Monday 4 December 2006

Encephalon n°12: demandez le menu!

For its twelfth edition, Encephalon is moving to France, chez AlphaPsy; relax, take a seat - this is Olivier, the garçon, speaking - I will give you a tour of the menu our blogging chefs prepared. Yes, that's the Tour Eiffel over there; yes, monsieur, it may look like a reversed pyramidal neuron, from a certain angle. Bon Appétit!


Wednesday 29 November 2006

In the last volume of Psychological Science

The last volume of Psychological Science has more than its fair share of interesting / funny papers. Here is a little selection.

Dali's "Persistence of Nonconscious Priming".


Friday 17 November 2006

Is the 'g' factor nothing more than a statistical construct?

Scores on a wide range of intelligence tests tend to correlate positively. From a statistical or psychometric point of view this creates a variable, g that merely indicates the strength of this correlation. If there were no correlation at all, there would be no g, but since the correlations tend to be high, people get excited and many of them take the next step of positing an underlying common cause (also called g). For the psychologists who defend this notion, there is a common variable (modulating, say, the way your neurons fire) that influences on the measures of all of these intelligence tests, thus creating the observed correlation. However researchers from the University of Amsterdam are challenging the common wisdom and suggest an explanation for the correlation that doesn't need a common cause.

This picture has no other purpose than to attract the reader towards a boring post on models of intelligence. Note that the band is called the G factor though, that gives me sort of an excuse.


Friday 10 November 2006

How to stop academics from drinking coffee

The figure of the academic addicted to coffee is a well known one. To some extent they are right: caffeine (in the right dosage - approximately a double espresso) does increase awareness and helps to concentrate. However, in the wrong dosage, you might end up doing things as this poor spider that is a little high strung (ahah) on caffeine:

(Picture found on the wikipedia entry on caffeine)

Your coffee drinking friends might tell you that they are no spider, and that coffee only has good sides. Well, if they are academics, you can try this line: people under caffeine are more easily swayed by arguments.


Saturday 21 October 2006

From Sudoku to Spinoza: The Hedonistic Side of Reasoning

We all have a friend who has spent some time trying to convince us that {insert here your personal bête noire, be it mathematics, philosophy or logic} was actually fun. All of these domains involve reasoning, by which I mean pondering on the reasons for our beliefs: mathematicians and logicians have to find proofs for their theorems and philosophers use reason to persuade us that their claims are true (some of them at least).

Despite their valiant attempts at making their favorite discipline sound sexy, you might remain unconvinced. The question I'd like to ask you then is: do you enjoy Sudoku? If you do then you might actually be enjoying reasoning, and your feelings when you search the missing numbers might not be that different from those of the philosopher who tries to understand metaphysics.

Portrait found here


Monday 9 October 2006

(Dis)comforting explanations

Explanations are necessary. Without them, hunter-gatherers would have trouble learning sophisticated hunting techniques and we would have trouble learning how to program our VCRs (equally terrible threats). Since natural selection tends to make us like things that are good for us, we would expect that being able to explain something would be agreeable. Alison Gopnik’s aptly titled paper “Explanation as Orgasm” makes this point very well. On the other hand, explanations can be disquieting: some might remember their first confrontations with psychology and neuroscience (“I did that because of my unconscious drives / PFC / short term memory limits?!?”) as being something of a distressing experiment. A very nice set of experiments published last year suggests why not all explanations are comforting.

Two explanations for life. Depending on your convictions and knowledge, either can be more or less comforting or discomforting. One thing is sure though: having a beard is necessary to explain life.


Friday 6 October 2006

Nails, Blackboards, Woodpeckers and Hiccups

The name of the 2006 Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research were disclosed yesterday night (you can witness the ceremony in video here). To my delight, one of the awards goes to three psychophysicists, who, at last, have tackled the question that's been haunting me for years: why do fingernails scratching blackboards, and other irksome noises, give you a toothache?


Tuesday 3 October 2006

Long live the Majority!

"How should groups make decisions?" this old question is on the way of being answered, as researchers Reid Hastie and Tatsuya Kameda vindicate the use of the majority rule. In a paper published last year in Psychological Review, the authors show by means of extensive simulation and experiments that in a wide range of cases choosing the answer that is favored by most people in the group is the best way to go.


Monday 25 September 2006

Believing in the power of the mind

Social psychologists from Harvard and Princeton campuses report on belief in magical causation from lay people (as far as students from those places can be considered as laid lay persons representative of the general population...). Reinforcing an already strong case for magical thinking, their studies yet deserve some attention for they try to draw a link between causal inferences in mental and physical domains.


Friday 22 September 2006

Taper dans l’oeil or taping into our modules?

It has been repeatedly shown that in some domains at least people tend to prefer prototypical stimuli, stimuli that are close to the ‘typical’ exemplar of a category. For example, and even if it can seem surprising, people show a preference for ‘more average’ faces. Piotr Winkielman and his colleagues suggest a new interpretation of these findings. Their interpretation is in terms of ease of processing and the agreeable feeling that accompanies easy processing. They back up this interpretation with some experiments. Even though they couch their theory in domain general terms, I argue that it is good news for views of cultural transmission that rely on modular psychological mechanisms.


Wednesday 20 September 2006

Listen to the Wisdom of the Elders: and what if they are not wise ?

Children can sometimes see adults as being omniscient, but they realize that other kids are not. However, it sometimes happens that the child is right and the adult wrong (more often than the latter recognize anyway). When a child and an adult disagree, are children able to switch their preferences and go for what the other child says if the adult as proven to be unreliable in the past? A new study published in Psychological Science answers yes.


Sunday 17 September 2006

Know thyself: Yes, but how?

The importance of self-knowledge has often been emphasized, from the traditional lore to the new age gurus. However, there may be very different ways to know thyself. Two of the most important aspects of self-knowledge are autobiographical memory and self-concept and it has been repeatedly shown that these aspects of self-knowledge display wide cultural variations. A recent paper reviews what we know about the developmental roots of these differences and it illustrates nicely some of the more recent and interesting trends in cross-cultural psychology.


Saturday 16 September 2006

The face of the thinker

The hindsight bias is the tendency to say after an event happened that “we knew it all along”, that it’s not really surprising. This is a bias because when asked before the event, we wouldn’t have predicted it, but after it happened we think we would have (and because it can be quite irritating). A paper has just come out in Current Directions in Psychological Science that reviews the role of metacognitive thoughts and feeling in this phenomenon, and among the effects mentioned one is quite surprising: people asked to make the face we make when engaged in deep thinking were actually more doubtful towards their answers, as if they had had to think hard to come out with them. Explanation of the experiment.


Tuesday 12 September 2006

In praise of babies

No news in this post: its only aim is to remind us of how socially savvy babies are. A review paper in press in trends in cognitive sciences sums up the evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience. And I’ll take the opportunity to suggest another contender for the Cutest Science Paper Award.


Friday 1 September 2006

Modularity in Psychological Review

A new paper on modularity has been published in Psych Rev. This theoretical paper fiercely (and nicely) defends the notion of modularity against a set of repeated attacks from different corners. Since modularity is a central aspect of (at least one of) the attemps to bridge evolution, culture and cognition, it's good news for us that such a paper has been published in the most notorious psychology journal.


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