This isn't a blog about Batman but it is a blog about God, who has more superpowers but is less cool. It's a shame the A-Level Specification doesn't explore the psychology of belief, but a study on this topic caught my eye this week.
Nicholas Epley and colleagues authored a 2009 study into religious beliefs, bringing together good old-fashioned Cognitive Psychology (surveys! questionnaires!) and newfangled Biological Approach brain imaging techniques. It's called Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs.
OK, so, as titles go, it's not exactly Abbey Road or Appetite For Destruction, but it sums up the research question pretty well. The "egocentrism" in the title is a cognitive bias that inclines people to view the world strictly from their own perspective and struggle to see things from anyone else's. We're all egocentric to some extent, but egocentrism is especially linked with early childhood and with developmental disorders like autism which make it particularly hard to "put youself in someone else's shoes".
Epley is tackling the religious idea that, rather than trusting their own judgements, religious believers can turn to God for guidance. This is sometimes summed up in the bumper-sticker slogan "What Would Jesus Do?"
Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder - Nicholas Epley
You see, if believers really were getting input from God, you'd expect their views would be particularly consistent and objective. After all, my opinions about what other people think is probably skewed by my own biases, but surely, when it comes to God, I set my biases aside, right? Wrong, says Epley, who suspects religious beliefs are as egocentric as any other belief and he sets out to prove it.
Epley et al. carry out 7 different studies and bring all their findings together (this approach is called "triangulation"). The first four studies are surveys, questioning commuters at a train station in Boston, college students and members of a US survey database. It's nice to see a piece of research use someone other than students. I agree with Ariel Rubenstein's complaint that too much cognitive psychology boils down to the "science of the behavior of the college sophomore" so it's nice to see big city commuters get a look-in on a study too.
The surveys showed a strong correlation between a person's own beliefs on issues like politics and morality and what they thought God's views were. This looks as if people are basing their view of God on themselves, rather than basing their beliefs on God. Sigmund Freud would totally agree: he calls this tendency to invent a powerful deity and invest it with all our values "projection" and he thinks it's a form of mental illness.
Not so fast, Dr Freud! As my students will find out when we get onto correlations and the Spearman's Rho test, CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION. Just because there's a link between two things, you can't be sure one is causing the other. Maybe God is inspiring people's beliefs, rather than people basing their idea of God on their own attitudes! (And, if you're interested, the philosopher William Lane Craig has a nice comeback to the whole "projection" thing).
Epley et al. have thought of such criticisms and they set up some clever lab experiments in Studies 5 & 6. If you want to find cause-and-effect, you need a lab experiment. Epley's experiments involved getting people to read short speeches arguing for or against a hot news topic; one speech was always a good argument (logical... evidenced... etc); the other was always a weak one (Paris Hilton and Britney Spears feel this way too!). Naturally, people's views shifted in favour of the better argument. But crucially, so did their opinion on God's stance on the matter!!
This is clever mixture of independent and repeated measures, because some people got weak arguments and didn't change their views (or God's), but others got strong arguments and changed their views and felt God's view had changed too. This really does make religious beliefs look egocentric - just puffed-up versions of our own beliefs.
Epley isn't done yet, because Study 7 is a brain imaging study, just like Raine et al. (1997), but using fMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) rather than PET scanning. Epley gets the participants to think about their own views, about other people's views and about God's views on different topics, then he takes a fMRI brain image to see what parts of the brain seem to be involved with these cognitive processes.
Whoops! You can see there's a big gap between the parts of the brain at work when people think about the difference between their own beliefs and other Americans' beliefs... and a big gap between the parts of the brain used to think about God's views and other Americans' views... but when people have to think about their own views and God's views, there's no difference at all: the same part of the brain seems to do both jobs.
There's a lot of good stuff in this study. It's imaginative and it tackles a new topic. It mixes Cognitive and Biological Approaches and it mixes methods too. But is Epley right?
People may use religious agents as a moral compass... The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing. - Nicholas Epley
I'm not sure he is.
Many religions teach that God is (in some sense) "within us" and almost of all of them teach that God is a spirit who cannot be imagined as another person. When I think about my friends' beliefs or just "British people's" beliefs, I tend to imagine how they look (or I think of people look that I see on the news or in the street) - but if I think about what God wants or commands, I don't have a picture to think of. Instead, I have to rummage through my own feelings and memories. This is called "introspection" or maybe "meditation" or even "prayer".
It doesn't surprise that this shows up on a brain imaging scan as looking just like "me thinking about myself". That just goes to show the famous danger of reductionism with the scientific method. If you boil everything down to brain scans, you over-simplify: I can tell the difference between me analysing my own beliefs and me just imagining stuff, even if a fMRI scanner can't.
Similarly, the 5th and 6th studies that get people to change their beliefs are interesting, but they could be used to draw a different conclusion from the one Epley arrives at.
Most religions understand that people have a nasty tendency to imagine God as being "just like them" and then attach all their own beliefs, priorities and pet-hates to God. They call this "anthropomorphism". Religions try to correct this by confronting people with sermons and sacred texts that challenge people's own personal views. Epley's study actually suggests they're right to do this. Left to their own devices, people's views are easily swayed and their religious beliefs are easily swayed too. For example, they can drift into extremism and be convinced the whole time that they're following God's will, when really they're reimagining God to fit in with their own desires. That's why believers are encouraged to go to church, or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever.
But enough about religion: what would Batman do? Batman is completely unsway-able. His parents get murdered and he becomes a masked crime fighter and nothing, but nothing, ever persuades him that he's made the wrong decision. He seems to have rock-solid beliefs, completely immune to social pressures. Maybe we should be more like Batman?
One of the things these cognitive studies teach us is: we're not Batman. Our beliefs are really easily swayed; even beliefs that are deeply important to us, like religious beliefs. That's probably a good thing. If you can be swayed by arguments and by an awareness of other people's opinions, you're not weak; you're a reasonable person. Batman may be awesome, but nobody ever claimed he was reasonable.
Back in 1977, when I was just a little boy, I went to see Star Wars on its first release. Like a lot of young boys, I was transformed by that film. I became a Geek and I've been one ever since. Tolkien followed, and Dungeons & Dragons and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
So today I went back to the cinema and watched The Force Awakens for the second time. I'm not the sort of person who watches films twice, so this is unusual for me. Actually, I watched The Phantom Menace twice because I desperately hoped I'd see some redeeming quality in it second time around (I didn't). But I went for a second viewing of the new Star Wars Episode VII and, do you know, I was just as moved, amused, excited and thrilled at first time round. It's great to see a film done right and there've been so many sequels and re-boots done badly lately (Indiana Jones, Terminator, Die Hard, Poltergeist, even the latest Star Trek Into Darkness left me cold and don't get me STARTED on everything that was wrong with Man Of Steel).
But it all worked for me in this film: new characters you instantly liked and rooted for, old characters re-capturing their charm, new bad guys who were scary and contemptible in equal measure, heroism, romance... and A Very Important Character dies in a tragic, tear-jerking way. Yes, it's all good.
And cool new lightsabers
So what makes someone a Geek? Why do some people love star destroyers and elves and battle axes and dragons so much? Why the multi-sioded dice and the genre TV shows that keep getting axed because not enough people watch them (still not over Firefly, the wounds are still raw)?
It's tempting to say "personality" and it's a great shame that the Edexcel Psychology course doesn't look at personality theory in any depth. There's Freud of course, who would probably say all this childish obsessing over make-believe worlds is a defence mechanism for people who can't cope with sex or death. I haven't posted up anything on the site yet about Freud, so I'll save that for another blog later in the year.
Maybe "biology" has something to do with it. Perhaps there's a "Geek brain" that is wired to respond to gigantic space ships or ringwraiths or tentacle monsters. That seems unlikely to me, but the Biological Approach isn't up on the site yet, so I'll delay judgement on that too.
Social Identity seems a strong explanation. Geeks are, after all, a social ingroup. You can identify them by their tendency to wear T-shirts with slogans only other Geeks will find funny or images from superhero comics. Once you identify as a Geek, then you are under pressure to conform to your ingroup's behaviours: read graphic novels, play roleplaying games, watch Doctor Who and know the secret identity of every hero in the Avengers.
Social comparison then means you have a tendency to exaggerate the value of your ingroup's products ("Yeah, I think The Watchmen is better literature than Jane Austen!") and dismiss the products of all the other outgroups (football, cars, being attractive to the opposite sex).
So maybe I'm just conforming to my ingroup's expectations when I say I'd rather watch the Millennium Falcon in flight than a Formula 1 racing car or an episode of Eastenders.
It doesn't feel like that to me, of course. It feels to me that I like space ships and wizards because they're really cool, not because my ingroup tells me I have to like them. But that's the whole point about Social Identity Theory - and most Social Psychology, actually - which is that the real reason you do what you do isn't what you think it is. Milgram's poor participants weren't aware of being in an agentic state. In fact, Milgram asked his own students and colleagues what they thought they would do if they were put in that situation, and almost all of them insisted there was no way they would cave in to social pressure and shock an innocent man to death. But the study shows that people aren't very good judges of what they would actually do.
We all like to think we would behave nobly or heroically in a crisis. One of the nice touches in The Force Awakens is the expression on the face of Finn (John Boyega) when Kylo Ren raises his lightsaber. Sheer terror.
Geeks do like to imagine they've got special qualities that non-Geeks lack. Lots of them will tell you they have higher IQs, a better grasp of science or computers and a more exhaustive knowledge of all of Spider-Man's girlfriends than your ordinary folk.
A very recent study backs this up in a surprising way. Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing is a paper by Rivers et al. (2016) that claims to show the people who play roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (pretty much the pinnacle of Geekiness) score higher for empathy than non-gamers.
Empathy is a very important cognitive ability. It involves sensing what other people are feeling. It's also the ability to imagine what other people must be thinking, to "see things from someone else's viewpoint".
Very flattering! Carol Pinchefsky, writing on the Geek & Sundry blog, draws this conclusion:
... if this study is correct and gamers are empathic, and empathy leads to compassionate action, it would therefore follow that gaming makes the world a better place.
I just can't leave it at that though. I want to start evaluating this study and criticising it.
For one thing, empathy doesn't necessarily lead to compassionate action. Think what B.F. Skinner would say to that! Surely, the best thing to predict someone's actions is the rewards and punishments they've had in the past, their history of reinforcement. A lot of compassionate action is just good habits, drilled in at an early age. Without those habits, empathy makes you feel sorry for people, but it doesn't make you get up and do anything about it.
But what about the study itself? The participants were scored for empathy based on filling out a questionnaire: the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI).
There are problems with the external validity of tests like this. As Milgram showed, people aren't good at judging how they actually behave in stressful situations. There's a lot of social desirability bias because, even if I'm really a bit callous and dull, I know that people would find me more appealing if I said that I got really into books and films and always stick up for the underdog, etc.
There's a bigger problem. Scales like this are quite reductionist. You're taking complex human feelings and turning them into numbers. The weird thing is, two people could answer every question differently on the scale and still get the same four scores. This is an even bigger problem if you take the four scores and add them together to produce one gigantic empathy score (which, to be fair, you're not supposed to do with this questionnaire).
Finally, this is a natural experiment: whether or not you're a gamer is a naturally-occurring variable. With an IV like this, you can't be sure if the IV is causing the DV. In other words, does gaming make you more empathic or were the gamers more empathic to begin with (roleplaying games attract imaginative and empathic people)?
I'm a bit dubious about the whole idea of super-empathic gamers. I suspect there's a different explanation for their high scores in empathy. You see, one thing gamers are very good at is filling in forms and adding up scores to get characteristics. It's what you do when you create a character in Dungeons & Dragons. They'll pay much more attention than most people to the different types of questions and the scores you get from them. They'll try to get the best scores because that's what being a gamer is all about. So I dont think this research is very valid.
But maybe someone's reading this, thinking "Dungeons & Dragons? Roleplaying games? What's this guy on about?"
I think you need to watch this rather excellent parody video of the 2010 hit Like a G6.
A "D6" is a six-sided dice
I hope we all settled down on New Year's Day to watch Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, didn't we? We did, didn't we? Well, even if you've been trapped under something heavy and unable to click on iPlayer, you're totally familiar with Sherlock (Benedict Cuberbatch) and his "memory palace" technique for remembering absolutely everything... Really? Do we have to start from the beginning?
It's a memory technique. It doesn't have to be an actual place. The way it works, you put information there, and theoretically you'll never forget it, you just have to find your way back to it - Sherlock
And it is a real thing, the memory palace. Only it's not really called that. It's called the "method of loci" and it was first written about by the ancient Romans. I won't say they invented it because it was probably about for centuries before them. Anyone who's read The Odyssey must have wondered how poets like Homer got to know huge poems back in the days before writing was invented. But it was the Romans who perfected the technique and the famous philosopher Cicero describes it in his book on public speaking.
It works by getting parts of your memory that normally work separately to start cooperating: the visual memory and the semantic memory. You choose a place you know very well (such as your bedroom) or a familiar route (like your journey to work or school). The various "stops" along the way or items of furniture in your room are the "loci" in your memory palace and you visualise the things you need to remember being present there. When you need to recall them, you mentally "retrace your steps" through the room or along the route, pausing to notice each of the things you need to remember in order.
The only fiddly thing about memory palaces is building them: coming up with memorable people or things can take a bit of imagination sometimes, but the only thing that matters is that the connection makes sense to you. So if you want to remember King John coming after Richard the Lion-Heart and you once had a pet gerbil called John, then you need to imagine the lion being chased away by a gerbil. The sillier the better, because that makes it memorable.
But if a bearded American dude makes it clearer to you, have a look at this chap explaining things instead:
The Method of Locus does work and the more you use it, the easier it gets. In theory, you could build up a huge repertoire of knowledge based on the same route or room: so long as you get the starting connection right, your semantic memory will retrieve the next image in the sequence, so you won't get you kings and queens of England muddled up with your past winners of X-Factor (Steve, Shayne, Leona...).
Now you might be thinking, that's all very well, but it won't let me do the stuff that Sherlock does! Well... NO, because Sherlock is a FICTIONAL CHARACTER
But despite this, some pretty impressive feats of memory go on using the Method of Loci and similar techniques. Since the '90s, there have been Memory Competitions and the 2006 World Memory Champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300-point-long journey through his house to recall 1040 random digits in a half hour. Gary Shang has used the method of loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 digits. Read that back to yourself. Pi, to over 65,000 digits. Now watch that scene from Life of Pi and think, somebody did better than that! The clip below shows Thomas Morton, who has memorised a great amount of pi and a telephone directory!
The point is, these are ordinary people using a memory technique (memory tecniques are called "mnemonics") to do extraordinary things. They're not extraordinary people. There are extraordinary people out there. The page on individual differences in memory has some stuff on photographic memory, people like Stephen Wiltshire who can draw a whole city from memory. The point is, these people don't use mnemonics. They have abnormal memories.
Interestingly, TV's Sherlock is presented as being on the austistic spectrum, having difficulties in relating to people around him. Stephen Wiltshire is also autistic. While not every person (or even most people) on the autistic spectrum has this sort of phenomenal memory, it's interesting that some do. These "savants" seem to gain some abilities almost as compensation for losing others.
There's a terrific documentary series called Beautiful Minds available through Youtube and the first episode, The Memory Masters, deals with these people. Here's part of that below: have a watch and be amazed.
I've launched the Psychology Wizard with a new domain name; www.psychologywizard.net
My thinking is, this will make the site easier to find and will free me to add more features to it than the old Weebly free website template allowed.
So what's ahead in 2016? Well, the Psychology Wizard has most of the Unit 1 material up for Cognitive, Social and Learning, but nothing yet on Methods. That's going up next. The material on Biological Psychology should follow in February/May and that leaves Unit 1 pretty much done. Then I'll take a look at Unit 2.
Psychology Wizard needs a cool logo, so I'm asking my students (via the Art Department at my school) to design one as a competition. Hopefully, the winning logo should appear in a month and give the site some 'brand identity'.
I'll be working on some personal projects too. I'm redrafting a horror novel on the WriteOn site and comments are welcome.
After that, I've got a outline for another novel which lets me wear my Religious Studies hat: an action-adventure set around the court of King Herod and the birth of Christ.
My New Years Resolutions are fairly well accounted for with these projects, besides the usual lose-weight-and-drink-less good intentions. I thought I'd review the psychological ideas on the site so far to help me stick to these.
The Learning Approach tells us a lot about why we find it hard to stick to Resolutions. A lot of our behaviour is ingrained habit. In other words, it's conditioning.
Partly, we're Classically Conditioned by powerful associations that go back a long way. That chocolate bar at break time? The fried chicken wrap at lunch? They were just Neutral Stimuli to us once upon a time, stuff we could take or leave. But there they are, at the same time every day in the snack bar or vending machine and they get associated with " mid morning break" and before you know it, they're Conditioned Stimuli and our Conditioned Response is to buy them and eat them.
Then the Operant Conditioning kicks in as a sort of double-whammy. When we eat chocolate we get a reward. Not just the nice taste (though that too!) but also the release of chemicals called endorphines that bond to pleasure receptors in the brain. An apple or cheese sandwich just isn't so rewarding on a biological level.
The good news is that, knowing how conditioning works, we can do something about it. You need different associations in place of the old ones. So you stay away from the Conditioned Stimuli by taking a route that avoids the vending machine or staying out of the snack bar. You build up alternative associations: use mid-morning break to catch up on a book, social media or a video game, anything so long as you break the link. Pavlov found he had to condition his dogs up to 20 times to get them to salivate to his metronome or tuning fork. THat means 4 weeks should be sufficient to break a conditioned habit.
It's important that your alternative associations should be rewarding too. It's no fun replacing chocolate with a stick of cerlery or a dry biscuit. You've got to reward yourself. The most popular way of doing this is putting aside the money saved on the chocolate or fried food you didn't buy and spending it instead on something else you like too - pay to download a song, buy a Scratch Card or just save it for something larger. Psychologists call this a Contingency Contract and it's the basis of token economy programmes which have been proven to work.
I'm a big fan of board games and my heart is set on a monstrously huge game called Cthulhu Wars which retails for a wopping £140. But I figure, if I spend £2 a day at the school snack bar, then if I save the money instead I'll have that much by May. Simples!
Yes. I know. It's a retarded war game with plastic monsters. But that's who I am! That's how I roll!
It's not really that simple, though, otherwise everyone who set out a contingency contract in January and stick to it - but they don't!
It's worth remembering the other Approaches in Psychology. For example, in the Social Approach you learn about Social Impact Theory which reminds us that we're always at the receiving end of Social Force, trying to get us to do something. That Social Force might come from your cheery canteen staff ("Ooh, look what we've got for you today!"), advertising or even your friends ("Come and join us for chicken nuggets!"). Social Force tends to 'gang up' on individuals, but it gets lessened if it is split between two or three targets. That's why a contract buddy is a good idea, a friend who will share your Resolution and do the same as you. Now the Social Force being brought to bear on you is halved!
The other advantage of having a 'resolution buddy' is that the pair of you become an ingroup together. Remember what Henri Tajfel discovered about ingroups? You tend to rate the products of your ingroup highly and you identify with ingroup members, shifting your behaviour to be like them. If your friends are still tucking into pizzas and chocolates, you'll be under pressure to do the same, unless you start to see that as outgroup behaviour. This is probably why ex-smokers become so aggressively anti-smoking: they used to see other smokers as their ingroup, but now they see them as an outgroup.
I've got a nice R2D2 piggy bank to start saving coins in and I'll add to it every day that I resist the siren song of chocolate and fried food. I'll post up a review of Cthulhu Wars when I get my hands on it: hopefully some time before the A-Level exams!
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.