Archive for May, 2010

Botox isn’t just skin deep

May 30, 2010 2 comments

It’s no secret that Botox injections can sometimes cause their recipients to become decidedly waxen faced. This presents a quandry for some Hollywood actors, who are under pressure to maintain a youthful appearance but still need to be able to convey emotion on their faces. Sadly, many seem to favor a wrinkle-free visage over faithfullness to their craft.

And there may be even more reason to avoid the Botox needle. A growing body of evidence is suggesting that not only does Botox affect our ability to express emotion, it actually diminishes our emotional experiences. This is due to the phenomenon of psychological embodiment, or, the notion that one’s emotional experiences are not a product of the brain alone, but, rather, are modulated by feed back from the body.

A set of recent experiments have specifically examined the role of facial expression in the processing of emotion. One experiment had subjects read sentences describing pleasant or unpleasant situations while either holding a pen in their mouth (forcing them to smile) or in the lips (forcing them to frown). Participants processed sentences faster when the forced facial expression was congruent with the valence of the sentence, e.g. when smiling during pleasant sentence or frowning during unpleasant sentences. (This effect, and the facial expression produced by the manipulation, occured out of the conscious awareness of the participants.) Previous work has shown that reading words that describe emotions activates specific facial muscles: corrugator supercilli for negative words, and zygomaticus for positive words. These are the primary muscles behind frowns and smiles, respectively. In other words, voluntary activation of specific facial muscles led to downstream effects in emotional experience.

In a new study, researchers at University of Wisconsin- Madison wondered if the relationship would hold if those same muscles were involuntarily deactivated.

Enter Botox.

The Experiment:
Participants — recruited through area cosmetic surgery clinics and given $50 credit towards their Botox treatments — were scheduled for two sessions. In session one, participants read sets of happy, angry and sad sentences. After each sentence, they pressed a key on the keyboard to indicate they’d finished reading. After reading all of the sentences, participants were given a Botox injection. Two weeks later, participants came in for their second session, during which they performed the same reading task they’d performed in session one ( with new happy, angry and sad sentences).

The Results:
Participants took longer to read angry sentences in session two compared to session one. There was no difference for happy or neutral sentences. This result showed that denervating facial muscles impairs the processing of emotional language, and supports the idea of facial movement as a moderating factor in the bi-directional link between language and emotion.

On one hand, this finding might dissuade some people from going for Botox treatment. The idea of losing one’s full emotional capacity seems a bit distasteful, conjuring up visions of emotional zombieism. On the other hand, the impairment is selective for anger. Could this be an unanticipated benefit? It might be nice to have one’s experience of anger compromised, particularly for those prone with excessive anger problems. Might Botox not have a positive effect on one’s mood (that is, above and beyond the effect of knowing one’s forehead is as smooth as a babies rump?) I can just see the ad now: “Botox: It doesn’t just make you look less angry, but makes you feel less angry.” I’m certainly glad Peter Finch didn’t Botox before his classic scene from “Network” (actors: note the anger lines in the forehead).

Go here for the paper, which includes some interesting speculation as to possible neural and psychological mechanisms.

Deceptive antelopes

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Males (and females) from many animal species employ deception as a way of attracting potential mates. Human males often attempt to impress women with flashy clothes or cars suggesting greater wealth than they actually possess. The Atlantic Mollie, a freshwater fish, actually deceives other males by pretending, when being watched by a male rival, to be interested in a nearby female that he is not interested in to distract attention away from the female he’s actually interested in. Even orchids employ deception by producing flowers that look or smell like female insects. Male insects attracted to the flowers will attempt to mate with them, and, while doing so, collect pollen on their bodies which will fertilize the next orchid they visit.

And now, a new study shows Hopi antelopes from Kenya using a method not previously seen in the non-human animal world, as they, rather craftily, frighten females into sticking around for sex

Categories: Uncategorized

The Rational Vulcan

May 23, 2010 1 comment

“It is more rational to sacrifice one life than six.”

– Spock

Consider the following two situations:

Situation # 1: You are among a group of 25 people who are hiding during World War II in the attic of an old country house while a group of enemy soldiers, who have been searching for your group and will kill everyone if they discover you, are on the floor below. The slightest sound from anyone in your group will give you all away. Your baby makes a face as if to cry, and you quickly cup a hand over the baby’s nose and mouth to keep it quiet. You realize that if you takes your hand away, the baby will cry, and your group (including you and the baby) will be discovered and killed, but if you keep your hand in place, the baby will suffocate and die, but everyone else will survive. What should you do?

Situation #2: You are a participant in an experiment of the following nature: There is a revolving $10 pot and another person will repeatedly offer you an amount varying from $1 to $9 from that pot, keeping the rest for himself. If you refuse any given offer, you both get nothing. The size or number of offers you refuse will have no affect on subsequent offers. You will never encounter this person ever again. Here’s what the experiment looks like:

What is the lowest offer you should accept?

Both of the above dilemmas suggest difficult but somewhat obvious utilitarian choices (utilitarian=providing the maximal benefits for all). If you’re thinking rationally (like Spock), you should kill the baby to save the group of 25. And in Situation #2, you should accept any and all offers, even if you’re only unfairly offered $1 (while the giver keeps $9), because something is better than nothing. However, perhaps not surprisingly, humans often don’t make the rational decisions in situations like these, and often rely on emotional responses to lead them towards rationally incorrect choices. I will discuss the two psychological mechanisms by which decisions such as these are made, offer some compelling examples showing how neuroscience is shedding new light on the science of moral decision making and discuss the real-life implications of this research.

The Role of Emotion and Reason in Human Decision Making

Philosophy has long been concerned with understanding the basis for human morality. Rationalist philosophers, such as Plato and Kant, characterized moral judgment making as a rational exercise, based upon deductive reasoning and cost-benefit analysis. Contrastingly, philosophers such as David Hume and Adam Smith held that automatic emotional responses played a primary role in moral judgments. And although many contemporary psychologists and philosophers have continued to favor one position over the other, modernists are increasingly integrating these two views, suggesting that moral decisions are the result of the confluence of both fast, automatic emotional responses and controlled, deliberative reasoning. In recent years, psychologists have been using the tools of neuroscience – namely, fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging – to help better understand the mental processes underlying such “dual process” models.

In order to examine how these two systems interact in decision making, we’ll look at two experiments.

The first experiment utilizes fMRI to shed light on the conditions under which we might engage emotion vs. reason when making a moral judgment. The second experiment involves patients who have suffered brain damage in a region of the brain known to play a role in social emotional responding, and we’ll look at how this type of localized damage can actually lead to better decisions (in a utilitarian sense) in some moral decision tasks.

Moral Decisions and the Trolley Dilemma

The first experiment we’ll discuss comes from a problem originally discussed by philosophers Phillipa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson, known as the “trolley” problem, which presents the following two dilemmas:

(1) A train is speeding down some tracks. You glance ahead and notice that there are 5 people working on the track who don’t see the train coming and will be killed. However, there is a switch within your reach, which, if you pull it, will switch the train to another set of tracks, saving those five people but killing one person working on the other track. Is it ok to pull the switch?

(2) Again, the trolley is headed for five people. You are standing next to a man on a footbridge overlooking the tracks and if you push him off the bridge and in front of the train, it will cause the train to stop, saving the five. Is it ok to push the man off of the bridge?

Most people say yes to #1 (its ok to pull the switch) but no to #2 (not ok to push the man), even though the situation are identical in a utilitarian sense. The presents a puzzle: Why is it the case that most people make those decisions?
And what kind of mental calculus are people doing in order to consistently make these choices?

According to Harvard psychologist Josh Greene, the difference lies in the emotional responses we experience to either case. In the track switching case, our role in the man’s death is somewhat passive. He happens to be on the other track and we happen to pull the switch that directs the train to the track, but we’re not directly involved in his death. It doesn’t feel wrong – or at least not wrong enough to overwhelm our rational analysis of the situation (which is that 5 lives are worth more than one.) Greene refers to this scenario as the “impersonal case.”

The footbridge situation – ”the personal case” – is quite a different scenario. We’re playing an active role in the man’s death; the idea of pushing the man certainly “feels” more wrong than the idea of pulling the switch. I would venture to say that for many people it feels a little like murder and would evoke an extremely negative emotional response. This emotional response would seem likely to drive the subsequent decision to obey the rational calculus of the situation and let the man pass on by. This explanation, if correct, offers some specific predictions regarding the neural networks that should be actively driving these decisions. Greene ran people through the experimental paradigm while they were in the scanner and found the following:

– In cases where people said it was ok to pull the switch, active brain regions were those involved in deliberate reasoning (the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and the inferior parietal lobule). In other words, in order to make the decision to pull the switch, people seemed to engage deliberate, rational thought processes.

– In cases where people said it wasn’t ok to push the man, active regions were those involved in the processing of social emotions (the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), and the posterior cingulate). The thought of pushing someone in front of a trolley seemed to evoke a strongly negative emotional response that drove moral dissaproval of the act.

But perhaps the most interesting finding was revealed in the brain data of those subjects who decided it was ok to push the man off of the bridge. Greene (2004) found that the selection of a more utilitarian choice revealed a conflict between the “rational” and “emotional” systems (I’m quoting the terms “rational” and “emotional” because these are not entirely distinct systems in functional terms, but rather quite interconnected). Additionally, he found activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area in which activation is thought to reflect conflict between competing brain processes. In other words, the thought of pushing someone in front of a trolley would evoke a strongly negative emotional response, which would then have to be overridden in order to the make the more utilitarian or rational response.

Again, most people chose not to push the man over the footbridge. Greene’s experiment strongly suggests that it was activation in brain regions known to be active during emotional responding that are responsible. But an even better test of whether a particular brain region is responsible for a given behavior is to look at people who have damage to that area of the brain. That is, would people with damage in the “social emotional” centers of the brain be more likely to push the man off of the bridge? A group of Italian researchers (Moretto 2009) recently recruited people with damage to a region of the brain active during social emotional responding (the vmPFC) to test Greene’s claim.

Vmpfc damaged brains above (orange highlights show the focal point of the damage).

These patients participated in the same task as in Experiment #1 (the trolley task). And as predicted, brain damaged patients more often chose to push the man off the bridge to save the five people on the tracks. This is presumably because they didn’t experience an emotional signal (which would normally have been reflected via activity in the mPFC) that would prevent them from endorsing such an action, thereby allowing deliberative mental processes to reign supreme. Simply put, these patients’ lack of emotional response led them to the more rational choice. Does this data suggest mean that people with vmPFC damage are generally better equipped to make more rational moral decisions? Although this kind of brain damage does sometimes result in the kinds of limited benefits described herein, it also leads to a much larger set of deficits, including difficulties making economics decisions as well as a tendency to exhibit exaggerated anger, irritability, emotional outbursts and tantrums, particularly in social situations involving frustration or provocation. People with this kind of brain damage also often have difficulty making sound economic decisions (Damasio 1994).

Real Life Implications
One of the biggest challenges inherent to experimental psychology lies in the push and pull between naturalism and control (the more control we impose upon the conditions of the experiment in order to isolate the variable of interest, the less “ecologically valid” the results are likely to be.) The moral choices people make from the comfort of a psychology lab may or may not replicate out in the real world. But naturalism is not the most important aspect of the trolley problem. What is important is the mental processes that underlie two conditions which differ not in terms of their rational calculus, but only in the personal role we play in the outcome. Consider the case of Flight 93, the ill-fated plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on 9-11. The White House was notified about the possible hijacking about 50 minutes before the plane came down. And in that time period, a difficult decision was made. In an interview with Tim Russert shortly after 9-11, vice president Dick Cheney talked about the decision:

Yes. The president made the decision … that if the plane would not divert … as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out. Now, people say, you know, that’s a horrendous decision to make. Well, it is. You’ve got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians, captured by … terrorists, headed and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board?”

And although this decision is difficult to argue against, it was certainly still a difficult one to make. As in the trolley problem, it requires that rational, deliberative thinking take precedence over the negative and aversive emotion, the revulsion and guilt, that most people would feel if forced to play an active role in the death of one (or several) innocent humans. And although the president and his cronies had to make the decision “on paper”, the fact of the crash obviated the need to actually issue the order to shoot the plane down. In this sense, the incident resembles a lab experiment in which decisions aren’t actually enacted but are merely theoretical. The tougher decision would have come later, with the order to fire. Furthermore, imagine the intense internal conflict for the pilot who would have been ordered to actually pull the trigger. It’s a reminder why military organizations train their soldier to blindly follow orders. A soldier is optimally neither rationally analyzing the moral parameters of nor reacting emotionally to any given situation, but only acting upon his orders. If a military commander could peer into the brains of a soldier faced with such a dilemma, he would ideally want to see none of the brain activity found in Greene’s conflicted rationalizers.

So what does this all mean for you and me? For one, its should serve as a reminder that there are times when we’ll arrive at the optimal solution to some moral quandary not by “trusting our gut” but rather deliberately and rationally working through a problem. We need to develop a healthy distrust of our common sense instincts, as they can often mislead us. But that’s not to say that rational deliberation will always lead us to respond more accurately to moral challenges. On the contrary, sometimes the emotional system is exactly the tool for the job. After all, the Enterprise couldn’t have survived without both Spock and Kirk.

Greene, J., Nystrom, L., Engell, A., Darley, J., & Cohen, J. (2004). The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment Neuron, 44 (2), 389-400 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2004.09.027

Moretto, G., Làdavas, E., Mattioli, F., & di Pellegrino, G. (2010). A Psychophysiological Investigation of Moral Judgment after Ventromedial Prefrontal Damage Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22 (8), 1888-1899 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21367

Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, Reason and the human brain. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Acute Stress Modulates Risk Taking in Financial Decisions

May 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Increased anxiety leads to increased reliance on biased risk taking in financial decisions. That’s according to a new study from researchers at Rutgers University.

The study was premised on an oft cited observation by Kahneman et al that people are more sensitive to potential losses than to potential gains, preferring to make riskier choices in the face of potential loss and more conservative choices in the face of potential gains. At first, this might sound counterintuitive: if people are loss averse, then why would they make riskier decisions in the face of potential loss? I should probably read the original Kahneman paper but my intuition is that because loss is so painful, people avoid it at all costs, preferring rather a low probability, large loss to more frequent but smaller one. For example, in this study, participants had to choose between a 20% chance of losing or winning $3.00 versus an 80% chance of losing or winning .75. Of course, it should quickly become obvious that neither choice is riskier than the other in other the loss or gain condition. Over repeated choices of this type, one is likely to lose or win the same amount no matter which choice is made. That being the case, we should see that people on average would choose between the two options at a rate of 50/50. But that’s not what we find. In the loss condition, subjects are more likely to choose the “risky” option, the choice with the lower probability of occurring, e.g. $3.00 at 20%.
But in the gain condition, people are more likely to choose the “conservative” option, the choice with the higher probability of occurring, e.g. .75 at 80%.
It seems that people are more sensitive to the pain of loss than they are sensitive to the reward of large gains. They would rather gain in more consistent, but smaller, increments, whereas they would prefer their losses to come less frequently, even if the loss will be bigger when it comes. Widely replicated over numerous experiments, this effect seems to be largely automatic and out of conscious awareness. The researchers posited that this effect would become even stronger under conditions of increased anxiety, as this would lead to decreased cognitive resources and increased reliance on decision making heuristics that are less cognitively demanding.

The Effect of Exposure to Violent Media on Helping Behavior

May 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Watching violent films or playing violent video games decreases helping behavior towards people in need of assistance, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan.

In one experiment, participants are playing a violent or non-violent video game when a loud and apparently physical fight breaks out in the hallway just outside their room, resulting in one person being injured. In a second experiment, participants are exiting a movie theater after watching either a violent R-rated film or a non-violent PG-rated film when they encounter an injured woman who has dropped her crutches and is struggling to pick them up. In both experiments, researchers timed how long it took for the participant to help the person in need and, in both cases, those who were exposed to violent media took longer to help than those exposed to non-violent media.

Researchers attribute the delay in helping to desensitization, suggesting that exposure to violent media causes people to become numb to the pain and suffering of others, leading to less helpful behavior. Of the two experiments, the video game experiment seems fairly sound, but there are some problems with experiment two, the movie experiment.

For one, the sample population is non-random. In order to address this issue, researchers had some people encounter the woman before they went in the theatre. In this case, there was no difference in reaction time between the two groups in terms of their helping behavior. This certainly points to the possibility that the behavioral difference was a result of the violent movie, but I would suggest that this doesn’t, however, completely rule out that there was something systematically different about the population attending the violent film. Maybe the decrease in helping behavior for people choosing to attend the violent film is context-dependent, only surfacing after exposure to a prime (the violent film), whereas this behavioral change wouldn’t surface in people who choose more benign, and less violent, movie fare.

I would also posit that its not impossible that some element other than violence in the violent film might have primed people to be less helpful, or that some element in the non-violent film primed people to be more helpful. For the record, the violent and non-violent movies which served as independent variables were “The Ruins” and “Nim’s Island,” respectively. I’ve seen neither film so can’t posit a guess as to which moderating variables could be responsible, but given the fact that we’re talking about two feature-length Hollywood movies and not films carefully constructed so that the only difference between them is the level of violence, its not hard to imagine that such variables might be present.

Experiment 1, as I mentioned earlier, is on more solid ground. It seems unlikely that helping behavior was primed by the video games in the non-violent condition, which included titles like Tetris and 3D Pinball, although its remotely possible that the decrease in helping behavior in the violence condition was moderated by some variable other than violence. An additional strength of Experiment 1 is that participants were randomly assigned to either condition,

Although published as a package deal, I see these two experiments as addressing slightly different questions. In experiment one, participants are playing instrumental roles and actually initiating much of the violent behavior to which they’re exposed. Those watching a movie, on the other hand, are passively involved in the experience, which would seem to require far less active attention and, not incidentally, no active role or involvement in the violence portrayed.

Pre-testing nonwithstanding, both the non-randomness of the population attending the violent film, and the possibilty of some systematic difference in this population, and also the possibility that some other variable primed the decrease in helping behavior, or an increase in helping behavior in the non-violent condition, suggests some problems with the claim that passive exposure to violent media leads to a decrease in helping behavior. The researchers suggest that either active participation in or passive exposure to violent media lead to a decrease in helping behavior but I would suggest that, for the reasons mentioned above, a strong claim can only be made for the former and not the latter.


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