Philosophical Ramifications as Popular Psychologist Resigns

It might have been easy to miss in the drama of the News International scandal, with both Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks testifying, but yesterday marked the end of academia’s own foundation-rattling scandal.  Marc Hauser, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, will resign from the University effective August 1st, after a long internal investigation found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct this time last year.  So far, besides Dr. Hauser’s resignation, three published papers have been affected: a 2002 paper in Cognition which was retracted, and two other papers which have been corrected.  Several other papers were amended before publication.

It is hard to know what ‘scientific misconduct’ actually implies – some of the more serious allegations made against Dr. Hauser (it should be noted, from individuals not affiliated with Harvard, and with no access to the internal investigation) have been data fabrication and data falsification.  Further, there are unsettling claims that Dr. Hauser pressured graduate students and research staff to accept a particular interpretation of results – a violation of more than scientific ethics.  However, it must be said, that neither of these claims have been substantiated, and that we do not know the actual misconducts that Dr. Hauser was investigated for or guilty of.

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Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep

This soldier is clearly a regular gamer...

Violent computer games desensitise people to violence. This is normally considered a bad thing, but perhaps this is not necessarily so. Soldiers in a warzone face a situation in which they must encounter extreme violence routinely, and a survey has revealed that playing violent computer games might well help soldiers cope with this prolonged exposure to the extreme violence of war. To be more precise, the survey revealed that soldiers who frequently played computer games that involved war and combat experienced fewer violent dreams, and when these dreams did occur they reported feeling lower levels of fear and aggression compared to their non-gaming colleagues. The gaming soldiers reported feeling more able to “fight back against whatever forces were threatening them” in their nightmares.

It’s not difficult to formulate a plausible theory that would go some way towards explaining this data. Certainly, it seems clear that the desensitising effect of playing computer games could be a contributory factor. It’s quite unremarkable that soldiers who frequently encounter war as a game – albeit in the artificial context of a computer game – subsequently find the actual reality of war less threatening when they encounter it in their dreams. They learn to associate war with a game, perhaps as a game, and as a result their natural inclinations of fear and abhorrence are suppressed. But as a philosopher who possesses a passing, though not-insignificant, level of interest in psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, I wonder if a more interesting explanation and investigation might be available to us… Continue reading “Xbox: The Guardian of Sleep”

Students Possess Psychic Abilities!

Why study when you can foresee what the questions will be?

Apparently students possess psychic abilities, but only when it comes to porn. A study is soon to be published revealing statistically significant evidence that supports the existence of precognition, the ability to see into the future. Precise details are not yet available, but we can get a good impression of the experiment from the media reports. Each student was shown an image, and then a picture of two curtained screens on a computer monitor; behind one curtain was an image, behind the other a blank wall. The students were asked to click on the curtain that they thought had the image behind it. Some of the students were shown an “erotic” image beforehand, one assumes that others were shown “non-erotic” images of some description. Some, but not all, of the images behind the curtain were also of an erotic nature. The theory seems to be that if the participants were ‘primed’ erotically (i.e. by being shown an erotic image), and the end result is an erotic one (i.e. they see another erotic image if they successfully select the correct curtain) they might perform better at the task. Prof. Emeritus Daryl Bem hypothesised that 50% of participants would select the right curtain, but that those shown an erotic image would show a higher success rate. And indeed, it seems that his hypothesis was satisfied…statistically. Continue reading “Students Possess Psychic Abilities!”

Focusing in on mental illness

459px-DepressionThe notion of a mental disorder, or illness, is an essentially normative notion. It is dependent on the availability of some metric of normalcy, or orderliness. Whether a given mental tendency is a disorder or not depends on whether or not, and in what ways, it deviates from what is considered normal, or orderly. But, what are the norms that determine this metric?

This question is highly controversial, and its importance transcends far beyond the walls of academia. Few such seemingly terminological issues have such a tremendous impact on the day to day lives of so many millions of individuals across the world. For example, until quite recently (1973!!), homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Its status as a disorder gave legitimacy to subject individuals ‘afflicted’ with this ‘disorder’ to psychiatric treatment, often leading to detrimental effects (not to mention the pervasive social and legal discrimination they faced). Characterizing a given tendency as a disorder has the potential to bring about terrible harms and injustices. However, there are also cases in which pursuing various corrective measures seems crucial. Certain tendencies, such as schizophrenia, can be so disruptive to an individual’s life that treatment seems necessary. Labeling such a tendency as a ‘disorder’ potentially brings with it various societal and legal commitments to provide support that can substantially alter the lives of suffering individuals for the better. It is clear, then, that much hangs on how we come to characterize a mental tendency as a disorder.

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Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?

Wasserläufer_bei_der_Paarung_cropEvolutionary psychology is all the rage nowadays. Researchers from around the globe are looking at the interplay between a species’ behavior and its environment, past and present, in an attempt to crack the mysteries of how we came to be as we now are. The appeal is obvious. Darwin seems to have provided a successful explanation of our biological traits. Why not think our psychological traits are to be explained similarly? After all, psychology just is an expression of biology. If reflection on our hunched-back ancestors and their habitat can explain how we came to walk upright, why can’t such reflection also explain our anger over spousal infidelity, why can’t it explain our own infidelity, our altruistic and egoistic behaviors, etc? Continue reading “Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?”