Monday, January 26, 2009

Causes of violence: Take 2

Lee, T., Chan, S., & Raine, A. (2008). Strong limbic and weak frontal activation to aggressive stimuli in spouse abusers Molecular Psychiatry, 13 (7), 655-656 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2008.46

Raine, A. (2008). From Genes to Brain to Antisocial Behavior Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (5), 323-328 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00599.x

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research If the name Adrian Raine sounds familiar to you, then congratulations! You were paying attention. Raine was part of the USC group we had talked about in class – the one with the English accent, remember? Though Raine is now at the University of Pennsylvania, he's still putting out high-quality research looking into the biological bases of criminality.

Case in point: his 2008 paper with Lee and Chan. This was an imaging study performed to look for neurological differences between men who abuse their spouses and those who don't. Their idea is that men who tend towards battery are less able to control their reactions to negative emotions, and thus more likely to act on them – violently. This study relied on the old psychological standby of inhibition, the Stroop task. However, they also used a modified Stroop that focused on emotional content. What they found was that the abusers weren't any worse than the controls on the basic Stroop task, but when emotions were brought in they suddenly became significantly slower to react. This was reinforced by the fMRI data, which showed both less activity in prefrontal regions, responsible for control and inhibition, and greater activity in limbic regions (associated with emotion) including the cingulate gyrus and hippocampus.

So there are psychobiological distinctions between men who do and do not abuse their spouses. This is fantastic!, right? We can just do brain scans on suspects to determine whether or not they're at high risk of offending and separate them – maybe for treatment, maybe just for the protection of society. Well, if you're still excited about these possibilities (and I would have hoped that my neo-Orwellian rhetoric would have turned you off by now), let me refer you to his second paper, published in Current Directions in Psych. Science. Here, Raine quickly sums up where we stand in the nature/nurture dialogue (it's not a debate anymore) on antisociality: “...the field is now moving on to the more important, third-generation question: ‘Which genes predispose to which kinds of antisocial behavior?'” Part of that answer is mutations in genes like MAOA leading to behavior like deficits in moral reasoning.

However, there are two critical things to remember: one, that genes only code for proteins (usually), and not for specific behaviors; and two, that biology is not destiny. Raine points out that there are epigenetic factors that help determine an ultimate phenotype. The idea that what's coded in DNA doesn't exactly translate to biological manifestations isn't new, but it's easy to forget. However, things like diet or hormone levels in pregnant mothers can and do have life-long consequences in terms of development. Raine brings up some pointed ethical questions in his penultimate paragraph that should sound familiar to anyone who's studied or thought about genetics and behavior. The only thing I'll add to that is a reminder to exercise restraint when interpreting any study that claims to have found a link between some gene and... well, anything, really.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Youth Violence is Like a Rose... Wait, That's Not It

Dodge, K. (2008). Framing public policy and prevention of chronic violence in American youths. American Psychologist, 63 (7), 573-590 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.7.573

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research I'm taking a bit of a different tact this time, in that the paper I'm discussing isn't a research paper. It's not quite a standard review paper, either, but it draws on psychology research to present ideas for application. It's also a great paper for showing the effect that psychology can have on different fields, and vice-versa. Economics, public policy, public health, and sociology all contribute to the understanding of the problem of youth violence. Research from all the different areas of psychology – developmental, cognitive, abnormal, etc. -- touch on similar areas as these other disciplines, and examining the intersections of these fields.

So this paper is about a very serious topic, youth violence. However, just reading the title of this paper it might seem to be somewhat trivial. I mean, coming up with metaphors for what youth violence is like? That's not science, right? Does that even matter? However, if you've read the paper (and I hope you have) you'll see that Dodge tries to make the case that finding an accurate metaphor, or the right frame, for a problem is critically important from a public health and policy standpoint. Psychologists know a lot about what contributes to youth violence and what doesn't, but that really doesn't make a difference unless that information ends up in the hands of people who are in a position to make changes to the root causes.

Obviously not everyone is a scientist, and even if you are a scientist that doesn't mean you're always objective and thorough in evaluating evidence. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are some of the major names when it comes to theories behind how people use (or don't use) reasoning to think about issues. For instance, they developed what's called “Prospect theory,” which looks at how people view gains and losses in making decisions. Instead of being purely rational systems, which would decide whichever way had even a slight shift towards a net gain, Kahneman and Tversky found that people view a loss as being much more significant than a comparable gain, and will make decisions accordingly. In fact, it appears that people aren't comfortable making a risky decision unless the potential for a gain is two times the potential for a loss.

Which brings us back to framing: how you set up an argument has a major influence on whether or not someone accepts and acts on a position. Dodge lists several failed metaphors – metaphors that either inaccurately portray youth violence or haven't gained traction in the public mind – as well as four recommendations of his own for metaphors that might be more successful. A critical aspect of his suggested metaphors is that most of them accentuate the potential losses if the problems aren't addressed; if you don't take preventative measures to lower your blood pressure, you are likely to develop heart disease, for instance.

This isn't the only issue, of course. Dodge describes several other considerations that stem from psychological theory and research, such as analogical transfer and comprehension, but I'll let you read about those on your own. Here's a question to think about, though: do you think that a single metaphor is adequate to capture and describe a complex phenomenon like youth violence for the public? For instance, cultural and subgroup differences might be important in determining whether or not a frame is accepted or rejected. On the other hand, it may be that presenting multiple frames has unintended consequences, such as reduced confidence in any solutions that are presented.