Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On the Importance of Emotion

During April's A-Z Blog Challenge, I talked about a variety of social psychological concepts. I talked about emotion (also known as affect) and how it influences the decision-making process. The thing many people outside of psychology do not always understand is that there really isn't a hard line between decisions made through cognition ("rationally") and those made through affect ("emotionally"). The two forces work together. Without emotion, we would find it very difficult to make some of the most basic decisions. Why? Because rational thought can only get us so far, and when two options are equally matched on a logical level, it takes that extra push of emotion to make a decision.

In Descartes' Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, we learn about a patient named Elliot (not his real name), who was a successful businessman with a family, until he had a brain tumor removed from his frontal lobe. After, Elliot remained an intelligent, pleasant person, but his life was in shambles:
Any projects he did on the job were either left incomplete or had to be corrected, eventually leading to the loss of his job. He got involved in a moneymaking scheme with a “shady character” that ended up in bankruptcy. He got divorced, then married again to someone his family strongly disapproved of, and divorced again. By the time his referring doctors sent him to Damasio, he was living with a sibling, and, as a final blow, was denied disability assistance. The docs wanted to know if Elliot had a “real disease,” Damasio recounts, since “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work. Several professional had declared that his mental faculties were intact — meaning that at the very best Elliot was lazy, and at the worst a malingerer.”

[Damasio] learned that when Elliot was at work, he might spend an entire afternoon trying to figure out how to categorize his documents: Should it be by date, pertinence to the case he’s working on, the size of the document, or some other metric? Yet his cognitive faculties were ace: He tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence; Elliot’s long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were all still present. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant. But he acted like he was both. He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. And it had led his life to ruin.

What was even more confounding is that Elliot could think up lots of options for a decision. When given assignments of assessing ethics (like whether or not to steal something for his family, Les Miserables–style), business (like whether to buy or sell a stock), or social goals (like making friends in a new neighborhood), he did great. But, even with all the idea generation, he could not choose effectively, or choose at all.
Without emotions, it becomes more difficult to know which tasks are more pressing, which organizational method is most preferable, or even when to buy or sell a stock. Those little emotional cues push us along. Whether we mean to or not, emotions come into play regularly. If they didn't, we would be like poor Elliot, forever analyzing organizational methods while blowing work deadlines or falling for scams that might sound legit if not for the little nagging doubt or fear in the back of our minds.

In fact, emotional reactions occur more quickly than cognitive reactions. We feel fear and begin to run before we consciously realize we've just seen a bear during our hike. One reason for this might be how our brain uses short-term memory (also known as working memory) versus long-term memory. Working memory is filled with information we want to have readily accessible, while long-term memory refers to the information and episodes (memories of our lives) in storage.

A recent study in Psychological Science delved into this very topic. Across four studies, they examined how emotional information stored in working memory impacted processing speed. On a computer, they showed participants faces, either neutral or negative (fearful or angry). They manipulated whether participants held this face in their working memory by telling them to remember the face for a task later on. They then flashed faces, which increased in contrast to become more clear across 5 seconds. Participants had to indicate whether they saw the face, and then indicate whether it was the same as the face they were shown initially. They found that people identified faces more quickly when presented with a fearful or angry face:
In sum, the present study extends previous findings by demonstrating that the content of WM can affect emotional processing in the absence of conscious awareness, and such WM modulation effects on nonconscious processing seem to be tuned to threat-related signals (e.g., fear and anger).
Essentially, the faces put people on edge and made them react more quickly. In a computer-driven study, this might not seem very important but what if (for instance) you're out in a public place and you look around and see fear on people's faces? You now know there's something to be afraid of and you will hopefully react more quickly when you encounter whatever you should fear. If you didn't have emotions, faces would just be faces, and whatever emotion they're displaying would be as meaningless as organizing files by document size.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Now I Am Become Blog

On Thursday, I wrote about Susan Fiske's upcoming article in the APS Observer. Today, Neuroskeptic, published its own response to Fiske's article. Unlike other bloggers (such as Andrew Gelman), Neuroskeptic seems to agree with my interpretation that Fiske was not talking about just anyone who criticizes scientific research, but people who do so in an unethical manner. However, he takes things one step farther than me by demanding that Fiske name names:
We should hold the offenders accountable with reference to specific examples of their attacks. After all, these people (Fiske says) are vicious bullies who are behaving in seriously unethical ways. If so, they deserve to be exposed.

Yet Fiske doesn’t do this. She says, “I am not naming names because ad hominem smear tactics are already damaging our field.” But it’s not an ad hominem smear to point to a case of bullying or harassment and say ‘this is wrong’. On the contrary, that would be standing up for decency.

His Name May Ring a Bell

I talk a lot about behavior and conditioning on this blog, so it's surprising that this is the first time I've recognized this big day in the history of psychology:

Happy birthday, Ivan Pavlov!


Pavlov was born on this day in 1849. Though Pavlov's research on classical conditioning has had a tremendous influence on the field of psychology, he was actually a physiologist, interested in studying digestion. His research is a great example of the importance of serendipity - fortunate accidents - in the advancement of science.

In honor of Pavlov's big day, I'm going to do something I don't do very often - share a video of myself. Several years ago, when I was still a grad student and adjunct faculty member at Loyola, I was invited by a colleague to submit an educational video for his YouTube series (which, sadly, didn't take off), in which I spoke about classical conditioning. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Scoobies of Stranger Things

In a mashup that was surely created just for me (I know, it wasn't... and don't call me Shirley), someone has created Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style opening credits for Stranger Things:


Nerdist is of course loving this mashup as well, and speculated on who the various Stranger Things characters would align with in Buffy:
In this particularly apt mash-up, YouTube user Tony Harley has combined the characters of Stranger Things with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer intro credits, and it’s so damn perfect I can’t believe no one thought of it sooner. I mean, think about it: a group of lovable young weirdos band together to solve a supernatural mystery and defeat monsters? If that’s not the Scooby Gang from Buffy, I don’t know what is. But the parallels go further than that. Eleven, played to perfection by Millie Bobbie Brown, is the obvious choice for Buffy, not just because she’s the complicated young woman at the center of the story, but because she is tormented by her own powers. [spoilers removed]

Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is clearly the Giles in this crossover universe (and we’d love to see him interact with the kids more in season two, just to keep this comparison going), and I SUPPOSE Joyce would be Joyce, although I never felt like Buffy-Joyce supported and believed in Buffy the way Winona-Joyce believes in her missing son. Brooding brother Jonathan reminds me of mopey ol’ Angel, so maybe Steve is Spike? As for the kids, well, that’s where things get tricky. Ultimately I think Mike is Willow (which yes, corresponds with some popular Buffy fanfic out there), Dustin is Xander, and Lucas is Cordelia. That leaves Tara for Nancy, which shakes out nicely. Ok, so the parallels aren’t THAT direct but you get the picture.

Don't Bother, They're Here

In the category of "bizarro news," you may have heard about people dressing up like clowns and terrorizing the locals, in places like Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and a few other places without Green in the name. Being terrified of clowns, they really don't have to do much to terrify me except, you know, look like this:


However, these clowns are being truly scary to everyone who encounters them, including trying to abduct children. So far, there have been reports of creepy clown sightings in 6 states. A few have been arrested, and said after they were just trying to scare people and have fun. But the real question is: WTF? Why clowns? And why so many all of a sudden?

The fear of clowns (also sometimes called coulrophobia) is not an actual diagnosable fear; it doesn't actually appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). But there are many instances in pop culture, such as the horror miniseries It in the 1990s, the seem to correlate with increases in reported fear of clowns. A new version of It comes out next year. Perhaps that's the reason for all this clowning around?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

And It Feels Like the First Time

The last couple of nights, I've gotten to engage in two "firsts":

The first first was seeing my favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, on the big screen. Though I've seen this movie so many times I can pretty much recite the whole script, I first discovered it 15 years or so ago, after it had been released on video. (In fact, I'm sure the first time I saw it was on VHS.) Thursday night, I went to a Big Lebowski movie screening/beer tapping party with a friend. So much fun! I wore a Maude Lebowski costume and won the costume contest (!) despite the fact that there was a very authentically dressed Dude there (who I personally think should have won). Here's a photo my husband took of me in costume right before I left for the party:


Then for the second first, I went to my first masquerade ball, the Devil's Ball to benefit the Auditorium Theater. Once again, so much fun! Despite feeling a little rough and having almost no appetite from over-indulging Thursday night, I spent much of the night dancing, partaking in the mask competition, and hanging out with friends. I even had my picture taken by the professional photographer after one of the Auditorium Theater board members complimented my dress. (Note to self - when going to this kind of party, always know off hand "who" you're wearing.) I mentioned to one of my friends that I haven't been coached on how to pose (which I really appreciated, because I'm not naturally photogenic) since my wedding day. Hopefully that photo will be up soon and I can share. For now, I give you a selfie I took right before walking over the ball:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tastes Like the Real Thing

And in the category of "peer review is so screwed", some researchers machine-generated reviews and presented them along with actual reviews to participants, who generally could not notice a difference:
Peer review is widely viewed as an essential step for ensuring scientific quality of a work and is a cornerstone of scholarly publishing. On the other hand, the actors involved in the publishing process are often driven by incentives which may, and increasingly do, undermine the quality of published work, especially in the presence of unethical conduits.

We presented to [16] subjects a mix of genuine and machine generated reviews and we measured the ability of our proposal to actually deceive subjects judgment. The results highlight the ability of our method to produce reviews that often look credible and may subvert the decision.
God help us all.