Identifying cognitive phenotypes for the reading deficits in dyslexia

This post has been contributed by Max Coltheart

I am not starting at the behavioural level to define the reading deficits in dyslexia. I would get lost in a maze where cause and effect can hardly be distinguished.

Behaviour is determined by so many factors that a glitch in just one of these factors is incredibly hard to discover. It’s like being in the midst of climate change and generally rising temperatures, while being confounded by a cool summer. Like the observed cool temperatures, observed behaviour is potentially misleading if we want to learn something about what causes the behaviour.

Therefore I am starting at the cognitive level. I will only later go to the behavioural level when I know what signs to look out for. At the cognitive level I can let my thoughts range freely around the imagined mental machinery. I would like to poke into different bits and take them apart. I would like to see what would happen if a particular piece were missing or not working properly. Would the projected outcome resemble the real reading problems that are experienced by dyslexic people? Continue reading

What parts? What mental machinery? Well, it is just a metaphor, and it may be better to talk of apps, perhaps. But here are some ideas. I believe learning to read involves acquiring a number of gadgets and these enable us to become the skilled readers that many adults are. When any of them goes wrong, reading deficits should result (acquired dyslexia). When any of them are never acquired properly, reading deficits should also result (developmental dyslexia).

If we can find clues to the gadgets and what can go wrong, we are on the way to understanding what the gadgets that make up the reading system are. Progress! But how many are there? Can they each go wrong, separately or together? Here I am speculating and limit myself to 7 hypothetical mechanisms.F1.large (1)

Perhaps any of the 7 mechanisms can be broken in dyslexia. This leads to different forms of dyslexias and hence different cognitive phenotypes and explains the heterogeneity of the dyslexia condition. It can also explain different degrees of severity – the more the worse, obviously. Testing different mechanisms separately has led us to form subtypes of the dyslexia condition.

How then do you identify cognitive phenotypes?  You need to devise behavioural tests to capture the hypothesised cognitive deficit. We have tests for identifying how well each of the seven components in the Figure are working.

It has been beautiful to discover reading specific architecture, a whole city of familiar, yet different, patterns of impairments and preservations of the components of this architecture.

Time we identified cognitive phenotypes for the social deficits in autism

Social deficits? Their not the same as everyday difficulties in social situations. We all have experienced such difficulties, because the social world has as much potential for suffering as for happiness. But when we talk of social deficits in autism it’s about not being quite part of the social world. Yet, it’s not about deliberately withdrawing from this world and not about being antisocial.

I am not starting at the behavioural level to define the social deficits in autism. I would get lost in a maze where cause and effect can hardly be distinguished. For instance, there are people who often feel rejected, while others find them unbearably aggressive. Which comes first, the rejection or the aggression?


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Behaviour is determined by so many factors that a glitch in just one of these factors is incredibly hard to discover. It’s like being in the midst of climate change and generally rising temperatures, while being confounded by a cool summer. Like the observed cool temperatures, observed behaviour is potentially misleading if we want to learn something about what causes the behaviour.

Therefore I am starting at the cognitive level. I will only later go to the behavioural level when I know what signs to look out for. At the cognitive level I can let my thoughts range freely around the imagined mental machinery. I would like to poke into different bits and take them apart. I would like to see what would happen if a particular piece were missing or not working properly. Would the projected outcome resemble the real social problems that are experienced by autistic people?

What parts? What mental machinery? Well, its just a metaphor, and it may be better to talk of apps, perhaps. But here are some ideas. I believe evolution has endowed us from birth with a number of gadgets and these enable us to become the social creatures that we are. When any of them goes wrong, social deficits should result, – not to be confused with everyday social difficulties.

If we can find clues to the gadgets and what can go wrong, we are on the way to discover their neural basis and eventually their genetic origin. Progress! But how many are there? Can they each go wrong, separately or together? Here I am speculating and limit myself to 7 hypothetical mechanisms. Lets call them start-up kits, since they are subject to learning and development.


Start-up kits for a thoroughly social human being

  • Agency recognition (prey, predator, mate, friend, enemy
  • Affiliation (recognising kin, bonding, attachment)
  • Alignment (mimicry, resonance, contagion)
  • Belonging (identity, trust, loyalty, ingroup/outgroup distinction)
  • Hierarchy (knowing one’s place, dominance/submission, alliances)
  • Mentalising (mental state tracking, persuasion, deception, reputation)
  • Morality (fairness, equity, altruism, punishment)

I imagine these start-up kits run on the fuel of social emotions to regulate social behaviour (think guilt, shame, jealousy, pride, contempt). They depend on other social signals too, as displayed in eye gaze, voice and body language. For my money, its the last two, mentalising and morality, that have some claim for being uniquely human and being shaped by cultural learning. They also have some claim  for being broken in autism.

Perhaps any of the 7 mechanisms can be broken in autism. Perhaps this leads to different forms of social deficits and hence different cognitive phenotypes. This would go some way to explain the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum. It might also explain different degrees of severity – the more the worse, obviously. Perhaps testing different mechanisms separately would lead us to form subgroups in the autism spectrum. As far as I know this has not been done in any systematic way.

If they’re not broken, these hypothetical mechanisms work spontaneously and effortlessly, and are active throughout an individual’s life. This is reminiscent of instincts. They respond to a certain set of stimuli with a certain set of flexible responses. However, the responses can be suppressed or modified via conscious control.

To what extent these mechanisms are independent , or interacting with each other, is a matter for debate. If they were separate then, when one of them wasn’t working, a ‘hole’ in the mental architecture would appear, but the rest might function well. Do holes matter? It depends. Compensatory learning is a wonderful thing. If it works then the hole can be covered up to make it almost invisible in behaviour.

How then do you identify cognitive phenotypes?  You need to devise behavioural tests to capture the hypothesised cognitive deficit. Sadly, we don’t have the tests. This is not because they are impossible to design, but because nobody has made the necessary major effort to devise a systematic battery of tests that are reliable and sensitive.

Most of the tests we have so far give you a score that estimates a level of performance, but they don’t tell how that score was achieved. We need tests that can do precisely that. Moreover, we need to be able to detect how a score was achieved. It could be low, because of fatigue. It could be high, because of compensatory training. So, constructing valid and reliable tests is not a trivial task, they need a lot of man power and, of course, funding.  I expect this is why we haven’t got them yet..

All the experimental tests we have at present are precarious. This is why I am not impressed when somebody tells me that, on tests in the lab, their autistic child is no different from any typically developing child, and hence there is no difference in underlying mental architecture. I think it would be beautiful to discover autism specific architecture, a whole city of familiar, yet different, structures.Urville18


Image credits:

Tup Wanders Flickr creative commons                                                          Chris Frith                                                                                                                                                            Gilles Trehin, Urville



This cognitive thing

Five years ago I wrote an opinion piece for the SPECTRUM (then SFARI) Autism website. I doubt that the message I wanted to get across  – did.

So I am trying again.Framework5With this simple framework I think we can declutter our thoughts about autism.

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What’s the problem with our current thinking about autism? If you have a Post-it note handy, we can start by drawing some lines to create spaces for what we already know and what we don’t. Framework1

We’ll reserve the top space for facts about the remote biological causes of autism. You could list an impressive number of risk factors here, such as susceptibility genes, and differences at the cellular level and differences in the size, activation and connectivity of brain structures, for example.Framework2

The space at the bottom is for all the behavioural observations,and performance on neuropsychological or psychometric tests. Behaviours reported by parents, behaviour assessed by questionnaires or interviews would be listed here as well. There is a huge amount of data: for recognition of faces alone, there are hundreds of papers.Framework3

The middle space between the two lines is the interesting one. It’s the ‘cognitive thing’.  This is for ideas about what is different about the mind of someone with autism — and the core of my obsession. Framework4

Here’s a hard question: How does an individual find meaning in the world and act on the world? Answer: Through cognitive mechanisms that allow the individual to learn and to adapt in its environment. These mechanisms have a basis in the brain and have been honed by evolution over millions of years. For the individual they come for free as  as start-up kits and they are active right from birth.

By the way, in this framework the term ‘cognitive’ describes everything that the mind does, consciously and unconsciously. It does not just refer to perception, attention, memory, reasoning. It refers to all aspects of mental life.  And this certainly includes emotion, motivation, reward learning.

The cognitive level is also the space for imagination and controversy. Here we can’t observe and measure facts; we can only propose hypotheses. Of course they have to be amenable to being tested both on the biological and the behavioural level. It seems to me that in our state of ignorance, we might as well be bold. I have already inserted two of my favourite hypotheses to explain what is different about the autistic mind, mentalising and detail focus.  I hope you will put forward your own hypotheses.

The  mentalising hypothesis is very bold. It proposes that  we are all born with a social GPS. The GPS tracks what others think and feel from moment to moment. This allows us to orient ourselves in social space without having to consciously think about it. Autism means not having this GPS, but instead having to rely on a map. This works, but is slower and more effortful. There are many tell-tale signs in behaviour and in the brain that seem to support this hypothesis.

Autism isn’t just about social communication. It is also about having a way of thinking, which can be described as ‘detail focussed’. The idea is that autism involves sticky attention to small parts at the expense of attention to the bigger picture. Thus local sensations can become overwhelming. This can be rephrased as giving less weight to prior expectations that prepare you to perceive a particular thing, and instead giving more weight to incoming information, both signal and noise. 

We need such bold hypotheses. Here’s why: Behavioural and biological data only become meaningful if they can be explained in terms of what the mind does. Understanding that a child lacks a social GPS is far more helpful to a teacher than knowing that he or she has a particular genetic abnormality (biological); or tends not to look at eyes (behavioural). Likewise a teacher can understand that a child who is overwhelmed by bitty information may be terrified by the smallest changes in his or her environment. 

We now have a structure that we can use to lay out what we have already learned about autism. I have drawn lines on Post-it notes, but if you want to insert all the facts that are already known, you will need a very large sheet of paper!

We can also use this simple layout to imagine how our knowledge might expand in the future. I have written about this with John Morton in 1995, and most recently in 2012.

The holy grail of autism research is to identify the commonalities of the autism spectrum. These commonalities should lead to defining cognitive phenotypes. Then it will be possible to trace causes of autism from genes to behaviour.

We know a lot already, but how can we pull the existing findings together? We need to find a common pathway — the critical part in the system that is always affected, no matter which of the numerous genetic and environmental risk factors have placed an individual  on the autistic spectrum.


If we were to find a common pathway, this would define a distinctive property of the brain that is critically different in autism. The common pathway forms a node in a network of possible mappings: It pulls together all the strings from the data that are already available and from the data that are not yet available, but can be predicted.

If we can find a node at the cognitive level, animal models become more informative, for example. This is because one can look beyond behaviour, which is obviously very different in mouse and man.

To me there is something very appealing about pulling together the strings in a common pathway. No wonder I’m obsessed with this cognitive thing.

There is a thorny point here: The node would pinpoint both normal and abnormal function. But isn’t this too black and white? Isn’t everyone ‘a bit autistic?’

I happily agree with this at the behavioural level, where one thing always shades into another. A measure of amount of eye contact, for example, will vary continuously across different individuals — we can only make an artificial cut-off point to define what is ‘abnormal.’ The same goes for the biological level: If you assess neuro-chemical levels, you will get a continuous distribution, with clinical groups tending to lie at one extreme.

At the cognitive level, however, it is admissible to use categorical distinctions. We are free to theorise that there are functions that the typically developing mind automatically performs, which the mind of a person with autism performs in a qualitatively different way, or not at all — and vice versa.

So here’s my message: We shouldn’t despair of ever finding clarity in the ever more complex world of possible biological causes and dimensionally varying behaviours. If we focus on the mind, we can make sense of the enormous complexity by testing daring hypotheses that can pull the strings together.

The Encounter

Over the last couple of years, Uta & I have been meeting with Simon McBurney, director of Complicite as he prepared for his one-man show, The Encounter. Simon hoped that we might be able to tell him what neuroscience can reveal about the nature of consciousness.

The Encounter dramatizes the experiences of Loren McIntyre, as described in Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. When Simon told us about this book it was long out of print, but we managed to find a second hand copy. As a result of Simon’s work it was republished in 2015.

Loren McIntyre was a National Geographic photographer, and this is the story about his experiences when he was lost in the remote Amazon rain forest. His survival depends on the leader of a small group of Mayoruna people who he has followed into the jungle and then become hopelessly lost. But there is no common language through which they can communicate. He feels utterly isolated with ‘a psychological distance of 20,000 years’ between him and the people who are his only hope finding a way back. Eventually he starts to experience ‘communication’ from the leader of the group when he sits near him. He begins to understand some puzzling behaviour, for example, why the group keep destroying their villages and moving on. Remarkably, this communication doesn’t depend on language.

McBurneyIn The Encounter everyone in the audience wears earphones, which helps Simon to recreate and share all the strangeness and terror of McIntyre’s experiences through the wonder of acoustic technology.

When we first talked to Simon about the work he was developing around Amazon Beaming, he asked us whether we thought it was possible for two people to communicate without words. We said, absolutely.

And here is why.

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Communication is not simply about the transfer of information. You can do that with a cash machine. When we communicate we know that we are communicating, and we know that our partner knows that she is communicating. We have a subjective, conscious experience of communicating. This experience, we hypothesise, predates language.

This is what I would have said in a discussion planned after a performance of The Encounter at the Barbican. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there because I had to have an operation for a detached retina.

What is conscious experience?

When I look out into the audience, I am aware of innumerable faces. I have the subjective experience of seeing many faces. But this is an illusion. I don’t mean that you are all figments of my imagination. I am confident you are all out there, but, even so, some of you at least are figments of my imagination.

The problem is that my contact with you all seems so direct, when it is really very slight. The only clues I have about you come from the sparse signals that my eyes and ears are sending to my brain. From these crude signals, and from years of experience, my brain can make quite a good model of what’s out there.

elephantYou will remember the story of the blind men who come across an elephant. One feels its trunk and thinks it is a snake, another feels its leg and thinks it is a tree.

A single sighted man who comes across an elephant is doing the same thing. The elephant is too big to see with a single fixation of the eye. We have to look all over it. If our eye lands on the trunk, then it’s a good bet that it’s a snake. But, then, as the eye moves along it a head or a tail should appear. When this doesn’t happen, then the model has to be changed. It isn’t a snake. Perhaps it’s an elephant. The more evidence our eyes take in the more plausible it becomes that the thing is an elephant. Our eyes move very fast (4 to 8 fixations per second). Within a few 100 msecs we see the elephant. We are entirely unaware of all the work our brain has done and, of course, what we are seeing is not the elephant, but the model that our brain has constructed. This model is often incomplete with several missing bits that are filled in with guesses. This is why some of you are figments of my imagination. There is a well known youtube video, showing that a gorilla can walk by some basketball players without being noticed, if you are too busy counting the basketball passes.

But what is the point of all this vivid subjective experience?

HuxleyCapTH Huxley believed that our conscious experience has no function: ’Consciousness [is]completely without any power of modifying the working [of the body] as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery.’ I believe that Huxley was wrong and we can see this from the metaphor he chose. This is because the steam-whistle does influence the behaviour of other engines.

Our conscious experience is very vivid, but also very private. There is no way I can have your experiences. It even is possible that the colour experience that I call red is actually the one you would call green if you were to experience it. How could we ever know? But there is a paradox here. Our conscious experience may be private, but it is also the only aspect of our mental life that we can share with others. I can’t tell you anything about what my brain is doing. And I certainly can’t tell you about all those mental processes that never reach my consciousness.



What I can tell you about is my model of the world. And, at the same time, you can be telling me about your model of the world. So if we are like steam locomotives, we are certainly hearing each other’s whistles.




Conscious experience is for interacting

And, because we are sharing the same world and because we also have very similar brains, our models are also likely to be very similar. But they will not be entirely similar. Our models will also depend on all our past experiences including our interactions with others. Our models of the world will be strongly influenced by our cultural background.

But what happens when two people interact? Interacting with another person is different from interacting with a rock. Unlike a rock, the person I am interacting with is creating a model of me at the same time as I am making a model of her. The model I create of you helps me to predict what you are going to do, which also helps me to communicate with you. My model of you will have many different aspects. I will try to discover what sort of person you are. But in my view the most important aspect of you that I am trying to model, is your model of the world. That is the model of the world we are currently sharing.

brainsBecause we are sharing the same world, any differences in our models will reflect our different experiences and cultural backgrounds. So, when I know something about your model, I know something about you. But, if I need to communicate with you, then I should try to make my model similar to yours. And, at the same time, you will be trying to make your model similar to mine. Some believe that, if two devices interact while making inferences about each other, then they will eventually converge on the same model.

Language is extremely useful for discovering something about other peoples’ models of the world, but it is not the only way. Simply by watching how someone moves you can learn about how they see and understand the world about them. The more you spend time with someone else, the better you will get at predicting how they are going to move. You won’t know how you do it. It just happens.

To make this prediction you have learned about their model of the world and, inevitably, this has changed your own model. At some point the two models will be in almost perfect synchrony. At this point you will have the conscious experience of what seems like, and, indeed is, wordless communication.

Slow Science

I love this painting by Carl Larsson. Here is a domestic scene of a mother and two children shelling fresh peas into an earthenware pot, pods heaping up on the floor. They are immersed in their work in companionable silence. They can anticipate a tasty seasonal meal. This is not  opening a bag of frozen peas and boiling it for a few minutes. This is slow food, savoured for its own sake. The slow food movement, according to Wikipedia,  started in the 1980s as a protest to resist the spread of fast food. It rapidly spread with the aim to promote local foods and traditional gastronomy. In August 2012 in Aarhus I first hit on the idea of slow science. Just as with food production slowness can be a virtue: it can be a way to improve quality and resist quantity.
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I had to give a short speech to celebrate the end of the Interacting Minds Project and the launch of the Interacting Minds Centre. I was looking back on the preceding 5 years and wondered whether the Project would have been predicted to succeed or to fail. I found that there had been far more reason to predict failure than success. One reason was that procedures for getting started were very slow, so slow – that they made us alternately laugh and throw up our hands in disbelief.

But, what if the success of the Project was not despite the slowness, but because of it? Chris and I had been plunged from the fast moving competitive UCL environment in London into a completely different intellectual environment. This was an environment where curiosity driven research was encouraged and competition did not count for much. After coming to Denmark for some extended stays and for at least one month every year since 2007 we have been converted. We are almost in awe of slowness now. We celebrate Slow Science.

Can Slow Science be an alternative to the prevalent culture of publish or perish?Modern life has put time pressure on scientists, particularly in the way they communicate: e-mail, phones and cheap travel have made communication almost instant. I still sometimes marvel at the ease of typing and editing papers with search, delete, replace, copy and paste. Even more astonishing is the speed of searching libraries and performing data analysis. What effect have these changes in work habits had on our thinking habits?

Slow Food and Slow Science is not slowing down for its own sake, but increasing quality. Slow science means getting into the nitty gritty, just as the podding of fresh peas with your fingers is part of the production of a high quality meal. Science is a slow, steady, methodical process, and scientists should not be expected to provide quick fixes for society’s problems.

I tweeted these questions and soon got a response from Jonas Obleser who sent me the manifesto of from 2010. He had already put into words what I had been vaguely thinking about.

Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.

Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection. … We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. 

These ideas have resurfaced again and again. Science journalist John Horgan posted this on his blog in 2011 “The Slow Science Movement Must be Crushed” with the punch line that if Slow Science caught on, and scientists started publishing only high quality data that have been double- and triple-checked, then he would have nothing to write about anymore.

Does science sometimes move too fast for own good? Or anyone’s good? Do scientists, in their eagerness for fame, fortune, promotions and tenure, rush results into print? Tout them too aggressively? Do they make mistakes? Exaggerate? Cut corners? Even commit outright fraud? Do journals publish articles that should have been buried? Do journalists like me too often trumpet flimsy findings? Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.

I liked this, but not much more was discussed on blogs until it came to the more recent so-called replication crisis. I wonder if it possibly has converted some more scientists to Slow Science. Earlier this year, Dynamic Ecology  Blog had a post “In praise of slow science” and attracted many comments:

It’s a rush rush world out there. We expect to be able to talk (or text) anybody anytime anywhere. When we order something from half a continent away we expect it on our doorstep in a day or two. We’re even walking faster than we used to.

Science is no exception. The number of papers being published is still growing exponentially at a rate of over 5% per year (i.e. doubling every 10 years or so). Statistics on growth in number of scientists are harder to come by … but it appears …the individual rate of publication (papers/year) is going up.

There has been much unease about salami slicing to create as many papers as possible; about publishing ephemeral results in journals with scanty peer review. Clearly if we want to improve quality, there are some hard questions to be answered:

How do we judge quality science? Everyone believes their science is of high quality. It’s like judging works of art. But deep down we know that some pieces of our research are just better than others. What are the hallmarks? More pain? More critical mass of data? Perhaps you yourself are the best judge of what are your best papers. In some competitive schemes you are required to submit or defend only your best three/four/five papers. This is a good way of making comparisons fairer between candidates who may have had a different career paths and shown different productivity. More is not always better.

How to improve quality in science? That’s an impossible question, especially if we can’t measure quality, and if quality may become apparent only years later. Even if there was an answer, it would have to be different for different people, and different subjects. Science is an ongoing process of reinvention. Some have suggested that it is necessary to create the right social environment to incubate new ideas and approaches, the right mix of people talking to each other. When new tender plants are to be grown, a whole greenhouse has to be there for them to thrive in. Patience is required when there is unrelenting focus on methodological excellence.

Who would benefit? Three types of scientists: First, scientists who are tending the new shoots and have to exercise patience. These are people with new ideas in new subjects. These ideas often fall between disciplines but might eventually crystallising into a discipline of their own. In this case getting grants and getting papers published in traditional journals is difficult and takes longer. Second, scientists who have to take time out for good reasons, often temporarily. If they are put under pressure, they are tempted to write up preliminary studies, and by salami slicing bigger studies. Third, fast science is a barrier for scientists who have succeeded against the odds,  suffering from neuro-developmental disorders, such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, or ADHD. It is well known that they need extra time for the reviewing and writing-up part of research. The extra time can reveal a totally hidden brilliance and originality that might be otherwise lost.

We also should consider when Slow Science is not beneficial.  If there is a race on and priority is all, then speed is essential. Sometimes you cannot wait for the usual safety procedures of double checking and replication.This may be the case if you have to find a cure for a new highly contagious illness. In this case be prepared for many sleepless nights. Sometimes a short effortful spurt can produce results and the pain is worth it. But it is not possible to maintain such a pace. Extra effort mean extra hours, and hence exhaustion and eventually poorer productivity.

An excuse for being lazy? Idling, procrastinating, and plain old worrying can sometimes bring forth bright flashes of brilliance. Just going over data again and again can produce the satisfying artisanal feelings one might expect to find in a ceramic potter or furniture maker. Of course, the thoughts inspired by quiet down time will be lost if they are not put into effect. Since slow science is all about quality,  this is never achieved by idling and taking short cuts, or over-promising. Slow science is not a way of avoiding competition and not a refuge for the ultra-critical who can’t leave well enough alone. Papers don’t need to be perfect to be published.

What about the competitive nature of science? Competition cannot be avoided in a time of restricted funding and more people chasing after fewer jobs. In competition there is a high premium on coming first. I was impressed by a clever experiment by Phillips, Hertwig, Kareev and Avrahami (2014): Rivals in the dark: How competition influences search in decisions under uncertainty [Cognition, 133(1).104-119]. These authors used a visual search task, where it mattered to spot a target as quickly as possible and indicate their decision with a button press. The twist was that players  were in a competitive situation and did not know when their competitors would make their decision. If they searched carefully they might lose out because another player might get there first? If they searched only very cursorily, they might be lucky. It turned out that for optimal performance it was adaptive to search only minimally. To me this is a metaphor of the current problem of fast science.

A solution to publish or perish? There may be a way out.  Game theory comes to our aid. The publish or perish culture is like the prisoner’s dilemma. You need to be slow to have more complete results and you need to be fast to make a priority claim, all at the same time.  Erren, Shaw & Morfeld (2015) draw out this scenario between two scientists who can either ‘defect’ (publish early and flimsy data) or ‘cooperate’ (publish late and more complete data). suggest a possible escape. Rational prisoners would defect. And this seems to be confirmed by the command publish or perish. The authors suggest that it should be possible to allow researchers to establish priority using the equivalent of the sealed envelope, a practice used by the Paris Académie des Sciences in the 18th century.  Meanwhile, prestigious institutions would need to foster rules that favour the publication of high quality rather than merely novel work. If both these conditions were met the rules of the game would change. Perhaps there is a way to improve quality through slow science.


OCD and what it tells us about the mind and brain relationship

I was bleach_ichigo_by_the_dreaming_dragon-d7vnb69amazed and pleased to be asked to present a BBC2 Horizon documentary on OCD, entitled “A monster in my mind”. It was a huge opportunity for me to learn about this disorder and find out where the latest research had arrived at. The inevitable question was why would I do this and what made me say yes to the film project. For once, this is easy for me answer.

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When I was a young student in Saarbrücken, Germany in the early 1960s, I was quite undecided what I should study. I went to many different lectures all at the same time, as I had no idea what subject to specialise in. One day my decision was suddenly made for me. This was during a Psychiatry lecture, which psychologists as well as medical students could attend. The Professor had brought along one of his patients who suffered from OCD. The patient impressed me hugely. He spoke in a strikingly rational way about how he was obsessed by an absurdly irrational fear. He was convinced that, if he did not rid himself of germs, there was a real chance that he could infect members of his family through wounds they might have accidentally required. He could not bear the thought that it would be entirely his fault, if they then died of blood poisoning. It was a monstrous fear that haunted him all his waking hours, and that no amount of washing could rid him of.

Like most people I had thought that being obsessive and compulsive was merely a quirky personality characteristic, and quite a common one. I imagined that I too was a bit obsessive. I can remember that, as a child I sometimes had the urge to touch every fence post, and I am still strongly drawn to straightening picture frames when they hang askew. But that was a long way from the case that I witnessed. It made me realise that OCD is a harrowing mental illness. But this was also very different from what I had imagined mental illness to be. I had observed some schizophrenic patients who were utterly convinced that their irrational thoughts were nothing but the bare truth.

The patient’s story was gripping. The monster had only grown stronger over the years. He washed his hands whenever there was even the slightest possibility of germs settling on them. This was nearly all the time. The cleaning procedures he imposed on himself were excessive to the point of harm, and they made his life a misery. He spent hours at the washbasin, using not only soap, but also disinfectant and even bleach. How did this square up with the incredibly rational account of himself that the patient was able to give? He knew the cleaning procedures he imposed on himself were hopelessly ineffective and only ever gave him a few moments’ relief. He knew this, and yet he could not stop them.

From then on I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a researcher and find out what makes the mind behave in such a strangely contradictory way. How could your own mind keep you in thrall of some unimaginable fear when you knew that the fear was irrational? This was like creating your own nightmare and never being able to escape from it. I started to read avidly about mental illness and found that the then available methods of treatment, ranging from lobotomy, electroshock, psychoactive drugs to psychoanalysis, were spectacularly unsuccessful.

But then, in the psychology department I heard about a new way of treating mental illness that was being developed in London’s Maudsley Hospital. I knew I had to go there and learn more about it. The revolutionary new way was called Behaviour Therapy, and OCD, together with other anxiety disorders, was a showcase for its success. By good fortune I was accepted on a course in what was then called ‘Abnormal Psychology’. I had already decided to do a PhD on OCD, but fate intervened. During my rotation on the course I met children with autism. This diverted my interest from OCD. But that is another story. Actually, autism too is often associated with obsessions and compulsions, but these aspects are not central to the condition.

From time to time I have wondered wistfully what progress had been made in our understanding of OCD. This was why I was extremely excited to be asked to present this documentary. It gave me a chance to catch up on new developments and it immediately rekindled my earliest interests in the mind and brain.

One particularly gratifying experience during filming was that I was able to visit Isaac Marks, who had been one of the pioneers of Behaviour Therapy at the Maudsley when I was a student. It was fascinating to hear him reminisce about his first attempts to apply the insights he had gained from an animal learning experiment he had watched in the US.

Remarkably, later on during the filming, I saw a version of this same experiment being carried out with humans in the brain scanner at Cambridge’s Addenbrookes’ Hospital. Here it is: Patients with OCD learned to avoid a mild shock by pressing a pedal as well as anybody else, but unlike other people, after the electrode that administered the shock was removed, they continued to press the pedal, quite unnecessarily. This is a sign of cognitive inflexibility, a cause of OCD as proposed by Cambridge neuroscientist Trevor Robbins. This and other brain imaging studies have shown that cognitive inflexibility is linked to unusually high activation of loops in and out of the basal ganglia, a region deep in the brain. One very new idea that has been buoyed by this research is that it might be possible to make this region less active by deep brain stimulation. During the filming I was able to witness such a still very experimental procedure being carried out in Amsterdam.

While updating my knowledge about OCD, I felt encouraged that the original insights that came from basic research that led first to Behaviour Therapy had stood the test of time. In the 1960s Isaac Marks showed that it was possible to get rid of his patients’ tormenting anxiety by exposing them to their fear and letting them experience it ebbing away. The patients would experience relief and also learn that the terrible consequences that they feared would not, in fact, occur. This approach is still successful, although the therapy itself has morphed into CBT. It works for the majority of cases, as I learned when I visited the Maudsley Hospital’s Child and Adolescent Department and was able to witness a CBT session in progress.

The BBC provides an excellent clickable website where some basic facts about OCD are explained. In the textbooks OCD is defined as having persistent and uncontrollable thoughts that are unwanted, and disturbing. For a diagnosis they have to significantly interfere with the ability to function in everyday life. OCD is not rare. It is estimated that between 1 and 2% of the population suffer from it. The WHO has ranked OCD in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life. Better than the textbooks is David Adams insightful account of his own OCD in his book “The man who couldn’t stop” which I had found illuminating. I was excited to meet him during the making of the programme and a short clip of our meeting can be seen here.

Mental illness has everything to do with the brain and we must look for the causes in the brain. During filming I was able to speak to some of the leading OCD researchers and found that they are on the way to finding the brain abnormality that can explain the cruel tricks that OCD plays on the mind. Trevor Robbins and his group in Cambridge have identified a critical neural circuit. This circuit connects two major brain regions. One is the orbitofrontal cortex, known to be concerned with achieving valued goals. The other is mid-brain region, the basal ganglia. This is known to be associated with our ability to acquire automatic habits. According to Trevor Robbins, in the case of OCD the habit system has gained dominance over the goal directed system, just as it does in drug addiction. The normal brain maintains a delicate balance between these systems, but it is clear that this balance can be disturbed and that in OCD it cannot easily be regained.

The habit system is a long evolved, and for the most part, it serves us well. It works even if the original goals are no longer relevant. There is the suggestion that automatic behaviours like washing and checking are triggered by an ancient alarm system. They serve as a precaution against invisible threats, such as contamination and predator attack. In OCD it seems that this system cannot be turned off. The potential threat is ever present. There is no way to obtain certainty that it has disappeared.

Invisible and often monstrous thoughts are the real scourge of OCD. We all have unwanted and sometimes repugnant thoughts, but they are fleeting and we can subdue them. In OCD these thoughts are obsessions, and they refuse to go away. At the same time there is an unquenchable thirst to find relief. The habit system runs in overdrive with senseless actions that are performed over and over again. These are the compulsions.

After immersing myself for some months into the world of OCD I was struck by the fact that the patients all seemed to believe that they are responsible for the consequences that might follow if they did not carry out these senseless actions. They have been called hyper-responsible. Their family, even the world at large will be catastrophically affected if they fail to carry out precautionary rituals. Why?

I couldn’t let go of this question, and here is my own take on what might be behind this excessive feeling of responsibility. We know little about how we control our own thoughts. What can be frightening is that it is possible for us to feel that we are not in control of our thoughts. Now, fortunately, most of us are under the illusion that unwanted thoughts are not caused by us, but they were caused by ‘our brain’. We can dismiss them, and then we do not feel responsible for them. People with OCD don’t have this luxury. The unwanted thoughts intrude on their full consciousness, creating the illusion that they did cause them, and therefore that they are responsible.

By the end of the filming I was convinced that OCD provides an amazing example of how our common understanding of mental illness has gradually changed over the last 50 years. Today we have much more awareness of mental illness and put less blame on those who are affected. Professional help is available. There are also excellent support networks that inform and inspire. Exciting advances are being made about the abnormal functioning of particular brain circuits, but that’s only the start. To understand how brain and mind relate to each other is a hugely complex enterprise. We have hardly embarked on it.

Image credit:


Our Danish friend, Dan Bang , is just finishing his DPhil on Confidence.

If you type confidence into Google you will get millions of hits, mostly about self-confidence. You are told that, for a small fee, self-confidence can be learned and will enable you to influence people and earn more money.

This is not the kind of confidence that Dan is interested in.


I associate confidence with psychophysics experiments. You make people look at an endless series of pictures in which there may or may not be moving dots. You ask them, ‘Were the dots moving?’ and then ‘How confident are you that they were moving?’ These experiments are so boring that the only people prepared to take part are the authors of the paper.

CDF: So why is confidence so interesting? Continue reading

DB: On the one hand, confidence is an objective quantity. We can link confidence to behaviour or real-world events. We can ask, when people are more confident, are they also more likely to give the correct answer? We call this resolution (or metacognitive sensitivity). The more people’s low and high confidence discriminates between their incorrect and correct answers, the higher the resolution.

On the other hand, confidence is also a subjective quantity. You and I might have different ideas about what it means to be “not so sure” – does it mean that the probability that we are correct is 25% or 50%? We call this calibration (or metacognitive bias). So even if our confidence has the same resolution, I might express myself more cautiously than you do. Our low and high confidence need not fall within the same range. I might say “not so sure” when thinking that there is a 75% probability that I am correct. But you might have no problem saying “absolutely certain”.

DBsureFor me, confidence is interesting because, with carefully controlled experiments, we can quantify how people communicate their inner states, and we can ask whether the way in which they communicate this information changes with the social context.

CDF: So it may be interesting for you, but aren’t the experiments still boring?

DB: People don’t get bored doing my experiments. They work together in pairs and discuss what they have seen. We often think that confidence is a private experience, but in my experiments people talk to each other about how confident they feel.

CDF: Why would they talk about their confidence?

DB: If they disagree about what they have seen, they have to decide who is right. A good rule of thumb is that the more confident person is also more likely to be right. Two people working together can do better than the best person working alone, and the more they talk about confidence the greater the advantage for the pair. Simply by going with the more confident person after each presentation you can get an advantage.

CDF: How can people predict whether they are going to be right or not? This is very mysterious to me. Where does the information come from?

DB: There are a lot of different theories. Some think that our confidence directly reflects the reliability or strength of the information upon which our decisions are based. In my tasks, this information could be sampled from memory or through the senses. In general, the more reliable this information is, the more likely we are to be correct. Others don’t think we have such direct, privileged access to our inner workings. Instead, we infer our confidence.

One way to do this is to monitor the speed with which we reach our decisions. In most situations, decisions that we make quickly are more likely to be right, and fast responses tend to be associated with greater confidence. Observers are quite good at judging other people’s confidence by watching their movements. However, in one of our studies, we showed that simply going with the faster person is not as good as going with the more confident one. So, confidence seems to carry a lot of useful information.

CDF: I guess you mean that confidence is a marker of competence and speed is another marker. We would certainly want to take advice from competent people. But can’t this easily go wrong? Over-confident people think they are giving good advice when they are not. Working with an over-confident person could be disastrous.

DB: Even an over-confident person will be more confident when s/he is right and less confident when s/he is wrong. S/he can be accurate about their confidence (resolution), but have a bias to exaggerate it (calibration). If we want to work successfully with each other we need to calibrate the way we report our confidence to one another. When I say that I am very confident it has to mean the same as when you say you’re very confident.

CDF: You mean that I have to make sure that my subjective experience of confidence corresponds to your subjective experience of confidence. How is this possible? It’s like asking whether my experience of red is the same as your experience of red.

ConfCorrDB: Actually there’s a quick and dirty way of doing it, so to say, which works most of the time. People usually use words, but you can ask them to use numbers from 1 to 6 to indicate their confidence. An under-confident person might mostly use the numbers 1 to 4, while an over-confident person mostly uses the numbers 4 to 6. It ‘s fairly obvious that they are using the scale in a different way. I have found that people align their use of such confidence scales so that they have the same average confidence rating across the experiment. This might not necessarily be the middle of the scale. So, some people might both use the scale in an “under-confident” way, while others might both use it in an “over-confident” way. There are very few mismatches.

Confidence is a subjective experience, but there are still common features that people can agree on. The two ends of the scale might be fixed at guessing and certain. It is obviously more difficult to have agreement about the middle of the scale, but people can still agree on the order of their levels of confidence.

CDF: That’s very interesting. If you used a 3-point scale of confidence, it would be difficult to be sure if we both meant the same thing with a rating of 2, but the more items in the scale the less the problem will be. In an earlier study, your colleagues showed how each pair developed their own verbal descriptions of confidence – sure, almost sure, a little sure, not quite sure, &c. I was very surprised that the mean number of levels for these spontaneously developed scales was about 18. I was surprised because we all learned, as students, that the optimum number for a scale was 7±2. But, of course, the more levels we have, the less the problem of equating subjective experience.

DB: Yes, we actually find that, if you give people a continuous scale (e.g., 1 to 6 in steps of .000001) instead of a discrete one (e.g., 1 to 6 in steps of 1), then they perform better. The problem of agreeing on what exactly each level means disappears.

alignmentCDF: I am very interested in alignment. It seems to be a critical feature of joint action. The Mirror Neuron story is all about alignment. We automatically align our motor movements and our perception of the world. What you are telling me about confidence seems to be an example of automatic, subjective alignment.

DB: That’s much too speculative for me.

CDF: You called this strategy a quick and dirty method. Does this mean it sometimes goes wrong?

DB: Yes, the strategy only works when the people in the group have equal competence. If they have different levels of competence, they should not try to match their confidence. The more competent person should be consistently more confident than the less competent. Otherwise the pair will take the advice of the less competent person too often.

CDF: But presumably we can notice when someone is more or less competent? Could we do this first and then adjust the way we talk about our confidence?

DB: Actually this seems to be more difficult than you might think. We just published a study showing that people take too much advice from an incompetent partner (and take too little advice from a competent partner). This is not a problem of not being able to work out that the partner is less competent (or more competent). It happened even when they had explicit feedback about their relative competence. People seem to forget this information in the situation.

CDF: But you were using Danish students and every one knows how modest and trusting they are.

DB: That can’t be the explanation. We observed just the same behaviour in Iran where people are supposed to be less trusting of each other.

CDF: I wonder why there should be this universal equality bias, when it reduces successful group decisions?

DB: Perhaps people are more interested in smooth social interactions than in accurate decisions?

CDF: That’s too speculative for me.

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

What’s so good about being rational?

We are still planning THE BOOK, but we always turn to ideas for the graphic novel first and are constantly distracted by the wonderful artists that we are inspired by. That is, if we are not distracted by cooking and eating.

CDF (neatly cutting celery, chilli and chives):

The trolley problem has to feature.

choppingboardIt is not only visually striking but it will be useful to illustrate some facts about the notorious clash between emotion and reason in our social minds.

UF: Isn’t it strangely related to that other clash we are always struggling with? Between our egotistical and prosocial motives. Are we more rational when we are being prosocial?

Continue reading

So to recap: An out-of-control trolley is speeding down the line towards 5 railway workers who will all be killed. You can save them by diverting the trolley down a branch line, but this will result in one person being killed. Should you divert the trolley?

Most people answer, Yes. It’s the rational, utilitarian answer, and also pro-social, since it avoids killing 5 people.

CDF sharpens his knife with the consequence of such excruciating noise that UF has to temporarily leave the kitchen. When she returns, Chris is flattening a tiny chicken that’s almost split in half, and rubs it with herbs.

You can make a slight change of wording of the trolley problem: You can save the 5 workers by pushing the large man, standing next to you, onto the track, thus stopping the trolley, but also killing the large man. Should you push the large man?

Now, most people answer, No.

UF: So, what is going on?

CDF (carefully placing a layer of cut Brussels sprouts into butter foaming in a small heavy saucepan): Fortunately, there’s a brain imaging study to help us out. Volunteers in the scanner were asked to reflect on the suggestion that they should push the large man onto the track. They showed much higher activity in ‘emotional areas’ of the brain. It seems, if you don’t reflect you can more readily make the utilitarian choice – ‘utilitarian’ meaning ‘for the greater good’. Just do the arithmetic: the lives of 5 people add up to more than the life of 1. However, the emotional response to the thought of pushing a person onto the track is hard to ignore. It interferes with processes by which we might reach a utilitarian decision.

UF (turning up the gas flame while stirring vanilla custard): The emotions are brought to a boil by the extreme nature of the decision you have to make. They tell you that you can’t kill the large person next to you. But they also make you forget the five others. What happens if the outcome of the decision is less fraught?

CDF: There is the ultimatum game: Bob is given a pot of money to share with Liz. Bob offers a proportion to Liz. If Liz accepts, then both can keep their share. If Liz rejects the offer, then neither gets any money. The rational decision for Liz is to accept anything, since some money is better than none.

UF: In practice, Liz will get angry and reject offers when she feels they are insultingly low.

CDF: Rejection happens if Bob offers less than about a third of the pot. And now if you could get out of my way…

UF (taking her custard to the side and getting out sherry to dribble on some sponge fingers in dessert glasses): Just a moment…

CDF (drying his hands): Once again brain imaging comes to our rescue. As you suspected, rejection of offers is associated with activity in emotional regions of the brain.

UF: Even with these more trivial decisions, emotion is the enemy of reason. But wait, it’s not necessarily an irrational action. If we ignored emotion then we wouldn’t know what is good or bad for us. We make decisions by choosing the good and avoiding the bad. What is so good about being rational?

CDF (putting the chicken now covered in herbs into the oven): Talking of frontal lobes – the origin of reason in the brain: When the frontal lobes are damaged, decisions should become less rational.

UF (pouring the vanilla custard over morello cherries in the desert glasses): Don’t they?

CDF: When people with damage to prefrontal cortex play the ultimatum game they do become more irrational in their responses. They are strongly inclined to reject poor offers. But, here’s the rub: when they are presented with moral dilemmas, they select the more utilitarian scenarios, and they act more rationally than people with intact frontal lobes.

UF (sprinkling almond flakes on top of the custard): Well that’s a bit difficult to explain. How can frontal lobe damage cause people to be less rational in one situation and more rational in another?

CDF (opening a bottle of St Aubin, 2009): First, there’s a problem with the trolley problem: What people say they would do doesn’t necessarily relate to what they would actually do! In the ultimatum game people have to make real choices. But, as typically presented, the trolley problem is hypothetical.

UF: Let’s sit down and see what this wine tastes like.

CDF: And I can tell you about one problem with the trolley problem. It’s hypothetical.

The trolley problem in real life

 Attempts to explore the trolley problem in real life have proved controversial.

trolley1The latest activity from lawmakers comes just two weeks after a Senate bill introducing new trolley safety regulations died in committee. The bill encountered stiff opposition from industry lobby groups such as the National Railroad Association. “Trolleys don’t kill people,” said NRA spokesman Lane Stone, “moral philosophers kill people.”

(taken from here and here)

UF: (laying cutlery and large white napkins on the table): Didn’t our friend, Dean Mobbs compare hypothetical dilemmas with the same problem in real life?

CDF (opening the oven and springing away as his glasses get steamed up): Yes. This is the Pain vs Gain paradigm, which you can study in the lab. Participants get a pot of money and can either use this to prevent a companion from receiving painful electric shocks or keep the money for themselves.

UF: Surely, it’s clear what to do: You use all the money to prevent the shock to the companion.

CDF: Well, yes. In the hypothetical scenario 93% of the people said that’s what they’d do. But in real life this didn’t happen. All the participants kept some of the money for themselves, and all their companions suffered some shocks.

UF: So what trick are the emotions playing here? Where is our deeply prosocial nature; our predisposition to help others?

CDF serving up the chicken by cutting it neatly in half: People felt just that little bit more emotionally attached to their own benefit.

UF: Ah, this chicken is delicious. And it goes amazingly well with the blackened sprouts.

CDF: This version of cooking sprouts makes them almost edible.

UF: Lets face it. We are all moral hypocrites. We do things even though we say we wouldn’t. It’s tough following one’s moral principles.

CDF pouring more wine: Actually it’s also tough being a moral hypocrite. We have to justify our behaviour when we don’t follow our moral principles. One of the people in the Pain vs Gain experiment said, “I struggled with what to do. I wanted the money but I didn’t want to hurt him. I decided that he could take a little pain and I could make a little money.” We can always come up with hypocritical justifications.

UF (feeling benevolent after having been indulged in her inexplicable liking for sprouts): Sadly, looking after “Number One” often gets in the way of looking after your nearest and dearest others, let alone the greatest number of people.

Utilitarian judgements and the greater good

CDF: This brings us to the study by Guy Kahane at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics.

UF (clearing the dishes away): I remember you saying what an excellent paper it was.

CDF: Yes indeed. Kahane and colleagues have explored what we have been talking about. They asked what kind of person endorses the utilitarian decision to kill the fat man next to him to save five lives. Was this a fine person thinking of the greater good? Not a bit of it. They found that this person is also likely to endorse behaviours such as tax evasion, doesn’t give money to charity and feels less of an identity with the group. This is a rational egotist.

UF: This brings me back to Liz rejecting low offers in the ultimatum game. She may actually have done a noble act serving the greater good. Maybe Bob will be taught a lesson and behave more fairly in the future.

CDF: Yes, people who reject low offers, are typically prosocial in other situations. Here being prosocial is linked to behaving irrationally, just as in Kahane’s study being egotistical is linked to behaving rationally.

UF (fetching the dessert glasses): I am interested in how the emotions feature in both types of people. Presumably emotions can be self-oriented or other-oriented.

CDF: I am interested in how making a rational choice doesn’t mean concern for the greater good. Rational means I can justify my behaviour to myself and to others, by showing that I have made the best choice.

CDF: This trifle is not bad. To continue: Being rational is about winning arguments, not about being good. The non-egotistical choice can also be considered rational, but it is a bit harder to justify to yourself: you have to believe that you or your friends will benefit later on. This is probably best in the long run, while the egotistical choice seems best in the short run.

What’s so good about being utilitarian?

UF: So, utilitarian judgments are just what we need when it comes to justifying our behaviour. Obviously it is better to save 5 at the expense of 1.

CDF: But emotional involvement is difficult to keep away. Consider the original dilemma proposed by William Godwin. If only one person can be saved from the fire, should we save Archbishop Fenelon or the chambermaid? Godwin –clearly ignoring the emotional component – concluded that we should save the Archbishop since he would contribute more to the greater good.

This is a utilitarian judgment, but is it a good judgment? Unfortunately all sorts of terrible things have been justified on the basis that the life of one kind of person is more valuable than the life of another kind of person. Here our strong emotional inhibitions may prevent us from entering into a nightmare scenario. I would not like to live in a society where less valuable people were routinely sacrificed for the greater good.

UF: Unfortunately people can get trapped in nightmare scenarios. Hurricane Katrina created Godwin’s dilemma in real life. Sheri Fink wrote about the terrible story of Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, when hospital staff were confronted with the need to evacuate the patients under most difficult circumstances. Imagine being surrounded by five feet of water, with no electricity, little in the way of food and medical supplies and temperatures indoors of 400C. And seven patients had died while being moved. Which patients should be given priority in the evacuation? The sickest and most vulnerable? Or should they be left behind, since they have ‘the least to lose’? The consequence of making the latter choice was arrest for second degree murder. Interestingly, amidst great public controversy, the case was rejected by a grand jury. They recognised the impossible dilemma that the staff faced.

CDF: I don’t know what decision I would make in such terrible circumstances, but I know I would want my rational attempts at self-justification to be tempered by emotion.

Trust and regret – guardians of our decisions. What can go wrong?

Vaccination has been in the news again. Amongst others, science writer Virginia Hughes has given thoughtful comments on why ordinary people mistrust scientists on this issue.

I take this as a lesson in how science communication and public engagement can go wrong. As a scientist I feel hurt not to be trusted. As a mother I can imagine what it’s like when you are told you should vaccinate your child. I have been there and I have learned from the episode when the use of the triple MMR vaccine was blamed for the increase in autism, when Andrew Wakefield was celebrated as a hero speaking out for parents. The pharma industry, government and scientists were all accused of bias. What basic cognitive processes are involved in the way we make the decision to vaccinate or not to vaccinate? How can these processes undermine scientifically based advice?science-megaphone-300x226 Continue reading

Why doesn’t rational explanation as provided by scientific evidence speak for itself? Here’s where our social minds play tricks with us. We basically prefer the inaccurate message given out by a trusted person over the accurate message given by a possibly untrustworthy person. But perhaps these are not tricks. Although it pains me to say this, trust can be more important than scientific truth. Here’s why. Evolution has endowed social creatures, including human beings, with the predisposition to cooperate. And for cooperation to work we need to trust each other. Many animals show reciprocal altruism: ‘I scratch your back and you scratch mine’, and human beings go one step further by showing indirect altruism: ‘I scratch your back, and one of your kin will scratch the back of one of mine. Thus, people help each other without the explicit idea to get something in return, but perhaps with the implicit belief that someone else will give help at another time. Because this belief is unspoken, and because helpers are often anonymous, free riding becomes very tempting. And as we know, if there are too many free riders, trust and cooperation will collapse.

Evolutionary theorists suggest that cycles of cooperation and trust alternate with lack of cooperation and distrust. To reinstate trust both forgiveness and punishment are needed. For instance, if people are prepared to punish free riders, then this eventually reinstates trust in the group. This is called altruistic punishment because it actually costs the person who does the punishment. At the very least, he attracts the dislike of the person he punishes.

Trust weighs heavily in the decision to vaccinate or not. We remember vividly the old family doctor who once mentioned that vaccination was not a good thing. But why is our memory so good for messages that tell us not to vaccinate?

When our social mind makes a choice then trust and the person making a recommendation, are not the only factors. The big players are our emotions. Our brain is particularly responsive to any kind of threat. But even more important may be an emotion known as anticipated regret.

Imagine you are bidding in an auction, and you do not get the item you bid for. You will show disappointment. Now imagine you are told that your bid was only very slightly less than that of the successful buyer. You will show regret. You regret that you did not offer a slightly higher bid. It has been shown that in auctions where the final price is revealed, buyers offer higher bids, than when it is not. This is a sign of anticipated regret. We feel this emotion automatically as a result of internal computations, of which we are not aware. Now it has also been shown that you are more likely to feel regret when you commit an act and something bad happens. You won’t feel so regretful when you omitted to do something. This is the case when you decide not to vaccinate. You didn’t commit something that might turn out to be wrong. You just omitted something.

The MMR story is a story of lack of trust, and a story of the wrong kind of anticipated regret. It is wrong because it disregards the consequences of not vaccinating. Several factors contributed to the lack of trust. To begin with, there may be a predisposition to distrust scientists who are often portrayed as callous and more interested in abstract generalisations rather than the fate of individual people. The decision to vaccinate means you are allowing a temporary hurt to your child, while your overarching inclination is to protect your child from hurt. Why should you allow this hurt, when you have no personal memory of the severity of illnesses such as mumps, measles and rubella. Protecting your child from these almost mythical illnesses seems somehow less pressing than protecting your child from an immediate danger. So, when Dr. Andrew Wakefield, came forward as taking a stand against vaccination, his opinion fell on fertile ground. Further, the possibility that the package of a triple vaccination – a triple injury – might cause a brain disorder, such as autism, seemed plausible.

As so often correlation turned into causation: autism had increased recently; the triple vaccination was introduced recently; ergo, the triple vaccination caused the increase. In the UK the Medical Research Council immediately set up projects designed to answer the question whether indeed there was a causal connection. The answer was no, and the scientific advice was that the triple vaccination is safe.

In spite of this advice, nobody believed it. This was strange and needs further explanation. Why was the trust in Wakefield continuing, when there was at the same time a lack of trust in scientific advice? Here is where the concept of anticipated regret comes in. Parents were ‘playing safe’, or so they thought, by not giving their children a single triple short vaccine. In fact, playing safe was an act of omission, and this is less linked to regret than commission. However, if you choose not to vaccinate your child, then you are a free rider, because the protection remains as long as everyone else (or the vast majority) does vaccinate their child. In order to be effective 90% of the population has to be vaccinated. Many middle class people thought they were justified in becoming free riders for the sake of their child. In consequence there have been outbreaks of measles.

Here is the gist of an interview that illustrates the role of anticipated regret in the MMR story. Interviewer: “Would you let your child get the controversial MMR vaccine?” Father: “Certainly not. If I let my child get the MMR vaccine and he later becomes autistic, I will never forgive myself.” Interviewer: “What, if your child then contracted the measles and died?” Father: “This would be an act of God. I would be very sad, but not feel guilty.”

We all know the end of the story. Remarkably, the reason that MMR vaccination became acceptable again for parents had nothing to do with the restoration of trust in scientists. Quite the opposite. It became known that Andrew Wakefield had a commercial stake in the development of single vaccines. Now, people who previously believed him to be a brave hero who spoke against powerful lobbies, such as big pharma, lost their trust in him. Another reason in favour of vaccination is the increase in measles, mumps and rubella outbreaks. This reminded people that these diseases are very dangerous. There are still people who firmly believe that their child’s autism was caused by vaccination and nothing will weaken them in this belief. However, our social nature strongly inclines us to do what others do, and to value what others value.

Image credit New Media Science Communication