Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Post by Ruthanna Gordon

I’m wrapping up seven years of classroom teaching this week. I’m going full time into science communication and policy, so I’m not exactly getting away from education. Still, it’s the sort of thing that makes one thoughtful. And I find, when I think about my time in the classroom, that storytelling has been wound through it all.

My graduate advisor was a storyteller—her introductory psychology course had a real reputation. If the topic was problem solving, she’d have the students rolling in the aisles while she explained how she got a squirrel out of her house with a vacuum cleaner. If the topic was consciousness, we TAs would check the doors surreptitiously for visiting administrators while she talked about her own experiences with altered states. I picked up the habit myself. Most of the time, I tell funny stories: “How Professor Gordon Used Old Issues of X-Men to Improve Her Memory,” or “What Professor Gordon Did When the Cloth Ceiling of Her Junkheap Car collapsed.” But some of the most powerful stories are more serious.

At the beginning of a course, a lot of students—engineers, architects, and physicists looking to pick up an easy credit—are dubious about the whole idea of psychology as a science. It’s not really like a standard lab science, after all. Human minds are fuzzy and hard to pin down, and no one really wants to think that free will is predictable. Or maybe it’s so predictable that no science is necessary. Isn’t psychological “research” just a matter of confirming things that everyone knows intuitively?

So I tell them a story.

Imagine that you’re a student, perennially broke and looking for a chance to earn a little extra cash. You see a sign posted one day, for an experiment on memory. They’re paying a few dollars, not anything spectacular but enough to buy lunch. It will take less than an hour, so why not?

You arrive at the lab at the appointed time. The place is very posh—obviously well-funded, with thick carpets and curtains, and lots of little rooms connected by intercoms and one-way mirrors. There’s another subject there as well, signed up for the same time slot. He’s an older fellow, a little bit balding and shaky, but you chat for a few minutes while you wait, and he seems sweet and likeable.

Finally the experimenter arrives. He passes around the consent forms, and lets you know that he’s studying the effect of punishment on memory. As in many psychology experiments, “punishment” consists of electric shock—a tradition that dates back to the early behaviorists. He’s a bit short on assistants right now, so one of you is going to be the learner, who tries to memorize pairs of words and gets punished if you miss any. The other will be the teacher who reads out words for memorization, and administers the shock when necessary. The experimenter himself will be timing responses and taking notes. The two of you pick roles out of a hat, and you have to admit you’re a bit relieved when you draw the role of the teacher.

The experimenter leads the two of you into the learner’s room, where there’s a chair with electrode hook-ups. You get a sample shock yourself, at the lowest level of 15 volts. It feels a bit like touching a doorknob on a dry winter day. The older fellow gets hooked up, and you’re led into the next room, where there’s a list of words, an intercom, and the control panel for the electrode array. The panel consists of a series of switches for increasing levels of shock, ranging from the static you just experienced all the way up to 450 volts—that end is marked with a red Danger sign.

You’re ready to begin. The experimenter explains the rules: you’ll read the words in pairs, and the learner is to memorize which words go together. Every time he gets a pair wrong, you give him the next highest level of shock—presumably increasing his motivation to avoid future errors.

The first couple of pairs, the learner gets right. But he seems nervous, and he starts to make mistakes. The first couple of times aren’t too bad, but as the voltage increases he starts to grunt, then to cry out in pain. At 150 volts, he’s had enough—he tells you, over the intercom, that he wants out of the experiment. You glance back at the experimenter, busy scribbling notes.

“Keep going,” he says. “It’s important to finish the experiment.”

What do you do?

(At this point, you can picture the sea of hands in response—28 students who say they’d stop, and 2 who think it’s shocking to say they wouldn’t.)

If you do keep going, the cries of pain get worse. The learner refuses to give answers; the experimenter tells you, again and again, that the study must be completed. Finally the learner screams and goes silent. The experimenter tells you to keep going…

Some of you may recognize the Milgram shock experiments by now. If so, you know that the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter, and not receiving any actual shocks. The “teacher” is the true subject, and the question is how willing people are to harm others—simply because an authority tells them to. The answer turns out to be that they are very willing: 65% turned up the voltage all the way to the Danger sign in spite of believing that the learner was seriously injured, possibly dead.

This is not intuitive. Ask a room of people who don’t know the results, and they’ll guess that maybe 1% or fewer would obey. Not normal people. Only the rare psychopaths. Only the monsters.

Running the experiment, and learning this nonintuitive truth about humanity, is important. It helps us to be on guard against our inner monsters, and to remember that questioning authority is possible. It helps us to be better people. And that, I tell my students, is why we do science.


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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

I have a confession to make: I am not the world’s most visual thinker.  I like language.  I like finding the exact right word, Mark Twain’s “lightning” rather than his “lightning bug.”  By default, I think in blocks of text.  I have learned, through long experience, that this annoys people.  With some effort, I now remember to put pictures into my presentations and blog posts.

This is a little odd, because when I’m reminded, I actually learn as much from a good visual aid as anyone else.  I pour over XKCD’s intricate and amusing charts for informational tidbits. And the examples from this TED talk made my jaw drop with the sudden rush of clarity.  But somehow, I can still forget to look for—or create—the right visualization if it isn’t dropped in my lap.

Psychology suggests that my flaw isn’t all that unusual. Most people find imagery incredibly helpful—and most default to representing information verbally.  Some time back, a group of researchers asked people to solve a problem.  They had to determine the most efficient order of processes in a hypothetical, given several constraints.  When people were explicitly told to draw a diagram, they came up with better solutions, more quickly.  Yet those who just got the problem rarely used this strategy spontaneously.

Images are easier to remember than visual descriptions.  A picture is not only worth a thousand words, it takes considerably fewer mental resources.  Images require us to ground even the most abstract ideas in specific, concrete details.  Since most of our cognitive abilities have evolved to deal with a specific, concrete world, imagery invokes all our most effective and efficient mental abilities.

We have some instinct for this advantage with kids.  In elementary school, students who have trouble reading may be given playsets to help them follow along—a toy farmhouse with animals that can be moved to fit story descriptions, for example. Those beginning addition or subtraction are given colored blocks to play with, and shown how to push them together or pull them apart to illustrate equations.

These innovations help children overcome bumps in learning, and stay ahead long term.  Yet, as we get older, we tend to dismiss the need for such aids.  It feels a bit like counting on your fingers.  It shouldn’t, though.  Visualization is at the heart of the way we think.

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Last week we had art analyzed by science, science informed by art, and art created accidentally in the lab.  I want to start this week with another connection: science as an inspiration for art.

One of the major purposes of art—if it needs a purpose—is to explain the world.  Science tells us how it works, but art interprets those findings emotionally.  How should I think about this?  How does it affect my life?  Other times, art simply translates, talking about the most interesting findings in a more entertaining way than even the most well-written journal article can manage.

But it’s better to illustrate than explain.  I harbor a particular fondness for science-inspired music.  Some songs are explanatory and some interpretive.  Some take their subject literally, while others use it as a metaphor.  For the list below, I’ve tried to follow a couple of rules:

-No songs specifically created to be teaching tools.  There are a million of these, and some have artistic value in their own right, and some… probably retain a touch of educational value in spite of themselves.  But I wanted songs that were inspired by science rather than required by it.

-A limited number of songs from any one genre or artist.  A limited number of songs about any one science.  If you saw my music collection, you’d understand that this rule is necessary to avoid The Post That Never Ends.

Starting with my own field, I love Dar Williams’ Press the Buzzer.  If ever a psychology experiment was created to inspire folk singers, it was the Milgram Shock Study.  The song, like the experiment, is about the costs of blindly following authority, both to others and to one’s own conscience.  She gets the central details of the study right, but I always twitch at the end.  “Do you know what a fascist is?” may scan, but doesn’t belong in any self-respecting debriefing session!

Another famous psychology study is Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning in dogs.  They Might Be Giants use this in Dinner Bell as a symbol for… whatever early TMBG songs are usually symbolic of.  It’s an awesome song, regardless.

If you know They Might Be Giants, you’re now wondering why I didn’t mention The Sun instead, which contains actual scientifically accurate details.  See my first rule—Here Comes Science may be the best educational album ever, but it was created specifically to teach.  Besides, I’d only just gotten it out of my head when you brought it up.  “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace…”

If we’re looking for astronomy songs that do follow the rules, Jonathan Coulton’s I’m Your Moon is a good place to start.  It’s a love song from Charon to Pluto.  I think the de-planetizing of Pluto was entirely justified, but this song makes me cry.  Don’t even say it.  Holst is on my side; his famous symphony, The Planets, only goes up to Neptune. Eighty-three years later, Colin Matthews snuck Pluto in, only to be contradicted by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

Spreading beyond the solar system, both Monty Python’s Galaxy Song and Barenaked Ladies The History of Everything (song starts 40 seconds in) are more properly descriptive from a scientific standpoint.  In spite of the title, though, don’t count on the latter for the order of events.  “The bipeds stood up straight, the dinosaurs all met their fate…”  Actually, there were bipedal dinosaurs.  Not the first thing most people think of, though.

The floor is open to discussion.  What have I left out?  (Nothing wrong with The Comment Thread That Never Ends.)  Do you prefer the more poetic songs, or the more descriptive ones?  And why are there so few good songs about biochemistry?

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