Daily Archives: July 3, 2008

Milgram revisited

The NY Times reports on the continuing debate in psychological science over the ramifications of a famous experiement conducted nearly a half-century ago by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram.

[Milgram’s] obedience studies of the early 1960s… together form one of the darkest mirrors the field has held up to the human face. In a series of about 20 experiments, hundreds of decent, well-intentioned people agreed to deliver what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks to another person, as part of what they thought was a learning experiment. The “learner” was in fact an actor, usually seated out of sight in an adjacent room, pretending to be zapped.

Researchers, social commentators and armchair psychologists have pored through Milgram’s data ever since, claiming psychological and cultural insights. Now, decades after the original work (Milgram died in 1984, at 51), two new papers illustrate the continuing power of the shock experiments — and the diverse interpretations they still inspire.

The article raises some excellent criticisms of Milgram’s research (chief among which are the ecological validity issues inherent in any ‘lab’ experiment), but also points out other researchers’ evidence that converges with Milgram’s findings.  If you’ve never read Milgram, I recommend his work for anyone interested in judgment/decision-making, group dynamics, and the psychology of power and control.


Does early childhood temperment carries through to later life?

Reuters (via MSNBC.com) reports on research by Lahey et. al. regarding the correlation between an infant’s behavior (and its interactions with parents) and the child’s temperment later in life:

The study, which followed nearly 1,900 children from infancy up to age 13, found that children whose mothers gave them plenty of intellectual stimulation in the first year of life — reading to them, talking to them and taking them out of the house — were less likely to have serious behavioral problems.

At the same time, the odds of behavior problems were also linked to certain measures of the children’s temperament during infancy — such as how “fussy” they were, or whether they had a generally happy or more moody disposition.

I don’t know much about research on temperment but I note that famed Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that cognitive development is driven by one’s interactions with others; much contemporary research supports Vygotsky’s view.

Diffusion spectrum imaging reveals ‘roadmap’ of brain

The Public Library of Science has just published online a study by Hagmann et. al. which describes the authors’ use of diffusion spectrum imaging to map the ‘structural core’ of cerebral cortex.  The study’s abstract reads as follows:

Structurally segregated and functionally specialized regions of the human cerebral cortex are interconnected by a dense network of cortico-cortical axonal pathways. By using diffusion spectrum imaging, we noninvasively mapped these pathways within and across cortical hemispheres in individual human participants. An analysis of the resulting large-scale structural brain networks reveals a structural core within posterior medial and parietal cerebral cortex, as well as several distinct temporal and frontal modules. Brain regions within the structural core share high degree, strength, and betweenness centrality, and they constitute connector hubs that link all major structural modules. The structural core contains brain regions that form the posterior components of the human default network. Looking both within and outside of core regions, we observed a substantial correspondence between structural connectivity and resting-state functional connectivity measured in the same participants. The spatial and topological centrality of the core within cortex suggests an important role in functional integration.

“Moral hypocrisy,” perception, and decision-making

The NY Times reports on research into moral hypocrisy:

[Does a] hypocrite really believe, in his heart, what he is saying?

Fortunately, we don’t need to get into the fine points of taxes or campaign finances to take a stab at these questions. We can probably get further by looking at some experiments in what psychologists call moral hypocrisy.

This is a more devious form of hypocrisy than what was exhibited by, say, the governor of New York when he got caught patronizing a prostitute. It was obviously hypocritical behavior for a public official who had formerly prosecuted prostitutes and increased penalties for their customers, but at least Eliot Spitzer acknowledged his actions were wrong by anyone’s standards.

The moral hypocrite, by contrast, has convinced himself that he is acting virtuously even when he does something he would condemn in others.