Our lives are governed by both fast and slow – by quick, intuitive decisions based on our gut feelings; and by deliberate, ponderous ones based on careful reflection. How do these varying speeds affect our choices? Consider the many situations when we must put our own self-interest against the public good, from giving to charity to paying out taxes. Are we naturally prone to selfishness, behaving altruistically only through slow acts of self-control? Or do we intuitively reveal our better angels, giving way to self-interest as we take time to think?
According to David Rand from Harvard University, it’s the latter. Through a series of experiments, he has found that, on average, people behave more selflessly if they make decisions quickly and intuitively. If they take time to weigh things up, cooperation gives way to selfishness. The title of his paper – “Spontaneous giving and calculated greed” – says it all.
On November 2nd, 2010, more than 61 million adults visited Facebook’s website, and every single one of them unwittingly took part in a massive experiment. It was a randomised controlled trial, of the sort used to conclusively test the worth of new medicines. But rather than drugs or vaccines, this trial looked at the effectiveness of political messages, and the influence of our friends, in swaying our actions. And unlike most medical trials, this one had a sample size in the millions.
It was the day of the US congressional elections. The vast majority of the users aged 18 and over (98 percent of them) saw a “social message” at the top of their News Feed, encouraging them to vote. It gave them a link to local polling places, and clickable button that said “I voted”. They could see how many people had clicked the button on a counter, and which of their friends had done so through a set of randomly selected profile pictures.
But the remaining 2 percent saw something different, thanks to a team of scientists, led by James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego. Half of them saw the same box, wording, button and counter, but without the pictures of their friends—this was the “informational message” group. The other half saw nothing—they were the “no message” group.
By comparing the three groups, Fowler’s team showed that the messages mobilised people to express their desire to vote by clicking the button, and the social ones even spurred some to vote. These effects rippled through the network, affecting not just friends, but friends of friends. By linking the accounts to actual voting records, Fowler estimated that tens of thousands of votes eventually cast during the election were generated by this single Facebook message.
There’s a bizarre mindset that divides medicine into “natural” (made from plants; untainted by villainous pharmaceutical companies; delivered to your veins by forest animals) and everything else (“man-made” pills fashioned from profits and poisons). The reality, of course, is that many of the drugs used in our hospitals and pharmacies come from plants. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. Paclitaxel (taxol) was isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree; today, it is used to stop cancer cells from dividing. The rose periwinkle has given us vinblastine and vincristine, both used to treat leukaemia.
These examples scratch the surface of what the botanical world has given us, and what it might still offer. Of the tens of thousands of plants used in “traditional medicine”, a piddling proportion has been tested for chemicals with medical benefits. How do we find the rest? How do we go about the business of “bioprospecting”? One solution is to tap the knowledge of indigenous populations, who still rely on plants for traditional medicine. When they get sick, how do they heal themselves?
But this approach has problems. Traditional use doesn’t always imply an actual medical benefit, and the chosen plants might not yield interesting chemicals any more readily than the species around them. Many attempts to follow such leads have ended in the drug-development cul-de-sac. To make matters worse, collating traditional knowledge involves fieldwork and training, and is both expensive and time-consuming.
Meanwhile, the tools of molecular biology have become faster and cheaper. Companies can afford to gather large collections of plants, and screen their constituent chemicals en masse. Why filter them any further when you can test thousands of samples at once? But Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis from Imperial College London thinks that this scattershot approach to bioprospecting is a mistake. To him, traditional knowledge still has great value in honing our search for tomorrow’s drugs.
A baseball speeds from the hands of a pitcher, a slave to Newton’s laws. But in the brain of the batter who is watching it, something odd happens. Time seems to dawdle. The ball moves in slow motion, and becomes clearer. Players of baseball, tennis and other ball sports have described this dilation of time. But why does it happen? Does the brain merely remember time passing more slowly after the fact? Or do experienced players develop Matrix-style abilities, where time genuinely seems to move more slowly?
According to five experiments from Nobuhiro Hagura at University College London, it’s the latter. When we prepare to make a movement – say, the swing of a bat – our ability to process visual information speeds up. The result: the world seems to move slower.
That being said, there’s an interesting new study showing that people can learn new information when they sleep. Earlier work tells us that we can certainly strengthen existing memories when we slumber, but actually adding new information is different. And retaining that information when we wake up, even if we have no actual awareness of what we learned, is just plain cool.
I wrote about the new study for The Scientist. Head on over.
Image by Alessandro Zangrilli
It’s June in the Arctic tundra, and male pectoral sandpiper hasn’t slept for weeks. He’s too busy trying to have sex. The females will only be fertile for three short weeks, and they’re very choosy. A male has to spend his time chasing the females and displaying with his puffed-up breast, while fighting off rivals and maintaining control of his territory. With so much at stake and so little time, there is simply no time for sleeping.
You might have thought that this constant activity would take its toll on the male. Sleep, after all, is important for our physical and mental wellbeing. Males who go without it for too long should be too tired and addled to make successful suitors. But not so – John Lesku from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology found that the males who slept the least actually sired the most offspring.
In his lab at Indiana University, James Goodson keeps violet-eared waxbills – a stunning but notoriously aggressive type of finch. Males and females form life-long bonds but they don’t play well with others. “Most of our animals are housed in male-female pairs, but were you to introduce another adult into their cage, most of them would attack immediately,” says Goodson. But some of Goodson’s birds don’t fit the stereotype. They almost never attack intruders.
These birds weren’t born docile. They became that way after Goodson stopped a special group of neurons in their brains from releasing a chemical called VIP. This single act turned fighters into pacifists and confirmed, in dramatic fashion, that there’s a special class of cell that drives aggression in these bird brains.
Following yesterday’s Twitter rant about oxytocin, the hype hormone, Laura Helmuth from Slate contacted me to do an extended cut. That piece is now up. I elaborate on my problems with the hype, what the current state of oxytocin science is, and why it’s damaging, at greater length. If you’re a fan of science, snark and conjunctions, check it out.
Imagine a molecule that underlies the virtues that glue societies together. Imagine that it brought out the better angels of our nature with just a sniff and could “rebond our troubled world.” Imagine that it was the “source of love and prosperity” and explained “what makes us good and evil.”
Well, carry on imagining. This is a story about oxytocin, and oxytocin is not that molecule.
And thanks to everyone here and on Twitter for the supportive comments. It seems there’s been a simmering undercurrent of frustration over this, among neuroscientists, physiologists and science writers particularly. Happy to help. And thanks to Laura too – I always like it when bloggy hype-busting rants get a chance to go mainstream.
Image by Samout3
The Guardian has run a woeful ad interview about oxytocin, featuring Paul Zak who has a book to sell about the topic. This follows on from their woeful ad interview about oxytocin last August, featuring Paul Zak who has a book to sell about the topic. (In the middle, there was a decent piece by Gareth Leng, who does not have a book to sell about the topic – a momentary lapse, I’m sure.)
You may have heard of oxytocin as the “moral molecule” or the “hug hormone” or the “cuddle chemical”. Unleashed by hugs, available in a handy nasal spray, and possessed with the ability to boost trust, empathy and a laundry list of virtues, it is apparently the cure to all the world’s social ills.
Except it’s not.
As per usual, it’s a little more complicated than that. I had a bit of a rant about oxytocin hype this morning on Twitter, which Rachel Feltman kindly collected into a Storify. It’s below, or you can search for the hashtag #schmoxytocin. Alternatively, a link to the actual page on Storify.
Also, here’s a link to my New Scientist feature about oxytocin (PDF) where I talk about why it’s much more than a simple “hug hormone” and why hype about oxytocins has the potential to do some real damage to vulnerable people.
Last month, I wrote about the case of Dirk Smeesters, a psychologist who resigned from his Dutch University after an investigation found signs of misconduct in two of his papers. Unlike previous cases of fraud in psychology, Smeesters was busted not by internal whistleblowers who knew intimate details of his case, but by an external party who looked at his papers and did some statistical detective work.
Last week, I interviewed Uri Simonsohn, the stats sleuth in question. During the interview, he mentioned that by the time he saw Smeesters’ work, he had already started looking at another psychologist, whom he suspected of misconduct. That individual had apparently been investigated by his university, although no details had been released.
Simonsohn has now revealed to me that the mysterious other party is Lawrence Sanna, a social psychologist formerly at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and more recently at the University of Michigan. Sanna worked on judgment, decision-making, and more recently morality. One of his latest papers – apparently showing that the link between physical altitude and moral behaviour was more than just metaphor – was widely covered.
UNC confirmed that they had launched a review, and University of Michigan confirmed that Sanna left his post effective 31 March 2012. But there the details stop. While Erasmus University Rotterdam released a full report on its investigation into Smeesters, neither of Sanna’s institutions are revealing any details about the investigation’s outcome or the reasons for Sanna’s resignation. UNC informed me that NC law forbids them from revealing information about personnel matters such as this.
I’ve written up the story for Nature News – and carefully, because of the relative lack of information. Head over there to find out the full story of Simonsohn’s investigation, the timeline of his contact with Sanna and the universities, and the fate of some of the suspected papers.