Archive for the ‘social sciences’ Category

Guys with uncommon names more likely to commit crimes

MSNBC has a story discussing a new study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly which indicates that guys with less common names are more likely to commit crimes than guys with more common names.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

Correcting for race is obviously needed; Hispanics, blacks, and whites often follow different naming conventions for their children.  However, the study would also need to be correct for income; wealthy people and poor people may well follow different conventions when naming kids and poverty often correlates with criminal activity.  The presence of a father also correlates with tendency towards criminality and it seems possible to me that whether a child is named only by his mother or by both his mother and father may influence the sort of name he is given.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”

“Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I am dubious about using a kid’s name to tell how likely he is to commit crimes.  Why not just look at socio-economic status and family situation itself to decide where to focus resources and aid?  Parents should definitely not worry about what name they give their son; just be good parents and he’ll probably turn out fine.

For my part, I would simply point out that according to the Social Security Administration Jacob has been the #1 name for baby boys in the United States for every year between 1999 and 2007 (the latest year for which data are presently available).  You could therefore say that I should be at low risk for committing crimes.

People procrastinate more on abstract than concrete matters

I’ve been putting off writting this blog post for a while.  Anyway, as reported in The Economist, a team of psychologists lead by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz, in Germany, conducted a series of experiments whose results indicate that people procrastinate more when asked to think abstractly than they do when asked to think in more concrete terms.

As the team report in Psychological Science, in all three studies, those who were presented with concrete tasks and information responded more promptly than did those who were asked to think in an abstract way. Moreover, almost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56% of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.

Check the article for details on how the several experiments were conducted.

The Economist story reminded me of another one on procrastination that I’d read in Slate last spring.  The author of that piece argues that we need to examine procrastination across different cultures to see what trends, if any, pop out and laments that not enough such research has been done among, for instance, the indiginous people of New Guinea.

Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he’s going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he’s supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Anyway, the Slate article indicated that Japanese respondants to a survey reported higher levels of procrastination than did Americans; New Zealanders reported less procrastination than did people from the States.

New experiment shows indifference to racism

An interesting experiment reported on by MSNBC indicates that the way people react to overt acts of racism and the way people say they would act to such acts are two different things.

The study involved 120 non-black students from York University in Toronto who were recruited for a purported psychology study.

A participant was directed to a room where two actors posing as fellow participants — one black, one white — waited. The black person said he needed to retrieve a cell phone and left, gently bumping the white person’s leg on the way out. The white actor then did one of three things: Nothing. Said, “I hate when black people do that.” Or used the N-word.

Then a researcher entered and said the “psychology study” was starting and that the student should pick one of the two others as a partner for the testing.

Half the participants just read about that scene, and half actually experienced it.

Those asked to predict their reaction to either comment said they’d be highly upset and wouldn’t choose the white actor as their partner.

Yet students who actually experienced the event didn’t seem bothered by it — and nearly two-thirds chose the white actor as a partner, the researchers report Friday in the journal Science.

The lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, said the results indicate that “just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States.”

Gay adolescents effected by parents’ reactions to coming out

A new study released today in the journal Pediatrics indicates that gay adolescents are greatly impacted by how their parents react to them “coming out.”  In short, youths whose parents are loving and supportive have better outcomes than those whose parents react negatively.

Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.

More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with composure instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.

Check out the article (linked to above) for the definitions and methodology of the study along with more details on the findings.  The study was conducted by a team of researchers from San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute and was led by Caitlin Ryan, the director of adolescent health initiatives.  The study took three years to perform.

The story indicates that more gays and lesbians are coming out earlier in life, with the average age among those in the studies being about 16.

“So many families of children who are gay, bisexual or transgender, particularly families of gay male youth, think that if they are tough on the kid and tell him how unsatisfactory his gay lifestyle is to the family, he will have it knocked out of him,” Vermund said.

Vermund said he also was impressed by Ryan’s finding that a little bit of familial acceptance could go a long way in increasing a child’s chances for future happiness.

“The Southern Baptist doesn’t have to become a Unitarian,” he said. “Someone can still be uncomfortable with their child’s sexual orientation, but if they are somewhat more accepting and do the best the can, they will do the youth a lot of good. That to me is an important message.”

In the event that we want to prevent depression, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide, the results of the study are worth considering.   If the findings of this study are accurate and withstand further scrutiny, maybe they have something to tell us about the way we treat not just homosexual youths, but adult homosexuals in our society as well.

The experience of pain and perceptions of intentionality

According to a new story in the Economist, two psychologists, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, have just published a study in  Psychological Science that indicates our perception of pain may be influenced by whether or not we think it was intentionally inflicted.  Like the famous Milgram experiments (blogged about here), Gray and Wegner’s study involved electric shocks.  When subjects thought that their partner (in actuality a confederate) decided to shock them, they rated the shocks are more painful than equivalent shocks that they were told were administered due to impersonal experimental protocol.

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

Washing your hands may make you evil

Cleanliness may not be next to Godliness after all. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who had been primed with concepts related to cleanliness (e.g. pure, immaculate, pristine, et cetera) or who had just washed their hands were less likely to be troubled by questionable behavior, which they rated on a scale of 0 (perfectly okay) to 9 (very wrong).  The Economist has the story.

The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did. Among the volunteers who unscrambled the sentences, those exposed to ideas of cleanliness rated eating the family dog at 5.7, on average, on the wrongness scale whereas the control group rated it as 6.6. Their score for using a kitten in sexual play was 6.7; the control group individuals gave it 8.3. Similar results arose from the handwashing experiment.

Dr. Simone Schnall conducted the research, which is published in Psychological Science.  The Economist reports that her hypothesis is that “feeling morally unclean (i.e. disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong.”  The article concludes by saying:

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Anyway, if you want to manipulate someone into doing something wrong, get them to wash up before making your proposal.

Women wearing red are seen as more attractive

New research has found yet another way that our thinking is often much less rational and far more influenced by external factors than we’d like to admit.  These findings, produced by a team led by psychology professor Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester in New York, indicate that men find women who wear the color red to be more physically attractive than those who wear other colors.

Ladies, wear this color if you want to be seen as more physically attractive to men

Ladies, wear this color if you want to be seen as more physically attractive to men

They did several sets of experiments.  In one, researchers used a computer to modify the color of clothing worn by women in various pictures.  Men who saw a picture of a given woman wearing red rated her, on average, as being more attractive than did men who saw the same woman in the same photo but with her shirt changed to a different color.  In the other set of experiments, men were shown pictures of women that were unmodified but that were framed with a colored border.  Women were rated as more physically attractive and sexually desirable when their pictures were framed with red than when they were framed with another color.

Homosexual men and color blind men were excluded from the study, which utilized about 100 men, mostly college undergraduates.  They did not rate women wearing red any differently in terms of intelligence, likability, or kindness—only attractiveness.  Researchers conclude “The women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colours.” The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The lead researcher notes that:

throughout history many cultures have linked sex with the colour red, ranging from ancient peoples who used ochre body paints on fertile females to modern-day “red-light” districts.

But Dr. Elliot speculated that men’s response to red may also have deep biological roots that go beyond a learned cultural response. The sexual parts of female baboons and chimpanzees take on a conspicuously red hue when they are reaching ovulation. In similar fashion, many human females will become flush-faced when they are interested in a male, Dr. Elliot said.

“It may well be that males have this deep-seated sense of red indicating sexual availability,” he speculated. “I think females can use that to their advantage—and to wear it or not, depending on their desires.”

So, ladies, this should make it easier for you to decide what to wear on your next first date.  If you like the guy, wear red; if you want to lose him, wear another color.  Or maybe just wear red anyway, because in other research conducted by those same scientists, men said they were willing to spend more money on a date if she were wearing red than if she were wearing another color.

Watching certain TV shows correlates with teen pregnancy

The results of an interesting study that’s been reported on today demonstrates a meaningful positive correlation between the amount of sexual content that teens view on TV and their chances of getting or causing a pregnancy.

The RAND Corp. study is the first of its kind to identify a link between teenagers’ exposure to sexual content on TV and teen pregnancies. The study, released Monday and published in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics, found that teens exposed to high levels of sexual content on television were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy in the following three years as teens with limited exposure.

The study was paid for by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and follows a 2004 study by some of the same scientists that indicated watching sexual content on TV can make teens more likely to have sex at earlier ages.  The authors, lead by Anita Chandra, point out that teen pregnancy is a complicated issue influenced by many variables.  While the study found that the correlation remained when factors like grades, family structure and parents’ education level were considered, the study didn’t control for other issues, like self esteem, family values, and income.  Looking at those variables would be a good next step.

The researchers are calling for more realistic plotlines in television that address the possible consequences of sexual activity, which is rarely, if ever, shown as leading to unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. “Right now the message teens are getting is that everything is great, and there really are no consequences to sex,” Chandra said.

Two recent high-profile teen pregnancies, those of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, also have some of these qualities.  Both individuals have many advantages in terms of finances and family that will help them as they move forward and raise their children; they won’t be as inconvenienced and limited by having to raise children as many young women would be, possibly giving a false impression on how easy and glamorous it is to raise children as a teen who hasn’t even graduated from high school yet.

Many social conservatives will welcome this news.  If so, they should also accept the massive amounts of data that indicate that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work to prevent teen pregnancy or STDs.  (See, for instance, here, here, and here.) All sex education includes information on abstinence; abstinence education isn’t the problem, the problem is abstinence-only sex ed that excludes information on everything else—and which frequently even give incorrect information to students.

It seems to me that to have the best chances of teens—and other people—making the best sex-related decisions, we should make sure our schools are giving the best information possible and that those messages aren’t being drowned out by a bunch of misleading and unchecked messages from TV and the rest of our society that give people wrong impressions.  Let’s give people good information, help them think critically about the issues involved, and then trust them to make their own decisions.

Researchers learn about lovesickness from rodents

A group of reseachers led by Larry Young, a psychiatry professor at Emory University’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, in Atlanta, have some interesting findings on the causes of lovesickness.  They studied prairie voles, one of the few animals that generally practices lifelong monogamy, and discovered changes in brain chemistry when a prairie vole is separated from its mate.  (See “Brain Chemical Could Spur Lovesickness“)

Young and his group examined the brains of a variety of adult male voles. Some of the voles had lifelong female partners, while other hadn’t had time to form such bonds and were best acquainted with brother or sister voles.

All of the voles were subjected to brief stress tests, such as a swimming challenge, or being placed in a maze.

“The ones who were [still] with a partner, or had just been separated from a sibling so they never formed a romantic bond in the first place, actively avoided the aversive or stressful situation,” Young noted.

But what about male voles who had been recently separated from a longtime female partner?

These voles “basically were passive — they gave up,” Young said. “I would be hesitant to say that these animals were depressed, but their behavior is reminiscent of what you would see in a depressed person.”

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

The brains of the lovesick voles had heightened activity of a chemical messenger called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) in an area of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain heavily involved in emotions.  When the researchers administered a drug that blocked CRF activity, the behavioral differences between the voles who’d been separated from their mates and those that were not disappeared.  CRF activity kicked in only when the vole was separated from a longtime female partner, not a sibling companion.

This all suggests a mechanism designed to push mating pairs back together if separated.  It also suggests, according to experts, the possibility of a pharmaceutical fix for lovesickness.

The findings were published on Oct. 15 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.