Thursday, August 27, 2009

Imitation, isolation, and independence

This post is going to be highly speculative, based on a few things that I've coincidentally just read over the last 24 hours and some past wonderings.

Last night, I read an article in the ASU State Press newspaper from Tuesday, August 25 about Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing who I had been interested in working with in my Ph.D. program because of his fascinating work on the subject of influence and persuasion. (He just "retired," though the article notes he is still working 60 hours a week on his research.) That article noted the phenomenon of "social proof," where people are more likely to do something if they think that other people do it:
Social proof is a simple way for people to decide what actions would be appropriate in a given situation, based off what others like them have done in similar situations, Cialdini said. Those kinds of norms have been very powerful in moving people to conserve energy, recycle and refrain from littering, he said.

Cialdini and his colleagues have recently done research on energy conservation in several hotels in the Phoenix area. The hotel managers allowed Cialdini to place different signs inside hotel rooms and depending on what the signs said, the colleagues were able to significantly increase the willingness of people to hang up their bath towels.

By simply stating that the majority of guests who stay in the hotel hang up their towels at least once during their stay, Cialdini and his colleagues were able to get 28 percent more people to follow that suggestion.

This morning, I read the following passage in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (p. 63):
Social psychologists have amply documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbors do. When unwitting subjects are surrounded by confederates of the experimenter who have been paid to do something odd, many or most will go along. They will defy their own eyes and call a long line "short" or vice versa, nonchalantly fill out a questionnaire as smoke pours out of a heating vent, or (in a Candid Camera sketch) suddenly strip down to their underwear for no apparent reason.
Here, Pinker is referring to the Asch conformity experiments. He notes that there are two reasons for this kind of imitative behavior, "to benefit from other people's knowledge and judgment" and "the desire to follow the norms of a community."

A few more data points, and then I will do some speculative dot-connecting. In Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained, he devotes chapter 8 to answering the question of its title, "Why doctrines, exclusion, and violence?" He argues (pp. 292-296) that fundamentalism arises as a mechanism to increase the cost of defection from a group, in reaction to the cultural diversity of the modern world:
... the modern world is one of strident cultural diversity, where you are constantly made aware that people live in different circumstances, have different values, worship other gods, have different rituals. ... fundamentalists want to return to a (largely mythical) past when local values and identity were taken for granted, when no one was aware that there were other ways of living. (p. 293)
This could also explain the creation of distinctly Christian media (music, books, clubs and groups arranged around particular interests offered by megachurches) offered as a substitute for their secular counterparts, as a mechanism to insulate believers from contrary ideas. By keeping the believer in a community that is, at least to some extent, isolated from the broader world, the danger is reduced that a believer will be exposed to alternative views and practices which he might be likely to imitate through peer pressure, social proof, or social conformity.

But now to make a greater leap of speculation. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has argued that "mirror neurons" or "empathy neurons" play a major role in human (and other primate) imitative behavior that drives learning. Those neurons (if they exist, and there is some doubt) are in the inferior frontal and parietal cortex. Caltech neuroscientist John Allman (who spoke at the Skeptics Society conference on mind, brain, and consciousness in 2005) has argued that spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex play a role in sensitivity to social cues, and a deficiency of such cells may be a cause of autism. Perhaps there is a neurological explanation for some kinds of independent thinking that involves a lessened degree of sensitivity to social cues, or a lessened drive to imitation and conformity, that yields doubters and skeptics?

Now, this can't be the whole story--it may be more important that there are other positive drivers of independence and willingness to be an outspoken dissenter, and I suspect that leaders of dissenting groups tend to have a very high degree of sensitivity to social cues in order to be successful in persuasion. Further, once you have some dissenters in the population, they themselves can be exemplars to be imitated by people with high sensitivity to social cues. But the speculation it would be interesting to investigate is: are people who are skeptics about commonly held beliefs in the general population about the supernatural and paranormal measurably different in some critical way, psychologically or neurologically, that makes them less susceptible to such social pressures that provoke imitation and internalization of those views? Are the initial participants in such groups different from later joiners? Could this have anything to do with why organizing skeptics and atheists is like herding cats? Or why there's a high percentage of IT professionals in skepticism? Are skeptics and atheists less emotionally engaged and driven than religious believers? Is there a tendency towards Asperger's among skeptics and atheists? (Disclosure: I scored a 32 on this Asperger Test.)

Religious believers sometimes argue that there is a sensus divinitatis, a human faculty for perceiving God, and Dean Hamer has argued that there's a "God gene." It's possible that there's something to this, but that it's a bit simpler and a more of a matter of susceptibility to social conformity.

(Possibly related posts: "Unconscious decision-making," "The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Economist Religion Wars issue"; "An empirical test of the existence of sensus divinitatis in atheists" at the Secular Outpost.)


Magic Tony said...

I hate myself for plugging this, Jim, but Marco Iacoboni, the most prominent mirror neuron researcher in the US, is giving a presentation in the MU (room 202) today at 3:30. I despise mirror neuron theories...I feel that very few of them are grounded in actual science, and Iaconobi's theories are no different. Attend at your own risk!

Eamon Knight said...

As usual for such tests, I score well into the Asperger zone (37) ;-).

More relevantly: I suspect you're in the right ballpark -- much religion is an intensely social activity. Of course, in my case, we'd still have to account for why I had an extended religious phase in my life, despite supposedly being an unsocial clod ;-).

Jim Lippard said...

Tony: Thanks--I might have time to catch part of that between classes, but it will be a stretch. I take it you won't be there?

Magic Tony said...

I actually would love to go to it, because I like having my blood pressure go up. Unfortunately, I need to have a root canal performed this afternoon...which isn't much better.

Brad said...

I think if anything, our minds want to put everything into one world view. For many people its hard to make sense of or uncomfortable to flatly accept the strange random things that occur.

So, its filed away into the "defies logic" category rather than "defies probability" and once that "defies logic" category contains enough material to represent some sort of intentional pattern, that becomes the belief behind the world view.

If the common ideology provides a structure for those events, then the social networking of the pattern can occur.

I'm starting to think that consciousness AND cognition are forms of representation for the physiological processes going on underneath. Sort of a complex internal language. So, its just pragmatic to be able to adopt the surrounding ideology and still function with fitness.

Religion and skepticism can probably considered spandrels where a skeptical mind is either pre-wired or becomes concerned with accurately representing reality whereas the religious mind is concerned with the actual function of representations whether they are accurate or not.

critter said...

I scored above 40 on that test. Been an atheist since at least age 14, and hate socializing.

Theo Bromine said...

As usual for me, even though I am female (albeit an engineer), my score is 41 - even farther into the Asperger zone than my spouse Eamon. Ironically, I became an evangelical Christian while I was a (secular Jewish) socially dysfunctional teenager, and what convinced me was mostly the fact that the small bunch of Christian teenagers I encountered at my high school were nice to me (in stark contrast to almost everyone else). I figured this must be sufficient evidence of God's transformative power to overcome my moderate skepticism. On the other hand even before I completely tossed the whole thing, I generally gravitated to the outgroups of Christianity - I was into social activism, not to mention my staunch defense of evolution.

Brian H said...

"Leaders" and politicians score very high on liars' tests and sociopathic scales, even as children.

Manipulative skills (button-pushing) are what followers appreciate in a #1!

Brad said...

This is a really old entry but there's a few fun things still to say.

As far as average people taking an asperger's test, keep in mind that the actual condition of asperger's indicates that the person is firmly wired to behave that way and have little to no inclination to model social behaviors. An average person might just not care about being extroverted. Huge difference.

A mirror neuron might be an oversimplification of a more complex networked process of imitation. We know that our mind has made decision seconds before we can consciously register the decision, and that's plenty of time to make it appear automatic when we imitate an action or feeling.

Brian H, please provide your source for your statements, that sounds fascinating.

Brian H said...

I've seen numerous references to this over the last year or two, but here's a recent one:

Brian H said...

The new news about evolution will be that there is Intelligent Design. By the genome. It will be found to operate like layered neural nets do, with higher level "policies" for advantageous mutation options embedded in the "silent" DNA -- which is actually an evolution manual.
Such "policies" are highly conserved by the genome, as they provide huge leverage and advantages in making efficient modifications. I.e.: mutation is not random.

Einzige said...

Wow, Brian, that sounds r e a l l y unlikely.

Do you have any sources you can cite?

Brad said...

Brian, even if that prediction is found to pay out, it still is not evidence for anything supernatural let alone a god of a specific religion. Calling it intelligent design at that point is still unjustifiable.

Jim Lippard said...

I didn't think Brian was actually advocating intelligent design. What he says doesn't strike me as wholly implausible--we are already learning that genes are switched on and off not only during development but during the life of the organism (e.g., through gene activation and interference), such as genes involved with memory. This is the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

Einzige said...

Aside from the teleological bent (which I'm sure is what Brad found distasteful, too), there was this phrase that bugged me:

"...advantageous mutation options..."

I am willing to be shown data that proves me wrong, but my understanding of epigenetics is that it operates on the individual and has nothing to do with what genes get passed on to one's offspring to make them (or not make them) more fitted to the environment. In other words, it has nothing to do with "intelligently designing" offspring, or evolution.

I'm more than willing to eat crow on this (and learn something truly fascinating), as soon as I see some data.

Brad said...

Epigenetics sounds like a fancy way to describe physiological development. It seems like some yearning that hearkens back to LeMarck. Maybe that's too harsh a general statement, but as a reply to intelligent design...

Epigenetics seems like an umbrella term to describe an angle of study rather than something you could point to and say "look! epigenetics is happening!"

I shouldn't have responded to Brian Hs first comment. It had nothing to do with the blog entry, but I took the bait.

His short answers and absolute statements are characteristic of trollism.

Dude capitalized intelligent design.

Brian H said...

Sorry for the long delay in responding.

It's perhaps how the Epigenetics operates which is the actual evolving "trait" or genetic tool. That's what I was calling a policy or conserved tool. That is, explicitly or implicitly within the silent DNA are guidelines for epigenetic reactions -- plus preferred paths for mutation of same. These are the "tools" which, if they arise once, are likely to become highly conserved, yet also foci of important evolutionary change.
Recent studies also indicate that as far back as the split with marsupials evolution has proceeded by duplicating and altering the activation of existing genes, rather than creation of new ones or even alteration of old. This is a highly leveraged system-level pattern.