The Homunculus

Psychology, Anthropology, Evolution

Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Look beneath the floorboards

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 17, 2009

Probably my favorite Sufjian Stevens’ song, John Wayne Gacy Jr ends with stanza ‘And in my best behavior / I am really just like him  / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid.’ But are we really just like John Wayne Gacy, who put up a facade of respectability while he murdered a string of boys?

Technically no. It was earlier mentioned that psychopaths have an impaired capacity to detect fearful expressions. In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer wrote about Gacy’s inability to feel for his victims. These stem out of malfunctions in the brain. Thankfully, there is a very small percentage of people who are like these.

In the sense that we are capable of doing much evil, then yes. From the history of world genocides and human brutality, we have seen that much of these has been done not by psychopaths, but by ordinary citizens caught in senseless and difficult situations. Theorists and social scientists have proposed their share of theories to explain this behavior: Milgram’s obedience studies, Zimbardo’s studies on roleplaying and others.

So perhaps, evil in the sense of doing wrong, is just all too human.


Posted in anthropology, psychology | 1 Comment »

Scream all you want

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 8, 2009

That’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. Known as the Clown Killer, Gacy Jr. would dress up as Pogo the Clown and go to children’s parties to entertain. He was also father, a husband, a political activist, and a respected member of the community. During an investigation of a boy’s disappearance, policemen came inside Gacy’s home and smelled the odor of corpses coming from a heating duct. Gacy had killed more than 30 boys, most buried under his floor. He joked that he was guilty of ‘running a cemetery without a license.’

In a paper published  by Marsh and Blair on individuals with antisocial behavior and the recognition of facial expressions, antisocial populations were found to have a significantly impaired detection of fearful expressions. These populations  were those showing presence of antisocial behaviors (aggressive, criminal etc) and those with both antisocial behaviors and personality traits such as lack of remorse/guilt often termed as psychopathic. Normal individuals have a basic range of emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, the expressions of which are universal across cultures. .

Bering notes that fear has been argued as the distress signal of individuals, more than sadness, as it signals a more urgent need. Psychopaths do not recognize this fear. Bering writes about a task where a psychologist (Marsh’s colleage) showed a murderer a picture of a fearful face. “I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know it’s what people look like right before I stab them,” said the murderer.   


John Wayne Gacy Jr. wiki entry

The problem with psychopaths

Details in facial affect recognition among anti-social populations (PDF)

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Cognitive Science 3D Mind Map

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 7, 2009

CogSpace has a wonderful 3D mind map of cognitive science which plots the six academic domains of cognitive science which are: psychology, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, computer science, and philosophy on the Cartesian system. Subdomains like Neurolinguistics, Computational Neuroscience and others plotted accordingly, according to proximity and relations to these fields.

From the abstract:

“With this dynamic arrangement of organizational factors, the model renders a unique integral perspective and informative cartography of the “terrain”, and provides a “navigational instrument” for our explorative traversing across the frontier of consciousness research. By plotting each sub-domain in scope of the relative positions of all other domains, areas of knowledge and research concentration and lack of concentration (“unexplored regions”) become apparent. When referencing any particular disciplinary sub-domain within the manifold model, where it is at and what color it is can suggest something about it’s qualitative proximity to either more discrete and concrete or more continuous and abstract types of knowledge and research. .. The closer a sub-domain is to the exact center, the closer it is to blending and fusing with an absolute, unified, and direct knowing and application of consciousness itself…”

Michael Gaio, who is currently developing the map, has placed instructions for better navigation, so you can play around with it for some geeky fun.

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We’re watching.

Posted by Joy Icayan on November 27, 2009

Psychologists have used the subway train as a playground for social psychology experiments, observing behavior of people in certain situations. How would you react for instance if someone collapses on the floor? If someone asks you to mail a letter? And which part of the train is conducive for er, romance?

So what experiments/studies would you like to conduct in the train, or in the MRT/LRT? These are mine:

1. How will people will react to a person noisily arguing on the phone? Will the perception of that person change according to gender?

2. How much constriction of physical space is tolerable? Does it change depending on how the person is surrounded (whether front/back/side)?

3. How will a person react if an attractive person introduces himself/herself and engages in small talk? Who are more likely to entertain these requests, does it differ on the time of day (rush hour versus more relaxed times), and supposing they get off the same station, do are more likely to continue the conversation outside the train?

4. Those annoying ads in the MRT. Just how much of those details do we remember, what factors influence retention? (Personally they irritate me for the whole 30 minute ride).

Posted in psychology | 2 Comments »

Beware the marshmallow

Posted by Joy Icayan on November 26, 2009

Here’s a video of the marshmallow test if you’ve ever wanted to see how it’s done, or simply want to watch cute kids trying to resist that marshmallow.

The original test was conducted by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s, where four year olds were left in a room with a marshmallow, and were promised another one if they could wait for the experimenter who would then be gone for 20 minutes. Mischel followed up on these children years later and found out that those who had been able to wait, or engage in delayed gratification,  did better in their SATs, had fewer aggression problems and were better adjusted in school according to their teachers. Mischel was also able to find a correlation between seconds of delay in eating the marshmallow and ability in handling frustration. They were also less likely to be involved in drugs and were more likely to have higher BMIs.

I was looking for stories of those who actually gobbled up the marshmallow and came across Lehrer’s New Yorker article where he talks of a high delayer and a delayer, both coming from the original group of kids, among other (a bit depressing) things. Moral lesson from the great Mischel himself: allocation of attention, don’t think about the marshmallow. Just don’t.


Delay of Gratification in Children

Don’t! The Secret of Self Control

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forgiveness, for real?

Posted by Joy Icayan on November 19, 2009

The Forgiveness Project details stories of grieved men and women who have chosen to forgive, and sometimes reconcile. These are not victims of minor offenses, but rather various forms of human indignity and brutality, physical/sexual assaults, tortures and genocides etc. Some have even bravely sought out their perpetrators to converse and seek understanding.

Is forgiveness another Oprah phenomenon, or are we truly capable of the genuine kind? A recent study on Bosnia and Herzegovina (During the genocide, Serbs raped and killed hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims),  showed that Bosnians who had high quality contact with Serbs, showed more empathy and positive attitudes towards them. This is also called the contact hypothesis.

Just having read The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge), while disagreeing with some of the stuff written there, I’m inclined to think forgiveness or a change of attitude/perception involves plasticity in the brain, forming of new connections which need to be reinforced over time if they are to last.  Like how stroke patients relearn skills associated with brain functions that have been damaged, through practice and determination. Forming it as a habit, again. Which is probably why outsiders will never understand, because they operate on a different framework, a framework that has its own rules (some crimes are simply unforgivable), reinforced by internal (biases/attitudes) and external (religion, society) factors.

And which is also probably why some people can relapse from forgiving and why it isn’t always an Oprah story.


The Forgiveness Project

Promoting Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Brain That Changes Itself website

The Forgiveness Project: David’s Story

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nostalgia and us

Posted by Joy Icayan on September 23, 2009

I was recently in my old high school, now very much transformed after eight years. I haven’t thought about high school in a while, still the familiar surroundings made me long for those good old days when we’d stare at the window on the third floor of the school building and watch a cow graze under the sun for an hour. Never mind that for me, as for a lot of people, high school was a conflicting time, I was frustrated and sulked often, and there was nothing much to do but stare at cows.

According to Vladimir Lerner, nostalgia comes from two Greek words nostos (home) and agnos (pain) and refers to  “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again.”   Several studies conducted by Wildschut, Tim et al showed many key findings on nostalgia: one of which is that ‘bolsters social bonds, increases positive self-regard, and generates positive affect’. Perhaps this is related to the finding that nostalgia can also arise out of loneliness. We often think of old lovers longingly after a breakup, or the recklessness of our younger (supposedly happier) days when we are feeling down. Nostalgia is common among isolated people or the elderly (remember the neverending during our time… stories from grandparents). Remembering good times with others does make us perceive them, and even ourselves in a better light and helps us focus on positive memories.


Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions.

Nostalgia: Psychology, Psychopathology, Therapy

The Psychology of Nostalgia

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