Monday, 5 December 2011

Moral Psychology in the News

Two papers have caused a flurry of media attention about moral psychology in the past week.

The first, "Virtual Morality", was a replication of the standard Trolley Problem with a twist. Instead of being a pen-and-paper description of the scenario, the study's authors actually produced a virtual reality implementation of it - and found that participants' decisions didn't alter significantly from the standard method of presenting it. Although the virtual reality part is what's caught the media's attention, I found the most interesting point to be the finding regarding the relationship between autonomic arousal and utilitarian choice; the higher the arousal, the less likely the participant is to choose the utilitarian option.

The second article, "Judgement Before Principle", found evidence suggesting that the tendency to judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful omissions arises automatically; the condemnation of harmful omissions is due to controlled cognition over-riding the effect. I've not had the chance to read the paper thoroughly yet, but it sounds like it was a neuroscientific follow-up to Cushman's earlier paper "The Role of Conscious Reasoning and Intuition in Moral Judgement".

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Boston Dynamics - the creator of the Big Dog robot - have released a new video of their latest project, PETMAN.

It's come a long way since this prototype version from two years ago. It's certainly a very impressive project, but I'm really curious to see how it behaves off a treadmill...

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Psychology of Fraud

After the Marc Hauser case last year, it might have been reasonable to think that we wouldn't see another scandal hit psychology for a while (although it'd be a slightly better bet that the Hauser story wasn't finished yet).

Alas, that hasn't turned out to be the case, as a highly cited Dutch psychologist - Diederik Stapel - has been found outright falsifying the data for at least thirty papers (some of which were published in journals as highly regarded as Science). What does this mean for social psychology? I don't know; it's not my field, and the Nature article I linked to above quotes Oxford psychologist Miles Hewstone as suggesting that Stapel's work wasn't actually that influential. So the tentative response is; not much.

I can't say I'm optimistic about the effect it will have on the reputation of psychology as a whole, though. The field really needs to figure out some way to improve its public relations; a case in point is this article, which implicitly suggests that both the recent fraud cases and the sheer number of criticisms from within the field threaten to disrupt the "fragile respectability" that psychology has only "recently" earned. Whether that's the case or not, it's pretty clear that psychology desperately needs to improve its image.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Friday, 7 October 2011

In celebration of Ada Lovelace day...

I encourage you all to take a look at Maggie Boden's work. Her book The Creative Mind was probably one of the main reasons I moved back to psychology and cognitive science, as opposed to purely being interested in the philosophy of mind.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Need an introduction to artificial intelligence?

Stanford is offering a free course here, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Norvig in particular is one of the biggest names in AI - the textbook that he and Stuart Russell wrote, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, is essentially the classic in the field - (Thrun is also ridiculously highly cited, even if I'm less familiar with his work) and the syllabus for the course looks like it covers a lot of ground.

Registration is open until the 9th of October, with the class actually starting on the 10th of October, so sign up if you're interested!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Jane Austen was a Bayesian

... well, no, she wasn't, actually (as far as I'm aware), although the quirkily named paper Prior and Prejudice [PDF] in August's issue of Nature Neuroscience introduces Bayesian inference by appeal to her work. It's an interesting overview of two studies which appeared in the August and July issues of Nat. Neuroscience, and "create convincing links between psychophysical performance and neuronal representations using the formalism of Bayesian inference"; Fischer and Pena's Owl's Behavior and Neural Representation Predicted by Bayesian inference and Girschick et al.'s Cardinal rules: visual orientation perception reflects knowledge of environmental statistics.