Starter for 10: Disa Sauter

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This week’s interview is with Dr Disa Sauter, who works three doors down from me at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Disa and I both did PhDs at UCL in London, but it took us moving to the Netherlands to bump into one another!

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
I’m actually a little stumped by this every time – you’d think I’d have decided on a word to summarize what I do by now! So I alternate between researcher, scientist, and psychologist.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I work on emotions and the ways that we communicate to others how we feel using facial expressions and vocalisations. I’m especially interested in whether emotions and expressions are the same or different depending on people’s cultural backgrounds. [FJ: Disa has done field work with the Himba people in Namibia, and is currently working with a Mayan group in Mexico]

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?
I was always interested in the human mind, but torn between philosophy of mind and psychology. Having done my final year school project in philosophy, I decided to focus on psychology instead… Doing a PhD on emotions with Sophie Scott at UCL made me want to continue in research for as long as I can.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In a study published earlier this year, me and my colleagues showed that some sounds that we make to express emotions, like growls and sobs, are shared by people with dramatically different cultural backgrounds, suggesting that they are part of the common human heritage. But while quite a few negative emotions were signalled in the same way across the groups, the sounds used to express many positive emotions were different – the exception to this was laughter, which had the same meaning across cultures.
5. I hear you’re Swedish. In the interests of cultural understanding, tell me something about Swedish language or culture that  doesn’t really have an English equivalent.
‘Lagom’ is a Swedish word and concept that doesn’t have a good equivalent in other languages. The best translation I think would be ‘just right’, like for example neither too much nor too little – but it can be applied in pretty much any domain, size, temperature, satiation etc. Unlike ‘perfekt’ (perfect), ‘lagom’ is not particularly celebratory, it’s more a matter-of-fact statement, which is what makes it so Swedish. [FJ: this brilliant word has its own wikipedia entry, it’s so useful]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

I’d be an apprentice in the kitchen of a fancy vegetarian restaurant. [FJ: Mmmm, good choice with the transferable skills!]
7. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?
The neural correlates of poorly understood and badly operationalized psychological phenomena.
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
c) The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
Dexter Morgan. [FJ: I am hiding the sharp objects in the canteen]
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
I submitted a paper and started revising another.
Disa’s publications and research interests are listed at her website, including a recent review of positive emotions and how they’re a bit more complex than just “happy”. The media covered her cross-cultural emotion work earlier this year, you can see some of the write-ups here and here.

on sex and suicide bombing

Please note this post was edited (below) on 23 May 2011

David Lawson, Kesson Magid and I have just published On Sex and Suicide Bombing: An evaluation of Kanazawa’s ‘Evolutionary Psychological Imagination’. This is a critique of Satoshi Kanazawa’s 2007 paper: “The Evolutionary Psychological Imagination: Why You Can’t Get a Date on a Saturday Night and Why Most Suicide Bombers are Muslim.”

Many objections to evolutionary psychology are ideological or political. This is not the case in our paper: nothing makes me (and my co-authors) froth at the mouth more than bad science. We say:

The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to ask, and sometimes answer, tough questions.
Addressing the tough questions without the transparency afforded by the scientific method is not brave: it is simply cavalier.

Kanazawa’s paper is full of bad science. We are not the first to criticise him on such grounds, but it bears repeating that when there are controversial and sensitive issues at stake, we beholden to demand a high standard of scholarship and science.

EDIT 23 May 2011

In the light of another piece of “science” by Kanazawa, reported on his blog, I have decided to add to this post a list of the published academic responses to Kanazawa’s work. It really saddens me that someone who pushes an agenda to carry out controversial investigations cannot pair that agenda with quality science. As said above, with academic freedom comes responsibility.

This list was compiled with the help of colleagues. Please let me know of any additions or corrections. At last count, the 20 listed papers involved 56 separate authors.

Continue reading →

blue is not better than white, and metaphor is unhelpful

The blue-beats-white winning bias in judo as reported in 2006 appears to have been confounded by a number of factors, and there is no bias after all. So say Dijkstra & Preenen in Proceedings B:

A study by Rowe et al. reported a winning bias for judo athletes wearing a blue outfit relative to those wearing a white one during the 2004 Olympics. It was suggested that blue is associated with a higher likelihood of winning through differential effects of colour on opponent visibility and/or an intimidating effect on the opponent. However, we argue that there is no colour effect on winning in judo. We show that alternative factors, namely allocation biases, asymmetries in prior experience and differences in recovery time are possible confounding factors in the analysis of Rowe et al. After controlling for these factors, we found no difference in blue and white wins. We further analysed contest outcomes of 71 other major judo tournaments and also found no winning bias. Our findings have implications for sports policy makers: they suggest that a white–blue outfit pairing ensures an equal level of play.

I love negative results. They’re a complete bummer if it was your darling positive result in the first place, but they provide the clearest demonstration of how science works. The red-wins bias reported in 2006 appears to be still (pardon the pun) in play!

From the realms of philosophy of biology, an interesting article by Bjorn Brunnander about intentional language in evolutionary discourse. Is the trade-off between the efficiency-and-power of metaphorical shorthand, and the misconceptions it produces (the never-ending of conflation of proximate and ultimate), actually producing more problems than it solves?

Many evolutionists today argue for the need to make evolutionary theory an integrated part of psychology and the social sciences. If this is the agenda it should be in the interests of these thinkers to worry about factors that affect the probability of successful communication across boundaries. The track record of communication of evolutionary thinking is not altogether impressive. This is commonly recognised by evolutionists themselves, as shown by presentations of ‘popular misunderstandings’. The fact that some recurring misconceptions are clearly what we would expect to find if processing of the intentional shorthand was unreliable should make us lift questions about efficiency of exposition above the realm of rather effortless rationalisation.

Is the language of intentional psychology an efficient tool for evolutionists?(doi)

a rather disheartening game of bingo

Backlash isn’t really the right word.

Evolutionary Psychology Bingo.

I fully expect to see this linked-to, emailed, and generally be the object of a bit of discussion online. On the one hand, I’m all for the satirisation of poor science (a more biting example appeared last week), especially poor science that uses the tools (evolutionary thinking) that I do. We must, after all, stringently promote the self-correcting aspect of the scientific method. And there is some poor “evolutionary psychology” research around.

On the other hand: seeing that bingo card just makes my stomach sink into the floor.

There are plenty of people who are attempting to rehabilitate the term “evolutionary psychology” into an umbrella concept covering all research in the human evolutionary behavioural sciences (EP is much shorter and catchier, for one thing). This encompasses things like evolutionary economics, behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, evolutionary archaeology, etc, i.e. things that I do.

I am not actually in favour of this rehabilitation anymore. A couple of years ago I was, but I do think that the public perception of evolutionary psychology as catastrophically simplistic, sexist, privileged and daft is (sadly) firmly entrenched. We (the academic we) might be able to rehabilitate it within academic circles, but it is badly damaged in public discourse.

I’m not wanting to discuss in detail why EP has a bad name, as that’s a really nuanced and important set of problems that I can’t do justice to today. Part of it is poor science, sure. But there is poor science everywhere, just like there is poor customer service, poor computer hardware, and poor music in the Top 40: all examples where is supposedly a quality filter somewhere along the line. Part of it is bad science reporting. Evolution is a technical subject, and terms such as “nature”, “culture”, and “development” do not have the same meanings to people reading a news report as they do to people writing a research paper. It is also a subject dealing with trends and probabilities and on-averages: not with predictions about individual behaviour.

That last point cannot be stressed enough, as some of the cells in the bingo card seem to stem from a mis-reading from the population level to the individual. For example:

“I can rotate three-dimensional objects in my mind and you can’t.”

If I remember second-year perceptual psychology well enough, men are, on average, better at mental rotation tasks than women are. There are population bell-curves of ability, and they overlap a lot, but the mean of men’s mental rotation ability is some value higher than the mean value of women’s. This does not mean men can and women can’t. This does not mean an individual man will always do better than a woman.

These subtleties are really. Really. Important. And seeing the bingo card does not give me hope that these subtleties have been or can be communicated easily. I think it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate the exact nature of those important messages to journalists and the public. I also think that journalists and the public have a responsibility to want to hear them and not dismiss them as “quibbles” or “difficult statistics”, and simply latch on to the sensational. Especially if it is controversial, as is the case with gender issues.

I can’t cover everything in one blog post, but the other thing that saddens me about the bingo card is the conflation of “evolutionary” with “natural”, “genetic”, “permanent”, and “unchangeable”. A lot of very smart people (Patrick Bateson springs to mind) have written about how this conflation is central to the wearisome “nature-nurture debate”, but this has also not been communicated well beyond academic journals.

I’m not sure how to remedy this. I don’t feel I have any new insights, but perhaps I should start on a couple of posts detailing the ways in which the term “human nature” should be employed with utmost caution. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because we all need to know what exactly we’re referring to.

Anyhow, satire is always useful for stimulating debate. At the very least it’s a clever discussion aid for a seminar on evolutionary psychology.

“in rainbows” in anthropological context

Unless you spend your Mondays in seclusion, you’ll most likely have heard that yesterday Radiohead announced their new album, “In Rainbows” would be released in just over a week, October 10th. (If you don’t know who Radiohead are then … there really is no hope for you).

The most interesting thing about this–besides the sneak-speed announcement and timeframe for such a long-awaited album–is the method of distribution. Radiohead are currently without a record deal, and so they’ve chosen to release the album themselves via download. A variable-contribution download, which means that you choose how much you are willing to pay for it–including nothing at all.

Cue much discussion on the future of the music industry and record companies; the inherent value of music; consequences for music charts; what people are actually buying when they purchase an album, etc, etc. It is true to say that it was going to take a superstar band to do this and get the industry and public to really take notice, and it’s also true to say that what the band have done is taken control of the inevitable “leak” and subsequent “illegal” file-sharing, and done it on their own terms.

What is intriguing to me, and why I’m writing about this on my ostensibly-academic blog, is that they have set up a really fascinating social experiment, one that is not too far off the sort of thing that psychologists, economists, and anthropologists are increasingly using to understand human social behaviour: an economic game. Economic or public-goods games take some aspect of behaviour that is context-specific and examine how the interplay of private versus social factors affect the decisions we make. Famous examples include the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum game. These sorts of artificial situations are set up to try and understand why and how prosocial behaviours such as altruism, punishment, co-operation and group co-ordination can evolve. Evolutionarily-minded social scientists are intrigued by these things as often they appear to run counter to our long-term (genetic) or short-term (economic) self-interests.

Which begs the question: why would anyone in their right mind enter anything apart from £0.00 in that little box? Why, furthermore, are there people complaining about the free download, who would rather pay a tenner for a CD? Something to hold in your hands, perhaps? Hardly: CD covers, liner notes, artwork … all these things are available (free) on fansites and music sites 0.0007 seconds after an album release.

Yet people did pay money, according to their self-reports on websites and forums[1]. And people felt guilty about not paying anything … even those who by their own admission regularly download music from file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks without paying for it, or without a twinge of conscience.

What is going on here? Continue reading →

population statistics say nothing about lily cole

Science reporting is rubbish, that’s a given. So this story (I hate myself for linking to the Daily Mail) Why blue-eyed boys (and girls) are so brilliant should have just made me roll my (no pun intended) eyes and slide on by, but it’s cropping up all over the place.

I’m not feeling the best today, and as a little rage is good for the digestion, I think: Fine, I’ll go read the paper. But lo! There is no paper? There’s not really even any clues about the researcher(s). This Joanne Rowe seems to be an emeritus professor of Physical Health at Lousiville, Kentucky. No web page of her own.

So I look on the magic academic databases, and the only things I can find are:

Percept Mot Skills. 1992 75(1):91-5.
Correlation of eye color on self-paced and reactive motor performance.
Miller LK, Rowe PJ, Lund J.

Percept Mot Skills. 1994 Aug;79(1 Pt 2):671-4.
Ball color, eye color, and a reactive motor skill.
Rowe PJ, Evans P.

These studies are 13 and 15 years old! Why is this news now? I could go for the benefit of the doubt, and say there is a paper, it’s just under the Wednesday science embargo. Likelihood?

I shall eat my hat or do follow-up detective work tomorrow.

Next up: Girls Prefer Pink O RLY? or, The Boring Nature/Nurture Debate, Redux.

everybody needs a fishbowl

One of the most stimulating talks at the European Human Behaviour and Evolution meeting last week was by Randy Nesse from the University of Michigan, who should be well-known to anyone whose had any interest in evolutionary psychology over the last ten years. Nesse has been at the forefront of investigating how an evolutionary perspective can lead to new and useful insights into psychiatry. I think that in the earliest stages this endeavour suffered a little from over-application of the A word (adaptationism); though I have absolutely no problem with the concept of maladaptive behaviour, I think that detractors were right to be skeptical about the assertion that many psychological problems were in fact “mismatched” “over-active” or “malfunctioning” adaptive psychological mechanisms built in the Pleistocene. Nesse’s talk showed how that kind of thinking has changed into considering that it is not the problem per se, such as depression, that is adaptive, but that the broader class of cognition and/or behaviour into which depression fits, in this case mood, that has adaptive features.

The main point of his talk was that in (evolutionarily?) important life areas such as love, health, work, intelligence, family etc we have (a) wants, (b) expectations, and (c) realities. From these, we can identify where certain things are poorly balanced, and where our “hopes” are unrealistic in the medium-term. Unreasonable “hopes”, Nesse argued, seem to be at the core of much depression that he sees clinically, and restructuring the pursuit of goals can be very helpful.

Relatedly, Presentation Zen links to Barry Schwarz’s TED talk on the illusory link between a plethora of “choices” in life and happiness. Schwarz argues that in an ecology of too many choices, we become detrimentally paralysed, and only ever just-satisfied. Constraints on options (the fishbowl of the title) might lead to less frustration and unhappiness with our choices. I strongly believe this is true, and not just with the trivial example of consumer anxiety. Parental investment and mate choice seem to be two important evolutionary areas where members of industrial/urban societies are overloaded with choices. Whether the choices are real or illusory also seems important too – for instance, the great anxiety of balancing career/family/personal goals seems to me to be clouded by the illusion that one can maximise all those choices.

The video is well-worth watching, as are some of the other TED talks on YouTube. I like the focus of TED, but at US$4400 for an invitation to a meeting, I do feel this is quite the privileged club.

Related paper by Nesse here [pdf]

paper: blondes have more… fear?

That’ll be the newspaper taglines, at least.

Behavioural inhibition in young children appears to be more frequent in blue-irised American children, and now in blond(er) German children. The putative link is made between melanocyte-stimulating hormones and cortisol (stress-related) stimulators as the underlying mechanism.

Interesting stuff, and will no doubt be picked up on for its quirk value, but it is the kind of research that is a little “so what?” in terms of what one does with that information. Cuddle fair-headed kids more? I bet they already get a little more attention 😉

I do get a bit antsy at the use of cross-cultural to describe findings such as these. I suppose it depends on where your draw your cultural boundaries (and for what purposes), but the danger is that “cross-cultural” is so very easily conflated with “human universal”. If we’re speaking of worldwide cultural variation, Caucasian Americans and Germans are pretty close to sister-taxa.

via Dienekes