I See Psychology… Everywhere

College Students More Narcissistic

Kudos to Jean Twenge for her fine work on the increased narcissism in today’s college students.

“We need to stop endlessly repeating ‘You’re special’ and having children repeat that back,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. “Kids are self-centered enough already.”

I suspect we’ll see more of this kind of assertion as the “millenial student” matriculates.

Although college seems to be a somewhat narcissistic age for many of us, the changes under way are disconcerting and warrant the kind of solid scholarship that Dr. Twenge is conducting.

27 February 2007 Posted by | Developmental, Social, Students | Leave a comment

Ok, So Does Weight Cause Cognitive Deficits?

Here‘s another article about predictors of cognitive deficits. Seems more weight is linked to poorer mental acumen. The headline is better than most, in that it doesn’t plead causality, but it still doesn’t clarify theory underlying the phenomenon, although some suggestions come up, and the author mentions a couple covariates that didn’t seem to explain what’s going on. Interesting stuff!

In general, the researchers found, people with a high body mass index (BMI) garnered lower test scores than those with a lower BMI. They also tended to show greater cognitive decline between the two test periods.

Factors such as age, education and general health did not seem to explain the link.

10 October 2006 Posted by | Cognitive, Research, Students | Leave a comment

Illusory Causality? “Teeth Improve Memory”

As I’ve noted before, I keep a collection of dubious causal claims, at least in terms of the headline. Here‘s another that caught my attention.

Well, there are multiple explanations for this odd-sounding claim.  The researchers claim that it’s the chewing process that brings blood to the brain, with obvious benefits.  Makes sense, but again, the headline doesn’t say that chewing improves memory.  So maybe the relationship is indirect.
Admitting that I haven’t read the original articles, there are a host of other possible explanations, depending upon the researchers’ techniques.  By the description in this pop press article, the study does not employ random assignment (seems a bit unethical to do such a thing), so the causal claim is a problem.  For example, my first reaction was that people with generally better health (i.e., nutrition, attention to healthy living) may experience better memory and better dental health.  Maybe genetics are the key, and those predisposed to suffer mental degradation are also predisposed to “dental degradation” if we can call it that.  Heck, it’s even possible that sugary foods, which we know contribute to tooth loss, also contribute to memory loss.

The point is that the researchers can’t rule that out, and although I’m confident that their article includes the relevant caveats, the press tends to simplify stories to make claims that the authors don’t intend.

Let’s repeat the mantra:  Correlation does not imply causation!

6 October 2006 Posted by | Research, Students | 1 Comment

Justice and Profiling in the Real World

New Orleans is one of the few places in the country where one can walk around with an open container of alcohol. To me, it actually makes sense, and the ban almost everywhere else seems kind of weird. Nevertheless, until recently your booze couldn’t be in glass, but that rule fell under accusations that it was racist or classist or both. I’m not really certain of the logic here, but it was an interesting move. I’ve always been intrigued by ambiguity in the world like this. Read on…

I was very pleased to read that Harvard has decided to eliminate its early admissions policy. That’s not to say I’ve long been lobbying for this move (I’d never thought of it before), but as soon as I heard about it it struck me as a move for a more level playing field. I have had a number of students who could have done very well as scholars, but because they were strapped with financial or time concerns, or they simply didn’t know the ropes, they would not have been granted early admissions anywhere, even if they did know enough to apply. Here’s hoping that more schools (especially the elite) will follow suit.

Still, some strange disadvantages and preferences remain in our world, and I’ve encountered several in New Orleans recently, all of which are ambiguous.

Last semester, one of my students told me that a bar near Tulane changed its admittance sign over time, first saying that you had to be of a certain age, then saying you had to have a college ID, and then saying the ID had to be from Tulane or Loyola. Were Xavier students banned, or was the position that they couldn’t authenticate XU students’ IDs?

Earlier this year, St. Tammany Parish’s Sheriff Jack Strain said that people walking around with certain hairstyles were not welcome. As representatives of New Orleans that he dubbed “thugs” and “trash,” Strain said:

I don’t want to get into calling people names, but if you’re going to walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy.

Well, at least he didn’t want to call anyone names! I actually had a letter to the paper published above the fold saying that my students had never heard that term, so maybe it refers to white collar criminals, in which case I’m all for the profiling! A colleague wrote a great post expressing his concern over getting in trouble, just in case he has one of the hairstyles in question.

But then I read about some potential profiling among some more like-minded people in the NOLA blogosphere. Does Jack Strain own the Half Moon? At what point is banning clothing associated with unwanted people inappropriate, immoral, or illegal? Ah, the ambiguity!

236435823_0aa8aac90f.jpgFinally, there’s the issue of the African American transvestite gang of thiefs on Magazine Street. My favorite costume shop has taken to closing until the crime gets solved. The article says that the merchants close up shop when one of them sees the group coming. Maybe that profiling is a little different, but is that only because it’s such a specific (and perhaps more fringe) subgroup? If I’m a law-abiding African American transvestite with my similar friends, should I be barred from the store? No one really favors profiling, but we often do it, whether we realize it or not.

I don’t know the answers to these quandaries, and I sympathize with crime victims, but I also think it’s important to think critically about our responses. Just as getting rid of the skycaps didn’t make any sense after 9/11, some of our responses here may cast an unfairly wide net and may create a society we don’t really want. Even if the immediate response is desirable to some of the people who make the decisions.

12 September 2006 Posted by | Stereotyping, Prejudice, & Discrimination, Students | 1 Comment

Telephone ESP?

Well, it appears that a scientist has found evidence of people’s ability to know who’s calling them. Many of us have had that experience, but I’ve always dismissed it as a biased perception or memory (i.e., we don’t notice when we’re wrong). I haven’t read the article, but I expect some strong critiques coming out, especially given the researcher’s admitted beliefs in the phenomenon.

6 September 2006 Posted by | Critical Thinking/Parapsychology, Students | Leave a comment

Erroneous Causality Argument

In my classes when I cover research methods, I show some newspaper articles that appropriately or inappropriately argue causality. I think it’s nice to show that journalists (and researchers) often read more into their data than they should, but it’s also nice to make the point about 3rd variables and reverse causality problems.

Here‘s a great example I got from Yahoo’s news site. The headline: Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex. They provide little hint of the possibility that kids who have sex are drawn to music that contains such lyrics. Even the researchers make this assertion without acknowledging alternative explanations.

I’m not sayin’ that the claim is wrong, just that they don’t have the basis for the argument, at least beyond speculation.

7 August 2006 Posted by | Research, Social, Students | Leave a comment