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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Bozo Sapiens: a book review

Bozo Sapiens :why to err is human, is a book that tries to document the frailties of our decision making process and the underlying psychological mechanisms behind them.

Written with a lay audience in mind,it is written in an easy to read manner and is fun to read. As per the site, it is in the tradition of books like Blink and Stumbling on happiness and plans to cater to the same market segment of people who are interested in psychology and how it affects day-to-day lives. while most of the psychology studies were already familiar to me, they would be novel for a lay audience and would definitely interest and entertain and also inform and guide. I,myself, cam across a few new and worthwhile studies and feel enriched having been made aware of them. As is prone to writing for a popular audience, the Kaplans often gloss over or do not highlight all the subtleties involved, but it must go to their credit that they are able to explain the studies lucidly and clearly,without significantly diluting on the scientese involved. the only peeve I have is that the sections and studies covered in them somehow felt unconnected and not flowing in a smooth manner from one to the other.

The organization of the chapters is decent- one chapter focusing on perceptual errors, another on action-based errors while yet another on errors based on group mentality. The section on perception seemed to me better and the section on groups perhaps the weakest. Despite its title it is not a bleak view of humanity and knowing our heuristics, biases and design features/bugs will only help us act better. It is an easy read and perhaps would be savored by those who do have a general interest in psychology; for the experts there are some nuggets spread here-and-there and that may make it worthwhile skimming through the book.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book for review.

PS: would my readers like to see more book reviews featured on the mouse trap ? some books that I would love to review and highlight include books by Nettle : happiness, personality; gazzaniga: mind’s past riddley: genome, nature via nurture etc etc. Do let me kno wvia commnets/ skribit suggestions using left sidebar.

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If it’s abstract you gel in, if it’s concrete you stand out..Or Why I compare myself to a man but not to men.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with research by Bargh et al that showed that priming with stereotypes led to assimilation of those traits by the primed subjects. To recall, when asked to wait, those primed with rudeness interrupted the experimenter more than those primed with patience/nicety primes. Also those primed with elderly stereotype walked more slowly, away from the experimenter after the end of the alleged experiment, than those in neutral condition. These are all very well known findings and more so as they have been included in numerous pop-sci books.

Sceepar et al provide a very sober qualification for the above findings, contrasting how stereotype traits priming (abstract concept priming) do indeed lead to assimilation of stereotype in behavior/self-schema; but exposing to concrete, extreme exemplars belonging to stereotyped category has an opposite and paradoxical effect of leading to social comparison with the exemplar and thus leading to contrast behavior or behavior where the subject tries to distance oneself from the stereotype. Thus, if primed with the stereotype of professors, and thus the trait intelligence, and then subjected to an intelligence/knowledge test, then the subjects would perform better than baseline condition; but if primed with Einstein (a concrete exemplar of professor/intelligence), then one may lead to compare with Einstein, deduce that one is not so great, but indeed stupid or a bozo in comparison, and thus perform badly in the subsequent test based on this self-comparison. This is what they theorized and this is what they found.

In the second study they reused the Bargh paradigm of priming with elderly stereotype and replicated the results; the twist they added was adding a condition in which after priming with the elderly stereotype, an elderly exemplar was presented; this condition led to comparison and thus to contrast behavior whereby the subjects walked faster after the experimental manipulation in this exemplar condition.

Their third study was essentially a study to nail down the mechanism (social comparison) behind the contrast behavior observed. After priming with Einstein and professor in two separate conditions, the subjects were exposed to a lexical task, that was designed to discover if concepts like intelligence , stupidity had been primed and if so , was any of them also bound to the self schema. They found that indeed in the Einstein condition the concept of stupidity was bound to the concept of self, thus only exemplars, like Claudia Schiffer or Einstein led to social comparison, but not abstract notions like supermodels or professors. They end with an advice to Mick Jagger which has to be read in original to be savored.

We close with perhaps one of the more trivial of these implications. This concerns advice we might offer celebrities such as Mick Jagger and other stars known for their predilection for supermodels. If these people share the popular stereotype of supermodels found among our participants, they would be wise to restrict themselves to a single such partner (i.e., an exemplar) on intellectual as well as moral grounds.

I now also post some snippets form the excellent article, freely available on the web, which you should read in its entirety.

Individuals are exemplars in the sense that they are concrete instantiations of a given category (Smith & Zfirate, 1990, 1992). We focus on familiar exemplars that genuinely exemplify their category stereotype rather than deviate from it and thus where impression formation on the level of stereotypes has already occurred (Fiske & Neuberg, 1990). Our argument is thus not that such exemplars suppress stereotypic traits but rather that they make the instantiation of the relevant trait distinct (Stapel & Spears, 1996) by means of an actor-trait link (Stapel, Koomen, & van der Pligt, 1996). This distinction between stereotypes and the traits they activate on the one hand and exemplars that may exemplify these traits on the other is crucial for social perception and resulting automatic behavior. We argue that the activation of an exemplar (such as Einstein) may well lead to different behavioral output than activation of traits (intelligent) primed either directly or by means of a stereotype (professor). As already noted above, priming traits and stereotypes can lead to corresponding behavior in the perceiver. In other words, such priming can result in behavioral assimilation, thereby paralleling findings from the social judgment domain (e.g., Higgins, Rholes, & Jones, 1977; Srull & Wyer, 1979, 1980). Activated traits produce assimilation because they function as an interpretation frame and cause perceptual input to be interpreted in line with this trait construct (Higgins, 1996; Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Stapel et al., 1996). These findings are comparable with those on the effects of perception on behavior, where trait (or stereotype) priming seems to function as a general framework for action. In this case, instead of guiding the interpretation of perceptual input, the trait guides behavioral output. In both cases, highly accessible abstract constructs direct ongoing processes in an assimilative fashion.

A considerable number of social judgment studies demonstrate a different effect, however: Under appropriate conditions, the priming of exemplars has been shown to lead to judgmental contrast (see Herr, 1986; Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Stapel, Koomen, & van der Pligt, 1997). Priming the trait hostility causes a person who is subsequently judged to be seen as more hostile, but priming the exemplar Adolf Hitler causes this person to be seen as less hostile (Herr, 1986). Exemplars exert different effects because they are used as comparison standards (Herr, 1986; Sherif & Hovland, 1961; Stapel et al., 1996, 1997; Stapel & Spears, 1996). Priming Hitler still activates the concept of hostility, thereby eliciting a potential assimilation effect, but the engagement in a comparison induces a contrast effect that overrides the assimilative effect of the activated construct. In the example given above, a person called Donald is compared to Hitler. It is this comparison that evokes the contrast response ( “Well, Donald could not be that hostile” ), whereas the assimilative effects of the activated concept of hostility do not become apparent. However, the exemplar must be sufficiently extreme to override any assimilation evoked by the activated trait. Research by Herr, Manis, Schwarz, Stapel, and their colleagues has repeatedly shown that extreme and specific exemplars exert judgmental contrast effects (see Herr, 1986; Herr, Sherman, & Fazio, 1983; Manis, Nelson, & Shedler, 1988; Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Stapel et al., 1996, 1997). In general, it seems that a comparison (and a resulting contrast effeCt) ~ is rendered more likely if the primed construct constitutes a relevant comparison standard and is sufficiently extreme and concrete (e.g., Hitler). Given that exemplars produce contrasts in judgment by evoking a comparative judgment between exemplar and the target of judgment, the next question is whether such exemplars may evoke in perceivers social comparison with themselves. After all, if primed with Hitler, people may not only make a comparison with Donald–it is also likely that, in a relevant judgment situation, they will compare Hitler with themselves (hopefully with positive results). Recent research indicates that such comparisons with the self are very probable, if not inescapable, especially if they evoke a relevant dimension of comparison. Gilbert, Giesler, and Morris ( 1995 ) showed that social comparison is a spontaneous process: Individuals do not intentionally compare themselves with others but simply do it (see also Festinger, 1954; Wood, 1989), especially when these others are distinctive and extreme (Parducci, 1992; Parducci & Wedell, 1990). Following this analysis, we expect extreme exemplars to evoke a spontaneous comparison with the self.

They conclude with :

The relation between perception and action is not as simple and straightforward as it originally appeared to be: Perception does affect our behavior but not necessarily always in an assimilative manner. Whereas abstract concepts have been shown to lead to behavioral assimilation (Bargh et al., 1996; Chen & Bargh, 1997; Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998a, 1998b; Levy, 1996), in this contribution we have demonstrated that concrete exemplars can evoke behavioral contrast. Thinking about Einstein apparently lowers one’s intellectual capacity, and bearing the 89-year-old Dutch Queen Mother in mind puts an extra spring in one’s step. Support for behavioral contrast effects was obtained in two very different domains. In Study 1, intellectual performance was influenced by priming exemplars designating intelligence and nonintelligence. Intellectual performance may be seen as complex behavior involving highly differentiated stages and components.In Study 2, on the other hand, we demonstrated contrast effects on genuinely motor behavior by measuring walking speed. Hence, contrast effects were obtained in two completely different behavioral domains, from higher order mental processes to lower order locomotion. We also used different procedures to arrive at contrast effects. In Study 1, participants were primed with exemplars only (although we also assume that these exemplars evoked their associated stereotypes and traits). In Study 2, we activated stereotypes prior to activating the exemplars, simulating the notion that individual exemplars are perceived against the background of already-activated stereotypes.By demonstrating contrast in this experiment, we showed that behavioral contrast produced by exemplars can counteract previously activated stereotypes.
Study 3 was designed to shed light on the underlying process. On the basis of the literature on social comparison and social judgment, we formulated the hypothesis that concrete exemplars evoke comparisons (e.g., Stapel et al., 1996, 1997). Activating Albert Einstein, in other words, elicits the comparison of this exemplar with the self. This comparison leads to a conception of the self as more stupid or less intelligent. It is this conception, we argue, that leads to stupid behavior. Of course, these ideas rest on the assumption of the comparison being made and the resulting conclusion ( “Boy, am I dumb!” ) being drawn. Study 3 provided support for this assumption. Thinking about the exemplar Einstein indeed led to an association between the self-concept and stupidity as evidenced by facilitated response latencies, whereas thinking about the stereotype of professors did not. Indeed, as might be expected, priming professors activated the concept of intelligence. Priming Einstein also activated intelligence, but the fact that stupidity was also made accessible in combination with the priming of self-reference helps to explain why participants perform less intelligently (contrast) in Study 1.
Overall, these findings are important in being the first to demonstrate evidence of contrast outside the domain of judgment and in the realm of behavior. Although there is growing evidence for automatic behavior, previous research in this domain has always shown that behavior reflects the contents of primed constructs. The notion that automatic behavior can also go against the grain of the prevailing context suggests that automatic behavior may be more varied, and its implications more wide ranging, than previously supposed. Although an exemplar is a potential object of comparison, this does not necessarily mean that people exposed to exemplars always engage in a comparison. So when do people compare? In the typical social judgment paradigm, an exemplar is compared with another social target (e.g., Donald), whereas here we are interested in comparisons between an exemplar and the self. The research of Gilbert et al. (1995) shows that a comparison is easy to make and may even be spontaneous. They proposed that the chances of a comparison increase when the object of comparison is (a) recently encountered, (b) explicitly judged, and (c) extreme (see also Parducci, 1992) and argued that comparisons are hard not to make under these circumstances. The conditions under which exemplars were used in our study seem to conform to these criteria, but we should not assume that just any exemplar will evoke behavioral contrast.

To conclude, the present research integrates theorizing on contrast effects in social judgment with that on automatic social behavior to provide the first direct demonstration of contrast effects in automatic behavior. One of the more reassuring messages to emerge is therefore that automatic behavior is not a one-way street ending up in assimilation. The fact that contrast as well as assimilation can occur may help to explain the diversity of social behavior as much as do the strategies of interpersonal and intergroup differentiation that people consciously employ. The consequences of both assimilative and contrastive automatic behavior are far reaching and should be the subject of future research.

Final departing thoughts: I have always believed that the right brain works using exemplars, while the left brain is abstract; I further believe that Men use abstract reasoning, while females rely more on exemplar based memory: should stereotype research paradigms be defined separately for split-brain and male and female participants; can we observe the hypothesized effects in experiments in the hypothesized directions?

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Dijksterhuis, A., Spears, R., Postmes, T., Stapel, D., Koomen, W., Knippenberg, A., & Scheepers, D. (1998). Seeing one thing and doing another: Contrast effects in automatic behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (4), 862-871 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.4.862
Bargh, J., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71 (2), 230-244 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

Common mechanisms for learning (past), navigation(present) and dreams (future?)

Sorry for the brief(?) hiatus. I have left my day job to start a venture and so am a bit preoccupied. Hopefully, the mouse trap should benefit from the new arrangements.
Today I would like to highlight a recent study from MIT that once again highlighted the fact that the same brain mechanisms are used for envisaging the future as are used for reminiscing about the past.  The study was performed on rats and found that the rats sort of replayed their day-time navigational memories while they were dreaming. This in itself is not a new news and has been known for a long time; what they found additionally is that the rats also , sort of replayed the navigational memories/ alternatives in their head at a faster rate, to sort of think and plan ahead. This use of replaying the traces to think ahead to me is very important and cements the role of default netwrok in remebering the poast and envisaging the future.

When a rat moves through a maze, certain neurons called “place cells,” which respond to the animal’s physical environment, fire in patterns and sequences unique to different locations. By looking at the patterns of firing cells, researchers can tell which part of the maze the animal is running.

While the rat is awake but standing still in the maze, its neurons fire in the same pattern of activity that occurred while it was running. The mental replay of sequences of the animals’ experience occurs in both forward and reverse time order.

“This may be the rat equivalent of ‘thinking,'” Wilson said. “This thinking process looks very much like the reactivation of memory that we see during non-REM dream states, consisting of bursts of time-compressed memory sequences lasting a fraction of a second.

“So, thinking and dreaming may share the same memory reactivation mechanisms,” he said.
“This study brings together concepts related to thought, memory and dreams that all potentially arise from a unified mechanism rooted in the hippocampus,” said co-author Fabian Kloosterman, senior postdoctoral associate.

The team’s results show that long experiences, which in reality could have taken tens of seconds or minutes, are replayed in only a fraction of a second. To do this, the brain links together smaller pieces to construct the memory of the long experience.

The researchers speculated that this strategy could help different areas of the brain share information – and deal with multiple memories that may share content – in a flexible and efficient way. “These results suggest that extended replay is composed of chains of shorter subsequences, which may reflect a strategy for the storage and flexible expression of memories of prolonged experience,” Wilson said.

To me this seals the fate of hippocampus as not just necessary for formation of new memories, but also for novel future-oriented thoughts and imaginations.

Top 10 Psychology blogs for the Curious Minds

I feel honored to have been asked by to compile a list of top 10 psychology blogs for the curious minds. Any list , such as this, is necessarily subjective and being limited in nature, cannot do justice to all the other psychology blogs that I equally love and follow on a regular basis or other interesting blogs, which I am perhaps not aware of. 

The top 10 blogs are presented in an alphabetical order and reflect those that I find most interesting, insightful or fun to read.  Hopefully the mouse trap community would concur and benefit from following these blogs as well. Do check out the list and by the way of comments to this post,  add some other blogs that you think are equally interesting and catering to the curious amongst us.

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BlogCampPune2: A thank you note!

I attended the BlogCampPune2 last Saturday and it was a fun event – bringing diverse people , all driven by the passion of blogging, in the same room and providing them an opportunity to get to know each other well.

Special thanks go to the unorganizers, Tarun, Bhavya et al. for unorganizing it and to all others who showed up at the event and participated. It was my first blogcmap/tweetup/ unconference/ any offline activity and I met many of my online friends in real life, for the first time.

I was already looking forward to meeting Navin Kabra, Amit Paranjape,Meeta Kabra, Dhananjaye Nene, Sneha Gore, Vishal Gangawane, Tarun Chandel and many others and was gratified when that happened; but the icing on the cake was to find other unexpected contacts like Mahendra Om  also present there, or making new and interesting contacts like Annkur of Only Gizmos.

Some of the sessions were really interesting- Annkur with his ‘Mistakes were made (but not by me) (but by me)’ presentation ; or Navin with his ‘What blogs can learn from newspapers’ presentation provided some good food for thought and something to take home with you and apply to your blogging later.The informal talk by Meeta and how her dependence on third-party marketing backfired provided new insights. Thakkars’ impromptu session stressed the importance of humor and fun and how presentation matters.  The only regret form the blogcamp was the fact that due to some last minute rescheduling, I and Dhananjaye had to take sessions at the same time and we ended up missing each others presentations.  I had already gone through Dhanajaye’s presentation , which he had loaded prior to the event on his site, and was really looking forward to his talk.

To those of you who missed the event, search for #blogcamppune on twiiter or go to this FriendFeed page to get a sense of real-time excitement and reprting.  I am sure , the post-blogcamp blog posts and tweets and press covergae would be aggregated at some place and I’ll link to it soon here.My own persentation can be found here

Thanks again to all who were there!

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