Sunday, December 13, 2015

Common denominators in mass shootings

This Washington Post article does an adequate job of describing some common characteristics of mass shootings and mass shooters. The main gist is that the majority of mass shootings appear to involve firearms that were legally obtained. In addition, perpetrators of mass shootings tend to bring multiple firearms: averaging around three. Pistols seem to be the most frequently used firearms in mass shootings. Not surprisingly, nearly all mass shooters are males.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Do we really have a mass shooting per day on average? It depends on the operational definition

In the immediate aftermath of the mass shootings in San Bernardino, CA and Savannah, GA earlier this week, several infographics circulated around social media and internet news sites showing that the US averages around one mass shooting per day. That, to say the least, is an eye-opening statistic. Second Amendment rights advocates balked at that figure, contending that the actual number of mass shootings was far lower, and at any rate once gang violence, drug deals gone bad, family kidnappings, and so forth were taken into consideration, our mass shooting rate would be no different than that found in European countries.

The truth of the matter is that there is apparently no agreed-upon definition of the term mass shooting. Some of those sources tracking mass shootings count only those incidents in which a single shooter kills four or more people (although here there is some dispute as to whether or not to include gang-related shootings, etc. - see Mother Jones' tracker, for example). Other trackers, such as Reddit's Mass Shooting Tracker and the Gun Violence Archive count any shooting with four or more victims who were injured or killed, excluding the shooter or shooters. The Gun Violence Archive defines the incidents in which four or more people are killed as mass murders, a distinct sub-class within mass shootings. The debate over the appropriate operational definition of mass shooting incidents matters to the extent that it frames the extent to which there is a problem and the extent to which it is worsening. If we use Reddit's Mass Shooting Tracker or the Gun Violence Archive, one will come away with the impression that mass shootings are now a daily occurrence, and that the number of victims each year is in the thousands. The mass shooting definition used by Mother Jones, which is perhaps the most conservative of all the definitions, suggests a far lower number of incidents but that they have increased in frequency in recent years. USA Today's tracker which includes gang-related incidents, but only counts those with four or more murdered, suggests that the frequency is actually going down.

In the behavioral and social sciences, disagreements about operational definitions are quite common, and often those definitions that eventually become accepted are those that are able to produce consistently replicable findings. In the case of mass shootings, since there is a very heated debate regarding whether even mild regulation of firearms in the US should be considered, the debate over how to define them is tied quite strongly to ideology. Those who are in favor of stricter gun laws are likely to gravitate toward those definitions that seem to best make their case (Mother Jones' tracker, or either of the other two trackers), whereas those in favor of further liberalizing gun laws are likely to gravitate toward those definitions that make their case (e.g., the USA Today tracker). In other words, the debate over how to define mass shootings is not merely an academic debate, but one that is very politically loaded at the moment, suggesting that arriving on an agreed-upon definition that will satisfy most interested parties is not likely any time soon.

Regardless of the operational definition of mass shootings, the question of just how uniquely American this phenomenon is one that appears to have an answer. Using a fairly restrictive definition of mass shootings (four or more murdered, excluding the shooter or shooters), Adam Lankford discovered that the frequency of mass shootings was considerably higher in the US than any other developed nation as well as other nations that make up the Global South. Lankford found that approximately one third of mass shootings in his data set were committed in the US. Generally, these findings make some sense, given that firearms are more readily available in the US than in much of the rest of the world (see this article comparing gun laws in the US to a selection of other nations). Not all will agree with these findings, of course, and I am sure that there are ways of finessing the data to make particular political points.

The question of why mass shootings occur is one that is also politically charged, but in principle should be answerable. Often, commentators view mental illness as a factor. However, those making that claim fail to take into consideration that people who are mentally ill are usually less likely to commit acts of violence (including gun-related violence) than those who are not mentally ill - a topic I touch on briefly in my recently published book chapter on aggression. It may turn out that mental health status of mass shooters, however defined, may turn out to be truly unique among those who perpetrate gun-related violent incidents. Without the necessary research, the "mental illness" explanation remains untested, and should be treated with some skepticism. It would also be useful to know the extent to which extreme religious and ideological beliefs factor in to mass shootings, given that a number of the perpetrators of high profile shootings (those that received a great deal of media coverage) have had religious or political motivations. Finally, some have floated the idea of a Columbine effect, suggesting that many of the mass shootings in the US may be copycat crimes inspired by the two teenagers who killed and injured a large number of people at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO in 1999. It is certainly an interesting idea that may explain those incidents that have occurred on high school and college campuses since 1999. The extent to which those incidents outside school grounds are related to the Columbine shooting is for now debatable.

There does appear to be a problem, and one that is more so in the US than elsewhere as a general rule. Skeptics are certainly correct in pointing out that stricter gun regulations would not guarantee an end to mass shootings or other forms of gun-related violence. Even in those countries with stricter laws, gun-related violence still happens, and mass shootings are not entirely out of the question (see what happened in Norway a few years ago as one example). However, in those nations, such incidents are considerably less frequent elsewhere, and one can even go through a significant portion of one's own life without ever having experienced a mass shooting on one's own soil - something that probably has some effect on the social psychological makeup of those who have the chance to live without such occurrences. In Australia, for example, there is now an entire generation that has never experienced a mass shooting. For those wondering what life might be like without the worry of when and where the next shooting rampage might happen, the Australian experience is quite edifying.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Are those of us who study violent video games biased?

A recent article claims that we are not. I'll have to read the full article when I have some spare time. The charge of bias is one that those of us who study media violence - in particular those of us who manage to find causal links between violent media and aggressive behavioral responses - is one that we deal with frequently. Although video game research is not a primary focus of mine currently, it is research that I find quite fascinating, and it was fun to be on the ground floor of some very well-run experiments examining the effects of violent video games. Oddly enough, I was a skeptic until not only our own results came in, and I can say that I had to accept what the data were telling us when the cumulative record of research from a variety of labs overwhelmingly confirmed that there indeed appeared to be a causal link between playing violent video games and increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, feelings, and appraisals, and a decrease in empathy and prosocial behavior. That's the thing to keep in mind: the research replicates. Also, we in the behavioral and social sciences are well-trained to follow the evidence wherever it may lead us.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Some thoughts on ResearchGate

Last year, I set up an account on ResearchGate, a social network site that describes itself as "built by scientists, for scientists." One motivation for doing so was simple enough: some of my work had already been archived there, and it seemed reasonable enough to go ahead and claim that work, and have another place to display other research that I have published. My experience so far has been somewhat positive, but with a few concerns.

On the positive side:

1. Setting up an account is simple enough. I merely had to provide an academic email address, create a password, and within minutes I was creating a profile.

2. It works like a social network, as its developers intended. In many ways I find it somewhat more social than Linkedin or Academia.edu. There appear to be more users, and there does appear to be some meaningful interaction. There is a space for participation in discussions, but it is less intrusive than LinkedIn and I don't have to wonder how much my inbox will be flooded by conversations that have no interest to me. Many of my colleagues from a variety of institutions are on ResearchGate and I enjoy having a convenient means of keeping up with their recent work.

3. I have one more gauge of how well my research is received. Google Scholar is fine for giving a rough and fairly comprehensive idea of how often my work is cited. Although ResearchGate is less comprehensive when it comes to citations, it does offer gauges that measure downloads (the site now merely refers to them as "reads") and profile views. These have been helpful to me as I assess how newer publications are faring. I can also see how well my work fares compared to others within my institution (or at least those who have a ResearchGate account).

4. Their estimate of impact factor is fairly up to date, which I find helpful as I continue to move forward with the research side of my career.

5. Although a bit sluggish in response time, ResearchGate has been good at adding peer review journals to its database, as long as the appropriate information is made available to them - e.g., ISSN number, journal website, etc. That is helpful for those of us who have published in very obscure journals that although legitimate, do tend to slip through the cracks.

On the negative side:

1. One disadvantage is that the staff at ResearchGate tend to take their own sweet time to respond to questions and concerns. Last year, it took several days. Apparently things have deteriorated this year, and I have at least one question that has been ignored for a couple weeks as of this writing.

2. My department did not have its own profile within my university. I requested a department profile, and provided all sorts of information from my university's website to back up the legitimacy of the department. Over a year later, and still no response.

3. Although in theory an academic account is supposed to be required to set up a ResearchGate profile, it strikes me that RG is prone to the same problem with fake profiles that plagues other social network sites. For example, in my department, according to ResearchGate, we have an individual who has over two decades-worth of research in physics, even though our department is strictly devoted to the behavioral sciences. That individual does not exist anywhere among our institution's staff. I did come to realize that one of our students matched the name on the profile, and I asked that student about this apparent late career change. Suffice it to say, the student was rather taken aback that there was even a profile in that student's name. I have alerted RG to the problem to no avail so far. Facebook works faster at dealing with bots and fake profiles, and I have rarely been impressed with Facebook's response to such situations.

4. There is a problem of individuals claiming work that is not their own. Although that has not happened to me personally, I am aware that others have had that happen to them. ResearchGate desperately needs to find a way of dealing with situations like that, other than to simply ignore their existence.

5. I am skeptical of the so-called RG score's usefulness, especially given how secretive RG is regarding how that score is formulated. In the scheme of things, this is a minor problem.

Overall, I think the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages. It's fairly easy to use, easy to interact with fellow researchers, and has some features that can allow one to gauge how their work is being received. However, the disadvantages noted above are ones that will affect ResearchGate's credibility in the long term if not handled soon. If the company is understaffed, they need to work on that in order to make sure that member concerns are handled in a timely manner. If there are bots abusing the system for whatever reason, that needs to be dealt with immediately while it is still a fairly rare occurrence. My concerns aside, I will continue to use ResearchGate for the time being.

Update (3 Nov 2015): Regarding point 3 on the disadvantages of RG (i.e., the creation of fake profiles), I did some detective work regarding our potential false profile. The student whose name was usurped is younger than some of the publications listed in the profile in question. We'd have to believe some very unscientific things for such a profile to be even remotely plausible. RG's staff apparently cannot be bothered to care. That is not a good harbinger for what could be a promising social networking site for those of us in the sciences.

Final update (10 Nov 2015): Eventually RG took care of the apparent false profile, a few days after my last email in which I made the case that it would have been quite implausible for the profile holder to have the publication record that was purported to exist. I was actually surprised as my last email received no acknowledgement. That notwithstanding, I was relieved. Hopefully the affected student had been corresponding with the RG staff as well. Although I think RG has somewhat better safeguards against false profiles than other social media sites, there are some apparent holes in their vetting system that will likely need addressing. For now, I will continue to use RG as its benefits continue to outweigh its potential drawbacks.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why are mass shootings in the US on the rise?

An interesting take on the increase in mass shootings in the US:

Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity. As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.” And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.) – some certainly more toxic than others.

The research on this topic is primarily experimental. Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.

This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence. The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women. Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

Note that this is merely an excerpt. Make sure to read the rest.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Growing up in a pornified culture



This is the video of Gail Dines' TED talk. When we ask ourselves about how one's worldview is cultivated by contemporary mass media, the mainstreaming and ready availability of pornographic imagery and videos must be part of that conversation, especially when we consider what is known about the antisocial effects of violent content in pornography that have been well-documented by Dolf Zillmann, Neil Malamuth, and a number of other behavioral and social scientists who study media violence. With that in mind, this video is well-worth your time and consideration.

Monday, August 3, 2015

ICPS and Open Science Framework

One of the cool things about the information age is that the ability to communicate and share findings is more immediate than ever. In the past, conference presentations have often fallen through the cracks. Often, once the presentations are over, there's often no good way to contact participants for copies of handouts, PowerPoint presentations, or anything data related beyond the hope that maybe the participants in question will answer their email. This year, the ICPS conference made available the opportunity for its participants to upload their posters and PowerPoints to an OSF site, making them available to anyone interested. You can find at least a subset of those presentations under the title International Convention of Psychological Science 2015 Posters & Talks. Obviously, this is not the first time that OSF has been used in this capacity by conference organizers. It is an emerging and welcome trend to the extent that it facilitates openness and communication among scientists sharing common research interests, and facilitates George Miller's dictum of giving away psychology in the public interest.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

APA and Torture: Fallout From the Hoffman Report Begins

Earlier this month, the Hoffman Report, an independent review of the American Psychological Association (APA) and its role in facilitating the practice of torture, was published. Needless to say, it's a huge document that takes considerable time to digest. That notwithstanding, there have been plenty of APA critics who had been keeping the public as informed as possible with regard to a number of serious ethical breaches that in addition to the resulting well-documented harm inflicted on those unfortunate enough to get thrown into any of a number of sites like Guantanamo Bay, has done serious damage to the legitimacy of the APA. I would certainly invite you to read the most recent post by Jeffrey Kaye for a summary of the findings, as well as the initial comments by Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner about the document, its meaning, and some ways for the APA to move forward if it is to have any hope of rehabilitating itself. Indeed, rehabilitation for the organization may be a tall order. Time will tell. Back around seven years ago, a included a statement on my Social Psychology Network profile urging my colleagues to boycott the APA (i.e., withhold membership dues). Although I removed that statement some time ago, after the Withhold APA Dues campaign ran its course, I have no intention at this time of rejoining unless at bare minimum the conditions Soldz and Reisner recommend for reform are met.

At this point, the fallout is still somewhat unclear. We do know that the findings in the report were sufficient to cause a handful of APA senior officials (including Norman Anderson, the CEO) to lose their positions, not long after Stephen Behnke (APA ethics chief) was let go. Whether they are merely the sacrificial lambs or their "resignations" and "retirements" are a harbinger of a bigger shakeup remains to be seen. We do not know if some of their current leadership's statements are merely attempting to come across as anti-torture as a form of damage control or if an earnest reexamination is forthcoming. We don't yet know if those psychologists who enabled the DoD and CIA to engage in torture will themselves face criminal charges, although it is a possibility. We do know that apologies to those who criticized the APA from within, and who were essentially bullied because of it, will require more than apologies after the fact.

What we do know is that psychology in the US and abroad will never be looked at in quite the same way, and reestablishing faith in the field will take considerable effort, as others have duly noted. Whether APA is truly up to the task is questionable. The organization has experienced a sharp decrease in membership over the last half decade, and it is an open-ended question as to whether they will return. After all, there are other national and international organizations that serve sufficiently similar purposes, and many APA divisions are at least semi-independent. One can, for example belong to the Society for the Study of Personality and Social Psychology (aka Division 8) without being an APA member. For those of us whose specialties are more research-based, the Association for Psychological Science is a viable alternative without APA's baggage. Those of us who moved on, may have done so for good.

If what comes out of this whole human rights nightmare that a once-respected professional organization allowed itself to become entangled is a much more clearly defined set of ethical standards for those in both research and practitioner settings, perhaps some good will come of it. We're a long way from that particular happy ending, however. Rather, it is a work in progress, and one requiring the continued critical eye of the watchdogs who served us well (e.g., Kaye, Soldz, Reisner, and Arrigo, to name only a few) this past decade. What I do know is that we as a profession are much better than the actions of the APA leaders and members who are implicated in the Hoffman Report.

What the discovery of fraud says about the state of academic scientific research

The upshot is that we're doing just fine. The article was written by the political scientists who blew the whistle on a fraudulent study by Michael Lacouris (remember I mentioned it this past spring). Bottom line is that those of us who conduct research today are doing so in an environment that makes discovering fraud easier, and that the norms in place in the academic disciplines of which I am aware (those in the behavioral and social sciences) offer positive reinforcement for those who discover mistakes and outright fraud. So, the increase in retractions as a result is actually one that can be interpreted as a positive development. When we publish, there are more watchful eyes than ever. Of course there are some potential headwinds, including a push by policymakers to decimate public funding for social science research, for example, that would push more of us into research environments that are privatized and proprietary (and in which secretiveness in the name of profit may become a primary consideration). Barring something catastrophic, we should be okay. If anything, I expect more of a push toward encouraging (if not compelling) researchers to publicly archive data sets that accompany published research, as well as discourage authors from HARKing (i.e., hypothesizing after the results are known). Expect such trends to strengthen over the coming decade or so. If you are starting your career, you will already be socialized to this new set of realities. For those of us who are veteran academicians, the trends toward more transparency are welcome.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Think venting will calm you down? Think again.

Here's a news article summarizing some research done on venting - we might call it tests of the catharsis hypothesis. Contrary to the old catharsis hypothesis, the bottom line is that venting does not work. Individuals given a chance to vent end up feeling angrier and behaving more aggressively than if they had not done so in the first place. This is research that is especially timely given all the ways we have at our disposal to vent thanks to the miracle of mobile devices and social media. Venting may even feel good at the time. Unfortunately, as decades of research show, venting has damaging consequences.

So where does this idea of venting come from? I mentioned the so-called catharsis hypothesis. It was initially an idea of Freud's regarding emotional energy. Presumably, emotions such as anger would be discharged, hence leaving the patient feeling better. The idea was picked up by neobehaviorists (in particular the Yale Group back in the 1930s and 1940s) as a means of examining the potential reinforcement value of certain motivated behaviors. In order for catharsis to work when it comes to a powerful emotion, such as anger, one needs to demonstrate that individuals are demonstrably less angry and behave less aggressively than they were before they started venting their anger or rage. However, as research by Russ Geen, Brad Bushman, and others has shown in experiment after experiment, what actually happens is that anger and aggression levels increase. What appears to happen is that when a person vents, they are rehearsing the same negative behaviors that we'd ordinarily want to avoid (e.g., screaming, yelling, etc.). When such behaviors are rehearsed they become more frequently used in the future.

By the way, these are effects that we can observe very easily in our own daily lives if we are willing to look. I spent some time, for example, in training retreats for leading peer counseling groups in which many of the techniques we practiced were ones that included venting (many of our faculty supervisors were Freudian in orientation, as it turned out). One thing that I noticed repeatedly was that sessions where individuals would act out their anger tended not to calm down but rather become more intensely angry. The outcome would be best described - in the parlance of our times - as a fail.

So what to do? The usual advice my professional friends and colleagues will give is to count to 10, take a relaxing walk, unplug (i.e., get away from the computer or mobile) or practically any relaxing activity other than vent anger. Take some time to calm down, and then tackle whatever issue is in need of tackling when you are thinking more clearly and can control impulses. I see nothing wrong with stating that something is angering you, but then taking the focus away from the intensity of the emotion experienced and instead concentrate on finding solutions to the anger-inducing situation. In other words, it is one thing to experience emotions such as anger and to have those experiences validated. That is actually healthy. It is quite another thing to act on the impulses created by anger. As an old friend might have put it a couple decades ago, when in doubt, chill out.

Friday, May 29, 2015

An issue that we knew would eventually need addressing

It practically goes without saying that we live in a period of history in which social media are a primary means of communication for many of us. With this change in how we socialize, we have seen an increase in the development of large scale experiments using as unwitting participants subscribers to services such as Facebook. I've briefly discussed this before. In that spirit, I would like to direct you to a well-thought-out post by Dr. Ilka Gleibs, entitled the importance of informed consent in social media research.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From the "Apparently Too Good To Be True" Department

Check this out:

From what I gathered, the original published results seemed to fly in the face of what had been accepted wisdom, based on a fairly substantial body of evidence. In and of itself, that is not necessarily a problem. Sometimes someone comes up with a novel way to examine a research question and finds something useful. Needless to say, Brockman and colleagues attempted to replicate the LaCouris and Green findings and instead found some glaring anomalies that suggested potential fraud. There's an old saying in the business world: "trust but verify." That is true in the sciences as well. Sometimes that verification process breaks down, and when it does, it opens up the risk for very regrettable outcomes. For those pushing for open archiving of published data and the like, I think this will give some needed fuel for the fire.

In the meantime, we're left with another truism: "If it seems to good to be true, it probably is."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

You're not yourself when you're hangry

Oddly enough, one can fined some educational value in television commercials, even if that was not the original intention. Case in point:

 

The basic premise of this commercial is that the experience of hunger makes you angry, and that may have an impact on your impulse control. So, you're no longer reacting the way you normally would to the frustrations and provocations (in this case accidental) that you experience in day-to-day life.

A friend of mine gave a TED talk last fall discussing some of his research on hunger, in the process coining a term, hangry. The scenario in the commercial is one that can be demonstrated under carefully controlled lab conditions. The lack of food leads to lower levels of blood glucose in the brain. When individuals become hangry, they tend to show less impulse control and they show greater aggression levels when provoked.

So, how do we prevent becoming hangry? Apparently, it may be as simple as having a snack to elevate your brain's blood glucose level to optimal levels. However, keep in mind that the sorts of snacks likely to reduce hanger will be ones far more nutritious than the product in the commercial.

In the meantime, enjoy my friend's TED talk. And keep in mind that in a sense, whether intended or not, a simple TV commercial had some educational value.





Wednesday, April 8, 2015

With Google Plus On The Way Out, Is Blogger Next?

I recently saw an article on the apparent demise of Google Plus (a product that never really impressed me) and its potential implications for users of some of Google's other products. One of those products is Blogger, the host of this particular blog. The article is a bit short on details regarding what Google might have in store for Blogger, and so for the time being I am not planning on shopping around for a new host. If I did, WordPress would be near the top of my list in part because of what the authors state regarding the increased flexibility and lack of strict terms of service that come with Blogger. Obviously, my main challenge in making a move would be what to do with the data on this blog. If transferring my earlier posts to a new blogging platform ends up relatively seamless, I might be considerably more tempted. Until then, I think that it is wise not to rely strictly on the Google Plus share button to spread the word about particular posts, and to make links available on other platforms, such as Twitter.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

George Miller on giving away psychological science in the public interest

“Our responsibility is less to assume the role of experts and try to apply psychology ourselves than to give it away to the people who really need it — and that includes everyone.”
-- George Miller, from the article Giving Psychological Science Away Online

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Some Odd Experiments in Social Psychology

A friend of mine, Ron Riggio, recently posted a list of the oddest-ever experiments in psychology. A couple of them are ones I regularly discuss in my Social Psychology course, and one in particular (what Ron dubs The Urinal Study) makes its way into any conversation I and my students have regarding research ethics in my methodology courses:
This study looked at how the presence of other people in a men’s bathroom caused negative arousal, and affected performance—of urination! The dependent measure in this study was the time that it took for the stream of urine to begin flowing. The independent (manipulated) variable was the presence or absence of another person at the adjacent urinal. How did the researchers measure onset of urination? An observer was stationed in a nearby stall with a periscope so that he could observe the onset of urine flow! The study was designed to see how invasion of personal space affected people, but it sounds like a major invasion of privacy itself.
There are a couple other candidates for oddest-ever experiment in my particular field. One I've briefly mentioned before. That would be the Cockroach Experiment by Bob Zajonc. The experiment examined social facilitation effects in, you guessed it, cockroaches. There were two independent variables. As I understand it, cockroaches are biologically prepared to run down simple paths to move from light to dark spaces. So, one independent variable was the type of maze the cockroaches were required to navigate. Some cockroaches ran a simple maze and others ran a complex maze. The other independent variable was the presence or absence of other cockroaches. In one condition, cockroaches ran through their maze without any other cockroaches present. In the other condition, cockroaches ran through their maze with other roaches present in an audience box. The dependent variable was the time necessary for the cockroaches to complete the maze. In the simple maze condition, cockroaches completed the maze faster when there were other cockroaches present, thus providing evidence of a social facilitation effect. This is always one of my favorite experiments to discuss, simply because students find it so difficult to believe that such complex social phenomena can be found in such a simple animal.

I think the Paralysis Experiment would also make for a good candidate for oddest-ever experiment, not the least because it placed the participants under such extreme distress. In fact, it usually makes my list of most ethically challenged experiments. Campbell, Sanderson, and Laverty (1964) wanted to demonstrate that a conditioned fear response to a previously neutral stimulus could be conditioned in a single trial. In order to accomplish this feat, the authors gave their participants a drug that introduced temporarily paralysis from the neck down and caused them to lose the ability to breathe on their own (again, temporarily). This horrifying experience was paired with the sound of a tone. When the participants recovered from their paralysis, they were exposed to the tone by itself. The authors found that the participants showed a pronounced fear response simply to hearing the tone. Not only was this a rather strong effect, it did not extinguish over time. In fact, the emotional response to the tone increased in strength over time. The experiment was one that arguably created a very mild form of PTSD in its research participants. Obviously, this is not one that would pass muster with an IRB nowadays, and for good reason.

I am sure that there are a few others that would be good candidates for odd social psychology experiments, but the above trio would top my list.

References

Campbell, D., Sanderson, R. E., & Laverty, S. G. (1964). Characteristics of a conditioned response in human subjects during extinction trials following a single traumatic conditioning trial.
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 627-639.

Middlemist, R., Knowles, E., & Matter, C. (1976). Personal space invasions in the lavatory: suggestive evidence for arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 541-546.

Zajonc, R. B., Heingartner, A., & Herman, E. M. (1969). Social enhancement and impairment of performance in the cockroach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 83-92.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Childhood poverty and brain development

I was checking one of my news feeds when I noticed an article describing some recently published research on childhood poverty and brain development. Needless to say, subsisting at a poverty level does the developing brain no favors, and leaves those from more affluent circumstances at a neurological advantage. The impacts were found not only on brain structure, but on cognitive function. Taken together with some research I highlighted previously, the message is clear: the structural features of our environment play a tremendous role in our ability to function. There is a sort of violence at an institutional level that has taken place for an extremely long time, and its consequences are dire for those who are the innocent victims. If there is some good news, it is that we know there is evidence that efforts to reduce poverty, along with efforts to provide adequate nutrition and intellectual stimulation to those most affected by poverty do at least minimize the damage. Those efforts have often been the first on the chopping block in recent years, which is not only unfortunate,  but is arguably a form of negligence on the part of our policymakers.

Penn & Teller on Anger Management

This video is from Penn & Teller's old Showtime series, Bullshit! It is an entertaining and informative video in its presentation of what works and what fails to work when it comes to current approaches to anger management. A friend of mine, Brad Bushman, appeared on this episode as one of the interviewees. Bottom line is that much of what passes for "anger management" is untested and quite probably ineffective. Much of it seems to be based on the concept of catharsis. According to some mental health professionals, by venting (by, say, punching pillows, screaming, etc.) one can release anger and become less aggressive. Bushman runs a demonstration experiment showing that, contrary to the claims made by those mental health professionals, catharsis only serves to make aggression worse. Using catharsis as a means of reducing aggression is somewhat akin to using gasoline to put out a fire. Also, it appears that anger management courses are ineffective for those perpetrating abuse, as their behavior is often motivated by dominance needs as opposed to impulse control problems. All anger management programs do for these individuals is to make them smarter about how they abuse their victims. I would hardly call that therapeutic.

Please note that there is a lot of strong language. This is Penn & Teller, after all. If you are easily offended, avoid this. If not, have fun, and learn something in the process.

Last year's George Gerbner Conference

Apparently, when I was posting last year about the George Gerbner Conference on Communication, Conflict, and Aggression, I forgot to include a link to the program. So, in case you were ever curious, here is the link. It is a pdf file. As a Social Psychologist who studies media violence, I find that Communication researchers are often good company. This is a conference I would definitely recommend, as Gerbner's theoretical work is still relevant in an age of not only traditional mass media (such as television) but emerging media as well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Twenty years after Beijing conference on gender equality: violence against women still a problem

Time has a brief article to read here. The UN's latest report suggests that progress in the last two decades has been inconsistent, at best. Over a third of women worldwide experience sexual or physical violence from either an intimate partner or from a non-partner. Only a fraction of those who experience such violence report it. Sexual harassment is experienced by over half of women by the time they reach the age of 15. Victim blame is still a major problem, and I suspect a major stumbling block toward getting those experiencing either physical or sexual assault from reporting it. The findings serve as a reminder of how far we as a global community have to go.

Even cockroaches show individual variations in personality

Here's a story that initially appeared in one of my social media feeds. Suffice it to say, I found the story so odd, that at first I was tempted to write it off as a hoax. However, it does turn out that there is some actual evidence of personality variations among cockroaches. The basic categorization seems to be one of "shy or cautious" versus "bold explorers". The explanation currently is that individual personality variations in cockroaches enable the species to survive when disasters occur. The belief is that at least a few of the creatures survive, depending on the circumstances surrounding the disaster, thus enabling those survivors to continue to propagate.

This is not the first time that I have seen mention of cockroaches as somewhat more complex creatures than they might appear on the surface. A number of years ago, a social psychologist named Bob Zajonc conducted experimental research demonstrating that under some circumstances, cockroaches showed the same sorts of social facilitation effects found in humans. One could almost imagine a follow-up experiment in which the newly discovered personality traits would serve as a "person variable" that might interact with manipulations of social facilitation (the presence or absence of other cockroaches).

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science and freedom of expression

Recently, there has been some question as to whether the state of Florida saw fit to ban the use of the term, climate change. The upshot of such a policy, if true, would be to stifle scientific communication by researchers working in the state. Although I am not a climate scientist, I do find it important to stand and be counted on matters concerning any of the sciences, as politically motivated attempts to silence researchers in one science potentially affect all of us engaged in scientific work. In any event, the AMS published a statement, summarized on their blog, that I find well worth sharing. In the blog post itself are some statements that deserve highlighting:
Freedom of expression is essential to scientific progress. Open debate is a necessary part of science and takes place largely through the publication of credible studies vetted in peer review. Publication is thus founded on the need for freedom of expression, and it is in turn a manifestation of freedom of expression.
One might think the job of journals is to screen out unwanted science, but it’s quite the opposite. Papers are published not because they are validated as “right” so much as they are considered “worthy” of further scientific consideration. In addition, the publication process itself—which AMS knows well in its 11 scientific journals—is not just for authors to report and interpret their work. It relies on free discussion. The peer review process usually allows reviewers maximum protection of anonymity to preserve the ability to speak freely about the manuscripts being scrutinized. The papers that pass review are then the starting point for documenting objections, alternative interpretations, and confirmation, among other expressions that only matter if made accessible to other scientists through peer reviewed journals.
{snip}

Scientists are not the only ones to treasure such freedoms, of course. Society benefits from the progress of science every day. This only happens when scientists freely, promptly, and prolifically report what they find—and that means exactly what they find, not what they are told to find. The alternative is to compromise the pursuit of truth and the very foundations of our health and prosperity.
We all become victims when science is not shared and cannot flourish. The fact that climate change has deep social, economic, and political implications today means it is even more important to recognize that with increasing value of climate change science comes the increasing temptation for policy makers to co-opt and alter that science. As the AMS Statement warns, the principles of free expression “matter most—and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation—precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society.”
As a researcher in the behavioral and social sciences, I understand all too well that any of the sciences involved in socially significant research can become the targets of corporate and political busybodies who deem the research to be inconvenient for their profit margins or re-election efforts. The moment we find ourselves only able to generate "data" that fits a preconceived politically correct outcome (bearing in mind that I am using the term "politically correct" in the broadest sense to include any speech or activity intended to maintain some real or imagined social order), we leave the realm of science and enter the realm of science fiction. At that point, the work we once did withers, and the potential to benefit society withers as well. This might be a good time to look back at the history of governments in which scientific research was interfered with by those holding the levers of power, and to examine how well that worked out for them in the long run.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Documentary: The Mean World Syndrome

Here is a podcast based on a documentary, which itself is 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 podcast will be of interest to you. You might wish to seek out the original documentary, if you find yourself intrigued.

 

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.