A&O – BIASES – congenital and acquired





A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

William James[1]


BIAS is so pervasive and manifests at some many levels of organization that it is infuriating to try and tease out the strands of congenital and acquired determinants.  At every level, from cells to societies, one’s development, ecology, evolution, and physiology alter its relative influence on its causes and consequences of behavior in any given situation.   Bias meets an important need but like all servants of the self it is subject to the principles of “nothing in excess” with respect to individual behavior and “natural selection” in the long run.


BIAS in Science

·        Why do we study “The weirdest people in the world?”  Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) appeal for researchers to be “less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from [a] particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity” they characterized as “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)…” Herich et al (2010)[2]

  • When I’m Sixty-Four (Psychological Science 2011)
  • Unrepeatable experiments reported in Science)  Brian Nosek & team
  • The Unscientific Method (Sonia van Gilder Cooke in NS 16 April 2016 39-41) 


SALIENCE:  in the light of congenital disposition, past and concurrent experience, a stimulus is judged to be more or less relevant … deserving of specific behavioral responses.

ARBITERS of RELEVANCE.   Our perceptions of the relevance of stimuli can be easily distorted — particularly when we find our “stone-age brain” dealing with modern stimuli and situations. 


AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE on impediments to accurate perception is exemplified by RISK ASSESSMENT.  As our “stone age brains” deal with modern problems, the most ancient and conservative arbiters of relevance prevail.  “Recent neurological research suggests that we are innately wired to avoid dangers by calculating odds based on factors that you’d expect as well as others that may surprise you.”  In fact, risks are more compelling if their outcomes are gruesome, if we have little or no control over our vulnerability, and if they are relatively novel.  We may feel our lives more at risk from SARS than flu, even though flu is the greater danger, and HIV not as threatening as excessive UV light exposure.  

“If I made charbroiled beef even a weekly part of my diet, it would raise my lifetime cancer risk by an additional 1 in 50,000–five times my annual risk of dying in a plane crash.” 


“Our prehistoric ancestors faced many lethal hazards. Sanitary conditions in the wild weren’t great, so people were in constant danger of becoming ill from tainted foods. Worse, while foraging for snacks, they could easily become something else’s dinner. On balance, however, our forebears must have evolved good ways of assessing risk, or I wouldn’t be writing this—and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Recent neurological research suggests that we are innately wired to avoid dangers by calculating odds based on factors that you’d expect as well as others that may surprise you.”  (From Neuroquest Sept 2003: http://discovermagazine.com/2003/sep/neuroquest/?searchterm=risk)

PROPAGANDA (information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.)[3]


PREJUDICE (a specific quality of positive or negative bias in which evaluation of another person is based on beliefs about them based on their presumed membership in and general assumptions about a group of which they may be a member, such as gender and sexuality, religion and beliefs, , social class, age, physical appearance and beauty, disability, race/ethnicity,  nationality and language,  occupation,  education,  criminality, sport team affiliation. (Wikipedia)  



  • Human infants manifest bias in preferences for skin color …


  • Inattentional blindness
  • Search image involves strong bias for recently successful action that persists until possibilities are exhausted even when alternatives are available – is this a kind of  “sustained inattentional blindness” ?   There appear to be separate cerebral sites for attention modulation and the creation of that modulation …. for sensory attention (rt hemisphere) and motor attention (left hemisphere) (John G. Taylor 2003) [4]



  • Cognitive processing shifts toward more adaptive patterns in the presence of specific hormones:
    • Sex peptides and steroids to identify (selective attention) take advantage of reproductive opportunities;  ovulation and perceived masculinity research
    • Stress peptides and steroids to identify and respond appropriately to threats and opportunities for gratification.[5]  
  • Stress biases organisms towards more familiar models: “with atrophy of medial prefrontal cortex and the associative striatum and hypertrophy of the sensorimotor striatum (Dias-Ferreira et al. 2009)[6]
  • Pareidolia & stress … conservative (“safe”) bias increased under stress





Most bias is nonconscious … that’s what makes it particularly valuable or costly, depending on circumstances.

  • The “Implicit Association Test” developed by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Benaji – it is a list of words to be responded to by making a check mark if it is “animal or good” OR “plant or bad” … then another list of words with the associations “plant or good” or “animal or bad”  — this is powerful in revealing prejudices you may have been unaware of.  (Discover Oct 2003 p.88)


  • For example, the flow … the passage of time … seems fundamental to human perception … BUT “nothing in known physics corresponds to thye passage of time. Indeed, physicistys insist that time doesn’t flow at all; it merely is.” (Paul Davies. 2002. “That Mysterious Flow.” Sci Amer. Sept 2002:40-47.


How social perception can automatically influence behavior:     Abstract:  “Do we always know the reasons for our actions? Or is our behavior sometimes unknowingly and unintentionally influenced by what we have recently perceived? It has been traditionally assumed that the automatic influence of knowledge in memory is limited to people’s interpretation of the world, and stops short of shaping their actual behavior. Researchers in experimental social psychology have begun to challenge this assumption by documenting how people’s behaviors can be unknowingly influenced by knowledge that is incidentally activated in memory during social perception. We review findings that suggest that the social knowledge that is incidentally activated while reading words or imagining events subsequently affects participants’ behaviors across a range of ostensibly unrelated domains.” —  How social perception can automatically influence behavior”  by  Melissa J. Ferguson and John A. Bargh (2004)   TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.8 No.1 January 2004    http://tics.trends.com 1364-6613/$ – see front matter q 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2003.11.004


COMMUNITY & POLITICS … victorious home teams give incumbent poliuticians a bump …  Neil Malhotra (Jul 6 b200 ProcNAS)



Analogous to the physiological sensory processes, interpolation (biased by surround) and extrapolation (biased by preceding) .  A special case may be anthropomorphism (and a myriad other morphisms) seeing the unfamiliar in the light of the familiar.  

Culture is known to distort visual perception. For example, Asian people tend to dart their eyes around a photo, while those in North America fix on specific details (NS 2005)[7].


Robert Boyd and Peter J.Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, Oxford University Press, 2005, 464pp, $35.00 (pbk), ISBN 019518145X // from the review by Edouard Machery, University of Pittsburgh

“For the most part, culture consists in the beliefs, values, norms, desires, techniques, and so on, that people acquire by social learning. Cultural transmission is not always faithful: Cultural items may be modified, for instance because of transmission inaccuracies or individual innovation. Moreover, not all cultural variants are equal: Boyd and Richerson emphasize various biases that favor the transmission of some cultural variants over others, particularly conformism, compliance to social norms, and imitation of prestigious individuals. Culture is thus a system of inheritance with modification, in which various forces (conformism, etc.) determine which cultural items are preferentially transmitted in a population. In other words, culture evolves.”

“… According to them, culture is an adaptation, like other forms of social learning in non-human animal species: It enables humans to acquire adaptive behavior in variable environments. But while the scope of social learning is rather restricted in other species, culture pervades human behavior as well as the human mind (Nisbett et al. 2001). Culture differs also from non-human social learning in that it is cumulative: Only humans acquire socially some beliefs, values, and so on, that they could not acquire by themselves.”

“… culture created some social environments, in which specific adaptations were selected for by natural selection. This notion of gene-culture co-evolution may be the most important aspect of their work.”


“… our two authors are to some extent out of touch with the most successful works in recent cognitive and developmental psychology (Carey, Spelke, Haidt, to cite a few psychologists). Moreover, their models lean heavily on the study of social learning made in the seventies. The psychological study of social learning should be certainly pushed forward. To be fair, social psychologists themselves have often neglected social learning in the eighties and nineties. Noticeably, some psychologists and experimentally-minded anthropologists, including Richerson and colleagues, have recently brought the experimental method to bear on the study of cultural transmission (Kameda & Nakanishi 2002; Baum et al. 2004).

Critiques of B&R:

• Cultural transmission is affected by various biases. Boyd and Richerson emphasize particularly conformism, norm obedience, and the imitation of prestigious individuals, which are known as “context biases.” Others like Sperber (1996) have emphasized the importance of our cognitive systems (called “attractors”) in cultural evolution: Some cultural variants spread because they fit our cognitive systems. For instance, meat taboos spread because meat is an evolved trigger of our disgust reaction (Fessler and Navarrete 2003). Although Boyd and Richerson do not deny the importance of attractors, they pay little attention to them. The relative importance of both types of biases in different domains is an important empirical issue (see Henrich and Boyd 2002).


Boyd, R., and Richerson, P. J. 1985. Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Downes, S. 1992. The importance of models in theorizing: A deflationary semantic

view. In D. Hull, M. Forbes and K. Okruhlik (Eds.), PSA 1992, Vol. 1. East

Lansing: Philosophy of Science Association.

Fessler, D. M. T., and Navarrete, C. D. 2003. Meat is good to taboo: Dietary proscriptions as a product of the interaction of psychological mechanisms and processes. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3(1), 1-40.

Henrich, J. 2004. Demography and cultural evolution: Why adaptive cultural processes produced maladaptive losses in Tasmania. American Antiquity, 69(2), 197-211.

Henrich, J., and Boyd, R. 2002. On modeling cognition and culture: Why replicators are not necessary for cultural evolution. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2(2), 87-112.

Kameda, T., and Nakanishi, D. 2002. Cost-benefit analysis of social/cultural learning in a non-stationary uncertain environment: An evolutionary simulation and an experiment with human subjects. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 373-393.

Machery, E., and Faucher, L. Forthcoming. Social construction and the concept of race. Philosophy of Science.

McElreath, R. 2004. Social learning and the maintenance of cultural variation: An evolutionary model and data from East Africa. American Anthropologist, 106(2),308-321.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., and Norenzayan, A. 2001. Culture and systems of thought: Holistic vs. analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291-310.

Baum, W. M., Richerson, P. J., Efferson, C. M., and Paciotti, B. M. 2004. Cultural evolution in laboratory microsocieties including tradition of rule giving and rule following. Evolution and Human behavior, 25, 305-326.

Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. 2004. Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.




“In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, [Lera Boroditsky] is amassing evidence that … language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that ‘the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,’ not only when they are thinking in order to speak, ‘but in all manner of cognitive tasks,’ including basic sensory perception. ‘Even a small fluke of grammar’—the gender of nouns—‘can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,’ she says.”  (Newsweek 2009)[8]

MUSIC: hearing what you expect:  http://www.education.com/science-fair/article/hear-what-they-want-to-hear/



In an experiment in the Netherlands,  Neocalvinists were faster in identifying subcomponents of a picture than Calvinists.  The researcher suggests the neocalvanist doctrine of separating church, state, and education might be a factor (NS 2005)[9]



“chronic stress biases decision-making strategies, affecting the ability of stressed animals to perform actions on the basis of their consequences.”[10]


COHERENCE.  BIAS toward finding order (recalls pareidolia or apophenia):   The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.  And though there be many things in nature which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist (Francis Bacon, Novum Organum I, xlv; this is one of the “idols of the tribe,” which have their origin in human nature) (Compare Karl Popper: “Our propensity to look out for regularities, and to impose laws upon nature, leads to the psychological phenomenon of dogmatic thinking or, more generally, dogmatic behavior: we expect regularities everywhere and attempt to find them even where there are none; . . .” (Conjectures and Refutations, 1963:49).


Icy stares and dirty minds: Hitch-hiking emotions

  • 15 September 2009 by Jim Giles Magazine issue 2725.
  • WILL these hands ne’er be clean?” asks Lady Macbeth, as she obsessively tries to wash away the guilt she feels for her role in the murder of King Duncan. Her feelings of self-disgust, we are led to believe, have manifested themselves as a sensation of physical dirtiness.
  • It is not only in the language of playwrights such as Shakespeare that complex emotions like guilt, grief or loneliness are compared to physical sensations. These metaphors crop up in everyday phrases, too, in many languages. In English, for example, we talk of being “left out in the cold” when we feel socially excluded, a sentiment echoed in the Japanese saying “one kind word can warm three winter months”.
  • At face value, these connections seem purely symbolic. In real life, loneliness doesn’t really send us shivering, and guilt doesn’t really make us feel dirty. Or do they? Recent research has found that these physical sensations can often accompany our emotions. It works the other way too – by provoking a feeling of disgust, a scene from the film Trainspotting shaped the way subjects in an experiment made moral judgements.
  • Many now believe that this reflects the way complex emotions arose in our evolutionary past. As our brain evolved to process more and more complex emotions, the theory goes, there was no need for new neural machinery: our emotions simply piggybacked onto the circuits that handle basic sensory perceptions. Here are some of the most striking experiments linking physical sensations with emotions and behaviour.
  • Cold shoulders and warm receptions
  • DURING the autumn of 2006, a series of volunteers arrived at Yale University’s psychology building. Each was greeted in the lobby by a researcher, who accompanied them up to the fourth floor. In the elevator, the researcher casually asked the volunteer to hold the drink she was carrying while she noted down their name. The subjects did not know it, but the experiment began the moment they took the cup.
  • Once in the lab, the 40 or so volunteers read a description of a fictitious person and then answered questions about the character. Those who had held an iced coffee, rather than a hot one, rated the imaginary figure as less warm and friendly, even though each volunteer had read the same description. Answers to other questions about the figure, such as whether the character appeared honest, were unaffected by the type of drink (Science, vol 322, p 606).
  • The experiment, run by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado at Boulder and John Bargh of Yale, is not the only study to link physical and psychological warmth. Just thinking about being socially excluded, for example, can make the room feel around 3 °C cooler (Psychological Science, vol 19, p 838). This may explain some aspects of how we socialise. For example, it is more common to offer a hot drink rather than a cold one when we welcome someone into our home. “Certain behaviours people engage in during interpersonal relationships reflect an understanding of the link between physical and psychological warmth,” says Williams.
  • The insular cortex, which lies deep within one of the folds that line the surface of the brain, is probably at the root of these results. Brain imaging shows that this area is active when people are experiencing both physical and psychological warmth. The connection is probably present at birth and strengthened during early life, when babies learn to associate the physical warmth of their parents with nourishment and protection, says Williams.
  • Cleanliness and godliness
  • “TRULY Allah loveth those who turn unto Him, and loveth those who have a care for cleanness,” says the Koran. Islam is not alone in linking hygiene to moral purity. Christians cleanse the body and soul through baptism, and cleanliness is likewise important to Hindus.
  • This connection, which is entrenched in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, can have a profound and unexpected influence on our behaviour. In one recent study, Simone Schnall at the University of Plymouth, UK, and colleagues showed half their volunteers a neutral film and the other half the toilet scene from the film Trainspotting. (The uninitiated need only use their imagination here: the clip features what is described as the “worst toilet in Scotland”.) Those who viewed the Trainspotting clip subsequently made more severe judgements about unethical acts such as cannibalism than volunteers who had viewed the neutral scene. Exposing subjects to a fart smell and placing them in a filthy room had a similar effect (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096).
  • And as Lady Macbeth’s obsessive hand-washing suggests, a feeling of guilt can leave us reaching for a bar of soap. Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto in Canada and Katie Liljenquist, now at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, asked volunteers to read a first-person account of either an ethical act or an act of sabotage. They then had to rate the desirability of various household objects, including soap, toothpaste, CD cases and chocolate bars. Those who had read the sabotage story showed a greater preference for the cleaning products (Science, vol 313, p 1451) than those who had not.
  • A simplistic conclusion from these experiments would be that a cleaner environment makes us more tolerant of the misdemeanours of others. Yet the act of physical cleansing does not necessarily encourage us to act more morally ourselves, as religious ceremonies might have us believe. In another part of their study, Zhong’s team asked volunteers to recall an unethical deed from their past. Under the guise of a health and safety precaution, he then gave half the subjects antiseptic wipes to clean their hands. The participants were then asked if they would take part in another experiment, this time to help out a desperate graduate student. Only 40 per cent of the subjects who had cleaned their hands volunteered, compared with almost three-quarters of those who hadn’t.
  • Other experiments have shown that feelings of moral disgust can spur people to help others. By allowing people to wash away these feelings, say Zhong and Liljenquist, we may be giving licence to ungenerous behaviour.
  • The sting of rejection
  • CAST your mind back to your schooldays. Do you remember how it hurt when you were left out of a game? Or how you felt when you weren’t invited to a party? The pain of exclusion may seem tangible, but can it ever resemble the sensation of a physical wound?
  • To probe the neural link between physical and emotional pain, Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues asked volunteers to play a virtual ball game. Each volunteer believed that their teammates were in other labs, but in fact these “people” were generated by the software, which was also programmed to gradually exclude the human player. All the while an fMRI scanner recorded the subject’s neural activity.
  • The scans revealed that the feelings of social exclusion increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), an area of the brain also involved in the feelings of distress that accompany physical pain. The dACC also lit up when people thought about the death of a loved one (Science, vol 323, p 890).
  • This might explain why some people in deep emotional pain turn to drugs like alcohol or heroin, which numb physical pain. Yet according to an unpublished study by Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, less potent drugs could also do the trick, without side effects.
  • DeWall asked around 60 college students to take either paracetamol (acetaminophen) or a placebo in the morning and evening for three weeks. The students also answered daily questions about their emotional state. DeWall found that those who took the painkiller reported fewer hurt feelings.
  • In another experiment, DeWall gave paracetamol or a placebo to volunteers playing the virtual ball game. The result was as expected: the painkiller reduced activity in the dACC that was associated with the emotionally painful feelings of exclusion. He now wants to test the drug on people with clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. “Anxious people are constantly concerned about negative evaluation,” he says. “Perhaps Tylenol [paracetamol] can help them.” It remains a long shot, and not something to be recommended right now, but if the results pan out it will be an interesting avenue to explore for the future.
  • Jim Giles is a writer based in San Francisco


PHYSICAL FEELINGS accompany EMOTION and the connection seems more than merely metaphorical.

  • hot or cold drink before being asked questions about the nature of a person: shows influence.
  • tendency offer people warm beverege as hospitality reflect connection between pysychologoical and physical warmth? Lawdrence Williams (U Col) & John Bargh (Yale) Psyhol Sci 19:838)
  • INSULAR CTX: brain images show activity when people are experiencing psychological or physical warmth.





  HYPERLINK ” http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20927994.200-without-language-numbers-make-no-sense.html  ”  Without language, numbers make no sense  (News > This Week p13)  The discovery that people need language to understand larger numbers may shed light on the way children acquire their number sense

Hope and hype in the world of statistics

15 February 2011

Magazine issue   HYPERLINK ” http://www.newscientist.com/issue/2799  ”  2799 .   HYPERLINK ” http://www.newscientist.com/subscribe?promcode=nsarttop

For similar stories, visit the   HYPERLINK “http://www.newscientist.com/topic/editorials”  Editorials  Topic Guide

More could be done to give the public a realistic picture of research findings

STATISTICS, the American academic Aaron Levenstein once wrote, are rather like bikinis: what they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

Few people are more charmed by the seductive power of statistics than journalists and politicians. As for everyone else, it might be better to cover your eyes. As our feature on the ills of medical statistics makes clear   HYPERLINK “http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20927991.700-spin-doctors-the-truth-behind-health-scare-headlines.html”  (“Spin doctors: The truth behind health scare headlines”) , see any percentage in a headline and you should start asking questions.

The massaging of complex data into a neat headline figure can distort it to the point where it becomes meaningless. Confusing absolute and relative risk, mixing up correlation and causation, mangling mortality and survival rates: these are the sorts of solecisms that plague statistics in the sensitive area of human health and well-being.

It is tempting to lay the blame solely at the feet of ignorant politicians or an irresponsible media. They do indeed play a significant role, often perpetuating mistakes, muddles and misunderstandings.

But journalists and policymakers can only work with what they are given. Scientists need to bear in mind how their statistics can be abused – or perhaps unintentionally read the wrong way.

Take the Fox News report in August 2008 that throat cancer among white men in the US had risen 400 per cent over 30 years. Solid science or sensationalist scaremongering? Both, actually.

The 400 per cent figure – 463 per cent, in fact – can be traced to   HYPERLINK “http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/100/16/1184.abstract” \t “nsarticle”  an academic paper reporting an increase in the incidence of adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus from 1.01 to 5.69 per 100,000 person-years .

On those numbers, to say that you would be better off worrying about being run over by a bus is an exaggeration – although not by much. But the huge, scary percentage is not Fox’s invention. It is there in the study’s abstract, along with the smaller and less frightening absolute figures: mathematically unimpeachable, practically worthless and ripe for misinterpretation.

That is a minor transgression compared with evidence of a deeper-seated problem in medical literature.   HYPERLINK ” http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/repFiles/MedCare/s23.pdf ” \t “nsarticle”  A review in 2007 of 119 systematic therapeutic studies in three high-profile medical journals  revealed that only half reported both the benefits and harms of the therapy, and of those only two-thirds presented them using comparable figures.

No doubt much of this is innocent. But in medical research, where cynicism about the role of vested interests is widespread, such omissions or maladroit presentation can discredit worthy work – and worse still, misinform policymakers and the public.

This is a system with few checks and balances. The interests of researchers in search of funding, scientific journals in search of wider media exposure, and journalists in search of compelling stories often coincide to create a military-industrial complex for the production and propagation of dodgy statistics.

The bias in favour of misrepresentation is something against which all involved, New Scientist included, must be vigilant. But the vigilance must start at the source, cutting off questionable figures before they receive a bad press.

Read more in our web special: ”  HYPERLINK “http://www.newscientist.com/special/spin-doctors”  Spin doctors: The truth behind health scare headlines “


Even AI becomes biased[11]


[2] The weirdest people in the world?  Joseph Henricha1, Steven J. Heinea2 and Ara Norenzayana3 ( Behavioral and Brain Sciences / Volume 33 / Issue 2-3 / June 2010, pp 61- 83.    DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X (About DOI), Published online: 15 June 2010. 

Abstract.  Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

[3] Propaganda is a form of biased communication, aimed at promoting or demoting certain views, perceptions or agendas. Propaganda is often associated with the psychological mechanisms of influencing and altering the attitude of a population toward a specific cause, position or political agenda in an effort to form a consensus to a standard set of belief patterns.” –Wikipedia on Propaganda  

Propaganda is information that is not impartial and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (perhaps lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented.[1]    //  Today the term propaganda is associated with a manipulative and jingoistic approach, but propaganda historically was a neutral descriptive term.[1][2]

[4] Taylor John G.  2003.  Paying attention to consciousness.  Progr Neurobiol 71(2003):305-335.

[5] “…using a nasal spray to administer OT to the central nervous system in humans enhances the perception of emotions, increases accuracy for socially relevant information and the ability to infer the mental and emotional states of others from subtle facial cues, to increase eye gaze to neutral and emotional human faces (Andrews et al., 2002; Domes, Heinrichs, Michel, et al., 2007; Domes et al., 2013; Leknes et al., 2013). OT also enhances allocation of early attention towards the face searching for positive social emotions (Marsh, Yu, Pine, & Blair, 2010), and elicit longer gaze to the eye region of human faces, relative to placebo (Guastella, Carson, Dadds, Mitchell, & Cox, 2009; Guastella et al., 2008). Marsh et al. (2010) suggest that OT’s facilitation of interpersonal trust and prosocial interactions could reflect the fact that it enhances sensitivity to signs of trustworthiness, such as increased ability to interpret subtle signs of positive facial expressions.” –from review in MS thesis by Jarle Alexander Winge at Oslo University, 2014


[6] The ability to shift between different behavioral strategies is necessary for appropriate decision-making. Here, we show that chronic stress biases decision-making strategies, affecting the ability of stressed animals to perform actions on the basis of their consequences. Using two different operant tasks, we revealed that, in making choices, rats subjected to chronic stress became insensitive to changes in outcome value and resistant to changes in action-outcome contingency. Furthermore, chronic stress caused opposing structural changes in the associative and sensorimotor corticostriatal circuits underlying these different behavioral strategies, with atrophy of medial prefrontal cortex and the associative striatum and hypertrophy of the sensorimotor striatum. These data suggest that the relative advantage of circuits coursing through sensorimotor striatum observed after chronic stress leads to a bias in behavioral strategies toward habit.  (Eduardo Dias-Ferreira,  João C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado, Ana R. Mesquita, João J. Cerqueira, Rui M. Costa, Nuno Sousa1. 2009.  Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making.  Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325(5940): 621 – 625.

[7] Westerners and Easterners see the world differently NS 22:00 22 August 2005 by Zeeya Merali

Chinese and American people see the world differently – literally. While Americans focus on the central objects of photographs, Chinese individuals pay more attention to the image as a whole, according to psychologists at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, US. // “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Western and East Asian people have contrasting world-views,” explains Richard Nisbett, who carried out the study. “Americans break things down analytically, focusing on putting objects into categories and working out what rules they should obey,” he says.

By contrast, East Asians have a more holistic philosophy, looking at objects in relation to the whole. “Figuratively, Americans see things in black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey,” says Nisbett. “We wanted to devise an experiment to see if that translated to a literal difference in what they actually see.”

The researchers tracked the eye-movements of two groups of students while they looked at photographs. One group contained American-born graduates of European descent and the other was comprised of Chinese-born graduate students who came to the US after their undergraduate degrees.  // Each picture showed a striking central image placed in a realistic background, such as a tiger in a jungle. They found that the American students spent longer looking at the central object, while the Chinese students’ eyes tended to dart around, taking in the context.

Harmony versus goals.  Nisbett and his colleagues believe that this distinctive pattern has developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures. “Harmony is a central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on how things relate to the whole,” says Nisbett. “In the West, by contrast, life is about achieving goals.” 

Psychologists watching American and Japanese families playing with toys have also noted this difference. “An American mother will say: ‘Look Billy, a truck. It’s shiny and has wheels.’ The focus is on the object,” explains Nisbett. By contrast, Japanese mothers stress context saying things like, “I push the truck to you and you push it to me. When you throw it at the wall, the wall says ‘ouch’.”  //  Nisbett also cites language development in the cultures. “To Westerners it seems obvious that babies learn nouns more easily. But while this is the case in the West, studies show that Korean and Chinese children pick up verbs – which relate objects to each other – more easily.  //  “Nisbett’s work is interesting and suggestive,” says John Findlay, a psychologist specialising in human visual attention at Durham University, UK. “It’s always difficult to put an objective measure on cultural differences, but this group have made a step towards that.”   //  Nisbett hopes that his work will change the way the cultures view each other. “Understanding that there is a real difference in the way people think should form the basis of respect.”  //  Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol 102, p 12629)

[8] Sharon Begley.  What’s in a Word?  Language may shape our thoughts.   Newsweek dated Jul 20, 2009 p.21.

“When the Viaduct de Millau opened in the south of France in 2004, this tallest bridge in the world won worldwide accolades. German newspapers described how it “floated above the clouds” with “elegance and lightness” and “breathtaking” beauty. In France, papers praised the “immense” “concrete giant.” Was it mere coincidence that the Germans saw beauty where the French saw heft and power? Lera Boroditsky thinks not.

A psychologist at Stanford University, she has long been intrigued by an age-old question whose modern form dates to 1956, when linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf asked whether the language we speak shapes the way we think and see the world. If so, then language is not merely a means of expressing thought, but a constraint on it, too. Although philosophers, anthropologists, and others have weighed in, with most concluding that language does not shape thought in any significant way, the field has been notable for a distressing lack of empiricism—as in testable hypotheses and actual data.

That’s where Boroditsky comes in. In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, she is amassing evidence that, yes, language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that “the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically,” not only when they are thinking in order to speak, “but in all manner of cognitive tasks,” including basic sensory perception. “Even a small fluke of grammar”—the gender of nouns—”can have an effect on how people think about things in the world,” she says.

As in that bridge. In German, the noun for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. German speakers saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. Similarly, Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine? Grammatical gender also shapes how we construe abstractions. In 85 percent of artistic depictions of death and victory, for instance, the idea is represented by a man if the noun is masculine and a woman if it is feminine, says Boroditsky. Germans tend to paint death as male, and Russians tend to paint it as female.

Language even shapes what we see. People have a better memory for colors if different shades have distinct names—not English’s light blue and dark blue, for instance, but Russian’s goluboy and sinly. Skeptics of the language-shapes-thought claim have argued that that’s a trivial finding, showing only that people remember what they saw in both a visual form and a verbal one, but not proving that they actually see the hues differently. In an ingenious experiment, however, Boroditsky and colleagues showed volunteers three color swatches and asked them which of the bottom two was the same as the top one. Native Russian speakers were faster than English speakers when the colors had distinct names, suggesting that having a name for something allows you to perceive it more sharply. Similarly, Korean uses one word for “in” when one object is in another snugly (a letter in an envelope), and a different one when an object is in something loosely (an apple in a bowl). Sure enough, Korean adults are better than English speakers at distinguishing tight fit from loose fit.

In Australia, the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre use compass directions for every spatial cue rather than right or left, leading to locutions such as “there is an ant on your southeast leg.” The Kuuk Thaayorre are also much more skillful than English speakers at dead reckoning, even in unfamiliar surroundings or strange buildings. Their language “equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities,” Boroditsky wrote on Edge.org.

Science has only scratched the surface of how language affects thought. In Russian, verb forms indicate whether the action was completed or not—as in “she ate [and finished] the pizza.” In Turkish, verbs indicate whether the action was observed or merely rumored. Boroditsky would love to run an experiment testing whether native Russian speakers are better than others at noticing if an action is completed, and if Turks have a heightened sensitivity to fact versus hearsay. Similarly, while English says “she broke the bowl” even if it smashed accidentally (she dropped something on it, say), Spanish and Japanese describe the same event more like “the bowl broke itself.” “When we show people video of the same event,” says Boroditsky, “English speakers remember who was to blame even in an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers remember it less well than they do intentional actions. It raises questions about whether language affects even something as basic as how we construct our ideas of causality.”  Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor.  © 2009  http://www.newsweek.com/id/205985

[9] How religious people see the world differently // Bernhard Hommel at Leiden University in the Netherlands and colleagues … found that Dutch people following a certain brand of Protestantism are quicker than their atheist compatriots to home in on an image’s details.” Hommel’s team showed 20 atheists and 20 neocalvinists, who follow a version of Calvinism, a series of large triangles or squares filled with smaller triangles or squares. / Both groups were quick to identify the image by its overall shape, but the neocalvinists were on average faster when asked to identify it by its component shapes (PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003679). Hommel says neocalvinists may be less distracted by the large shape because their brains are used to separating out the influences of education, government and church, an idea central to neocalvinism.”  NS  19 November 2008 Magazine issue 2683. P.18

[10] Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making.  Eduardo Dias-Ferreira, João C. Sousa, Irene Melo, Pedro Morgado, Ana R. Mesquita, João J. Cerqueira, Rui M. Costa, Nuno Sousa.  Science 31 July 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 621 – 625 DOI: 10.1126/science.1171203.

“In everyday life, we constantly have to select the appropriate actions to obtain specific outcomes. These actions can be selected on the basis of their consequences (1, 2), e.g., when we press the elevator button to get to the particular floor of our new apartment. This goal-directed behavior is crucial to face the ever-changing environment, but demands an effortful control and monitoring of the response. One way to balance the need for flexibility and efficiency is through automatization of recurring decision processes as a rule or a habit (3). Habitual responses no longer need the evaluation of their consequences and can be elicited by particular situations or stimuli (1, 2), e.g., after living for some time in that apartment, we automatically press the button of our home floor when we enter the elevator. The ability to shift between these two types of strategies is necessary for appropriate decision-making (2), and in some situations,it may be crucial to be able to inhibit a habit and use a goal-directedstrategy, e.g., if we are visiting a new building, we shouldnot press the button for our home floor.

Chronic stress, mainly through the release of corticosteroids, affects executive behavior through sequential structural modulation of brain networks (4, 5). Stress-induced deficits in spatial reference and working memory (6) and behavioral flexibility (7) are associated with synaptic and/or dendritic reorganization in both the hippocampus (8) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) (9). However, the effects of chronic stress on action-selection strategies have not been investigated. Here, we examined whether previous exposure to chronic stress would affect the ability of animals to select the appropriate actions, based on the consequences of their choice. Because associative corticostriatal circuits involving the prelimbic (PL) cortex (10) and the dorsomedial striatum (DMS) (11) have been implicated in the acquisition and execution of goal-directed actions, whereas sensorimotor circuits, namely, the dorsolateral striatum (DLS) (12), arenecessary for habit formation, we examined the effects of chronicstress on these brain areas.

In an attempt to mimic the variability of stressors encountered in daily life, adult rats assigned to the stress group were exposed to a well-established stress paradigm (13) that combines different stressors in an unpredictable manner to avoid the resilient effect of behavioral control over stressors (14).Twenty-one days of stress exposure decreased body-weight gain(fig. S1A), reduced the thymus/body-weight ratio (fig. S1B),and resulted in persistently raised serum corticosterone levels(fig. S1C), when compared with attributes of handled controls.After stress exposure, we tested whether chronic stress affectedthe ability of animals to perform actions, based on the consequencesof their behavior, using two different instrumental tasks.”

[11] Even artificial intelligence can acquire biases against race and gender  By Matthew Hutson  SCIENCE  Apr. 13, 2017 , 2:00 PM

One of the great promises of artificial intelligence (AI) is a world free of petty human biases. Hiring by algorithm would give men and women an equal chance at work, the thinking goes, and predicting criminal behavior with big data would sidestep racial prejudice in policing. But a new study shows that computers can be biased as well, especially when they learn from us. When algorithms glean the meaning of words by gobbling up lots of human-written text, they adopt stereotypes very similar to our own.

“Don’t think that AI is some fairy godmother,” says study co-author Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and Princeton University. “AI is just an extension of our existing culture.”

The work was inspired by a psychological tool called the implicit association test, or IAT. In the IAT, words flash on a computer screen, and the speed at which people react to them indicates subconscious associations. Both black and white Americans, for example, are faster at associating names like “Brad” and “Courtney” with words like “happy” and “sunrise,” and names like “Leroy” and “Latisha” with words like “hatred” and “vomit” than vice versa.

To test for similar bias in the “minds” of machines, Bryson and colleagues developed a word-embedding association test (WEAT). They started with an established set of “word embeddings,” basically a computer’s definition of a word, based on the contexts in which the word usually appears. So “ice” and “steam” have similar embeddings, because both often appear within a few words of “water” and rarely with, say, “fashion.” But to a computer an embedding is represented as a string of numbers, not a definition that humans can intuitively understand. Researchers at Stanford University generated the embeddings used in the current paper by analyzing hundreds of billions of words on the internet.

Instead of measuring human reaction time, the WEAT computes the similarity between those strings of numbers. Using it, Bryson’s team found that the embeddings for names like “Brett” and “Allison” were more similar to those for positive words including love and laughter, and those for names like “Alonzo” and “Shaniqua” were more similar to negative words like “cancer” and “failure.” To the computer, bias was baked into the words.

IATs have also shown that, on average, Americans associate men with work, math, and science, and women with family and the arts. And young people are generally considered more pleasant than old people. All of these associations were found with the WEAT. The program also inferred that flowers were more pleasant than insects and musical instruments were more pleasant than weapons, using the same technique to measure the similarity of their embeddings to those of positive and negative words.

The researchers then developed a word-embedding factual association test, or WEFAT. The test determines how strongly words are associated with other words, and then compares the strength of those associations to facts in the real world. For example, it looked at how closely related the embeddings for words like “hygienist” and “librarian” were to those of words like “female” and “woman.” For each profession, it then compared this computer-generated gender association measure to the actual percentage of women in that occupation. The results were very highly correlated. So embeddings can encode everything from common sentiments about flowers to racial and gender biases and even facts about the labor force, the team reports today in Science.

“It’s kind of cool that these algorithms discovered these,” says Tolga Bolukbasi, a computer scientist at Boston University who concurrently conducted similar work with similar results. “When you’re training these word embeddings, you never actually specify these labels.” What’s not cool is how prejudiced embeddings might be deployed—when sorting résumés or loan applications, say. For example, if a computer searching résumés for computer programmers associates “programmer” with men, mens’ résumés will pop to the top. Bolukbasi’s work focuses on ways to “debias” embeddings—that is, removing unwanted associations from them.

Bryson has another take. Instead of debiasing embeddings, essentially throwing away information, she prefers adding an extra layer of human or computer judgement to decide how or whether to act on such biases. In the case of hiring programmers, you might decide to set gender quotas.

People have long suggested that meaning could plausibly be extracted through word cooccurrences, “but it was a far from a foregone conclusion,” says Anthony Greenwald, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who developed the IAT in 1998 and wrote a commentary on the WEAT paper for this week’s issue of Science. He says he expected that writing—the basis of the WEAT measurements—would better reflect explicit attitudes than implicit biases. But instead, the WEAT embeddings more closely resemble IAT biases than surveys about racial and gender attitudes, suggesting that we may convey prejudice through language in ways we don’t realize. “That was a bit surprising,” he says. He also says the WEAT might be used to test for implicit bias in past eras by testing word embeddings derived from, say, books written in the 1800s.

In the meantime, Byron and her colleagues have also shown that even Google is not immune to bias. The company’s translation software converts gender-neutral pronouns from several languages into “he” when talking about a doctor, and “she” when talking about a nurse.

All of this work “shows that it is important how you choose your words,” Bryson says. “To me, this is actually a vindication of political correctness and affirmative action and all these things. Now, I see how important it is.”

Technology   DOI: 10.1126/science.aal1053   Matthew Hutsona freelance writer covering technology for Science.