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.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Photos from this year's George Gerbner Conference

For those of you who might be interested, I thought I would share the photos of this year's George Gerbner Conference on Communication, Conflict, and Aggression, hosted at the University of Applied Sciences, Budapest (BKF). Our paper, Framing Effects on Attitudes Toward Torture, was well-received, and overall the conference was productive. Next on tap is submitting the manuscript for publication at a relevant peer-review journal.

There were several interesting presentations. One that caught my attention was one dealing with violent video games. The impression I got from the presenter was that although the science demonstrating a causal influence between violent video games and aggression is quite consistent at this point (although not without some debate), the science itself is of secondary influence as far as policy goes. Instead, it appears that proponents and opponents of regulating video games tend to latch on whatever published research appears to support their particular views while ignoring the rest. That is a rather disheartening revelation, although not entirely unexpected, given the content of student term papers I peruse every semester in my social psychology classes.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Academic Conference Fundraising

One of the more exciting things to happen over the last few weeks was that I was invited to attend the George Gerbner Conference on Communication, Conflict, and Aggression later this month (note that they have not yet published this year's program, although last year's should give you an insight into the types of papers that get presented there). This was a somewhat short-notice opportunity for me, and given that it is located in Budapest, Hungary, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. The one drawback to handling the process of travel to academic conferences late in the academic year in this age of austerity and budget cuts is that it was not entirely clear what, if any, funding the university would be able to provide to me. I did manage to get the airfare covered, which truly was the major hurdle. However, I am going to be funding the rest out of pocket. A student recently suggested setting up a fundraising campaign to help offset the remaining expenses, and at this time I am going to make the fundraising site available to you. If you have some spare change to chip in (at least enough to offset lodging and some food and subway expenses), I would be appreciative. I can't really offer a lot in return, other than evidence of my attendance, and perhaps copies of my own work from the conference (such as my PowerPoint presentation and the final copy of my accepted paper), but for those interested in attitudes toward torture and media effects more broadly, perhaps you would find something of value in what I do. If you do choose to contribute, I thank you tremendously.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

One of Google Scholar's useful features

I recently made my citations profile on Google Scholar public. Even though I am not going to have the sort of prolific research program like those of my colleagues at R-1 institutions, I still find it helpful to track the impact of the articles I have either authored or coauthored. It is helpful to have data on the impact of one's articles for any of a number of reasons, ranging from curiosity to making a case for promotion or tenure. Some promotion committees will take into consideration not only the number of peer review publications a faculty member has generated, but also how often each article is cited. Article impact is not currently considered at my present institution, although as the institution becomes more "publish or perish" I can imagine issues regarding impact will emerge as faculty come up for promotion in the near future.

Beyond the need to make a case for promotion, I find it helpful to track new citations to my previously published work (something I refer to my methods students as "treeing forward") in order to conveniently discover other relevant research pertaining to my areas of expertise. Certainly, I want to keep up with any possible replications and extensions of my previous work, as well as to find out what new research avenues have been opened by my work and the work of my coauthors. Obviously, as a scientific writer, I publish to be read. Hence, I am now using the My Citations profile as a  diagnostic tool, in hopes of determining appropriate potential journals for future submissions, and to rule out journals that appear to be inadequately cataloged.

Although I usually consider the Social Science Citation Index as the definitive source for tracking new citations, the Google Scholar search engine is pretty impressive, and useful when working at a smaller university without SSCI access.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Measuring Social Class

I often don't have much to say with regard to social class, except to the extent that social stratification betrays a certain level of organizational and structural violence endemic to a particular nationality, but I do find Mark Rubin's commentary on the subject to be worth reading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Recent Publication

Chasing the elusive left-wing authoritarian: An examination of Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Left-Wing Authoritarianism scales was published as of last Friday. It's a data set I have been meaning to have published for a while now, and one that essentially replicates Altemeyer's (1996) findings.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Back to more frequent blogging

Over the last several months, I have had a lot on my plate. In addition to the usual responsibilities that come with my typical work week, I was also up for promotion. The promotion process tends to be rather labor intensive and arduous, and in order to remain properly focused, something had to give. So, I decided to sacrifice blogging pending the outcome of the promotion process. The good news is that my promotion application was approved, and I get to move up in rank.

Slowly, but steadily, I will return to using this blog as a sounding board for research ideas, tentative findings from some of my ongoing data collection, and a few observations about the current state of academe.