Prefrontal Cortex

This blog post is a periodically amended diary-like (diaretic) essay in the spirit of similar prior posts (Fuori Servizio, Undeep Thoughts, Shallow Thoughts, and Weiss’ Bescheid). Tune in from time to time.


got Greek?

July 13, 2013

Make your speech more colorful by using rhetorical devices with fanciful Greek names. How about a hèn dià dyoîn, or hendiadyoin, where you express a single concept with two words, joined by copulative conjunction? Your kith and kin will be impressed, particularly when you explain to them that a hendiadyoin is neither a pleonasm nor an oxymoron. One German hendiadyoin I like is "Furz and Feuerstein" (fart and firestone), which refers to miscellaneous or all kinds of things. A good English one is "pomp and circumstance" for "formal ceremony." If there is a hendiadyoin, or 'one through two,' then there should also be a hendiatriyoin, or 'one through three.' And there is. Believe it! Hook, line, and sinker.

July 2, 2013

My friend Fahim Siddiqui observes that "Possibility is what makes you gamble. Probability makes you lose."

As for me, I finally surrendered to peer pressure and became a nonconformist. Now I'm suffering from irritable brain syndrome.

The word of the day: Decumulation. There aren't as many cool words like that as there used to be.

Curious about spurious. In psychology and elsewhere we are told to be wary of spurious correlations. God forbid we might mistake them for the real thing. In Latin, a spurius is a bastard, an illegitimate child. But don't you love it just as much?

Elasticity. When advertisers tell us that we "can save even more" during "a limited time," aren't they saying that they are ripping us off at all other times? I suppose this is an example of what economists call price elasticity. And what does it mean when they say "if you call within the next 90 minutes, you get the discount"? For this to make sense, as my teenage daughter observes, the ad would have to be shown only once. Another example impressed itself on me at my local health food store. An item was labeled "$6.29 list price" and "$6.99 sale price." When I took the item to the cashier for light shedding, she scanned it and reported that it came up as "$7.34." Don't you miss the rational actor model?

April 25, 2013

lazy psychologist

Over the years, I have heard two kinds of complaint regarding my job. One complaint is that psychology has no real 'utility' (whatever that means; no, we don't manufacture 'widgets,' which is what economists think working people do). The other complaint is that we don't work hard enough. This complaint tends to come from people who only recognize time in the classroom as work. It's beginning to dawn on me that there is a deeper coherence here. If the first complaint is true, then we should take pride in not working any harder, for if we did, what a waste it would be!

April 18, 2013


L’affaire Stapel

. Diederick Stapel fabricated the data of dozens of studies, which made him famous, then infamous. He had to resign in disgrace from his post as Professor of Psychology at Tilburg University and the University of Amsterdam stripped him of his PhD. The Dutch system acted swiftly and decisively and did its due diligence by thoroughly investigating and document the extent of his fraud. I submit that the Dutch system, with all of those involved in this cleansing effort, deserve high credit. Now Stapel should have withdrawn into oblivion, if not incarceration, but this did not happen. He keeps popping up. He has published a book, in Dutch, on his ‘experience’ as a faker. He is making money off his misdeeds, which should rattle the moral nerve. The other day, I found a blog post by Rolf Zwaan, a highly respected professor at the University of Rotterdam, who met with Stapel at Stapel’s request, to discuss Stapel’s misadventures in a coffee house. Stapel is evidently trying to reinvent himself as an expert on fraud and the psychology thereof. I wonder if people realize how outrageous this is. O.J. could claim the limelight as an expert on uxoricide and Nixon as an expert on government conspiracy. Bin Laden, if alive (and perhaps he is according to some conspiracy theorists) could head up a panel on high-impact terror. All this is nuts, but Stapel, well, that seems to be ok. Let’s hear what he has to say. It surely is interesting and entertaining (please read the last sentence with a sarcastic tone in your mind’s voice). Professor Zwaan, though charmed, was not so easily bowled over. He recalls for the rest of us that Stapel did tremendous and irreparable damage to the careers of several junior scientists who trusted him. This is not the kind of stuff that should be trivialized or forgotten for the sake of entertainment. In my humble opinion, Stapel is being to be true to himself. He went down the road of fraud because he craved fame, recognition, perhaps love. Now he is doing it again. He publishes, he talks, he charms. There is a pathological element to this. Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop listening to him. Let him be the voice in the desert, which is where he belongs.


Economists (not necessarily the same individuals) like to complain that people do not save enough for retirement, do not save enough for their kids' college education, and do not show enough "consumer confidence" (i.e., do not spend enough on or do not not borrow enough to spend on consumer goods). The aggregated message of economics is then that people don't make enough money. No wonder they call it the dismal science. It's rather like psychologists complaining that the average IQ is 100 instead of 120.

April 16, 2013

Europe (perhaps just Austria) has discovered the fine art of management by napping. When staying in a hotel popular among business seminarists, I fell into this display (or did I come upon it?). In translation: “Invest in the resource [that is the] human being. With Powernapping. Motivated co-workers – higher concentration – fewer sick leaves – lower accident rate.” Note the hammock-inspired, ergonomically shaped (or should it be “dormitologically shaped”) chaise longue that is the product that will all make it so. Will I buy one? Let me sleep on it.

April 13, 2013

In an article in Psychological Science, Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac (2013) show that individuals who see the accumulation of scientific evidence for a human contribution to climate change as a hoax are also prone hold other conspiracy-related beliefs, such as the idea that the government/NASA faked the moon landing. Moreover, the tendency to endorse conspiracy theories is unrelated to uncritical support for an unregulated market economy, although the latter is also a predictor of rejection of science. I find these findings interesting and persuasive (see also a post of conspiracy theories and Krueger, 2010).


I wonder if conspiracy theorists see connections among the various conspiracies that capture their imagination? If conspiracy thinking is, in part, the result of an over-active agency-detection module in the mind, then I suspect that conspiracy theorists have facility and practice in seeing or making such connections. For me, such perception of patterns does not come so easily. Why would, for example, the same nefarious forces behind the thrones be interested in both denying human-made climate change and falsely claiming moon landings? It would get more bizarre if the same conspiracy theorists who believe that no moon landings ever occurred also believe that Neil Armstrong saw UFOs on the moon and told NASA so during the 2-minute radio silence experienced by the rest of us. If conspiracy theorists can reconcile beliefs such as these, they deserve some respect for creative mentation. We would have to subtract points for rationality, though. Wood, Douglas & Sutton (2012) claim that people who endorse conspiracy theories do not shy away from accepting contradictions (e.g., bin Laden died on his own before 2011 and the U.S. government is hiding that fact, and bin Laden is still alive in hiding and the U.S. is hiding that fact). Wood et al. have a theory how this psychological construction can came about, which I will discuss in a separate post.

Krueger, J. I. (2010). Die “Grosse Verschwörungstheorie” aus psychologischer Sicht [The “Great Conspiracy Theory” from a psychological perspective]. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik, 10, 6-16.

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (2013). NASA faked the Moon landing – Therefore, (climate) science is a hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797612457686

Wood, M. J., Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2012). Dead and alive: Beliefs in contradictiory conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 767-773. doi: 10.1177/1948550611434786


The Tub

The Tub

The coffee table book quote of the day:

"One sees what one wants to see. It is false, and that falsity is the foundation of art." ~ Degas

April 11, 2013

Self-evaluation maintenance (SEM) theory (Tesser, 1988) is a sophisticated theory in the area of self- and social judgment. In a review paper on self-enhancement, Sedikides & Gregg (2008) stated that “three factors are critical: one’s performance in a domain, the personal relevance of that domain, and one’s relationship to a target” (p. 106). SEM explains how it is that people, although they overall judge and treat those close to them more benevolently than those who are more distant, are also more likely to experience rivalries and engage in competitive maneuvering. Thus, when a domain is relevant to the ego, “comparison (or contrast) occurs, [and] a better performance from another individual prompts self-derogation (e.g., humiliation), whereas a worse performance from another individual prompts self-enhancement (e.g., triumph). [. . .] People have less favorable perceptions of targets’ performance in ego-relevant domains when those targets are close rather than distant (Tesser & Campbell, 1982). [. . .] To escape or forestall such negative feelings, people resort to several strategies including adjusting their perceptions of task relevance (Tesser & Paulhus, 1983); choosing friends who, despite being roughly matched in level and type of ability, are somewhat less able in ego-relevant domains and are somewhat more able in ego-irrelevant domains (Tesser, Campbell, & Smith, 1984); and acting so as to hinder close others’ performance in ego-relevant domains (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001)” (p. 106).

Abraham Tesser

To Abraham Tesser wood-working is self-relevant.

SEM is a motivational theory. It assumes that people want to find or create certain ego-boosting comparisons in their minds, and that they tend to find ways to do so. Elsewhere, my colleagues and I have noted that some of the observed data that may look like the results of active comparisons can be explained in simpler terms (Krueger, Freestone & McGinnis, 2013). Here’s a suggestion concerning the finding that people tend to self-enhance on ego-relevant dimensions and self-efface on ego-irrelevant dimension.

Suppose Ego ranks 6 dimensions in terms of how important they are to him. Imagine that appreciating art is at the top with a rank of 6 and programming computers is at the bottom with a rank of one. Over a lifetime, Ego invests effort into the 6 domains in proportion to their personal importance. Unless Ego is living in a cruel universe, a positive correlation will emerge in how strongly Ego can perceive himself to be in a domain and how important that domain is. Let’s say the order of self-ranks is 4, 6, 5, 1, 2, 3 for the domains ranked from 6 to 1. The correlation between the self- and the importance rankings is .6. Ego’s friend Alter has different preferences. His excellence ranks are 5, 4, 2, 1, 3, 6, and they are perceived accurately by Ego. The correlation between Ego’s importance ranks and Alter’s ranks is virtually nil (-.03). Finally, there is a positive correlation between Ego and Alter (.31), indicating the type of similarity that should exist among friends.

If we average Ego’s self-ranks for three most important dimensions, we find that M = 5. The mean of the three ranks for Alter is 3.67. It appears that Ego is self-enhancing on the dimensions that matter to him. Now if we average his self-ranks for the remaining three (comparatively unimportant) dimensions, we find that M = 2. The corresponding mean for Alter is 3.33. It appears that Ego is self-effacing on dimensions he regards as irrelevant to him.

Notice that no motive to self-enhance or –efface was invoked, nor was it assumed that Ego engages in any direct comparisons with Alter. Surely, these things happen, but they are not necessary to explain some interesting patterns. Sometimes it is enough to do what you do best, ignore the rest, and you will look like someone who strategically seeks to dominate or wishes to submit.

Krueger, J. I., Freestone, D., & McInnis, M. L. (2013). Comparisons in research and reasoning: Toward an integrative theory of social induction. New Ideas in Psychology, 31, 73-86.

Sedikides, C., & Gregg, A. P. (2008). Self-enhancement: Food for thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 102-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00068.x


My paper with Klaus Fiedler called Afterthoughts on precognition will come out later this year in Theory & Psychology. In it, we discuss some issues with Daryl Bem’s (JPSP, 2011) paper that claimed to demonstrate retroactive causation. I just wish our paper had come out before Bem’s.


Speaking from the heart sounds great. Speaking from the midbrain does not -- although it amounts to the same thing.


Eduction is bidirectional, and more so as the generational gap widens. My student Max (22) and I (55) both benefited today because I explained to him who Hermann Hesse was and he enlightened me on the wisdom of hackathons (see also).


Mindful of the great spiritual leaders of the past and present (J.C., D. L., C. G. J.), I have striven to love, embrace, and cherish all living things. Then I got a fungal infection (and a moth-eaten jacket).

April 4, 2013

My university, like others, agonizes over the promises and perils of online education. A trusted colleague claims that students prefer online courses over traditional (offline?) courses and there’s research that student opinion is a partially valid cue for educational quality (Greenwald, 1997). Case closed?

Perhaps the subject matter matters. Take statistics, for example (or anything else mathematical). Do we really need a professor writing equations on a blackboard (or showing powerpoint slides, which amounts to the same thing)? In a discipline that is staked on the acquisition of skills that are [a] clearly defined and [b] independent of human interaction, there seems to be no contest to the idea that online instruction is superior. In contrast, when the substance is enmeshed with human contact and interchange, the traditional format seems superior – unless of course, you claim that this very human contact can be had online. That’s where it gets interesting.

Suppose the substantive matter is rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively. If by speaking persuasively we mean speaking in front of others, then yes, the traditional formal method would have to be superior, unless you argue that speaking face to face is itself an obsolete way of communicating.

In other fields of scholarship, there is room for opinion, dissent, and debate. If this debate is cast as being face to face in the so-called real world, then the instructional method may want to reflect that too, and privilege the traditional format. But again, one might argue that the criterion toward which we teach (formerly known as the real world) is itself becoming a reflection of instructional methods. If so, debates over values, interpretations, and perspectives will play out online, and so should the building of the skill needed to succeed.

It seems that the case for traditional instruction is lost. But only if we assume that the written word carries all the information that is transmitted in human communication. What about the richness of nonverbal behavior and the decoding thereof? This is not much of an argument because we have video-conferencing and video-messaging. Well, but those tools come without smell or touch. All right, but arguably, these senses should not matter in the game of communication. Of course, they do (Herz, 2007), but if we define them as irrelevant, we no longer need to worry about them.

The perceptive reader will have noticed that I am a traditionalist. I have been mocking online education, and mocking is the defense of those who lack a rational argument. So I give you an irrational argument, which, by definition, is flawed.

If the online format were so great, why is it that Springsteen still tours and that his fans love it? Why don’t they just download his tunes from iTunes? The flaw of this argument is painfully obvious (and yet I like it). When Springsteen tours, his screaming fans (mostly female) are in the thrall of a crowd mentality. They cannot (nor do they wish to) think straight (Le Bon, 1900). How can this lousy analogy possibly aid the case for traditional classroom instruction? I will let you wonder about that.


Meanwhile, I offer a pragmatic proposal. We can have it both ways. Traditionalist professors want to hold on to classroom teaching and students love to text. Why not meet in the classroom and text one another? One advantage is that shy students will come forward and share their thoughts more liberally. They will probably remain shy in face-to-face encounters but those are the way of the dinosaur anyhow. Next time I am asked to write a syllabus, I will instead program an app. I hear there is one for the seder already. So why not my course?

Herz, R. (2007). The scent of desire. New York: HarperCollins.

Greenwald, A. G. (1997). Validity and usefulness concerns of student ratings of instruction. American Psychologist, 52, 1182-1186.

Le Bon, G. (1990). La psychologie des foules. Paris: Alcan.

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