Human Nature in individuals






There are three fundamental beliefs that under lie the sense of self.

FIRST, under all the changes we have in our lives “there is something that remains constant and makes the “me” today the same person I was five years ago and will be five years in the future.”

SECOND, the self as a unifier. “In the self, these are all integrated and an image of a single, unified world emerges.”

THIRD, the self as agent. “It is where the representation of the world, unified into one coherent whole, is used so we can act on this world.”

“Yet during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods.”

There are two models of the self, the rope and the ‘string of pearls’. The debate is not settled but the evidence points more to the rope.

The ‘string of pearls’. “Our self is something constant that has all the changing properties but remains itself unchanged. Like a thread running through every pearl on a string, our self runs through every single moment of our lives, providing a core and a unity for them.”

The  rope. “A rope holds together even though there is no single fibre running through the entire rope, just a sequence of overlapping shorter fibres.” From end to end there is no constant element.

“We usually assume that when we think of something or make a decision, it is the whole of us doing it, not just some specific part.”

The mind puts together sound and light as if they arrive at the same time, when in fact they do not. This only happens when it is arriving from 10m away. (See the ‘flash-lag’ illusion).

‘Beta phenomenon’ shows how the brain fills in gaps using guess work and makes connects where there are none.

“The final core belief is that the self is the locus of control. Yet cognitive science has shown in numerous cases that our mind can conjure, post hoc, an intention for an action that was not brought about by us. (American Psychologist, vol 54, p480)”

However, “The self is not only a useful illusion, it may also be a necessary one.”

(Jan Westerhoff ‘What are you?’ p34-37 New Sci 23 Feb 2013)



“Science is confirming what the Buddha, Scottish philosopher David Hume and many other thinkers maintained: that there is no concrete identity at the core of our being, and that our sense of self is an illusion spun by narratives we construct about our lives.”

Hood explores “subjects such as free will, the unconscious, the role of (false) memories in building identity, as well as myriad social psychology experiments showing how people behave differently according to the situation they are in.” We have interchangeable selves for different situations.

(Michael Bond ‘Where’s me?’ New Sci p45 5 May 2012. A review of “The Self Illusion” by Bruce Hood)



Most of the time we feel embodied. Feel that we inhabit our bodies. But this ‘Proprioception’ is easy to shift. The ‘rubber hand illusion’ has people sensing a rubber hand as their own. “Given conflicting information, the brain resolves it by taking ownership of the rubber hand. The implication is that the boundaries of the self sketched out by the brain can expand to include a foreign object. And the self’s peculiar meanderings outside of the body don’t end there.” Henrik Ehrsson and colleagues, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden has “…transported people out of their own bodies and into a life-size mannequin.” Other experiments have shown you can be made to feel you are “hovering in mid-air outside the body.”

“Alongside sensory distortions such as visual hallucinations, a common psychedelic experience is a feeling that the boundary between one’s self and the rest of the world is dissolving. A team lead by David Nutt of Imperial College London recently discovered why: psilocybin causes a reduction in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain thought to be involved in integrating perception and the sense of self. It was assumed that psychedelics worked by increasing brain activity; it seems the opposite is true (PNAS, vol 109, p2138).”

(Anil Ananthaswamy ‘Where are you? p38-41 New Sci 23 Feb 2013)


This can be still further by getting test subjects to use remote robots with cameras for eyes. ““True embodiment goes far beyond classical telepresence, by making you feel that the thing you are embodying is part of you,” says Abderrahmane Kheddar of the CRNS-AIST Joint Robotics Laboratory in Tsukuba, Japan, part of the team involved in staging the experiment (New Scientist, 7 July, p9). Sure enough, Shapira found it a peculiar experience. “It was mind-blowing,” he says “I really felt like I was there. When the guys in France surprised me by placing a mirror in front of the robot I was like ‘oh I’m so cute. I have blue eyes’, not ‘that robot is cute.’”

“The controllers, meanwhile reported feeling uncomfortable, when their telepresent self’s body space was invade (New Scientist, 26 March 2011, p25).”

(Helen Thomson ‘Here, there, virtually everywhere’ p39-41 New Sci 10 Nov 2012)


Also our perceptions of our bodies shape can be very inaccurate, while our perceptions of others is unaffected. Research has found this to be the case with people with anorexia. (PLoS ONE,

(‘Doorway decisions’ p5 New Sci 1 Sep 2012)


TOOLS ARE AN EXTENSION OF THE MIND – material engagement theory

That which is ‘outside’ of the head is not necessarily outside of the mind. Human intelligence spreads out beyond the skin into culture and the material world. Material engagement theory explores objects as cognitive extensions or bodily incorporations. The obvious example being the blind man and his stick. The brain treats it as part of the body. Human intelligence is amenable to radial shifts that can incorporate these extensions. The “human mind is an unfinished project” constantly involving new extensions. Tools from prehistoric hand axes to the internet are primarily there to function a “pathway instead of a boundary.” “This unique human predisposition for engagement with material culture explains why we humans, more than any other species make things, and how those things in return make our minds what they are.”
(Lambros Malafouris ‘Mind into matter’ p28-29 New Sci 7 Sep 2013)



“Identity is often understood to be a product of memory as we try to build a narrative from the many experiences of our lives. Yet there is now a growing recognition that our sense of self may be a consequence of our relationships with others. “We have this deep-seated drive to interact with each other that helps us discover who we are,” says developmental psychologist Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol, UK, author of The Self Illusion (Constable, 2012). And that process starts not with the formation of a child’s first memories, but from the moment they first learn to mimic their parents’ smile and to respond empathetically.”

If a primary function of self-identity is to help us build relationships, then it follows that the nature of the self should depend on the social environment in which it develops. Evidence for this comes from cultural psychology. In his book The Geography of Thought (Nicholas Brealey, 2003), Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan presented lab experiments suggesting that Chinese and other east Asian people tend to focus on the context of a situation, whereas Westerners analyse phenomena in isolation – different outlooks that affect the way we think about ourselves.” So ones sense of self is culturally determined.

Hazel Markus, Stanford University, California “Points out that human personalities do share one powerful trait: the capacity to continually shape and be shaped by whatever social environment we inhabit.”

(Michael Bond ‘Why are you?’ p 41-43 New Sci 23 Feb 2013)



High self esteem and ego centrism can be very unstable. “A better tactic is to encourage them to think about others. Among several researchers whose work points in this direction are Jennifer Crocker and Amy Canevello from Ohio State University in Columbus. In their study of around 200 pairs of college students they found that those who sought to boost their self-esteem by getting their room mate to acknowledge their good points failed…… “The thing that did work was actually caring about the well-being of the other person,” says Crocker (European Journal of Social Psychology,  vol 41, p422).”

“Inflated egos leave many young people with unrealistic expectations, and their inability to achieve these can lead to depression,” says Jean Twenge San Diego State University, California. Author of ‘Generation Me’. (Free Press, 2006)

Those with a narcissistic level of self-esteem are more prone to cheating and aggression as well as being intolerant of criticism. Twenge suggest that modern culture has become too individualised. For example, work by Nathan DeWall, University of Kentucky, has shown that in the USA pop songs in the last three decades have increasingly used “I” and words about relating to others have fallen.

(Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol 5, p.200).

Twenge outs this down to several causes: shifts in the style of parenting styles, the media obsession with celebrity, the easy of getting credit and the internet. “All of these allow people to have an inflated sense of self in which the appearance of performance is more important than the actual performance,” she says.’

Decades of programmes to improve self-esteem have been looked at and found wanting in their results. “Contrary to expectation, people with high self-esteem become more depressed in stressful times, while those with low self-esteem were more resilient when faced with life’s ups and downs.

“The consensus among psychologists today is that high self-esteem is more a consequence of positive life events than a cause – a message that has failed to reach most parents and teachers.” Mark Leary, DukeUniversity in Durham, North Carolina, “goes so far as to assert that self-esteem that is boosted artificially, without reference to achievements, has no intrinsic value.”

Growing research noted by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney indicates will-power is the key to a good life, not self-esteem. (“Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength” Allen Lane 2012). Real achievement coming from resisting impulses, focusing, working with difficulties, not “meaningless praise”.

“Leary is more pragmatic. The message parents should be sending their children, he says, is that they are loved even though they are not perfect, and that they can improve. “Give them honest feedback.” Above all, don’t tell your child that he or she is the greatest kid in the world, “because no kid is.”

(Laura Spinney ‘All about me’ p44-47 New Sci 28 April 2012)



“Bilinguals are better at putting themselves in other people’s shoes to understand their side of a situation. This is because they can more easily block out what they already know and focus on the other viewpoint (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, vol 38, p 211).”

“Neuroscientists and psychologists are coming to accept that language is deeply entwined with thought and reasoning, leading some to wonder whether bilingual people act differently depending on which language they are speaking.”

“Some behavioural switches may be intimately linked to the role of language as a kind of scaffold that supports and structures our memories. Many studies have found that we are more likely to remember an object if we know its name, which may explain why we have so few memories of early childhood. There is even evidence that the grammar of a language can shape your memory.” [How does this relate to dyslexics?]

“Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University in California recently found that Spanish speakers are worse at remembering who caused an accident than English speakers, perhaps because they tend to use impersonal phrases like “Se rompio el florero” (“the vase broke itself”) that do not state the person behind the event (Psychological Bulletin Review, vol 18, p 150).”

(Catherine de Lange ‘My two minds’ p31-33 New Sci 5 May 2012)



Structural differences in the brains of men and women are there to compensate for the effect of hormones to make men and women more similar rather than different.

“A new theory that has sprung from research on prairie voles says that at least some of those disparities evolved not to create differences in behaviour or ability, but to prevent them. They are there to compensate for the genetic or hormonal differences that are necessary to create two sexes with different sets of genitals and reproductive behaviours.”

“In brains terms, while certain circuits may be shaded pink or blue, that would not stop the output, or behaviour, being uniformly purple.” The “compensation theory” for brain differences.

It has been noted before that men have a larger area for spatial reasoning and women larger area for language. “A common critique of this sort of work is that there is only a small average difference between the sexes, with more variability within each sex than between men and women as a whole. The results tell us about population averages, not individuals, in other words.”

“The more we learn, the more we realise that sex difference don’t translate very well into that Mars-Venus pop culture everyone seems to want to project.” Lise Eliot, Rosalind Frankling University in Chicago, (author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” 2010)

(Kayt Sukel “Pink Brains, Blue Brains, Purple People” p44-47 New Sci 26 May 2012)



““Label jars, not people” and “stop medicalising the normal symptoms of life” read placards, as hundreds of protesters – including former patients, academics and doctors – gathered to lobby the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) annual meeting.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

“One concern is that while psychiatric medications are more widely prescribed than almost any drugs in history, they often don’t work well and have debilitating side effects. Psychiatry also professes to respect human rights, while regularly treating people against their will. Finally, psychiatry keeps expanding its list of disorders without solid scientific justification.”

(James Davies ‘Label jars, not people’ p7 New Sci 19 May 2012)


“While discoveries about genes and brain circuits that underlie human behaviour are accumulating rapidly, they haven’t led to major clinical advances. That’s largely because these findings don’t map well on to the constellation of conditions described in the DSM.”

“This suggests that many of psychiatry’s diagnostic labels do not describe coherent conditions with common underlying causes. No wonder, then, that many conditions are so hard to treat.”

(Peter Aldhous ‘Forget labels, target faulty wiring to help mental illness’ p12 New Sci 15 Dec 2012)


“The field trials [of DSM-IV] used a statistic called kappa. This measures the consensus between different doctors assessing the same patient with 1 corresponding to perfect diagnostic agreement, and 0 meaning concordance could just be due to chance. In January, leaders of the DSM-5 revision announced that kappa as low as 0.2 should be considered ‘acceptable’ (American Journal of Psychiatry, DOI:10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11010050).”

“Most researchers agree that 0.2 to 0.4 is really not in the acceptable range,” says Dayle Jones of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

The kappa for mixed anxiety / depression for adults was less than 0.01. So hardly better than chance!

(Peter Aldhous ‘Diagnosis: uncertain’ p6 New Sci 19 May 2012)


“On 29 April, Thomas Insel, director of world’s biggest funding agency for research into mental illness [NIMH], advocated a major shift away from categorising psychiatric disorders according to a person’s symptoms.”

“He delivered a blistering critique of DSM’s limitations, stating that “patients with mental disorders deserve better.””

However, “Insel accepts that it will take a decade to conduct research necessary to devise a new approach to diagnosis.”

“The main drawback is that rapidly expanding knowledge about the genes and brain circuits that underlie human behaviour is not generating major clinical advances, because it doesn’t readily map on to the conditions described in the DSM. The obvious conclusion is that many of those conditions aren’t ‘real’ diseases. Instead, people with different underlying problems are lumped together and those with fundamentally similar issues separated.”

Insel puts it like this, “in the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain, or the quality of fever.”

(Peter Aldhous and Andy Coghlan ‘A revolution in mental health’ p8-9 New Sci 08 Jun 2013)



You have unique DNA, fingerprints, gait, ears, scent, heartbeat, network of neurons and the combination of skin bacteria.

“Skin bacteria, too vary from person to person though they are remarkably stable overtime. A recent study found that a unique bacterial finger print is transferred from fingers to the things we touch, such as a computer keyboard or mouse, and will hang around for up to two weeks. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 107, p 6477). Even identical twins, who are difficult to distinguish on the basis of DNA, are easy to tell apart when you check out their bacterial companions. Bacteria also contribute to uniqueness by modifying our metabolism.”

However your face is not so unique.

One recent analysis of several thousand Norwegian faces found that 92 per cent of them had at least one lookalike that both humans and facial recognition software struggled to tell apart (Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol3832, p33).”

(Caroline Williams “One and only you” p32-36 New Sci 28 July 2012)

Even twins with the same genes are different from each other. “Studies of twins have found that even when two people began with the same genes, they start to differ almost immediately. Not only do their genomes diverge along their own path because of random mutations, copying mistakes and epigenetic changes, but a twin’s unique environment in its part of the mother’s womb can alter the way its tissues grow and develop. Add to that the fact that many body parts owe their shape to randomness as much as genetics and the potential for variation is huge.” (Caroline Williams ‘It takes all sorts’ p37-39 New Sci 16 Mar 2013)





Adversity that is economic, social, health, education and other factors not part of deprivation can lead to have life long disadvantages.

Socioeconomic status is a predictor of most illness, not just a single disease…The effect holds across age groups.” “Many studies on animals and humans, such as those by psychiatrist Michael Rutter of University College of London, have pointed towards the importance of experience early in life.”

A chaotic and neglectful families affect development even for middle and upper socioeconomic groups.

“Evidence is emerging that major upsets early in human life are linked with differences in DNA methylation and the expression of genes that predispose individuals to cope with adversity.”

“Many economists agree that returns on investments in the early years – improved success at school, better health, less crime – far outstrip the costs of treating the problems arising from early inequities.”

(Maria B. Sokolowski, W. Thomas Boyce and Bruce S McEwen ‘Scarred for life?’ p28-29 New Sci 26 Jan 2013)



“Research is now showing small differences in IQ correlate with socio-economic achievement,” says Ron Gray at the University of Oxford.”

“Ian Deary at the University of Edinburgh , UK, says that in studies that account for this, 15 more IQ points made young people 24 per cent less likely to die in the next 20 years, and 14 per cent less likely to develop high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. The effect is about the same size as the impact of smoking on the same diseases, and doesn’t appear to be influenced by social class.”

(Debora MacKensie ‘Prenatal choices are just the start’ p8-9 New Sci 24 Nov 2012)



“A fresh look at the evidence is suggesting that in fact they often create greater strength and happiness in people who have fortunate childhoods. The so-called vulnerability genes, in short, make you more attuned and responsive to your environment, whether good or bad.”

“They also showed that a variant of a gene called MAOA, which affects serotonin and several other brain chemicals, increased the chance of violent or sociopathic behaviour, but only in people who were abused as children (Science, vol 297, p851).”

Jay Belsky at the University of California, W  Thomas Boyce at the University of California and Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona in Tucson “distinguished between “dandelion children”, who did about the same whatever their environment, and “orchid children”, who wilted under poor care but flourished if carefully tended (Development and Psychopathology, vol 17, p271).”

(David Dobbs ‘The Orchid Children’ p42-45 New Sci 28 Jan 2012)
Birth order, whether you are first born, second or third, has a subtle influence which emerges in large studies. First borns are (on average) taller, smarter, fatter, allergy prone, conventional leaders and cautious. Middle children are shorter, lower IQ than eldest, friendship specialists, less prone to obesity, allergies, are unconventional or revolutionary leaders. Much of what counts for Middle children also counts for the youngest, but they are more likely to be risk takers rather than friendship specialists. However, this is “just one component of the multiplicity of factors that make us who we are as individuals. But a decline in fertility rates worldwide means that the proportion of people who are first born children is rising.”
(Lesley Evans Ogden ‘Luck of the draw’ p41-43 New Sci 07 Sep 2013)



“Mounting evidence shows striking similarities in the brains of people who are suicidal. These are distinct from what is seen in the brains of people who have mood disorders but who died of natural causes.”

The specific (and so therefore possibly treatable) areas of the brain affected were to do with decision-making and not related to the areas or patterns of areas associated with brain disorders. Also 10% of suicides have no history of brain disorders. (Brain Research,

The genetic picture is confusing with 366 epigenetic markers involved (which would be triggered by environmental factors) (American Journal of Psychiatry, ), but “a study of adopted people who had committed suicide found that their biological relatives were six times more likely to commit suicide than members of their adopted family (American Journal of Medical Genetics, doi,org/fmsncy).”

(Sara Reardon ‘Suicidal behaviour: a treatable disease?’ p14 New Sci 25 May 2013)



“Many vulnerability-gene studies indeed seemed to show that so-called bad variants of SERT, DRD4, and MAOA generated extra resilience and other assets in people with fortunate early years. Yet the literature largely ignored this upside: in paper after paper, the raw data and graphs indicated the positive effects, but the text failed to explore or even note them.” [An example of cognitive bias affecting scientists, as they are only human too.]

“The orchid hypothesis also meshes with observations of adults in psychotherapy. Since 1997, Californian psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron have written about what they call “highly sensitive persons”, or HSPs, who are especially responsive not just to trouble but to many of life’s pleasures and subtleties. As Elaine Aron sees it, this group, comprising an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the population, perceive life as a finer, more nuanced scale.”

HSPs and Orchid Children have “a particularly reactive physiological and sensory response to the world.”

“Many of the orchid-theory supporters argue that even with its drawbacks, sensitivity is more often than not adaptive – and therefore selected for……many of the plasticity genes have spread rapidly through humankind over the last 50,000 years. Of the leading orchid-gene variants – the short SERT, the 7R DRD4 and the most plastic version of MAOA – none existed in humans 80,000 years ago. Since emerging, these variants have spread into 20 to 50 per cent of the population. “That’s not random drift,” says John Hawks, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They’re being selected for.””

“To start with, they seem to create better mental health and greater resilience in people with secure, stimulating childhoods. The ‘problem’ traits they can generate, such as anxiety, aggression or ADHD, could help survival in conflict-ridden or volatile environments. Plasticity genes also boost resilience at the group level by creating a mix of steady do-ers (dandelions) and individuals with greater behavioural range (orchids).

“Particularly the restlessness and risk-taking found in many carriers of the 7R DRD4, may have helped drive human expansion. Today the 7R variant is most common in populations furthest from Africa (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol 145, p382).”

“Yet if the orchid hypothesis is right, the genes that help create some of our most grievous frailties – anxiety and aggression, melancholia and murder – may also underlie our greatest strengths, from the sharing of meals to our spread around the globe.”

(David Dobbs ‘The Orchid Children’ p42-45 New Sci 28 Jan 2012)



Recent research has shown that more than 100 species as diverse as anemones and birds have been naturally selected to contain both shy and bold personality types in their populations. Both have survival benefits depending on the context. There is a continuum of shy-bold from reactive “shy, timid, risk-averse and slow to explore novel environments” to the proactive “bold, aggressive, exploratory and risk prone”.

For example “The more a bird likes to explore, the more willing it is to disperse, take risks and act aggressively. In contrast, less exploratory individuals were better at solving problems to find food (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 279, p1731).”

Shy animals also seem to remember long term hazardous situations.

Research on humans has shown that extroverts have more sexual partners than introverts, but extroverts are far more likely to have accidents or illness requiring hospitalisation. (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p363).

A surprising recent study of Israeli soldiers shows that “anxious types are less prone to post-traumatic stress disorder” (JAMA Psychiatry, vol 70, p 401).

Work by Elaine Aron at the State University of New York looked at ‘sensory processing sensitivity’ which relates to shyness. She has found that 20% of people inherit this trait. It can make them introverted and neurotic “but also with an increased sensitivity to everything from music, art, and novel situations to pain, drugs and coffee.” They have “enhanced responses to subtleties in their environment are underpinned by deeper cognitive processing of internal and external stimuli than is found in most people.

(Lesley Evans Ogden ‘Survival of the shyest’ p42-45 New Sci 20 Apr 2013)

Shyness, feeling more comfortable out of the limelight, may also have the role in groups of reducing competition for leadership for the benefit of group cohesion, and thus increase the survival rate of the group. (Samantha Murphy “Upside of unease” p47 New Sci 27 Oct 2012 review of Angst: Origins of anxiety and depression by Jeffrey P Kahn, Oxford University Press 2012)



Political preferences are partly biological, suggests research by John Hibbing. Physical reaction to adverse stimuli tests show that a “Tough-on-crime, pro-military conservatives have a more pronounced startle reflex after hearing a sudden loud noise. They also show stronger skin responses when shown threatening images and look at them more rapidly and for longer.” But we are all working under the assumption that we think, and rationally decide our political views.

Hibbing says, “One of the things we’re trying to get people to realise is that those who disagree with them politically really do experience the world in a different fashion.” For example they organise living spaces differently. “with conservatives favoring tidiness and conventionality, and liberals more tolerant of clutter.” They also have  different art and humour preferences.

“In one experiment conservatives on average had a larger right amygdale, a region of the brain that processes responses to fear and threat. Liberals, in contrast, had more grey matter in the anterior cingulated cortex, an error-detecting region that is thought to be involved in causing us to stop repeated patterns of behaviour and change course.”

This supports Hibbing’s work but he characterises them as aversive (conservative) and appetitive (liberal).

Substantial genetic studies show identical DNA twins tend to share political views more often than fraternal twins.

Hibbing supports, “The notion that our opponents are not simply obstinate or uninformed but have this way of experiencing the world that we don’t understand could be useful.”

“As far as toleration goes, the research certainly suggests that liberals and conservatives alike have strengths and weaknesses, and ought to fare better in some situations than others. Liberals are better at handling nuance, uncertainty and flexibility, while conservatives do better with leadership, duty and loyalty, there are good things about both ideologies.

(Chris Mooney [author of ‘The Republican Brain: The science of why they deny science and reality’] ‘Left brain, right brain’ p28-29 New Sci 7 Apr 2012)


“Summarising findings from dozens of research projects, the paper concluded that some of the defining aspects of conservative ideology – resistance to change and justification of inequality – were motivated by deep seated psychological needs to manage uncertainty and threat (Psychological Bulletin, vol 129, p339).”

Liberals and conservatives have unconscious preference for high status groups over low status groups, but with the liberals it is not so pronounced.

“Liberals more morally offended by suffering and inequality and conservatives more morally offended by betrayals of the in-group, disrespect for authority and tradition, and signs of sexual or spiritual “impurity”. Again, these differences appear to have biological roots: they have been linked to anatomical differences in the size of various brain structures (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol 24, p1657).”

Conservatives have been shown to be less comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, having a strong need for ‘cognitive closure’. Liberals had a strong need to be cognitive, deliberating and exploring. However tests showed that “hindering subjects’ deliberation, by requiring them to do distractor tasks while filling out surveys, for example, made their opinions and attitudes more conservative.”

“When faces with ambiguous expressions are flashed onto a screen, conservatives are more likely than liberals to perceive them as angry or threatening rather than sad or neutral. When exposed to threatening images or sudden noises, conservatives react more strongly, showing greater levels of the “eye-blink startle” response and skin conductance.”

Liberals have more grey matter in the part of the brain that regulates behaviour and self control. Whereas conservatives have more in the areas associated with strong emotions and responding to threats.

“For 25 years, we have known about the high heritability of political attitudes based on studies of twins. Identical twins are much more likely to share political views than fraternal twins, suggesting it is not only their shared environment that is at work but also their shared genes.”

“The real world is more complex…For example, a recent large-scale study of libertarians, who tend to be economically conservative but socially liberal, showed that their psychological and moral profile was quite distinct from that of liberals and conservatives, not simply a blending of the two (PLoS ONE, vol 7. pe42366).”

However the whole field of research itself has discovered its own bias.

“Conservatives tendencies are often described as needs of deficits – “need” for closure, certainty, order, and so on – whereas liberals tendencies are described as positive attributes. Openness to experience, for example, is seldom referred to as a “need for novelty”.”

Only 6% at a conference on this subject openly self identify as conservative. “The authors also asked how willing the respondents would be to discriminate against a conservative colleague in peer review, grant decisions, symposium invitations or hiring. A shockingly high percentage said that they would: for instance, nearly 40 per cent said they would be “somewhat” to “very” willing to discriminate against a conservative job applicant. And this from a field that has led the study of discrimination against race, gender and sexual orientation. ” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 7, p496).

This is not a good situation, but they have identified this bias themselves. “The legislative process – like scientific peer review – is intended as part of a system of checks and balances, ideally serving as a bulwark against groupthink and other in-group tendencies.”

(Jesse Graham & Sarah Estes ‘Political instincts’ p41-43 New Sci 3 Nov 2012)


“In 2003 John Jost, psychologist at New York University and colleagues surveyed 88 studies of 20,000 people in 12 countries, that looked for a correlation between personality traits and political orientation (American Psychologist, vol 61, p 651) Some traits are obviously going to be linked to politics, such as xenophobia being connected with the far right. However, Jost uncovered many more intriguing connections. People who scored highly on a scale measuring fear of death, for example, were almost four times more likely to hold conservative views. Dogmatic types were also more conservative, while those who expressed interest in new experiences tended to be liberals. Jost’s review also noted research showing conservatives prefer simple and unambiguous paintings, poems and songs.”

“Jost and others speculate that all societies contain groups analogous to western liberals and conservatives: one wants to bring new ideas, the other to resist change….If the genetic basis means these groups are hard-wired to disagree, it makes debate and policy analyses seem a little pointless.” Alford says “’The fact that people exist at poles doesn’t eliminate the persuasive element of politics’” as policies do change overtime.

“We often think our opponents are misinformed or stubborn. Accepting that people are born with some of their views changes that, Alford points out. Come to terms with these differences and you can spend the energy now wasted on persuasion on figuring out ways to accommodating both points of view.”

(Jim Giles ‘Born that way. Your political leanings are imprinted in your genes.’ 29 New Sci 2 Feb 2008)



One thing liberals and conservatives have in common is that both endorse unscientific ideas, and cut funding for scientific research that may provide evidence that contradicts their assumptions.  However, currently the liberals are not criticised by the scientific community for doing this, this is reserved for the conservatives.

(Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell ‘Science left out’ p24 New Sci 2 Feb 2012)



“People confuse an empirical theory of how humans are with a political theory of how we ought to treat people. This is dangerous. If you base a policy that all groups should be treated fairly…on the claim that there are no biological differences between groups of individuals, then are you prepared to back down from fair treatment if, down the line, we find that there are in fact biological differences?”

“Traditionally, the left has been committed to the doctrine of the blank slate, which implies that the right kind of society can create perfect human beings. Those on the right have hated the idea that our moral instincts might be products of evolution rather than gifts of God.”

(Jo Marchant, “A way with words” p45 New Sci 5 Jul 2008. Interview with Steven Pinker.)



In the 1970s it was assumed that violent criminals were the product of their circumstances, but twin studies shown that identical twins are more likely to share  antisocial behaviours than fraternal twins. Raine imaged the brains of convicted murderers and found that the area of the brain that helps hold one back from impulsiveness and helps with planning (prefrontal cortex) has reduced activity. However, mothers who smoke or drink during pregnancy, and levels of testosterone in the womb, have also been shown to correlate with later violent crime in their offspring.

“Many offenders also have impairments in their autonomic nervous system, the system responsible for the edgy, nervous feeling that comes with emotional arousal. This leads to a fearless, risk-taking personality, perhaps to compensate for chronic under-arousal.” It leads to a low heart rate, which has a better correlation with violent criminals than smoking does with cancer.

And of course the wider environment is also a strong factor. Raine says, “Treating the physical causes will work more quickly and effectively than repairing the complicated social factors that also contribute to criminal behaviour.” He has tested this in Mauritius, where he successfully reduced the criminality of young adults by 35% by “extra nutrition, exercise and intellectual enrichment” to them when they were 3-5 years old.

(Bob Holmes ‘Devil in the DNA’ p46-47 New Sci 13 Apr 2013. Review of “The Anatomy of Violence: the biological roots of crime” by Adrian Raine, Pantheon, 2013)



There is “a new model of understanding emotions”. “To find one’s “Emotional Style”, Davidson refers to six dimensions of emotion he identified in his 30 years of brain research: attention, resilience, outlook, self-awareness, social intuition and sensitivity to context. These reflect the way our brains process information.”

“With the discovery of neuroplasticity, Davidson illustrates how “the mind can change the brain” through the use of cognitive-behavioural interventions.”

(Samantha Murphy ‘Change your brain’ p52 New Sci 17 Jun 2012 review of ‘The Emotional Life of Your Brain’ by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley, Hudson Street Press 2012.)





LONG TERM MEMORY. (consisting of EPISODIC ‘events in our lives’ and SEMANTIC ‘facts’) “We seem to store long-term memories by their meaning.” “You probably won’t be able to remember the exact wording but its meaning or gist should come back fairly easily.”

SHORT TERM MEMORY AND WORKING MEMORY. “This store is capable of holding roughly seven items of information for approximately 15 to 20 seconds, though actively “rehearsing” the information by repeating it several times can help you to retain it for longer.” You can squeeze in more by ‘chunking’ information, such as remembering numbers as groups.

“Short-term memory is closely linked to working memory, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. There is a difference, however: short-term memory refers to the passive storage and recall of information from the immediate past, whereas working memory refers to the active processes involved in manipulating this information. Your short-term memory might help you to remember what someone has just said to you, for example, but your working memory would allow you to recite it to them backwards or pick out the first letter of each word.”

SENSORY MEMORY. Happens before all the others as it is the transient patterns of perception. It is that brief echo in the mind of what we see and hear for a few moments after. They fade quickly though while they last “they provide a detailed representation of the entire sensory experience, from which relevant pieces of information can be extracted into short-term memory and processed further via working memory.”

IMAGINED MEMORIES (the misinformation effect). “If I witness a traffic accident and I am later asked whether the car stopped before or after the tree, I am much more likely to ‘insert’ a tree into my memory of the scene.”

“A team led by Henry Roediger and Kathleen McDermott at WashingtonUniversity in St Louis, Missouri,  has built an extensive body of research showing that false memories can be formed relatively easily. People can be encouraged to ‘remember’ an item that is linked in its meaning to a series of previously presented items but which itself was not presented.”

In a now rightly famous experiment Elizabeth Loftus, University of California, Irvine, “persuaded subjects that they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, despite the fact that he’s a Warner Bros character.

PROCESSING OF MEMORIES. In the 1970s Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart, University of Toronto, Canada two different types of processing of memories. ‘Superficial’ which is passive and deals “only with the physical properties of what is to be remembered”. And a ‘deeper’ processing which is more active and “explore the semantics of the material.”

(Jonathan K Foster ‘Memory’ Instant Expert 18 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)



“Flashbulb memories, as they are known, are tricky to study as people are seldom keen to talk to researchers just after hearing or seeing emotionally charged news. It can also be difficult to know how accurate a person’s memory of the event is, since there is usually no way to be sure what actually happened.”

“Elizabeth Phelps of New YorkUniversity was in Manhattan on 9/11 and saw the attack. When fellow neuroscientist John Gabrieli called to check on her they “decided to put together a consortium of memory researchers, and started collecting data within a week”.”

“The study involved surveying over 3000 Americans from seven different cities, including New York, within two to three days of the attack. Participants were asked to note all the details they could remember of the day itself, their personal circumstances at the time, and how they felt. To find out whether the memories formed would be lasting ones, the group sent out the same survey to the same participants again 11 months later, and once more 35 months after the attacks.”

“”People were about 60 per cent right about the details of the event after about a year, and this dropped to 50 per cent after three years,” suggesting flashbulb memories are no more accurate than other types of memory, says Phelps. But that didn’t affect how vividly people recalled the day, or how much faith they had in the details of their memories (Journal of Experimental Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0015527).”

These vivid yet inaccurate memories might well be the brain’s best way of dealing with an emotional, life-changing event, says Phelps. Keeping the memory malleable to some extent can have benefits: “If a group arrives at a memory of shared suffering, it could be a positive thing in terms of group spirit and identity, and could pull the community together,” says Hirst.”

“When Phelps reassessed the survey responses recently, she found that people’s memories of where they were on 9/11 have stayed consistent, though how they felt is harder to recall. “People tended to have around 80 per cent accuracy in their place memories, but were only 40 per cent accurate at remembering their emotions,” says Phelps, who is writing up the finding. A weak emotional memory could also be useful in getting over tragic events.”

(Jessica Hamzelou ‘Manhattan memory project: How 9/11 changed our brains’ p42-43 New Sci 07 Jun 2011)



“Their recall turned out to be substantially better when the learning and test sessions occurred in a similar environment; they remembered information learning under the sea more clearly if they were tested underwater than if they were tested on the beach, and vice versa. Your physiological or psychological state can have a similar effect.”

Memory cannot be improved, but it is easily damaged by drugs.

(Jonathan K Foster ‘Memory’ Instant Expert 18 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)



Abstract concepts are easier to learn if they are linked to physical sensations, even something as slight as eye movements. Scents also aid recall, as does a 10 minute walk, but a 40 minute jog makes it worse.

If a day is left between first and second passes through material that helps recall.

“There may be ways of stopping fresh memories of painful events from being consolidated into long-term storage in the first place. For example,  Emily Holmes at the University of Oxford asked subjects to watch a disturbing video, before asking them to engage in various activities. Those playing the video game Tetris subsequently experienced fewer flash-backs to unpleasant scenes in the film than those taking a general knowledge quiz, perhaps because the game occupied the mental resources usually involved in cementing memories. Playing relaxing music to yourself after an event you would rather forget also seems to help, possibly because it takes the sting out of the negative feelings that normally cause these events to stick in our minds.”

(Christian Jarrett ‘Master your memory’ p42-43 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)


Teaching others also helps you learn things, even when the other is a robot just pretending to not know how to do something.

(Douglas Heaven ‘Students learn best when they help out teacher’ p20 New Sci 8 Sep 2012)



“Distraction or reduced attention can cause a memory failure at the encoding stage……Memories can also ‘fade’ and become less distinctive if the storage of other memories interferes with them, perhaps because they are stored in overlapping neural assemblies.”

(Jonathan K Foster ‘Memory’ Instant Expert 18 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)


“Physical exertion drains attentional resources, forcing a person to focus on what is necessary for survival, often to the exclusion of details vital to the courts.” Only 27% of those who exercised to exhaustion could identify the suspect, whereas 54% of those who did not. Lorraine Hope, University of Portsmouth, UK. (Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797611431463).

(‘In Brief. Intense exercise blurs the mind’ p18 New Sci  24 Mar 2012)



There are individuals whose memory is such that they forget they have just eaten three 3 course meals in a row,  or underestimate by eight hours how long they have been running (Diane Van Deren) so feeling full, and fatigued is partly in the short term memory. But for the rest of us simple distractions such as television cam make us underestimate how much we are eating or drinking.

(Catherine de Lange ‘Stuck in the present’ p40-41 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)



Memory is your autobiography? Then…”Why are the contents of the book so unreliable? It is not simply our tendency to forget key details. We are also prone to ‘remember’ events that never actually took place…..Such flaws are puzzling if we believe that the purpose of memory is to record your past – but they begin to make sense if it is for something else entirely….human memory didn’t evolve so that we could remember but to allow us to imagine what might be. This idea began with the work of Endel Tulving, now at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada…”

“….foresight was the flipside of episodic memory. Subsequent brain scans supported the idea, suggesting that everytime we think about a possible future, we tear up the pages of our autobiographies and stitch together the fragments into a montage that represents the new scenario. This process is the key to foresight and ingenuity, but it comes at the cost of accuracy, as our recollections become frayed and shuffled along the way. ‘it’s not surprising that we confuse memories and imagination, considering that they share so many processes,” says Daniel Schacter, a psychologist at Harvard University.”

This theory is a revolution in understanding memory.

(David Robson ‘Memory. The ultimate Guide.’ p33 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)



“The brain is not like a video camera. Everytime we recall a memory, new proteins are made and the epigenetic markers will alter – changing it is subtle ways.”

“Episodic memory is thought to allow us to imagine and plan for the future. This skill, known as mental time travel, was long thought to be unique to humans, but there are now some signs that a handful of other species might also be able to escape the present.”

“Only humans demonstrate the kind of capacity and flexibility that can allow us to imagine all kinds of futures. “These simulations allow us to plan, prepare for and deliberately shape the future, like no other animal appears to do,”.” Says Thomas Suddendorf, University of Queensland in Australia.

(Emma Young ‘When I was a chick…’ p34-5 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)

A large number of studies show that a good  memory is linked with well being. Whereas depressed people recall their lives by “skimming the chapter headings”, they have difficulty in recalling details. “According to this theory, our memories act as a kind of ballast that holds us steady during times of stress.” “Over-general memory” develops before depression so may contribute to its development. The poor memory weakens  imagination, foresight and problem solving.

(David Robson ‘Fade to black’ p38-9 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)



Our recollections of our own lives are patchy. We have no conscious recall before 2 or 3 years old and little before 6. The neural pathways are not mature enough to transfer memories to long term memory. The experiments conducted by Martin Conway, City University London, indicate that words provide a structure upon which to hang memories, so that children find it hard to recall if they have not learned the language to describe it.

“While events in our life shape your opinion of yourself, your personality also determines what you remember; someone who thinks they are courageous might fail to remember a time when they acted cowardly, for example. “Your sense of who you are and how you enact your personality traits is very tied up in autobiographical memory,” says Robyn Fivush at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Families who deeply discuss events in children’s lives help them develop their personal narratives much more than those of their school age peers. However, it is also possible for the stories of siblings or spouses to absorbed in to your own memories.

“Psychologist Qi Wong at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, believes this may explain the influence of culture on the way we reminisce. Chinese parents tend to focus less on individual experiences and emotions when discussing  the past, with fewer details, than Americans, for instance. As a result, Wang has found Chinese people’s memories, even during adulthood, tend to be less personal, focusing instead on events of social or historical significance.”

Young adulthood is the peak of our life recollections.  This could be due to changes in the brain, the emotions of that time or the expectation of the cultural milestones that we pass at that time.

Annette Bohn and Dorothy Berntsten at Aarhus University, Denmark asked children “to write their future life stories, most of the events they imagined took place in young adulthood, mirroring the place reminiscence bump. So it seems that we are aware of the ‘cultural life script’ from a young age, which may mould our recollections of events as they occur. The finding dovetails with the idea that memory and foresight share the same machinery in the brain. A child’s ability to imagine the future seems to develop in tandem with his or her autobiographical memory, for instance. Wong, meanwhile, has found that the cultural differences that shape our personal narratives can also influence our planning abilities…”

(Kirsten Weir ‘A likely story’ p36-37 New Sci 6 Oct 2012)



“The idea that the mind fossilises as it ages is culturally entrenched.”

Gary Marcus of New YorkUniversity says, “The idea that there’ a critical period for learning in childhood is overrated.”

“The reason that children appear to be better learners may have more to do with their environment. And factors such as physical fitness.”

Poorer rates of fitness among the old is a factor in affecting their ability to learn as poor cardiovascular health is known to affect connections in the brain. Also the adult lifestyle is not centred around learning, whereas the child’s environment is, for example using the methods for teaching children language work better for adults that the adult methods.

Also repeated testing improves recall, and this rarely happens with adult learning (For less painful methods see the website Memrise).

“Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. This could be one of our biggest downfalls.”

Work over many decades by Gabriele Wulf at University of Nevada “shows that you should focus on the outcome of your actions rather than the intricacies of the movements.”

“Study after study shows that simply shifting your mindset in this way accelerates your learning – perhaps by encouraging the sub-conscious, automatic movements that mark proficiency.”

Learning skills improves if you switch between them, and do not practice one for too long.

Positive encouragement given by a rigged test, improved the speed of learning.

(David Robson ‘Old Schooled’ p33-35 New Sci 25 May 2013)





Research has shown that our dreams are mostly silent with only occasional touch, taste and smell (though smelling something sweet while you sleep can give you emotionally positive dreams). In 1950s most people dreamed in B/W by the 1970s most dream in colour. (Consciousness and Cognition, vol 17, p1228).”

Personality appears to have little to do with predicting the features of dreams.

““People’s dreams seem to be more similar than different,” says Mark Blagrove at SwanseaUniversity in the UK. That suggests common symbols in dreams might represent shared anxieties and desires, but attempts to find these have also been also disappointing…”

Styles of dream vary enormously, they can be disordered or poetic. “Our emotional undercurrents seem to be the guiding force here. Ernest Hartmann, a psychiatrist at TuftsUniversity in Medford, Massachusetts, has studied the dream diaries of people who have recently suffered a painful personal experience or grief. He found that they are more likely to have particularly vivid dreams that focus on a single central image, rather than a meandering narrative.”

The emotions guide which memories we store. “memories enter our dreams in two stages. They first float into our consciousness on the night after the event itself, which might reflect the initial recording of the memory, and then they reappear between five and seven days later, which may be a sign of consolidation. Even so, it is quite rare for a single event to appear in its entirety – instead our memories emerge piecemeal.”

A study comparing dream and real-life diaries, Patrick McNamara at Northcentral, University in Prescott Valley, Arizona revealed that “…a sense of place – a recognisable room, for instance – was the first fragment of a memory to burst onto the subject’s dreamscape, followed by characters, actions and finally physical objects.”

Jayne Gackenbach at GrantMacEwanUniversity in Edmonton, Canada made a study of players of online gaming and found they are more likely to take control of their dreams, to fight rather than flee, which makes the dreams more exciting and less scary.

Biggest mystery is the purpose of our dreams, on which there is no consensus.

(David Robson ‘In your dreams’ p31-33 New Sci 2 Feb 2013)



We spend a third of our lives asleep. If it is for rest then why do we need to be unconscious and at risk from predators?

“There are many explanations for sleep, ranging from keeping us out of harm’s way to saving energy, regulating emotions, processing information and consolidating memory. Each has strengths – and weaknesses too.”

“One neglected role of sleep in humans is social isolation. As social animals, we may need sleep to consolidate the rules and insights of our complex social lives.”

(Derk-Jan Dijk and Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer ‘Sleep’ Instant Expert 20 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)


Sleep seems to be a requirement of the simplest of animals, but the amount of time varies enormously and inconsistently. Dolphin newborns and mothers are awake for a month after birth and bats sleep 20 hours, whereas horses nap on their feet for a few minutes at a time totalling only 3 hours.

“Explanations for sleep fall into two broad groups: those related to brain repair and maintenance, and those in which the sleeping brain is thought to perform some unique, active function.”

“Sigmund Freud proposed that the purpose of sleep was for wish fulfilment during dreaming, although scientific support for this notion failed to materialise. There is good evidence, however, for sleep mediating a different kind of brain function – memory consolidation.”

“Several kinds of experiment, in animals and people, show that stronger memories form when sleep takes place between learning and recall.”

“A new theory about the purpose of sleep says it is to stop our brains being overloaded by the new memories we form each day.” It rebalances the energy in the synapses so the total energy in the links is the same. This means unused links will get weaker. Jan Born, University of Tubingen, Germany.

(Liam Drew ‘World of slumber’ p38-39 New Sci 2 Feb 2013)



During sleep brain activity changes, heart rate reduces by about 10 beats per minute, there is a fall in movement, sensation and core body temperature of 1-1.5C.

“Even ordinary room light, or light from a computer screen (Journal of Applied Physiology, vol110, p 1432), can influence the clock and suppresses secretions of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, vol 96, pE463).”

using less blue and more yellow, minimises the disruptive effect on sleep (Journal of Pineal Research, DOI:10.1111/j.1600-079X.2011.00970.x).

“However, even in bright sunlight it can be difficult to stay awake if you have been active for a very long time. This “sleep pressure” is largely created by a neuromodulator called adenosine. Caffeine, the most widely used stimulant in the world, blocks the receptors where adenosine acts in the brain.”

“Lab studies have indeed shown that worry means shallower sleep and more waking up. We also know that age has a profound effect on sleep quality. Older people are more susceptible to the sleep-disrupting effects of stress, caffeine and alcohol.” The booze affects second half of the night.

“Your needs depend on your age and gender, and it varies between individuals.”

Studies of those who live longest find they report sleeping between 6 and 7.5 hours a night (Archives of General Psychiatry, vol 59, p131).”

“Because the internal wake-up call is gentle, it is easy to oversleep. Furthermore, the call often arrives a bit late because most of us have a body clock that naturally runs for longer than 24 hours. Exposure to light from cellphones, TVs and computers in the evening may also shift the clock to a later hour, making matters worse.”

(Derk-Jan Dijk and Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer ‘Sleep’ Instant Expert 20 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)



Even moderately daily shortage can cause problems. “After reviewing 15 studies of 470,000 people over 25 years in eight countries, researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, concluded that “short sleepers” – those consistently getting fewer than 5 hours per night – increased their risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and even cancer. No stimulant can fix that.”

“After 17 hours awake your cognitive and motor skills resemble those of someone who is intoxicated.”

(Jessica Gamble ‘The little sleep’ p34-37 New Sci 2 Feb 2013)


“The last decade has seen several epidemiological studies linking sleeplessness to ill health and higher mortality rates.”

“A 17-year study of more than 10,000 British civil servants found that those who had cut their sleep from 7 to fewer than 5 hours were 1.78 times more likely to die of all causes.”

Sleeping for too long or too short both raise chances of dying. The link between too much sleep and mortality is not known.

Insomnia “damages the performance of businesses to the tune around $60 billion per year in the US alone (Sleep, vol 34, p1161).”

“some form of sleep disruption is found in almost all psychiatric disorders  (Current Biology, vol 17, pR877).”

(Derk-Jan Dijk and Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer ‘Sleep’ Instant Expert 20 p ii-viii New Sci 3 Dec 2013)




WE ARE EASILY MISLEAD BY HUMANS – the misinformation effect

The police work hard to try and avoid leading witnesses, particularly children, but the following research shows how easy it is to mislead, and offers a surprising solution. “Even an investigator with the best intentions can let biases slip into the questions they ask a witness.” Even a very subtle thing such as using ‘smash’ instead of ‘bump’ can lead to witnesses recalling faster speeds in a car accident, and to describe the damage as more serious. Unconscious bias shapes the questions which then shapes the answers given by those questioned, with robots this is not an issue.

A study by Cindy Bethel of MississippiStateUniversity in Starkville filmed a ‘theft’ of an object from a desk. “Two groups – one with a human and one a robot interviewer – were asked identical questions that introduced false information about the crime, mentioning objects that were not in the scene, then asking about them later. When posed by humans, the questions caused the witnesses’ recall accuracy to drop by 40 per cent – compared with those that did not receive misinformation – as they remembered objects that were never there.” This did not happen with the robot. “The scripts were identical. We even told the human interviewers to be as robotic as possible,” says Cindy Bethel.

(Hal Hodson ‘The robot inquisition’ p21 New Sci 9 Feb 2013)


WE LOOK FOR FACES – paredolia

Being social animals our perception is bias towards being able to spot and read human faces. “The human brain is optimised to recognise faces, which could explain why we are so good at picking out meaning shapes in random patterns.” Also poor quality cameras often create odd images.

(David Hambling “Woo.. what a picture!” p52-53 New Sci 24/31 Dec 2011)


WE DON’T SEE WHAT IS IN FRONT OF US – change blindness and inattention blindness

Seeing isn’t believing. Our picture of the world is not complete, it only seems so. We are in fact only able to see in full colour and detail in area of the eye that is equal to the size of the moon in the sky. The brain also gets the eye to flit around to build up the details for the ‘full picture’. We do not actually see these flits, they are edited out. When you look at yourself in the mirror and look from eye to eye, you never see them move. A similar thing happens with hearing.

Researchers at Harvard University have shown that you can change the person someone is giving directions to mid-conversation if their view of them is blocked by two workmen carrying a door between them and half will fail to notice the change. (For similar effect see flicker images,

“Object tracking studies suggest that the maximum number of items we can attend to at any one time is around five or six (see demos at ).”

Reason is our attention is drawn to motion related changes, not static changes.

(Graham Lawton ‘Minds Tricks: Six ways to explore your brain’ p35-41 New Sci 22 September 2007)

“These failures of awareness are more a consequence of something that we need to do and that we do well – focus attention. To do any task, you need to focus on things that matter and avoid things that don’t. One consequence is that sometimes you filter out things you might want to see. Intuitively we think that the things that matter will catch our attention, but they don’t.”

“Our picture of reality is correct most of the time for most of what we do. It is inherently incomplete, though, and most of the time we don’t realize how much we miss. Usually, it doesn’t matter – we see what’s relevant to what we’re doing. It’s important to know that we have such limitations, though. We think we see more than we do, and that has consequences. We also think our memories are more perfect than they are, that we understand complex systems better than we do. If we were aware of our limitations, we wouldn’t text and drive or think everyone who mis-remembers is lying.”

(Liz Else, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, ‘Would you spot the gorilla’ p32-33 New Sci 26 June 2010)

(See ‘The Invisible Gorilla: And other ways our intuition deceives us’ by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.)



Hallucinations take on vastly varied forms, happen in various senses, and have multiple causes. When they happen it feels like they come from elsewhere, they do not feel like you are imagining them. For example, musical hallucinations occur without any relation to what the subject is doing or feeling. [I occasionally get a low level versions of this myself.]

They are misunderstood and stigmatised so much that even doctor’s wrongly equate them with madness. This makes anyone naturally reticent in talking to their doctor’s about it. Oliver Sachs says, “If one is blind or even blindfolded, then the visual brain may take off on its own and utilise memory and imagination to give one hallucinations. I work especially in old-age homes and see elderly people….I’ve been struck by their tendency to have hallucinations as the sense of perception is diminished.”

Sachs has experimented on himself with LSD and other hallucinogens. He also has issues with his sight that lead to low level geometric hallucinations. So he speaks also as someone who has these experiences, though he does not believe that they are evidence of anything.

Hallucinations can be very powerful and very persuasive. I think one may have to fight to deny them weight. There was one case history which I should have put in the book. A young woman, a physician, had some of these seemingly revelatory seizures, but she argued with God. God said: “Don’t you believe your senses?” She said: “Not when I’m in a seizure”.”

(Tiffany O’Callaghan ‘Seeing things’ p28-29 3 Nov 2012 New Sci interview with Oliver Sachs, latest book “Hallucinations” Picador/Knopf 2012, also author of “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” which became an opera.)


SEEK AND YOU SHALL FIND, WHETHER IT IS ACTUALLY THERE OR NOT – confirmation bias and naive realism

“Do people really want to hear the truth? Pretty much everyone claims that they do, but recent research paints a more depressing picture. For starters, there is the effect that psychologists call “naïve realism”: the mistaken belief that our views are based on a rational analysis of the world.”

“People on both sides of the political spectrum sincerely believed that they were being objective, even though their opinions matched their party allegiance. Psychologists also say that everybody suffers from a “bias blind spot” – an inability to see that their interpretation of facts is inevitably shaped by their own biases and world view.”

“It’s threatening to admit that you’re wrong or that your side is wrong,” says Nyhan, who is working with Resnick on Fact Spreaders. “So people think of reasons to disbelieve the information that they are given.” (Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University, Atlanta.)

“The idea here, borne out by studies, is that people are more likely to be persuaded if they think the messenger shares their world view.”

(Jim Giles ‘Truth goggles’ p44-47 New Sci 15 Sep 2012)


One can be completely reasonable and balanced in all areas of ones life but this is no guarantee that in one area one might become extreme. This is referred to as mono-symptomatic delusion / delusional disorder.

Frank Tallis explores ideas of demonic possession in his 2012 book ‘Forbidden’. He says, “An individual could have a perfectly harmless interest in the supernatural but then something happens that triggers this delusion and they get stuck with it, reinforcing it, by piling up one misinterpretation after another. If you go out looking for evidence, you will find it.” This is perfectly natural because our brains are set up to seek out causes for events. So anyone can misread events and see causes that are not there, given the right circumstances.

“The big one is people suspecting that their spouse is cheating on them. Morbid obsessions about infidelity are relatively common and produce spectacular behaviours, often in individuals who otherwise are OK. In a way, falling in love is kind of monosymptomatic delusion. Even though you’re a rational person, you can engage in all kinds of irrational behaviour because you are fixated on a particular individual.”

The best treatment for this is cognitive behavioural therapy. “You cultivate a sort of scientific attitude in the patient, getting them to test their beliefs. It is probably the most important new advance in psychotherapy.”

(Clare Wilson ‘One Minute with… Frank Tallis’ p27 21 Jul 2012 New Sci)



Our instinctive decision making is faulty. This was first suggested by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s who demonstrated that rules of thumb often lead people astray.

Robert Trivers (8 Oct 2011 New Sci) said, “If you ask me about my self-deception, I can give you stories, chapter and verse, in the past. But can I prevent myself doing the same damn thing again tomorrow? Usually not…” So there is a chance of error in all that you do.

The 48 most common fallacies and errors are listed on a website of the same name.

(Michael Bond, review of ‘You Are Not So Smart’ by David McRaney, p47 5 Nov 2011 New Sci)


Daniel Kahneman says, “I am not very optimistic about people’s ability to change the way they think but I am fairly optimistic about their ability to detect the mistakes of others.” [So we need to work on learning from and being open to the feedback from others. As  Norman Vincent Peal put it, we would much rather be ruined by praise than improved by criticism.]

(Liz Else ‘How to spot the error of our ways’ p34-35 19 Nov 2011 New Sci. Interview with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ 2011.)



The brain is hardwired perceives the actions of own group different from other groups before we even have a chance to decide; “judging players as faster, even when actions were performed at identical speeds. Surprisingly, brain scans taken during the task showed that this bias arises from differences in brain activity during perception of the hand action and not during the decision-making process.” (Pascal Molenberghs, University of Queensland in Brisbane)

(In Brief “Blame your brain for bias” p17 New Sci 4 Feb 2012)



We are so unaware of all the processes that go on in our minds, so do we really have free will if this is the case? Freud “saw the unconscious, as described in a much cited 1992 study, as seething with ‘lust and anger…hallucinatory, primitive, and irrational’ (American Psychologist, vol 47, p788). Thanks to recent work across psychology, neuroscience and other disciplines, we now see it as a powerful, efficient decision-maker critical to our survival.” We could not cope without running all the myriad processes such as perception. It is nearly impossible to override.

(Michael Bond ‘The new unconscious’ p57 New Sci 21 Apr 2012 review of ‘Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behaviour’ by Leonard Mlodinow, Pantheon. 2012)


“In a brisk 66 pages Harris explains why we don’t have free will, and points out why that doesn’t matter as much as it might appear.” Harris says “You can do what you decide to do, but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” [So you have the choice to act on your ideas.]

(Graham Lawton ‘Impossible choice’ p52 New Sci 17 Jun 2012 review of ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris, Free Press 2012.)


CONFIDENCE IS NOT JUDGEMENT – fast thinking “jumping to conclusions machine” and slow thinking

Kahneman has characterised the way the brain operates as a dual system, system  ONE which is a fast thinking automatic function, and system TWO, which is slow thinking and requires control and effort. The later is the conscious one.

System ONE is very slow to learn and is the source of our habits. We have little control over it. “Your perception of the world is not necessarily going to be accurate. Many of the so-called errors of judgement come from limitations in system one.” For example it doesn’t spontaneously think statistically. But WATCH OUT this system ONE “produces the best coherent story possible from the evidence at hand. I describe it as a machine for jumping to conclusions.” “We haven’t waited for information but formed an impression on the basis of the information you had. We need that to get around in the world – we can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt – so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true. We are often not aware of how little information we have, and if we’re not aware of this then we get the phenomenon of overconfidence. Confidence is not a judgement, it’s a feeling.”

System TWO can learn to think statistically. It is not rational and all knowing, but it can be deliberate within all the limitations. However, system TWO is too slow to live your entire life by. [Mindfulness at all times is a serious challenge.]

“I have been studying this for years and my intuitions are no better than they were. But I’m fairly good at recognising situations in which I, or somebody else, is likely to make a mistake – though I’m better when I think about other people than when I think about myself. My suggestion is that organisations are more likely than individuals to find this kind of thinking useful.

(Liz Else ‘How to spot the error of our ways’ p34-35 19 Nov 2011 New Sci. Interview with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ 2011.)


Another way of looking at it is that system ONE, the doer, is Homer Simpson and system TWO, the thinker, is Mr Spock. [Thus making the mindful observer of both the Buddha]. “When it comes to decision making system, TWO generally produces better outcomes. But attention, concentration and reasoning are finite resources. So most everyday tasks are left to system ONE, leaving us wide open to errors.”

“Our minds are biased and flawed, but in a systematic way. Human behaviour is irrational, but predictably so.”

(Graham Lawton ‘Nudge in the right direction’ p32-36 New Sci 22 Jun 2013)



Your mind automatically generates a biased sample. This phenomenon is called anchoring. It causes you to focus on a given number, and that number becomes plausible just because it’s been mentioned.” (HarvardBusinessSchool article June 2011, provides a checklist for decision-makers to find biases and errors in judgement.)

“I did some experiments with ice cream which showed that people are not good at predicting what they will like.”

“People did not know in advance whether they would become addicted or tired [of eating the same flavour for eight days]. That was interesting so I started asking whether people are good at remembering and evaluating the experiences they’ve had in the past. They are not.”

People remember the feeling at the end and the worst part of medical procedures not the duration.

Endings of stories turn out to be enormously important in the way that people evaluate their own lives and those of others. Take the importance that we attach when we hear a story about an estranged mother and daughter and just before the mother died, they get together again. We find that touching, and think it matters a lot. But that’s very odd, isn’t it? She barely had time to experience it. Clearly we think of the lives of others, and probably our own lives, mainly as stories. We like the stories to be good stories.”

(Liz Else ‘How to spot the error of our ways’ p34-35 19 Nov 2011 New Sci. Interview with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ 2011.)



“DiSilvo cites brain scans showing that we treat conflicting information as if it is a physical threat. As a result, we choose the “happier” option of ignoring details that don’t fit our views.”

(David Robson, p58 New Sci 19 Nov 2011. Review of David DISalvo ‘What Make Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite’ 2011.)



Humour helps the mind work better and the build social bonds in groups. A computer model developed by Physicist Igor Suslov of the Kapitza Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, Russia, suggests that with all the input of life, the brain has to make choices of interpretation so quickly that it naturally leads to errors. There is no way to avoid this. He says “The nature of the processing algorithm makes mistakes inevitable.” [It is impossible to go through life without making mistakes of misinterpretation.] He says humour also inevitable. “He argues humour is brain’s way of dealing with such errors: rapid emotional response makes us aware of mistakes, and brings new information into consciousness especially swiftly. “Its biological function is to make brain operations more efficient.” We laugh as the brain squirms its way out of a contradictory state.” (

David Sloan Wilson of BinghamtonUniversity in New York, thinks that the origins are social, but that they could have been co-opted for other function.

(Mark Buchanan ‘On the origin of laughter’ p6 New Sci 24 November 2007)



Confirmation bias. “Yet people rarely have any awareness that they are not being objective. Such a bias looks like a definite bug if we evolved to solve problems: you are not going to get the best solution by considering evidence in such a partisan way. But if we evolved to be argumentative apes, the confirmation bias takes on a much more functional role. “You won’t waste time searching out evidence that doesn’t support your case, and you’ll home in on evidence that does,” says Mercier”.

Attraction effect. “When faced with a choice between different options, irrelevant alternatives can sway our judgement from the logical choice.”

“Notably, the attraction effect is strongest when people are told that they will have to defend publicly whatever choice they make. “In these kinds of situations, reasoning plays its argumentative role and drives you towards decisions that you can easily justify rather than the best decision for you,” says Mercier.

Framing Effect. “People treat identical options very differently depending on how the options are presented, or framed.” Mercier and Sperber, Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal last year outlining their theory (vol 34, p57)

Loss aversion, or the sunk-cost fallacy. “Our reluctance to cut our losses and abandon a project even when it would be more rational to move on”

Feature creep “which includes our tendency to buy goods with more features that we actually use.”

(Dan Jones ‘The argumentative ape’ p33-36 New Sci 26 May 2012)





Experiments by Benjamin Libet at the University of San Francisco in the 1980s had test subjects press a button at the moment they decided to act, but they also had electrodes monitoring the brain. These showed that there were “stirrings in the brain’s prefrontal cortex up to 10 seconds before someone became aware of having made a decision (PLoS  One, vol 6, p e21612).”

Simple environmental factors that the sub-conscious notices can change our actions, such as a game played as part of a test being taken out of a briefcase rather than a rucksack at the start will lead to more competitive behaviour without test subjects having consciously noticed.

(Caroline Williams ‘The silent partner’ p37 New Sci 18 May 2013)



The roles of the two hemispheres are much more complicated than being just emotional and intellectual, as they are often characterised.

“We have also argued for a basic distinction between the role of the left hemisphere in normal action and the role of the right hemisphere in unusual circumstances. But investigators have highlighted additional dichotomies of hemispheric function as well. In humans the right hemisphere ‘takes in the whole scene,’ attending to the global aspects of its environment rather than focusing on a limited number of features. That capacity gives it substantial advantages in analyzing spatial relations. Memories stored by the right hemisphere tend to be organized and recalled as overall patterns rather than as a series of single items. In contrast, the left hemisphere tends to focus on local aspects of its environment.”

”To assess an in coming stimulus, an organism must carry out two kinds of analyses simultaneously. It must estimate the overall novelty of the stimulus, and take decisive emergency action if needed (right hemisphere). And it must determine whether the stimulus fits some familiar category, so as to make whatever well-established response, if any, is called for (left hemisphere).”

(Peter F. MacNeilage, Lesley J. Rogers and Giorgio Vallortigara. ‘Origins of the Left and Right Brain’ p48-54 Scientific American July 2009)



“Each day we may face between 2500 and 10,000 decisions.”

Heuristics – mental rules of thumb which applied in appropriate situations, allows us to make fast decisions with minimal cognitive effort. The “recognition heuristic”, for example, will direct you to choose a familiar option where there is very little information to go on. The “satisficing heuristic”, meanwhile, tells you to pick the first option that meets or exceeds your expectations, when delaying a choice for to long is not in your interests.”

“Our emotions may instead be the driving force in subconscious decision-making. We now know that far from being the antithesis of rationality, emotions are actually evolution’s satnav, directing us towards choices that have survival benefits.”

“And while fear often seems to lead to overreactions, this makes sense when you consider the dangers facing prehistoric humans, says Daniel Nettle from Newcastle University, UK. On that one occasion where a rustle in the bushes really was made by a predator, the less neurotic peers of our ancestors would have paid the ultimate price, failing to pass their laid-back genes on to the next generation (Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol 10, p47).

“Heuristics and emotions help us subconsciously focus on what matters. This is just as important when we make conscious decisions. Even the most basic everyday situations are too complex for our brains to compute all necessary information. Instead, we need to simplify.”

However, these simplifications leads us into problems in unusual situations, or where we have not enough information. Biases expose these rules of thumb such as “Confirmation bias – our tendency to overemphasise anything that confirms what we already believe.” And “Loss aversion: it feels worse to lose something than to gain and equivalent amount, making us protect what we have rather than take a chance on gaining more.”

Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford “Natural selection allows us to correct our behaviour to do what work works,” he says. Kacelnik believes the main force influencing our decision-making is reinforcement learning. In other words, we learn from experience and favour what has worked in the past. Nothing controversial there. But, he notes, we are also swayed by our changing internal states – things like hunger, thirst and libido –so that choices are tailored to our needs. Decision theory has long struggled with the problem that people are inconsistent, but Kacelnik argues that apparent inconsistencies in choice can arise simply because our preferences change according to our needs.” Utility is a moving target. We may not show the “economic rationality” of traditional decision theory but our choices have their own logic, which he calls “biological rationality”.

Rob Boyd, University of California, Los Angeles “pointed out at a workshop what we have evolved to learn from others because this is often a wise option “In most situations it is way beyond an individual’s capacity to know the best thing to do,” he says.”

“Have our brains evolved to direct our behaviour in ways that have become maladaptive in the modern world? That should become clear as more decision researchers consider how we actually make up our minds, rather than how we should.”

(Kate Douglas “Making your mind up” p39-41 New Sci 12 Nov 2011)



“Psychologist Joe Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who has led many of these studies, suggests that happiness’s negative effects all stem from a cheery mood’s tendency to lull you into feeling secure. This makes you look inwards and behave both more selfishly and more carelessly.”

Grumpiness or sadness, on the other hand, produces more vigilant, outward-looking thinkers. “A negative mood produces a thinking style that is more detailed and attentive, and pays more attention to the demands of the external environment,” says Forgas.

Happy people are also more likely to be influenced by stereotypes, says Forgas: in another study, happy non-Muslim Australians were more likely to make snap negative judgements about – and even to shoot – computer images of people in traditional Muslim dress. (Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.01.007)

Robert Cummins, a psychologist at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, says he “loves” the research. “It is so very refreshing to hear an alternative to the view that happy is good, and more is better.”

“High levels of happiness generate openness to new experiences and gregariousness, but they also generate a lack of attention to detailed information and recklessness,” says Cummins. We all need to behave like this occasionally, he says, but not when we are confronted with a potentially dangerous situation. “Low levels of happiness generate introspection and the careful processing of information, where choices must be carefully made.”

(Jessica Hamezelou ‘Happiness ain’t all it’s cracked up to be’ p39-40 New Sci 26 Feb 2010)


[The earlier sense of happiness according to Aristotle and the Buddha amongst others  is one of contentment, acceptance and calm, today our expectation is that it should be an excited stimulated state of being. I note that the toothy grin that is the normal pose both in advertising and domestic portraits is a fairly new phenomena. However, this could be down to better dentistry.]



“Psychologists know that our ability to make good decisions deteriorates after an extended period of making choices – even little ones like what products to buy in a supermarket – in what is called “decision fatigue”. And various studies have shown that people with restricted choice – or none at all- often feel happier with a given outcome than those with more freedom (Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, DOI:10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.03.002).”

(Helen Knight ‘The Decision Lens’ p39 New Sci 14 Apr 2012)



Willpower is quality that gets used up and not so much a sign of moral superiority.

“After decades of research, psychologists now reckon two traits are most likely to make us successful. The first is intelligence, with smart people doing better at all jobs. Unluckily, there is little evidence that you can make lasting improvements to intelligence. The other trait is self-control, the ability to change thoughts, emotions, actions and level of performance on duties and tasks. Of course, goals, moral rules, laws, social expectations, personal commitments and other forces play a role, but the more you can change yourself the more successful you tend to be.”

Research has shown repeatedly that after people exert self-control, they tend to perform relatively poorly on a subsequent, seemingly irrelevant test of self-control. The most plausible explanation is that “energy” was consumed and depleted during the first test, leaving less for more challenges.”

“So rather than seeing willpower as a moral quality, the scientific view is that it is like a muscle that tires. After you exert self-control, you have less willpower so you are less able to resist a new demand…Willpower resembles a muscle also in that it can be strengthened by exercise.”

“The standard willpower depletion effect, confirmed by a 2010 meta-analysis of 83 studies, shows that after exerting self-control, people perform worse on the next self-control task without being given glucose between tasks….After allowing up to 15 minutes for the lemonade to reach the bloodstream, subjects drinking sugared lemonade perform quite well at the next test, while those on diet lemonade fare less well.”

“In order to resist tempting foods, we need willpower, but to have willpower, we must eat. The essence of dieting (restricting food intake) robs us of the psychological strength needed to succeed.”  [So how do people manage to fast?]

“Willpower is also used in making choices and decisions, so here’s a startling thought: could daily decision-making impair self-control?” [So monasteries are the environment right due to their routine?]

(Roy F. Baumeister ‘Where has your willpower gone?’ p30-31 New Sci 28 Jan 2012)


WE ARE NOT GOOD AT PROBABILITY – risk intelligence

Risk intelligence is a cognitive ability to estimate probabilities accurately, it is different from the emotional desire to take risks. We are generally very bad at it. Expert gamblers unlike problem gamblers don’t get a buzz from winning, but they hate losing and “they are constantly re-evaluating their decisions and finding out how to do better.” Those with high risk intelligence in other areas of their life have “a kind of modesty”. “They’ve had extensive experience of learning the mistakes of being overconfident in one area, and apply that lesson generally.”

Doctors have a very low level of risk intelligence, as they get older they get more confident with their skills but their accuracy remains the same.

“One study I looked at showed that when doctors estimated patients had a 90 per cent chance of having pneumonia, only about 15 per cent had the condition, which is a huge degree of over confidence. Another way of putting it is that they think they know more than they do. One explanation is that doctors have to make so many different decisions about so many different things they don’t get a chance to build up a good model. Maybe if you have to make life or death decisions, you feel you have to exude confidence otherwise you’d be too damned scared to do anything.”

Having poor risk intelligence lead either to grabbing any answer to avoid uncertainty, or to get stuck gathering endless information and never acting. However, you can improve your risk intelligence by becoming aware of cognitive biases.

(Alison George ‘You, too, can get the better of uncertainty’ p30 New Sci 19 May 2012 interview with Dylan Evans of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon)



It is often observed that people prefer certainty, such as they fair better knowing the results of a medical test, those how got good news felt good about it, but those who got uncertain news felt worse a year later than those who had bad news. (The New England Journal of Medicine, I vol 327, p1401).

But research has been biased towards the negative aspects of uncertainty, thus

“..lending support to the theory that people spend more time fixating on possible outcomes when something is uncertain. For happy outcomes, that amplifies the pleasure that can be derived from them (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 43, p979). An ambiguous pleasurable event is by its very nature harder to make sense of, forcing you to focus on it longer, prolonging your emotional high. This gives rise to a phenomenon psychologists call the pleasure paradox: we want to understand the world, but that understanding can rob us of the pleasure we get from unexpected events. These findings are just a small part of a body of research revealing just how much pleasure can be gained through the power of uncertainty, and suggesting that technologies that introduce an element of chance into our lives could boost our mood in the day to day.” [Something new and random a day is good for you.]

Research carried out in 2008 by Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University. “When quizzed afterwards, whose who wrote about how they might not have met their partner were in a better mood – and felt a bigger boost in satisfaction with their relationship – than the group who wrote the true love story {of how they met their partner} (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ,I vol 95, p1217).” Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia calls this “the “George Bailey effect” after the protagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life who is shown a world in which he was never born. Thinking about all the ways a good thing might never have happened, he says, breathes new life into feelings that have long since lost the shine of novelty.”

(Catherine de Lange ‘Get out of the groove’ p47-49 25 Aug 2012 New Sci)


OUR INSTINCTS DON’T HELP US HANDLE MONEY – the money illusion and other biases

The ‘money illusion’ occurs when people frequently ignore the obvious distorting effects of inflation. Classic economics also suffers from the illusion that we are all rational beings when it comes to decisions about money. We are also sadder about losing money than we are happy about gaining the same amount. Much of our decision making is based on trust, and not the weighting up of the facts. “The basis for trust, however, is not always built on rational assessments. Animal spirits – the gut feeling that, yes, this is the time to buy a house of that sleeper stock – drive people to over confidence and rash decision making during a boom. These feelings can quickly transmute into panic as anxiety rises and the market head in the other direction. Emotion-driven decision making complements cognitive biases – money illusion’s failure to account for inflation, for instance, that lead to poor investment logic.”

Here are just a few of our biases when it comes to money.

“OVERCONFIDENCE: We consistently overrate our prowess in doing everything from driving cars to investing in real estate or the stock market.

HERDING: A tendency to follow the crowd can cause massive numbers of investors to share the same belief about a financial asset, driving prices up or down.

AVAILABILITY BIAS: Recall of recent events and other thoughts that spring readily to mind can turn into preoccupations that cause an investor to focus on short-term results – and perhaps sell in a panic if the market goes down.”

“Behaviourial economists have identified a number of biases, some with direct relevance to bubble economics. In confirmation bias, people overweight information that confirms their viewpoint. Witness massive run-up in housing prices as people assumed that rising home prices would be a sure bet. The herding behaviour that resulted caused massive numbers of people to share this belief. Availability bias, which can prompt decisions based on the most recent information, is one reason that some newspaper editors shunned using the word “crash” in the fall of 2008 in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid a flat panic. Hindsight bias, the feeling that something was known all along, can be witnessed post-crash…”

Andrew Lo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professor of finance, and official at hedge fund Lo says, “Economists suffer from a deep psychological disorder that I call ‘physics envy’. We wish that 99 per cent of economic behavior could be captured by three simple laws of nature. In fact, economists have 99 laws that capture 3 per cent of behavior. Economics is a uniquely human endeavor and, as such, should be understood in the broader context of competition, mutation and natural selection – in other words, evolution.”

(Gary Stix ‘The Science of Bubbles and Busts’ p64 Scientific American July 2009)



Dan Ariely says, “I care about the mistakes people make for two reasons. The first is when people violate standard economic theory – because a lot of our legislation and the way companies think assume that people are perfectly rational. The second is that if people don’t understand how they behave, they get into trouble.”

“The rational view of dishonesty is that people cheat because it is worth their while. This simple model of rational crime (SMORC) says that people look at how much they stand to gain, at the probability of being caught, and at the size of the punishment. Which is bigger? But if you count the chances you had to steal today without being caught, there’s lots of opportunity. I doubt it crossed your mind, but if you did it, you would feel bad about yourself. We’re much more honest than if we were perfectly rational. So SMORC is basically how we view psychopaths. And if you think about the economic model, it’s also a model for psychopaths.”

“In our experiments we find that people can cheat a little and still feel good about themselves. That is a perfect example of irrationality.”

(Graham Lawton ‘The cheating game’ p30-31 New Sci 16 Jun 2012

interview with Dan Ariely, DukeUniversity in Durham, North Carolina).


POLITICS USES FALLACIES  – ‘strawman’ and ‘weakman’

Here are two common fallacies used in politics.

Strawman – “a person summarises the opposition’s position inaccurately so as to weaken it and then refutes that inaccurate rendition.” As this is closely related to opponent’s true position it is easy to spot.

Weakman – contains a grain of truth but “often bears little similarity to the strong arguments that should be presented.” One needs to be much cleverer to spot what has been disregarded.

(Yvonne Raley & Robert Talisse  ‘Getting  Duped.’ P16-17 Scientific American Mind Feb/Mar 2008.)



“It is striking in general that human beings mistake the cultural for the natural; you see it in many domains. Take moral values. We assume we have moral instincts: we just know that certain things are wrong. When we encounter people whose values differ from ours we think that they must be corrupted or in some sense morally deformed. But this is clearly an instance where we mistake our deeply inculcated preferences for natural law.”

The innate does not need to be taught. “Kids learn through incessant correction. Between the ages of 2 and 10, parents correct their children’s behaviour every 8 minutes or so of waking life. In due course, our little monsters become little angels, more of less. This gives us reason to think morality is learned.”

“But if you compare us with other species, our degree of variation is just so extraordinary and so obvious that we know prior to doing science that human beings are special in this regard, and that a tremendous amount of what we dos is as a result of learning. So empiricism should be the default position, the rest is just working out the details of how all this learning takes place.”

“In general, we need to cultivate a respect for difference. We need to appreciate that people with different values to us are not simply evil or ignorant, and that just like us they are products of socialisation. This should lead to an increase in international understanding and respect. We also need to understand that group differences in performance are not necessarily biologically fixed.”

(Michael Bond ‘Innately Curious’ p21-22 New Sci 21 Jan 2012 interview with philosopher Jesse Prinz, City University of New York (


GUT INSTINCT LEADS TO INJUSTICE – including hindsight bias

“When judges feel tired or hungry, they may lack the energy to weigh up the various arguments and so tend to err on the side of caution by refusing parole (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 108. p6889).”

“In fact according to US pressure group the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is responsible for around three-quarters of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.”

“Aggressive interrogation should never be the answer. A host of studies have shown that forceful questioning hugely increases the chances that a suspect will confess to a crime they didn’t commit.”

“Sometimes, their minds can become so muddled that they believe the accusation (Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol 18, p567).”

“Analysis of cases later exonerated by DNA evidence show that the existence of a confession sways everything from expert forensic analysis to the eyewitnesses’ testimonies (Psychological Science, vol 23, p41).”

“In the US, for instance, officers routinely use the controversial Reid method of questioning, which encourages high-pressure interrogation and, in certain situations, bluffing with fake evidence….The subterfuge and promise of a big reward mean that the technique provides fertile ground for false confession, say Steven Smith and colleagues at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, who outlined their fears in a recent paper (Psychology, Public Policy and Law, vol 15, p168).”

The innocent can frequently act the same as the guilty when under stress. However  liars often contradict themselves. Ray Bull, University of Leicester, UK, “In 2004,  he joined forces with Aldert Vrij and Samantha Mann at the University of Portsmouth, UK, to investigate this. Using real recordings of suspect interviews, the group asked 99 police officers to decide which suspects were lying and which were telling the truth. “Those who did best were the ones that relied on content cues”, says Bull. Those who relied on signs of shifty behaviour did no better than chance (Journal of Applied Psychology, vol 89, p137).”

“Even when using conscious reasoning (p18 12 Nov 2011 New Sci) we cannot judge conduct in isolation from consequences, even when told to do so. (Edie Greene University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.)” This is hindsight bias.

Jurys “perceived the same person to be less credible if they spoke with a foreign accent (Psychological, Crime & Law, vol 13, p317)”.

“Jurors instructions, which are meant to guide them through the decision, can be very hard for a layperson to understand. Confused, they often rely on gut instincts to make the choice, giving a freer rein to bias.” (Behavioural Sciences and the Law, vol 26, p603).

We will probably never be able to remove all effects of prejudice. “Our experiences, attitudes and beliefs always influence how we interpret things,” says Greene.

(Jessica Hamzelou ‘Justice will be done’ p44-47 New Sci 12 May 2012)


The rate of people falsely released or imprisoned in US (only for the DNA or other evidence to over throw the verdict) is estimated at 3-4% but it could actually be much higher! [So we should keep prisoners alive and treat them well, but also keep all cases open to review.]

(Moheb Costandi “Mental Conviction” p52 New Sci 21 July 2012 Review of “in Doubt: the psychology of the criminal justice process” Dan Simon Harvard University Press 2012)



The gut is controlled by a second nervous system that is so complex it could be called a second brain. It could drive cravings. It produces the same amount of dopamine as the brain and 20 times as much serotonin. It can work independently from the brain if the nerve is cut. And 90% of messages go from it to the brain, rather than the other way round.

(Emma Young ‘Alimentary thinking’ p39-42 New Sci 15 Dec 2012)



“The sense of revulsion makes us shy away from biologically harmful things like vomit, faeces, rotting meat and, to a certain extent, insects. Disgust’s remit broadened when we became a supersocial species. After all, other humans are all potential disease-carriers, says Valerie Curtis, director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine….Disgust is the mechanism for doing this – causing us to shun people who violate the social conventions linked to disgust, of those we think, rightly or wrongly, are carriers of disease. As such, disgust is probably an essential characteristic for thriving on a cooperative, crowded planet.”

“In 2008, Simon Schnall, now at the University of Cambridge, showed that placing people in a room with an unacknowledged aroma of fart spray and a filthy desk increased the severity of their moral judgements about, say, whether it’s OK to eat your dead pet dog (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p1096)”.

If you are more easily disgusted you are the more likely to be conservative politically. (David Pizarro, CornellUniversity in Ithaca, New York).

“Humanity already has a track record of using disgust as a weapon against outsiders.  Now there is empirical evidence that inducing disgust can cause people to shun certain minority groups – at least temporarily……those in the smelly room, on average felt less warmth towards homosexual men compared to participants in a non-smelly room. The effect was of equal strength political liberals and conservatives (Emotion, vol 12, p23) ”

Juries reacting with disgust leads to giving harsher sentences and clouds their judgement, more than those getting angry.

The universal triggers of disgust revealed in research by Valerie Curtis at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, were in order; faeces, vomit, pus, spit and a variety of insects.

Disgust can shape everyday finance transactions. “Jennifer Lerner and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University showed that a feeling of disgust can cause people to sell their property at knock-down prices….Curiously, the disgusted participants denied being influenced by the Trainspotting clip, and instead justified their actions with more rational reasons. Lerner, now at Harvard, calls it the “disgust disposal” effect, in which the yuck factor causes you to expel objects in close proximity, regardless of whether they are the cause of your disgust. She also found that people were less likely to buy something when feeling disgust. Perhaps this is why, aside from public health campaigns, there is little evidence of product advertisers using disgust as part of their marketing strategies.”

Disgust varies between individuals and gets less as we age. It is also possible to become less disgusted by things with continued exposure.

“One of his [Pizarro] most recent experiments shows that if you can prevent people from making that snarled-lip expression when they experience disgust – by simply asking them to hold a pencil between their lips – you can reduce their feeling of disgust when they are made to view revolting images. This in turn makes their judgement of moral transgressions less severe.” [Hence the Buddha like half smile in meditation practice helps increase feelings of empathy.]

(Alison George ‘The Yuck factor’ p35-37 New Sci 14 July 2012)

“Other research has found that liberals tend to see moral issues in terms of individual suffering or unfairness, whereas conservatives have more group level concerns, such as loyalty, patriotism and respect for authority and tradition. Across dozens of countries liberals are more morally offended by the idea of kicking a dog or cheating at cards than by ideas of betraying their family, cursing their parents, or doing harmless-yet-disgusting things like urinating in public. Conservatives find all of these equally repugnant.”

(Sarah Estes and Jesse Graham ‘Marriage rows’ p28 New Sci 19 May 2012)

The ‘yuck’ response causes more problems when it is combined with our poor sense of probability and the ‘natural’ fallacy.

“The naturalistic fallacy, a well known pitfall in rational thought.” John Stuart Mill British philosopher wrote an essay “On Nature” in which he argued that he term “natural” is “one of the most copious sources of false taste, false philosophy, false morality and even bad law.”

Food manufacturers have played on this instinct for what is natural is safer, so “leads us to underestimate the cancer-causing potential of some such products and overestimate the dangers of pesticides, clones livestock and GMOs (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol 28, p 531).

When human organ transplants were first introduced there was a strong ‘this is not natural’ ‘yuck’ response, but now the idea is acceptable. Arthur Caplan, bioethicist University of Pennsylvania “we should challenge the idea that repugnance is a reliable moral guide and the ultimate arbiter.”

“Persuading people to rationalize their feelings about developments in science may be a good way to get a conversation going between researchers and the public.” [However, the media encouraging us not to think or consider, but just to be oppositional, as this creates ‘balance’ and a good ‘story’.]

“It is only human to fear the unknown. We want firm assurances that everything will be OK, and are used to getting there from politicians and other public figures. But scientists spend their lives considering possibilities, risks and precise statistics, and so tend never to say ‘never’.”

(Dan Jones ‘Immoral Advances’ p29-33 New Sci 10 Jan 2009)