Heavy heavy books: psychology update!

I was listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, and I heard Mo Costandi mention that people’s perceptions of what they’re reading are affected by its physical characteristics, including weight. My ears pricked up at that because I was complaining about large-format paperbacks on this blog just the other day.

So I asked him for details over Twitter, and he pointed me to this article he wrote in June. It’s full of odd results, but the most relevant one is this. I’ll quote the whole paragraph, rather than trying to summarise it:

In the first experiment, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate on the basis of a CV attached to either a light (0.34 kg) or a heavy (2 kg) clipboard. Those given the CV on the heavier clipboard generally rated the candidate as being better and having a more serious interest in the position than those given the lighter clipboard, even though the CVs used in both cases were identical. Those given the heavy clipboard also rated their accuracy on the task as more important than those given the lighter one, but did not report putting more effort into it. They did not, however, rate the candidate as more likely to get along with co-workers. This suggests that the weight cue affected their impressions of the candidate’s performance and seriousness, but not the irrelevant trait of social likeability, and that the observed effects were not due their perception of their own actions.

So physical weight is apparently makes the reader attribute seriousness and quality to what they’re reading — at least in a CV. You can see why a publisher might want to get some of that action. Particularly a university press publishing a literary novel which they are asserting deserves to be considered a classic.

But it makes you wonder what other effects the extra weight might have: does it make a novel more or less funny? Does it makes the characters more or less likeable? What does it do to the prose style? Or the plotting?

Such speculation aside… I actually wonder whether it’s unambiguously positive to be perceived as more serious, even for a literary novel about important subjects. I mean, I like novels to be more literary rather than less and I’m not intimidated by big fat books, but I still find that serious literature requires a degree of concentration and discipline, even for a book you’re enjoying and reading for pleasure. Anything that emphasises the literature-as-Serious-Business aspect is only going to make it more likely that reading starts to feel like a chore.



Gee, Officer Krupke

Since the world’s financial system went into meltdown, there has been a certain amount of tooth-gnashing and mouth-frothing about the dreadful greed and recklessness of bankers — a lot of it from politicians who frankly aren’t in a position to lecture anyone about short-termism. I find it difficult to work up much righteous anger.

Firstly because complaining that bankers get too excited about money seems like complaining that gannets get too excited about fish. But also because we’re not talking about one or two individuals doing a Nick Leeson job on the world’s banks: as far as I can gather, most of the world’s bankers were making the same bad decisions at the same time. So I tend to think: there but for the grace of God go I. Of course it’s possible that I would have been one of the few bright sparks who spotted what was going on and tried to avoid it, but the odds are against it.

I suspect, ironically, that some of the very people who are most full of outrage at the excesses of global capitalism would be the first to excuse bad behaviour and reckless short-termism in the case of, say, the urban poor. It’s not that merchant bankers are bad people; they’ve been failed by the system.

» the video is of course from West Side Story; the actual song starts at about 1:50.

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The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This is the latest of Pinker’s books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain’s inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.

weasel diorama

He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don’t really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker’s model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.

If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying “well yes, obviously” even though there’s nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I’ve read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there’s no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.

sad lion

So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it’s sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven’t done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there’s still enough there to help sugar the pill.

When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I’d make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don’t hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I’d at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.

bear and dog

The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn’t suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It’s only a popular treatment and I didn’t make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn’t get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it’s all quite interesting, but it doesn’t instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there’s a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn’t offer anything that you wouldn’t find in a good book on how to write poetry.

Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don’t actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can’t claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read.

» I couldn’t think what pictures to use for this post, neither language nor thought being very visually striking, so I went with stuffed animals. The weasels are by dogseat; the lion is by cenzMounted bear and the hunting dog who found him, and was killed by him is by Curious Expeditions. All are used under a by-nc-sa licence.


The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is the psychologist who ran the famous Stanford Prison Experiment [SPE] in 1971. The ultra-shorthand explanation is this: he took twelve normal young men and split them randomly into ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ then set up a fake prison. It was supposed to run for two weeks, but within six days the situation was so out of hand and the guards were mistreating the prisoners so badly that the experiment had to be abandoned.

More recently he acted as an expert witness for the defence at the court martial of Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, the man in charge of the night shift in the section of Abu Ghraib where the notorious photos were taken.

The full title of the book is The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil, and it’s an exploration of the processes by which normal people end up behaving in horrific ways. It starts with a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of the Stanford experiment and an analysis of what we can learn from it, broadens out to talk about parallel situations, then gives a detailed analysis of the events at Abu Ghraib which explores where responsibility for the events there should best be placed.

I can see why the SPE has become iconic: it was a striking experiment and the account of it makes an interesting narrative. Still, I would be reluctant to extrapolate too much from just that. One key to a good experiment is surely that you control as many variables as possible so that you can accurately isolate cause and effect. The SPE by contrast set up a very complex situation in a very open-ended way. Reading this book, it comes across as him just throwing the situation together and waiting to see what happened. There are so many different factors that might be affecting the outcome, including simple chance.

I suppose if you want to investigate complex situations developing over time, you can’t have the kind of control that’s possible in a simple half-hour experiment with one or two participants in a lab, and I do think the SPE is interesting; I just would be reluctant to assume it proved anything very specific or definite.

The other thing that struck me was that the situation was much more loaded to start with than I had appreciated. I’d only heard the vaguest account of the experiment before I read the book and I guess I assumed that it was set up in a very generic way, and that the guards and prisoners developed their behaviour quite spontaneously just on the basis of the jobs they had been given. That’s not entirely true. Zimbardo actually set up the experiment because he wanted to study the psychological effects of imprisonment. The idea was to put normal people in a prison environment and see how the situation affected them, so he was keen to create a suitably tough regime. He told the guards that was what he wanted. The guards had mirrored sunglasses and billy clubs (which they weren’t allowed to use on the prisoners), the prisoners were wearing shapeless smocks and had to respond to their numbers all the time instead of their names.

Again, I can see the reason for all that—to create a convincing prison—but since the interest in the experiment is now normally taken to be the behaviour of the guards, not the prisoners, it’s worth pointing out that they were primed to behave badly. It wasn’t quite as spontaneous as I’d thought.

Just how badly they treated the prisoners is still remarkable, even so. Endless verbal abuse and humiliation, roll-calls all the time, even in the middle of the night, done over and over again forwards and backwards, pointless, repetitive tasks, solitary confinement in a cupboard for hours at a time. A striking sign of how bad it got was that one of the prisoners went on hunger strike: this is someone who was in a psychology experiment and could have left at any time, but got so fixed into the prisoner mindset that they started starving themselves in protest at conditions. Zimbardo himself, playing the role of the warden, got so involved in the dynamic that he started worrying about managing the prisoners as though it was a real prison.

Of course, if the message is simply that good people will, in the right circumstances, do evil—well, we shouldn’t need a psychology experiment to teach us that. The classic rhetorical focus for that argument is the Holocaust; given the sheer number of people involved, they can’t all have been born evil. Even the Holocaust, if it was an unparalleled event, might be a one-off; some kind of freak combination of circumstances. But there are thousands of possible examples. Many of those working on the Atlantic slave ships were no doubt models of honesty, generosity and trustworthiness with their families and friends. And there’s Rwanda, Nanking, My Lai, lynchings, the Cultural Revolution, all those East Germans who informed on each other to the Stasi, as well as countless examples of brutality by soldiers, police and prison officers.

In fact, it takes very little thought to see that it must be true that a large proportion of evil acts are committed by normal people. Perhaps the most striking thing is that we find it so difficult to make the imaginative leap: to believe that it could be you or me doing those things, that the ‘normal person’ could be any of us.

Still, one thing that makes the SPE notable is that the guards had so little motivation for their behaviour. I know I said they were primed to be aggressive, but they had no other motivation comparable to the examples above. They weren’t in a war zone, they didn’t stand to gain money or career advancement, and the prisoners weren’t part of some kind of stigmatised group—terrorist, criminals, Jews, Tutsis or whatever. Of course they didn’t actually massacre them either, and analogies between this kind of mistreatment and genocide need to be drawn with care. But it’s interesting even so that they got so caught up in the situation; especially since, unlike the prisoners, they were able to go home between shifts.

Anyway, that’s enough going round in circles about what lessons you can or can’t draw from the Stanford experiment. The other major theme of the book is the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Zimbardo specifically doesn’t say that situational pressure absolves people from responsibility for their actions, and in the case of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the guards clearly behaved appallingly. But he does question the version of events put out by the military and the White House after the event, that it was just the actions of a few ‘bad apples’. He raises the possibility that it was a ‘bad barrel’ and that we must also ask who made the barrel. His analogy, not mine.

That argument seems watertight. The US Army’s own internal reports specifically attach blame to people higher up the chain of command, and the very best interpretation would be that the prison was appallingly badly and negligently run. The staff had very little training and very little clear guidance about what was or wasn’t acceptable, the prison was totally overcrowded, the chain of command was unclear, no-one was coming to check up on them, and they were under enormous stress because they were living under appalling conditions, were overworked and the prison was under regular mortar attack. The relationship between the Military Police (who ran the prison) and Military Intelligence (who did interrogations) was not properly defined. Even if you don’t accept a more sinister explanation, it seems clear the the running of the prison was incompetent and chaotic.

The bigger questions are whether it was just down to badly trained, badly managed staff under extreme stress, or whether it was part of a broader culture in the US military; and eventually whether it can be traced to policy decisions.

Prisoner abuse certainly wasn’t unique to Abu Ghraib. Hundreds of cases of abuse have been investigated in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and I don’t think you have to be overly cynical to feel that they may only represent a small proportion of the real cases. And apparently as of November 2004, that included at least five cases of prisoners dying during interrogation. Perhaps they had pre-existing heart conditions and those deaths were just bad luck; but given that one prisoner died in Abu Ghraib while left hanging naked from the wall by his arms (an ‘interrogation technique’ the Spanish Inquisition had a special term for, apparently), one suspects they were in fact tortured to death.

One thing that becomes clear is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were relatively mild compared to some. Talking about a base near Fallujah

One of Fishback’s seargeants testified, “Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent [prisoners were called PUCs, “persons under control”]. In a way, it was a sport. One day [another sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini-Louisville slugger, a metal bat. As long as no PUCs came up dead, it happened. We kept it to broken arms and legs.”

The final question is whether all this abuse is the ‘normal’ behaviour of stressed and badly trained soldiers in a war zone—which would still be a pretty damning comment on the training and discipline of the US Army, given how widespread it appears to be—or whether it can be traced to specific policy decisions. Here the water is murkier. You’re in the world of the CIA, Military Intelligence and special forces, all people who are professionally secretive anyway. And even within that atmosphere of rarified machismo and hard-nosed realpolitik, people know that torture is a hard sell with the electorate.

Zimbardo has no doubt that there is sufficient evidence to trace the blame all the way up the chain of command. Starting with the people running Abu Ghraib and going up through the ranks, he puts a sequence of people ‘on trial’, culminating with George Bush. It’s actually a rhetorical device I’m uncomfortable with. Identifying responsibility is a valid exercise, but with such a sensitive and important subject as the problem of evil, I would prefer a writer who at least maintains a pretence of analytical distance. Zimbardo is a little too fond of theatrical turns of phrase. For that matter, it’s not a book I would recommend for its prose style generally:

The seeds of evil that blossomed in that dark dungeon of Abu Ghraib were planted by the Bush administration in its triangular framing of national security threats , citizen fear and vulnerability, and interrogation/torture to win the war on terror.

Still, despite my misgivings about how he frames it, I basically agree with the conclusion. For me, it’s sufficient to pick up just two things. The first is the decision to ‘legally’ exempt themselves from the Geneva convention by claiming that prisoners are ‘enemy combatants’ rather than POWs. The other is the notorious memo that redefined ‘torture’.

It held that physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” In line with this memo, in order to prosecute anyone charged with torture crimes, it is necessary that it must have been the “specific intent” of the defendant to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” “Mental torture” was narrowly defined to include only acts that would result in “significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or years.”

Which allows plenty of scope for inventive interrogators to do things which most of us would recognise as torture. Indeed it implicitly grants them permission to do so.

Those two things are enough for me. I don’t need a direct chain of orders that can be traced from the Pentagon to Tier 1-A at Abu Ghraib; it seems clear that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush believe that their employees should be able to torture people. Indeed, they probably pride themselves on taking the kind of tough decisions that wishy-washy liberals in the cloistered comfort of their book-lined studies would recoil from. Who knows; perhaps they only envisaged it happening in urgent interrogations of high-risk terrorist suspects, rather than every two-bit military prison in Iraq. Perhaps they just don’t give a damn.

I remember when they first started shipping people to Guantanamo I felt uneasy about it, but it was soon enough after 9-11 that it seemed like the situation might just be serious enough to justify skipping some of the formalities. If you had told me that people would be tortured there, and kept there for years, not just without a full-blown criminal trial but without a trial of any kind, I’m not sure I would have believed you. I don’t expect American governments to behave like that. America’s preferred image of itself as the freest, fairest country on earth and a beacon to oppressed people everywhere has always been a bit questionable; they’ve always been willing to prop up nasty regimes when it seems convenient, and even for American citizens I’m not sure the US is significantly freer and fairer than, say, Sweden. But there is some truth to it; I think it is important and a Good Thing that the richest, most powerful country on earth is a secular democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Any moral authority derived from that has been cheerfully pissed away over the past few years. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given some of the darker points in recent British history. Particularly, the fact that many of the ways of torturing people without just beating the crap out of them were developed and refined by the British security services in Northern Ireland, and for much the same reasons: a wish to break prisoners quickly and still be able to plausibly deny that what you’re doing is torturing them.

And it would be a pity if the main message anyone took away from this book was ‘Bush Cheney Rumsfeld: bad’. It wouldn’t matter how bad their intentions were if we could rely on the normal people at the bottom of the food chain to just say no: to refuse to abuse prisoners, to report abuse on the part of their comrades. But what I take away from this book is that evil is normal. It is to be expected that people will do appalling things if the circumstances are right. It is within all of us to be that person.

It’s a depressing conclusion and rather a depressing book, but I do recommend it; it is a thorough, interesting and thought-provoking. There’s also a website.

Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland

The general message of Irrationality is that, if there has ever been a rational decision taken in the history of humankind, it was a fluke.

Sutherland goes through various different kinds of bias and error that are present in the way people think – obedience to authority, conformity to the group, a poor grasp of probability and statistics, being influenced by whatever you heard most recently, placing too much emphasis on unusual cases, looking for evidence that confirms your hypothesis and not evidence that contradicts it, being influenced by the order in which information is provided, placing too much confidence in intuition, being unwilling to cut your losses, and so on and so on – and for each of them he provides examples of psychology experiments that demonstrate that people systematically and repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes.

Rorschach inkblot

It’s a reminder that the scientific method is, in the end, just a whole series of elaborate ways to resist the tendency of the human mind to leap to the wrong conclusion. Not that science always gets it right first time as a result, but least at its best there’s a cultural understanding within science that it’s very easy to be wrong in lots of different ways and that you have to be very careful and methodical to try to avoid error.

It also tends to suggest that anyone who has to make complicated and important decisions – politicians, doctors, judges, engineers – could usefully take similar care to carefully and methodically eliminate systemic biases in the way they decide things, because they’re almost certainly less good at it than they think they are. That’s true of all of us, of course, but most of the decisions most of us make aren’t actually going to have particularly serious consequences.

Anyway, the book. It’s mainly made up of lots and lots of examples – often with several experiments described in a single paragraph – so it’s somewhat dense, and I should probably read it again if I want to take it all in, but it’s well written, which helps. And always interesting.

How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!

I’ve just started a book called ‘Irrationality’, about the irrational behaviour of human beings. So far, much of the general drift has been fairly familiar, but no matter how many times you get told about the untrustworthy tendencies of the human mind, the specific experiments are still startling. Three that happened to jump out at me:

‘In one study, a telephone call was made to a nurse by someone claiming to be a doctor in the hospital whom she had never met. he told her to give a patient a 20 mg dose of a drug called Aspoten (in reality a placebo), adding that she must give it immediately because he wanted the drug to take effect before he saw the patient, when he came to the ward. He added that he would sign the prescription then. Despite the fact that he had ordered twice the maximum dose set out on the label and that there was a rule that no one should administer a drug before the doctor had signed the prescription, 95 per cent of nurses approached complied.’

‘Subjects were encouraged to give (sham) electric shocks to a stooge. When they were dressed like nurses they became less aggressive than those normally dressed, while wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits made them very much more aggressive.’

‘In a simple experiment, four short lines were each labelled ‘A’ and four slightly longer ones ‘B’. People saw a bigger difference in the average length of the two sets of lines when they were labelled in this way than when no labels were attached.’