Chapter 15. Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
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By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News A new theory suggests that our male ancestors evolved beefy facial features as a defence against fist fights. The bones most commonly broken in human punch-ups also gained the most strength in early "hominin" evolution. They are also the bones that show most divergence between males and females. The paper, in the journal Biological Reviews, argues that the reinforcements evolved amid fighting over females and resources, suggesting that violence drove key evolutionary changes. For many years, this extra strength was seen as an adaptation to a tough diet including nuts, seeds and grasses. But more recent findings, examining the wear pattern and carbon isotopes in australopith teeth, have cast some doubt on this "feeding hypothesis". "In fact, [the australopith] boisei, the 'nutcracker man', was probably eating fruit," said Prof David Carrier, the new theory's lead author and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah. Masculine armour Instead of diet, Prof Carrier and his co-author, physician Dr Michael Morgan, propose that violent competition demanded the development of these facial fortifications: what they call the "protective buttressing hypothesis". In support of their proposal, Carrier and Morgan offer data from modern humans fighting. Several studies from hospital emergency wards, including one from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, show that faces are particularly vulnerable to violent injuries. BBC © 2014
Neil Levy Can human beings still be held responsible in the age of neuroscience? Some people say no: they say once we understand how the brain processes information and thereby causes behaviour, there’s nothing left over for the person to do. This argument has not impressed philosophers, who say there doesn’t need to be anything left for the person to do in order to be responsible. People are not anything over and above the causal systems involved in information processing, we are our brains (plus some other, equally physical stuff). We are responsible if our information processing systems are suitably attuned to reasons, most philosophers think. There are big philosophical debates concerning what it takes to be suitably attuned to reasons, and whether this is really enough for responsibility. But I want to set those debates aside here. It’s more interesting to ask what we can learn from neuroscience about the nature of responsibility and about when we’re responsible. Even if neuroscience doesn’t tell us that no one is ever responsible, it might be able to tell us if particular people are responsible for particular actions. A worthy case study Consider a case like this: early one morning in 1987, a Canadian man named Ken Parks got up from the sofa where he had fallen asleep and drove to his parents’-in-law house. There he stabbed them both before driving to the police station, where he told police he thought he had killed someone. He had: his mother-in-law died from her injuries. © 2010–2014, The Conversation Trust (UK)
By Denali Tietjen Meditation has long been known for its mental health benefits, but new research shows that just a few minutes of mindfulness can improve physical health and personal life as well. A recent study conducted by researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School found that 15 minutes of mindful meditation can help you make better decisions. The research, published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal Psychological Science, comes from four studies (varying in sample size from 69 to 178 adults) in which participants responded to sunk-cost scenarios at different degrees of mindful awareness. The results consistently showed that increased mindfulness decreases the sunk-cost bias. WOAH, hold the phone. What’s a sunk cost and what’s a sunk-cost bias?? Sunk cost is an economics term that psychologists have adopted. In economics, sunk costs are defined as non-recoverable investment costs like the cost of employee training or a lease on office space. In psychology, sunk costs are basically the same thing: The time and energy we put into our personal lives. Though we might not sit down with a calculator at the kitchen table when deciding who to take as our plus one to our second cousin’s wedding next weekend, we do a cost-benefit analysis every time we make a decision. And we take these sunk costs into account. The sunk-cost bias, then, is the tendency to allow sunk costs to overly influence current decisions. Mindfulness meditation can provide improved clarity, which helps you stay present and make better decisions, the study says. This protects you from that manipulative sunk-cost bias.
Link ID: 19693 - Posted: 06.05.2014
by Bethany Brookshire We all respond to stress in different ways. Some of us work harder. Others drink more or eat our feelings. Sometimes we experience sleep loss, heart palpitations or sweats. When the stress dissipates, many of us go back to our daily lives, none the worse for wear. We are resilient. But some people find that stress is a first step on the way to a major depressive episode. It’s not quite clear what’s different between people who go back to normal after stress, and those who descend into depression. “One of the most important questions is, how do the brains of resilient animals (or humans) differ from those that are vulnerable to depression following stress?” asks John Morrison, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. A new study from Minghui Wang and colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York provides a new hint. Mice with a depressive-like response to stress have stronger connections between neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain following the stress. Resilient mice show weaker connections. The mechanism could help scientists understand why some people respond to stress with depression, while others are able to shake it off. The prefrontal cortex is best known for its role in executive function — thought, memory, prediction and other tasks. But dysfunction in some areas of the cortex, particularly one called Brodmann area 25, has been linked with recurring major depressive disorder. Scientists have been electrically stimulating this area to relieve depression in patients. But researchers still don’t understand what makes this brain area important in depression, and how dysfunctions might occur. “I’ve had a long interest in the mechanism of human diseases like depression,” says study coauthor Bo Li, a cellular and behavioral neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor. “The idea has been to identify an area that is responsible, to link a mechanism in the brain to a behavior.” Wang, Li and their colleagues were especially interested in changes to the mouse prefrontal cortex following stress. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS If you are aiming to lose weight by revving up your exercise routine, it may be wise to think of your workouts not as exercise, but as playtime. An unconventional new study suggests that people’s attitudes toward physical activity can influence what they eat afterward and, ultimately, whether they drop pounds. For some time, scientists have been puzzled — and exercisers frustrated — by the general ineffectiveness of exercise as a weight-loss strategy. According to multiple studies and anecdotes, most people who start exercising do not lose as much weight as would be expected, given their increased energy expenditure. Some people add pounds despite burning hundreds of calories during workouts. Past studies of this phenomenon have found that exercise can increase the body’s production of appetite hormones, making some people feel ravenous after even a light workout and prone to consume more calories than they expended. But that finding, while intriguing, doesn’t fully explain the wide variability in people’s post-exercise eating habits. So, for the new study, published in the journal Marketing Letters, French and American researchers turned to psychology and the possible effect that calling exercise by any other name might have on people’s subsequent diets. In that pursuit, the researchers first recruited 56 healthy, adult women, the majority of them overweight. The women were given maps detailing the same one-mile outdoor course and told that they would spend the next half-hour walking there, with lunch to follow. Half of the women were told that their walk was meant to be exercise, and they were encouraged to view it as such, monitoring their exertion throughout. The other women were told that their 30-minute outing would be a walk purely for pleasure; they would be listening to music through headphones and rating the sound quality, but mostly the researchers wanted them to enjoy themselves. When the women returned from walking, the researchers asked each to estimate her mileage, mood and calorie expenditure. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Ewen Callaway By controlling rats' brain cells they had genetically engineered to respond to light, researchers were able to create fearful memories of events that never happened — and then to erase those memories again. Neuroscientists can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Experiments have confirmed a long-standing theory for how memories are made and stored in the brain. Researchers have created and erased frightening associations in rats' brains using light, providing the most direct demonstration yet that the strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons is the basis for memory. “This is the best evidence so far available, period,” says Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York. Kandel, who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work unravelling the molecular basis of memory, was not involved in the latest study, which was published online in Nature1 on 1 June. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers in Norway noticed a peculiar property of brain cells. Repeatedly delivering a burst of electricity to a neuron in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus seemed to boost the cell’s ability to talk to a neighbouring neuron. These communiqués occur across tiny gaps called synapses, which neurons can form with thousands of other nerve cells. The process was called long-term potentiation (LTP), and neuroscientists suspected that it was the physical basis of memory. The hippocampus, they realized, was important for forming long-term memories, and the long-lasting nature of LTP hinted that information might be stored in a neural circuit for later recall. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
By Lara Salahi A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have embarked on a new project to create an implantable device in the brain that would read and alter the emotions of someone with a mental illness. The team is working in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, on a new program funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The researchers are working to create an implantable device that can sense abnormal activity in the brain using algorithms, and then deliver electrical impulses to certain parts of the brain that would suppress the abnormal signals. “Imagine if I have an addiction to alcohol and I have a craving,” Jose Carmena, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who is involved in the project, told MIT Technology Review. “We could detect that feeling and then stimulate inside the brain to stop it from happening.” Mental illness and suicide rates among the US military have spiked over the past decade, the National Institute of Mental Healthreports. The current research is part of DARPA’s emerging neurotechnology therapy program which investigates new approaches to treat neuropsychological illnesses among military servicemembers and veterans. Their goal is to treat at least seven psychiatric conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and fibromyalgia.
Jyoti Madhusoodanan Most people handle stress well, but some find it difficult to cope and as a result develop depression and other mood disorders. Researchers have previously been able to identify the part of the brain that controls this response, but not exactly how it does so. Now, a study in mice identifies a small group of neurons that could be responsible. The research might also help elucidate the mechanism of deep brain stimulation, a therapy that uses electrical impulses to treat depression and other neurological disorders. How an animal deals with stress is controlled by a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, and the neurons in this part of the brain are known to change in structure and function in response to stressful situations1. To look at the cellular basis of the responses, neuroscientist Bo Li of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and his colleagues subjected mice to small electric shocks at random intervals to produce stress. Most of the mice tried to avoid the shocks, but just over one-fifth did not. They also started to avoid other animals or failed to choose tasty foods over plain ones — typical signs of depressive behaviour. The researchers then looked at the animals' brains and found that a specific set of neurons in the prefrontal cortex were easily excitable in depressed mice, but much harder to excite in those resilient to the stress. Furthermore, artificially increasing the activity of these neurons caused mice that were once resilient to become susceptible to depressive behaviours. “We were surprised that we were able to see a difference between depressed and resilient animals at the level of synaptic transmission,” says Li. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group,
|By Bret Stetka Skepticism around fibromyalgia stemmed in part from an elusive organic explanation. Symptoms appeared to arise out of nowhere, which didn't make any sense to empirically minded physicians. “I, too, have been assigned months of futility, long and weary nights of misery. When I go to bed, I think,`When will it be morning?' But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn...Depression haunts my days. My weary nights are filled with pain as though something were relentlessly gnawing at my bones.” Job suffered badly. And his Old Testament woes are considered by many to be one of the earliest descriptions of fibromyalgia, a painful, puzzling disorder that still has experts bickering and patients frustrated, bereft of relief. The Bible isn't exactly a paragon of medical accuracy, but Job’s ailment does sound an awful lot like the modern interpretation of fibromyalgia. The classic diffuse pain, aches and discomfort aren’t the half of it; depression, fatigue, stiffness, sleep loss and generally just feeling really bad are common too. Fibromyalgia patients — 2 percent to 8 percent of the population — have also endured decades of dismissals that it's all in their head — a psychosomatic conjuring, a failure of constitution. Skepticism around fibromyalgia stemmed in part from an elusive organic explanation. Symptoms appeared to arise out of nowhere, which didn't make any sense to empirically minded physicians. But over the past two decades, research has brought clinicians closer to deciphering this mysterious pain state, once thought muscular in nature, now known to be neurologic. Based on this recent work a new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by chronic pain expert Dr. Daniel Clauw brings us up to speed on the understanding, diagnosis and management of fibromyalgia circa 2014. And the outlook for patients is rosier than you might expect given the condition’s perplexing reputation. © 2014 Scientific American
Claudia M. Gold When Frank was a young boy, and he committed some typical toddler transgression such as having a meltdown when it was time to leave the playground, his father would slap him across the face, hurting and humiliating him in a very public way. When I spoke with Frank over 20 years later, in the context of helping him with his own son Leo's frequent tantrums in my behavioral pediatrics practice, he did not describe this experience as "trauma." Rather, he described it in a very matter-of-fact tone. But when we explored in detail his response to his son's tantrums, we discovered that, flooded by the stress of his own memories, Frank in a sense would shut down. Normally a thoughtful and empathic person, he simply told Leo to "cut it out." As we spoke he recognized how he was emotionally absent during these moments, which were increasing in frequency. It seemed as if Leo was testing Frank, perhaps looking for a more appropriate response that would help him manage this normal behavior. Once this process was brought in to awareness, Frank was able to be present with Leo- to tolerate his tantrums and understand them from his 2-year-old perspective. Soon the frequency and intensity of the tantrums returned to a level typical for Leo's developmental stage. Frank, greatly relieved, once again found himself enjoying his son. The upcoming Boston conference; Psychological Trauma: Neuroscience, Attachment, and Therapeutic Interventions, promises to offer insight in to the developmental neuroscience behind this story. What Frank experienced as a young child might be termed "quotidian" or "everyday" trauma. It was not watching a relative get shot, or having his house washed away in an avalanche. It was a daily mismatch with his father- he was looking for reassurance and containment and instead got a slap across the face. It was what leading researcher Ed Tronick would term "unrepaired mismatch." Frank, in a way that is extremely common- termed "intergenerational transmission of trauma"- was then repeating this cycle with his own child. When this dynamic was brought in to awareness, he was able to "repair the mismatch," setting his relationship with his own son on a healthier path. ©2014 Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC
By JANE E. BRODY Bowels, especially those that don’t function properly, are not a popular topic of conversation. Most of the 1.4 million Americans with inflammatory bowel disease — Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis — suffer in silence. But scientists are making exciting progress in understanding the causes of these conditions and in developing more effective therapies. And affected individuals have begun to speak up to let others know that they are not alone. Abby Searfoss, 21, who just graduated from the University of Connecticut, shared her story not in a support group, but online. She was a high school senior in Ridgefield, Conn., when she became ill. After she researched her symptoms on the Internet, she realized that, like her father, she had developed Crohn’s disease. Her father had been very ill, losing 40 pounds, spending weeks in the hospital and undergoing surgery. Soon after Ms. Searfoss’s own diagnosis, her two younger sisters learned that they, too, had the condition. In Crohn’s disease, the immune system attacks cells in the digestive tract, most often the end of the small intestine and first part of the colon, or large intestine. Sufferers may experience bouts of abdominal pain, cramps and diarrhea, often accompanied by poor appetite, fatigue and anxiety. “You don’t go anywhere without checking where the bathroom is and how many stalls it has,” said Dr. R. Balfour Sartor, a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and a patient himself. “The fear of incontinence is huge.” Neither Crohn’s disease nor its less common relative ulcerative colitis, which affects only the large intestine, is curable (except, in the latter instance, by removing the entire colon). But research into what predisposes people to develop these conditions has resulted in more effective treatments and has suggested new ways to prevent the diseases in people who are genetically susceptible. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By JENEEN INTERLANDI Bessel van der Kolk sat cross-legged on an oversize pillow in the center of a smallish room overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. He wore khaki pants, a blue fleece zip-up and square wire-rimmed glasses. His feet were bare. It was the third day of his workshop, “Trauma Memory and Recovery of the Self,” and 30 or so workshop participants — all of them trauma victims or trauma therapists — lined the room’s perimeter. They, too, sat barefoot on cushy pillows, eyeing van der Kolk, notebooks in hand. For two days, they had listened to his lectures on the social history, neurobiology and clinical realities of post-traumatic stress disorder and its lesser-known sibling, complex trauma. Now, finally, he was about to demonstrate an actual therapeutic technique, and his gaze was fixed on the subject of his experiment: a 36-year-old Iraq war veteran named Eugene, who sat directly across from van der Kolk, looking mournful and expectant. Van der Kolk began as he often does, with a personal anecdote. “My mother was very unnurturing and unloving,” he said. “But I have a full memory and a complete sense of what it is like to be loved and nurtured by her.” That’s because, he explained, he had done the very exercise that we were about to try on Eugene. Here’s how it would work: Eugene would recreate the trauma that haunted him most by calling on people in the room to play certain roles. He would confront those people — with his anger, sorrow, remorse and confusion — and they would respond in character, apologizing, forgiving or validating his feelings as needed. By projecting his “inner world” into three-dimensional space, Eugene would be able to rewrite his troubled history more thoroughly than other forms of role-play therapy might allow. If the experiment succeeded, the bad memories would be supplemented with an alternative narrative — one that provided feelings of acceptance or forgiveness or love. The exercise, which van der Kolk calls a “structure” but which is also known as psychomotor therapy, was developed by Albert Pesso, a dancer who studied with Martha Graham. He taught it to van der Kolk about two decades ago. Though it has never been tested in a controlled study, van der Kolk says he has had some success with it in workshops like this one. He likes to try it whenever he has a small group and a willing volunteer. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 19647 - Posted: 05.23.2014
By JAMES GORMAN If an exercise wheel sits in a forest, will mice run on it? Every once in a while, science asks a simple question and gets a straightforward answer. In this case, yes, they will. And not only mice, but also rats, shrews, frogs and slugs. True, the frogs did not exactly run, and the slugs probably ended up on the wheel by accident, but the mice clearly enjoyed it. That, scientists said, means that wheel-running is not a neurotic behavior found only in caged mice. They like the wheel. Two researchers in the Netherlands did an experiment that it seems nobody had tried before. They placed exercise wheels outdoors in a yard garden and in an area of dunes, and monitored the wheels with motion detectors and automatic cameras. They were inspired by questions from animal welfare committees at universities about whether mice were really enjoying wheel-running, an activity used in all sorts of studies, or were instead like bears pacing in a cage, stressed and neurotic. Would they run on a wheel if they were free? Now there is no doubt. Mice came to the wheels like human beings to a health club holding a spring membership sale. They made the wheels spin. They hopped on, hopped off and hopped back on. “When I saw the first mice, I was extremely happy,” said Johanna H. Meijer at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “I had to laugh about the results, but at the same time, I take it very seriously. It’s funny, and it’s important at the same time.” Dr. Meijer’s day job is as a “brain electrophysiologist” studying biological rhythms in mice. She relished the chance to get out of the laboratory and study wild animals, and in a way that no one else had. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Dr. Mark Saleh Bell's palsy is a neurological condition frequently seen in emergency rooms and medical offices. Symptoms consist of weakness involving all muscles on one side of the face. About 40,000 cases occur annually in the United States. Men and women are equally affected, and though it can occur at any age, people in their 40s are especially vulnerable. The facial weakness that occurs in Bell's palsy prevents the eye of the affected side from blinking properly and causes the mouth to droop. Because the eyelid doesn't close sufficiently, the eye can dry and become irritated. Bell's palsy symptoms progress fairly rapidly, with weakness usually occurring within three days. If the progression of weakness is more gradual and extends beyond a week, Bell's palsy may not be the problem, and other potential causes should be investigated. Those with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or pregnancy, are at greater risk of developing Bell's palsy, and those who have had one episode have an 8 percent chance of recurrence. Bell's palsy is thought to occur when the seventh cranial (facial) nerve becomes inflamed. The nerve controls the muscles involved in facial expression and is responsible for other functions, including taste perception, eye tearing and salivation. The cause of the inflammation is unknown, although the herpes simplex virus and autoimmune inflammation are possible causes. © 2014 Hearst Communications, Inc.
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19637 - Posted: 05.20.2014
After a string of scandals involving accusations of misconduct and retracted papers, social psychology is engaged in intense self-examination—and the process is turning out to be painful. This week, a global network of nearly 100 researchers unveiled the results of an effort to replicate 27 well-known studies in the field. In more than half of the cases, the result was a partial or complete failure. As the replicators see it, the failed do-overs are a healthy corrective. “Replication helps us make sure what we think is true really is true,” says Brent Donnellan, a psychologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who has undertaken three recent replications of studies from other groups—all of which came out negative. “We are moving forward as a science,” he says. But rather than a renaissance, some researchers on the receiving end of this organized replication effort see an inquisition. “I feel like a criminal suspect who has no right to a defense and there is no way to win,” says psychologist Simone Schnall of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who studies embodied cognition, the idea that the mind is unconsciously shaped by bodily movement and the surrounding environment. Schnall’s 2008 study finding that hand-washing reduced the severity of moral judgment was one of those Donnellan could not replicate. About half of the replications are the work of Many Labs, a network of about 50 psychologists around the world. The results of their first 13 replications, released online in November, were greeted with a collective sigh of relief: Only two failed. Meanwhile, Many Labs participant Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, put out a call for proposals for more replication studies. After 40 rolled in, he and Daniël Lakens, a psychologist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, chose another 14 to repeat. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues today released its first set of recommendations for integrating ethics into neuroscience research in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Last July, President Barack Obama charged the commission with identifying key ethical questions that may arise through the BRAIN Initiative and wider neuroscience research. The report is “a dream come true,” says Judy Illes, a neuroethicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who was a guest presenter to the commission. Brain research raises unique ethical issues because it “strikes at the very core of who we are,” said political scientist and philosopher Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the commission, in a call with reporters yesterday. Specific areas of concern identified in the report include questions of brain privacy raised by advances in neuroimaging research; whether research participants and patients with dementia can give informed consent to participate in experimental trials; and research into cognitive enhancement, which raises “issues of distributive justice and fairness,” Gutmann says. Parsing hope from hype is key to ethical neuroscience research and its application, Gutmann notes. Citing the troubled ethical history of psychosurgery in the United States, in which more than 40,000 people were lobotomized based on shaky evidence that the procedure could treat psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression, Gutmann cautions that a similar ethical derailment is possible in contemporary neuroscience research. A misstep with invasive experimental treatments such as deep brain stimulation surgery would not only be tragic for patients, but have “devastating consequences” for scientific progress, she says. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Bullying casts a long shadow. Children who are bullied are more prone to depression and suicidal tendencies even when they grow up; they're also more likely to get sick and have headaches and stomach troubles, researchers have discovered. A new study may have found the underlying cause: A specific indicator of illness, called C-reactive protein (CRP), is higher than normal in bullying victims, even when they get older. In contrast, the bullies, by the same gauge, seem to be healthier. The researchers focused on CRP because it's a common, easily tested marker of inflammation, the runaway immune system activity that's a feature of many chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and depression, explains lead author William Copeland, a psychologist and epidemiologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. To link inflammation to bullying, the researchers asked 1420 youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16 whether, and how often, they had been bullied or had bullied others. Interviewers asked participants whether they felt more teased, bullied, or treated meanly by siblings, friends, and peers than other children—and whether they had upset or hurt other people on purpose, tried to get others in trouble, or forced people to do something by threatening or hurting them. The researchers took finger stick blood tests at each assessment. Interviews took place once a year until the participants turned 16, and again when they were 19 and 21. The children interviewed were participants in the larger Great Smoky Mountains Study, in which some 12,000 children in North Carolina were assessed to track the development of psychiatric conditions. In the short term, the effect of bullying on the victims was immediate. CRP levels increased along with the number of reported bullying instances, and more than doubled in those who said they'd been bullied three times or more in the previous year, compared with kids who had never been bullied. No change was seen in bullies, or in kids who hadn't been involved with bullying one way or the other, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By DOLLY CHUGH, KATHERINE L. MILKMAN and MODUPE AKINOLA IN the world of higher education, we professors like to believe that we are free from the racial and gender biases that afflict so many other people in society. But is this self-conception accurate? To find out, we conducted an experiment. A few years ago, we sent emails to more than 6,500 randomly selected professors from 259 American universities. Each email was from a (fictional) prospective out-of-town student whom the professor did not know, expressing interest in the professor’s Ph.D. program and seeking guidance. These emails were identical and written in impeccable English, varying only in the name of the student sender. The messages came from students with names like Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, Juanita Martinez, Raj Singh and Chang Huang, names that earlier research participants consistently perceived as belonging to either a white, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese student. In total, we used 20 different names in 10 different race-gender categories (e.g. white male, Hispanic female). On a Monday morning, the emails went out — one email per professor — and then we waited to see which professors would write back to which students. We understood, of course, that some professors would naturally be unavailable or uninterested in mentoring. But we also knew that the average treatment of any particular type of student should not differ from that of any other — unless professors were deciding (consciously or not) which students to help on the basis of their race and gender. (This “audit” methodology has long been used to study intentional and unintentional bias in real-world decision-making, as it allows researchers to standardize much about the decision environment.) What did we discover? First comes the fairly good news, which we reported in a paper in Psychological Science. Despite not knowing the students, 67 percent of the faculty members responded to the emails, and remarkably, 59 percent of the responders even agreed to meet on the proposed date with a student about whom they knew little and who did not even attend their university. (We immediately wrote back to cancel those meetings.) © 2014 The New York Times Company
By NATALIE ANGIER Of the world’s 43,000 known varieties of spiders, an overwhelming majority are peevish loners: spinning webs, slinging lassos, liquefying prey and attacking trespassers, each spider unto its own. But about 25 arachnid species have swapped the hermit’s hair shirt for a more sociable and cooperative strategy, in which dozens or hundreds of spiders pool their powers to exploit resources that would elude a solo player. And believe it or not, O ye of rolled-up newspaper about to dispatch the poor little Charlotte dangling from your curtain rod for no better reason than your purported “primal fear,” these oddball spider socialites may offer fresh insight into an array of human mysteries: where our personalities come from, why some people can’t open their mouths at a party while others can’t keep theirs shut and, why, no matter our age, we can’t seem to leave high school behind. “It’s very satisfying to me that the most maligned of organisms may have something to tell us about who we are,” said Jonathan N. Pruitt, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies social spiders. The new work on social spiders is part of the expanding field of animal personality research, which seeks to delineate, quantify and understand the many stylistic differences that have been identified in a vast array of species, including monkeys, minks, bighorn sheep, dumpling squid, zebra finches and spotted hyenas. Animals have been shown to differ, sometimes hugely, on traits like shyness, boldness, aggressiveness and neophobia, or fear of the new. Among the big questions in the field are where those differences come from, and why they exist. Reporting recently in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Pruitt and Kate L. Laskowski, of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, have determined that character-building in social spiders is a communal affair. While they quickly display the first glimmerings of a basic predisposition — a relative tendency toward shyness or boldness, tetchiness or docility — that personality is then powerfully influenced by the other spiders in the group. © 2014 The New York Times Company
—By Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney When the audio of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling a female friend not to "bring black people" to his team's games hit the internet, the condemnations were immediate. It was clear to all that Sterling was a racist, and the punishment was swift: The NBA banned him for life. It was, you might say, a pretty straightforward case. When you take a look at the emerging science of what motivates people to behave in a racist or prejudiced way, though, matters quickly grow complicated. In fact, if there's one cornerstone finding when it comes to the psychological underpinnings of prejudice, it's that out-and-out or "explicit" racists—like Sterling—are just one part of the story. Perhaps far more common are cases of so-called "implicit" prejudice, where people harbor subconscious biases, of which they may not even be aware, but that come out in controlled psychology experiments. Much of the time, these are not the sort of people whom we would normally think of as racists. "They might say they think it's wrong to be prejudiced," explains New York University neuroscientist David Amodio, an expert on the psychology of intergroup bias. Amodio says that white participants in his studies "might write down on a questionnaire that they are positive in their attitudes towards black people…but when you give them a behavioral measure, of how they respond to pictures of black people, compared with white people, that's when we start to see the effects come out." You can listen to our interview with Amodio on the Inquiring Minds podcast below: Welcome to the world of implicit racial biases, which research suggests are all around us, and which can be very difficult for even the most well-intentioned person to control. ©2014 Mother Jones