Have a big-head

The cleverest member of the Griffin family and the one with the largest head…coincidence?

“Oh they’re so big-headed”, a phrase often used to describe someone who believes that they are very intelligent or very good at something. In other words, someone who is very arrogant which in turn means that being told you have a big head is not a positive thing. I have particularly strong feelings about the use of this phrase as I myself have a large head. I am often teased for being big-headed though I like to think this isn’t because of any arrogance on my part but more the physical stature of my skull. So is there any link between having a physically big head and the intended meaning of this phrase, that you’re intelligent or skillful and arrogant with it.

There are no studies (that I could find) which have directly found a positive correlation between IQ and head size.  Some researchers have looked at the effect of the pre-natal physical environment on subsequent IQ scores and found a significant correlation between birth weight and later IQ (Breslau et al., 1996) with birth weight relating to head size. However, this correlation has been suggested to be concealing a much larger effect at extremely low birth weights where the low weight may be symptomatic of other developmental abnormalities (Rutter et al., 1970, Education, health and behaviour (Longman, London)). This suggests that the correlation between low birth weights (and small head sizes) and low IQs is not direct and that both are related to developmental abnormalities due to things like having a mother who smoked during her pregnancy (Broman et al., 1975, Preschool IQ Prenatal and Early Developmental Correlates. New York: Lawrence Erlbau).

Maybe it is not our head size but the size of our brain that determines our intelligence and a weak link between these two has emerged though is apparent much more strongly when compared with the rest of the animal kingdom. In comparison with other animals, the brain size of humans is three times what you would expect in the average animal with animals like dolphins and other primates, which we consider intelligent, having larger than average brains. So maybe brain size is related to our intelligence though our variability in brain size (compared to the rest of the animal kingdom) is not enough to account for the variation in intelligence seen in humans. Something worth noting is that I have been using IQ and intelligence interchangeably and there is still an ongoing debate (to which I couldn’t do justice here) as to whether IQ scores are representative of intelligence.

Head size may not be related to intelligence though one group of researchers found that people with a larger head circumference were less likely to show decline in their cognitive abilities as they aged. They found no association between head circumference at birth and peoples’ scores on the cognitive function tests. This led them to suggest that brain development whilst you’re young is crucial in determining to what extent your cognitive abilities decline in old age.

In conclusion, there is very little (to no) evidence to support the statement ‘they have a big-head’ when referring to someone who believes themselves to be intelligent or skillful. The physical size of your head (unfortunately for me) has no bearing on how intelligent you turn out to be though does seem to mean that you fare better in your twilight years compared to your small-headed peers!


A hot hand

Just because you’ve been winning doesn’t mean to say that you’ll keep on winning… (Attribution: DanielASmith)

‘A hot hand’ is a phrase used to describe a lucky spell or winning streak. If someone has a ‘hot hand’ it often refers to them believing they are in luck whilst playing cards or gambling. This can lead to what some researchers refer to as the hot hand phenomenon. This phenomenon or fallacy is the belief that by experiencing success they have a greater chance of further success in games of chance. Looking at this through the laws of probability, for games such as roulette, the next outcome is independent of what happened before. This means that because you have won three times in a row, you are not more likely to win again then someone who had not won before. This may seem obvious though the presence of the ‘hot hand’ fallacy does exist!

This hot hand fallacy has been explained using the representativeness heuristic. Heuristics are short cuts we use compared to complex algorithmic processing of problems and these heuristics also tend to rely on existing cognitive abilities. The representativeness heuristic is one such example and is that we judge probability by similarity as opposed to using the rules of probability. In other words, that we would judge which group somebody is part of based on how similar they are to the rest of the group, not based on the probability of how many people are in each group. So if given a stereotyped description of a librarian, we would say they are more likely to be a librarian than a different profession like a teacher which is more common.

Ayton and Fischer (2004) proposed that our general (and incorrect) concept of randomness is the basis for the representativeness account for the hot hand fallacy. This means that you would reject the random sequences seen as being unrepresentative of your concept of statistical randomness. If you observe a long run of success then you believe that the outcomes are not random and therefore invoke the hot hand fallacy that this run of success will continue. They found that participants believed that after a run of successes, another success was more likely and that after a run of losses, another loss was more likely.

So it appears that we do not understand that sequences in games of chance are random and if we see a run of a particular outcome we assume that this will continue. This means that not only do we believe in ‘hot hands’ but also in ‘cold hands’ which may explain why some people believe that they are unlucky in general. In conclusion, despite our belief in ‘hot hands’ no such thing exists. What is present is a run of successes in a random sequence of outcomes that we incorrectly perceive as being representative of a run of wins. So remember, just because you have been lucky previously has no bearing whatsoever on future outcomes in games of chance.

Have a one track mind

Is it possible for us to have a one track mind? (Attribution: tckrockz)

When we use the phrase ‘they have a one-track mind’ we mean that someone thinks entirely about one particular subject. This idiom is often used to emphasise somebody’s obsession with something be it sport, their work or even the opposite sex. However, it appears that some autistic individuals may, to a certain extent, have a one-track mind.

Autism was defined by Lorna Wing as a triad of impairments. This triad consists of social abnormalities, communicative abnormalities, and repetitive behaviour and narrow interests. This last characteristic can lead to distress at a change in routine and an unusual focus on one particular area of knowledge or a skill. Uta Frith proposed a theory of autism called the weak central coherence (WCC) theory which proposed that autistic people lack the ability to perceive the whole but instead focus on the parts (central coherence being the ability to draw together diverse information before processing it to provide higher level meaning in context).

There is a lot of evidence to support this theory which can be applied to the characteristic of narrow interests often seen in autistic people. The Embedded Figure Test is an example of such evidence with autistic individuals performing significantly better than matched controls. You are given a shape to find within a figure and your time taken to do so is measured. Autistic people are significantly faster at this suggesting that they perceive the parts of a picture more easily than the whole.

The Navon Test

The Navon Test

The Navon Test (1977) is another example of autistic people’s increased attention to local as opposed to global perception. Frith and Snowling (1983) also showed that autistic individuals have worse performance on correctly pronouncing an ambiguous word at the end of a contextually illuminating sentence. For example;
– she had a tear in her eye
– she had a tear in her dress
The scores that most autistic people got reflected the more common pronunciation rather than the use of contextual meaning. This failure to integrate the meaning of the whole sentence with the perception of individual words could explain the communicative abnormalities seen in some autistic individuals.

This WCC theory goes some way to demonstrate the presence of a one-track mind in autistic individuals with very narrow interests perhaps due to their inability to detach from the details. However, this isn’t exactly a one-track mind as even autistic individuals who do have a particularly focussed interest on something are able to pay attention to other things too. In my opinion, no one has a one-track mind; even those people who tend to have narrow interests and focus on a particular part of something still have “other tracks” in their mind. So next time you hear someone say that so and so has a one-track mind, remember, they almost certainly don’t, but maybe just give them a bit of artistic license.

It is better to give than to receive

Is it better to give than to receive?(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

Is it better to give than to receive?
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

This particular idiom has its origins from the Bible but despite these religious beginnings many people, including those without religious beliefs, use the saying, ‘it is better to give than to receive’. The phrase itself is pretty self-explanatory and is often thrown about at Christmas time, particularly to small children, to emphasise the importance of giving presents rather than trying to ensure that they get everything they want on their Christmas list. I can still vividly remember the first time I experienced the truth behind this saying. It was a Christmas many years ago and I had made my mum what I believed to be a truly incredible Christmas present, whether or not it was is beside the point! Had I been given the choice between giving it to her and receiving my present I would have gone for the former, no questions asked (a sentiment nicely portrayed in last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert).

The question of interest here is whether there is any evidence to show that we do in fact feel better when giving than receiving and if so, why that might be. A recent study by Aknin, Hamlin and Dunn looked at these pro-social acts in toddlers. They did indeed find that toddlers were happier when giving treats to others rather than receiving the treats, which extended to costly giving when they forfeited their own treat. The authors suggest that this emotionally rewarding behaviour is a proximate mechanism for human co-operation in the groups that we are part of.

An earlier study looked at the effect of income on happiness and found that how we spend our money could be at least as important as our income itself. Dunn, Aknin and Norton found that, regardless of income, spending more of it on others made you feel happier and that people randomly assigned to spend money on others felt happier than those who were assigned to spend it on themselves. So, not only do we feel happier when we give things rather than receiving them but this appears to start at a young age, possibly as a way of maintaining human co-operation.

However, this is assuming that the phrase means ‘better’ is equivalent to ‘happier’ though this is perhaps up for interpretation. Some people use the word in this context to mean virtuous and morally good which in turn seems to imply that you’re not doing it for your own (selfish) benefit of feeling happier. Our preference to give presents and the like, instead of receive them, is because this behaviour makes us feel happy which isn’t virtuous in the traditional sense as it’s for our own benefit. So I do agree with this phrase, that it is better to give than to receive, even if that’s only because it will make us feel happier by doing so.

Beauty is only skin deep


Is beauty really skin deep?

‘Beauty is only skin deep’ is an idiom used to imply that a person’s character is more important than their physical appearance. The phrase also suggests that beauty refers to physical attractiveness alone, which is only skin deep, and that someone’s beauty and character are not related.Few people would deny that physical attractiveness has a role to play in the early stages of a relationship or just in initial attraction. The importance of physical attractiveness in new relationships has been demonstrated by Walster et al. (1966). They randomly paired men and women for a blind date and measured intelligence, various personality factors and physical attractiveness (decided by four independent judges). They found that only physical attractiveness predicted whether they would want to go out on a second date.

However, this is only in the early stages of meeting someone in which, you could argue, that physical attractiveness is all you can really tell about a person. So does this feature of ourselves also determine how attractive we are and how we are perceived after we’ve known someone for a long time. McNulkty et al. (2008) found that physical attractiveness does also predict the success of marriages to a certain extent. Husbands, who were considered more physically attractive than their wives, reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. Also, relative differences between partners’ levels of attractiveness was important in predicting marital behaviour whereby when the wife was more attractive, both spouses behaved more positively though when the husband was more attractive, they both behaved more negatively in their relationships. This suggests that physical attractiveness is not only important in predicting the success of new relationships but that relative physical attractiveness also plays a role in the success of long-term relationships.

In some ways this is contrary to what we like to believe about ourselves, that we’re not shallow and don’t continue to judge people based on their physical attractiveness after getting to know them. A possible explanation for the continued use of physical attractiveness as an important attribute in judging someone’s beauty is the halo effect. Edward Thorndike coined the term, the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias whereby our judgment of a person’s character can be influenced, unconsciously, by other irrelevant attributes of that person. There are many examples of this robust effect; one particularly relevant example is a study by Landy and Sigall (1974).

They showed that female student’s essays were judged, by male students, to be of a higher quality when the essay included a photo showing the essay writer to be physically attractive rather than unattractive. Perhaps we unconsciously judge people to be nicer, as well as better essay writers, when we consider them to be more physically attractive.

Despite all this, a person’s character does seem to play a role in how attractive we perceive them to be though maybe this is only in extreme cases. If you have a very unpleasant character then no matter how physically attractive you are, the halo effect may be unable to influence someone into believing you’re nice. Physical attractiveness is only skin deep but it does seem to affect our opinion on someone’s inner beauty- so maybe beauty is not as skin deep as we thought.

A leopard can’t change its spots

"Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!"(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

“Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!”
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

‘A leopard can’t change its spots’ is a phrase often used to suggest that someone’s personality, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend it has. This is a question of whether our personality can change over our lifetime or if it’s an unchanging structure.

Personality is widely defined as characteristics which account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaviour. These personality traits are stable over time and across different situations. These definitions suggest that there is truth behind the idiom; that a leopard cannot change its spots. However there is some evidence to suggest otherwise.

There are some extraordinary cases of personality change such as that of Phineas Gage. He was an American railroad construction foreman who, in 1848, had an accident which resulted in a large iron rod being driven through his skull, damaging most of his frontal lobe. Surprisingly, he survived this accident though he lost his inhibitions both socially and emotionally. This case changed the face of neuroscience as it was the first case to suggest that personality and behaviour were specifically localised within the brain.  However, this is a special case; can a leopard change its spots without suffering severe brain damage?

In 2003, Srivastava et al. performed a study that aimed to find out if personality altered in early and middle adulthood. McCrae and Costa’s 5 factor theory of personality states that personality traits arise from biological causes and reach full maturity in early adulthood, around about 30 years old. This implies that there is little or no change on any personality dimension after early adulthood. Haan et al. (1986) believed that social roles, life events and social environments that change during an individual’s life are factors that have an important influence on basic personality traits. Srivastava et al. found a lack of support for McCrae and Costa’s theory and in some cases, evidence that contradicted their theory. They found that the personality trait of conscientiousness showed a major change during early and middle adulthood, particularly early adulthood. This period of life is often when people are beginning jobs and entering into committed relationships, events that are linked to conscientiousness. The personality trait of agreeableness also showed a significant change later in life when adults are typically caring for children. These findings suggest that people’s personality continues to develop well into middle adulthood.

All of these results indicate that a leopard can (and does) change its spots up until middle adulthood as our personalities develop as we experience the major turning points in life. Our spots/personality then becomes more permanent across different situations and through time, that is if you don’t suffer any brain damage…

Mind like a sieve

Mind like a sieve?(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

Mind like a sieve?
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

You’ve got a ‘mind like a sieve’ is a common way of telling someone that things just fall through their heads and that they can’t remember anything. However sieves can retain some of the stuff that is being filtered through them. Is it that we filter out the ‘larger’ bits of information and allow the ‘smaller’ bits of information to fall through our minds?

Even people with awful memories do still remember some things. Maybe we all differ in the size of the holes in our sieve-like-minds. To a certain extent, whether we remember something depends on if we have paid any attention to it. If you are not aware of something, how could you remember it? There are many theories on attention, one particularly relevant one to this idiom is Donald Broadbent’s. He developed the filter model of attention which claimed that our selective attention occurs before any processing of the information due to our limited cognitive capacity. In other words, Broadbent was suggesting that our attention, and in turn our memory, works like a sieve, filtering out the unnecessary information in the early stages of processing leaving just the relevant stimuli to be processed to a higher level. These stimuli could be something you’ve heard or seen or anything that you are trying to remember. This is an early selection view of attention and is where there is a selective filter based on the physical properties of the stimulus before any higher level processing occurs.

However, there are some phenomena which can’t be explained by an early selection view of attention. For example, Colin Cherry coined the term ‘the cocktail party effect’ which many of us have experienced. Imagine you are at a party where there are lots of people and lots of conversations going on at the same time. It is possible to focus on a single conversation in a noisy room though also you can pick out words of importance from an unattended conversation such as your name. This implies that we don’t select what to pay attention to before any higher level processing occurs meaning that Broadbent cannot be completely correct with his filter theory of attention.

This might mean that our encoding of memories after the higher level processing of the stimuli is what acts as a sieve. The salience of the information plays an important role in whether something is encoded into our long term memory. Perhaps it is in recalling our memories that we filter out unimportant information. There is a trade-off between accuracy and actually remembering things. For every time we recall a memory we bring it into a labile state, a state where the memory can be easily altered as we think about it. But if we didn’t recall these memories we would forget them altogether.

There appears to be some truth to the saying ‘mind like a sieve’ though this act of filtering out unimportant information seems to occur at multiple stages of the processing of the stimuli. In some ways then we all have memories like sieves! This sounds like a bit of an ineffective system for remembering things. Though if you think of the fact that we have limited cognitive space for memories then it makes sense to filter out the unimportant things. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to remember the important things that we really shouldn’t forget!

Put on a brave face

‘Put on a brave face’, a phrase often used to get someone to put up a strong front in a difficult situation. On hearing such words, it often seems like a piece of useless advice – is it even possible to put on a brave face when you feel so nervous?

Everybody needs to put a brave face on sometimes… (Attribution: Gage Skidmore)

For many years there has been a debate as to the answer of the question: do you run (from a bear) because you are afraid or are you afraid because you run? In 1884, William James argued for the latter, that emotion (fear) is the perception of bodily sensations (running away). Stanley Schachter developed this idea further proposing that the emotion we feel is determined by the cognitive interpretation of our bodily reaction. Schachter and Singer (1962) conducted an experiment which clearly demonstrated this idea. Participants for this study were under the pretence of testing the effect of a new drug on vision when in fact they were being injected with adrenaline, not some new vitamin. They were divided into three groups; the first group were informed of the likely effects of the ‘vitamin’, the second were misinformed of the effects and the third group were told nothing at all of the effects. Each participant was told to wait in a room with a stooge, someone who they believed to be doing the same experiment as them. This stooge then acted euphoric or angry and the participant was asked to rate their own emotional state. If our emotions were based purely on our bodily reaction then you would assume that all three groups would rate their emotional state in the same way. However, they found that those in the misinformed or ignorant group based their emotional rating in a way that was congruent with the stooge’s expressed emotion whilst those participants that were informed of the drug’s effect attributed their feelings to the physiological effects, not to their emotions.

This study, along with many others, suggests that our emotion is determined by how we interpret our physiological reaction. Maybe this means that if we can force ourselves to smile we may interpret this as feeling happy and therefore act more confidently. A study by Strack and his colleagues supports this suggestion. He got participants to hold a pencil, horizontally, between their teeth or between their lips and then to watch cartoons. When holding a pencil between your teeth you use the muscles normally used for smiling unlike when holding the pencil between your lips (try it for yourself). When these participants then rated the cartoons, those people who had been holding the pencil between their teeth found the cartoons funnier than those who were holding it between their lips. So maybe just smiling, even if we don’t feel like it, will actually make us happier? So next time somebody tells you to put on a brave face it is worth remembering that there have been studies that suggest they may have a point! Smiling even if we don’t feel like it does seem to make us feel happier and maybe if our heart rate is up we should tell ourselves that it’s because we’re excited for whatever it is we need a brave face on for.

Old habits die hard

Even a power cut doesn't stop Tim from watching TV...

Even a power cut doesn’t stop Tim from watching TV…

The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is often used to excuse some behaviour that people wish they could stop. Though is there any truth behind this common phrase? I will discuss whether it is possible to break our old habits or whether they do indeed die hard.

When talking about habits, or habitual behaviour, I am referring to behaviours that are insensitive to reinforcer devaluation. By this I mean that an action, such as pressing a lever to gain a reward, continues even if the reward is no longer present or of value.

Many of our actions in typical daily life consist of habits such as washing our hands after going to the toilet. A lot of these behaviours are ‘neutral’ though they can be positive or negative actions. The phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is often used in conjunction with negative behaviours that can be detrimental to the individual or just no longer necessary. For example, smoking or biting their nails and laying the table for someone who has recently moved out, respectively.

Another type of behaviour that occurs on a frequent basis is goal-directed behaviour which is a behaviour where you have the representation of the final output in mind, i.e. you’re performing a particular action to achieve a certain goal. Goal-directed behaviours can evolve into habitual behaviours and this difference between habitual and goal-directed behaviours is represented by a change in the circuitry of the striatum, a part of the forebrain.

The question of whether old habits die hard is really a question of how difficult it is to break your habits, if even possible. To know if it is possible to break a habit it would help to know how the habit was formed in the first place. As behaviour moves from goal-directed to habitual there is an equivalent shift from the ventral (goal-directed) to the dorsal (habitual) part of the striatum. There are many studies that have demonstrated these functional differences between different regions of the striatum.

In terms of brain connectivity, to break an old habit, the brain connections should be from the ventral striatum as opposed to the dorsal striatum. Though how is it possible to do this? There is a wealth of research on the formation and maintenance of habits though I have not found any papers that have studied, in depth, the breaking of habits. There are papers however which suggest that it is not an irreversible single path leading from goal-directed to the habitual circuit but rather that there is ongoing competition between the two circuits. The behaviour is then controlled by which ever circuit is stronger at that time. So perhaps when people say that old habits die hard it means that their behaviour is controlled by their dorsal striatum and therefore their habitual brain circuit.

This idea of competing circuitry does suggest that it is possible to break old habits and return the behaviour to a goal-directed response. The competition between circuits is adaptive in most situations as the behaviours can be altered under changing situations. These changes in behaviour though are probably slower than if the habit circuit had never developed dominance over the goal-directed circuit. But there is a huge advantage to us that we can develop habitual behaviours which are automatic and therefore do not take up our limited cognitive power.

The competition between the two circuits could also explain the individual differences between how easy different people find it to kick a habit. You probably know someone who tries to give up smoking every month and maybe also someone who just decided one day that they would stop and haven’t smoked since. It may be that these individual differences in the ease with which people can give up habits is due to a difference in the dominance of the different circuits and therefore the ease with which someone can change their behaviour back from habitual to goal-directed. In conclusion, it seems that the phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is an over simplification of the difficulty some people find in changing their habitual behaviour back to the voluntary, goal-directed behaviour controlled by their ventral striatum.

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