Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How Do I Decompress? Read Fiction, of Course.

Oh, I probably rewatch a film or two as well.

I saw a film called Atomic Blonde a while back, which I really enjoyed. A bit later, I realized that there was a graphic novel, The Coldest City, upon which the film was based. Naturally, I had to read the novel, and its prequel (The Coldest Winter - set in the winter of 1981-1982 in East & West Berlin, and featuring one of the lead characters from The Coldest City). My assumption is that most of those reading this post have probably both viewed the film and read the book. That said, I'll keep this brief to avoid spoilers to the extent I can.

Let's just start by stating the obvious. The book and the film are drastically different experiences. Some of the events and characters in the book overlap with the film, but not entirely. There is a Lorraine Broughton in both media, although the only time she appears to be blonde is when she briefly wears a blonde wig. She's definitely bright in both the book and the film, and can handle herself in combat both in book and film (although the film is much more generous in terms of fight scenes). Who she really is otherwise is completely different, depending on whether one is reading the book or watching the film. There is also a David Percival in both, although the Percival we encounter in the book is an aging rogue British spy, and the in the film he's a considerably younger agent who's "gone native" during his tour in West Berlin. In both the book and film he crosses the border between East and West Berlin with ease. In both, he is clearly misogynistic and arguably something of a narcissist. Otherwise, there's little resemblance. The exact nature of the list that Broughton is supposed to find differs depending on whether you read the book or view the film. I think it's safe to say that the ultimate fate of the Stassi official who wishes to defect is similar in both, even if the sequence of events leading to the end of his particular story differs. By the time I got done listing differences, I would probably consume multiple posts, including the way that Broughton and Percival are first introduced.

I'll refrain. Instead, what I will note is that the film is focused more on the psychology of the characters and their interactions. There's some question about Percival's motives, so much of the way the story plays out in the book hinges on the question of the extent to which Broughton's superiors fall victim to confirmation bias. I think that same question is there in the film, but made more obvious. The graphics in the novel paint a stark picture of the events that unfold, and do succeed in giving the reader the impression of West and East Berlin as cold and unforgiving spaces in which to exist, especially as the Cold War was about to come to a close. There is a sense of paranoia that the book successfully portrays that the film might just barely miss. The film brings in much more color and action, places more emphasis on romantic entanglements and their significance in a profession that is based primarily on secrets and lies. Both the book and film explore the nature of trust in such an environment. In each, Broughton has a different reaction to the protests in East Berlin in late 1989 when she switches on the television for the first time - and those reactions hint at where her loyalties ultimately may rest. Which is which I will leave up to you.

In most cases, I tend to prefer the book to the film. In this case, although I enjoy both, I probably enjoy the film a bit more. I suspect part of that has to do with my position at the time the Berlin Wall was about to fall. At the time, I was a student and like many young men and women in 1989, I was astounded by how quickly events unfolded in what would soon become the former Soviet Bloc. I think the film does a better job of capturing that sense of surprise, wonder, and optimism in a way that the book does not. The book views the impending demise of the Cold War in a way that I could almost imagine seasoned intelligence agents viewing those same events unfolding: probably more realistically and pessimistically. That said, I think that both the book and the film offer a glimpse into what it was like to be alive in late 1989 and the significance of the events occurring in that era. Both have merit in that sense. Just realize that each is a different experience, and for all intents and purposes the book and film might as well be separate universes. I am under the impression that there will be a sequel to the film. I will be curious as to how that will work out. Most likely, I'll be at a theater when it is released.

Monday, May 21, 2018

If you ask your students to make a resume for a Marvel character...

... it is inevitable that one of them will choose Groot. Hilarity ensues.
The student would have earned an A in my class as well.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Flexible measures with word completion task in aggression research

Recently, I bookmarked Malte Elson's website, FlexibleMeasures.com. As of now, Elson's work involves examining the competitive reaction time task (CRTT) and the Go/No-Go Task. I am familiar with the CRTT in part because I worked in a lab that relied on the CRTT for our assessment of aggressive behavioral outcomes, and in part because it is (as Elson duly notes) arguably the most common measure of aggressive behavior in lab research. His concerns are ones that we should take seriously, and the article that he and his colleagues published four years ago is one I consider required reading.

My interest is in another increasingly common measure - this time involving assessment of accessibility of aggressive cognition. Although there are plenty of methods available (each, I suspect with its own benefits and shortcomings), I am noticing more and more a reliance on variations of a word completion task WCT). The idea is simple enough. Participants are presented with a series of word fragments and are required to complete the word fragments to form words. Some of those words may be aggressive and some may be non-aggressive. For example KI__ could be completed as KICK or KILL (aggressive) or KISS or KIND (non-aggressive).

There are at least two versions of the WCT of which I am aware. One was developed by Craig Anderson and was first used in the late 1990s, and the first published results using Anderson's WCT appeared in 2003 and 2004 (note that I was a coauthor of the latter article, and I utilized the WCT in one of the experiments). Anderson's WCT contains 98 items, only half of which allow for the opportunity to complete the fragments as aggressive. Anderson usually recommends using the proportion of aggressive words completed (aggressive words/total words completed) as the measure of accessibility of aggressive thoughts. More recently, Brad Bushman developed a shorter version of the WCT that includes only 22 items, each of which can be completed to form aggressive or non-aggressive words.

Please make sure to read through Anderson's description of the task as he developed it. The WCT is flexible to the extent that it can be administered in such a way that it is timed or untimed, and that one could use either the proportion of aggressive words completed or the total number of words completed as the measure of accessibility of aggressive thoughts. Although Bushman, as far as I am aware, provides no guidance on how to administer or score the version of the WCT that he developed, I would wager that it is potentially just as flexible as far as administration and scoring. Obviously the concerns Elson might voice regarding the CRTT are ones I might now voice regarding the WCT. In addition, we have very little evidence of the reliability of the WCT. I am currently in the process of cataloging all studies in which either Anderson's or Bushman's WCT was used to measure accessibility of aggressive cognition. I routinely examine each article for any psychometric information, such as internal consistency. I found, so far, one published article in which reliability data for a version of Anderson's WCT is reported. Unfortunately, the coefficient alpha is only for a 63-item version of the WCT, rather than the full 98-item WCT. The alpha appears to be acceptable (.81), but there did not appear to be much of a rationale for why a shorter version was used. I am having to assume that since the study was based on adolescents the number of items was limited. I hate assuming. Thus far I have not found any other reliability data. However, my search is only in its infancy. As far as Bushman's, thus far nothing regarding its psychometric properties is available - at least in print. The only information I have is from an unpublished data set, in which an experiment did not appear to work. I examined the WCT's internal consistency as a means of understanding what might have gone wrong, and was a bit taken aback by my discovery that the coefficient alpha was only .53 (regrettably, as that data set is not my own, I am precluded from publishing a full research report - but I do think that potential users of Bushman's 22 item WCT should have some fair warning). That could be a fluke. However, I just do not know, and that bugs me.

As of now, I see two problems: 1) the WCT is apparently administered and scored "flexibly" (i.e., inconsistently) and 2) we don't have a good handle on the reliability of either instrument. Hence, I am concerned about the validity of the WCT as a measure of aggressive cognition. Hopefully, my efforts to catalog the available research will enable me to at least understand the contexts in which the WCT is used and some idea of its psychometric properties. I am hoping to do some new research examining the reliability of both versions of the WCT in order to gain a better idea of the psychometric soundness of each instrument, and if needed begin the process of developing a more sound version of the WCT than currently exists.

My motivation here is hopefully fairly obvious. I like the idea of a WCT, as it has the potential to enable researchers to conduct cognitive research in traditional lab settings without the necessity of expensive software, as well as potentially useful in ecological valid contexts or in applied contexts. I need to know that when I use either instrument, that it is one that will yield valid results (i.e., true, regardless of whether or not we can reject the null). At the moment, I am a friendly skeptic. I would like to be confident that either or both of these instruments work as intended, but I am not so sure currently.

The usual conflict of interest statement: I have coauthored articles with both Anderson and Bushman at various points in my career. This post is not intended as an expression of either good or ill-will toward either of these individuals. I respect their work. That said, I do believe that truth comes before personal loyalties, and that includes the truth about instruments that these individuals have developed.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Friendly reminder about mass shooters

This is an off-the cuff post, with no links. You can find the relevant info yourselves, I hope. More than likely, I am repeating myself to a large degree so you can often find source material elsewhere on this blog even.

Since we had another school shooting in the US on Friday, I wanted to reiterate a few things:

1. There is no link between video game violence and perpetrating a mass shooting. Mass shooters turn out to be less prone to play violent video games than the population at large. There appears to be a causal link between violent video game play and aggressive thoughts and behaviors, but those effect sizes tend to be fairly small, although hardly trivial. Still, the sorts of behavioral outcomes we're likely to find are more along the lines of someone dropping an F-bomb or using obscene gestures than anything that would even remotely resemble actual violence. If you play video games or live with gamers, in general don't worry (even if the NRA or other alarmists tell you to).

2. The above can largely be said for violent media consumption in general. I don't know about what sorts of music, music videos, or films mass shooters watch, but I somehow seriously doubt that the root of their atrocities will be found in those particular media. Like I might observe with violent video games, ask why other developed nations have the same consumption patterns we do in the US, but without the mass shootings. There may be other issues to consider regarding media violence, but inciting actual violence appears not to be one of those issues (again, ignore NRA alarmists or other mass media alarmists).

3. There is no apparent link between mental illness and mass shooting, just as there appears to be no link between mental illness and violent crimes (broadly defined). The prevalence of diagnosable mental illnesses among mass shooters is probably about equivalent to what we find in the general population. Again, keep in mind that mental illness is a very broad term that characterizes a wide variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavior patterns, from substance abuse to schizophrenia. I get wary of those who use such a broad term as a crutch when trying to explain why mass shootings occur with such frequency. Stop stigmatizing those who live with psychological disorders. Much of the discussion regarding mental illness has only further stigmatized people who are already dealing with quite enough.

4. What I do find plausible is that mass shooters just happen to be in a society in which there are a lot of firearms circulating, which is very much unlike the social conditions one finds in other developed nations. Note that I am not arguing that utilizing the sorts of gun laws on the books in the EU, Japan, or Australia would serve as a panacea, as those motivated to perpetrate acts leading to mass casualties will certainly try to find ways to do so. Rather, I am arguing that it would be considerably more difficult for them to do so.

5. Often under-reported is the role that political radicalization plays. Many (though not all) mass shooters in the US tend to gravitate towards ideologies that use violent eliminationistic rhetoric. Many of these individuals gravitate towards neo-Nazism or equivalent ideologies. In that regard, we can view these as equivalent to acts of terrorism. If I were a counter-terrorism expert, I would be studying these individuals, examining what they were consuming prior to their atrocities, and developing tactics to prevent further radicalization. Whatever media consumption these individuals show is likely the sort that has invited them to essentially reject the society in which they live. Some hard questions need to be asked about the prevalence of radical literature and media, and perhaps some harder questions need to be asked about how to minimize its impact on our citizens.

6. Ultimately, let's accept that these individuals are not "misunderstood" and in most cases were not "bullied" - they don't need a hug or a date to prevent them from committing the atrocities for which they are responsible. Any claim to the contrary is just crazy talk.

7. Social learning is probably involved to some degree. Many of our contemporary school shootings have the feel of being copycat crimes. There has been some speculation that school shootings in particular are the result of a Columbine effect. I would not yet rule that out. To the extent that these violent incidents do have social learning component, I do have some suggestions. The biggest suggestion is not to give the perpetrators their 15 minutes of fame. Arrest them, learn from them, but otherwise keep them as hidden from view as possible. Instead, focus on the victims - the injured and deceased. Instead, focus on the punishments doled out to those perpetrators who survive after their attacks. Just because a behavioral process is acquired is no guarantee that it will be performed. In the case of violence, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will often be a disconnect between acquisition and performance. We know from social learning experiments that when modeled antisocial behavior is explicitly punished, such behavior is almost never performed. Let's make not of what social learning research can teach us, and put those teachings into practice.

I mention the above in large part not only as an educator, but as a parent. I have one child in college and two others in the K-12 system (at least for a few more years). I want them to outlive me. I don't want to see their schools in the news because some terrorist decided to attack that location. I also have a fairly long memory, and recall that during my adolescence (the late 1970s and early 1980s) I just assumed that I could go to school and come back home each day relatively unscathed. The worst I experienced was usually boredom. My age cohort treated going to school, or going into any public place in relative safety as a birthright - which is especially noteworthy given that violent crime was at its peak during those years. I really wanted my kids to have that same birthright. They deserved it, but never got to experience life without that particular stressor.  Being an adolescent or young adult is stressful enough without the worry of whether someone might be carrying on campus that day with the intention to kill as many of their peers as possible, or wondering if that fire alarm is real or just a tactic used by a mass shooter to draw them out in the open. I realize that it is politically incorrect (at least to the extent that lobbyists and legislators have dominated the debate have deemed it) to suggest that we change our gun laws to resemble those found in other developed nations, but I am not exactly interested in being politically correct. I am more interest in the opportunities for potential mass shooters to act out their fantasies are minimized, and that if they do manage to act anyway, that the damage they are able to inflict is minimized. Anything less, as a parent or as a professional is unacceptable.

Christian Nationalism Associated with Opposition to Gun Control

The research mentioned in the above tweet appears worth consideration. I'll provide the link to the preprint just in case the tweet ever disappears.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Dehumanization: A precursor to discrimination...and worse

Yesterday, we were subjected to this quote from Trump regarding deported immigrants: "They're not people. They're animals."

C'mon, you say. It's just words. However, words lead to actions. As a reminder:

Brian Resnick at Vox offers a useful explainer on the damage that dehumanizing language can inflict. His treatment is perhaps a bit on the mild side, but it should suffice.

There is ample evidence that once individuals are dehumanized, they are subject to more harm than those who are not dehumanized. There is actual experimental evidence to demonstrate this phenomenon. The Bandura experiment used a fairly mild dependent variable (electric shock levels), so we will keep that in mind going forward. That said, the main takeaway is when people are dehumanized (described as animals such as rodents, parasites, untermenschen, etc.), they become subjected to acts of aggression that they would not be subjected to otherwise. One of the subtly brilliant moves made by Milgram when he developed his obedience experiments was to introduce a level of deindividuation: the participant (i.e, the "teacher") was never referred to by his own name, but merely as Teacher. The confederate in the experiment (i.e., the "learner") was only referred to as Learner, and never by his own name. That level of deindividuation is clever in part because it adds a layer of superiority to the participant (Teacher) in terms of status over the confederate (Learner). That particular situation in a short period of time led to the participants ("teachers") believing that they had subjected another human being to potentially grave harm.

Again, to repeat, the experimental evidence involves relatively mild stimuli and relatively mild behavioral responses, and yet we can see how the conditions for atrocities can be created in the process. Influential people, such as national leaders or major media personalities who use dehumanizing language are in a position to invite their followers to approve of and potentially engage in human rights abuses. The historical record is littered with examples, as Joshua Raclaw duly notes in his tweet. One of the more alarming phenomena to emerge in the aftermath of the 2016 election was an apparent normative shift coupled with an attitudinal shift regarding those groups who were targeted by Trump during his campaign. In particular, once Trump was elected, and essentially an authority figure in waiting, a subset of American perceived that the norms had changed to allow abuse to those Trump targeted, and their explicit attitudes toward Trump's targets became more negative. I've noted before that a subset of the population is predisposed to harbor authoritarian attitudes and that there is evidence that individuals showing higher levels of authoritarianism (and especially authoritarian aggression) tend to show higher levels of approval for any of a number of human rights abuses - including violent treatment of prisoners and the use of torture. I have been involved in reporting some of that data, as have others. Given the uptick in violence perpetrated against disadvantaged groups in the US in the last year and a half, I would wager that what we are witnessing is an explicit endorsement by a major office-holder (arguably the most influential officeholder) to discriminate against and behave violently toward those deemed "unfit" by said officeholder. We have noted that same officeholder refer to some of those involved in racial violence last summer as "very fine people." To his authoritarian base, the message was clear - and it should serve as a clear warning to the rest of us. I usually tell my students that major human rights abuses do not happen overnight: they are cultivated over the course of years. It takes years of regular exposure to dehumanizing language (think radio talkshows beginning in the 1990s, cable outlets like Fox News, and emerging media outlets like InfoWars over the last decade or so) and the emergence of just the wrong leadership for those abuses to occur. Study a bit of history in addition to whatever data the social sciences provide. We are living at a particularly dangerous point in history.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


This week I am dedicating mostly to decompressing. I turned in my grades Monday at both my home campus and at the one where I adjunct. I chaired what I hope is the final curriculum committee meeting for the academic year and completed the paperwork that comes with chairing that particular committee, and went to an advising session for incoming first-year students (and will attend one more later this week). Mostly though I have been resting, catching up on some personal reading, and just spending time with family. I am also doing a bit of reflecting on the past semester and going over what went right and what could use some improvement.

Teaching about replicability is a bit new for me. I have broached the topic a bit here and there, but it really wasn't until last fall semester that I really devoted considerable time to this important topic in one of my upper level methodology courses. This spring, I worked a bit more systematically at weaving in facets of the broader conversation on replicability into all of my courses. In Social Psychology, I added notes and discussion regarding classic studies that appear to be little more than zombies (ego depletion and IATs top my list). In statistics, I am probably looked at as "old school" to the extent that I rely on null hypothesis testing. I am increasingly emphasizing the importance of looking at effect size information, and statistical power in my presentations and demonstrations. If I can get the university to agree to it, I will likely download some freeware (that I know is safe) to show students how to determine the samples they need to achieve sufficiently powerful experimental research. Until then, my discussions will have to be a bit more conceptual. Effect size calculations are easy, and I am routinely including that discussion as we examine each new hypothesis testing technique, emphasizing the importance of replication along the way. For the most part, I haven't received complaints from students for doing so, even if that means deviating from textbook material. Actually, students who get to know me well notice that I often view whatever textbook I am using with a certain amount of contempt, so they expect a certain amount of my class time to be "off the books" as it were. I'm still fairly minimal in my treatment regarding replicability issues in my lower-level courses, but at the Senior level, we spend about a third of the term on nothing but replicability - my Capstone section is a good example. In that course students read the original Open Science Collaboration article from a few years ago, along with several other articles, and they are expected to write critically about what they are reading. I am still experimenting with how to assess their knowledge, and after reading their final papers this semester, will probably drastically alter the nature of that final paper to force the issue, given its importance. I have not yet seen the course evals. Hopefully those give me some direction - although my experience has been that evals tell me little that is useful. The more helpful feedback comes from peers. Certainly any suggestions for readings are always welcome.

I am still struggling to figure out how much replicability material I can expose students to at the lower levels without being overwhelming. Some suggestions in that regard would be helpful as well. The upshot is that I did a lot of rebooting my courses. I think I was a bit underwhelming in my first attempt to reboot my social psych course, and hopefully with some time over the summer will have that one a bit more to my satisfaction. If I had my way, I'd ditch the textbook and rely strictly on open educational resources for that course, but because of an agreement I made with a colleague who also teaches the same course, I will have to refrain for now, pointing out the zombies as I go along.

One of the most inspiring professors I encountered as an undergraduate was a gentleman named Edward Stearns. By the time I started taking classes from him, he was close to retirement. What was fun about him was that although he appeared somewhat old-school, he made one hell of an effort to stay current. I doubt he ever published a manuscript during his career, but he was always toying around with new software and teaching us stuff that was, for the time, quite cutting edge. He could even use contemporary slang correctly. Increasingly, I want to be that person. I will undoubtedly continue to have my flaws as a person and as a researcher, but I do want to model the importance of learning from one's mistakes and of always trying out new techniques and ideas, in many ways learning with my students in the process. I think that there is a tendency among those of us who are mid-career, and definitely among senior educators and scholars to get set in their ways and become blind to the changes that are occurring around them. I'm trying a different path, and it is one that is increasingly leading me to side with some relatively young skeptics and "data thugs" in the process. Where that path leads is uncertain, but I hope it is one that enables me to be a better advocate of my particular science to my students and a better researchers during my remaining couple decades of work ahead.