Monday, April 7, 2008

change of plans

I doubt anybody reads this but me, but JUST IN CASE, I'm just posting to say I'm changing the format up a little. I do a lot of reading but rarely post about it until I can synthesize two or more books, articles, or ideas together, but that frequently leaves me not updating for months on end, because none of my thoughts are polished enough. SO. From now on I'm going to be a little more haphazard about posting, which I think will actually lead to more entries, not less.

Continue reading...

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The evil of 'the banality of evil'

There's an article in this month's issue of the Psychologist called Questioning the Banality of Evil. The authors rightly question the dominant narrative of the past half century, spurred by Arendt's quote and supported by the work of Zimbardo and Milgram, that evil is committed by ordinary people who are unable to resist the pressures of a malevolent dictator, experimenter, or general society. As they note, there are clear differences in personality - they point out that subjects responding to ads like Zimbardo's are markedly different from the general psych subject population, and I have always wondered why no one ever talks about the significant portion of Milgram's subjects who refused to obey. Obviously different people respond differently to each situation. On the other hand, the situation itself is also important.

I think there's something fundamentally worrisome in trying to isolate one aspect of human behavior or social situations as the "root" or "cause" of evil. Evil (and my dislike of the word 'evil' is a rant for another day) is not some special class of behavior - it is present in both extreme and mundane situations - at the barrel of a gun and in the triviality of a thousand moments of collective inaction. A person who is meekly obedient to authority might be prone to evil in one situation whereas an impulsive, rebelliously aggressive personality might do great harm in another. Trying to prevent one type of evil should never, ever impede prevention of another. And sometimes I worry that that's what these attempts to shape a narrative do.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Book Review - On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill In War and Society is written by a soldier, and it shows. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is a military psychologist, not a scientist, and as a scientist I found it incredibly frustrating to read this book - almost none of his assertions are sourced or cited in full. Additionally, Grossman's admiration for his fellow soldiers is made manifest throughout the book. Although he makes a good case that these soldiers deserve, if not admiration, at least compassion, his frequent, brook-no-argument assertions that most soldiers are "brave", "noble" people committing a "necessary evil" can be grating to those of a more pacifist bent.

In other words, it was not easy going slogging through this book. However, none of this means that Grossman doesn't have some incredibly thought-provoking things to say.

This book was written to explain a startling fact: throughout most of military history, up until the end of World War II, the vast majority of soldiers (between 75 and 95%) have refused to kill. Brigadier S.L.A. Marshall, who studied this phenomenon during World War II, found that no more than 20% of soldiers would "take any part with their weapons". These results can be found throughout time and across cultures, from Alexander the Great who lost only 700 men in years of fighting, to tribesmen in New Guinea who remove the arrows from their feathers before going off to war, to the soldiers at Rosebud Creek in 1876 who fired 252 rounds for each Native American they hit.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered one of America's bloodiest battles, but as Grossman shows, it could have been a great deal bloodier. Averages and estimates suggest that during Napoleonic and Civil War times, an entire regiment, firing from a range of thirty yards, would hit only one or two men a minute. Let's break down the numbers:

- a regiment contains between 200 and 1,000 men
- a soldier operating at peak efficiency could get off 1-5 shots per minute
- during training, these soldiers were 25% accurate at 225 yards, 40% accurate at 150 yards, and 60% accurate at 70 yards

Taking the most modest of these estimates - a 200 man regiment shooting once per minute with 25% accuracy - you would expect to see about 50 hits, more than 25 times that which was generally observed. As one officer observed, "It seems strange that a company of men can fire volley after volley at a like number of men at not over a distance of fifteen steps and not cause a single casualty. Yet such was the facts in this instance."

What was happening? Soldiers were resorting to a number of options, anything that meant that they didn't have to kill. Some fell back to support positions. A few faked injury or ran away. Many fired into the air. In Civil War times, conscience-stricken soldiers also had the option of pretending to fire - that is, loading up their muskets, mimicking the movements of a firing soldier next to them, and pretending to recoil. These soldiers would then be carrying loaded weapons or would have loaded their weapons multiple times.

When the fighting at Gettysburg was over, 27,574 muskets were found on the battlefield. Over 90% were loaded. Given that loading a weapon took roughly twenty times as long as firing it, the chances of these muskets representing mostly soldiers cut down just as they intended to shoot are slim. But then how do you explain the 12,000 multiply-loaded weapons, with 6,000 of them loaded with 3-10 rounds apiece?

Clearly there is among soldiers (as among most people) a deeply ingrained resistance to killing ones fellow human beings. Grossman devotes most of his book to discussing the ways in which this resistance can be overcome and the consequences to a soldier's psyche when that happens. In doing the former, Grossman is not being terribly original - I found the discussions of emotional and physical distance from the victim, obedience to authority and group absolution of responsibility, taught me nothing new, although someone with little knowledge of these topics might find them pretty fascinating (they are fascinating topics).

Where Grossman really shines is in his discussions of psychiatric casualties. He theorizes that psychiatric trauma is due primarily not to incredibly high levels of physical stress and constant fear, but to the moral strain of overcoming one's instinctive revulsion towards killing. The idea that psychiatric casualties - henceforth abbreviated PCs - are due to fear of death is pretty intuitive. That was a major reason for the German bombing of Allied cities, and the Allies' bombing of German civilians. The war was already causing incredible numbers of PCs (there were more allied PCs than soldiers killed by enemy fire during WWI) and it was thought that civilians would be much less prepared to deal with the horrors of war. The bombers expected massive numbers of PCs among civilians... and got pretty much none.

Why? Could it be that, as rough as things were for civilians in a besieged city, the one thing they were not forced to do was kill? Anecdotal evidence bears this out - when prisons are bombed, psychological trauma is observed only in guards, not prisoners. Both groups are endangered, but only one holds the moral responsibility for the lives of others. A look at military patrols also finds few PCs. Soldiers on patrol in enemy territory are in incredibly dangerous positions. But patrols are given orders not to engage the enemy under almost any circumstances - they are not required to kill, and therefore their level of psychological trauma is low.

Grossman makes a convincing argument. He then goes on to discuss how modern militaries, recognizing this issue, have worked to overcome soldiers' natural resistance to killing and have subsequently increased firing rates. Whereas in WWII, only 15-20% of infantry fired their rifles, 50% of soldiers in Korea did so and almost 90% of soldiers did so in Vietnam. Grossman credits this rise to the American military's campaign of desensitization to violence, dehumanization of the enemy, and above all, their use of classical and operant conditioning techniques. One of the most important changes was in the targets used in target practice. No more stationary white circles collected at the end of the session! Explains Grossman:

"In behavioral terms, the man shape popping up in the soldier's field of fire is the 'conditioned stimulus', the immediate engaging of the target is the 'target behavior'. 'Positive reinforcement' is given in the form of immediate feedback when the target drops if it is hit... these hits are then exchanged for marksmanship badges which have some form of privilege or reward association with them (praise, public recognition, three-day passes)"

A trainer for the Israeli Defense Forces describes his tactics:

"I changed the standard firing targets to full-size, anatomically correct figures because no Syrian runs around with a big white square on his chest with numbers on it. I put clothes on these targets and polyurethane heads. I cut up a cabbage and poured catsup into it and put it back together. I said, 'When you look through that scope, I want you to see a head blowing up.'"

Grossman spends an entire section detailing the plight of the Vietnam veteran, trained in these methods and killing at a rate unparalleled in human history. The human revulsion for killing is not conditioned away in these men, merely suppressed. Previous generations of returning soldiers came home to monuments, to parades, to individuals and society as a whole assuring them that what they'd done was right and necessary. Even then, veterans still battled with their guilt. Vietnam veterans came home to cries of "Murderer!" and "Babykiller!" For Vietnam veterans, there was no hiding from what they'd done. Their fellow citizens echoed what their own consciences already told them - that they'd done something terribly, terribly wrong.

Is it any wonder that as many as 1.5 million veterans - more than half of those who served in Vietnam - suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Is it any wonder that so many Vietnam veterans are divorced, addicted to drugs, homeless?

Let me step away from the Vietnam veterans for a moment, because as sad as their story is, that's not the take-home message I got from this book. For me, the most insightful section was the section on war crimes, what Grossman labels "atrocity". Now, Grossman doesn't actually say anything that interesting, although he does provide a pretty thorough "spectrum of atrocity" and a list of reasons why soldiers and societies might resort to atrocity. But as I read this section, in the context of Grossman's previous arguments, I found myself wondering:

If you accept that human beings have an intense, instinctive resistance to killing others of their own species, and if you devote months of training to overcoming that resistance, to systematically breaking down those barriers and applying stress and authority in all the right places, to destroying that part of a human that screams out that killing is wrong - what is to stop a soldier when he faces a surrendered enemy, a civilian, a child? You've already told him not to listen to his conscience. You've already trained him to ignore any feelings of empathy. You've trained him to kill, and that's what he's going to do.


There are several sections of this book I've glossed over. Grossman has a tendency to address too much, too shallowly. The last section, on violence in modern American society, points to the role of videogames in conditioning children to commit violence and the role of television and movies in desensitization. Grossman does not assert that this is the main cause of the rise in violence in modern society, but he astutely points out that it could play a role. There is apparently much evidence linking violent television to violent behavior. I say apparently, because Grossman source any of it, but presumably the APA did actually say in 1993 that "there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior". Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but in a book of this quality, one would not expect Grossman to really address the issue.

I think I've run out of things to say about this book. I do think that one of the best things about it, though, is the quotes that Grossman collects from the veterans he talks to (he borrows some from other sources too), so I'll end this review by copying some of them for you:

"I was just absolutely gripped by the fear that this man would expect me and would shoot me. But as it turned out he was in a sniper harness and couldn't turn around fast enough. He was entangled in the harness so I shout him with a .45... I can remember whispering foolishly 'I'm sorry' and then just throwing up... I threw up all over myself. It was a betrayal of what I'd been taught since a child."

"We saw the children and the women with their babies and then I heard the poouff - the flame had broken through the thatched roof and there was a yellow-brown smoke column going up into the air. It didn't hit me all that much then, but when I think of it now - I slaughtered those people. I murdered them."

"And I froze, 'cos it was a boy, I would say between the ages of twelve and fourteen. When he turned at me and looked, all of a sudden he turned his whole body and pointed his automatic weapon at me, I just opened up, fired the whole twenty rounds right at the kid, and he just laid there. I dropped my weapon and cried."

"A car came towards us, in the middle of the [Lebanese] war, without a white flag. Five minutes before another car had come, and there were four Palestinians with RPGs in it - killed three of my friends. So this new Peugeot comes towards us, and we shoot. And there was a family there - three children. And I cried, but I couldn't take the chance... children, father, mother. All the family was killed, but we couldn't take the chance."

Continue reading...

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Learned helplessness and political apathy.

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon most often used to describe our best animal models of depression. It's difficult to tell if a rat is depressed - they are not given to crying fits and writing angsty poetry. What scientists will do, then, is put a healthy rat in an uncontrollable situation - in a cylinder of water with nothing to stand on, on a metal floor that gives unpredictable shocks - and the rat will panic and swim and fight and fight and then, finally, when none of that works, it gives up.

The rat has now learned helplessness, and can be considered "depressed". If you put the rat back in the water, but give it a hidden ledge to stand on, the rat won't search for it or even try to swim, it'll just give up and drown. If you give the rat the ability to stop the shocks, it won't utilize it - it'll just stand there. Scientists test anti-depressants by feeding them to the rats and seeing whether it takes the rats longer to learn helplessness.

This is obviously not a perfect model of depression. In fact, it is most frequently used in humans to describe not to describe the common experience of depression which most people suffer through but depression caused by prisons, concentration camps, periods of war or famine (although this wikipedia article mentions school, which I find pretty gratifying). While these situations are certainly ones of extreme helplessness, they do not represent the majority of cases.

And yet maybe it's a better model than people think. I wonder if you took a survey of people who've been depressed and asked them about when they started to become depressed, whether people would say there was a negative influence in their life they could not control? I know this is absolutely true for me. Being forced to go to school every day during middle school and high school was absolutely what triggered my depression and I remain depressed even after I came to college, until I learned to take control of my surroundings.

However, my question is not whether learned helplessness is the best model for depression. My question is whether learned helplessness can have a more pervasive influence in everyday life, preventing us from helping others, participating politically, etc. Is apathy another word for learned helplessness? Have we simply been conditioned from past failures to believe that we can't do anything to address injustice?

One key difference between people who are depressed and those who are merely apathetic is attribution. Depressed people tend to make certain attributions as to the causes of their situation. They blame themselves (internal attribution), assume life is like this everywhere (global attribution) and see the situation as unchangeable (stable attribution). People who are apathetic, politically and otherwise, seem to view problems as global and unchangeable, but make an external attribution - that is, they believe the blame for the problem lies elsewhere, outside of themselves.

This is all wildly theoretical, but it leads to practical questions. Do children who grow up in environments where they have little control tend to end up depressed? Politically apathetic? Can people be de-conditioned? Does volunteering on a local level and seeing change enacted change feelings of helplessness? And what exactly is going on, on a neurochemical level?

Continue reading...

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

And a tooth for a tooth.

I just finished reading a cute little study by Carlsmith, Darley & Robinson (2002), if by little you mean they had over a thousand subjects. I wish I had those resources! Anyway, the authors are trying to tease apart two different motivations for why people punish - "just deserts" theory, which is motivated by moral outrage and the desire for justice, and deterrence theory, which assumes that potential criminals are rational actors and that the goal of punishment is to make crime the less rational option.

This study relies on the assumption (supported by the authors' own validation study) that certain variables will affect people differently based on their motivations. For instance, if subjects are motivated by deterrence, their decisions on how to punish offenders will be influenced by information such as the detection rate for the crime. After all, if there is a low detection rate, the punishments ought to be more severe, to compensate for how tempting a hard-to-detect crime is to commit. Subject should also desire a high-publicity punishment, as this will act as a greater deterrent. Conversely, subjects who only care about criminals getting their "just deserts" shouldn't be influenced by detection rates or publicity. Instead, their decisions to punish should be determined by the magnitude of harm caused by the offense and whether or not there were extenuating circumstances.

Previous studies have shown that people are most likely to offer deterrence as reason for their punishments. However, subjects do not change the severity of their punishments or their attitudes towards them, even when given evidence that deterrence will not work in that case. Accordingly, the authors set out to test how much of an influence deterrence really had. To do so, they designed a series of experiments using narratives of crimes where the above attributes (detection rate, publicity, magnitude of harm and extenuating circumstances) were varied. They found that manipulation of the deterrence variables had no effect, but that increasing the magnitude of harm or decreasing the extenuating circumstances greatly influenced the severity of punishment, even for those subjects who explicitly stated their preference for deterrence over "just deserts" theories of punishment.

One issue that the authors recognize and address is that the scenario of sentencing an individual, apprehended criminal may limit or even take a person out of a deterrence mindset. Accordingly, in their third study, the authors provided a scenario where the subject was still on the lamb. Subjects were asked to allocate resources either to finding and prosecuting the criminal, or to preventing future crimes. Interestingly, while subjects allocated more resources towards preventing future crimes, they still did not behave as predicted. Low detection rates for a type of crime caused subjects to decrease the resources given to crime prevention when, rationally, that's when it would be most needed. Subjects then went on to replicate the previous studies, changing severity of punishment for criminals only for magnitude of harm or extenuating circumstances.

The study treats "just deserts" theory in a straight-forward manner, declining to dive into the complexities of retribution. Are the subjects motivated by a sense of fairness, or by a desire to get even? The authors speak of "moral outrage" and reference a study that looks specifically at the role of anger, but otherwise leave the motivation-within-the-motivation alone. I would be greatly interested to see the considerable resources of these prestigious psychologists turned towards that question.

Carlsmith, K.M., J.M. Darley & P.H. Robinson (2002). Why do we Punish? Deterrence and Just Deserts as Motives for Punishment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1-16.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Aggressive Personalities, or, The Magic of Testosterone

Last week I talked about the role of stress hormones and the ANS in aggression. I'm particularly interested in the effects of stress on aggression because my Div III (thesis) looks at the effects of stress on another behavior, altruism. But clearly there are a lot of other factors influencing aggression. A second model of aggression is the serotonin/testosterone model.

There are many different types of aggression, from the rough and tumble play of young siblings to horrific acts of war. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize, but it's there, nonetheless - I'm excited by the recent focus on aggression in middle school girls. While there are thousands of different ways to be aggressive, researchers have found that there are two main aggressive personality types. These types are so common and so distinctive that you can easily see them in fiction as well as real life, including in the best-selling Harry Potter novels.

James Potter is the title character's father. Harry is an orphan, and at first, all he knows about James is that he was a star athlete, the Head Boy of his class, and that he went on to be an Auror (a glamorous sort of magical FBI agent). As Harry grows, he finds out that James wasn't as perfect as he first seemed. James, one of the most popular boys in the school, was fond of attacking other students verbally and with magic. In one scene, he and his friend use magic to hold outcast Severus Snape upside down so his underwear is exposed for everyone to see.

Severus Snape is one of Harry's professors. Snape went to school at the same time as James Potter, and still hates him, even though the elder Potter has been dead for over ten years. Snape uses his position of power to pick on Harry, making him serve unnecessary detentions and verbally jabbing at the young orphan's emotional wounds. Harry is not the only one Snape attacks, however. He also picks on Harry's classmates, other professors, and anyone else he takes a dislike to. He often attacks even when it would be to his benefit not to, making him unpopular with most of his students and peers.

James Potter exhibits what psychologists have termed controlled aggression. Controlled aggression is a dominance behavior, used by someone to advance in a social hierarchy or to maintain their high position. Controlled aggression is almost always provoked by some sort of percieved challenge by the victim. In animals, this might be a threat call or a low-ranking male's attempt to mate with a dominant male's female. For James Potter, it was likely Snape's refusal to acknowledge and respect his position as the most popular boy in school. While controlled aggression is not always justified, it generally is a means to an end, rather than an end itself. This type of aggression is also called instrumental aggression.

Severus Snape, on the other hand, generally exhibits impulsive aggression. Impulsive aggression is caused by strong emotions such as anger and is aimed at hurting someone - that is, the aggression serves no other purpose. Perhaps because of its emotional nature, impulsive aggression is more likely to be physical and violent, but it by no means always is (likewise, controlled aggression can be incredibly violent). Snape generally restricts his aggression to hurtful comments and abuse of power, but he is often described as just barely restraining himself. One gets the sense that if Snape was not afraid of being kicked out of Hogwarts (or constrained by a magical debt - don't ask), he would have physically attacked Harry a long time ago.

Obviously any two people, fictional or otherwise, will have other biological and environmental factors influencing their behavior. People can be both controlled and impulsive aggressors, sometimes even simultaneously. But let's assume that James Potter and Severus Snape are perfect prototypes of the controlled aggressor and the impulsive aggressor. How do they differ, physiologically?

Testosterone is one of the most well-known hormones, and it is certainly the substrate most associated with aggression. Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone, and its presence drives a lot of the changes that distinguish men from women. Some people explain the higher rates of aggression in males than females by calling it a secondary sex characteristic of testosterone, like one's voice dropping, or growing facial hair. Of course, it's not that simple. While levels of testosterone in animals are generally correlated with aggression, many studies in humans have failed to find the expected association. A study of eighteen highly aggressive young boys who had been institutionalized for their violent behavior found no abnormalities in testosterone levels when compared to healthy controls (Constantino et al, 1993). Studies of older children and adults, looking at both extreme behaviors (in institutionalized subjects) and behaviors within the norm (children rated as more aggressive by parents, teachers and peers) have failed to find a correlation (Susman et al, 1987, Olweus et al, 1988, Inoff-Germain, 1998). At the same time, a number of studies have found something. In particular, James Dabbs published a number of prison studies showing that testosterone levels in inmates were correlated with the violence of the crime that landed them in jail as well as their behavior there.

The conflicting literature left everyone a bit confused. Several theories have been proposed to explain why testosterone and aggression are only sometimes linked, including the one I'm going to talk about here: the dominance hypothesis.

The dominance hypothesis is best explained by Mazur and Booth (1998). They define dominance behavior as action with the intent of achieving or maintaining status and the power, influence, and benefits that come with status. For simplicity's sake, we can consider dominance behavior and controlled aggression to be essentially the same thing. Mazur and Booth propose that testosterone levels are only linked to dominance behavior and not other forms (ie, impulsive) aggression.

This hypothesis has gotten a lot of experimental support. A 1996 study (Schaal et al) looked at behavioral assessments of nearly two hundred boys. While there was no relationship between testosterone and aggression per se, there was a strong correlation with "leadership" behaviors but no correlation with physically aggressive behaviors. Also, when previous studies are re-analyzed and types of aggressive behavior parcelled out, a pattern begins to emerge. The Olweus study cited above found testosterone was higher in those who responded to provocation ("When a teacher criticizes me, I tend to answer back and protest") but not to simple aggressiveness ("I fight with other boys at school"). In the Inoff-Germain study, they found testosterone was linked an ability to deal with their anger and express it acceptibly and non-explosively. This did not mean they were passive. There was a signifiant negative correlation between testosterone and a failure to respond to being aggressed against.

In response to these studies, a new physiological model was made, to distinguish between controlled and impulsive aggression. This model drew upon a body of work showing that low serotonin levels led to general impulsive behavior. Researchers surmised that people who were impulsively aggressive had low serotonin levels. People who exhibited dominance behavior, on the other hand, were driven by testosterone. High serotonin levels allowed them to control their impulses and to use their aggression to establish dominance. A study in chimpanzees found that unprovoked assaults and biting was associated not with high testosterone but low serotonin, and that dominance behaviors such as mounting of other males were associated with high testosterone and high serotonin levels.

Let's go back to our two wizards. If we were able to analyze blood samples from James and Severus - or, for even better accuracy, cerebrospinal fluid - we might expect that James would have both high serotonin levels and high testosterone levels, whereas Severus would have low serotonin. The prediction of low serotonin also fits with Severus's description as often looking better and upset. While I would hesitate to diagnose Snape as clinically depressed, his unhappiness fits with the association between low serotonin levels and depression.

Obviously it is a stretch to talk about the neurochemistry of fictional characters, but hopefully these examples have helped explain one of the current models of aggression for you.

Continue reading...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Images of Altruism

Three different people have e-mailed me this study, which seems to be making the rounds in the news.

The article, published in an upcomming issue of Nature Neuroscience, looked at fMRI images of subjects' brains as they played a game with a computer. They also asked subjects to complete a range of measures, including altruism, empathy and other personality questionnaires. They found that activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) during the game was associated with self-reported altruism but not with any of the personality measures.

They point out that the pSTC has previously been linked to understanding of intentionality. For instance, when subjects see geometric objects moving with seeming purpose across a screen, the pSTC becomes active, but not when the objects move at random. The authors suggest that altruism requires an understanding of agency - what I would call, although the authors do not, Theory of Mind. Because pSTC activity was not linked to the personality measures such as empathic tendency, they suggest that the pSTC acts independently of empathy and other personality measures.

I'm not surprised by the result. Why would you help someone unless you appreciate that they're an indepedent being, capable of acting with purpose and therefore also capable of suffering? Very young children don't grasp this concept. In a common experiment, children are shown a girl hiding a doll in one of two chests. While she's gone, another person comes in and switches the doll to the other chest. When the girl comes back, the children are asked which chest she should look in. Younger children answer with the chest the doll has been moved to. They can't separate what they know from what the girl knows. They don't quite understand that other people have independent minds like their own. Interestingly, the age when children start to answer "the chest she put it in, she thinks it's still there", is around the same age they start engaging in genuine helping behavior.

The authors of this study found no relationship between understanding - or rather, appreciating - the agency of others, at least as measured by pSTC activation, and empathy. They used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, the same questionnaire I'm using in my Div III. Looking at their supplemental data you can see that there was a correlation between the empathic concern subscale and pSTC activation. There was a correlation between the perspective-taking subscale of the IRI and OFC activation as well. However, subsequent narrowing down of activation areas into "regions of interest" made this correlation not significant - I don't understand the reasoning for that narrowing-down, as I'm not experienced with MRI studies, but it does seem to me that a relationship between pSTC activation and empathy can't be entirely ruled out.

My other issue with the study is that it's focused around the idea of understanding the agency of others. The game they play is focused on that, as opposed to on straight-out altruistic behavior (subjects played trials for their own gain and for charity, but this was only taken into account after the area of interest was narrowed to the pSTC and the OFC). Basically, what they've established is that the pSTC has some sort of influence on altruism. That's great, but there are a lot of factors that are important for altruism. Sociability, for instance. Because most opportunities for helping behavior require interpersonal interaction of some sort, shy people tend to be less altruistic. My own Div III looks at another factor, tendency to feel personal distress. Other researchers have looked at feelings of social responsibility. All of these are correlated with altruism, and all of them may involve activation of areas in the brain measurable by fMRI. None of these are measured in the study. Which is not to say that this study should have looked at them. It's important to take baby steps. But... I'm not sure the sweeping claims that some articles are making (shame on you, BBC!) are justified.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How 'bout them apples?

When it comes to social psychology, everyone seems to know two names: Milgram and Zimbardo. It's funny, because they both studied essentially the same thing - under what circumstances otherwise normal, compassionate people will act to hurt others.

I happen to prefer Milgram's experiments. They're a lot sounder, experimentally and ethically. Zimbardo sort of threw a bunch of undergraduates into a prison and waited to see what would happen. Milgram tested subjects one by one, systematically changing variables such as the immediacy of the victim, the presence of the experimenter, the presence of peers, even the gender of the subjects. Also, while many people have problems with the psychological harm caused to subjects (would you want to know that you were capable of shocking a person to near death, just because you were ordered to?), there was nowhere near the risk of physical harm to the subjects in Zimbardo's experiment (which had to be stopped after only 6 days).

Anyway, those of you who aren't familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment can now see it whenever you'd like... on YouTube.

SciAm Blog has links to the videos as well as an excellent summary of the experiment itself.

What I want to talk is this quote from Zimbardo:

"It's not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches."

This quote very clearly delinates between two modes of thought. There's the idea that people are inherently either bad or good, and that determines their behavior. This is called dispositional attribution of behavior. Then there's the idea, which Zimbardo ascribes to, that it's a matter of circumstance. That would be situational attribution of behavior.

Obviously, it doesn't have to be either/or. A bad situation can bias the behavior patterns of an individual. To go back to the Milgram experiment, about 60% of people were willing to shock the victim when he was in another room, but only 30% of people shocked the victim when they had to hold his arm to a "shock plate". On the one hand, you can see how changing the situation drastically decreased compliance. On the other hand, you can see that 30% of people were still willing to shock the victim even when they had to see the consequences and physically apply the shocks themselves. (Or, on the bright side, you can see that 40% of people still refused to shock the victim even when doing so would be relatively easy.)

You can even see this happening with the Stanford Prison Experiment. Some of the guards were quite cruel, attacking prisoners with fire extinguishers and imposing long periods of solitary confinement and forced exercise, but others were kinder to the prisoners and even did favors for them. Of course, none tried to end the experiment. But the point is that while the situation can change the likelihood of particular behaviors in groups of people, the chances of any two people exhibiting the behavior can be drastically different. There's something in the disposition.

This is the kind of discussion that has no clean ending. I'll leave you with part of a diary entry I wrote this summer, when I was at the Yerkes Primate Center. The capuchins I was working with were house in groups of fifteen, and in one of the two groups, an intense hierarchy had developed where one family, the G-family, was consistently attacked. One day a particularly intense fight broke out, and it happened to be the same day that Israel began bombing Lebanon.

I went to my desk and checked my e-mail and clicked on BBCnews. When a conflict has existed since before you were born, sometimes it seems eternal. And I can't bring myself to blame anybody, because who do you blame? The individuals on both sides who escalate the conflict - the suicide bombers, the war criminals - they're just individuals. As long as the situation exists, there will always be someone who will react that way to it. Colleen, a grad student in my lab, told me that capuchins in the wild don't act like ours do. The low-ranking capuchins don't get beat up, they just run away. But Goya has nowhere to run to. We do all we can to protect her, shouting at the other monkeys when they go after her, threatening them with the hose, distracting them with peanuts and froot loops. We're her greatest defenders. But we put her in that situation. And we're putting the new G baby into that situation.

But at the same time, right next door you have another colony, existing (relatively) peacefully. We put them in that situation, too.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't change bad human behavior without changing the bad situation. But at the same time, changing the situation won't fix everything. There will always be bad apples.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Aggression and the Stress Response

This past Friday I came across a fascinating article by Stephanie van Goozen et al(1). They looked at the neurobiology of childhood antisocial behavior and they concluded that one of the major factors is, my favorite subject, stress.

First, some background. The stress response is made up of two major parts. On the one hand, you have the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which conscripts two hormones, epinephrine and norephinephrine (also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline), to do the bulk of the work. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are released from the adrenals and run around the body, increasing your heart rate, dilating your pupils and making your palms all sweaty. They also do some more subtle things, like increasing your metabolism (you'll need that energy to fight or flee) and suppressing the immune system (why worry about catching cold when there's, let's say, a giant bear in front of you). The ANS is responsible for acute stress response.

The other half of the stress response is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a very clever self-regulatory network, the main product of which is cortisol. Cortisol is another hormone, and it also comes from the adrenal medulla. Like epinephrine and norepinephrine, it increases metabolism and diverts energy from lower-priority body functions like digestion and the immune system. However, it's effects are longer-lasting and chronic stress can cause all sorts of problems: muscle wastage, hypoglycemia, compromised immune system.

In any case, van Goozen et al. do a pretty thorough lit review and find that there's a marked correlation between ANS activation/cortisol levels and aggressive behavior(2). The catch? It's an inverse correlation. Most people would think that increased stress helps aggression, not hinders it. Of course, ANS activation/cortisol levels don't equal stress. They reflect a complex jumble of influences - the intensity of the stressor, the organism's perception of the stressor (a Vietnam Vet would likely have a much stronger reaction than me to Apocalypse Now), a person's upbringing and the amount of stress in their childhood, and even a number of factors seemingly unrelated to stress (cortisol levels are affected by what you eat and drink and how much sleep you got the night before). Which only makes the fact that ANS/cortisol levels can predict aggression that much more fascinating.

Why would people with a small stress response be more aggressive? There are two main theories. The first is stimulation-seeking theory, which claims that having low ANS/cortisol levels is aversive. As a college student in the midst of her senior thesis, I would probably claim the opposite, but the point is, stimulation-seeking theory suggests that aggressive behavior is an attempt to create stressful situations and therefore provoke ANS activation and cortisol release. The other theory suggests that aggression is caused by something else entirely. What they're saying is basically that when you have so many aggressive encounters, your body gets used to it. You don't find it so stressful - your cortisol levels stay low and your ANS response is blunted.

It's basically a question of the chicken or the egg. What came first, the aggressive behavior or the abnormally small response to stress? Studies have shown that early childhood stress - everything from exposure to smoking in utero to violence and neglect growing up - causes a blunted stress response. One particularly interesting study(3) involved Romanian orphans during the Ceausescu regime. Ceausecu, a communist, demanded that families bear more children than they could raise, and as a result a full 2% of the population ended up in the care of the state. These children had strikingly low cortisol levels. Animal studies have replicated these findings - rats taken away from their mothers show blunted cortisol and ANS responses. Rat studies also show a direct link between cortisol levels and aggression: rats with their adrenal glands removed become very aggressive, but injections of cortisol prevent that aggression.

This still leaves the question of why some people respond to early life stress by lowering cortisol levels and becoming aggressive, and others do not. Some people respond with raised cortisol levels (these people tend to develop mood and anxiety disorders). Obviously, some of this is genetic - the adopted children of antisocial parents are significantly more likely to be aggressive than the adopted children of healthy parents(4). Van Goozen et al. raise a fascinating idea. They point out that women are much more likely to develop mood and anxiety disorders than men. Conversely, men are much more likely to be antisocial than women.

Is it biology or society that's responsible for this difference? It can be difficult to disentangle the two. The authors also suggest that different types of stressors could result in different stress response patterns later on in life. While it is unclear what effects emotional neglect and sexual abuse have on the stress response, physical abuse may constitute the sort of extreme stress associated with low cortisol levels and blunted ANS response. Boys are more likely than girls to be physically abused(5), which may explain the higher rates of antisocial behavior for males.

The van Goozen article provokes many questions. Hopefully many others will be as compelled as I am to try and answer them.

1. van Goozen, S., Fairchild, G., Snoek, H. & Harold, G. (2007). The Evidence for a Neurobiological Model of Childhood Antisocial Behavior, Psychological Bulletin, 133, 149-82.
2. The correlation is surprisingly strong. One meta-analysis, looking at 5,868 children, found that heart rate, a product of ANS activation, was linked to antisocial behavior. The correlation was -.44, which means that nearly 20% of aggression could be explained/predicted by heart rate!
3. Carlson, M. & Earls, F. (1997). Psychological and neuroendocrinological sequelae of early social deprivation in institutionalized children in Romania. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 807, 419-428.
4. Cadoret, R.J., Yates, W.R., Troughton, E., Woodworth, G. & Stewart, M.A. (1995). Genetic-environmental interaction in the genesis of aggressivity and conduct disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52, 916-924.
5. Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect: (Published: July 4th, 2006)

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Obligatory Introductory Post

I suppose an introduction is at hand, before I jump into posting about hormones. My name's Shauna. I'm a senior at Hampshire College, except we don't have seniors, and my major is neuroscience, except we don't have majors. I'm starting this blog so I can write about my academic interests in a less formal setting than a paper or a retrospective. The focus will be psychology, but I imagine I'll be posting about all sorts of things, so - stick around.

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