Tag Archives: psychology

The left hand of linkspam (19 April 2013)

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It’s Not Just About Delaying Gratification

When talking about the psychology of success, one experiment that comes up pretty frequently is the marshmallow task. Children around 4 years old were placed in front of an edible treat of some sort, and told that if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating the treat in front of them, they would get a second treat. The children were observed and timed for how long they could go without eating the present treat, and about a third of them made it the whole fifteen minutes to the reward. The experiment was conceived to study self-control, but there have been several follow-up studies that seemed to indicate correlations between how long the children could hold out on the marshmallow task and their subsequent competence, SAT scores, and brain activity in regions related to control and addiction. In short, people often refer to the marshmallow task study to support claims that willpower at a young age predicts success later in life.

But the assumption there is that waiting is the optimal, if most difficult, strategy. Because sure, waiting for an additional reward could show self-control and the ability to look ahead, when the children think they can trust their environment. A new follow-up study explores this concept further:

While volunteering years ago at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, Calif., [study author Celeste Kidd] realized that all the kids around her would eat their marshmallows straight away, living as they did in an environment where anything they had could be taken away at any time. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered,” Kidd says.

Although previous marshmallow-type studies have acknowledged that external factors might influence kids’ ability to wait for the bigger reward, none had directly tested for those factors’ effects. So Kidd and her colleagues ran a study in which they manipulated the reliability of their young participants’ environment. A researcher gave children with an average age of four years some poor-quality art materials and told them if they could wait, she would return with better supplies. In a “reliable” condition, she did exactly that, but in an “unreliable” condition, she returned to explain she did not have any better materials after all. A marshmallow test followed. Those in the reliable condition lasted an average of 12 minutes, whereas those in the unreliable condition lasted only three.

So in fact, the marshmallow task isn’t necessarily a measure of willpower, but also a measure of environmental stability, which ties into socioeconomical status, parenting type, and many other things, and it may be these variables that are contributing to success later in life. Hopefully this message about the inherent classism of the earlier interpretations filters through to psychology popularizers as well as the scientific community.

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Wednesday Geek Women: Mary Whiton Calkins and Elizabeth Spelke, psychological scientists

This is a guest post by Shauna, a psychologist, programmer, writer and blogger. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

For Ada Lovelace day I thought I’d go back to my roots and write about a psychological scientist. Being as I am prone to digressions, I ended up writing about two – one historical, one current. We’ll go chronologically.

Mary Whiton Calkins was born in the 1860s in Connecticut who studied classics and philosophy at Smith College. She took a job teaching Greek at Wellesley College after graduating, where by a combination of luck and talent she caught the eye of a psychology professor. He asked her to come teach psychology, but requested she spend a year studying it first. It was in this way that Calkins started taking classes at Harvard, and with William James himself among her tutors and mentors, it’s maybe not surprising that her interest in the field grew. She spent the next two years taking classes at Harvard and doing research into dreams with collaborator Edmund Sanford. Though their research would soon be eclipsed by Sigmund Freud (who did acknowledge and cite their work), their discovery that dream content could be influenced by external stimuli is much in line with our current theories of dreams.

In 1891 she returned to Wellesley to teach, and established there an experimental psychology laboratory, the first of its kind at any women’s college and only the twelfth in the United States. Over the next ten years, she trained hundreds of women in experimental psychology, putting out articles on subjects such as child development, aesthetics, and synesthesia. Hoping to continue her studies at Harvard, she also petitioned the university to become a graduate student, but the college did not allow female graduate students at the time and she was refused. Nevertheless, she continued to take classes, and three years later an unsanctioned committee of six Harvard professors awarded her an unofficial doctorate. Despite numerous petitions over the last 100+ years, Harvard has never awarded her an official one.

Calkins’ biggest research contribution is probably her work on paired association, a memory technique that is still used today. My favorite work of hers, though, is Community of Ideas of Men and Women, an article she published in 1891 in Psychological Review in response to one Dr. Joseph Jastrow. Jastrow had looked at lists of words generated by women and men, and claimed then men showed greater variety in word choice. This, he said, was evidence for the “Variability Hypothesis” – the theory that men have a greater range of abilities than women, with more men than women falling at the high and low ends of any given spectrum. Calkins and her student Cordelia Nevins replicated Jastrow’s study but not his results, and in their paper called into question the fundamental assumptions of his research:

[Jastrow et al] by the expression “masculine and feminine mental traits,’ attempt a distinction between masculine and feminine intellect per se, and this seems to me futile and impossible, because of our entire inability to eliminate the effect of environment. Now the differences in the training and tradition of men and women begin with the earliest months of infancy and continue through life. Most of the preferences which have been substantiated by both experimenters, for instance that of women .for the surroundings of a home, are obviously cultivated interests… The question of the essential difference between masculine and feminine mind seems to me, therefore, untouched by such an investigation.

Unlike the good scientists of that era, the Variability Hypothesis is not dead and buried. You may remember back in 2005 a controversy breaking out when Harvard’s then-president Larry Summers speculated in a speech that underrepresentation of women in science in general, and in tenured positions at top-tier universities such as Harvard in particular, might be due to innate differences between men and women. Specifically, he suggested that men have greater variability in mathematical ability than woman, leaving them overrepresented at the highest echelons (as well as in the lowest mathematical gutters.)

In response to this controversy, the Harvard psychology department set out to debate that claim on its merits. Summers’ claims were defended by Steven Pinker, a well known linguist and evolutionary psychologist, who faced off against Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist whose done a great deal of research on gender differences in children. From the debate:

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of 30 years of research in one powerpoint slide. From birth, babies perceive objects. They know where one object ends and the next one begins. They can’t see objects as well as we can, but as they grow their object perception becomes richer and more differentiated.

Babies also start with rudimentary abilities to represent that an object continues to exist when it’s out of view, and they hold onto those representations longer, and over more complicated kinds of changes, as they grow. Babies make basic inferences about object motion: inferences like, the force with which an object is hit determines the speed with which it moves. These inferences undergo regular developmental changes over the infancy period.

In each of these cases, there is systematic developmental change, and there’s variability. Because of this variability, we can compare the abilities of male infants to females. Do we see sex differences? The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don’t.

I recommend reading or watching the whole thing, and/or reading Spelke’s more formal review of the literature in American Psychologist. I particularly like Spelke’s point at the end, when she talks about the role of competition in science:

You’ve suggested, as a hypothesis, that because of sexual selection and also parental investment issues, men are selected to be more competitive, and women are selected to be more nurturant. Suppose that hypothesis is true… What makes for better motives in a scientist?

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? I think it’s anything but clear how motives from our past translate into modern contexts.

Calkins went on to teach psychology for forty more years and in 1918 became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association. Spelke continues her child development research as a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Information on Mary Whiton Calkins was gathered from Feminist Voices, Webster’s Women’s Contributions page, and of course, Wikipedia.

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The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality

This post was originally published at Restructure!

People who consider themselves fully rational individuals are ignorant about basic psychology and their own minds.

It is easy for white men in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields to perceive themselves as more rational than other groups, because our society associates rationality with whites, men, and STEM professionals. When white men in STEM fields believe in this stereotype, they might assume that bias is more common in non-white people, women, and people in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. After all, these other groups seem to want to discuss bias more often, and unexamined associative “reasoning” would link bias to those who bring up the topic of bias. Under logical scrutiny, however, it does not follow that the act of thinking about bias makes one more biased.

Green Red Blue
Purple Blue Purple


Blue Purple Red
Green Purple Green


the Stroop effect refers to the fact that naming the color of the first set of words is easier and quicker than the second.

A basic tenet of contemporary psychology is that mental activity can be unconscious. Unconscious simply refers to any mental activity that is “not conscious”, and it is not equivalent to the unscientific New Age concept of the Subconscious. A good example of unconscious mental activity interfering with conscious intentions is the Stroop effect (right). If you try to name the colours of the colour words aloud, the first set of colours will be easier to name than the second set of colours, because you unconsciously read the words. This means that you do not have full control over your thoughts and behaviour, and your willpower or logical reasoning cannot overcome the unconscious cultural bias of being able to read in English. Of course, there are other unconscious cultural biases aside from English literacy bias.

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How much is that linkspam in the window? (13th December, 2009)

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Linkspam, the country where I quite want to be (8th December, 2009)

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Epistemology and impostor syndrome

Successful women often suffer from impostor syndrome. As wiredferret succinctly explains,

Imposter Syndrome is the pervasive feeling that whatever success or acclaim you might have, it’s all a cosmic accident, and other people really are much smarter and more successful than you.

Armchair psych follows, in which I massively mix descriptive and prescriptive:

The actor-observer bias and the related self-serving bias often cause a person to attribute her actions and their outcomes to certain kinds of causes, and attribute others’ actions, successes and failures to other kinds of causes. In other words, these bias lead me to believe that I caused my own successes and external events caused my failures, but others’ successes are due to luck and their failures are their own fault. Depressives’ biases run the other way; a clinically depressed person often believes that any good thing that happens to her is luck, she causes all her own failures, and her peers and role models and enemies get their deserved successes through their virtues. (Elliot Aronson’s book The Social Animal, chapter 4, “Social Cognition”)

It strikes me that Impostor Syndrome preys on the same epistemological problem as the biases I listed above. How do you know whether you belong, whether you deserve your success, whether your achievements even count as success?

Surprise!  You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

Surprise! You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

How would I know if another person, female or male, were succeeding or failing in my position? Would I judge them by number of emails sent per day, quality of relationships, apartment cleanliness, salary, credentials, orgasms per week, number of FLOSS commits?

Well, I could try to make a yardstick.  Consensus reality has an array of subjective and objective criteria for “is this person a success?” Proxies include money, influence, fame, respect from one’s community, and pride. I can use that data to try to fight the automatic negative thoughts. My bosses and colleagues praise my work unbidden. I’ve written articles I’m proud of. I can make strangers laugh at my jokes. I know so much about technology that my friends and acquaintances consistently ask me for tech advice. At one job I was earning more yearly than my dad ever did. I aimed to do foo and I did it.

“Does this person belong?” Belonging seems trickier, slippery and social. What’s the baseline? What’s a good metric for “does this group really accept and like me”? I can come up with plenty of falsifiable propositions to check whether they act as though they like me, perhaps even whether they are sending costly and hard-to-fake signals that they like me, but I can’t check their internal states.

And besides, it takes a lot of discipline and consciousness to address Impostor Syndrome with data. As long as I’m concentrating, I can believe I’m competent. But the data can be pretty handwavy.  And unless I use that data to change my permanent beliefs, sooner or later I’m subconsciously moving the goalposts on myself.  So at some point I have to just start acting as if I believe I’m good enough, stop believing — without proof! — that I’m a fraud, and allow my identity and beliefs to be fluid enough to catch up.

And we all have nonfalsifiable beliefs that undergird our behaviors. We all make assumptions to get through the day. Maybe you believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace, or that sunrises are beautiful, or that all humans should behave compassionately, or that God does, or does not, exist. Too many women refuse to add “I am a success” and “I deserve to be here” to their list of beliefs. If your excuse is that you can’t believe it because it’s not objectively provable, well, neither is “I am a failure” or “I don’t deserve this awesomeness” — let’s do some social construction to fit our blueprints for once.

What would I be like, if I were successful and deserved it? Well, I’ll try to act like that, then.

Other useful resources on Impostor Syndrome include Valerie Young’s Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome blog and Anna Fels’s great book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.