Category Archives: psychology

Teenagers are crazy because they’re just like lizards

Remember that time you went to the zoo, and there were these huge reptiles, like maybe Komodo Dragons, and they just sat around doing nothing? Except every so often one of them would make some vaguely unpleasant noise, or snap viciously at one of the others? And finally it dawned on you that it was just like watching teenagers, and you could have saved yourself the cost of a ticket by hanging out at the mall food court?

Well, as it turns out, you were on to something. Clinical Psychologist Richard Friedman wrote an interesting piece in Sunday’s New York Times in which he argues that many of the behaviors we associate with adolescence — like risk taking, fear, and anxiety — may be a consequence of asynchronous development of different brain structures:

Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.

The amygdala is one of the evolutionarily ancient parts of the brain that is involved in things like the “fight or flight” response. If you enjoy using outdated terms and/or trolling brain researchers (and I do!), you would say that this is a component of the “reptilian” brain. The prefrontal cortex is more like the “thinkin’ and plannin'” region, and part of the “mammalian” brain, in that these structures became larger in the evolutionary lineage leading to mammals (and bigger again in primates, and even more biggerer in humans).

If you’re a Daniel Kahneman fan, the reptilian bit is like the fast-thinking System 1, and the mammalian bit is like the slow-thinking System 2.

These two parts are in a sort of balance in children, but, when you enter adolescence, the System 1 stuff matures more quickly, and it dominates the more reflective System 2. Eventually, System 2 catches up, so that the balance is regained in adults.

We’ve recently learned that adolescents show heightened fear responses and have difficulty learning how not to be afraid. In one study using brain M.R.I., researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and Stanford University found that when adolescents were shown fearful faces, they had exaggerated responses in the amygdala compared with children and adults.

These developmental patterns may help to explain not only certain stereotypical adolescent behaviors, but also perhaps systematic differences in how adolescents and adults respond to certain medications.

Alright, so what are we going to do with this information?

Parents have to realize that adolescent anxiety is to be expected, and to comfort their teenagers — and themselves — by reminding them that they will grow up and out of it soon enough.

Wait, that’s not a magic bullet solution that will allow me to overcome the challenges of raising a child with little or no effort on my part! Between this and the World Cup, it’s like this isn’t even America anymore!

Hauser Report Confirms What Everyone Already Thought

Last Friday, the Boston Globe brought us an update on everyone’s favorite data-falsifying former Harvard psychology professor, the man who put the a** in a**ertainment bias, Marc Hauser. The story summarizes a report prepared by Harvard and submitted to the Office of Research Integrity back in 2010, and which the Globe got hold of via a FOIA request. You can look at the 85-page report for yourself, if you like that sort of thing.

The basic story is that Hauser was not fabricating data the way one might fabricate results to show a connection between vaccination and autism when no such connection exists. Instead, he repeatedly made small tweaks to data in order to push the results towards his preferred conclusion. And then, also repeatedly, when someone would raise a question, he would be sort of a dick about it. One example from the Globe’s story:

In a second, related experiment, a collaborator asked to be walked through the analysis because he or she had obtained very different results when analyzing the raw data. Hauser sent back a spreadsheet that he said was simply a reformatted version, but then his collaborator made a spreadsheet highlighting which values had apparently been altered.

Hauser then wrote an e-mail suggesting the entire experiment needed to be recoded from scratch. “Well, at this point I give up. There have been so many errors, I don’t know what to say. . . . I have never seen so many errors, and this is really disappointing,” he wrote.

In defending himself during the investigation, Hauser quoted from that e-mail, suggesting it was evidence that he was not trying to alter data.

The committee disagreed.

“These may not be the words of someone trying to alter data, but they could certainly be the words of someone who had previously altered data: having been confronted with a red highlighted spreadsheet showing previous alterations, it made more sense to proclaim disappointment about ‘errors’ and suggest recoding everything than, for example, sitting down to compare data sets to see how the ‘errors’ occurred,” the report states.

Ah, yes, the old “mistakes were made” gambit.

The 2010 report was the culmination of a three-year investigation into Hauser’s lab. Hauser was suspended from teaching, and then resigned from Harvard in 2011. He currently devotes his time to working with at-risk youth on Cape Cod. The youths are presumably at risk of not having their papers published in high-impact journals, due to the fact that their results are not statistically significant when accurately reported.

Yes, ALL Men’s Rights Groups are Responsible for Elliot Rodger’s Murders

On Friday, May 23, the nation was stunned by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, where he murdered six people, sent seven others to the hospital, and eventually killed himself. Details about Rodgers emerged quickly, most notably a trail of extreme misogyny in the form of a 140-page manifesto, online videos, and participation in discussions on a site for failed pick-up artists. In his last video message, he said

You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer . . . All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me, all of you sexually active men. I hate you. I hate all of you. I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve, annihilation.

Within a couple of days, though, the race was on to control the narrative, to define what, exactly, had caused this tragedy. Some people (e.g., at the New Statesman, the American Prospect), pointed to a misogynistic ideology, which is pervasive through much of our culture, and can be found in its most distilled form in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) and Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) communities.

Other, stupider people tried to point the finger elsewhere. In the Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday argued that it was because the “schlubby arrested adolecsent” in Judd Apatow films always gets to have sex. Fox News – presumably after having tried and failed to find some way in which Rodger was actually Black, or Muslim, or a secret-pro-gun-control-false-flag-sacrificial-lamb – ran a segment in which they brought in a psychotherapist / psychologist to speculate that the shootings were the result of his “fighting against his homosexual impulses”.

Obviously, guns were involved in the crime, and the shooting is already being used to argue for new gun control laws, but it appears that the first three victims were stabbed to death. Likewise, mental health was clearly an issue, as it almost always is in these cases. However, to the extent that blame for this crime can be ascribed to “gun culture”, or to the systematic deficiencies in our mental healthcare “system”, both of these causes pale in comparison to the normalization of an extreme, violent misogynistic ideology.

So how, exactly, are the MRA and PUA groups to blame here?  No one is saying that they are directly responsible for these murders. However, in the absence of these groups, and the broader culture of mainstream misogyny, I think it is unlikely that Elliot Rodger would have wound up where he did.

The key concept here is psychological priming. When we evaluate things, whether actions, or people. or values, we evaluate them in comparison to something else. Marketers know this, and they exploit it regularly: sales are attractive because they make us feel like we’re getting a bargain. The fact is, I have no absolute sense of how much a box of mac and cheese should cost. If I walk in to the grocery store and see that it costs $1.59 for a box, I’ll think, “Okay, I guess that’s how much it costs.” But, if I see that it normally costs $1.99, but is on sale for $1.59, I’ll feel like I’m getting a great deal.

Similarly, fancy restaurants often have one or two high-priced items on the menu, and wine stores will stock a handful of bottles of extremely expensive wine. Even if no one ever orders or purchases these high-end goods, it is worth their while to stock them, because their real value is in making the rest of the prices look more reasonable. If there’s a thousand-dollar bottle of wine on display, you’re more likely to spring for the hundred-dollar bottle.

There’s not much question that Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. Maybe it was inevitable that he was going to lash out against women in some way, that he was going to do something horrible that went three steps over the line. MRAs don’t bear any responsibility for that.

What the MRAs and PUAs are responsible for is where the line was. And they’re responsible for working to make it seem normal – even admirable – to stand as close to the line as you can get.

Like most poisonous ideologies, misogyny tends to get whitewashed with Orwellian double-speak and dog whistles. In public discourse, at least, MRAs are not “against women”, they are against “women getting special rights”, just as homophobic bigots are against “special rights for gays”.

More broadly, very few men would claim to have a problem with women, but a lot of men have a problem with women who are “stuck up bitches”, or who are “psycho”, just as most racist troglodytes “don’t have a problem” with black people in general, just the “lazy” or “criminal” or “entitled” ones.

Whether we’re talking about racism or homophobia or misogyny, there is a societal sense of what sorts of statements and actions are and are not appropriate – of where the line is. The finely carved rhetoric of most MRAs is an attempt to make sure that they stay on the right side of that line. In a way, that’s a good thing. The problem is that when you normalize behavior that is just on this side of the line, you make it that much easier for someone who is angry or mentally ill to cross over that line. Because that is how our brains work.

No matter what the societal norms are, there will always be people who are outliers. That means that if you work to create societal norms that are just this side of physical violence towards women, you all but guarantee that there women will be targeted with physical violence.

Imagine if we lived in a society where misogyny was not endemic. Maybe in that society, Elliot Rodger still winds up as a mentally ill kid with a lot of frustration and anger directed at women. Maybe he still steps way over the line of acceptable behavior. But maybe that means that when he goes to a party, hits on a girl, and gets turned down, he throws his beer in her face and calls her a bitch.

Imagine if that was what three steps over the line looked like, and calling a woman a bitch for not going out with you was national news, the sort of thing that would result in someone like Rodger receiving the psychological help he needed.

Is that scenario even possible? Well, just how far the line of societal norms could be moved depends on the answers to a whole lot of nature/nurture questions. But there is no doubt that we could achieve something closer to that scenario than what we have at the moment.

But the other problem is that we have gangs of the Men’s Rights Activists and Pick-Up Artists tripping over each other to position themselves just on this side of what is acceptable. It’s like that scene in World War Z, where the zombies pile on top of each other until some of them can make it over the wall. Elliot Rodger is the one who made it over the wall, but all the MRAs and PUAs who have been normalizing misogyny helped him over, and they absolutely bear responsibility for the murders he committed when he landed on the other side.

Basketball, Fraud, and the Broken University Incentive System

So, in 2005, Nature published a study by a group of researchers at Rutgers University showing that Jamaican teenagers who exhibited a high degree of body symmetry were judged (by other teenagers) to be better dancers than those with less symmetrical bodies. The study was an exploration of the idea that physical symmetry might be a trait subject to sexual selection — with “good dancers” serving as a proxy for “attractive mates.”

In 2013, Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice received a $475,000 severance after video footage surfaced showing Rice pelting his players with basketballs, grabbing and shoving them, and shouting obscenities at them.

What do these two stories have in common? The stories reveal how Universities are not motivated by their stated missions (truth, education, etc.), so much as by a drive for money and prestige. As a friend of mine recently put it, “Pursuing truth is great, just don’t let it get in the way of your careerism.”

Now, you may be wondering how you can get a job at a University where you get to abuse students, and if you get caught and fired, you still walk away with nearly half a million dollars. I mean, you probably thought you could only get a job like that in an S & M dungeon, or maybe the CIA.

Here’s what pisses me off about the whole thing. Rice did not lose his job for abusing his players. He lost his job for embarrassing the University. When the video first surfaced, everything was handled in house. Rice was given a three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine — secretly. Then, when the video showed up on line, he was fired, along with an assistant coach and the athletic director (who received a $1.25 million severance package). (Here‘s one version)

Some players have argued that Rice’s behavior was not as bad as it appears on the video, and David Plotz argued in Slate that this type of behavior from his own high-school coach made him “a better player and a better man.” Maybe they’re right. Maybe we would all be better off if we were berated regularly for our shortcomings. There’s a balance in there somewhere between “preventing bullying” and raising a generation of hothouse flowers, and I’m not always convinced that we, as a society don’t veer too far in the direction of kid gloves.

The point is, you can imagine defending having a coach like Mike Rice. Likewise, you can imagine arguing that behavior like Rice’s is absolutely unacceptable in a University setting. What is bullshit is internally saying, yes, Mike Rice is great, he just needs to tone it down a notch, and then, when the public finds out, being all, “Oh my god! I can’t believe this was happening!” Basically, the sense you get is that no one was interested in figuring out what the right thing to do was. Everyone was motivated by protecting their own careers, and deflecting embarrassment away from the University.

So how does this relate to dancing teenagers in Jamaica?

The 2005 paper had seven co-authors, but the three key players are Robert Trivers and Lee Cronk, both from the Rutgers Anthropology Department, and William Brown (a postdoc at the time, now in the Psych department at University of Bedfordshire).

A couple of years after the paper came out, Trivers started to suspect that Brown had manipulated the data to make the results more compelling than they actually were. He went on to detail his analysis in a book published in 2009.

So what happens when one of the authors of a high profile paper comes out and claims that the results presented in the paper were not just wrong, but fraudulent? A news piece just out at Nature notes that Trivers approached Nature in 2008 about retracting the paper, but they were not interested. After all, why would they be? Nature’s business plan hinges on publishing studies that are exciting — studies that will be cited by a lot of other papers, and that will attract a lot of attention from the popular press.

This means that Nature (and other high-impact journals like Science) are particularly prone to a few types of bad papers. One is the shocking result that would lead to a major paradigm shift if it were true — but it is not true. One is the paper that seems to represent a huge advance, but is a modest advance that seems bigger than it is because it fails to cite much of the relevant literature. And one is the type we’re potentially talking about here, where a paper presents some really beautiful results, which are beautiful because the data has been manipulated in some way.

The problem is that this business model works great. The upsides of citations and press coverage apparently far outweigh the downsides of publishing incorrect, or incorrectly presented results. In general, there is not that much effort that goes into replicating results in science (arguably, a lot less than there should be). And even if a study fails to be replicated, and is shown to have been wrong, this typically happens years later, when no one is paying attention to the original study anymore.

That means that Nature and Science tend to have this funny status. In biology, anyway, everyone dismisses them as “magazines” or “tabloids.” At the same time, everyone is desperate to publish there.



So what do you do if you’re one of these journals? Well, if you are driven by a moral principle of promoting truth and spreading the best information possible, you put more effort into vetting papers up front, and when a paper is shown to be wrong, you actively try to correct the misperceptions stemming from the fact that people are saying, “Well, this was published in Nature, so it must be right.” On the other hand, if you are driven by the financial health of your corporation, you continue to publish things that will attract attention, and you retract or correct only when you absolutely have to, and you do it as quietly as possible, so as not to harm your brand.

Similarly, what do you do if you are a University associated with publishing a fraudulent paper? Again, if your guiding principles are truth and honest scholarship . . . oh, who am I kidding, those have not been the guiding principles of Universities for decades. As a University, your guiding principle is to maximize your money and prestige (to the extent that prestige begets money). That means that you will promote truth to the extent that you are required to do so, in order to maintain your brand as an important “research” and “education” institution. But what you really want is to keep the accusations of fraud as quiet as possible.

According to Trivers’s account of events, his going public with his book detailing the case for fraud, Rutgers was forced to undertake an investigation, since the work was supported in part by a grant from the NSF. Had they failed to do so, they might have become ineligible for NSF funds. When they completed their investigation in 2012, the University refused to make the results public. Trivers has posted the report on his own site (here). In brief, the report says that, yes, there is evidence for fraud in the paper (although the Nature news piece notes that Brown still denies having manipulated the data).

There’s another part of the story, though, that is much more disturbing. Trivers tells of an incident where he went to confront co-author Lee Cronk in his office about the situation. Trivers felt that Cronk had backed Brown’s version of events, and that the Rutgers report had vindicated his position over theirs, and he called Cronk a “punk.” Cronk then reported the incident to the campus police, and Trivers wound up getting banned from campus for alleged violation of the University’s anti-violence policy.

Now, clearly, I was not there, and so I have no independent source of knowledge about what happened that day. However, the version of event related by Trivers (read the whole thing here), sounds completely consistent with my own interactions with him. His version of the story suggests motivations and actions on the part of others:

It suggests that Cronk overreacted / acted punitively when Trivers confronted him. Maybe he was embarrassed and angry, and pretended to have felt physically threatened by Trivers in order to get back at him. Maybe he really did feel physically threatened, because, maybe, like most academics, he’s sort of a wuss. Maybe he overreacted in the heat of the moment, later wishing that he had not gotten the police involved. I don’t know. I’ve never met him, but this does pass the sniff test as the type of thing I can imagine a lot of Professor types doing.

It suggests that Rutgers sided against Trivers in the incident, perhaps out of retaliation for his original whistleblowing about the paper and the embarrassment and financial cost his actions imposed on the University. After all, if he had kept his mouth shut, they would not have had to undertake the whole fraud investigation, which I’m sure cost a bundle, and they would not have had the embarrassment of national press coverage. Again, clearly, I have no privileged details here, but this sounds like something you would do if you were a University that

I don’t want to pick on Rutgers in particular here. I think that this is the course of action that would have been taken by any University. That does not make it right, though.

I also don’t want to pick on Brown and Cronk, both of whom I suspect are perfectly bright and competent researchers. Even if Brown did actively manipulate the data, I see that as a pathology of the system, where getting a Nature paper can mean the difference between getting a job and not getting a job. If we didn’t hand out jobs and funding and promotions based on numbers of publications and citations — but rather on the quality and rigor of people’s research — there would not be incentives to manipulate or fabricate data. Even if Cronk maliciously got the Rutgers police to ban Trivers from campus, he did so in the context of a system that almost never rewards standing up and saying, “You know what, I was wrong.”

I know a lot of great scientists, people who are their own harshest critics, who are reluctant to publish results until they are 100% certain, who view even critical reviews of their manuscripts as good opportunities to make their work better. I also know a lot of scientists who are happy to cut corners, exaggerate the significance and importance of their results, and promote themselves, even, sometimes, at the expense of the truth.

Unfortunately, the way the current incentive system works, the latter group tend to have much better jobs than the former.

Until we can fix that, everything is going to conspire to encourage researchers to exaggerate, manipulate, and even fabricate their data. And everything is going to conspire to discourage Universities and journals from addressing and correcting fraudulent and erroneous results.

We have to reward honest, serious work that is not necessarily flashy. And we have to reward people who are willing to admit and correct mistakes.

Most of all, we have to reassert the principle of “truth” as our highest value in academia, and fight against its erosion by the secondary values of fame, prestige, and, most importantly, funding.


Disclosure statements.

Since 2011, I have had an unpaid adjunct / visiting scholar position at Rutgers in the Genetics Department. During that time, I have gotten to know Trivers a bit, and we, in fact, have plans to work on a project together. In my experience, he is brilliant, boisterous, foul-mouthed, politically incorrect, and honest to a fault — exactly the sort of person all academics should aspire to be. Unfortunately, in their current incarnation, Universities much favor mediocre minds and personalities who will toe the corporate line, and who will bring funding to the University without inconvenient things like “truth” get in the way.

In elementary school, I was once on the losing side of a full-length, YMCA-league basketball game that ended 6 to 5. In junior high, I once attended a week-long basketball camp at the end of which I received the Orwellian “Most Improved Player” award.

Cognitive Biases and the Trouble with Moral Local Shopping

So, the other day, after picking my son up from school, I stopped in at the local hardware store to pick up something or other, maybe a sack of nuts few screws. The nuts screws would have been cheaper at Lowe’s or Home Depot, but I try to shop local when I can. That is, I am happy to pay a higher price for the satisfaction of feeling like I’m supporting the local economy rather than a big corporation, for a sense that the employees are well paid and well treated (whether true or not), and with the idea that sometimes it’s really convenient to have a local hardware store, and it would be a shame if it went out of business and I had to drive over to Lowe’s or Home Depot every time my nut sack screw drawer was empty.

Now, as often happens when you run an errand after picking your son up at school, we were in the middle of shopping when he announced that he needed to use the bathroom. So, I found one of the very nice employees there and asked if he could, you know, use the bathroom.

He said no. More specifically, he said that normally he would let us use it, but the assistant manager was in the store that day, and he was worried that the assistant manager would tell the owner, who had a policy that customers could not use the bathroom. He apologized, and recommended that we go across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts, where they have nice, clean bathrooms, and they don’t give you a hard time, even if you come in to use them without buying anything.

Okay, so what the hell?

The standard story that we tell each other and ourselves when we are bemoaning the loss of little mom-and-pop stores is that these big chain stores are run by heartless corporations, that local business owners know and care about their customers, that they see them as people, rather than just sources of revenue. Why then do Lowe’s and Home Depot have open, well marked bathrooms, while my local hardware store has frightened employees who steer me towards Dunkin’ Donuts?

Of course, this isn’t really about bathrooms. Let me tell you another story.

A couple of days ago, I found a cool looking coffee shop that seemed to emphasize ethical sourcing of its beans, and was staffed by a bunch of people with various tattoos, piercings, and hair dyes. My initial thought was, “Hey, this is cool. I could work here instead of Starbucks, and I could encourage people I know to come here, too.”

As you probably know, the way wifi works at Starbucks is that you click a button in your web browser, agreeing to terms of use, and that’s it.

At this place, they had access to a paid wifi service. Now, they offered free access as well, but I had to go back up to the counter, wait in line again, and ask for the password, which was handed to me on a small card, and gave me access for two hours.

This, like the bathroom, is not a big thing. It’s a little thing, but it’s an annoying little thing. I can’t even tell you how much I paid for my coffee, or whether it was more or less than I would have paid at Starbucks. AND, given the choice, I would favor the smaller business on general principles, but this little thing left me soured on the experience.

My point is not to argue that Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Dunkin’ Donuts are offering public bathrooms as part of a philanthropic effort to prevent public urination and bladder infections. I’m sure that these corporations are just as calculating and heartless as we all imagine them to be. There is only one reason for these corporations to provide nice, clean public bathrooms: the costs (in space, supplies, and cleaning) are outweighed by the benefits (in customer satisfaction and loyalty).

Remember a few years ago Starbucks did not have free and open wifi. For a while they put time limits on it, or required that you use a Starbucks card to access it. So why did they make it so easy now? Well, presumably for the exact same reason that Dunkin’ Donuts lets you use their bathroom: because it makes financial sense.

Sure, there are downsides to having free, unlimited wifi at your coffee shop. Sometimes you’re going to get a customer who milks a single cup of coffee for six hours, taking up a table and an outlet. It has to be hard not to look at that customer and get resentful, to feel like they are ripping you off, getting away with something. But here’s the thing. Whatever that customer is costing you, you are more than earning back from the people who came to your coffee shop because you have free, unlimited wifi. Maybe you even earn it back from that same customer, who uses your table all day on Monday, and then picks up his coffee to go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The problem is that the guy who is sitting there using the wifi all day is cognitively salient. After all, he’s sitting right there! All day! It is easy to sit there and brood about how he is cheating the system, getting away with something. The extra customers you get are less salient, because it is easy to imagine that they would have come in anyway. If someone is on the wifi for only half an hour, why would it matter if you have a two-hour limit?

I suspect the difference is that open, unlimited, easy-to-access wifi makes you feel welcome, while limited, closed wifi makes you feel at best like a supplicant and at worst like a would-be criminal who is being scolded in advance.

Why am I so sure that free, open, unlimited wifi is the financially smarter move? Because big corporations like Starbucks and Panera, with lots of data and people who are trying to maximize profits, deliberately switched to the unlimited system.

What puzzles me is why small business owners don’t look at this and say, “You know what? If I am going to compete with these big stores, I should set up free wifi and a nice bathroom. I should try to make my customers feel as welcome and comfortable as I can.”

I suspect that there are two problems here. The first, which I have already alluded to, is one of cognitive biases. It is true in a wide range of contexts that negative events impact us more strongly than positive events: it is emotionally more painful to lose five dollars than it is emotionally gratifying to gain five dollars. So the guy who is freeloading on your wifi is more emotionally salient than all of the people who come for the wifi, spend money, and then leave again before you get mad.

This is a place where the cold, calculating nature of the disembodied corporation has an advantage. It can actually crunch those numbers and discover that this is one of those circumstances where you can cast your wifi upon the waters, for you will find customers after many days.

This may be the difference between the owner and the employee as well. If we use the bathroom, maybe the owner perceives that cost in a direct, emotional way that the employee does not, despite the fact that the employee is more likely to be the one who has to clean the bathroom.

The second problem, I think, is the moral language that we often use when discussing shopping locally, where it is presented as a moral duty to support local businesses. I think that there might be some good, rational reasons to shop locally when possible, but I think that the moral framing causes more harm than good. Small-business owners will often use this as a sort of crutch: “If you’re not shopping local, it’s because you’re a bad person, not because I provide an inferior product at a higher price.” It seems to me that if you’re going to start an independent coffee shop, you need to ask yourself, “What can I do to provide the most satisfying experience for my customers? How can I use my local knowledge and connections to create something wonderful that Starbucks could never pull off?” Every now and then you find something like that. When I lived in Santa Fe, there were a few different places that successfully did this, and I would rotate around, working in various locations, and spending way too much money on coffee.

Of course, the moral argument — this vague sense that small businesses are somehow better than big ones — is one that I buy to an extent. It is one of the reason why I’m willing to pay a little bit more to re-nut my sack. But when the moral argument takes center stage, it eliminates the incentive on small businesses to think creatively about what they’re doing — or at least to copy uncreatively the best practices of their most successful competitors.

The Psychology of that one line in Call Me Maybe

So, like, I heard this song the other day. It was by this indie band called “Carly Rae Jepsen.” You’ve probably never heard of them.

Actually *removes hipster glasses* while most of the appeal of “Call Me Maybe,” the song that dominated the summer of 2012, comes from its earnest simplicity, there is one line in the lyrics that has some real texture to it:

Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad

This line captures something universal and not at all trivial, the way that our memories of past emotions are reshaped by our current knowledge.

The thing is, we tend to think of ourselves as objective observers. We trust that our perceptions bear a one-to-one correspondence to the world around us. But the information that actually makes it from the outside world into our brains is much more limited and impressionistic. Our brains construct most of the details based on expectations about how the world works.

As William Wordsworth, the Carly Rae Jepsen of his time, wrote:

                            Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive;

While this perceiving-and-creating is a good description of our perceptions, it is even more true of our memories. When we attempt to recall how we felt about something in the past, it might feel like we are accessing internal CCTV footage, what we are actually doing is more like reconstructing those feelings on the basis of crayon sketch by a drunk three year old.

For those of you without drunk three year olds at home, what I mean is that there are a lot of details that need to be filled in. In the case of memories, one of the places we go for these details is our understanding of the world in the present.

Here’s an example. In one psychology study (citation below), participants were asked to predict how they would feel if their team lost the Superbowl, and they were all like, “OH MY GOD THAT WOULD BE THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!11!1!!!” But then, when their team actually did lose the Superbowl, they were like, “Whatevs, dude.”

That’s maybe not too surprising, but the interesting thing is that when these people were asked to recall how they predicted that they would feel, they tended to remember feeling like it would not have been that big a deal. That is, their recollection of their emotional state in the past was anchored to their emotional state in the present.

Similar results were found for studies on the 2008 presidential election, satisfaction from completing a major purchase, and how much they would enjoy eating jellybeans, depending on the order in which jellybeans of different flavors were eaten.

While “recall of predicted hedonic sequence” sounds like a totally awesome study, in a hookers-on-mars-with-three-boobs sort of way, this study was actually about eating jellybeans.

In “Call Me Maybe,” there are a couple of different ways to interpret the line “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.” One possibility is that Carly Rae is, in fact, a time traveler from the future. At the age of twenty four, she met her one true soulmate. Unfortunately, he was ninety-six years old and was unable to keep up with her sexually. So, she traveled back to the year 2009, and then waited for her ripped-jeans Adonis to show up in her life on that hot and windy night.

A second possibility is that her emotional state after having met this guy colored her recollection of her emotional state in the time before she met him.

Here’s that video of the US Olympic Swim Team lip-syncing “Call Me Maybe.” While you’re watching it, I want you to try to remember how invested you were in the outcome of the Olympics back in July and August. Then notice how little you care about the Olympics in retrospect. Now, recognize that while you think you were all, “Olympics, Schmolympics!” at the time, you were actually all “USA! USA! That Ryan Lochte boy seems nice!”

Don’t you feel dumb?

Don’t own it? Here it is on iTunes.  Buy It!!icon

Meyvis, T., Ratner, R. K., & Levav, J. (2010). Why Don’t We Learn to Accurately Forecast Feelings? How Misremembering Our Predictions Blinds us to Past Forecasting Errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139 (4), 579-589 : 10.1037/A0020285

Toxoplasmosis Extravaganza: Ride Complete!

So, this week at Darwin Eats Cake, we celebrated our one-year anniversary with a series of nine strips on the zooparasite Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite, which causes Toxoplasmosis, is the reason why pregnant women are encouraged to avoid cat litter.

Here’s the full series, presented for your one-stop-shopping viewing pleasure. The strips do not, I think, assume any expert biological knowledge, so you don’t need to be a parasitologist to enjoy them. However, a dorky and juvenile sense of humor will help a lot. Alternatively, you can read them on the Darwin Eats Cake website, where they look a little better, I think. The series starts at

At this point, Darwin Eats Cake will return to its regular programming schedule, with twice-a-week updates, usually on Mondays and Thursdays, except for those days that have been recognized as official holidays by the Darwin Eats Cake Council of Freeholders and its chairwoman, the duly elected Queen of Naboo.

So, stop by on Monday for a new strip, or any time to trawl the archive:

It’s Toxoplasmosis week at Darwin Eats Cake

So, tomorrow (March 13) marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of my webcomic Darwin Eats Cake on its very own website (here). Normally, Darwin Eats Cake updates approximately twice a week (hemicircaseptanally), on approximately Monday and Thursday (circa-Mondarily and circa-Thursdarily, I assume). However, to mark this special anniversary occasion, we are rolling out a daily series of strips on Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite responsible for Toxoplasmosis. This bug was recently in the news thanks to a profile of Jaroslav Flegr published recently in the Atlantic (here).

Here are the first two of this week’s six strips:

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Hauser response to plagiarism allegations

So, I’m not sure exactly how I wound up covering this story here. Somehow I have this vague memory of posting a link. Then there was a green fog, and some comments, and tiny dogs riding tricycles, and Katie Holmes struggling to escape from her Katie-Holmes-shaped prison cell, except she had giant fangs, and next thing you know, here we are.

Anyway, a few days ago I mentioned that Gilbert Harman had reposted his mini-paper in which he lays out the case that Marc Hauser had taken many of the ideas in his book Moral Minds from a young researcher named John Mikhail, and that Hauser had not given Mikhail adequate credit for those ideas. Harman argues that Hauser’s qualifies as plagiarism, not of Mikhail’s words, but of his ideas.

A commenter noted that Hauser has responded to the allegations, and Harman provided a link to Hauser’s response, which he has posted on his webpage. You can view the response here. Briefly, Hauser argues 1) that many of the ideas in the book, which Harman claims were copied wholesale from Mikhail, were, in fact, indebted to a number of non-Mikhail sources, many of which predate Mikhail’s work (e.g., Chomsky), 2) that the scope and thrust of Moral Minds is quite different from Mikhail’s, and 3) that Harman seems to be lobbying for a standard of citation that is not at all standard in the field (or any field), and would result in books being completely overwhelmed with citations.

It is worth remembering that Harman himself has stated that his original allegations (which you can read here) were meant to be “a draft of a case for the prosecution and not a final verdict on this topic.” So I think that even Harman would not want any of us jumping to any conclusions without reading and considering Hauser’s response.

What I would love is to hear from someone out there who is familiar with the work in question, but is not connected to Hauser, Mikhail, or Harman. Does any such person exist out there?