When I hear about the mind-body connection, it’s almost always in reference to how the mind can influence the body. From athletes visualising their performance to the latest Quantum Bollocks on the self-help shelves, the message is the same: Where the mind goes, the body will follow.
Amy Cuddy says the reverse is also true — the body affects the mind. When people are told to hold dominant body language positions for two minutes, their cortisol decreases, their testosterone increases and they are more apt to engage in risk-taking. By “dominant body language,” think head-held-high, taking-up-space Superman types of poses.
More generally, we also know that forcing people to smile reliably influences perceptions. If you do a psychology degree you have to conduct a few psychological experiments for practice, and in mine, this was one of them. Everyone in the class had to recruit two people to rate how funny a cartoon was. But before they did, one of them had to hold a pen using their lips, while the other held it in their teeth without it touching their lips (forcing a smile). When the data were pooled, the people who had just forced a smile gave higher ratings. The implication here is that if you simulate the body language of someone who is finding something funny, you’re more likely to actually find something funny.
There are some interesting possible applications of this. Before a job interview, Amy suggests, you should go to the bathroom and throw your arms in the air. You could do the same before a big date, or a workout maybe. The other thing to keep in mind is to avoid submissive body language generally — don’t slouch or close yourself up in situations where you’ll need to be assertive.
One problem here though, is that Amy only used two conditions — high power and low power. Does high-power body language boost these hormones, does low-power body language decrease them, or is it both? It would have been useful to include a “neutral power” body language position too.
My money’s on both, meaning use the high-power body language whenever possible but settle for neutral in situations where it’s not appropriate to do your best Superman. It’s not recommended during a job interview, for example, unless you’re auditioning for the role of Superman.
Ben Goldacre’s second TED talk was published this month, and it’s on similar lines to the first (you can find his previous one here). He’s on top form and the whole thing is great, but I want to mention one part of it.
Magic magic performed here! See your money disappear!
He starts of by discussing the infamous Bem study on precognition from a little while back. This study found that people’s emotional reactions to certain images (like a snake) sometimes occurred before they saw the picture, as though their spidey-sense was tingling.
This caused quite a stir. Believers felt vindicated and skeptics started looking for methodological flaws, and predicting that future replications would fail. However, some believers in the paranormal predicted that a replication would be attempted and fail too — but not because there’s no such thing as psychic powers.
Instead, the reason is that successful results are only possible when the collective consciousness of the people who are aware of them believes that precognition exists. Sort of like the character in Mystery Men who can only turn invisible when no one is watching, or, to complete the analogy, only when people who believe he can turn invisible are watching.
Once a study is made public, the consensus of the consciousnesses that are aware of it changes. Previously, the majority of the minds that knew about the study were believers in the paranormal, but now, the majority believe in the materialistic scientific model, which does not predict psychic powers to exist. Hence, further replications fail.
This explanation is quite a common one, and it’s also used by psychics, dowsers and telepathics who fail tests under controlled conditions — essentially, skeptical vibes interfere with psychic powers. In order to experience something in your life, you have to believe it to be true wholeheartedly; if you don’t believe in ghosts you’ll never see one, or at least, your experience would be easy to explain away.
Reasoning forward, if you’re a skeptic scientist studying the paranormal, you’re destined to the life of a debunker, while if you’re believer scientist studying the paranormal, you’re destined to be debunked by the skeptics. Presumably, paranormal scientist believers who later changed their tack never really believed.
But as Goldacre points out, there’s another explanation for this — publication bias. Science is probabilistic; it’s all about the likelihood of a certain hypothesis being correct, which gets closer and closer to proven with more positive studies, but it can never get there. Along the way, some studies will support a hypothesis and some won’t.
Even the historic discovery of the Higgs Boson earlier this year was like this. They didn’t get a picture on screen and go “Oh shit! There it is!” They continuously calculate a percentage chance that it exists by analaysing the data produced by the particle bashing and when that probability reaches a certain level, they release the findings.
Many of the particle collisions didn’t contribute to that probability, and so it is in human studies — only now we have a larger problem. The collider is continuously doing its work an analysing data, each collision adding to the total pool of data. But in peer-reviewed science, the pool of data tends to be skewed towards positive results. This is publication bias.
Prior to this study, there will have been lots and lots of tests of precognition and psychic powers. But, as Goldacre points out in the talk, try going to a leading journal and saying “Hey, I’ve got a study here saying that students can’t predict the future! Want to publish it?” It’s unlikely to work.
But combine these two things — the probabilistic nature of science and the tendency of journals to only publish positive results, and you get a problem — fluke findings are more likely to make their way into papers.
The Bem study was later repeated by Stuart Richie, Richard Wiseman and Christopher French, who failed to replicate the findings. They had trouble getting this one published, but eventually did. I wonder if they would have gotten their replication published if Bem’s study had never existed.
Still, all this is consistent with the collective consciousness idea, because we don’t know what happened in every single study on precognition ever conducted. If we did (which, ironically would probably require paranormal powers), we’d be able to say the collective consciousness idea is dead wrong because many studies conducted prior to this one were unsuccessful, therefore it’s nothing to do with belief and shared reality and everything to do with good old fashioned publication bias. For now I’ll let you make up your own mind on that one.
Moving to more earthly concerns than the nature of reality, this problem of publication bias isn’t limited to the supernatural. Every study looking at it has noted its prevalence, and the publication of studies in favour of certain drugs while negative results were buried has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But I’ll let Ben Goldacre tell you all about that:
I’m writing this partly for posterity — maybe in 10 years back when we’re living our entire lives in the Facebook Virtual Reality Matrix, we’ll look back and say “Remember when it was just a social networking site?” And partly out of old-fashioned curiosity. I should disclose that I’m one of the five or six people in the world that doesn’t have a Facebook account.
If you don’t use Facebook, you know about it. It has close to a billion users, about 1/7th of the human population of the planet! And if you use Facebook, you really use it: 3.2 billion likes or comments are generated, every single day while in the first quarter of 2011 over 300 million photos were uploaded each day. Each day!
A study this year tried to find out what was driving the eight hours a month that Americans spend in front of Facebook. They tested the five established categories for online activity: information seeking, interpersonal communication, self-expression, passing time and entertainment. Only information seeking wasn’t relevant to Facebook, with the biggest factors being entertainment and time passing. In other words, we use Facebook because mainly we’re bored!
Over 4 million businesses have pages on Facebook now. With a billion people to sell to and ease of content sharing, why wouldn’t they be? If you can write a good piece that people like, and people share it, they’re doing your marketing for you. Facebook itself is the second top earner of online display ads (behind the mighty Goog), although their growth forecast was cut last month by about a billion dollars.
Through shock and awe Facebook has invaded our vernacular. It can be a noun — “Are you on Facebook?” A verb “Look, a goat that sounds like a man, I’m going to Facebook that!” It even has a gerund: “Are you still Facebooking?” Other aspects of Facebook vernacular have also found their way into the dictionary, like “Unfriend.” Yes, unfriend is a word and has been since 2009.
Email is for dinosaurs now
Email is passe now? You’re kidding me. Yet it makes sense — why log in to Gmail when you can message your friends on Facebook? They probably check Facebook more often than email, giving you more chance of a reply, and you don’t have to open a new tab. I remember when people would say to me “I don’t have email,” and I’d think “Dinosaur.” Now I’m the dinosaur. Hey, don’t you get cocky, Facebooker. In 20 years you’ll be trying to double-click your quantum mind-control matrix interface and your kids will be laughing at you.
Don’t search us, we’ll search you
This is one that I find particularly interesting. People are expecting less-and-less to go and find news and content they find interesting; they expect it to come to them. And the more that sites know about you, the better they can get at delivering what you want. Facebook are not the only ones involved in this process — even search engines now deliver results to you not based on an objective search of the web, but based on your past searches and browsing history. But the nature of Facebook necessitates this. Although most people post things on Facebook that they like, not necessarily what they think their friends like, birds of a feather flock together, making it a safe bet anyway.
The empirical evidence for this is getting there but still somewhat thin. There’s a hilarious reason for that — researchers can’t find enough men who haven’t watched porn in order to form a comparison group! However, there’s some mileage to the idea and it warrants further study.
You should see the other pics I considered using.
Wilson’s premise is one that I discussed previously in the Tugging the Human Instinct post from a while back. Actually the same reasoning can be applied to much that’s fucked up about modern life (and points to the solutions too). It goes like this:
Our culture has evolved far more quickly than our biology. We’re no longer living in the environment that we’re most suited for. Parts of our brain are wired to respond to certain things that were beneficial to our survival and replication. Our culture now rewards people (monetarily) if they can find ways to activate these areas with superstimuli, which tend to come with negative side effects. Pornography, particularly online pornography, is one such superstimulus.
To be more specific, we’re adapted for life in 100-150 strong tribes, who would occasionally come into contact with other similarly sized wandering tribes (this is where our instincts towards in-group out-group behaviour stems from, be it my sports team is better than yours, my marital art is more effective than yours, my religion is the true one, and so on). I don’t know how many tribes you’d bump into as a hunter-gatherer, but given a life expectancy of around 30 and excluding women below breeding age, you’d probably see no more than a few thousand women, and only maybe 60 or so on a regular basis.
If you go to a porn site, you can see 60 women of above-average attractiveness in a few minutes. This overloads your brain in a sense, tricking it into thinking you’re part of the hottest tribe ever!
And if you get bored of one woman, you can load another up in a second. This level of novelty is also a superstimulus. It’s this combination of availability and instant novelty that creates the dependence and the psychological issues.
There’s a little more to it that that neurologically, but that’s the gist of it. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Wilson’s TED talk, conveniently located right here:
It’s ironic that he did a TED talk, since if there’s such a thing as “Information Porn,” that site is its biggest pimp!
Have you seen “The One with Ross’s Library Book?” It’s an episode of friends where Ross finds out that people in his university are going to the library and doing naughty adult things in front of his thesis. So he stakes it out, and when a hot blonde comes along he cynically questions her reasons for being there: “I suppose you’re here to read up on Merriam’s views on evolution?”
Evolution has no goal: not even Judo.
To his surprise, she actually is there for a book and not for some nookie, and replies with “Actually I find Merriam’s views too progressionist.” Ross agrees and then they also get it on in front of Ross’s poor thesis.
As well as being pretty funny, it’s also accurate. John C. Merriam was a palaeontologist who believed the purpose (so to speak) of evolution was to increase the efficiency and/or complexity of organisms. This is what “progressionist” means in this context; making “progress” in that organisms show improvements over the generations they follow.
Although Progressionism hasn’t been completely killed off, it has long since fallen out of favour. You can sometimes see hints of it in papers and books, but it’s hard to say whether these represent statements of position or whether they’re just layman’s-terms shorthand. It kind-of happens in short-runs, such as with human intelligence, but for the idea to be accepted you’d have to see consistent, long-term one-directional changes in an organism, for which there’s no conclusive evidence.
Despite lacking decisive evidence to back it up, this idea crops up all over the place. A common one, for instance, is to say that since we’ve created safe society in which everyone is more likely to survive and reproduce, we’ve stopped evolving. This is an example of progressionism, because it assumes that, in order to evolve, the “best” (aka the “fittest”) need to pass their genes on while the weak must fail to. In a society where the “weak” have just as much chance of reproducing as the “strong” (or perhaps more; many competent people put career ahead of family), this weeding out process cannot happen. Hence, “progress” has been halted.
However, that’s incorrect, because the “fittest” in “survival of the fittest” just means “most likely to reproduce in a given environment.” So that career minded go-getter who put money ahead of family until her 40s and then found she couldn’t have kids due to various complications is less well fitted to her environment, evolutionarily-speaking, than someone who lives on benefits, does nothing but pops out six kids (neither of which can be quiet in public).
From the progressionist point of view, Mrs Career is the fittest. But if she doesn’t have kids, her genes won’t reach the next generation. If less intelligent people were more likely to reproduce in a given environment, it means that intelligence is a hindrance, an evolutionary disability. The direction of evolution isn’t guided by anthropocentric values, so be careful about projecting them onto it.
OK, now you have some geeky things to say next time you’re watching Friends!