Ben Ambridge: 10 myths about psychology: Debunked

Speaker

Ben Ambridge researches children’s language development at the University of Liverpool, and writes popular science books and articles about Psychology.

Summary

Ben discusses 10 myths about psychology. He finds that:

  1. Men and women are not that different. The 2 largest differences are that men are better at spacial awareness and women are better at language. In both cases there is a difference, but it is so small that the normal distributions mostly overlap.
  2. Rorschach inkblot tests have no validity. They are not used in modern psychology, and were so bad they diagnosed schizophrenia in 1/6 of all normal people.
  3. People do not have different learning styles (eg learning by listening, reading or doing). Studies showed no difference in people learning a task in their preferred way. Instead learning should be matched to the task being learned.
  4. High school results are 58% driven by genetics. By comparing identical twins (with identical genes and environment) against non-identical twins (with identical environment but only 50% shared genes), it showed GCSE results were 58% driven by genes.
  5. Left Brain vs Right Brain thinking is a myth – since any task involves all parts of the brain firing. However, handedness has some validity: in that ambidextrous people have better creativity than single-handed people.
  6. We use much more than 10% of our brain in most tasks. People think we can boost this with the Mozart effect: that listening to Mozart increases our IQ. There seems to be some short term effect, but equal to listening to stories you enjoy. Before an IQ test – do something you enjoy to perk you up and give you a small boost.
  7. Choosing a sexual partner is not driven by culture. Across all races and countries, men favour attractiveness and women favour ambition or wealth. Both sexes prefer the man to be 3yrs older than the woman.
  8. Sportsmen on a winning streak are not necessarily in ‘good form’. Statistical analysis shows they are in normal bounds, but our brains like to ascribe patterns to randomness. We prefer the story that they are on a hot streak.
  9. We are told the Milgram study convinced students to deliver fatal electric shocks to a victim because a scientist told them to punish the victim for being wrong. In truth the students were told the shocks were non-fatal, and when interviewed they believed the science of punishing the victim, and this outweighed the discomfort of a short term non-fatal shock.
  10. People are not very good at detecting liars from body or speech patterns. The only exception is on TV appeals for missing persons – where when the appealer murdered the missing person they tend to look away and use more brutal language.

Psychology is seen as a collection of ideas that all offer something useful. Instead, all proposals should be tested empirically to find the truth.

My Thoughts

Personally I think some of these claims are a bit weak – discrediting things that have long had limited validity. His summary implied psychology has no basis, and this is definitely true of the older pop-culture ideas (including left brainedness, Rorschach etc). However more modern psychology is much more empirical and statistically driven.

His criticism of the Milgram study doesn’t really counter the common view: that people were convinced to inflict pain on others because they were convinced it was for the greater good. The role of authority figures (scientists) reinforced that it was for the greater good. It is also possible people’s interviews after the test didn’t match how they felt during it.

I would have been keen to see more on the variation within the sexual partner story. He stated averages, but more interesting would be if some cultures had small variations in preferences.

Regarding his idea of sportsmen on hot streaks: It would be good to know if there is a feedback effect: that when on a (initially random) streak they get more confident and will do better.

The talk was interesting to debunk some of the ridiculous old ideas of psychology, but I am skeptical that he has cherry picked some points to make more interesting headline myths.

Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of evil

Speaker

Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He became known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment and has since authored various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect

Summary

People like to believe the line between good and evil is clear – with them on one side, others always evil. Philip shows that this line is far more permeable – good can go bad, and ‘evil’ people can be redeemed. He defines evil as exercising power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), destroy, or commit crimes against humanity. Philip was part of the trial of US army reservists accused of evil acts within Iraq war, who tortured and humiliated prisoners. He became an expert witness to represent one of these guards, and was given access to the reports, photos, and the guard himself. His hypothesis was that the people themselves weren’t evil, but were put in a system where they were compelled to exercise their power in an evil way. The accused men were military police holding the prisoners in the ‘Intimidation hold’- to soften them up for interrogators to get information later. Interrogators gave them permission to “take the gloves off”.

Philip shows a 1minute montage of graphic & sadistic photos – of prisoners often naked, stacked in strange piles or sexual positions, soldiers posing happily with the prisoners. Some prisoners are covered in wounds, some with faeces. All these photos were taken by the soldiers themselves. TED has apparently edited this video to remove some of the worst.

Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld asked “Who are the bad apples”, but Philip suggests he should have been asking a broader question in terms of ‘The Lucifer effect’ – what causes people to go evil? The issue could be:

  • Bad apples: a few isolated people committing evil
  • Bad Barrel: the system surrounding the people compelled them to commit evil
  • Bad Barrel-makers: the politicians, economic and legal system creating a system that corrupts people.

Philip illustrates that most people do not see themselves as evil, but could be compelled to do evil in a situation. Most people wouldn’t electrocute a helpless person, but an experiment was devised where a ‘teacher’ was ordered to electrocute a ‘learner’ by the technician – this is the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures”. The experiment started at 15Volts (which the learner didn’t feel), and increases at 15V intervals up to 450V (which causes intense pain). The dial was labelled to show how dangerous the highest Voltages were. Importantly, the technician running the experiment said he would take full responsibility for consequences. In the first experiment 2/3s of people went all the way up to 450V shocks – despite psychiatrists predicting only 1% would do it (since only 1% of the population shows ‘sadistic behaviour’). Other experiments show up to 90% of people went all the way to 450V.

Philip contrasts this with a pastor who ‘killed’ 912 people by convincing followers to murder their families and commit suicide. This shows the danger of blind obedience, in forcing people to commit evil. He also talks of his own study – where 24 normal college boys were divided arbitrarily in 2. Some were designated guards, some prisoners. The prisoners were dehumanised and degraded, while the guards had symbols of authority to make them more important. The guards forced prisoners to simulate sodomy, and do degrading tasks like cleaning toilets with their bare hands. It quickly got out of control, and Philip cancelled the experiment early due to 5 psychological breakdowns of previously healthy people.

Anonymity is a factor – anthropologists studied warrior cultures – those who go to battle as themselves as opposed to those who wear masks, paint, uniforms to change their appearance. Of 23 cultures, those who changed their appearance were far more likely to maim, torture or mutilate their enemies. This is one of the 7 slopes to evil in new situations.

  1. mindlessly taking the first small step
  2. dehumanizing others
  3. de-individualize self (anonymity)
  4. diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. blind obedience of authority
  6. uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. passive tolerance of evil through indifference.

Most of these are systemic issues, and should be treated with more of a public health model. But they can still be broken by a ‘hero’ – people who refuse to conform to the evils. Children can be trained to think of themselves as heroes waiting or the right situation to rescue. We just need to reframe heroes away from people with supernatural powers and make it clear that ordinary people can be heroes. He talked of the private who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib jail, and the woman who convinced him to cancel his own experiment on prisoners and guards (who he then married a year later).

My Thoughts

Fascinating look at how evil works. Nothing more to be said – if you can stomach the shocking photos, this is a very worthwhile talk.

Some additional reading on the two experiments mentioned

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment