Monthly Archives: February 2013

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!

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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.

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