Optimism, Priming

Second best thing about datasets on the internet: it weighs less.

[Early morning airport thoughts, mostly organized]

There’s been a great replication debate playing its way across psychology this year, heating up recently, and there are some particularly good things being said. Things that make me happier and more exclamatory about this field I love.

To start, two years ago, Daniel Kahneman wrote an open email to social psychologists who were doing priming research. Priming makes intuitive sense: it’s the idea that if I show you a bunch of gory and violent scenes, and then give you one of those fill-in-the-letters tasks with B_ _ _D, you’re more likely to answer with BLOOD than, say,  BREAD. Of course, it fits in with nearly everyone’s sense of the world that Early Stuff impacts Later Stuff. Okay, perhaps less intuitive: does giving you a hot cup of coffee (rather than an iced coffee) make you think of me as more warmly? [Spoilers: the data seems fragile, but I will view you more warmly if you give me coffee.]

Priming is catchy–the stuff of easy headlines and whole swaths of self-help books. But individual priming effects don’t seem to replicate well at all, and this part does not make it into bestsellers. Quoth Kahneman (whose book, Thinking Fast and Slow, cites a fair bit of priming research):

For all these reasons, right or wrong, your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research. Your problem is not with the few people who have actively challenged the validity of some priming results. It is with the much larger population of colleagues who in the past accepted your surprising results as facts when they were published. These people have now attached a question mark to the field, and it is your responsibility to remove it.


My reason for writing this letter is that I see a train wreck looming. I expect the first victims to be young people on the job market. Being associated with a controversial and suspicious field will put them at a severe disadvantage in the competition for positions. Because of the high visibility of the issue, you may already expect the coming crop of graduates to encounter problems. Another reason for writing is that I am old enough to remember two fields that went into a prolonged eclipse after similar outsider attacks on the replicability of findings: subliminal perception and dissonance reduction.

Hi. Yes. I would be one of those young people who would like a field I adore to avoid train wrecks.

Next up, the Many Labs Replication Project, round one, in which thirty-six psych labs collaborated to replicate thirteen findings.

Of the 13 effects under scrutiny in the latest investigation, one was only weakly supported, and two were not replicated at all. Both irreproducible effects involved social priming. In one of these, people had increased their endorsement of a current social system after being exposed to money3. In the other, Americans had espoused more-conservative values after seeing a US flag4.

Social psychologist Travis Carter of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who led the original flag-priming study, says that he is disappointed but trusts Nosek’s team wholeheartedly, although he wants to review their data before commenting further. Behavioural scientist Eugene Caruso at the University of Chicago in Illinois, who led the original currency-priming study, says, “We should use this lack of replication to update our beliefs about the reliability and generalizability of this effect”, given the “vastly larger and more diverse sample” of the Many Labs project. Both researchers praised the initiative.

Curious about how Many Labs is conducting their replication? Oh, here’s all their materials and datasets.

As replication efforts continued, there was some pushback. Simone Schnall, the lead author on With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments, was not best pleased by her experience. Brent Donellan defended the replication work. The replication researchers offered their email exchanges to shed more light.

(I want to add my sheer delight that I can download the datasets and materials used and flip through the email exchanges and read the blogs of the researchers, without perching myself on the physical doorsteps of all of the people involved. The internet is a wondrous thing.)

There has been further blogging and discussing and debating since, but I want to highlight this comment by Dave Nussbaum, part of which is excerpted below:

My guess is that the vast majority of people in social psychology (and beyond) could probably be characterized as believing the following things, to vary degrees.

1. There are shortcomings in the current research practices in our field. We are not necessarily unique in this way, but if our goal is to try to get a better understanding of what’s true, we have to improve. This is true in several areas, including, but not restricted to reducing p-hacking and other questionable research practices, publishing null results, and increasing the amount of direct replication that we do. […]

2. There is a collective action problem whereby it’s difficult for many individuals, particularly at early stages in their careers, to unilaterally decide that they will forego methods that will improve their productivity, particularly when it can be tantalizingly easy to rationalize one’s behavior in various ways.

3. We want the “revolution” to be peaceful and fair. Our assumption is, perhaps somewhat naively, that everyone has been acting in good faith. Improving research practices should not come at any individual’s expense (although there may be inevitable collateral damage, it should be minimized whenever possible). That means that we shouldn’t single out a single person who is one of many adhering to norms that should be changed.

This, especially #2, seems true to me. I don’t think I’m wrong if I propose that psychologists (the academic kind, not the couch kind) trade on their reputation. As young researchers, you have to build that reputation. Maybe you do a thesis project in your undergrad, get listed as an author in research from the lab you’re working in. On your way to a graduate degree, more of this. Get a position in academia? You’re working to get noticed–studies that are published and cited are the means* to that end. And somewhere along the way–I distinctly remember this happening to me, and have watched it happen with peers–you notice that perhaps you’re not so confident in your results. Or you’re not entirely sure you’d expect your findings to appear outside the laboratory. And…what then? Academia is not entirely known for possession of wiggle room.

And while I don’t think anyone produces deep thoughts at 3:11 am in Midway Airport, I do think this: replication projects are starting to snowball. I just created an Open Science Framework account, where I can poke around through pre-registered hypotheses and look at results because they’re out there. I have spent too much of this week reading these debates and papers and replications because a half-decent wifi connection means you can. We, young and squishy science that psychology is, are creating a culture of accountability and openness. We are trying, perhaps not as well as we could, but trying nonetheless, to make this a painless transition: an adventure of “look! new knowledge!” and not “you were Wrong and you should feel Bad!” Onwards!


*I worked very hard not to make a stats joke out of this.


Aversive and Achievement Goals

[Related to The Cockroach of Motivation. If you’re here and generally consider yourself part of the rationality community, check out the quick note first.]

In psychology, especially the subsector focused on motivation and identity, there’s this idea of future possible selves: the ways you imagine yourself being as you go forward. You can have lots of them at once: being good at math, popular with friends, owning a pet, being responsible, not procrastinating, being known as friendly, avoiding debt, etc. Some of them are considered ‘positive’ and some ‘negative’. This has little to do with the actual goal you want, as how you frame it. Are you aiming to ‘be X’ or ‘not be Y’? The first is positive, the second negative. In other words, one is about achieving something (grades, a relationship, being known as a certain personality trait), the other about being averse to something (procrastinating, failing a class, debt).

In general, people who have more specific and elaborate positive possible/future selves (rather than an equal mix of negative possible selves and positive possible selves, or lots of elaborate future selves they want to avoid) seem to be more motivated and persistent. (here, here, and here)

If you pull this apart, it fits. One of the roles of future selves is something to become more like or less like. If you check in with yourself about whether or not you’re achieving this, you’ll probably get markedly different results from positive future selves and negative future selves. It’s easier to mentally rehearse Doing Something than it is to mentally rehearse Not Doing Something.

And I’ve been using this framework to poke about it my goal setting and motivations. I’ve started tagging things as aversive (negative/go away from/be less like) or achieving (positive/aim for/be more like), and then flipping them around the axis.

Here’s an aversive one, as I decided when to have a stressful phone call:

I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty.

Okay, I feel fairly good about wanting this. I don’t want to be someone who avoids these interactions! I’m  impressed by people who dive right in to figuring out emotions that make me want to mentally recoil. I find myself frustrated when people aren’t willing to introspect.

But I also flip it around to achievement:

I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts.

Actually, I feel even better about this framing. Not only that, but I’m likely to be able to notice when I get closer to this goal. Hello, availability heuristic, let me use you to my advantage!

Take the aversive framing: when I ping my brain and ask “Have I been the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty?” I’m asking it to come up with times when I’ve avoided things that were emotionally weighty. If the question is Am I This Person, and This Person is defined by “not avoiding”, I’m going to pull up times when I avoided–it’s faster to locate instances of something happening than discrete instances of something not-happening. As Robby put it, it’s easier to remember elephants than not-elephants. So suddenly I’m recalling all the times I screwed up. Wheeee!

But look at what happens with the positive framing: I ask myself Have I been the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts? And now the elephant that my beleaguered brain is looking for is instances of dealing with emotionally-heavy conflicts. Suddenly, I have a list of times I did the right thing!

And even if I don’t have a list right now–maybe I still haven’t achieved this future self–I know that I’ll be closer when I have a longer list. Whereas with the aversive framing, it’s probably always going to be possible to come up with an example or two when I avoided a stressful conversation. If I think about the goal like that…well, I’ll likely end up frustrated with myself even when things have improved. “I could do better!” is a useful mindset, but when it plays out into “I suck just slightly less than I used to” repeatedly, it’s hard to motivate myself.

Yeah, but what if you already frame goals in the achievement direction?

I want to prioritize cooking meals for myself. 

Nice and achievement-oriented. So I flipped it around:

I want to not fail to prioritize cooking for myself.

…which, uh, sounded a little bit awkward and ungainly. What the hell did that even mean? How would I know if I was ‘not failing to prioritize’? And this train of thought lead my brain into figuring out exactly what prioritizing meant–if only so I could rescue that sentence from its awkward grammatical puberty. One obvious way was to define my terms in the aversive condition:

I want to avoid eating out more than twice a week.

Evanesco double negatives, Accio simple sentences!

Which also gave me a better achievement orientation:

I want to cook meals all but two times a week.

And beyond rescuing a horrible sentence, I’d now spent more than a few mental cycles on this goal. I’d turned it over in my head, defined the more nebulous bits, and pictured and discarded other versions of the plan.

Hello LW/Rationalists/People Who Were Curious and Clicked the Anchor: make sure to keep an eye to the abstract and methods section within research links. For some reason, the LW colloquial usage of ‘future/possible self’ doesn’t quite jive with how they’re operationalizing it, and this will save you time and confusion. If that doesn’t clear things up, here’s me giving a more informal explanation. [Return to top.]

Please Stop Talking About All Those Babies Waiting To Be Adopted

Wikimedia, Creative Commons

This post was inspired and cobbled together from an internet comment that accidentally grew into a novel.  I’ve attempted to include citations where possible, but the majority of this information comes from working in adoption services research at the Fabulous Unspecified Internship last year and is not easily accessible for citation. Add salt as necessary. 

That being said, I’m not an adoption counselor (or any kind of counselor, actually). I’m also not a lawyer, a parent, or a zebra. What I have done is work and research in this field. I am slightly more qualified than your average zebra, but this is not medical, familial, psychological, or lion-avoidance advice.

As a second note, it’s worth saying that I like adoption! I am not discouraging it as an institution or way of having children! I am significantly more likely to adopt than have non-adopted children. There’s a reason the Fabulous Unspecified Internship was amazing, and much of it had to do with working in adoption services. What I am opposed to is telling people to adopt with very bad arguments and misinformation. And one I hear slung about is that of All The Babies Waiting To Be Adopted. (It’s lesser cousin, You’ll Have To Wait A Million Years For A Baby To Adopt is rarer*, and worth it’s own post.)

I’ve heard both arguments–there are hundreds of babies out there waiting to be adopted! and you could be waiting years for a child!  The former seems to be the go-to for guilt-tripping people who want to have their own children, the latter for sighing in disapproval at the people who do decide to adopt. And I would like us to stop guilt-tripping people for having their own children.

While less complicated than say, designing a literal Stork Delivery System, adoption is somewhat more complicated than deciding you want a baby and then walking home with a small human. This has something to do with a confusion of language–we call all sorts of ways of getting legal custody over a child that you didn’t contribute genetic material to ‘adoption’.

1. Uncle Joe and Aunt Jane legally adopt Abusive Niece Sally’s son, not wanting him to end up in the foster system? Adoption.

2. Sarah and Jeremy are infertile. They find out about a daughter of a family friend who’s going to have a baby but wants to put it up for adoption and set up a legally binding agreement through a lawyer to adopt that baby. Also adoption.

3. What about Bethany and Emily, who go to an agency, answer lots of questions about their lives, get put on a waiting list, and adopt Baby Andrew a year later? Adoption.

4. Nicole and Noah foster a number of children. They are able to make a ‘forever home’ with one of them–Jason. You guessed it…that’s also adoption.

[What you are experiencing now is semantic satiation.]

When people encourage adoption, or talk about all the babies out there waiting for homes, they seem to be thinking about the experience of #3, with the numbers of #4, and a poor understanding of all. (For the sake of sanity and manageable sentences, we’re going to call #3 ‘adoption’ and #4 ‘foster-adoption’.) They seem to be expecting that there are lots of children who are up for the take-home-forever adoption, in a way that is experientially equivalent to having your own kids: they won’t look like you, but that’s about the only difference, yeah?

Not….really. I’d even venture to say not…at all, and those differences are what make me extraordinarily wary of pressing people who aren’t already eager to adopt to do so.

Foster adoption (#4) is geared towards getting the child back to relatives. That is, the approach is not to locate a new family, but to place the child in a stable situation while their current family stabilizes, or an extended family member can be located. If, and usually only if this doesn’t work out, they’re placed with a new adoptive family.** So, sure, there’s LOTS of kids, and it would be lovely to see them placed in homes that were stable. But you’re effectively telling parents to attach to children they cannot expect to keep, over and over, in the hopes that they someday, will get to keep a child. That’s not a thing many people can or should be expected to cope with. Not to mention, I only want people who can do what it takes to be a good foster parent emotionally doing it.

So what of not-foster adoption?

Well, there just aren’t bunches of babies waiting around to be adopted, as evidence by standard wait times. (In the link, time is measure post-portfolio creation, meaning that you’ve interviewed with the agency, gone to training, gotten references, been approved and processed, and created a portfolio,  all before the clock was started.)

Adopted healthy-at-birth children, just like nonadopted healthy-at-birth children, can go on to develop mental or physical issues not known at birth. However, parents of nonadopted children might know of the issues in advance–inherited conditions and the like, or because Aunt Jane and Cousin Sally didn’t walk until much later, so no worries when Child Sarah’s motor skills lag a little. Whether or not the parents should be concerned, whether or not Cousin Sally’s delay in walking has anything to do with Child Sarah’s delay, there’s a reference point, and probably an expectation that we, Healthy Parents, were fine, so our child will be!

In fact, I’m willing to bet that this mechanism is partially why adopted children are twice as likely to have contact with a mental health professional. Uncertainty and what if we missed something, and what if this is indicative of problems later and a dash of hyperawareness, combined with on-average higher incomes/class status, and you have greater chances that James’s minor issue will merit getting things checked with your local psychiatrist/psychologist/occupational therapist/etc. But also, referring to that same study–plain English writeup here–adopted children are more likely to end up with a set of disorders called ‘externalizing‘ and are extraordinarily overrepresented in psychiatric care. Friends who have worked in the field confirmed that this was common knowledge.

This is something agencies prepare parents for, of course, but saying to parents “you should adopt a child, who’s at higher risk for issues you aren’t prepared for, and haven’t necessarily seen play out in your own family, and you should do this instead of having a child because there are children who can be adopted” seems incredibly dangerous–those children are suddenly at risk of abuse from overwhelmed parents. (Yes, we should definitely better prepare parents and people at large to interact with people with disabilities. I am 100 percent on board with this! However, given the condition of people’s attitudes and behavior towards disabilities as well as a general wariness at using children as pawns and teaching tools, adopt children! seems like a Very Bad Solution to ableism.)

A note on international adoption: Adoption of children from outside the US is really limited, actually. If you want a closely regulated adoption through the Hague (you want this, this means less chance of false/missing information about the child), there are few countries, and they’re generally closed to you if you’re not young, married, straight, and have no health problems.

Advocate for adoptees! Advocate for less ableism! Create better and more effective treatments for infertility! Improve the foster system! But please stop being inaccurate and guilt-tripping parents who prefer to have children the ‘traditional’ way.


*It’s likely that it’s just rarer in my social circle. In fact, since I started writing this post, it’s become more common.
**Somewhat oversimplified, because bureaucracy.

Other notes:
(1)As a general reference, studies of children adopted after 1990 are more representative than those of children adopted earlier than 1990. Open adoption became the standard practice unevenly, but so far as I can tell, by 1990, everybody figured out that not keeping big secrets and doing a dramatic reveal that radically changes your child’s sense of belonging is usually a better plan. 

Illusory Bodies, or What If We Totally Confused Your Sense of Owning Your Body?

The short version of our research is that some scientists got together and had this conversation:

“Hey, hey, you know that iconic study where researchers made people think a rubber hand belonged to them?!”
“Yeah! and how it’s been used in research about racism, pain, empathy, and like, basically everything?”
“WAIT. WAIT. What if we did that. But with someone’s WHOLE BODY?”
“Oh, that’s been done before too.”
“No, no, no, what if we did it with a different SIZED body?”

…and then some scientists turned that into a serious sounding grant application and now here we are, making people believe they inhabit slimmer and larger bodies.

But why? I mean, besides the sheer fun of it, of course. Because eating disorders. One of the common clinical assumptions about eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa, has been that a component of not-eating comes from inaccurately perceiving body size. Specifically, people with anorexia think they’re larger than they are1. An interesting demonstration of this phenomenon involves making people with anorexia walk between progressive narrower spaces, and then making non-anorexic controls do the same. From the study [AN = anorexia nervosa participants, HC = healthy controls]:

AN patients started rotating for openings 40% wider than their own shoulders, while HC started rotating for apertures only 25% wider than their shoulders. The results imply abnormalities in AN even at the level of the unconscious, action oriented body schema. Body representation disturbances in AN are thus more pervasive than previously assumed: They do not only affect (conscious) cognition and perception, but (unconscious) actions as well.  (Here’s an interesting followup investigating this behavior in perspective-taking)

Anyways, the question was, it seems like perception of your body size being inaccurate would result in an eating disorder symptoms…except that thus far, we’d not determined a causal connection. BUT, what if we could make people perceive their body incorrectly?  If we could make them think their body was larger or smaller than they thought, would we see a measurable increase or decrease in eating disorder pathology? Okay, but how do we do this?

Creepy headless mannequins.


The illusion takes inspiration from the rubber hand studies. Picture this: you hide the participants arm from their field of view–put it in a box or somesuch. Then, in full view, you put a rubber hand. Tickle the hand with a feather, while simultaneously tickling the participant’s hand. Repeat, with a variety of sensations: tapping, tickling, rubbing. Then threaten the rubber hand: jab it with a pin2, make as though you’re about to stab it with a knife. The participant will react as if you’d just jabbed them with a pin, often experiencing pain in the location of the pin in the rubber hand, or sharply increasing heart rate and comical flinching when menaced with a knife.

Our proprioception–the sense of knowing where your body is in space–is frighteningly malleable. If it appears that that detatched hand on the table in front of you is yours, and if you feel sensation when you see the hand touched, well, then of course that thing in front of you is your hand.

Further, after a bunch of duplications and manipulations of the rubber [bodypart] illusion, we also know that post-experiment, people have weird beliefs about their actual body, thinking features are longer or larger. So, if we trick you into believing the rubber hand with the long fingers is yours, then stop the experiment, when you look down at your actual hands, you might perceive the fingers to be longer. Now, let’s do it with a whole body.

So of course, the first thing you have to do is pull the head off the mannequin and replace it with a camera, angled downwards so the mannequin is facing downwards, and looking at the shape of its body. That camera feed is then linked to a set of goggles, which the participant wears. One RA, who will probably avoid clearly describing her job on her resume, stands between the mannequin and the participant, and touches both simultaneously.

Participant feels: contact of RA touching him.
Participant sees: view from mannequin perspective, with a small or large body, but also sees a hand touching the mannequin.

Do this for enough trials, and the participant’s brain will synchronize the incoming information and, rather than keep trying to remember that the mannequin is a mannequin, decide that all the incoming sensory information lines up, and the view through the goggles is the view when looking down.

Then the RA threatens the participant with a knife3.






Well, not quite. The RA pretends to slash the mannequin with the knife, which is captured by the camera and relayed to the participant. Skin conductance, a known measure of fear, is taken, and we can get a fairly good guess about whether the participant thought we had made them sign a consent form and then stabbed them. (This is the scientific equivalent of “Made ya look, didn’t I? Didn’t I?)

This process is repeated with the slimmer mannequin and the larger mannequin for each participant. Between each illusion, they’re run through a battery of tests measuring body satisfaction and measures of eating disorder psychopathology. Two results stand out.

1. Firstly, in the larger body condition (LB), the participants didn’t seem to have much of an emotional reaction. Body satisfaction didd’t change significantly, nor did participants misperceive their actual body to be larger. The mannequin was 115% of the size of the participants (who all clustered around the same BMI). Increasing your size 15% is significant, but unlike in the smaller body (SB) condition, participants seemed non-reactive.

A few theories here. It might be that the participants just entered with inaccurate perceptions about their bodies, believing them to be larger than they are. So, when presented with a larger body, in front of them, they just didn’t notice much change. Also interestingly, it seems as though size-change illusions aren’t asymmetric. Participants in other research more readily believed that they possessed doll-sized legs than giant legs.

The third part of this isn’t directly related to the results, but the researchers noted that the LB condition still had a flat stomach and muscle definition, so it may be that the participants still viewed themselves as having a socially desirable body. I’d want a replication with a flabbier dummy.

2. ‘Owning’ a smaller body did have an impact on body satisfaction. Predictably, it increased. However, I want to point out that all of these participants had normal-BMIs, and the slim mannequins were approximate 85% the size of the participants. Or, to put it another way, the bodies were at the size considered the cutoff for anorexia.

Secondly, after the SB condition had ended, and participants were away from the mannequin, they believed their actual body to be smaller, and gave smaller estimated hip-size numbers than prior to the condition. This, as noted in 1, didn’t occur with the large body.

I admit, I completely expected the LB condition to have the larges effect, emotionally and in terms of ED psychopathology. Even funhouse mirrors can startle and upset me, and I assumed that believing you owned a larger body would cause the same. Importantly, these were non-clinical participants–without an eating disorder diagnosis. It may be possible that they simply had more immunity to such an experience, or that their interactions with proprioception are fundamentally different.

Either way, I think we can agree that creepy mannequin studies are creepy.

Full paper located here. [I didn’t distinguish strongly between Experiment 1 & 2, as found in the paper, and didn’t cover all of the scales and correlations]

1Caveat: historically, anorexia has included an upper bound of weight in the definition, meaning that not-eating-while-overweight wasn’t called anorexia. This radically impacts who is studied and while it leaves me frustrated at research, I can’t conjure up better methodology retroactively. So, this statement reads better as “people in a specific definition of anorexia who would probably be described as slim already think they’re larger than they are”

2This is a stickup!
…I’m so sorry. 

3“And what were your duties while working at the Body and Self Laboratory?” “Well, I beheaded mannequins and threatened people with knives.” “You’re hired!”

Things Psychology Accidentally Taught Me

via Flickr user Deradian, some rights reserved
via Flickr user Deradian, some rights reserved

1. Never commit a crime unless you know you can get away with it. Otherwise you might end up in front of a jury, and juries are TERRIFYING. So are eyewitnesses.

2. If you want to read through research quickly, you can read the abstract and skip the methods and results reporting in favor of the discussion. This is particularly useful if you have four classes, each with daily readings, and want to get to the people who keep filling your inbox with interesting research. It’s unfortunate that it appears that even people who should read through all the mathematical analysis also fail to do this.

3. Brain pictures are very pretty. However, unless you have very specialized knowledge, this is about as much as you can offer when faced with a brain picture and little other information.

4. There are more than 100 neurotransmitters. However, there are less than ten that have familiar-to-the-public names. If you keep repeating this to yourself, headlines that read “TURNS OUT X WAS IMPLICATED IN BEHAVIOR Y” get exponentially less interesting.

5. If you’re unfamiliar with the prisoner’s dilemma, volunteer your services as a subject in social psychology studies. We’ll fix that for you.

6. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is awesome to watch until you realize that it’s a little tool that can disrupt your brain through the skull….and that your brain is fairly important for things like breathing and heart function, and TMS is “almost like a stroke” [If you’re squicked by watching people lose brain function, I wouldn’t click that link.]

7. Cohen’s d is a method for determining effect size. It’s also a great way for psych of gender researchers to make jokes while sounding serious.

8. Memory is fixed? Hahaha. hahah. Memory is only slightly less scary than twelve people determining your fate.

9. Trust nobody who tells you there’s a participant next door.

Measles and the Inoculation Effect

I gave a talk at Illinois-Wesleyan earlier today about marketing, persuasion, and pseudoscience.

As part of the notes, I mentioned that I had heard recently, but wasn’t sure of the veracity, that the measles outbreaks that were getting so much skeptic attention, were being wrongly blamed on anti-vaxxers. A few hours later, my RSS feed produced this gem, Measles Outbreak Traced to Fully Vaccinated Patient for First Time.

Well, that’s terrifying.

…a fully vaccinated 22-year-old theater employee in New York City who developed the measles in 2011 was released without hospitalization or quarantine. But like Typhoid Mary, this patient turned out to be unwittingly contagious. Ultimately, she transmitted the measles to four other people, according to a recent report in Clinical Infectious Diseases that tracked symptoms in the 88 people with whom “Measles Mary” interacted while she was sick. Surprisingly, two of the secondary patients had been fully vaccinated. And although the other two had no record of receiving the vaccine, they both showed signs of previous measles exposure that should have conferred immunity.

Now I want to talk about the inoculation effect.

The phenomenon, which is the closest psychology can get to convincing me to never argue for any cause I believe in ever, holds something like this: if you give someone a weak argument and they are able to refute it, they will be more resistant to stronger and similar arguments in the future.

On the one hand, this can be great. Don’t want kids to smoke? Start them with some arguments made for smoking (it’s coooool! everybody’s doing it!) and ask them why they’re bad arguments. Late, when some swaggering teenager* offers them a cigarette and leans in to say that all the cool kids are doing it, those kids won’t have to come up with an argument on the spot–they’ll be more likely to decline. This makes intuitive sense–if you’ve already thought about reasons that make All the Cool Kids Are Doing It an awful argument for smoking, you don’t have to create them on the spot. Practice makes perfect and all that.

Except that the other side of this problem is scary. What happens if you have a social movement you care about (not that any of my readers do, or anything…) and people are making terrible arguments for your side?** Then you come along with a better argument…and it fails, because your audience is used to knocking down the bad arguments and doesn’t care to listen to you.

Something like this:

A: I’m pretty skeptical about global warming. I’m not sure it’s real.

B: Yeah, but last summer was really hot! Remember how many record-breaking heat waves we had? When we were growing up, can you imagine having to stay in to avoid the heat so often? Or having so many deaths during a heat wave?

A: Okay, but this winter was one of the coldest on record. In fact, it was record-breaking! It’s mid-April and things are just starting to warm up. This global warming stuff is stupid.

Poor, unwitting C, who comes along later: But [scientific consensus, climate data, ice caps, desolate-looking polar bears]


Or perhaps, let’s take an example that’s closer to home. Say you blame anti-vaccine advocates for causing a measles outbreak. Say you have headlines like Thanks, Anti-Vaxxers. You Just Brought Back Measles in NYC, or Measles is spreading, and the anti-vaccine movement is the cause. Or even Thanks Anti-Vax Loons: The Return Of The Measles And The Backlash Against Jenny McCarthy. And then, imagine what would happen if it turned out that you were completely wrong, and vaccines or lack thereof didn’t cause measles, and suddenly a bunch of people might be less likely than ever to get vaccinated.

That would be scary, no?

*I dunno, this is how peer pressure was always portrayed to me. 

**…or, my personal fear, that you ARE the one with the unpersuasive arguments?

Psychology For Gryffindors

This should work if you’ve read canon Harry Potter or Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and is some blending of the two. You can probably make sense of it with one or the other, but let me not fail to remind you that Methods is here and you should read it.

Psychology for Gryffindors

If we conduct good research—that is, research that uses large sample sizes and ethical methods and avoids statistical handwavery, we are doing it properly, and we will be able to improve the world. The scientific method is a self-correcting mechanism, and we can rely on it to give us correct answers about the world. (Ignoring this bit and such.)

Psychology for Ravenclaws

If we conduct careful research—we can learn new things about minds and people and model them better. We can figure out where our brains fail and how and why and who doesn’t fit into those models. Brains are cool, and technology is advancing, and we can know more. Of course, it’s not entirely certain how to conduct this research best, and methods and methodology are complicated, so we need to do investigation of that as well. (ManyLabs is your friend.)

Psychology for Slytherins

If we conduct targeted research, we can model people and groups better, and get them to make different choices. We can sell them products we wish to see and prevent them from developing common mental illnesses and make them avoid things like smoking and unhealthy foods, except when we want them to choose those things, in which case, we’ll be very good at making them ignore all other impulses.

I was trying to think of a way to make Asch’s conformity experiment more humanly significant. I was dissatisfied that the test of conformity was about lines. I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps by behaving aggressively to another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him.


The first thing to realize is that there are no easy solutions. In order to have civilization, you must have some degree of authority. Once that authority is established, it doesn’t matter much whether the system is called a democracy or a dictatorship; the common man responds to governmental policies with obedience, whether in Nazi Germany or democratic America.

[Stanley Milgram, as interviewed by Carol Tavris]

See also: Phillip Zimbardo. (And the Ravenclaws respond.)

Psychology for Hufflepuffs

You can use research to help people! There’s so much information out there about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s waiting around to improve lives. Mental illness is stigmatized and can be hard and lonely and nobody should have to go alone. Psychology gives us the tools to improve our world.

In striking contrast to the enormous corpus of psychological research concerning the impact of biases and heuristics on human judgment is the paucity of psychological research on debiasing (Arkes, 1991; Larrick, 2004). It seems fair to say that psychologists have made far more progress in cataloguing cognitive biases (see Krueger & Funder’s, 2004, list of 42 such biases) than in finding ways to correct or prevent them.


If one accepts the dual propositions that ideological extremism is a significant contributor to inter- and intragroup conflict and human suffering and that confirmation bias and its cognitive cousins (naive realism, bias blind spot, false consensus effect, insider perspective) are significant contributors to ideological extremism, the central research question becomes: ‘‘Can scientific psychology promote human welfare by debiasing the general public?’’

[Lilienfeld et al, 2009, Give Debiasing Away]

And just because, psychology for cynics

We are hampered by many factors, but perhaps the most annoying has been the existence of ‘‘pop psych,’’ a massive amalgam of pseudo-expertise that has shadowed the legitimate field for more than a century (Benjamin, 1986). The public has no way of distinguishing empirically based findings from the ramblings of self-proclaimed experts, and there is no easy solution to this problem. One sad result is the ever wavering and often negative image that people have of both clinicians and behavioral scientists. In its early years, Psychology Today  may have been the best corrective the field ever had for all the pop psychology; in its current form, the magazine is probably harming psychology’s name more than helping it.

[Epstein, Giving Psychology Away: A Personal Journey]