Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How 15 students who are representative of no known group perceive others: A neural basis for prejudice?

Banaji has been hawking her wares at this stall for some time (See here for a critique of her earlier work) but she seems to have got progressively sillier from an already silly start. Despite all the puffery below, all that the research concerned shows is that we respond differently to people who are like us and people who are not like us. Did we need research to tell us that?

And it may not even prove that much. The authors purported to classify some of the 15 students that they tested as conservatives. Conservatives? How conservative? All that we know about them is that they were university students from the Boston area. I suspect that it was "More Leftist" versus "Less Leftist" students who were studied.

I also note that Banaji again relied on the demonstrably invalid IAT test in her research. Amusingly, she herself has shown that it is invalid. See my earlier critique linked above. It is symptomatic of the decline of American education under Leftist influence that such guff is coming out of Harvard

The source of many of the world's woes might be tracked to a specific brain area responsible for identifying people that are not of our ilk. If so, a study on the neural bases of prejudice and its modulation, by Jason Mitchell and Mahzarin R. Banaji, of Harvard University, and C Neil Macrae, at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, published in Neuron in May 2006, could be as important to the burgeoning field of social cognitive neuroscience as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech was to the American civil rights movement.

How does the brain differentiate those who are similar to us from those who are different? Does it analyze differences in skin color, language, religion, height, eye color, foot size? Does it discriminate cat versus dog lovers, Pepsi versus Coke drinkers, Shiite versus Sunni, Crips versus Bloods?

In a way, the brain does all this and more by simply distinguishing those who don't meet various definitions of who we are. Specifically, a forebrain area called the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) appears to predict the behavior of members of outgroups by employing prejudices about their presumed background -- assumptions we make, in other words, based on what groups their various traits and contexts seem to put them in or out of. In this sense, outsiders, or those in outgroups, include humans of dissimilar cultural or ethnic identities or any other perceived stereotyped dissimilarity from your own self-identified groups, as well as non-human agents such as cartoons and animals and even inanimate moving objects. We distinguish otherness by all sorts of indicators, from the seemingly obviously, like sex or race, to the more obviously cultural, such as whether a person is wearing, say, a Yankees cap, a Dodgers cap, or a tee-shirt that says Baseball Sucks.

The focus of the paper under review here focuses less on the cues than on the brain areas that respond to them. The authors detailed the function of a particularly important brain area while studying the neural correlates of "mentalizing." Mentalizing is the ability to predict how other people will behave in a given situation. It combines the powers of theory of mind (our ideas about what other people know and do not know) with the presumptions that we hold about people with dissimilar backgrounds. Some researchers believe that mentalizing is a function of the brain's mirror neuron system, allowing us to predict the behavior of others by simulating how other people may feel in a given situation.

The experimenters used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of Harvard and other Boston-area students while showing them pictures of other college-age people whom the researchers randomly described as either liberal northeastern students or conservative Midwest fundamentalist Christian students. The categories were a ruse. The pictures were actually downloaded from an online dating website and randomly assigned to the two groups (which were an invention of the researchers), with each group holding similar racial and gender mixes. The experimental participants, however, thought each person pictured really was from one group or the other because the experimenters contrived demographic information about each photo; this information was randomly reassigned to different pictures with each new experimental subject. The participants, then, were confronted with pictures of people who had randomly generated but coherent cultural and political identities already attached to them.

The participants themselves, meanwhile, had answered a questionnaire about their social and political attitudes, which the scientists used to classify them as liberal or conservative. How would these self-described liberals or conservatives react to the pictures of the (supposedly) liberal and conservative strangers?

Prior research had suggested that the medial prefrontal cortex, or mPFC, an area stretching up and forward from roughly beneath the temple, was known to be involved in mentalizing. The researchers hoped to distinguish whether two important parts of the medial PFC, the ventral mPFC (toward the front of the mPFC) and the dorsal mPFC (further toward the top of the head), might be reacting differently. The brain imaging results indeed indeed showed a dissociation between these two regions. Heightened activity in the ventral mPFC was associated with mentalization of self-similar people, whereas dorsal mPFC activity was associated with mentalization of self-dissimilar people. But when the participant pondered the subject in situations where an outsider was believed to behave in the same way as the participant would, activity in dorsal and ventral mPFC was equivalent. For instance, virtually all college students enjoy going home for Thanksgiving, irrespective of background, so a conservative student would recognize that even a liberal probably loves Thanksgiving, and his brain would set aside their differences when it came to that situation.

The study adds valuable perspective to our understanding brain dynamics associated with stereotyping and prejudice. It shows, for instance, that the recognition of a common interest or trait in an "outsider" has the potential, at a brain-based level, to make that outsider seem less foreign and threatening. Prejudice may in part arise (and be easily aggravated) when people assume that members of an outgroup do not have corresponding mental states, due to their different backgrounds. Without a self-referential basis to mentalize individuals from an outgroup in a specific circumstance -- without the opportunity, in other words, to recognize the things they have in common -- perceivers may rely heavily on stereotypes to predict the mental states of outgroup members.

The experimenters certainly saw it that way. They concluded that "that a critical strategy for reducing prejudice may be to breach arbitrary boundaries based on social group membership by focusing instead on the shared similarity between oneself and outgroup members." This is not new advice. Yet it is heartening to see that it is firmly grounded in distinct patterns of neural activity. There may be a brain basis for reacting with prejudices for those that seem different. But there's also a brain basis for overriding those differences and seeing outsiders as more like us.


Reference: Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 2006, Volume 50, Issue 4, Pages 655-663 by J. Mitchell, C. Macrae, M. Banaji

Unintended but foreseen effects of Civil Rights Protection

Post below lifted from Discriminations.

Mickey Kaus, in linking to this post below (thanks, Mickey!), asks:
If a Hispanic who has performed as poorly and prominently as Patti Solis Doyle can't be fired without her employer getting grief from Hispanic leaders, isn't that a pretty big disincentive to hiring a Hispanic in the first place? Message: Stick to white males - if they screw up, you can sack them and nobody will whine.
Actually, that disincentive and that "message" have long been recognized as one of the costs of civil rights enforcement.

A classic example is the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which made it easier for disappointed job seekers to file "disparate impact" claims based on statistical evidence and increased the money-damage awards to plaintiffs.

In this excellent 2003 article, Stuart Taylor Jr. discusses a study by a Stanford economist and a Northwestern management professor, among other evidence, indicating that the 1991 law made "employers in traditionally white-male industries marginally less likely to hire minorities and women."
How could the risk of high damage awards for discriminating against minorities and women make employers more hesitant to hire them? Because employers know that far more lawsuits are brought, and far greater damages are awarded, for claims of discrimination in firing than in hiring. So the risk of being sued for turning down a minority or female applicant is dwarfed by the risk of being sued later for firing the same applicant after giving him or her a try.

"The increases in potential damage awards," write Oyer and Schaefer, "coupled with a decades-long trend toward firing-based, and away from hiring-based, employment-discrimination litigation, means the main impact of the act was to increase the costs to employers of dismissing protected workers.... Because [an employer] feels firing-based costs only if it decides to hire, the costs act as an implicit tax on such hiring. Firing-based protections may therefore lead employers to hire fewer protected workers, not more."
Nor, Taylor continues, were these results unanticipated.
.... In a Stanford Law Review article half a year before Congress passed the legislation, Stanford Law School professor John J. Donohue III and co-author Peter Siegelman documented a major shift in the nature of job-discrimination lawsuits-as well as a spectacular increase in their number-since 1970: "While most cases formerly attacked discrimination in hiring, today the vast majority of all litigation suits challenge discrimination in discharge." And although the 1964 Civil Rights Act was extremely valuable in breaking down the flagrant discrimination in hiring then practiced by many employers, the authors wrote, the "dramatic shift to firing cases has greatly increased the likelihood that Title VII will create a drag on the hiring of protected workers rather than the positive inducement it originally provided."
Note that Taylor did not recommend (and, for what it's worth, neither do I) that Congress eliminate damages for discriminatory firing, "[e]ven if the costs of such lawsuits to minorities and women, not to mention employers, have come to exceed their benefits...."

Racial discrimination is wrong, but that doesn't mean we should refuse to see the costs of eliminating it. And it is always useful to be reminded that efforts to do good, especially when the power of the state is enlisted in the cause, often do both more and less than the good intended.

Criminalising acts of kindness

The routine vetting of everyone who works with kids will sow suspicion and discourage volunteering. So why aren't volunteering groups worked up about it?

UK government legislation requiring background checks on anyone who works with young people - including volunteers - could have a devastating impact on important areas of social life for children while placing a cloud of suspicion over adults. Yet one of the main bodies that promotes volunteering has published a rather mealy-mouthed report that offers no proper criticism of the ominous vetting culture.

The report by the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, Manifesto for Change, almost criticises the expansion of criminal records checks for all adults working with children. But it doesn't quite, and so is left in a bind. The report shows the extent to which this kind of background check - `vetting' - is now an unquestioned, untouchable practice. It also shows how the volunteering sector is in denial about the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which comes into force this autumn. This Act will make vetting compulsory for all adults working with children - including those who are providing their services for free as volunteers. That means everybody from mothers helping out at playgroups to fathers teaching a local football team will be checked. The Act will mean that 9.5million adults - one third of the adult working population - will be subject to ongoing criminal checks (see The case against vetting, by Josie Appleton).

The Commission is quite rightly not merely concerned with the technicality of volunteering - who can do it, when, how easy it is - but also with the ethos necessary for volunteering. The Commission's vision is `a society in which we will be united by our common concern for the wellbeing of others; a society in which we enrich our own lives by enriching the lives of others through the giving of time'; and it emphasises that this `depends as much on the way we all feel about ourselves and others as about technical questions'.

Yet the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check for all adults working with children turns people away from one another. The CRB check turns the suspicion of others into a basic assumption for the organisation of our relationships with one another. It means that the first question asked about people putting themselves forward for volunteering is: `Have they been checked out?' The spontaneous offering of help, freely given and received, simply cannot happen if that relationship is channelled through some unwieldy government bureaucracy. Genuine volunteering cannot happen if we need state clearance before our offer of help is accepted.

The Commission's report takes up the technicalities of vetting. It notes that mass criminal records checking is in many respects irrational; that CRB checks have `degenerated into caricatures of risk aversion', and are `disproportionate in relation to any actual risks'. But in the end, all the Commission can say is that vetting should be made more efficient: `We are absolutely in favour of safe practice and protection for volunteers and those receiving services, but it cannot be right that good people are deterred by avoidably slow and inflexible procedures'. These weasel words - `safe practice and protection' - embody the whole nasty assumption behind vetting: the assumption that an unvetted adult spending time with a child is an `unsafe practice'.

Who knows what Baroness Julia Neuberger, the chair of the Commission, really thinks. A rabbi and Liberal Democrat peer, and author of The Moral State We're In, she has a deep grasp of how morality has changed, and must remember the time before 2003 when vetting was not an everyday thing, when people turned up on a say-so to help out at a football match and society did not fall apart as a result. She must know that it is possible to organise adult-child relationships differently to today.

And yet the Commission was established by Volunteering England, which has from the beginning supported the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Volunteering organisations are, almost to the letter, behind the compulsory expansion of vetting of their members. The discussion of vetting has become almost taboo in volunteering circles - you can criticise the way mass vetting is done, but not the principle that it is necessary.

These volunteering organisations are burying their heads in the sand about the implications of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Come autumn 2008, if a man helps out at the local football team and is not checked, he will be called a criminal and will be in line for a 5,000 pound fine. The government is cheerfully holding sessions to talk to `stakeholders' about what the Act will mean. But have they really thought about how this law will play on the ground? How many children's football teams/nurseries/cricket clubs are there that rely on local volunteers? Have officials really thought about what it means to make `helping out' into a crime?

This is an issue that cannot be fudged. If you support volunteering and the principle that we should give freely to help others, then you must be against the vetting law. This is no time for sitting on the fence. More people within the volunteering community need to start questioning the new vetting law, before it has the chance to erode the already-fragile community relationships that exist in the UK today.


Tying us up with even more red tape

Many hailed the UK government's new risk advisory committee as a challenge to the `cotton wool culture'. It is nothing of the sort

Last month, the British government appointed a Risk and Regulation Advisory Council (RRAC). This move is part of UK prime minister Gordon Brown's enthralling programme designed to ensure that `policymaking benefited from a fuller and more rounded consideration of public risk'. He specifically wants this rounded consideration to be applied `even when facing pressures to react to events' (1). What does this really mean?

Currently, it seems that every new risk that is identified, no matter how minor, has to be responded to with some new moralising campaign or draconian measure to restrict our liberties further. Even when civil liberties are not directly affected, excessive safety regulation can make normal parts of everyday life - like the humble school trip - impractical. And when government is not directly involved, companies still feel obliged to warn us about dangers that should be self-evident to any sensible person - like those coffee cups that tell us the `contents may be hot'.

Has Gordon Brown suddenly decided that we, the great British public, have the intelligence and wherewithal to be trusted to manage our own lives? Apparently he `is so concerned that the cotton-wool culture is denying people the freedom to enjoy themselves that he has asked the watchdog to report to him personally'

Media reaction was rightly somewhat sceptical that Brown might have been fortified suddenly by the spirit of Edmund Hillary reincarnated, ready to lead us into clear, clean air free from the stifling laws, regulations and red tape generated by 10 years of New Labour. As Roland White wrote in The Times (London): `Can the real problem be solved by a committee? No, because the real problem lies at the heart of modern politics: dividing the balance of responsibility between the individual and the state.' (3) If Brown had really had a change of heart, he would have appointed Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson as head of his new committee to scrap unwanted safety legislation and not Rick Hawthornthwaite, geologist and private equity fund manager. After all, the financial markets have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to risk-taking of late.

These criticisms, however, are in danger of missing the real problem with the RRAC. It is not actually designed to liberate us from a nannying state but to find more effective ways of influencing our behaviour. It is also part of an ever-growing abdication of responsibility on the part of our political leaders. And at its heart is a real contempt for the abilities and opinions of the British public.

The RRAC came out of a report by the Better Regulation Commission (BRC) called Public Risk: the Next Frontier for Better Regulation (4). The aim of that report was to create a `more engaged and trusting relationship with the public around issues that have a significant day-to-day impact on lives and attitudes'. The authors admit that `public trust is on the wane'. To counter this they recommend a `move away from an approach based on trying to control people to an approach that seeks more to influence behaviours'. Rick Hawthornthwaite criticises government policy for `collapses in the face of a confrontational parliamentary system, the media and short-term career pressures'. He advocates `a more mature dialogue with the public on what really needs to be done whenever "something must be done". offering a more responsible alternative to whatever the clamour of the crisis may be demanding'.

You don't have to read deep to get this argument: government policy should bypass parliament and the media and go straight to the people. Not to ask us what we think - Labour is not in the business of letting us have referenda, after all - but to influence our behaviour towards pre-determined objectives. So, we can expect patronising consultations and citizen juries rather than the clamour and confrontation of real democratic debate. We can look forward to `the deployment of a high-calibre team to act as a "network catalyst" for high-quality, evidence-based dialogues in which all key stakeholders, internal and external, revisit issues and explore how better outcomes can be achieved'. Thank God no one has been out on the streets demanding that - it would never have fit on the placard.

A key part of the RRAC's approach will be to work `with external stakeholders to help foster a more considered approach to public risk and policy making'. This is to state baldly that unelected committees can deliver more consideration than our elected representatives. Brown's appointment of the council is nothing more than an abdication of responsibility for making policy; such authority has been gifted on our behalf to `external stakeholders' who will draw up `simplification plans' from forums convened as `action learning sets'.

As spiked has consistently observed, we live in a period where politicians, bereft of any big ideas and frustrated at their resulting inability to move people, are desperate for any means of gaining some legitimacy and getting their policies effected. This latest move is to ask risk managers and professional facilitators to do it for them.

Just as revealing as the aims and methods of the RRAC are its first targets. What are the top risks facing us that the council is going to tackle? It won't be the threat of economic recession, the dumbing-down of education or the state of the National Health Service - it will be food and superbug scares, animal disease outbreaks, under-pensioned citizens and obesity.

The approach to obesity, for example, is not to tell us that it might be healthier for us to relax a little about what we eat, that the health scares may have gone too far, that we should be sure to trust ourselves more than the continuously contradictory science. Instead, the decision has already been made that obesity is a real issue. The only risk here is that we might not change our behaviour to suit. The role of the RRAC is to mitigate that risk. As `independent, external voices', the committee can focus support around `clearly articulated objectives', `increasing public understanding of the issues. and establishing the right context for successful implementation'. This is a spin machine. Is it a coincidence that Brown set up the RRAC just a few weeks after appointing Stephen Carter - spin supremo - to head up `political strategy, communications and research and his policy unit'? (5)

This behavioural approach seems to have informed the latest initiatives on obesity, like compulsory cookery classes and even paying people to lose weight. We can expect more of the same in other areas as the work of the RRAC starts to influence more and more of government policy.

The political elite seems increasingly and even bizarrely out of touch with what we think, with how we actually live our lives. At its root is a deep contempt for people: if they really thought there was too much regulation, they would scrap it and let us manage risk in our own lives. Life, if one is to live it, involves risks and choices, trade-offs and gambles. Instead we get the RRAC. As one social commentator said: `It is a symptom of the overweight state that administrators at the top come to rate intellectual debates about risk management higher than the gut instincts of the brave people at the bottom.' (6)

These initiatives are nothing to do with making us any less risk-averse, with trying to reawaken a spirit of adventure. Rather this is about politicians trying to sell us policy that they are too scared to front themselves. Another risk management quango can only entrench the contemporary role of government as anti-democratic technocrats.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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