Thursday, February 12, 2015

Documentary: The Mean World Syndrome

Here is a documentary, based in large part on interviews with George Gerbner toward the end of his life. If you have an interest in media psychology, or the effects of media violence more specifically, this documentary will be of interest to you.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Quick update - weapons effect edition

It's been a while since I last updated the blog, so here's just a bit about what is going on.

Currently, my focus is on research concerning the weapons effect: that is, the link between exposure to weapons and aggression. I recently completed data analyses on a meta-analysis, examining the causal link between weapons and aggressive behavior, cognition, and affect. The write up is proceeding at present. The data look good. I think we can make a solid case at this point that the weapons effect is a real phenomenon, and that at least with regard to behavior and affect that the weapons effect is especially strong under conditions of high provocation. When provoked, those who have been exposed to weapons are more aggressive and are angrier than those who are not provoked. The cognitive priming effects are now well-established. The effect seems to occur regardless of sex of participant and regardless of age level. The paper (co-authored with Brad Bushman) is scheduled to be presented at the upcoming ICPS conference in Amsterdam and has a good chance of being published in a high impact journal.

Meagan Crosby (one of my students) and I completed analyses of a data set last fall that establishes for the first time that guns prohibited signage primes aggressive cognition much the same way that ordinary images of guns do. I'll be presenting preliminary findings at a small conference toward the end of March. We are currently working - in conjunction with Brad Bushman - on the follow-up experiments to further explore this particular phenomenon. That will be the focus of much of my research activity for the foreseeable future.

Other than that, I did get an article published at a small journal just a few days ago. It was nice to see in print. I'm really trying to wind down the authoritarianism research phase of my career, and publish any remaining data sets worth publishing. It made sense at a time when I did not have facilities or access to samples needed to do the work that is primary interest. That time has largely passed. In essence, I am going back to the basics: focusing on various facets of mass media and their influence on aggression. Obviously, the weapons effect work will be a large part of my focus. The work on attitudes toward torture is similarly part of that focus, given my interest in the priming effects of various mass media on such attitudes. I think of that work in particular as something of an extension of George Gerbner's work on media violence, and am eager to see it progress.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Poverty and Cognition

I was catching up on my news blogs over my lunch break and noticed the following statement in a diary at Booman Tribune:
The first problem is the endemic and persistent poverty present that plagues many African American communities. Poverty has a cyclical nature. It is generational and feeds off itself. Paul Tough wrote an excellent book called How Children Succeed and it chronicles how trauma in childhood significantly messes up a child's brain. Now "trauma" can be quite broad and applies to people throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. But the prevalence of pervasive childhood trauma is a great indicator of later cognitive and behavioral problems. Damaged children make for damaged adults.

We should then look at how damaging poverty is. And it's pretty damaging. A 2009 study by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied working memory in children. They looked at allostatic load. Bruce McEwen first proposed allostasis, which is way a body manages stress. So, for instance, you nearly get into a car wreck. Your body gets flooded with adrenaline, your heart pounds, you shake. But you get over it a few hours later as your body "flushes out" that stress response. But if you are constantly exposed to stress, you build up an allostatic load. What Evans and Schamberg found was that allostatic load was the best predictor of performance on short term memory. The higher it was, the poorer kids did on the test. Short term memory is a great indicator of certain types of cognitive abilities.

In other words, what we think of as "genetic advantage" - the upper middle class kids just have favorable genetic advantages that allow them to excel - is really a product of their environment. The brain is a very malleable thing in early childhood and if you pile poverty onto that process - with all the stress that poverty brings - you damage that brain.

And that damage is most prevalent in the last part of the brain to develop: the pre-frontal cortex. And it is in the pre-frontal cortex that judgment resides. That part of the brain may not finish developing until someone is 25. This is why college students think jumping from the roof of their garage into the pool is a good idea.

The problem is that poverty and its attendant stress makes it hard for the judgment centers of the brain to develop. And the results can be seen in everything from 16 year old mothers to the looting in Ferguson last night. Let's remember that 16 year old moms are not unique to the African American community but are prevalent in most poor communities regardless of race. And 16 year old mothers are going to face stress in trying to raise a child when they themselves are children, and that only perpetuates this cycle. The stress they feel is passed on to their children.

So when we talk about the legacy of poverty in this country - whether we are talking about urban African Americans or Appalachian whites or Hispanics along the Rio Grande or Native Americans on reservations - we are talking about a form of environmental brain damage.
As a social psychologist, I often discuss the importance of our environment on all manner of behaviors, including cognition. The above states the huge impact of poverty quite succinctly, and it needs to be kept in mind as we as researchers, instructors, and policy makers confront the challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

When out-group members torture:

Friday morning, I was catching up on my news blogs prior to heading to the office, and found this little tidbit at Daily Kos:

As the Huffington Post's Jack Mirkinson points out:
Waterboarding became perhaps the most notorious method of torture practiced by American interrogators in the years after September 11th.
Interestingly, while the Post has, like most mainstream outlets, typically been reluctant to call methods such as waterboarding "torture" when it was practiced by Americans, the paper had no apparent problem calling what ISIS did to Foley "torture."
"A second person familiar with Foley’s time in captivity confirmed Foley was tortured, including by waterboarding," the Post wrote.
Still, the paper has not followed the New York Times in vowing to use the word "torture" more firmly in its articles.
So, when Americans practice waterboarding, US papers are reluctant to refer to it as torture, but when, say ISIS militants practice waterboarding, then it is okay to describe the practice as torture. What's up with that?

Some of the research that I and Sara Oelke are publishing may shed some insights. One of our experiments was a replication of an experiment reported by Crandall et al (2009). The main difference between the work of Crandall et al (2009) and our particular experiment is that in one of our treatment conditions, the scenario describing such practices as waterboarding portrayed Middle Eastern soldiers as the interrogators and Americans as victims. What we found was that our participants in that particular treatment condition showed significantly lower attitudes toward the use of torture than in the control condition, in which the interrogators were American soldiers.

In the case of Middle Eastern soldiers - or in this case ISIS militants - we can use insights from research on in-group/out-group effects and Terror Management Theory to explain the negative attitudes. Not only are ISIS militants an out-group, but they are an out-group that poses (at least in perception) an existential threat. Behaviors that we might ordinarily accept when performed by fellow in-group members may be viewed as unacceptable when conducted by out-groups under those circumstances.

Although our research was not intended to address the language used by mass media outlets, our findings would be consistent with the phenomenon noted above. As Gronke et al (2012) observed, Americans are pretty ambivalent about torture, and generally don't look at it favorably (except under very limited circumstances). Knowing that, we might expect media outlets to take care to avoid using terms like torture to describe actions committed by our own troops. Knowing that Americans definitely disapprove of torture by others, our mass media outlets may feel less constrained in describing actions such as waterboarding thusly when committed by the likes of ISIS.


Benjamin, A. J., Jr., & Oelke, S. E. (in press). Framing effects on attitudes toward torture.Kommunikáció, Média, Gazdaság.

Crandall, C. S., Eidelman, S., Skitka, L. J., & Morgan, G. S. (2009). Status quo framing increases support for torture. Social Influence, 4, 1-10.

Gronke, P., Rejali, D., Drenguis, D., Hicks, J., Miller, P., & Nakayama, B. (2010). U.S. Public Opinion on Torture, 2001–2009. PS: Political Science & Politics, 43, 437-444. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

On using Wikipedia

I think the following paragraph by Dan Gillmor regarding the proper use of Wikipedia should be required reading for students:
Wikipedia is a fabulous place to start when you want to learn about any number of things. But it’s also the worst place to stop if you plan to use the information anywhere else (a term paper or dinner party, much less a newspaper) or base an important decision on what you’ve read. I’ve stopped there when, for example, I wanted to refresh my memory about plot developments in a favorite TV series that’s back for a new season. But if I ever wanted to write about that series in a public venue, you can bet that I’d double-check to ensure I got my facts straight.

As a rule, I prohibit students from citing Wikipedia entries as references in written assignments, as Wikipedia is not a website for scholarship. It can be a useful starting point, however, and as long as one follows up any scholarly materials cited in a Wikipedia entry for aggression, for example, then one is on the way to having the materials necessary to craft an acceptable manuscript. Of course, I would also strongly recommend poring through the appropriate EBSCO databases in addition to examining the sources cited in a Wikipedia entry.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Interesting new research on the psychology of ideology

I noticed this article in my news feed this morning, and thought I would share it with you:

A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics.

That's a big deal. It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics—upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really change (most of us, anyway).

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of "a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it," as one of their papers put it).

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.
The article goes on to mention how Jost and colleagues' classic 2003 paper was met by a great deal of friction when it was first published. These days, it appears that there is widespread acceptance that conservatives and liberals (broadly defined) really do experience the world differently, and there are not only psychological but physiological underpinnings for the phenomenon. It will be interesting to see where this line of research leads.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Facebook's questionable psychological experiment

From The Atlantic:

But few users expect that Facebook would change their News Feed in order to manipulate their emotional state.

We now know that’s exactly what happened two years ago. For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves.

This tinkering was just revealed as part of a new study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Many previous studies have used Facebook data to examine “emotional contagion,” as this one did. This study is different because, while other studies have observed Facebook user data, this one set out to manipulate it.
The article goes on to discuss the lack of informed consent and debriefing that are usually considered standard operating procedure for social psychology experiments. Individuals affected in the experiment were never explicitly notified that they were going to be studied and that the data would be potentially published, nor were they given an option to opt out. There was a certain amount of deception - by omission if nothing else - and under such circumstances it is expected that individuals who have been deceived will be fully debriefed as to the nature of the experiment, the expected findings, and the significance of those findings (scientific, personal, etc.).

An IRB apparently signed off on it, so the authors have that to fall back on, I suppose. Social network activity is a rather tricky gray area. It is not really "public" but it is not really "private" either. I think it is understandable, nonetheless, that many Facebook users feel a bit violated right now, and with good reason. While this experiment may not quite have the "creep factor" of some field experiments from the past (see this one, for example), its publication should give us pause. Once more as a community, we as social scientists need to ask ourselves about the limits of what is considered "fair game" for research in an era of social networking websites, and those limits need to be explicitly clarified by the appropriate umbrella organizations for our discipline (such as the APA).

In the meantime, I suppose many will be wondering how many more Facebook users have been guinea pigs in psychological experiments.