics.


First, I would like to note the progress mankind has made with regard to average life span and give credit where credit is due. Carl Sagan, in his excellent book, The Demon-Haunted World, addressed this very issue indicating that in pre-agricultural times, 10,000 years ago, human life expectancy was about 20-30 years. That expectancy persisted throughout the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires right through Medieval times. Not until the late 19th century did it rise to 40 years. In 1915 it was estimated to be 50 and then as high as 60 by 1930. It rose to 70 in about 1955 and is currently around 80 for individuals living in developed countries.


So what can we attribute this growth in life expectancy to? The answer is clear. Along with advancements in public sanitation (clean water, flush toilets) and vast improvements in nutrition, science has contributed the germ theory of disease and huge advancements in medical care and medical technology. Of particular importance has been our increased capacity to understand and prevent infectious diseases. Understanding how diseases spread has been important in minimizing the spread of illnesses like TB and it continues to be important with regard to HIV; however, another huge variable has been the introduction of immunizations.


Not all that long ago, infectious diseases were among the top causes of death for humans in developed nations. And this is still the case in many low income countries. According to World Health Organization statistics, six of the top ten causes of death in low income nations include infectious diseases (respiratory infections 11.2%, Diarrheal diseases, 6.9%, HIV/AIDS 5.7%, TB 3.5%, neonatal infections 3.4%, and Malaria 3.3%). Whereas in high-income countries, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer reign supreme. The only infectious disease to make the top 10 in high-income countries is lower respiratory infections (3.8%). Although heart disease, strokes, and cancer afflict the 3rd world, the proportion of deaths attributable to infectious diseases dominates. This discrepancy is essentially due to publicly managed vaccine and infection control programs affordable only to relatively wealthy industrialized nations.


If you look back in time at US morbidity and mortality statistics (Roush, Murphy, & the Vaccine-Preventable Disease Table Working Group, 2007) pre- and post-mandated vaccines, the numbers are staggering. The peak annual death rates for diseases like diphtheria was 3065 (1936), measles 552 (1958), mumps 50 (1964), rubella 24 (1968), pertussis 7518 (1934), polio (paralytic) 3145 (1952), and smallpox 2510 (1902). The peak morbidity rate for diphtheria was 30,508 (1938), measles 763,094 (1958), mumps 212,932 (1964), rubella 488,796 (1968), pertussis 265,209 (1934), Polio (paralytic) 21,269 (1952), and smallpox 2510 (1902). In 2004 (the post mandated vaccine era) there were no (zero) deaths in the US attributable to diphtheria, measles, mumps, paralytic polio, rubella, and smallpox. Pertussis persists, having killed 27 people in 2004, afflicting over 15,000 in 2006. Regardless, in the US, our vaccine schedules have essentially eradicated infectious diseases that previously took thousands of children’s lives every year. There has been more than a 92% decline in morbidity and a 99% or greater reduction in deaths attributed to preventable infectious diseases targeted since 1980 by the current vaccine schedule. Endemic transmission of measles, rubella, and the poliovirus have also been eliminated and smallpox has been eradicated worldwide. This is no small accomplishment. One must keep in mind that one who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it (Crislip paraphrasing Santayana).


The objections to vaccines put forth by the anti-vaccine folks have morphed over time. The initial notions included the presence of mercury (thimerosal) in the vaccines and the vilification of the MMR vaccine itself. Both of these notions have been debunked. The new themes include too many too soon and the presence of other toxins in the vaccines.


In my previous post, The Illusion of Cause – Vaccines and Autism, I addressed the innate human propensity to draw causal relationships between vaccines and Autism. I noted that despite the removal of thimerosal from routine childhood vaccines, the numbers of incidences of Autism continues to rise. And I discussed the fact that thimerosal contains ethyl-mercury which poses far less risk than the more dangerous fat soluble methyl-mercury. Eating a six ounce chunk of tuna exposes one to 8959 micrograms of methyl-mercury while the maximum cumulative exposure to mercury through the first six months of life (before the removal of thimerosal) was around 187.5 micrograms of ethyl-mercury (Crislip, 2010). The research has been clear: there is no plausible association between mercury toxicity or even other heavy metal exposure and Autism (Science in Autism Treatment, 2009). In particular, a study published in 2007 in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders by Williams, Hersh, Allard, and Sears found no significant difference in the levels of mercury detected in hair samples between children diagnosed with Autism and their un-afflicted siblings. Regardless, thimerosal has been removed from routine childhood vaccines (except some influenza and some tetanus multi-dose vials) not due to safety concerns but to reduce non-compliance issues associated with unwarranted fear. Thimerosal is a non-issue.


With regards to the MMR vaccine – I previously discussed how Andrew Wakefield misrepresented his personal conflicts of interest and intentionally manipulated the data to support his contention that MMR causes Autism. Study after study, many of which were large scale epidemiological studies, failed to replicate Wakefield’s findings. And what is even more interesting is that some studies suggest that the MMR vaccine is actually associated with decreased incidences of Autism in recipients versus non-recipients (Mrozek-Budzyn, D., Kieltyka, A., and Majewska, R. 2010). This is likely background noise and may not pan out in other studies, but…….. In Jackson County, Oregon 15% of the children have not been vaccinated. Within Jackson County, in the city of Ashland, 25% of the children are not vaccinated. The rate of educational diagnoses of Autism in Ashland is 1.1% – which is the highest rate in the county and above the state average (Crislip, 2010). So the population where there is the lowest rate of vaccination also includes the highest rate of Autism diagnoses. One has to be careful not to fall victim to the illusion of cause with this data.


Too Many Too Soon is the new mantra, railed by the anti-vaccine set: but this argument is easily assuaged by gaining a better understanding of the microbiome. Mark Crislip, MD, an immunologist, effectively puts this issue into perspective in his podcast The Vaccine Pseudo Controversy. Crislip notes that for every human cell in the human body there are 10 bacteria cells along for the ride. We are essentially a host organism for 100 billion bacteria representing several thousand species. Although a human baby is born free of such organisms, by the end of the first year of life, a typical baby has been exposed to perhaps billions of such organisms. Many of these bacteria are essential for our survival, but many are in fact pathogens kept at bay by the immune system. Extremely conservative estimates suggest that on average, a child is exposed to at least one pathogen each day just as a function of living. That being said, the vaccine schedule represents 0.694% of the antigen exposure of a six year old. As Dr. Crislip is fond of saying, the vaccines constitute a mere drop in the bucket in terms of the total number of pathogens endured just as a function of living day to day. Seriously, have you ever been around a baby? They crawl around on the ground and mouth everything they can get their hands on. A drop in the bucket indeed. Dr. Crislip notes that “the only thing a delay in vaccination does is increase the time the child is vulnerable to infections” and, I would add, weaken herd immunity. As for evidence, consider a recent study published in Pediatrics by Michael J. Smith, MD and Charles R. Woods, MD, entitled On-Time Vaccine Receipt in the First Year Does Not Adversely Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes. An excerpt of the abstract reads as follows:


OBJECTIVES: To determine whether children who received recommended vaccines on time during the first year of life had different neuropsychological outcomes at 7 to 10 years of age as compared with children with delayed receipt or nonreceipt of these vaccines.
METHODS: Publicly available data, including age at vaccination, from a previous Vaccine Safety Datalink study of thimerosal exposure and 42 neuropsychological outcomes were analyzed. Secondary analyses were performed on a subset of children with the highest and lowest vaccine exposures during the first 7 months of life.
RESULTS: Timely vaccination was associated with better performance on 12 outcomes in univariate testing and remained associated with better performance for 2 outcomes in multivariable analyses. No statistically significant differences favored delayed receipt. In secondary analyses, children with the greatest vaccine exposure during the first 7 months of life performed better than children with the least vaccine exposure on 15 outcomes in univariate testing; these differences did not persist in multivariable analyses. No statistically significant differences favored the less vaccinated children.
CONCLUSIONS: Timely vaccination during infancy has no adverse effect on neuropsychological outcomes 7 to 10 years later. These data may reassure parents who are concerned that children receive too many vaccines too soon. Pediatrics 2010;125:1134–1141


And then there is the contention that there are toxins in the vaccines. Well this is undeniably true. The Center for Disease Control makes known the additives for each vaccine. The list may initially seem foreboding, but the CDC and Dr. Crislip, as well as others consulted who posses far more expertise than I, attempt to assure us that these additives perform important functions and pose no notable risk. The CDC notes: “Chemicals commonly used in the production of vaccines include a suspending fluid (sterile water, saline, or fluids containing protein); preservatives and stabilizers (for example, albumin, phenols, and glycine); and adjuvants or enhancers that help improve the vaccine’s effectiveness. Vaccines also may contain very small amounts of the culture material used to grow the virus or bacteria used in the vaccine, such as chicken egg protein.


The CDC notes that Common substances found in vaccines include:

  • Aluminum gels or salts of aluminum which are added as adjuvants to help the vaccine stimulate a better response to the vaccine. Adjuvants help promote an earlier, more potent response, and more persistent immune response to the vaccine.
  • Formaldehyde is used to inactivate bacterial products for toxoid vaccines, (these are vaccines that use an inactive bacterial toxin to produce immunity.) It is also used to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine during production.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and 2-phenoxy-ethanol which are used as stabilizers in a few vaccines to help the vaccine remain unchanged when the vaccine is exposed to heat, light, acidity, or humidity.
  • Thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative that is added to vials of vaccine that contain more than one dose to prevent contamination and growth of potentially harmful bacteria.


A little more knowledge is helpful. Did you know, for example, that “the average person produces about 1.5 ounces of formaldehyde each day as a part of normal metabolic processes[?]” (Crislip, 2010). It’s true. And as a result, there is a low steady state of formaldehyde in human blood at a concentration of 1 to 2 parts-per-million. The concentration of this additive in vaccines is actually at a lower level than is naturally occurring in your blood. Dr. Crislip notes that by far, the deadliest additive in vaccines is dihydrogen monoxide – which is responsible for nine deaths a day in the US. Otherwise, if you accept the dose-response effect of chemicals and the microscopic doses of the additives in vaccines, you will rest assured that vaccines are safe and serve a very important life saving role in our civilization. The bottom line comes down to belief systems. If you believe something so fully that you are unwilling to put a skeptical eye on it and reject it, if the evidence does not support it, then you are rejecting reality in support of unsubstantiated ideology. Always be wary of unsubstantiated ideology! Oh and the dihydrogen monoxide – that’s water (H2O).




Association for Science in Autism Treatment. (2009). Autism & Vaccines: The Evidence to Date. Vol. 6., No. 1 http://www.asatonline.org/pdf/summer2009.pdf


Center for Disease Control. Basics and Common Questions: Ingredients of Vaccines – Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/additives.htm


Crislip, M. (2010). The Vaccine Pseudo Controversy. Quackcast # 45. http://www.pusware.com/quackcast/quackcast45.mp3


Mrozek-Budzyn, D., Kieltyka, A., and Majewska, R. (2010).Lack of Association Between Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination and Autism in Children: A Case-Control Study.Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 29(5):397-400.


Roush, S. W., Murphy, T. V., & the Vaccine-Preventable Disease Table Working Group. (2007). Historical Comparisons of Morbidity and Mortality for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States. JAMA. 298(18):2155-2163 (doi:10.1001/jama.298.18.2155) http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/298/18/2155


Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon Haunted Word. The Random House Publishing Group: New York


Smith, M. J. and Woods, C. R. (2010). On-time Vaccine Receipt in the First Year Does Not Adversely Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes. Pediatrics published online May 24, 2010; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-2489 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/peds.2009-2489v1


Williams, P. G., Hersh, J. H., Allard, A., and Sears, L. L. A controlled study of mercury levels in hair samples of children with autism as compared to their typically developing siblings.” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 16 May 2007, Volume 2, Issue 1: 170-175.


World Health Organization. (2004). The 10 leading causes of death by broad income group. Fact Sheet No. 310. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index.html


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).




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.


Vaccines and Autism

13 August 2010

It is hard to imagine anything more precious than one’s newborn child. Part of the joy of raising a child is the corresponding hope one has for the future. Don’t we all wish for our children a life less fraught with the angst and struggles we ourselves endured? One of the less pleasant aspects of my job has the effect, at least temporarily, of robbing parents of that hope. This erosion occurs in the parent’s mind and heart as a consequence of a diagnosis I often have to provide. I am a psychologist employed in part to provide diagnostic evaluations of preschool age children suspected of having Autism. My intention is never to crush hope, instead it is to get the child on the right therapeutic path as early as possible in order to sustain as much hope as possible. However, uttering the word AUTISM in reference to one’s child constitutes a serious and devastating emotional blow.


Many parents come to my office very aware of their child’s challenges and the subsequent implications. They love their child, accept him as he is, and just want to do whatever they can to make his life better. Others come still steeped in hope that their child’s challenges are just a phase or believing that she is just fine. Regardless, most of them report that they suspected difficulties very early in the child’s development. For example, many note a lack of smiles, chronic agitation and difficulty soothing their child. Some children had not been calmed by being held or may have even resisted it. Some other children I see develop quite typically. They smile, giggle, rejoice at being held, coo and babble, and ultimately start to use a few words with communicative intent. The parents of this latter and rather rare subset, then watch in dismay as their child withdraws, often losing both functional communication and interest in other children.


The timing of this developmental back-slide most often occurs at around 18 months of age. This regression happens to coincide with the recommended timing of the provision of the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This temporal chronology is important as it has lead, in part, to a belief that the vaccine itself is responsible for the development of Autism. What these parents must experience at this time, I can only imagine, is a horrible combination of confusion and grief. They have had their hopes encouraged and reinforced only to have them vanquished. And it is human nature, under such circumstances, to look for a direct cause. It makes perfect sense that parents would, given the chronicity of events in some cases, suspect the MMR vaccine as the cause of their child’s regression.


During my occasional community talks on Autism, I often am asked about the alleged connection between vaccines and Autism. The coincidental temporal relationship between the provision of the MMR vaccine and this developmental decay leads to what Chabris and Simons in The Invisible Gorilla refer to as the Illusion of Cause. Chabris and Simons discuss how “chronologies or mere sequences of happenings” lead to the inference “that earlier events must have caused the later ones.” (2010, p. 165). By default, as a result of evolution, our brains automatically infer causal explanations based on temporal associations (Chabris & Simons, 2010).


At nearly every talk I give, there is someone in the audience who is convinced that their child (or a relative) is a victim of the MMR vaccine. Their compelling anecdotes are very difficult to refute or discuss. I find that the application of reason, or data, or both, misses the mark and comes off as being cold and insensitive.


For such causal relationships to endure and spread they often need some confirmation of the effect by an “expert.” This is where the story of Dr. Andrew Wakefield comes into play. Wakefield, a GI Surgeon from the UK published a paper in the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet, alleging a relationship between the MMR vaccine and the development of Autism. His “expert” opinion offered legitimacy to already brewing suspicions backed by the perceived correlates of increases in both vaccination and Autism rates, as well as the apparent chronology between the timing of the vaccines and the onset of Autism. Wakefield provided credibility and sufficient plausibility: and as a result, the news of the alleged relationship gained traction.


But hold on! There were major flaws with Wakefield’s study that were not initially detected by The Lancet’s peer review panel. First of all, Wakefield was hired and funded by a personal injury attorney who commissioned him to prove that the MMR vaccine had harmed his clients (caused Autism). His study was not designed to test a hypothesis: it was carried out with the specific objective of positively establishing a link between Autism and provision of the MMR vaccine. From the outset the study was a ruse, disguised as science.


Just this year (2010), 12 years after the initial publication of Wakefield’s infamous study, The Lancet retracted it and Dr. Wakefield has been stripped of his privilege to practice medicine in the UK. Problems however, surfaced years ago: as early as 2004, when 10 of 13 co-authors retracted their support of a causal link. In 2005 it was alleged that Wakefield had fabricated data – in fact, some of the afflicted children used to establish the causal link had never actually received the MMR vaccine!


Since the initial publication of this study, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent investigating the purported relationship between vaccines and Autism. Despite extensive large scale epidemiological studies, there have been no replications of Wakefield’s findings. Children who had not been vaccinated developed Autism at the same rate as those who had received the MMR. There is no relationship between the MMR vaccine and the development of Autism. As a result of Wakefield’s greed, hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted. Those dollars could have been devoted to more legitimate pursuits, and that is not the worst of it. I will get to the real costs in a bit.


Another aspect of the history of this controversy is associated with the use of thimerosal as a preservative in vaccines. This notion, which has also been debunked, gained plausibility because thimerosal contains mercury, a known neurotoxin. You may ask: “Why on earth would a neurotoxin be used in vaccines?” Researchers have clearly established that thimerosal poses no credible threat to humans at the dosage levels used in vaccines. However, given the perceived threat, Thimerosal is no longer used as a preservative in routine childhood vaccinations. In fact, the last doses using this preservative were produced in 1999 and expired in 2001. Regardless, the prevalence of autism seems to be rising.


It is important to understand that mercury can and does adversely affect neurological development and functioning. However, long term exposure at substantially higher doses than present in thimerosal are necessary for such impact. The mercury in thimerosal is ethyl-mercury, which is not fat-soluble. Unlike the fat-soluble form of methyl-mercury (industrial mercury), ethyl-mercury is flushed from the body very quickly. Methyl-mercury can be readily absorbed into fatty brain tissue and render its damage through protracted contact. Methyl-mercury works its way into the food chain and poses a hazard to us if we eat too much fish (particularly those at the high end of the food chain). In reality, one is at more risk from eating too much seafood (shark and tuna) than from getting an injection of a vaccine preserved with thimerosal. Yet there does not seem to be a movement to implicate seafood as the cause of Autism.


Even though the relationship between vaccines and Autism has been thoroughly debunked, there is a movement afoot, steeped in conspiratorial thinking, that alleges that “Big Pharmacy” and the “Government” are colluding to deceive the people and that elaborately fabricated data is used to cover up a relationship. This belief lives on. How can this be so? Even intelligent and well educated people I know are avoiding important childhood immunizations based on the fear and misinformation spread by these well intentioned people.


In 2003, in the UK, the MMR vaccine rate had fallen to below 79% whereas a 95% rate is necessary to maintain herd immunity. Currently, the vaccine rates are dropping in the US due to the efforts of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who purports that her son’s Autism was caused by vaccines. McCarthy campaigns fiercely against childhood immunizations spurred on by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Even folks like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr have spread such misinformation. Continuing to contend that the MMR vaccine is the culprit, Wakefield has moved to the US and has risen to martyr status among the anti-vaccine folk. You need to know that just months before he published his seminal paper, Wakefield received a patent on a Measles Vaccine that he alleges, “cures” Autism. He has much to gain financially, in his attempt to scare people away from the current safe and effective MMR vaccine.


It amazes me that people do not automatically dismiss this alleged vaccine-Autism link. Wakefield’s conflict of interest and discredited research practices alone draw into question anything he has to say. The mountains of epidemiological evidence also favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and Autism. However, the power of anecdotes and misguided beliefs place millions of children in harm’s way.


Imagine yourself as a parent of a child who cannot get the MMR vaccine because of a serious medical condition (e.g., cancer). Such vulnerable children, of which there are millions worldwide, depend on herd immunity for their very survival. Now imagine that your child is inadvertently exposed to measles by coming into contact with a child who wasn’t vaccinated (because of misguided parental fear). Because your child’s compromised immunity, she develops the measles and gets seriously ill or dies. Such a scenario, although improbable is not impossible. It is more likely today largely due to the diminished herd immunity caused by misinformation. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) is likewise posing serious concerns (and one documented death) in unvaccinated clusters because of the anti-vaccine folk. This myth persists, in part, because of the Illusion of Cause, and the consequences have become deadly. Next week I will delve into this Illusion that sustains this erroneous and dangerous belief system.




Association for Science in Autism Treatment. (2009).  Autism & Vaccines: The Evidence to Date. Vol. 6., No. 1 http://www.asatonline.org/pdf/summer2009.pdf


Center for Disease Control. Autism Spectrum Disorders: Data & Statistics. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html


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


Plait, P. (2010). The Australian antivax movement takes its toll. Bad Astronomy Blog. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/04/26/the-australian-antivax-movement-takes-its-toll/


I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.


Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.


Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.


Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.