August 31, 2008

Hot Chicks Make Men Nervous Yes, really, they do. It's a scientific fact.

As someone who has to read a lot of academic science papers, I occasionally come across studies that really should have been funded by the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. I mean, really, it makes you wonder what some researchers are thinking when they carry out these sorts of studies, and whether they actually get grants to do this stuff?

Here, let me explain. An item in the latest BPS Research Digest let me know of an "eye-catching study that didn't make the final cut" (I wonder why?). The premise of this paper is that men with more attractive wives or girlfriends engage more in "mate retention behaviours" which may include actively trying to stop them talking to other men, reading their diaries or emails, and buying gifts to keep them interested. Hey, isn't that how a typical relationship is supposed to be? ;-)

I didn't bother reading the entire paper because the abstract alone was enough for a good laugh. I also have a deadline to meet so there may be more later. You'll have to forgive me for my lack of sophistry in this post because I just can't stop laughing. Let's go through it:

"More attractive women are more likely to be pursued as mates by men other than their long-term partner and, therefore, to place their partner at greater risk of cuckoldry (investing unwittingly in a child to whom he is genetically unrelated)."

This seems a fair enough intro. If your partner happens to be seriously hot it stands to reason that they'd have other guys lusting after them, covertly if not obviously. Let's say that the deal is done, she cheats on you, gets pregnant and decides to have the baby. Unless you're a total loser really, really nice guy, I don't think you'd be easily conned persuaded into bringing up another man's child. Why would you? But listen..

"Men partnered to more attractive women perform more mate retention behaviors – behaviors designed to thwart a woman’s infidelity. With greater risk of female infidelity, men may perform additional anti-cuckoldry tactics such as frequent in-pair copulations (IPC)."

In other words, SEX. And lots of it!

This really is the answer, apparently. If you're frightened that your girl may run off with another man and leave you, there's nothing like a page (or several) from the Kamasutra to put the spice back into things. To offset the "greater risk" of her cheating on you, it is essential to give her what she needs until she's screaming for a coffee break. Whoa Nelly, who knew science papers could make such sexist and racy reading!

And, by the way, is there anything more ridiculous as abbreviating sex? IPC? Couldn't they think of something a tad more interesting that doesn't remind you of the International Pipeline Conference? But then again, I suppose we are discussing plumbing of sorts..

"We secured self-reports from 277 men in a long-term relationship and investigated: (1) the relationship between female partner’s attractiveness and IPC frequency and (2) the mediating role of female partner’s attractiveness on the relationship between IPC frequency and male mate retention behaviors."

I would have loved to have seen that. In plain English, they "investigated" how hot the wives or girlfriends of 277 men and how often they had sex. I can just about imagine a panel of "experts" objectively rating people on standard attractiveness scales (so reminiscent of that paragon of impartiality, but can you imagine asking people about the details of their sex lives? If you're familiar with the Beck Depression Inventory, you'll see how Item 21 rates "Loss Of Interest In Sex". When I administered this questionnaire in two of the studies I've been involved with, I can tell you that there was much twitching and nervous darting glances, polite coughs, and even an occasional giggle when it came to answering that particular question.

And all this when I minimised observer effects by leaving them to answer the questions by themselves. A seemingly innocent question that asks how much your interest in sex has decreased, if it has, can be a great opportunity for a reactive answer that may not be the whole truth. So imagine how awkward and embarrassing it must have been to ask people how often they had sex with their hot partners? Ah, the wonderful reliability of self-report measures....

And if that wasn't enough, the researchers then investigated to what extent the attractiveness of a woman had on the number of times they had sex and the occurrence of mate-retention behaviours! Really! I mean, wouldn't you wanna get down to it all the time if you had a hottie for a lover? This isn't really surprising stuff, but instead has a creepy feel of voyeurism about it which reminds me of a study I read as an undergrad about how the concept of "personal space" was investigated by researching men's urine flow in public toilets. But that's a story for another day...

Now here's the result of it all:

"The results indicated that female attractiveness: (1) predicts IPC frequency and (2) partially mediates the relationship between IPC frequency and male mate retention behaviors."

See what I mean? The Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious has surely had their hand in this! The results say that the 'hotness' of a female is a good determinant of how many times you'll have sex with her (no, really?!) and is also a factor in how far you'd go to keep her and fend off other mens' advances. I'm not going to delve into the complex nature of relationships nor am I suggesting that physical attractiveness is the only major factor in sexual relations. I mean, I understand the ongoing nature of psychological and sociological research and how the bottom-up approach provides a great and solid foundation for future researches, and it certainly helps to have papers to refer to over every little thing, but come on, I don't think that this paper really deserved all the fanfare it was given by the BPS Digest and how "eye-catching" it was. I am rarely moved to write something almost immediately after reading, but just the abstract alone was enough for me to raise my eyebrows and skip to the next item in my inbox.

But I think that, for those days when I'm in a lighter mood and full of the benevolent desire to spread mirth and joy everywhere, I can allow myself some light entertainment and blog on ridiculous papers like this one. Heck knows, I've seen enough of them as a researcher so it might be fun to poke fun at them as a blogger. I think this might be the beginning of a new series: From the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. Catchy eh? :-)

Oh, and one last thing:

"The discussion addresses the mediated relationship, notes limitations of the research, and highlights directions for future research."

This line alone actually made me laugh out loud as well as make me want to download the paper and give it a fuller read. Heck, I might do that when I have a bit more time on my hands. "Directions for future research" indeed, that phrase kills me. :-)

F KAIGHOBADI, T SHACKELFORD (2008). Female attractiveness mediates the relationship between in-pair copulation frequency and men’s mate retention behaviors Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (4), 293-295 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.04.013

August 28, 2008

Thoughts on Thatcher's Dementia Mo wrote a post over at Neurophilosophy regarding a report Baroness Thatcher's declining mental health. Here's the comment I made there while responding to a previous commenter's remark:

"Polomint38's comment is especially poignant in light of a new article on ScienceDaily today: Even Without Dementia, Mental Skills Decline Years Before Death.

"It isn't very surprising that senior citizens generally experience decline anyway, it is interesting how this new longitudinal study shows how some skills can decline upto 15 years before death.

"Without being cruel to Thatcher, one can only wonder how much of an effect her mental decline could have had on her political savvy, and indeed for all politicians of a certain age. And by contrast, this makes the new breed of "younger" politicians look more impressive. Think Tony Blair (elected PM at age 43) and David Miliband (age 43). It is easy to think that younger politicians may be criticised for insufficient or lack of political experience, but at least we can surmise that they are reasonably sharp enough (cognitively speaking) to handle the pressures and the issues."

Thorvaldsson, V., Hofer, S.M., Berg, S., Skoog, I., Sacuiu, S., Johansson, B. (2008). Onset of terminal decline in cognitive abilities in individuals without dementia. Neurology DOI: 10.1212/

August 23, 2008

Quotes of Whoa #5: Evolution of Mind

"[I]f history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure."
-- Edward O. Wilson, 'Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge' (1998), p. 262.

August 22, 2008

How Representative are Volunteers?

ResearchBlogging.orgAs if by magic, another item at the BPS Research Digest which is also relevant to my recent forays discusses the question of whether participants in psychology studies are "representative" of the total sample under review. It seems like the majority of those who take part in psychology studies are generally more "stable and outgoing", which begs questions about whether said studies are reliable in their testing of depression measures, for example.

To give some background, the popular five-factor model measures personalities in terms of five separate factors (known as the "Big 5" model): Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Psychoticism. A depressed person, for instance, might have a higher Neuroticism (or even Psychoticism!) measurement than most people and a lower Extraversion rating. On the opposite end, an outgoing and popular person is likely to have high ratings for Extraversion, Agreeableness, perhaps even Conscientiousness. It is easy to see how personalities can be generally rated and measured according to these five factors.

[And for those who think there is much more to personality than these five categories, yes, you would be right, but statistical factor analysis has shown that most personality quirks come under one of the five umbrella factors of the Five-Factor model. Other personality models exist, of course, such as the 16PF Model.]

A study by Lonnqvist et al. (2007) mailed 61 military officers a survey on values (out of the 158 who were originally approached) who had completed personality assessments three years previously as per army recruitment procedures. The results showed that the respondents evidenced lower measures of Neuroticism and higher measures of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Extraversion. That's just about what you might expect from a military officer, don't you think? Although I'm only going by the BPS Review, it is reported that measures were established as opposed to those who didn't return the survey. How do they know? Just because 97 officers didn't bother to return the survey doesn't mean that they evidence higher measures of Neuroticism, or even that they have lower measures of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Extraversion!

And what about gender differences? All of these military officers were male, could there have been a difference if females were included in the study? And above all, is it appropriate to make a massive generalisation about all or most psychology participants based on a sample of 61 military officers? Don't participants come from different strata of society and from all walks of life? I did a post-hoc power analysis to check the sample size and even though this study seems more than sufficiently powered (.99!), the way that simple criticisms like mine above don't seem to have been properly addressed doesn't exactly scream of reliability to me.

It would make sense, however, if this was some sort of pilot study and a larger and more inclusive study is in the works, but no mention of such has been made.

In any case, a second study (by the same researchers) also used a survey approach: siblings from 15 families assessed the personalities of their brothers or sisters and also asked to volunteer for further tests and interviews. The subsequent sibling ratings showed that 55 participants who volunteered for further testing scored higher for Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness than the 29 who declined the option of further testing. This is consistent with the study of military officers, and leads to the general finding by Lonnqvist et al. that volunteers for pyschological studies "are ... better adjusted than nonvolunteers. More specifically, those who are willing to volunteer as research participants tend to be lower in Neuroticism and higher in Conscientiousness than are those who are reluctant to volunteer."

Despite the simple criticisms, the study is reliable enough to be considered carefully since it has implications for psychological research. It means that there is a reasonable-to-good chance that participants who choose to volunteer for studies, who have low Neuroticism levels, are more likely to exhibit positive responses to drug treatments for depression or other things like panic disorders. But more importantly, the results of personality questionnaires are likely to be skewed because of the likely preponderance of volunteers who are not really representative of the full range of Five Factors. This is certainly an issue to take into consideration.

So how to go about trying to find a representative sample? Lonnqvist et al. suggest "acquiring samples comprised of people who are required to serve as experimental participants (e.g. as part of their jobs or academic programs)." This is fair enough; in many universities it is a requirement for 1st-year undergrads to take part in studies of 3rd-year students to acquire course credits. This can be a good thing, but my experience is that such students usually do these things in a rush and are focused more on obtaining the course credits than conscientiously (pun intended) participating in the study. Also, undergraduate students aren't always the sample of choice for most studies.

Another recommendation is that the research should be presented in an "attractive" way in order to attract a wide range of people to take part. This would be a reasonable proposal since the mere increase in sample size may simply mean an increase in volunteers, yet efforts to test a wider range of people would be more likely to yield representative results. This isn't a very solid proposal though, in my opinion. A final recommendation was to "attempt to evaluate the representativeness of the volunteer sample against the relevant population on the variables of interest." Huh? Comparing the sample to the population, basically? Isn't the point of all psychological studies to extrapolate the findings to the general population? So in other words, there really isn't anything (much) you can do to make your sample more representative. Just try and present your study in a more "attractive" way, whatever that means.

I have a tip: Just be nice to people. Talk to them and inform them that you're doing a psychology study, and ask them politely if they'd like to help you by taking part. If you've caught them at a good time, chances are they'll agree to participate. And this isn't necessarily an indication of volunteering. Some participants may find it something of a cathartic experience to complete the BDI-II questionnaire, for example. At least, those I've tested anyway.


Lönnqvist, J., Paunonen, S., Verkasalo, M., Leikas, S., Tuulio-Henriksson, A., Lönnqvist, J. (2007). Personality characteristics of research volunteers. European Journal of Personality, 21(8), 1017-1030. DOI: 10.1002/per.655

August 21, 2008

How Clinical is Non-Clinical?

So far in my budding career I've been involved in three psychology studies, all of which required the recruitment of non-clinical participants. Even before that, my psych undergraduate final-year project on schizophrenia was carried out by surveying non-clinical participants. For the benefit of lay readers, non-clinical participants refers to "normal" people who are recruited to take part in the study and are different to results gleaned from sufferers of psychosis, anxiety or other conditions which happen to be under the experimental purview, and who are generally termed as "clinical participants". The usual trend in studies like these are to compare the results of "normal" versus "abnormal" people to an experimental condition, in order to compare any differences between the two groups and statistically interpret them to arrive at conclusions. Non-clinicals popularly consist of family, friends, even complete strangers (those willing to take part in your study anyway!). Another popular recruitment strategy is through local (or even national) newspapers, community notices, bulletin boards, and so on.

Given this background, a recent item in the British Psychological Society Research Digest caught my eye, an item to do with the assumption of mental health among non-clinical participants. You see, if you want to compare the results between "normal" and "abnormal" people, you had better make sure that the two groups are representative! In other words it would be fair to presume that the "normals" are of sound mental health, but a recent experimental study by Thurston et al. (2008) suggests that quite a substantial number of them have their own psychiatric problems, some of whom were receiving therapy. This would mean that non-clinical participants are perhaps not that representative after all!

The gist of the study is something like this: 224 families were assessed after being recruited through newspaper advertisements mainly in South-Eastern USA, and found that 11% of the teenagers, 20% of the mothers, and 13% of the fathers met the diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders. On therapy concerns, the chips fell so that 12% of the teenagers, 20% of the mothers and 11% of the fathers were receiving it.

What this all means is that the validity of studies comes under question. When studies are carried out in comparing performances or responses of clinical and non-clinical participants, how valid can they be when there is a reasonable chance that the non-clinical participants have mental health issues? It certainly casts a new light on things. I wouldn't go as far to call every such study into question, but it perhaps gives cause to re-evaluate studies that reported a finding of some controversy. However, Thurston's team suggested that differences identified in previous studies between clinical and non-clinical groups may have been down to a factor other than the clinical status of the two. Variances may be good for something after all as any psych statistician could verify.

In terms of recommendations, Thurston's team suggest that screening of participants should take place. Hmmmm, I think this might be a tad too much on the time-consuming side. Taking the time and costs involved in running a typical study into account, is it feasible to screen participants with procedures apart from the usual demographic details that ascertain suitability for the study in the first place? And what exactly would screening involve? Administration of the BAI and/or BDI-II scales, with the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale thrown in for good measure? Again, it does seem a lot of time and effort to spend. One of the studies I'm associated with at the moment involves the administration of these measures and more, but only because various measures of mood are essential to the study. How ironic this all is, when clinical participants are relatively easy to acquire and it looks like considerable energy is to be expended in ensuring that non-clinicals are the right kind of non-clinicals!

Indeed, Thurston et al. say they have no "perfect answer" as to whether objectionable non-clinicals ought to be removed from studies, but that it is the responsibility of the researcher to weigh the costs and benefits of any exclusionary criteria for a particular study. Hmph, that sounds about right.

Idia B. Thurston, Jessica Curley, Sherecce Fields, Dimitra Kamboukos, Ariz Rojas, Vicky Phares (2008). How nonclinical are community samples? Journal of Community Psychology, 36 (4), 411-420 DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20223

August 19, 2008

Quotes of Whoa #4: Genetic Destiny?

"Once we realise that the basic wiring plan of the brain is under genetic influence, it's easy to see how not only animals but also people can have very similar brains and yet be so different, right from the start of their lives. Genetic forces, operating on the synaptic arrangement of the brain, constrain, at least to some extent, the way we act, think, and feel ... Still, it's important to recognise that genes only shape the broad outline of mental and behavioural functions, accounting for at most 50 percent of a given trait, and in many instances for far less. Inheritance may bias us in certain directions, but many other factors dictate how one's genes are expressed.

"For example, if a woman consumes excessive alcohol during pregnancy, or a child has a diet deficient in certain nutrients, a brain genetically destined for brilliance can instead turn out to be cognitively impaired. Likewise, a family history of extraversion can be squelched in an orphanage run with an iron fist, just as a natural tendency to be shy and withdrawn can be compensated for to some degree by the supportive encouragement of parents. Even if it becomes possible to clone a child who has died at a tender age, it's probable that the look-alike, having his own set of experiences, is going to act, think, and feel differently ... Genes are important, but not all-important."

-- Joseph LeDoux, 'Synaptic Self' (2002), p. 4-5.

Quotes of Whoa #3: The Synaptic Self

"My notion of personality is pretty simple: it's that your 'self,' the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain. Connections between neurons, known as synapses, are the main channels of information flow and storage in the brain. Most of what the brain does is accomplished by synaptic transmission between neurons, and by calling upon the information encoded by past transmission across synapses.

"Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function, it should be practically a truism to say that the self is synaptic. What else could it be? Not everyone, however, will be happy with this conclusion. Many will surely counter that the self is psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, or spiritual, rather than neural, in nature ... even a partial understanding of the synaptic basis of who we are is, for me, an acceptable goal. For seeking knowledge about the brain is not only a valid scientific pursuit; it can also improve the quality of life, as when it uncovers new ways of treating neurological or psychiatric disorders."

-- Joseph LeDoux, 'Synaptic Self' (2002), p. 2-3.

August 18, 2008

Quotes of Whoa #2

"Just how do genes affect individual behaviour? In the simplest terms, they do so by making proteins that shape the way neurons get wired together."

-- Joseph LeDoux, 'Synaptic Self' (2002), p. 4.

August 7, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

I've always been relatively vague on the topic of evolution after never getting around to studying it properly, and the minor forays I made to read some evolution websites turned up far too many 'debate' sites for me to discern between the facts of evolution from the controversies. Although I could guess at the rationale behind ideas such as natural selection, it was too fuzzy and vague for me to understand properly.

So it was a certain amount of delight that I watched Channel 4's 'The Genius of Charles Darwin', a 3-parter to commemorate nearly 150 years of Darwin's famous work 'On The Origin of Species'. Needless to say, this series of documentaries would provide a clear account of evolution and also some fair discussion of controversy. And to top it all off, it was presented by none other than Richard Dawkins, one of the astoundingly clear science writers of our time, to say the least!

Dawkins is often criticised for his strident pro-atheism tone - and when you get past this to view his credentials as an evolutionary biologist, you find that he is unfairly criticised as a "PR man for evolution" as was said recently by Tom Wolfe. I disagree, because more people pay attention to Dawkins' atheist critique than they do to his science tomes and it isn't difficult to see that he is actually in a position to know what he's talking about. I think there is an undercurrent of envy where Dawkins is concerned as it's quite a feat to have your first book still in print 32 years after it was first published and still as popular as ever, selling over a million copies and being translated into 25 languages. What to speak of the fact that it was required reading for me as a psychology undergraduate. So no, after having read his works (and criticised some of them too) I do have an enduring respect for Dawkins as a voice of authority in his field.

The first programme was more or less a biography of Darwin and described his travels to the Galapagos Islands whereby he embarked on a scientific voyage of discovery in terms of his evolutionary findings. It was a delight to follow his incredulity as discovering two slightly different types of rhea and wondering why, according to the paradigm of his day, God had created these types and indeed why different variations are found among all types of species. It became clear that as Darwin found more and more examples of variation amongst species, they counted as evidence piling up to discount the Biblical account of creation. And furthermore, these variations become specialised (natural selection) due to the influence of the environment. Eventually with slow progress (over millions of years), these variations may become so specialised that the entity can be considered an entirely different species. Conversely, species who do not develop crucial survival skills are driven extinct by natural processes. Dawkins gave a fascinating example during his narrative that was graphically illustrated with footage: Imagine a world where predators, over several generations, improve and enhance their hunting capabilities by means of sharper teeth, faster legs and general all-round improvement in order to catch their prey, yet also the prey develops with faster legs in order to run away from said predator! Dawkins described it as an escalation, even as a type of "arms race". Fascinating.

But what was even more fascinating than that is when he avoided the 'simian ---> man' paradigm that religionists have a major problem with by discussing how man is involved in a similar arms race with viruses, observing how the majority of the current European population are the descendants of those who fortunately survived medieval plagues which gives support to the natural selection idea. While there are an abundance of lethal and potentially lethal viruses around, one of the biggest ones today is HIV/AIDS. Dawkins broached the topic of reports of human resistance to the HIV-virus, even visiting a Kenyan sex worker to briefly interview her about her supposed resistance. The implications of this are astounding and were outlined clearly: As some individuals have an in-built resistance to HIV locked away in their genotypes they will survive and pass their genes to the next generation to bring about 'stronger' and HIV-resistant humans, whereas unfortunate individuals who contract HIV that develops into AIDS will be driven extinct by such natural processes. Natural selection is a cruel mechanism indeed.

OK, I'm aware that I'm discussing all of this in very brief terms but, what else can be done? This all goes to show how biological evolution is the driving mechanism of life. More exciting issues are certain to be raised in the next two parts of this series. A small example of this was given in the form of a brief interview with Craig Venter, one of those who mapped the human genome. This stupendous piece of scientific achievement is enough evidence to prove that evolution is a fact, as it shows a significantly large amount of genes is shared by all forms of life.

Almost predictably, opposition to evolution was represented by 15-year-old children in a school science class that Dawkins attended to lecture. I felt it was an attempt at poignancy in the sense of educating the next generation. But it was definitely embarrassing trying to watch a bunch of 15-year-olds tangle with an Oxford professor. Their scepticism and criticisms of evolution were horribly ignorant, weak with foundations in religious beliefs and upbringing, and were terrible and cringeworthy to watch. But rather than spend too much time directly discrediting these beliefs Dawkins chose to make the topic of atheism an implied conclusion of evolution and also of the programme as a 'sub plot', with various types of digs made throughout the programme. I think that the programme was spoilt by this as it wasn't terribly necessary to discuss or even critique the idea of creation as "God's handiwork" except just to mention how Darwin himself realised this, which was already done earlier in the programme. It seems symptomatic of Dawkins that every time he gets a chance to take the floor he takes the opportunity to have a jab at religion and this gets tiring after a while. It wouldn't matter so much in a documentary that specifically discusses religion and religious issues (like his own 'Root of All Evil' series) but I would have thought that a science documentary would have focused almost entirely on the mechanics of evolution. Either way, the anti-religion jabs weren't too bad and were only indulged in to show the schoolkids how wrong they were by taking them to a beach and inviting them to find their own mini-fossils and unusual rock formations that point to a history of the earth longer than that delineated in old scriptures. Although this little outing succeeded in making the kids think a bit more deeply about their beliefs, none of them gave them up on television. As Dawkins put it, spending a few hours with these kids is no competition for a lifetime of religious indoctrination.

All in all, a good programme and a breath of fresh air. Plenty of whoa to keep me interested. I'll be looking forward to the next installments.