Review | A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine

Books that ask “what’s wrong with our brains?” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.

A Mind of Its Own explores ways in which our brains don’t make sense and cognitive biases that funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The book starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.

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Participants and Prejudice

During uni, a lot of focus is put on the ability to think critically, evaluate research, and work out how best to psychologically study the world…apparently. In all honesty, while evaluating results and testing methods is strictly marked, a student could easily coast through the entire three years without putting any deep thought into research participants and their dynamics.

When evaluating research, it’s easy to make superficial criticisms of the study based on one factor. This study uses only males? It’s androcentric. Only females? It’s gynocentric (and rare). Only Americans? It’s ethnocentric.

Beyond that most salient factor, however, that’s it for thinking about participants. And I’m questioning whether that is a form of prejudice or dehumanisation in a way: all we’re doing is reducing a group of complex individuals down to one factor, and claiming that one factor can explain their performance in the study.

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A New Research Culture?

Last week, I posted about ways that websites could get implied, indirect, or direct consent from visitors, to ensure they had a consenting user base for user experience (UX) or technological experiments. The ways I posted were quite simple, being mostly based on straightforward modifications to existing strategies, and without changing much in the way the websites themselves treat research and data collection.

However, after finishing that post I started thinking about what websites would be like if their approach to research changed in a more fundamental way. This is probably (unfortunately) unrealistic at the moment, but its an approach that I would love to see realised.

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What is informed consent?

Following on from last week’s post about the Facebook experiment, it seemed sensible to look at what methods can be used to gain fair consent in internet-based research.

Implied Consent
The simplest method, and one most commonly used in surveys and questionnaires, is Implied consent. This method means the requirement of a signed consent document is waived, and the consent is instead embedded in taking part. In a survey, this could be done by only showing the questions to people who ticked an “I agree to take part” button at the very beginning, and redirecting people who ticked “I do not agree to take part” away from the survey. This would be embedded or implied consent, as people would have to say they wanted to take part in order to see the questions.

For simple studies with little to no personally identifiable information, and little to no risk of harm, this method of gaining consent is good enough. However, if this method is done on studied where participant information isn’t stored, then participants have no way of requesting their own data to be withdrawn. Studies using this method can often be a flash in the pan- performed and then forgotten, with often no record of their methods, participants, or findings.

Therefore, for large-scale, complex, or important studies, implied consent isn’t the way to go.

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Road Trip to Exeter University

Today, I went to the British Psychological Society Undergraduate Conference up at Exeter university. It was a brilliant day, and some of the best fun I’ve had in an academic setting. Here’s a look at what we got up to, and the talks we saw.

We began our road trip in Bristol at 6:30, and arrived in Exeter at about 8:30am (after a detour for coffee). Our first reaction was mild university envy over the design and looks of the campus buildings. The main building containing their student services was equally impressive — however, I was slightly disappointed that we didn’t get to see the library, as I can imagine wanting to spend hours in there if I saw inside.

The main body of the day was made up of student presentations, where courageous third-year students presented their dissertation research and findings to us.

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History of Psychology – Social Cognition:the psychological blender

Social Cognition is the study of how people interpret and respond to social groups and situations, and it is a combination of social, cognitive, and developmental psychology blended together. It has been the dominant way of explaining social behaviour since the 1980’s, and is used today in even more scientific areas such as Cognitive Neuroscience.

Social Cognition is based on a cognitive theory called schema theory. schema is our mental framework that represents an object; for example, our schema of a banana would be that it is a fruit, yellow, and curved. It would also contain the knowledge that a banana is edible, and the process of opening and eating it, once we have learnt that. We then have social schemata for social situations we find ourselves in, as well as schemata for different individuals and groups of people we interact with. The schemata we make affect our social decisions, such as how we decide who is at fault in an argument, whether someone’s behaviour is due to them or their situation, and even to whether someone appears mentally ill.

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History of Psychology – Social Learning Theory

Social psychology is in a way a psychology of compromise, as it strikes the middle ground between psychodynamic psychology (the “first force”) and behavioural psychology (the “second force”). This is strongly seen in its most well-known contribution, Social Learning Theory, as SLT is a balance between psychodynamic explanations of learning, which are seen as too deep, and behaviourist explanations, which are seen as too superficial.

The SLT was formed by Albert Bandura, who is often regarded as the most famous living psychologist. Bandura conducted the famous “Bobo Doll” studies, where 3-4 year olds watched an adult being neutral or aggressive to a bobo doll (an inflatable doll that bounces upright when pushed over), and then being either praised, punished, or receiving no reaction for being aggressive. The children were each let loose in a room filled with toys including a bobo doll. Bandura found that children who watched the adult being aggressive were more likely to also be aggressive towards the doll, especially if the adult was rewarded for their behaviour.

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History of Psychology – the Stanford Prison Experiment

Another massively controversial psychological study is Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most criticised experiments in modern psychology.

In the experiment, university students were chosen to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards in a fake prison environment; the aim of the study was to test their theory that the often-violent behaviour of prison guards was due to their personality traits rather than their environment. Although this was a commendable aim, the problem with this study lay in its realism and design- the simulation was so effective that both the participants and the experimenters became too involved and could not see how unethical the situation had become.

While the study was supposed to last two weeks, it had to be stopped after just 6 days as the participants were playing their roles too well. Some of the prison guards had become violent, even showing sadistic tendencies and torturing prisoners, while the prisoners had become passive and accepting, forgetting the situation was not real and they did not deserve the treatment. One prisoner even had to be removed after suffering a nervous breakdown on day 3.

This may sound like the experiment was just conducted on violent or unstable people, but in fact the opposite is true; the participants were all middle-class university students, specifically selected because they had perfect psychological health. The results of the experiment were incredibly valuable despite its problems, because they showed that cruel behaviour was not simply caused by someone being a “bad” or violent person. Instead, people put into extreme situations responded in extreme ways, especially if there were contributing factors such as the processes of depersonalisation and deindividuation.

This study, along with Milgram’s  research, demonstrated how authority and social environment affected behaviour, a theme which has been present and debated in psychology ever since.

History of Psychology – Milgram and Obedience

While Social Psychology was first mentioned in the late 19th century, it became a subject of serious study thanks to the Second World War, after psychologists realised that existing theories could not understand or predict why people behaved the way they did in the war.

The first new social psychology studies were used for fairly unethical (although arguably useful) purposes; they were commissioned by the military to find out how types of influence such as persuasion and propaganda worked. After the war ended, they began to study social problems such as racism and gender imbalance, later moving on to subjects like aggression. Their focus on human problems meant their studies needed to be conducted on humans, leading to years of horribly unethical experiments, until the invention of a new system of ethical guidelines in 1961, after the Nuremberg Trials.

The most controversial psychology experiments have often been on obedience and conformity. Annoyingly, they are the also the ones which have told us most abut human behaviour.

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