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Psychology
In 2004, the researchers Jacqueline Woolley, Elizabeth Boerger, and Arthur Markman conducted a study at the University of Texas at Austin in which they told young children (ages 3 to 5) at a childcare center about the "Candy Witch." This was the script they used:

'Let me tell you about the Candy Witch. I have never seen the Candy Witch so I don't have a real picture of her. But somebody made a doll that looks like her, and I have a picture of that. Here it is. This is what she looks like. (Speaker shows picture of a Candy Witch doll and passes the picture around.) She's a really nice witch. And do you know what she loves best of all? Candy! She eats candy for breakfast, and candy for lunch, and candy for dinner. She has to brush her teeth a lot!

Do you know where she gets all that candy? Well, I'll tell you. Every Halloween night, after the kids are all asleep she leaves her house and flies around. And she carries with her a big bag of toys – brand-new toys. And do you know what she does with those toys? I'll tell you. Some children don't want all that candy they collected. They'd rather have a toy instead. So, their mom and dad call the Candy Witch on the phone and tell her to come. Then they leave their candy for the Candy Witch to take, and she gives them a new toy in its place. This way, she gets all the candy she wants, and the kids get new toys!

(She always leaves a few pieces of candy though; she doesn't take it all.).
Now, some kids don't want the Candy Witch to take their candy and leave a brand-new toy. So she won't come to their house. But other kids really do want the Candy Witch to come to their house and leave a toy for them. She only goes to the houses of kids who want her to come.'

In the write-up of the study [PDF], published in the journal Developmental Science, the researchers said their goal was to find out how easily the children could be made to believe in a "novel fantastical being." Would they totally accept the Candy Witch, because an adult had told them about her? Or would they, at even such a young age, be skeptical? They found that the majority of the kids did express belief in the Candy Witch after Halloween. However, "not all children accepted the Candy Witch, and that those who did exhibited a range of belief levels."

Since 2004, the experiment has become somewhat famous, and it's been taken to mean that children aren't quite as credulous as once thought. They can be fooled pretty easily, but they're not entirely passive sponges soaking up whatever they're told.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the experiment left one question unanswered: How many kids believed that line about the Candy Witch being "a really nice witch"? She sounds a little malevolent to me, swooping into people's houses and stealing their candy. Are we seriously supposed to accept that she isn't up to something? Perhaps that was the real test of credulity, and all the kids flunked it!

In fact, maybe these "researchers" were part of a covert PR team hired by the Candy Witch to convince everyone that she's "really nice." And then, when we all have our guard down — that's when she'll strike!

So this Halloween, watch out for the Candy Witch!
Categories: Paranormal, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Thu Oct 31, 2013
Comments (0)
A brief personality profile test has been circulating online, where it's identified as having been authored by "Dr. Phil" (Dr. Phillip McGraw). However, Dr. Phil has disavowed any connection with the test.

So the question is, where does this test come from? Sleuths on the Snopes message boards tracked down a version of it that was posted on USENET back in 1994, at which time it was attributed to a Dr. Charles Vine.

With that info, it was relatively simple to do a google search and find a version of the test that was included in a 1987 book titled Great Ideas: Listening and speaking activities for students of American English.

This book, in turn, acknowledged that the test was "Copyright 1978 by Cleo Magazine." So Cleo magazine (which is an Australian women's magazine) must be the original source.

I can't find any clues about who Dr. Charles Vine was. Either he was an Australian doctor who didn't publish much else, or he was a pseudonym of a Cleo magazine staff writer.

So, to summarize, here's the history of "Dr. Phil's Personality Test":
  • 1978: First published in Cleo magazine as a test, authored by "Dr. Charles Vine," titled, "Do you see yourself as others see you?"
  • 1987: Dr. Vine's test is reprinted in the book Great Ideas.
  • 1994: The test first appears online.
  • 2002: By this time, the test is circulating online without any indication of who authored it.
  • circa 2009: The test starts being attributed to Dr. Phil.
  • 2010: Dr. Phil denies that he authored the test.
  • 2013: The test becomes "one of the hottest social media shares of the moment" (as David Emery puts it).
It just goes to show that once something enters the black morass of the internet, it circulates there endlessly, occasionally being spewed upwards to the top of the feeding pile, before settling back down, once again, into the darkness. Look for Dr. Phil's Test to return to internet fame sometime around 2025.

Below is the original version of the test (and the key to score it).


Add the scores from your answers together and read the interpretation found below.

POINTS:
1. (a) 2 (b) 4 (c) 6
2. (a) 6 (b) 4 (c) 7 (d) 2 (e) 1
3. (a) 4 (b) 2 (c) 5 (d) 7 (e) 6
4. (a) 4 (b) 6 (c) 2 (d) 1
5. (a) 6 (b) 4 (c) 3 (d) 5 (e) 2
6. (a) 6 (b) 4 (c) 2
7. (a) 6 (b) 2 (c) 4
8. (a) 6 (b) 7 (c) 5 (d) 4 (e) 3 (f) 2 (g) 1
9. (a) 7 (b) 6 (c) 4 (d) 2 (e) 1
10. (a) 4 (b) 2 (c) 3 (d) 5 (e) 6 (f) 1

INTERPRETATION:
Over 60 points: Others see you as someone they should "handle with care". You are seen as vain, seft-centred, and extremely dominant. Others may admire you and wish they could be more like you, but they don't always trust you and hesitate to become too deeply involved with you.

From 51 to 60 points: Your friends see you as an exciting, highly volatile, rather impulsive personality; a natural leader, quick to make decisions (though not always the right ones). They see you as bold and venturesome, someone who will try anything - well almost anything - once; some who takes a chance and enjoys an adventure. They enjoy being in your company because of the excitement you radiate.

From 41 to 50 points: Others see you as fresh, lively, charming, amusing, and always interesting; someone who is constantly the centre of attention, but sufficiently well-balanced not to let it go to your head. They see you also as kind, considerate, and understanding; someone who will cheer them up or help them out.

From 31 to 40 points: Others see you as sensible, cautious, careful and practical. They see you as clever, gifted, or talented, but modest. Not a person who makes friends too quickly or too easily, but someone who is extremely loyal to the friends you do makes and expects the same loyalty in return. Those who really get to know you realize that it takes a lot to shake your trust in your friends, but, equally, that it takes you a long time to get over it if that trust is taken.

From 21 to 30 points: Your friends see you as painstaking, perhaps a little too fussy at times. They see you as very, very cautious and extremely careful, a slow and steady plodder. It would really surprise them if you ever did something impulsively or on the spur of the moment. They expect you to examine everything very carefully from every side and then, usually, decide against it. They think this reaction on your part is caused partly by your careful nature and partly by laziness.

Under 21 points: People think you are shy, nervous, and indecisive, someone who needs to be looked after, who always wants someone else to make the decisions and who does not want to get involved with anyone or anything. They see you as a worrier, who sees problems that don't exist. Some people think that you boring. Only the people that know you well know that you aren't. The trouble is that you don't let many people get close to you.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 26, 2013
Comments (0)
Gina Perry has authored a new book about Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment (Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments) in which she argues that Milgram fudged his data and conclusions. Boing Boing reviews it.


Perry suggests the fudging happened in several ways:
  • First, although Milgram claimed his experiment always followed a set script, Perry reviewed the original audio tapes and found this wasn't the case. Instead, Milgram's experimenter "wheedled and nagged the subjects into turning up the shock dial."
  • Second, she argues that a substantial portion of the experimental subjects saw through Milgram's ruse and realized that they weren't actually shocking someone.
I'll have to read Perry's book to get her full argument, but it was my impression that her allegations aren't exactly new. Milgram's experiment met with a lot of skepticism from other researchers. But other researchers have conducted versions of his experiment and, for the most part, gotten similar results.

For instance, in Elephants on Acid I write about how many people suspected that Milgram's subjects saw through his ruse. Therefore, two researchers conducted a version of the experiment in which subjects were asked to shock a victim (a puppy) — and the puppy actually got shocked! ("Obedience to authority with an authentic victim" - PDF). In other words, they eliminated the ruse. And their results were similar to Milgram's. The majority of their subjects obeyed the command to shock the puppy.

I'm sure Perry must address this, but I don't know how. Looks like another book to add to the pile.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 12, 2013
Comments (0)
Here's a prank that's also an interesting experiment in social psychology. In the middle of a busy public square, a big sign over a red button says, "DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON." Of course, random people walking by inevitably do push the button. At which point, everyone in the square appears to drop dead. So what does the person who pushed the button do? Does he/she try to help the people? No. Every single person who pushed the button runs away, as if trying to escape being found out.

The prank was filmed in a square in Rio de Janeiro. The TV presenter Silvio Santos provides a narration (in portuguese). More info at forbes.com.


Categories: Pranks, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Feb 20, 2013
Comments (4)
Little white lies are part of the lubricant that keeps the cogs of the social machinery running. For instance, if someone tells a bad joke, we usually smile. We don't tell them they're not funny, because that would be rude and might hurt their feelings. The problem (according to Joyce Ehrlinger, a professor of psychology at Florida State University) is that sometimes these little white lies can be dangerous if people take them too seriously and become overconfident in their abilites. In such cases, being less polite would help to deflate the ego of these people and bring them back to reality. Ehrlinger explains:

"There's definitely no harm in some types of overconfidence, and I am not suggesting that we should stop living in a polite society. The worst that might come from someone believing that they are funnier than, in reality, they are is a bit of embarrassment or wasted effort auditioning for 'America's Got Talent.'"
That said, she argues it's important to note when politeness might come at a cost. There are many times when overconfidence carries serious consequences.
"Overconfident doctors and lawyers might offer their patients or clients poor advice," she said. "There are ways in which overconfidence is dangerous, and it might be important to set aside politeness in the service of helping people avoid the perils of overconfidence."

I can see a problem here. If the overconfident person is your boss, or someone with power over you, it wouldn't be a good idea to risk insulting them. In such cases, how do you ever guide the person back to reality?
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 30, 2012
Comments (5)
As part of an ongoing effort to battle a culture of corruption, the Indonesian government is opening Honesty Cafes, designed to teach people the value of honesty. Snacks and drinks are available, and you pay on the honor system, putting your money into a clear plastic box. From the NY Times:

The attorney general’s office says the honesty cafes will nip in the bud corrupt tendencies among the young and straighten out those known for indulging in corrupt practices, starting with civil servants. By shifting the responsibility of paying correctly to the patrons themselves, the cafes are meant to force people to think constantly about whether they are being honest and, presumably, make them feel guilty if they are not.

It's a cute idea, but I think the reasoning behind it is flawed, because even if people behave honestly in the cafes, that doesn't mean the behavior is going to transfer to other contexts.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Thu Jun 18, 2009
Comments (5)
Too close to a fake thing. Brett Westcott and Cameron Brown like to stand on a corner in Times Square and compliment people walking by. They say they're doing this in a genuine attempt to spread good cheer. The problem is, many people have difficulty judging their sincerity:

Brown admits some students think they're playing a practical joke. "Some people question our sincerity, but we're 100 percent sincere. We wouldn't be doing this for two hours every Wednesday for eight months if we didn't mean it... The worst response we've gotten is the middle finger, or they just tell us to shut up. But then we give them positive reinforcement for that."

If I was walking down the street and someone yelled out, "Hey, nice pants!" or something similar, I'd assume they were being a wise-ass.
Categories: Pranks, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Mon Mar 16, 2009
Comments (10)
A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that women are far more skilled at faking romantic interest than men. The experiment involved a speed-dating session. Observers were asked to guess how the men and women felt about each other. Turns out it was easy to guess how the men felt, but no one had a clue how the women felt. The researchers could have simply asked any average guy who would have told them that, most of the time, we have no clue what women are thinking. That's the feminine mystique. Link: Chicago Tribune.
Categories: Psychology, Science, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 03, 2009
Comments (3)
A study published in the October issue of Psychological Science has found that people who feel rejected are significantly better at spotting fake smiles than are other people. (Link: US News & World Report.) Those who feel rejected can accurately detect fake smiles 80% of the time, versus only 50% for other groups.

According to the author of the study, "It's not clear why rejection may boost the ability to figure out when someone else is faking an emotion. It may have something to do with a primitive need to fit in with others and to detect what they're really thinking."

I think it may have something to do with a concept long recognized in psychology: that people with a slightly negative self-image are better at spotting BS than people with high self-esteem. Why would this be? As my college social psychology textbook explains:

Individuals with negative self-concepts do not engage in the kinds of self-justifying behaviors that are typical of people with relatively high-self-esteem.

Still, I suspect the vast majority of the people in the world would much rather be happy and self-deluded than sad and good at spotting fake smiles.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 19, 2008
Comments (8)
Britain's Financial Services Authority has found a new group to blame for the financial crisis: naive traders spreading rumors. It cites one example of a trader who "spread a piece of 'hot news' to 10 to 12 of his friends over a messaging system without making clear that it was a rumour. One of his contacts then did not hesitate to spread the message on to 150 of his contacts."

To counter the problem, the FSA is urging companies to adopt policies "on how to deal with rumours and monitoring chat sessions, phone calls and emails from traders."

Good thing it's tackling this problem. And once it's succeeded in making the stockmarket perfectly sane and rational, perhaps it would consider cleaning up the internet as well.
Categories: Business/Finance, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 19, 2008
Comments (2)
University of Memphis psychologist Rick Dale used a Nintendo Wii in an experiment to show that the human brain is wired to believe before it doubts. I don't think this is a new finding. It makes sense that the brain has to assume all incoming info is true, in case a quick reaction is needed. For instance, it wouldn't be wise to stand around debating with yourself whether the tiger leaping out of the jungle is real or fake. Doubt, therefore, takes second place in the brain's hierarchy of information processing. Which is one reason (among others) why people fall for hoaxes.

The particular design of Dale's experiment (via Silicon Republic):

Participants in the experiment used the Wiimote to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to questions such as ‘Can a kangaroo walk backwards?’ The results showed that it took longer for participants to decide that a statement was false, rather than true.

In many cases, the cursor travelled first toward the yes, and then curved over to no.

For the researchers, this indicated two things. Firstly, the body was in motion before the cognitive processing was completed.

Secondly, the participants really wanted to believe most of the statements were true, even though they decided quickly that some of them were not.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 17, 2008
Comments (3)
On the New York Times opinion page Stanley Fish recently offered some thoughts about the Wine Spectator hoax, comparing it to the Sokal hoax of the 1990s. After musing about the two hoaxes, he draws this lesson about hoaxes in general:

a hoax that is sufficiently and painstakingly elaborated can deceive anyone if the conditions are favorable. This means that the success of a hoax reflects on the skill of the hoaxer and says nothing about the substantive views of those who were fooled by it. One can relish and even admire the cleverness of Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Sokal without drawing any conclusions – which would be unwarranted – about the soundness or unsoundness of the projects engaged in by their victims.

A hoax, after all, is a piece of theater. (Blackburn tells the story of an actor who gave a meaningless and nonsensical lecture on mathematical game theory and physical education to approving audiences made up of medical professionals and psychologists.) It’s like a magic trick: one hand does the misdirection, the other does the work behind the scene. Think of “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Sting,” Clifford Irving’s “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes and the many successes of forgers, counterfeiters and imposters. If a hoax comes off, and there is praise to be bestowed, it should go to the ingenuity of the master illusionist who has set the whole thing up.

So high marks to Goldstein and Sokal for being able to construct a stage setting that produced a calculated effect; but no marks for any claim that what they were able to do had implications for anything beyond its own performance.

So what he's saying is that while hoaxes may be amusing pieces of drama, they reveal nothing about the gullibility or character of their victims. Hmm. I completely agree about hoaxes being essentially theatrical in nature. They're artistic creations. But does art only refer to itself, telling us nothing about the external world? I don't think so.

Satirists, parodists, and hoaxers all use the tools of fiction. They dramatize, exaggerate, and simplify things. They reduce their subjects to caricatures. But their creations only work if they expose some recognizable part of the character of their subjects. Otherwise, they fall flat. (Of course, it's a matter of subjective opinion whether they've fallen flat or scored a hit.)

So, yes, hoaxes are staged pieces of drama, but I wouldn't dismiss the view they offer us onto the nature of their victims as being meaningless for that reason.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 10, 2008
Comments (8)
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