Final set of comments for Thandi!!


Thanks Thandi! 🙂


The Magic of Research

As the cynical and jaded second years that we are, exhausted after two years full of research methods and statistics, we might laugh scornfully at someone who tried to tell us that psychology research can be magical. But guess what! It can be!

Sadly I don’t mean magic in the Harry Potter sense (though I do think Freud would have had a field day with Lord Voldemort; and probably the whole wand thing too…), but it is true that psychologists are using magic in their research. The tricks of stage magic are being used to investigate complex phenomena such as attention and perception. A good magician will be able to fool our senses by tricking some mechanism of cognition or attention; so by studying how these tricks work on our minds we could significantly further our understanding of human cognitive and perceptual functioning.

Some tricks of stage/performance magic use visual illusions to trick the audience; taking advantage of the way human visual perception works in order to make an elephant vanish etc. These types of tricks usually work by taking advantage of the laws of visual perception, which have already been studied a great deal, however, other types of tricks are classed as cognitive illusions (tricking the audience using higher-level cognitive functions), the exact mechanisms of which are not yet fully understood. Cognitive illusions usually involve some kind of mental misdirection, often of attention or causal inference, and are seen in most magic tricks.

Using the principles of stage magic to investigate cognitive functioning is a relatively untapped area at present, but it could be an excellent resource. One study, for example, used a magic trick to gather evidence for the attentional spotlight. Participants’ eyes were tracked whilst they observed a magician perform a simple magic trick involving misdirection and sleight of hand. It was found that participants would miss the trick even if they were gazing in the right area and, that whether they blinked or not during the trick did not affect whether they missed it; in other words the misdirection affected their attentional spotlight rather than their gaze. A similar effect has been shown using the Vanishing Ball illusion; participants did not direct their gaze to where the ball “vanished”, despite being fooled by the illusion. This indicates that it was their attention that was fooled by the trick and not their eyes.

So we really can use magic in research, which I think is pretty awesome, and there is a great deal that magic tricks could teach us about how our cognitive systems can be tricked and therefore how they work (for more examples and explanations see the links below). But what I think is really interesting about this is that magic tricks have been around for centuries; long, long before anyone even thought of psychology as a discipline, yet magic utilises complex psychological phenomena to fool and entertain us, and magicians have a control over human perceptions that we struggle to replicate in the lab. We could almost think of magic tricks as being the first behavioural experiments and magicians, the first psychologists.

More comments, sorry Thandi!


Blog 3: In which I try to explain about correlation and causation (Caution: some blogs may contain rambling).

Opening a stats textbook is, for me, very similar to opening the Ark of the Covenant (as in ‘Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark’, gotta love that movie!). The cover is lifted and immediately my face begins to melt right off at the arcane horrors within. This happens every time I look at a page of stats a textbook. Can I therefore conclude that statistical textbooks cause face-melting? Note: if I can show causation then people in dark suits will take all the stats books away to be hidden away in area 51 examined by Top Men.

                Suppose I conducted an observational study and find that the frequency of face-melting incidents increases with increasing exposure to stats textbooks. I have found a strong positive correlation but I cannot infer causation from this as I have not controlled for any possible confounding variables. These face-melting effects may be common to all textbooks, my face may be hypersensitive or I might be allergic to paper, the melting may be caused by the stress or boredom I feel when opening the textbook and not by the textbook itself. What this experiment can tell me however, is that there is a strong covariation between exposure to stats textbooks and melting faces, which hints at the possibility of a causal relationship between the two.

                To demonstrate causation I would have to conduct an experiment in which all other possible causes for face-melting were controlled for and in which possible sources of bias were removed (random assignment, independent observations….. the usual). If at the end of this I found that the frequency of face-melting was significantly higher in the stats textbook condition than in the control conditions then I could infer that there is likely to be a causal relationship between the two variables (Causation, at last! Send in the Top Men!).

                It is worth noting however that both of these techniques were looking for a relationship between the variables and that how we evaluate the data does not determine whether we can infer causation, rather it is how the data was collected that determines this (for a better explanation of this see here:  What this means is that, although we are taught dogmatically that correlation never ever implies causation, it is possible for correlation to imply causation if the data was gathered by true experimental methods; as it is the control of possible biases and confounds within the experimental method that allows us to be able to infer causation. In other words, if I had collected my face-melting data experimentally but analysed it using a correlational or regressional statistical technique, rather than an ANOVA or t-test, then I could still possibly make a causal inference provided the analysis was appropriate and I had been rigorous enough in collecting my data.

                The dogma of “Correlation does not imply Causation” is potentially extremely misleading for any student of statistics. What it really means is that we cannot guarantee or even infer a causal relationship from a correlational research design, because no variables have been manipulated or controlled for. Also, the word ‘imply’ is problematic in this context. Here it is intended to mean guarantee, but in most cases it would mean ‘hint at’, which is in fact what any good correlational study should do; explore connections between variables to uncover possible relationships to be examined experimentally later on.


For your entertainment:

For your education:

Comments for Thandi: Week 2

Should psychology be written for the layman or should science be exclusively for scientists?

There have been times over the past two years when I’ve read a psychology article or piece of research and have barely been able to understand a word of it. Indeed scientific work in general often seems to be written in a code only decipherable to experts in that field; (the work described here is barely even English:  something that I think could limit science in the long run and may also be partly responsible for all those media misunderstandings we heard about in the semester 1 blogs. That is not to say, however, that current styles of scientific writing should be removed, as they serve an important function in the scientific community.

One of the chief functions and ethical responsibilities of scientific research is to conduct research that will benefit society and add to the sum of human knowledge. Surely then, scientific knowledge should be made available to everyone. But all too often the theories are presented as being far too complicated for the layman to understand, which limits scientific knowledge to the privileged few. To be fair it would be unreasonable to expect someone with no scientific background at all to understand string theory if we just simplify the explanation. But on the other hand excessive use of incomprehensible language promotes academic snobbery and may be off-putting for laymen, thus limiting future public interest in the subject. Also, keeping science exclusively for scientists is likely to foster mistrust in science as a whole (for some reason I’m imagining a strange Orwellian dystopia, where all science has become a cult, and knowledge is only given to initiates deemed worthy/intelligent enough by a higher power….. oh wait, things are already like that). Anyway, with the spreading use of jargon in scientific papers is it any wonder that the public and media often have wild misconceptions about science? (

Every subject develops its own specific language over time; composed of jargon, abbreviations and references to well-known theories or discoveries from within that field; and this development is inevitable. While it may seem incomprehensible to an outsider (I doubt I would be able to make much sense of a paper on seismology, even with Google and Wikipedia on hand) most of these abbreviations and suchlike have usually been created to make published work easier to read and understand for other scientists in the same field. Imagine, for example, if all neuropsychological papers had to include the full names of brain regions. Having to write out ‘posterior region of the superior temporal sulcus’ in full every time you wanted to refer to that area would not only make papers a pain to write, but also make them extremely heavy reading for other researchers. Scientific writing is designed to communicate complex scientific ideas to other scientists in an effective and understandable way; and in that respect I believe it has definite value.

In my opinion, writing papers that are aimed at an audience of experts is absolutely fine and often completely necessary in order to communicate theories effectively and enable scientific progress. HOWEVER, I also think that this information should also be readily available (and understandable) for the layman). Magazines like New Scientist publish research in a way that is accessible for non-experts; and there are many internet sites (e.g.,, that discuss theories and research in layman’s terms, without sacrificing the more complex concepts on the altar of simplicity. Also, thanks to sites like this one: even creative writing students can sound like experts in psychology!

Things I write when I can’t think of a specific topic

In a 2010 TED talk, Michael Shermer spoke about self-deception and belief; specifically how the human race seems hardwired to see patterns in the world around us (  Our brains can interpret random patterns into coherent shapes, for example the Rorschach inkblot test or hidden object illusions such as: Shermer theorises that we may be evolutionarily predisposed to see patterns in the world around us, as such a skill would help us survive in a possibly hostile world. For example; learning to be cautious when we hear a rustle in the bushes as it might be a predator is far less costly than assuming that it’s just the wind and only finding out its a predator when we’re just about to be eaten. Or: if there is food on this tree now, there may be food on similar trees; or on the same tree next year etc. Thus our pattern seeking tendencies can be of great benefit to us; they can help us learn, make connections and (as Fay taught us last semester) allow us to make schemas so we can navigate the social world smoothly.

However this tendency to see patterns can lead us astray. As Shermer examines in his talk, pattern-seeking can lead to superstitious beliefs, paranoia or simply drawing false conclusions. This last one is particularly important to us as science students as there is always that temptation to infer a cause-and –effect relationship. Of course we get taught that we must very cautious about this, but then we also get taught that if p<0.05 then we can reject the null. YAY! The problem is that scientific investigation is almost like a high-tech extension of our innate pattern-seeking behaviour and is, in some ways, just as fallible to false conclusions as we are in our daily lives. There is a trend in science to rely on statistical significance a little too much when all it really says is how likely it is for something to have occurred by chance. But we, as the great pattern-seekers of the world, have a tendency to forget that a p value of 0.05 could mean that whatever happened is just an extremely improbable fluke.  Critics of the overuse of statistics in modern science have found many instances where a significant result has been accepted wrongly and too readily by the researchers and sometimes the scientific community in general (

While I support the use of statistics in science, I do think that our desire for patterns and connections in the world can lead us astray; and we should be very careful not to let a significant p-value become the statistical equivalent of superstitiously touching wood to guarantee good luck.


(Watch the TED talk guys, its a lot better than this blog, I promise!)

Comments for Thandi; Week 11

Ran out of time slightly, sorry! But it does mean less marking for you so yay! 🙂

Globalisation and Psychology (this is a pretty long one, sorry guys!)

Usually when we think of globalisation we think of: the spread of capitalism, or the fact that no matter where you go in the world you will always be able to find a McDonalds (which is great, if you like Mc Donalds; I personally can’t stand it, but that’s just me).  But it is interesting to think that globalisation is also having an effect on mental illnesses. Western views on psychology and mental illness are spreading to other cultures and, not only causing our old friend bias, but also changing the manifestation and prevalence of mental illnesses across the world.

There is a trend in America and Europe towards promoting the idea that mental illness is a disease just like any other except that it affects the mind. This idea was, and is, promoted so heavily in order to reduce the social stigma against mental illness that stemmed from ignorance, or the belief that mental disorders are caused by demons (either supernatural or personal). This is of course a highly commendable endeavour but, as with everything, the west is now disseminating its supposedly enlightened ideas across the world. Psychiatry and psychology across the globe now uses definitions of mental illness based on those found in the DSM, which contains categories and descriptions of mental illness that have mainly been observed and researched in Europe and the US. Do I really need to say the word bias here? Mental illnesses are heavily influenced by culture both in how common they are and how they manifest themselves; so to have a global standard for diagnosis based mostly on information from one culture is completely illogical and may have a detrimental effect.

Mental illnesses are in many ways very subjective and so a shift in culture or cultural opninion/knowledge can change the illness completely. A psychiatrist in Hong Kong, Dr Sing Lee, was researching a form of anorexia nervosa that was specific to Hong Kong and parts of China in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Patients with this form of anorexia did not express any fears about being fat or worries about their weight at all, nor were they intentionally dieting. Instead they complained of a bloating sensation that made it hard for them to eat (NB: there was no physical cause for the sensation). At the time anorexia was extremely rare in Hong Kong and only the indigenous form was present. But in 1994 an anorexic teenage girl collapsed and died on a busy street in Hong Kong, resulting in a media frenzy around the subject. Because the disease was so rare, local reporters drew on American definitions to explain what had happened so within a few days most of Hong Kong was aware of anorexia in terms of the American definition. By the end of the ‘90s rates of anorexia in Hong had increased dramatically and 90% of the patients diagnosed reported the American symptom set.

“Culture shapes the way general psychopathology is going to be translated partially or completely into specific psychopathology,” Lee says. “When there is a cultural atmosphere in which professionals, the media, schools, doctors, psychologists all recognize and endorse and talk about and publicize eating disorders, then people can be triggered to consciously or unconsciously pick eating-disorder pathology as a way to express that conflict.”

So simple exposure to information can affect how an entire culture perceives mental illness, which is one of the reasons why western cultures should be more cautious about spreading their views on disease as it can be detrimental. For example social isolation often leads to higher relapse rates in patients with a mental illness; add to this the emerging pattern that viewing mental illness as a disease seems to be correlated with increasing social stigma against mental illness around the world. Some cultures that view mental disorders as spiritual issues are very supportive of the person afflicted and this is correlated with significantly lower relapse rates in those cultures.

In other words the Western perspective may be spreading like wildfire but it is not necessarily correct or beneficial. To illustrate the limitations of the Western perspective it’s worth noting what the DSM-IV describes as “Culture-bound syndromes”. These are syndromes or disorders that are only found in a specific culture; two of the best known are amok (a brief period of violent, sometimes murderous, rage, often followed by amnesia and usually seen in men after a traumatic event and is specific to Malaysia) and koro (belief that their genitals are inexorably retreating into their bodies, associated with extreme anxiety and is most commonly seen in males, specific to Southeast Asia). The ever-so brief section on these syndromes in the DSM-IV can be found in an appendix near the end of the book, despite the fact that many of these syndromes are extremely important within their specific cultures. Also some of the syndromes seem more connected to religious/cultural beliefs and practices than psychological disorders; for example one syndrome specific to Korea (shinbyeong) is a necessary part of initiation as a shaman in Muism (or Mugyo). The DSM says that it is a condition typified by loss of appetite, weakness, pain, anxiety and dissociation from reality, but according to Muism the shinbyeong is a religious experience/transformation that is necessary to become a shaman. Whether the shinbyeong is or is not a psychiatric disorder, it still raises the question of why it is included in the list of syndromes when things like Jerusalem syndrome or stigmata are not. (Not that I’m saying that an American publication would be biased towards Christianity or anything…. Of course not!).

To conclude I think that the globalisation of western ideas about psychology and psychiatry is probably not a good thing, however well-intentioned it may be. It can clearly cause problematic biases leading to over generalisation of theories and can lead to the glossing over of important psychological issues or misinterpretation of culture-specific phenomena.


A lot of links:;jsessionid=C72D626D431E470E392701B4B1C081AD.journals?fromPage=online&aid=5070364


Comments for my TA: Week 8/9