Brain testing voters
The Wall Street Journal had a story on Friday about presidential candidates using "neuroscience" to test voters' reactions to certain issues and messages. Market researchers have been doing this for several decades, of course; it's only recently that campaigns have had enough money to spend spare tens of thousands on brain scans.
I probably would be more upset about this practice if I thought it worked. As it stands now, the whole thing smacks of snake oil. But it's worth pausing to consider what's going on here, aside from the colossal waste of money: these presidential candidates are essentially trying to read voters' minds.
Most Americans know that electoral politics here is a joke, that presidential candidates live and die by polls. But brain testing and the public's ho-hum response suggests is that even the pretense of having integrity is scarcely necessary. Now that is terrifying.
Thanks to BoingBoing for pointing us to this amazing study demonstrating that, while both men and women concentrate on faces when looking at pictures of men, men's eyes naturally wander south. This may not be news if the phrase 'my eyes are up here' is running through your head, but that isn't what the study showed. In fact, the truth is farther south. Just a touch below the equator.
It turns out that men have a considerable secondary focus on the nads of other men. The researchers also point out that:
Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site.
Which, sadly, helps explain why men like dogs. Big dogs.
Leave the jokes to me
According to some journal, men find a sense of humor in women a huge turnoff. I would be more specific, and possibly offer a quote or two from the article, but the idiots at The Independent have decided that 48 hours is enough time to keep an article online for free. (The [Racine, WI] Journal Times, more generous with their archives, has an article about the study here.)
Damned if you do
A recent study has found that doing drugs and having sex can lead to teen depression.
In related news, a longitudinal study of one teenager growing up in Queens proved that a lack of sex and drugs also leads to depression. The subject and author of the study is currently seeking a grant to try and find out if the findings can be duplicated in a larger sample.
Since it now seems that having sex and not having sex can lead to depression, maybe the one in five is actually a low estimate of teen psychological disorders.
(Via World of Psychology)
Not So Wild Animals
Via Monkeywire, we learn that zoo administrators across the country have been doping exotic animals that show signs of distress with their environment. I don't want to get all PETA about this since I'm lying naked on a bearskin rug and eating chicken salad while typing, but this sounds a lot like experiments are being done on animals just to keep the show entertaining.
"[Antidepressants are] definitely a wonderful management tool, and that's how we look at them," said the Toledo Zoo's mammal curator, Randi Meyerson."To be able to just take the edge off puts us a little more at ease."
Perhaps the zookeepers have been consulting with nursing home administrators, daycare consultants, and school officials. Or vice versa.
In fact, most of the animals are acting appropriately, given their circumstances: they are depressed about confinement, confused by their surroundings, and afraid of animals outside of the herd. In other words, these animals need drugs because they are in zoos.
I'm leaving early also
According to a presenter at the American Psychological Association conference, workaholics are the best lovers.
Me? I'm blogging from work.
And sometimes a cigar is a metaphor
A new study by a Cornell researcher has found that men whose masculinity is threatened are more likely to buy an SUV, support the war in Iraq, and gay-bash.
Obviously, these guys doth protest too much. They should just relax and get themselves a facial.
Business Week makes the bold proclamation that "The study of neuroeconomics may topple the notion of rational decision-making." Yeah, right. We've heard this all before, as "behavioral economics"--a form of economics that acknowledges the obvious: that emotions affect one's economic decisions. Though advertising and marketing have relied on emotions for over a century, mainline economics has always refused to acknowledge the role of emotions because doing so would undermine the basis of free-market economics (in other words, the idea that the market is the perfect arbiter of society's interests). Behaviorial economics is clearly more realistic than the classical model, but political forces so overwhelmingly disfavor it that it's a wonder Business Week even mentions it. (Though perhaps neuroeconomics--with its "scientific" dressing--sounds more palatable than "behavioral.")
I hope you'll pardon me while I rant for a minute. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out, BLINK, that has become the talk of the town, even prompting one reviewer -- Farhad Manjoo of Salon -- to state that, "You won't find a reader who doesn't at least like Gladwell" and "There's just no arguing with Gladwell."
I'd like to know what planet Mr. Manjoo is living on; Gladwell's work ALWAYS makes people want to argue. As I've written here before, his writing follows a simple formula: put forth a counterintuitive argument, then cleverly select points that advance this claim while ignoring and obscuring those that don't.
I haven't read the book in question, so you can take this all with a grain of salt, but the premise alone is preposterous: Gladwell claims that "rapid cognition"--"the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye"--is underappreciated. As Gladwell writes, "I think the Rapid Cognition Model needs to be taken far more seriously--that it's smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit for."
Oh, really? What about the advertising industry, which does nothing if not appreciate humanity's ability to make unconscious, split-second decisions (and profit from them). Every year, marketers pour billions of dollars into researching and exploiting "blink."
What about the recent election of a president who acted on "gut instinct" over a man noted for careful deliberation? What about the widespread assumption that it's important to make a good first impression... or, for that matter, the belief in love at first sight?
Gladwell devotes a chunk of his book to the work of the John Gottman, who videotapes couples and says that within 15 minutes he can tell with 90 percent accuracy whether the couple will be married 15 years later. According to Gladwell, Gottman's abilities illustrate the power of blink. But Gottman's work could just as well illustrate the power of careful, deliberative analysis. I first heard about the Gottman Institute on NPR's This American Life; in that story, Gottman discussed how he acquired his ability to read couples through extensive trial and error. It took him over a decade of watching and analyzing to get to a point where he figured things out quickly. It seems to me that this gets to the heart of the problem with touting blink: at least a solid part of its strength is dependent on the kind of analysis that Gladwell suggests is overrated.
The very reason that Gottman's work interests us in the first place is because it's so unusual, the exception to the rule. The truth is that most of us aren't very good at knowing whether our own relationships will last, let alone those of our peers. Yet Gladwell maintains that the power of blink is democratic, as useful for lay persons as experts. If that's the case, why is the divorce rate for people who fall in love at first sight no better than those who trod a slow-moving path?
It's also really hard to swallow Gladwell's love of blink in light of its role in the social stereotypes that play against the female, dark-skinned, disabled, or physically unattractive among us. Gladwell and his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki debate this point in an enlightening Slate article. )
To make his case, Gladwell discusses the hiring practices of top orchestras. For years, such orchestras, which conducted open auditions, overwhelmingly selected male performers. But in the 1980s, as Gladwell writes, orchestras "started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately -- immediately! -- orchestras started hiring women."
Might this indicate that relying on quick impressions isn't such a good thing? After all, it suggests that committee members who had relied on first impressions were likely to assume a female player wasn't very good. Gladwell's retort: people rely on their biases regardless of how quickly they make a decision. The problem, he suggests, is bias, not the style (or speed) of decision-making. To bolster his point, he sites the overwhelming presence of tall men heading up corporations. Even very deliberate decisions, he points out, reflect bias.
But this reasoning is ridiculous. The fact that reasoned decisions often reflect bias doesn't mean that reasoning can't help minimize it. When you eliminate reasoning and deliberation, you eliminate even the chance of countering biased first impressions.
Gladwell's solution is no solution at all: "We can put up the equivalent of screens. We can find ways of editing out nonessential information." When you consider that we form prejudices based on a person's name, skin color, voice, height, gender, medical history, and appearance, the equivalent of screens would be a soundproof, windowless blackbox.
I'm not saying Gladwell is a bad writer, or that none of his points have merit. I think his skills lie precisely where Farhad Manjoo denies them: in getting readers to argue and discuss. He's also good at weaving engaging narratives. But, for me, his penchant for overselling arguments--and for concealing significant counterpoints--overshadows his obvious talents.
Gladwell's thesis would be more accurate in stating that split-second decision-making isn't worthless -- that it can at times be channeled effectively, and that knowing when to do so is key. But that argument sounds a lot less sexy. At any rate, it wouldn't make for a Malcolm Gladwell book.
The first article of Gladwell's that I remember was his profile of Paco Underhill, which you can read on his website: The Science of Shopping
This article pissed me off so much that I did my own interview with Underhill for the Village Voice (later reprinted in Stay Free!): Shopping Spies: Why is that man staring at me?