This is your brain on LSD

We have this idea that Science tells us about how the world is, and is unaffected by politics and morality. Sure, the real world may ignore Science – so that vast knowledge about the causes and likely effects of global climate change have been waved off by many politicians. But scientists still study that stuff, right? The knowledge is all there once we decide that we’ll pay attention, isn’t it?

Not necessarily. One of the bizarre aspects of the gun debate in the US is that despite gun violence being a leading cause of death in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are forbidden from funding research that might study ways to reduce the carnage. So even if states or cities would like to be guided by Science, that knowledge is simply not there.

The same is true of illegal drugs. Half of all New Zealanders aged 16-64 have used illegal drugs during their lifetimes and about 16% have used them within the last 12 months. One feature these drugs have in common is that they alter one’s state of consciousness, which means that they change functioning in the brain. We have some understanding of these processes, mainly from studies that compare users and non-users. But what is happening in the brain as someone is in the act of taking a drug? On this we have relatively little evidence for most illegal drugs.

One of my colleagues, Suresh Muthkumaraswamy, has been involved in an interesting study of this type, looking at the effects of LSD on the brain. Suresh, who works in both Psychology and Pharmacy at the University of Auckland, has just had the study, done with colleagues from the UK, Brazil, Germany, and Canada, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They conducted a brain imaging study of volunteers who came to the lab on two different days. On one day, they received a placebo via i.v.; on the other day, the i.v. gave them small but potent amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Over the next few hours their brain activity was measured with several different techniques. Participants also completed questionnaires to give insight into their subjective experiences.

LSD is known to induce at least two major changes in consciousness; (1) visual hallucination, and (2) changes in one’s relationship with the world, which might be termed “ego dissolution.” The study showed distinct patterns of neural activity that seemed to drive each of these. It is well known that visual processing is largely conducted by regions at the back of the brain, and under LSD these regions showed greater than normal activation, particularly when participants reported that they were experiencing highly vivid hallucinations, and stronger connections with other areas of the brain.


On the other hand, regions that code an individual’s relationship with world, such as the parahippocampal region, seemed to influence “ego dissolution.” When people felt that their consciousness was starting to disintegrate, these brain regions started disconnecting from each other.

These results are fascinating because they allow us greater understanding of what is happening to the brain under pharmacological interventions. But is there any underlying value beyond this? Some of the psychological effects of LSD are highly similar to those that occur in disorders such as schizophrenia. Therefore, the tantalizing promise of research like this is that it gives a controllable, reversible way of studying the brain under conditions that occur naturally in some people. Such work requires us to spread Science into the study of widely-used but morally-questionable substances. Let’s hope we can find careful, highly controlled ways of continuing this fascinating work.


This study can be found here:

To see more work by Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, click here:

Is Kiwimeter racist?

For a country that takes sport too seriously, lives or dies on the international price of dairy products, and has a Prime Minister so weird that international TV hosts are fascinated by him, it is unusual for a social science research project to be one of the stories of the week. But that happened this week, with a barrage of criticism of a survey hosted by TVNZ and conducted in conjunction with Vox Pop labs from Canada and a number of academics from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. Critics include politicians I admire, comedians that used to beat me in debating competitions, and even well-loved cousins (who happen to be nationally significant political scientists). A great summary of the issues is provided by Bryce Edwards.

There were a number of concerns that were raised about Kiwimeter but the most central is that some of the questions are racist. In particular, many critics singled out the item:

Māori should not receive any special treatment

Many critics have argued that this statement implies that Māori do receive something that can be called “special treatment,” and respondents are being asked if they believe that this state of affairs should or should not be the case. Given that we as a nation have the Treaty of Waitangi as our founding document, it is surely inappropriate to view the rights of either Māori or Pākehā as “special treatment.”

I’m a Professor of Psychology but my expertise is not in survey methodology or multivariate statistical modelling. However let me give a view on some of the issues surrounding Kiwimeter. Full disclosure: one of the researchers is my colleague in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

The purpose of a survey like Kiwimeter is to get an accurate representation of how people actually think about their world (rather than how they might like to pretend that they do). This turns out to be an incredibly difficult problem to solve. My colleagues who run the NZ Attitudes and Values Survey, a similar type of survey, have a great paper out on exactly how this process works. One important thing is that to be successful, you have to be guided by data rather than personal preference. So you create thousands of questions and then test them to find the ones that give you the most stable estimates of people’s attitudes; these are also questions that best differentiate people from each other.

Equally, you end up with a group of items that fit together like a jigsaw. As a group they provide the most stable measurement of attitudes, and they allow you to see how different groups of people relate to each other.

Items like these come from all sorts of places. A lot of them come from speeches and writings of prominent New Zealanders. But if you want to accurately estimate attitudes to different groups and views of inclusion/exclusion, you need statements from across the political spectrum. Not all of these statements will be endorsed by legal frameworks and points of view that value indigenous and multicultural perspectives. But that’s likely to be necessary since not all individuals in New Zealand endorse these views.

Another criticism is why the questions tended to ask about attitudes in relation to Māori and immigrants, but not in relation to Pākeha. Giovanni Tiso asks why

we are never asked if ‘a history of discrimination has created conditions that make it disproportionately easy for Pākehā to be successful’

As far as I know, there is no reason that this question shouldn’t be asked. I don’t know if it, or similar questions, was tested. But if it was, there is no guarantee that it would have emerged as one that provided stable measurement. A researcher simply can’t decide to ask a specific question in a survey; the question itself has to function effectively. It is likely that the question regarding “special treatment” for Māori functioned very well to separate different groups of people, based upon their responses (and if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been there).

Bronwyn Hayward raises the question of the relationship between a media organization and the academic researchers. While questions relating to racism are valid issues of academic investigation, are they compromised when the vehicle through which they are conveyed is a national media channel with a vexed history of presenting interests from non-dominant populations? This is a complex problem that gets directly to the issue of how academics engage with external organizations to facilitate research. The benefits of the relationship with TVNZ come from the fact that more than 100,000 people have taken the survey; getting such a large sample is no doubt extremely valuable to the academics involved. To study issues of racism and openness to immigration you need to sample as widely as you possibly can. But one can reasonably understand why someone of any ethnicity, and particularly Māori, might find this statement offensive. At the very least, the survey could have given a better context for the questions, equipping people with the knowledge that they might find questions worded in an objectionable way.

Tze Ming Mok points out that these effects are knowable, and can be assessed by pre-testing of the survey. While this is true, again the problem is that all the items fit together to create its overall reliability. And while some people clearly have found at least some items offensive, many more have completed the survey and so may not have felt the same way. Tze Ming is more knowledgeable about these matters than me but I’m not convinced that the Kiwimeter team would have gained this evidence as easily as she argues.

The discussion around Kiwimeter has been really interesting since it is unusual to have a wide societal discourse about psychometrics. What we should keep in mind is the importance of measuring psychological constructs that some members of society find offensive. Last year I blogged about a study using very similar methodology showing that Māori who were “visibly Māori” (e.g., endorsed items such as “people are not surprised to learn that I’m Māori”) were much less likely to own their home than Māori who self-reported fewer Māori features. This work risked offense to some of those who took the survey but ultimately found evidence for institutional racism in the NZ banking sector. Hidden under its slick but dorky exterior, Kiwimeter offers a rich set of data that can help inform us about ways to support our most disenfranchised citizens.

Why is it so hard to choose a flag?

I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life but I have no trouble telling you the absolute worst one I ever saw. Its name was “Wilder Napalm”, and you’ve never seen it but believe me, that’s OK. It starred Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger (ask your parents) as pyromaniacs who could start fires with their minds. Dennis joined the circus. Someone drove a lawn mower a lot. The characters were one-dimensional, the plot was contrived, there was no emotional depth. The whole thing basically didn’t make sense. The only redeeming feature, which I’d find out years later, was that it was written by Vince Gilligan who went on to do the TV series “Breaking Bad.” Vince learned a lot about what not to do by writing Wilder Napalm.

However, there is one thing about Wilder Napalm that has always left me wondering if I’ve done it justice. The thing is, my buddy Koji got free tickets to see it because the film company hadn’t quite finished making it and they were screening it for a test audience. So, we went into it (1) having invested no money into it and (2) knowing it was not necessarily finished (we were quite scathing in our feedback, I can assure you). And so here’s what I wonder: Maybe the movie was fine, but because we hadn’t paid any of our own money to go see it, that influenced our view of the movie and made it easier to say we didn’t like it.

If that’s true, it means something interesting about our preferences. We tend to think that we “like” certain things; I like certain kinds of movies (dark, but not too bleak), particular books (smart but not too literary), guitar heavy sonic soundscapes, art that distorts but ultimately depicts reality, and big Aussie Cab Savs, preferably from Coonawarra. But psychologists know that our preferences are affected by lots of things that have nothing to do with our “taste.” For example, we like things more if we think they cost more; I can make you love the red wine I’m serving by telling you it cost $100 a bottle (you’ll like it more than the same wine in a $10 bottle). And it is not just how much they cost – it is also who owns them. You like things you own more than things you don’t own (as you know if you’ve ever sold a house; you can’t believe people don’t want to offer fair value on your great place, but then you can’t believe how greedy people are when you visit an open home). Finally, things become more appealing as they become more familiar. Despite love representing the match of two soul-mates, a really good predictor of a successful match is how far two people live from each other. Neither cost nor ownership nor familiarity represent inherent values or preferences; instead, they show that our minds continually change their interpretation of what we like as an object changes its relationship to us.


Which gets us to the flag. In New Zealand, we’re in the middle of an exercise to decide if we want a new flag. The whole process is pretty complicated, but basically there were over 10,000 entries, which a panel of eminent people whittled down to 40. Four finalists were selected, and we’re going to vote on our favourite of those, which will go up against our current flag in a second vote to decide whether we keep the Union Jack/Southern Cross flag that looks just like that of Australia, or go with the most successful of the “tea towel” options.

It all makes logical sense – you start with a large number and then whittle them down so that by the end you must have the “best.” Surely people have a good idea of what they like, and letting them choose among 10,000 alternatives will reveal those preferences. But a funny thing happened on the way to the flagpole. After the four finalists were announced, there was a general feeling that despite them having the features that people said should be on a flag (a “silver fern” or “koru”, and the Southern Cross), none of them were at all inspiring. In other words, we thought we knew what we wanted from a flag, but really we didn’t.


Then, #RedPeak happened. Overnight, a social media campaign sprang up around one of the “losers”. This flag didn’t have a kiwi or a fern or any stars, but the designer was able to articulate a story around the various elements. And suddenly, lots of people saw it as a flag, and could imagine it representing them. They realized that a flag doesn’t really work as a collection of known symbols, because then it looks like a depiction of that thing (“hey, look, a silver fern, there must be some All Blacks around here somewhere”) rather than (without wishing to sound overly pretentious) representing the infinite manifestations of New Zealand and its people.

Maybe you don’t buy any of that. But lots of people do seem to have suddenly realized what they wanted to talk about when it comes to the flag, except that now it is too late because we’re already locked into a process that is delivering one of a set of rather dull choices. We thought we liked silver ferns and southern crosses but actually we’re not so crazy about them. Red Peak is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has elevated the conversation in very positive ways and is going to have a huge influence on the outcome, even if it is not included. My guess is that whichever one of the tea towels is chosen, we’ll rally around the original flag, some people because they always liked it and some people because they prefer Red Peak or another alternative. Then, over the next 10 years, we’re going to see lots of these flags flying around us, and as we get more familiar with them we’ll slowly coalesce around one. Maybe we can all have our own flag. What’s wrong with that?


  1. I do have to admit that Jupiter Ascending, a recent film by the Wachowski siblings, is really terrible, and may be as bad as Wilder Napalm. I saw it on a plane so didn’t really pay for it either.
  2. While I’m critical of the process for selecting a new flag, I will not hear a word against Emeritus Professor John Burrows, who attended my wedding and is an all-round terrific person.

What politicians can teach us about our own jobs

One of the greatest causes of stress in our lives is change. Starting a new job or losing an old one, getting married or divorced, or moving house all create major challenges for us, because an entire domain of life is suddenly and irrevocably altered. It takes time to settle into the new circumstances, and develop an understanding of new social roles or new ways of getting things done.

My colleague Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas has recently looked at the first of these stressors, getting a new job, in a very specific context: the arrival of new Members of Parliament following an election. We are fascinated by politics and the people that seek to hold office, and sometimes it is easy to forget that they are people just like us, trying to figure out their place in the world and how to work effectively in their new role. The job of an MP is more complex than most, since your continued tenure in the role is based on the opinions of thousands of people. Each of your colleagues is a potential collaborator but also a potential rival. Maneuvering your way around the challenges, and appearing successful but not overly ambitious, is a constant battle.

And yet, in many ways this situation is just like that faced by many of us when we take new positions in the workforce. Suddenly we need to meet a large set of new colleagues and try to figure out if each one is ambitious, narcissistic, or genuinely nice. To what extent should we ask for help in novel situations, and when does asking questions make us look unqualified? And how do we figure out which problems are relatively minor and which are career-threatening? MPs face all these issues, but under the bright lights of public and the media. What can we learn from their experiences to help us in our own workplaces?

Helena and her colleague, Jo Silvester from City University London interviewed MPs in the UK and NZ, and looked at three interesting issues:

1. How do you balance needing to look competent with needing to find the information that you don’t have? Who hasn’t started a new job and pretended to more about how the system works than they actually do? You want to look like you’re competent and you think this will not be demonstrated by continually asking questions about what seems like very basic details. Yet, by pretending to know more than you do you end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself.

This occurs for MPs, but much more publicly. Expressing lack of knowledge of an issue can be quickly spun by media or parliamentary opponents into the appearance that you’re in over your head. Despite this, the authors report that new MPs are advised to just “have a go”, because that is one of the best ways to learn how the system actually works. The key is obviously to keep your errors relative small, in order not to attract eyes that may seek to magnify relatively minor transgressions.

2. How do you work cooperatively with your competitors? In many workplaces you need to be part of a team in order to succeed, yet you may want to stand out from your teammates to get ahead within the system. Bosses may be able to spot a dilettante who seeks to get ahead by taking credit for others’ efforts; but maybe not. How much do you put your head down and get on with it, and how much do you make sure that your superiors know how you’ve contributed. Most of us try to do both.

Again, this tension if amplified for new MPs. Your ability to sustain and advance your career in parliament will come from convincing the people who elect you that you are representing their interests and making a difference. If you succeed in making a difference, but no-one knows, your term as an MP may be very short. Everyone else becomes competition, so with no-one to trust parliament can be a lonely place. Helena and Jo were told by MPs that to survive, an MP needs to find comrades, even if they are unlikely to have complete trust in their newfound friends.

3. Get in the media but don’t be a hog! Since MPs need to convince their electors of their effectiveness, they need to get into the media to make themselves visible. This is not such an issue for most of us, who toil away at our own job, well off the radar of national media. But news travels in any organization, and so the rules still apply; we each need to be seen, but not too much. Your workmate who always makes sure that he/she presents your team’s ideas in the big meeting runs the risk of upstaging the team leader, and can have deleterious impact on his/her advancement within the team. You need to make yourself look good, but you also (to some degree) need to make those around you look good as well.

The big boss for a political party is not the leader but the general public, who get to fire everyone once every three years. So as a new MP your desire to get yourself in the public view (to get to voters in your electorate) has to tradeoff with making sure you don’t get in front of your party leader and members of the front bench. Navigating these subtle issues doubtless gets easier after a few years experience; but there are plenty of opportunities to put your foot in it (see Aaron Gilmore as Exhibit A). The same lessons apply for us all, but hopefully with slightly less possibility for embarrassment when we get it wrong.

Being an MP is equal parts glamorous and grimy. You get to influence the nation, yet most MPs are small cogs in a vast machine, with equal likelihood of getting noticed for a mistake and getting overlooked for good work. The thing we voters don’t often think about is that in many ways it is just a job like any other. A relatively well-paid job, for sure, and one that has perks like travel and status. But a job for which there is no real training, lots of jerks as co-workers, and plenty of potential for gaining the wrong sort of attention from everyone you know (Shane Jones, anyone?). I think I’ll stay in my ivory tower, thanks very much.

For more information on the research of Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, click here:

Why the All Blacks probably won’t win the World Cup


We expect people to be consistent. We either like John Key and think everything he does is great, or we are skeptical of him and think everything he does is part of a clever plan that ensures his own success. We want our heroes to be purer than snow and our villains to be irredeemably evil.

In Psychology, we know that this is a fiction, and that people are often not very consistent. Instead, they are powerfully affected by the environment. 50 years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted a ground-breaking series of experiments investigating the power of the situation on the behavior of the individual. He convinced people to apply electric shocks to others that appeared to be so powerful that the people who were shocked were rendered unconscious. Actually, the whole situation was a sham and the people being shocked were playing along. The question was whether people would set aside their moral compass and do harm to another individual when an authority figure (the “experimenter”) instructed them to. Shockingly, 65% of people, people who were good and decent in their everyday lives, did just that.

This experiment is often used to show how easy it is for totalitarian dictatorships to exert control – just provide powerful cues of authority and a populous will likely become obedient. But Milgram’s experiment also shows something else. He performed many different variations of the task, and the real lesson of his work is how much he was able to push around rates of obedience. For example, if a participant saw someone else (actually another accomplice) appear to keep applying electric shocks up to the maximum value, rates of obedience by the participants themselves increased to 90%. However, if the participant viewed another person who appeared to rebel against the experimenter and refuse to continue, the participant also rebelled, so that only 10% continued to the end.

From the outside this looks very inconsistent, since they behave in completely opposite ways in highly similar situations. But in fact they are being consistently influenced by powerful yet often unobserved aspects of the environment. Furthermore, this result is genuinely surprising, because our natural tendency to explain behavior as being due to an individual’s internal qualities like personality and character means that we drastically underestimate these effects of the situation.

Right now in New Zealand, we’re looking to a bunch of guys to behave consistently. The All Blacks are the world’s top ranked rugby team, and the country expects their team to win the Rugby World Cup, which starts in England in just over a month. So, even though they lost to Australia last weekend, we shrug it off, knowing that no-one wins them all, and that in 2011 they lost a very similar game before going to the World Cup and prevailing in the final. Anything other than an All Black triumph at the World Cup will be considered a disaster. After all, last weekend’s loss was only the third one in four years.

Our logic is that we’re the best team, so we should win. We think that because we usually win rugby games, we should win them all at the World Cup. That’s the consistency we expect. But, of course, we know that this isn’t true. New Zealand has often fielded the best team, yet has only won the World Cup twice, both times at home. As rugby fans (and all Kiwis) know, we have a long history of tragic losses to plucky underdogs, culminating in the 2007 quarterfinal loss to a previously ragged French team.

So why it is easy for the All Blacks to win test matches, but hard to win the World Cup? To answer this question, we need to cast our minds back to Milgram. Remember he showed how much we underestimate the power of the situation. We think people behave because of their internal qualities, when in fact they are heavily influenced by the situation they find themselves in. We overemphasize personality, strength, and “mongrel”, and we underemphasize what is going on around them.

The point is, winning a World Cup is a very different environment from winning a rugby test. For example, when teams play regular tests against each other, they usually have similar quality of preparation. If they don’t, the underprepared team is at a significant disadvantage. In the World Cup, preparation for the knockout games differs widely. In England, the All Blacks will play pool games against four teams that have never beaten them, and who will probably play second strength teams against NZ in order to save themselves for the games that “matter.” So the All Blacks are likely to go into the quarterfinals with next week’s game against Australia as their last serious contest. And that quarterfinal has a good chance of being against France. Let’s party like it’s 2007.

How do we know that World Cups are different from other games of rugby? Well, the best way to predict the future is to examine the past. As we all know, in the seven World Cups, the only ones that we’ve won have been held on our patch. Every time we go away we come back in despair. It seems as though we find new ways to let it slip between our fingers.

Then again, even though everyone else laughs at us, it is not as if any of them have the answer. For all that the All Blacks have blown it on any number of occasions, no single team has figured out how to win. The Aussies have only won twice, and not since 1999. The South Africans also have two, but one was by virtue of inspiration from Nelson Mandela (and let’s not get started on Suzie), and in the other they were in the right place at the right time. England have only done it once. And that’s it. So in fact: it is just very hard for anyone to win the World Cup.

Now, we all know this. But somehow we think that 2007 was an aberration. In fact, 2007 just shows the power of the environment. The All Blacks don’t become terrible teams at World Cups. But World Cups are unusually hard tournaments to win, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this because we have all the data that we need. Any group of players will struggle to win three knockout games in a row. Our guys, while good, are no different.

So the All Blacks are likely not to win the World Cup, not because they’re weak, or naïve, or because Dan gets injured, or because McCaw is too old. It’s just really hard to do. But that doesn’t mean they won’t. And of course it shouldn’t stop us willing them on, particularly on 17 October against the bloody French.

You can learn more about Milgram’s obedience experiments here: Stanley Milgram: Obedience to Authority

If we all agree that racism is bad, why are we still racist?


Thankfully, almost no-one in modern New Zealand thinks (or at least says that they think) that it is appropriate to deny someone an opportunity simply because of their ethnicity or gender. That is, unlike 100 years ago, people would not deny the opportunity of Māori or women to become surgeons.  Yet inequities still clearly exist, because members of those two groups are both underrepresented in that profession, among many others. Studies have shown that women earn less than men for performing the same job, and Māori have worse outcomes on measures of health, education, and employment than the general NZ population.

Each of us has to develop an opinion as to why these inequities exist. It seems to me that they fall into three groups:

  1. Inequity of talent. Some people believe that although each of us should be judged on our talent and achievements, those attributes vary across ethnicities. In this view, members of Ethnicity A have an over-representation of attributes like intelligence, willingness for hard work, diligence, etc., relative to Ethnicity B. People holding this view are happy for members of Ethnicity B who achieve the right grades and have the right experience to get the same opportunities as anyone else; they just assume that there are fewer members of Ethnicity B who will do so.
  1. Inequity of history. Another group think that talents are evenly distributed across ethnicities, and believe that current society is now ethnicity-blind, but accept that this was not always so. As a result of this historical racism, some ethnic groups find themselves less well placed in the distribution of resources than others, and this may affect their opportunities. To resolve this, we need to remove the historical blocks, and when we do so inequities will disappear.
  1. Inequity of opportunity. A third view is that inequities across our society exist because racism still exists. That is, people of Ethnicity B have fewer opportunities than people of Ethnicity A even after historical effects are controlled for. In other words, we may agree that racism is bad, but we (as a society) are still racist.

Determining which alternative is correct is tricky because there are so many factors that determine our success at school, in the workplace, maintaining good health, and securing a decent house to live in. What most of us do is look for evidence that is in accordance with our preferred view. However, using sophisticated statistical techniques it is possible to untangle some of the causal web. In a paper just published in the journal PloS-ONE, Dr Carla Houkamau (Faculty of Business and Economics) and Associate Professor Chris Sibley (School of Psychology) from the University of Auckland set out to examine these issues using a large sample of people who self-identified as being Māori. Since ethnicities are fluid, members of any group vary in how much they “look like” they belong to that group. Carla and Chris exploited this to ask participants how “Māori” they looked, through questions like “I think it is easy to tell that I am Māori just by looking at me.” The question they were interested in was whether responses to this measure of appearance would be related to whether the participants owned their own home (either outright or partially, through a current mortgage).

We know that rates of home ownership are lower among Māori than among the general population. What about rates of home ownership among Māori people who look more or less like they belong to that ethnicity? On the face of it, the likelihood that you’re in your own home should depend on your income, your stability, your age, maybe your relationship status. It obviously shouldn’t depend upon what you look like. So Carla and Chris asked questions about as many demographic variables as they could think of, so that they could take out their influence. Clearly some people in their sample would own homes, and others wouldn’t. So would those differences be due to income/age/relationship status? Or would differences be due just to the person’s appearance?

Carla and Chris used a statistical technique called logistic regression which looks at all the factors associated with an outcome (in this case, owning a home), and then is able to take out the influences of each factor to see what remains. If the only influence on home ownership rates is income, then once you take income out of the statistical model, nothing else should have any predictive power. Carla and Chris were able to show that after taking out every demographic variable you can think of, being visibly Māori still predicted home ownership so strongly that someone who looked very Māori had approximately half the chance relative to someone who didn’t look Māori at all.

So how does this affect my three groups of thinkers? If you consider that Māori fare poorly in social statistics because they are less innately talented than other New Zealanders, you might also be able to come up with a reason why these talents decline the more one looks to be Māori. But that lack of talent would affect all the demographics; these individuals would have lower incomes and lower levels of education, so when you removed those demographic indicators from the analysis you’d remove the effect. Therefore, these results show that you can’t account for low home ownership rates for people who are visibly Māori on the basis of some lack of talent.

If you believe that the system is now fair but once wasn’t, it is possible to interpret these results as showing that historically it was harder for Māori to get mortgages, and we continue to see these effects today since people often live in houses for a long time. So there is some evidence for this view, although as Carla and Chris note in their paper, it is an open question whether these effects still occur; their study was simply unable to address that issue. But note that even in the situation that differences in home ownership are historical, they still have real effects in the present day, because Māori as a group receive fewer of the benefits of home ownership in terms of financial and emotional security and long-term independence, relative to the general population. So by definition the inequities still exist, even if modern society is “fair.”

The evidence is probably strongest for the final group, who see ethnicity as a continuing marker of inequities in opportunity. There is no evidence that people awarding mortgages are explicitly racist in their denial of applications, but these results are very consistent with a broad body of psychological research showing unconscious and subtle but insidious effects of social preferences. CVs judged with a male name attached are thought to deserve higher salaries than the same CV with a female name; African-American defendants are more likely to be brought to trial, more likely to be convicted when on trial, and more likely to be executed when convicted than White American defendants. With this evidence, people in modern NZ society are likely to distribute resources in ways that benefit Pākehā and disadvantage Māori, even when they consciously think that ethnicity has no role in such judgments. Although more investigation is needed to verify how these processes work, we will need to acknowledge them if we are to successfully remove inequities and create a country where opportunity really is equal for all.

For more information about Dr Carla Houkamau, click here:

For more information on Associate Professor Chris Sibley, click here:

A visual advantage in autism

One of the miracles of our existence is the way that we develop. Infants are born relatively helpless; unable to talk, walk, or feed themselves, and without adult care do not survive. However, within a few short years they acquire a vast range of physical, cognitive, linguistic, emotional, and social skills.

Of course, every child learns these skills at their own rate; some talk early but sit in one place, whereas others keep their thoughts to themselves but start walking well before their first birthday. Developmental experts plot these ages to work out “norms” – that is, an average pattern of development across children. No single child will stick to this pattern across all the skills that they acquire, but it provides a way of assessing where the child is ahead of the pack and where they may be behind.

Although all children vary to some extent from the “norms,” some do so in ways that seem quite different from those of typical kids. Children who get past their second birthday without talking, for example, are potentially on a different developmental trajectory from most of their peers. These kids may be assessed as having a “developmental disorder”. Such a diagnosis is an invitation for the child to be given extra support for skills that are slow to develop without systematic attention.

One of the most common developmental disorders is autism. While estimates of prevalence vary, the US Centers for Disease Control currently estimate that 1 in 68 kids in the US are diagnosed within the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most schools in developed countries like New Zealand will have systems in place to work with kids who have a diagnosis of autism, since it is relatively common. Importantly too, there are plenty of kids who have some features of ASD but not strongly enough to warrant a formal diagnosis; however, they also need additional support for at least some of their learning activities.

ASD is fundamentally a social disorder; kids with autism typically show a reduced social focus, impaired language and communication, and they may engage in repetitive behaviour. But of course we have all heard of stories of autistic savants too; people with autism who are much better than normal at memorizing information, performing calculations, or playing a musical instrument. Clearly it is a complex disorder, so accounting for exactly how kids with autism differ from their typically developing peers is a difficult job.

One way we can do this is to try to isolate relatively fundamental psychological processes. One such study, from an international team of researchers that includes the Head of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Auckland, Prof Steven Dakin, is being published this week in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience. Steven and his colleagues were interested in comparing kids with ASD and their typically developing peers on their ability to see the overall movement of a set of dots where each dot is moving somewhat differently to the others. To imagine the task, think about a large school of fish. At any moment, you can say that the school is moving in a particular direction. However, if you look at the individual fish, each one is probably moving somewhat differently to all the rest. Our judgment of the movement of the whole school comes from our ability to average all the individual movements together. If we can only focus on individual fish, we will never see the overall movement of the school.

Some descriptions of kids with autism note their attention to parts of objects, rather than the whole thing – for example, they may obsessively spin the wheels of the toy car rather than pretend to drive it somewhere. As such, you might expect that they would find the group movement judgments very challenging. The fascinating result found by Steven and his research team was the opposite – the children with ASD performed BETTER than typically developing children at this task. This result suggests that the kids with autism were better able to integrate all the individual movements together, and extract the average movement from the disparate elements.

What might be the practical outcome of this enhanced ability to integrate visual elements together? One is tempted to think of a story of how it might provide an opportunity for savant skills to develop, such as an enhanced musical ability. We must be careful, however, not to equate better performance on a psychophysical task with superior abilities in complex domains like music and mathematics. Rather, this may be an indicator of maladaptive processing. The authors speculate that such powerful integration might lead to the sensory overload that so many kids with autism subjectively experience.

In any event, Steven and his colleagues show the advantage to testing behaviour of developmentally delayed children using sophisticated techniques that have been carefully implemented. More work like this will give us a better insight into the world of autism: a world that is difficult for its inhabitants to describe to the rest of us.

For more information on the research programme of Prof Steven Dakin, click here:

For the media release on this research article, click here:

The lesson that #ponytailgate has for us all, even if we’re “good blokes”


This week a story emerged that John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, pulled the hair of a waitress at his local café on a number of occasions, even though she didn’t like it and became very distressed by it. One interesting aspect of it is that the basic facts do not seem to be in dispute: over the course of about six months John Key frequently went into the café, and on many occasions he pulled the waitresses’ ponytail. She tried to ignore it, became distressed by it, and ultimately confronted him. He realized that he was out of order, and apologized.

Let’s make some assumptions:

1. She was genuinely distressed by John Key’s behaviour, but masked or muted those feelings in her interactions with him, at least initially.

2. He did not want to make her feel uncomfortable, and felt that he was, in his own words, just “horsing around.”

(You may or may not agree with these assumptions, but bear with me for now).

So why didn’t he realise that he was making her feel so uncomfortable?

Was he arrogant for not noticing? Did she have the responsibility to make clear to him how she felt?

We find some partial answers in classic findings from Social Psychology. First, consider something called (among other names) “The Fundamental Attribution Error” (FAE). Simply put, the FAE is our tendency to explain the actions of others in terms of their personal disposition, and to downplay the effects of the situation in which that person finds him/herself. We experience this all the time. For example, you say hello to someone as they walk past and they say “hi” but keep walking and don’t stop. You might be tempted in that situation to think that they are a little rude (that is, their disposition is negative towards you), but it is equally likely that they are in a hurry and unable to stop (their behaviour is dictated by the situation). Equally, the car that almost cuts you off is driven by an idiot (disposition) and not by someone who was unable to see you because of the angle of the sun (situation).

The FAE leads us to see a simple world in which people act as they think. If they feel bad, they tell us. If they don’t say anything, they must be content. If you do something and the person doesn’t complain, you assume that they are joining in the joke, because if they weren’t they’d tell you (that is, their behaviour shows what they actually feel).

Of course, in many situations we are unable to show our true feelings. Sometimes it is because we want to present a particular face to friends. But in situations of power imbalance there are obviously many reasons that you might feel that you could not act according to your disposition. So anyone interacting with someone further up in a hierarchy will feel constrained from behaving freely – because of the social situation that they find themselves in.

In other words, we tend to see people as behaving according to what they feel, yet in hierarchies those at the bottom are much less free to act than those at the top. Inevitably, people at the top are at risk of misinterpreting the feelings of others.

Another bias we all struggle with is “confirmation bias.” The world is a complex place so it is hard work to figure out what it all means. It is much easier to hold a view about it, and then just check that the world continues to conform to that view. So, you might be convinced that climate change is real and influenced by humans, or you might think that it is all a hoax. As you sample information about it, you are probably drawn to opinions that are consistent with yours, and find yourself ignoring evidence to the contrary (at which point I need to point out that for the latter view you are ignoring a LOT of evidence…).

So again, assume that you’re the Prime Minister and you hold the view that everyone at the café is having fun “horsing around” with you. You are unlikely to verify with every staff member that this is true. Rather, you interpret their behaviour in ways that are consistent with this view (e.g., “she gave me that dirty look because she knows I’ll think it is funny”). So even when the waitress is displaying antipathy to the hair pulling, you think she’s in on the joke.

The point of this is not to let John Key off the hook; quite the opposite. We each have a responsibility to ensure that we are not making other people uncomfortable in our presence, and we have to understand that it may be difficult to verify whether this is happening. This difficulty in knowing why people act as they do increases with power differential, so when you’re the Prime Minister it is about as great as it can get. Yet, it happens to all of us. If you’re a teacher, or a coach, or a boss, or clergy, or a parent, or an elder sibling, you can find yourself in this situation.

And of course, where power differentials go, so to do discrimination; sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The Prime Minister will be quick to say that he intended nothing sexist by his actions, and in terms of his conscious thoughts he may be right. But even if that’s true, the simple fact is that in this social architecture, those at the top setting the interactions are likely to be predominantly Pakeha men and those at the bottom are likely to be women, non-Pakeha, etc.

So let’s demand clarity around what happened in this situation. But the greater lesson is for us all. Don’t assume everyone else is in on the joke. Because maybe they are just playing along for your benefit, and your natural instinct will be to assume they think you’re great.

“Oi” — the real problem with phones and driving

Auckland Transport has just kicked off a new driving safety campaign, aimed at reducing the numbers of people using their handheld phones while driving. It is aimed at getting people to shame phone-using drivers (by getting their attention and expressing mild displeasure with a Kiwi-specific pejorative term). I guess their thinking is that people don’t take the risk of using phones while driving seriously enough, so engaging likeminded members of the public can get people’s attention on the problem.

The campaign is somewhat light-hearted; Auckland Transport probably don’t expect us to be knocking of each other’s car windows. But it is not without precedent, as shown by the recent spate of Kiwi drivers confiscating keys off foreign tourists who are accused of driving erratically. I’m not sure it is a great idea to have us all police the roads collectively, given the way in which road rage incidents can escalate. But leaving that aside, let’s ask three questions about the current campaign.

1. Are people sufficiently aware of the dangers of mobile phone use while driving?

I suspect most people who use their phones in the car do so because they think it is relatively safe to do so. Texting is probably something that we realise is a bit of a problem since you need to take your eyes off the road, but if you intend to just glance down at the phone for an instant, then maybe it will be OK. I also think most people don’t see much wrong with using a phone to talk; after all, you talk to other passengers and no one is planning to ban that (as far as I know!).

 Unfortunately, the facts are not with us. Just talking on your mobile phone is a significant risk to driving. Research suggests that you are four times more likely than normal to have a crash when you are talking on a phone. To put that in perspective, your risk of having a crash after drinking alcohol is elevated by about four times at a blood-alcohol level at .08 – which was our OLD limit. Given our new limit of .05, you are literally more at risk from using your phone in the car than you are from alcohol if you just sneak across the limit.

 Texting is worse – considerably worse. Your crash risk jumps to eight times normal if you are texting, which is obviously much higher than the drink-driving threshold.

These numbers generally surprise people, but the the problem with using mobile phones is not really an eye issue (that is, it is not about failing to look at the road); it is much more a brain issue. When you’re talking on the phone, or texting, your brain is involved in communication. You’re thinking about your message, and whether the other person understands you, and what they are saying to you, and all these things are very taxing on your brainpower. So when a car suddenly pulls out in front us, or a child chases a ball across the road, even if we are looking at the right place our brains may take an extra few milliseconds to process what is going on and what action needs to be taken. So it is the interference with what your brain needs to do that increases your crash risk.

2. What is so dangerous about holding the phone? Why is the use of a hands-free kit allowed?

Alas, on this one the science is at odd with the policy. Because the truth is that there is no evidence that hands-free use of a phone is any safer than holding the phone. As I mentioned, the problem with driving is the attentional distraction, not the coordination difficulty of holding a phone and using a steering wheel. So, if I was in charge of driving laws, I’d be outlawing any use of a phone by the driver of a vehicle. Maybe that’s why I’m not a politician! But I am definitely in favour of any law that reduces crash risk, so if we start with hand-held phones then that is OK by me.

3. But what about talking to passengers or listening to the radio – are they any safer? Should we legislate silence?

Good news here. Talking to someone else in the car is much safer than talking to someone on the phone, and is probably safer than driving alone. That’s because the passenger adjusts their conversation with driving conditions – when you’re merging in busy traffic they’ll naturally be quiet. The person down the other end of the phone doesn’t give you that leeway. The passenger in the car may even warn you of something that you haven’t seen! And listening to the radio is not distracting because you’re not communicating with it, so you feel free to ignore it. You notice this when you get in a busy patch on the road and then realise that you missed a couple of minutes of Guyon Espiner’s interview.

So, you can decide whether to say “Oi” to other people using their phones in the car. But think really hard about whether you should be using the phone, and understand that if you don’t drink and drive, you shouldn’t be calling/texting and driving either.

For more information, check out the website of Prof David Strayer at the University of Utah. Prof Strayer runs the Applied Cognition Lab where he tests people in driving simulators and measures the effects of distraction on their driving performance. He was even on Oprah!

How do infants learn words when the words come from different languages?

The ability of young infants to learn to speak is one of the miracles of human experience. Just how a young child who comes into the world unable to walk, talk, or see clearly can, within a year or two, begin to speak and communicate with others is an amazing experience for every parent. Although the rate at which children learn words is controversial, children aged 12-24 months are clearly learning multiple words each day, as well as beginning to master the grammatical rules by which the words can be combined.

Our intuitive explanation for this achievement is probably that kids hear many words that are spoken around them, and some of those words “stick” in their minds. But how much do they understand about speakers of those words? They obviously learn that different people can say the same word to mean the same thing. This is the situation of most families in which both parents understand the same language. But in many families this is not the only situation; parents may also speak other languages. If we want to understand language acquisition in the 21st Century we better understand how it works in multilingual families.

My colleague Dr Annette Henderson has just published a fascinating paper in which she and Jessica Scott report research that examines what children of multilingual parents expect words to mean. The basic question is this: Do children who grow up hearing different languages understand that each language uses different labels for a single object? Eventually, they obviously do, so that when the child whose mother speaks Spanish and father speaks German masters both languages fluently, she has demonstrated that different words can be used to refer to the same objects. But what about a 13-month-old infant who is only beginning to use language? It seems reasonable to assume that he might grab hold of any words that float around him before he begins the tricky job of understanding that different people might speak different languages.

Annette and Jessica set up a study where they had 13-month-old infants from bilingual families (that is, their parents spoke at least two different languages fluently) see videos of two different speakers interacting with an unfamiliar object. Some infants saw both speakers using the same language, whereas other infants saw speakers using different languages. Each group saw one speaker pick up the object and say a novel word (e.g. “medo”). This was repeated enough times that the children had plenty of experience with this association.

The key thing was what happened next: The other speaker appeared, and used the same word for the object (“medo”). Annette and Jessica were interested in whether kids would expect two people who’d spoken different languages to use words in the same way, or in different ways. If the infants were just learning to associate words and objects, without paying attention to who was speaking (and what else they were saying), then the kids might expect the same object to be called the same name, but it probably wouldn’t matter who said it. This was not what they found. Instead, the infants appeared surprised when someone who’d spoken a different language turned around and called the object the same name as the original speaker. The only way to explain this result is to assume that the children were sensitive to the fact that the two people were speaking different languages (or at least were using words in different ways), and therefore expected them to use different words to name each object in the world around them.

Crucially, this effect did not occur with monolingual infants. Children who have only been exposed to one language do not seem to understand that there are different ways of referring to objects. In the same test, these children showed no particular surprise when a speaker of one language used the same word to refer to an object as a speaker of another language.

This result is interesting for what it tells us about the nature of multilingual learning, but more than that is shows the incredible sophistication of infant cognition. While learning individual words is complex enough, infants appear to have sensitivity to the different speakers of language, so that they are hearing individuals rather than just a wall of words. Clearly, the 13-month-old brain is much more sophisticated than many of us may give it credit for.

For more information of Dr Annette Henderson’s work, click here:

To download the paper describing this study, click here:

NOTE: Annette is always looking for babies to take part in her experiments, so if you live in the Auckland area and have a baby that would like to participate, please contact her at the link below. No bilingual experience necessary!