Review | A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine

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Books which ask the question “what’s wrong with our brains” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.

A Mind of Its Own explores some ways in which our brains don’t make sense, and the cognitive biases which funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The books starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.

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Participants and Prejudice

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During uni, a lot of focus is put on the ability to think critically, evaluate research, and work out how best to psychologically study the world…apparently. In all honesty, while evaluating results and testing methods is strictly marked, a student could easily coast through the entire three years without putting any deep thought into research participants and their dynamics.

When evaluating research, it’s easy to make superficial criticisms of the study based on one factor. This study uses only males? It’s androcentric. Only females? It’s gynocentric (and rare). Only Americans? It’s ethnocentric.

Beyond that most salient factor, however, that’s it for thinking about participants. And I’m questioning whether that is a form of prejudice or dehumanisation in a way: all we’re doing is reducing a group of complex individuals down to one factor, and claiming that one factor can explain their performance in the study. Continue reading

A New Research Culture?

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Last week, I posted about ways that websites could get implied, indirect, or direct consent from visitors, to ensure they had a consenting user base for user experience (UX) or technological experiments. The ways I posted were quite simple, being mostly based on straightforward modifications to existing strategies, and without changing much in the way the websites themselves treat research and data collection.

However, after finishing that post I started thinking about what websites would be like if their approach to research changed in a more fundamental way. This is probably (unfortunately) unrealistic at the moment, but its an approach that I would love to see realised.
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What is informed consent?

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Following on from last week’s post about the Facebook experiment, it seemed sensible to look at what methods can be used to gain fair consent in internet-based research.

Implied Consent
The simplest method, and one most commonly used in surveys and questionnaires, is Implied consent. This method means the requirement of a signed consent document is waived, and the consent is instead embedded in taking part. In a survey, this could be done by only showing the questions to people who click an “I agree to take part” button at the very beginning, and redirecting people who ticked “I do not agree to take part” away from the survey. This would be embedded or implied consent, as people would have to say they wanted to take part in order to see the questions.

For simple studies with little to no personally identifiable information, and little to no risk of harm, this method of gaining consent is good enough. However, if this method is done on studied where participant information isn’t stored, then participants have no way of requesting their own data to be withdrawn. Studies using this method can often be a flash in the pan- performed and then forgotten, with often no record of their methods, participants, or findings.

Therefore, for large-scale, complex, or important studies, implied consent isn’t the way to go.
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Road Trip to Exeter!

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Today, a group of us went to the British Psychological Society Undergraduate Conference up in Exeter uni. It was a brilliant day, and some of the best fun I’ve had  in an academic setting. Here’s a look at what we got up to, and the talks we saw.

We began our road trip in Bristol at 6:30, and arrived in Exeter at about 8:30am (after a detour for coffee, and  getting distracted by doodling a shark fight on the designated drivers face).

Our first reaction was some mild university envy at the design and looks of the campus buildings:  The main building containing their student services was equally impressive- however, it was slightly disappointing that we didn’t get to see the library, as I can imagine wanting to spend hours in there if I saw inside.


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Halo 3 and The Minimal Group Paradigm

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I’ve spent a large proportion of this summer gaming when I meant to be doing psychology work, so I figured I could at least combine the two so it looks like I’ve done some work :p

I first got the idea of this combination when I was playing Halo 3 online- while the game is good, an annoying part of the online experience is that people on the opposing team will in many cases jump away and lose a point for committing suicide rather than lose a gunfight and have the other team gain a point. Even though these two options have the same outcome mathematically, many people will choose to take the deliberate loss rather than let someone else gain any status. While this seems like an irrational decision, the principle is common in real-life as well.
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Crowds and Myths

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The weird thing for me about crowds is that while much of psychology focuses on how complicated individual humans are, they are even more confusing and complicated when they are put together into groups- there is an entire branch of psychology (known as, not surprisingly, crowd psychology) dedicated to understanding the difference between people as individuals and in a crowd.

The media, psychology, and sociology, have many stereotypes of crowds- most of these lead to the conclusion that crowds are irrational, suggestible and even dangerous, a sort of hive mind run by its collective not-quite-conscious. Most of these views, and the theories behind them, are taken from examples of destructive crowds, such as riots and demonstrations. (Annoyingly, the example of a riot and crowd behaviour used in my A-level textbook was actually about Bristol- not the best side of the city…).

However, looking at studies and observations of crowd behaviour, it is only a minority of crowds that become so destructive; non-violent crowds are researched much more rarely, which doesn’t seem fair.

One of the biggest stereotypes is that crowds are fuelled by their anonymity, as people lose their identities and rationales in the process of deindividuation– this is a popular notion, described in detail by social psychologists like Zimbardo. However, while this does sound like a good explanation, and is useful in some circumstances, it fails to take into account that most people in crowds aren’t anonymous- they normally go to events with friends or family, meaning their actions will be seen so they would be accountable for anything they did while part of the crowd.

A new theory of how people behave in crowds, and to me a more useful one, is Convergence Theory. This theory says that crowd behaviour is not caused by the crowd: instead individuals take their behaviours into the crowd, meaning crowd actions reflect beliefs that are already there. Using this theory, crowd behaviours stop being irrational violence, becoming a more sensible reaction to popular views.

So if convergence theory is true, then the media shouldn’t be so quick to declare crowds as violent and irrational and should instead look towards the reasons behind the crowd, for that will probably provide a much better picture of what behaviour to expect and why.