Friday, June 20, 2008

Trust, Love, and Crime

So it should seem fairly obvious that people tend not to commit crimes that hurt people they trust. Likewise, people trust others who have a history of being non-threatening. So trust plays a big part in determining when and whether crime occurs. But how does trust develop?

In this month's issue of Scientific American, Paul Zak presents some of the research he's done exploring this issue. As a neuroeconomist, he relies primarily on two research tools: economic games and brain scans. Okay, yes, predictable, but it's how you use the tools that counts. Zak uses what's called "The Trust Game," which requires two subjects. First, the researcher gives both subjects $10 (separately - they keep them anonymous). The first subject then has the chance to give some of this money to the second subject, again anonymously. The second subject receives triple the amount that the first subject gave, with the option then of returning as much as he or she wants. Both subjects know the rules of the game and the risks involved, i.e., that there's no guaranteed return on an investment. A measure of trust can be obtained by looking at how much either subject chooses to give or return.

So with a way to gauge levels of trust, Zak looked into the effects of a naturally-occurring chemical - Oxytocin. Oxytocin's one of those small chemicals that finds a way of getting anywhere in the body. So while it's primarily known for its role in inducing labor, it also gets into the brain, where one of its roles is to initiate maternal bonding. In fact, oxytocin has been pegged as the main chemical that is responsible for women's feelings of love - the long-lasting, devotional kind. (Though it occurs in both sexes, the corresponding chemical in men is vasopressin, which normally regulates water balance. I just found out, though, that, evolutionarily, they're very close.)

If a subject is given a nasal spritz of oxytocin, Zak found that they'd then be more willing to give or return more than control subjects, suggesting that oxytocin has the effect of inspiring trust. Not entirely unexpected. But one interesting, and unexpected, finding in this study was that there were a small number of subjects who had high levels of oxytocin, but who returned absolutely nothing repeatedly when they were in that role.

So what gives? The author speculates that these subjects may have a congenital insensitivity to oxytocin. No matter how high their levels may be, the chemical has no effect on them. What this means is that these people seem to be largely insensitive to others' considerations, and be unable to trust them. This may actually be a predisposing factor to psychopathy, which is characterized partially by the same factors. So does this mean that we may have found a "cure" for psychopathy? Possibly, if some day researchers are able to genetically engineer the appropriate receptors. But right now it's just an interesting avenue of research.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Free Will Ain't What It Used To Be

Vohs, K., & Schooler, J. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating Psychological Science, 19 (1), 49-54 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02045.x

I've been sitting on this for a while, and I've finally got the discipline together to actually write again. Getting things done! It's just a short post, though.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAnyway, the authors in this study manipulated whether or not subjects were primed with the concept of free will. They did this by exposing people to sections of Francis Crick's book, The Astonishing Hypothesis. (I have to say I haven't read it, but Crick's done some great work on consciousness.) He's a big proponent of biological determinism, or materialism, or whatever you'd like to call it - essentially that behavior is a function of the wetware inside our heads, and that if the inputs can be specified enough the outputs will be strictly determined. Essentially, it's an argument against free will (as normally conceptualized).

A passage from his book arguing this point primed subjects to "reject" the free will hypothesis, while the control group read a passage about consciousness that didn't include anything about free will. After this, subjects completed activities which allowed for a certain degree of cheating (both passive and active cheating were examined in different experiments). The results showed that those subjects who had been primed to reject free will cheated significantly more than those in the control condition.

So what does this mean? The authors argue that having a deterministic outlook makes people less accountable for their behavior - that they're more likely to lay aside the blame for their behavior because they feel they don't have control over it. This has some obvious implications. Is determinism a dangerous idea? Will people who subscribe to this idea start breaking rules because, hey, it's what my brain's making me do? I've had my differences with Clarence Thomas, but paraphrasing one of his quotes here makes a lot of sense: whether free will exists or not is immaterial, but the appearance of free will must be maintained to hold people accountable. Taking determinism to its utmost extent, the belief in free will is just another input that will affect a mechanistic decision making process.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Deception... is hard to study.

Sporer, S., & Schwandt, B. (2007). Moderators of nonverbal indicators of deception: A meta-analytic synthesis. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 13 (1), 1-34 DOI: 10.1037/1076-8971.13.1.1

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchCaution: this is another post where I deviate a little from what's been covered in class. Make sure you can differentiate what you learn from the book from what you read here before you continue, because you're not going to be tested on this stuff. I'm just presenting it as a different viewpoint from which to consider these kinds of psychological issues. That said, caveat emptor and continue on.

Dr. Geiselman has talked about the Behavioral Assessment Interview in class, which seeks to provide interrogators with nonverbal cues for investigators to look for to figure out when someone is lying to them: averted gaze, body turned, legs or arms crossed. However, he also acknowledged that this isn't always diagnostic or predictive of deception. The interogatee could just be nervous, for instance. And even beyond this, the hit rate for this technique is not all that great.

The plain truth is that it's really hard, maybe impossible, to detect deception just looking at nonverbal cues. This is what Siegfried Sporer and Barbara Schwandt (of the Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen in Germany) found out. They conducted a meta-analysis on the research that has been done on deception and failed to find any consistent nonverbal indicators.

For those of you who don't know, a meta-analysis is an analysis looking at the results of published studies on a given topic - it takes all the data that has been collected on a question and aggregates it, looking for trends and consistencies. These are generally good ways to find the effect size of a given construct, even though they're susceptible to the so-called "file drawer" problem: many studies are done but never published, due to the investigator finding something that doesn't agree with his or her hypothesis, or finding no result at all. These have to be left out of meta-analyses, resulting in an over-reporting of a given phenomenon.

However, given these limitations, it's remarkable that the authors of this analysis were unable to find any gestures that consistently betray deception. In fact, what they did find was that deceivers show less nodding and foot movement than truth-tellers; people move more when they tell the truth than when they lie. The most troubling finding comes when they compare their results with the opinions of average joes and professionals: everyone predicts that liars will do things like avert their gaze, shift in their seats, and gesticulate, and these expectations are quite strong. Unfortunately, they're entirely unfounded.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gangs and Crime - or is it Crime and Gangs?

Tita, G., & Ridgeway, G. (2007). The Impact of Gang Formation on Local Patterns of Crime Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 44 (2), 208-237 DOI: 10.1177/0022427806298356

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBefore we head away from gangs completely, I wanted to bring up this paper looking at the connection between gangs and crime. Obviously, most gangs are heavily associated with crime in the areas in which they operate. The 10% of youth who join gangs are responsible for 80-90% of the crime that occurs in a given community. So which comes first? Basically, there are three theories for how the two are related:
  • social facilitation - once a large group of juveniles congregate, they become more likely to commit crimes, and it is easier for them to do so (more lookouts, getaways, etc.).
  • selection - the juveniles who are already committing crimes are likely to band together out of common interests, or for utilitarian reasons.
  • enhancement - this combines facilitation and selection. Essentially, once the juveniles who are already committing crimes band together, they become much more effective and efficient.
The social facilitation and enhancement theories both predict that crime rates will go up after the establishment of a gang, while selection theory predicts that it will be relatively stable. Furthermore, facilitation can be separated from enhancement in that facilitation predicts there will be more people committing the crimes, whereas enhancement predicts that the same people will just be committing more crimes.

To test which one of these theories holds, the authors went to a site of emerging gang activity: Pittsburgh, PA. In addition, they wanted to test the theory that gangs inhibit certain types of crime, like property violence against local shopkeepers. (Personally, this sounds more like Organized Crime and "protection" to me, though I know gangs in LA run similar rackets with the local street vendors.) The investigators were able to draw causal conclusions from their dataset because prior to 1992, there was no gang activity in Pittsburgh. Looking at the two years before this time (90-91), the two years during "establishment" (92-93), and the two years postgang (94-95) it's possible to discern trends in crime rates that correspond with the introduction and maintenance of gang activity.

The authors obtain their crime data from 911 call records (problematic, yes, but they attempt to address these fears in the paper). They also try to disaggregate their data by defining, with the help of locals, what constitutes gang turf, and denoting areas as "carriers" of gang activity, or "set spaces," neighboring areas adjacent to gang turf, and non-neighbors. Comparisons of different types of crimes in these different areas is shown in Figure 2, and in Figure 3 they weight the crime rates to eliminate confounding factors, like racial makeup, income level, etc. There's an assumption that crime rates in non-neighboring areas are generally unaffected by gang activity, so comparing rates in these two areas can give an estimation of the effects of gangs on crime.

Looking at Figure 3, it's clear that after gangs gained a foothold in the 92-93 time period there were spikes in reportings of drug crimes, robberies, and shots fired in gang neighborhoods. All of these tapered off in the 94-95 period, returning to pre-gang levels or below. Looking at assaults and burglaries, there was no difference between gang and non-adjacent neighborhoods, and they both showed general downward trends over time, apparently unaffected by the introduction of gangs.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this data? It would appear that gangs aren't involved in assaults or burglaries, though they also don't result in the protective effects that were hypothesized. Drug crimes, robberies, and gunshots all increased, but only briefly. What could be causing this? Is it a need for the gang to establish itself as a force in the community with a concentrated burst of crime? Or is it a result of increased police focus and refinement of tactics having a real effect on crime? Alternately, it could possibly just be citizen fatigue, with residents getting tired of constantly calling 911, or having little to show for it when they do. Other possibilities are that residents are being threatened, or that they may actually benefit from the increased economic activity of the drug trade. Ultimately, it looks like the selection theory is not supported, and that gang activity actually results in new crimes and criminals, and doesn't just round up the old ones.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Little Clarification on Psychopathy

HARE, R. (2006). Psychopathy: A Clinical and Forensic Overview Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 29 (3), 709-724 DOI: 10.1016/j.psc.2006.04.007

Guay, J., Ruscio, J., Knight, R., & Hare, R. (2007). A taxometric analysis of the latent structure of psychopathy: Evidence for dimensionality. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116 (4), 701-716 DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.116.4.701

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research So there's some confusion about the differences between the diagnoses of psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Well, to make matters worse, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) goes and equates the two. Dr. Geiselman has said in his lectures that the difference, in his experience, is that psychopathy is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and other sensory phenomena. Okay, for the test you're going to want to go with this definition; however, I tend to prefer the definition offered by one of the primary researchers on psychopathy, Robert Hare. Did I ever mention how much great forensic research comes out of Canada? Hare's based in the University of British Columbia, and he developed the Psychopathy Checklist thirty years ago, which has become the instrument to assess psychopathy.

As summed up in a recent overview (Hare 2006), psychopathy can be subdivided into four main factors:
  1. interpersonal (glibness, narcissism, conning behaviors, etc.)
  2. affective (lack of remorse, shallow affect, etc.)
  3. lifestyle (need for stimulation, parasitism, impulsivity, etc.)
  4. antisocial (criminal versatility, poor control, etc.)
Notice there's no mention of hallucinations or disordered thinking among these factors. So how does this compare with APD? According to the DSM, they're synonymous. However, taking a real look at them, APD is diagnosed entirely by manifest behaviors, while psychopathy is an attempt to define a personality type by the underlying cognitive and relational patterns. As Lykken (quoted in Hare 2006) puts it: "Identifying someone as ‘having’ APD is about as nonspecific and scientifically unhelpful as diagnosing a sick patient as having a fever or an infectious or a neurological disorder." APD is the symptom; psychopathy is the disease. There's significant overlap in diagnoses of APD and psychopathy, but there are also significant numbers of people who fail to meet both definitions.

There have been numerous attempts to put psychopaths into a taxon, a group used for classification - either you're psychopathic or you're not. However, these attempts have consistently failed to find evidence supportive of a taxonomic system. Hare (2007), in a large and diverse sample, again tried to perform a taxometric analysis, but could only find evidence for dimensionality. What does this mean? Well, there are several reasons why a legitimate taxon could be covered up in an analysis, but if psychopathy is truly dimensional, it means that there are no clear, defining lines between those with psychopathy and those without. It may just be a scale on which a given person is either high, moderate, or low.