Monthly Archives: July 2011

"Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair"

In the latest issue of Spin magazine, Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner explains how a song was “born”: “We were in the studio and I pulled someone’s chair out.”

Do ya see, now, he was trying to circumvent Gestalt psychologist Edward Tolman’s Expectancy Effect, defined in The Dictionary of Psychology [ed. Ray Corsini, 2002] thus: “a tendency for an expectation to cloud a person’s ability to observe or reason, that may lead to an error or bias in the direction in which the person expected the results to go.” Or, to apply Occam’s Razor, we are all creatures of habit. We expect a chair to be where it usually is.

When I say “all,” I include Tolman’s lab rats, who were trained to run a maze, at the end of which they had come to expect a High-Value Treat. When the fiendish experimenter substituted a Treat of Lesser Value, “the rats displayed disgust.”

There is a British idiom, “Sick as a parrot!” Maybe its corollary could be, “Disgusted as a rat!”

The Expectancy Effect does not always result in disgust [or a pratfall from sitting down where a chair no longer is]. Sometimes it causes a better-than-it-really-is distortion [called a Positive Halo Effect in Educational Psychology, where certain students are given the benefit of the doubt & inflated scores, while others (under a Negative Halo) are expected to do badly & downgraded accordingly].

Get this, from yesterday’s London Evening Standard. A man [who had recently quit taking his meds] fatally stabbed a perfect stranger in the street, because he “mistook him for a Zombie.” See? If you’re expecting Zombies, you’re likely to “see” them everywhere.

Oh, come on. Who hasn’t done it? Your beloved black cat has died, and now every dark sweater or towel, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, “is Midnight!” It’s only delusional if you open a fresh can of FancyFeast for “him.” In certain cultures, not even then.

Returning to the Zombie hunter example, hands up if you expect all rich Frenchmen [or rich Italians, for that matter] to be lechers. Or all mothers to be paragons of virtue.

Oopsie daisy! It ain’t necessarily so. Rules of thumb concerning human nature, like chairs, are subject to change without prior notification.

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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory

What’s your point?

Lately I’ve been asking the “What’s up my nose?” question about an insidiously lovely song by Ed Sheeran [currently #3 on the BBC 1 chart] called, innocuously enough, “The A Team.” As the [you should excuse the expression under the circumstances] “addictively” catchy lyrics clarify repeatedly, it is the “Class A team” to which the heroine/victim in the song belongs [meaning that she is fatally attracted to drugs classified in the UK as Class A, such as crack cocaine]. I badgered my visiting 20-something daughter about 2 aspects of this song. Why, when it seems to glamorize, without irony, lethal drug abuse, is it so popular? [Because it’s beautifully written, played & sung.Very few listeners downloading the song are thinking critically about its message.] And why, when such glamorization is as old as the opera La Boheme [and its current iteration Rent], does it make me so angry? As it happens, I was doing all this heavy “wolf-work” a week before Amy Winehouse’s untimely death.

Before I deconstruct my “issues” with Ed Sheeran, let me draw your attention to an editorial in yesterday’s NYTimes, entitled “Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader,” by David J. Linden, “Professor of neuroscience @ Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods,Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.” [2 fun facts about the author & then my critique of his research: before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty, he worked for Big Pharma; and his father is a high-profile “shrink to the stars” in Santa Monica, CA.] The burden of his argument, taken from the animal & human research of others [some of it, decades old], is that “addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.” This he attributes to “blunted dopamine receptor variants” in these individuals.

Point of order. As its title suggests, this is a very informally written Pop Psych book [not a peer-reviewed journal article]. How large was his human sample size? In the NYTimes, he cites mostly anecdotal evidence concerning famous dead guys [such as Baudelaire, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, and Otto von Bismarck]. How do we know that these “I can’t get no-o satisfaction” folks are actually getting less satisfaction from their “cocaine, heroin, nicotine or alcohol” than their peers are? Just guessing, here: he asked them? [Or the researchers who actually carried out the studies did.] And the addicts said [in a variant of the old Irish joke], “This blow is terrible, and there’s not enough of it!”

And don’t even get me started on Theory of the Mind, which posits that we can never truly know another individual’s experience, so how can we possibly know that we liked the drug less than the Man on the Surbiton Omnibus [British legal term of art for “the average guy”] did?

Is the circularity of Linden’s argument making you dizzy yet? If you are an addict, there’s something wrong with your dopamine receptors. [Not your fault, you poor victim.] To quote one of my favorite famous dead guys, the comic novelist Evelyn Waugh [who wrote brilliantly about alcoholism in Brideshead Revisited], “your brains is all anyhow.”

Is this supposed to mean that everyone with this genetic variant is doomed to substance addiction? Back in the 70s there was a controversial theory that sought to “explain” [excuse?] alcoholism as the result of a genetic variant that metabolizes ethanol in the [poor victim’s] brain more slowly than in your man on the Surbiton omnibus’ brain, storing it as a morphine-like substance. [Thus, alcohol addiction was actually morphine addiction; and we all know how to “cure” that, right?] Studies suggested the prevalence of this gene variant in certain ethnic populations [such as my own, the Irish]. It’s not our fault! We’ve got a disease, innit? What? Like an allergy? Like a peanut allergy? Jeez! Well then, let’s just avoid peanuts. Or, mutatis mutandis, alcohol.

What’s my point? What’s up my nose, about Messrs. Sheeran & Linden? The fear, that by ceding locus of control over what we choose to ingest [by mouth, nose, or vein] to an “accident” of our brain physiology, we are condemned to fulfill the dark prophecy that “anatomy is destiny.” The humiliation, that we have no option but to follow our noses to the irresistible substances that we crave, even though they will [glamorously or sordidly] kill us.

As the Brits would say, “Blow that for a game of soldiers!”

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Filed under confounds, gets right up my nose, locus of control, murky research