Paris in the the spring

Our editor Jon Sutton with a snapshot from the third International Convention of Psychological Science, organised by the Association for Psychological Science.

Allow me to start with an apology: one lone reporter could never do justice to a conference of such scale and ambition. With thousands of delegates and hundreds of sessions, the program was a credit to the APS, in particular the committee co-chairs Yoshihisa Kashima and Asifa Majid. The mission was described by Executive Director Sarah Brookhart as ‘explicitly integrative’, crossing geographical and scientific boundaries. This became the path I chose to plot through the maze of corridors in the Palais des Congrès de Paris.

Right from the off there was a clear message that psychologists shouldn’t expect to tackle societal issues alone. Lydia Krabbendam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) addressed how we can create better classrooms, pointing to the social, scientific, ethical, commercial, legal and regulatory issues involved in understanding how adolescent brains develop. The ability to investigate the brain ‘in action’ has, Krabbendam argued, led to myth and exaggeration. We have a responsibility to be cautious in explaining to students and a general audience what you can and cannot do with modern brain imaging techniques, even down to how we talk about it. ‘Saying “the brain is learning” makes as much sense as saying “the stomach is having dinner”’, Krabbendam said. She pointed to examples of the contribution educational neuroscience can make, such as predicting learning outcomes in the case of dyslexia. ‘Reading gain’ was best predicted not by behavioural measures but by multivariate pattern analysis of fMRI, including an association with greater right inferior frontal gyrus activation during phonological processing. Similarly, studies of the brain in adolescence show continued gray matter development til the age of 21. Given this immaturity, is Dutch reform towards more independence in secondary schools a wise move? 

Krabbendam called for more study and discussion involving educators, ethicists and more. Importantly, she also noted the increased understanding, engagement and focus that can come through the use of portable neuroscientific methods in the classroom. Krabbendam finds that a person’s beliefs about learning are linked to the neurophysiological basis of how they pay attention to the errors they make. Demonstrating this, and looking at group synchrony of brain activity according to different teaching methods, can be powerful for the learner. Krabbendam acknowledged that brings with it a risk of unrealistic expectations, and an increased focus on individual responsibility. She emphasised again an integrative and open approach to such challenges, including how we communicate the findings. 

That theme was picked up by Jane Foster (McMaster University), leveraging news and media in the classroom to develop awareness and communication skills for science outreach. Her course provided valuable tips for any scientist, in terms of viewing your own work from a media perspective: What are your findings, and why are they new and interesting? How is your paper important, either clinically or as basic neuroscience? Is this the first time the information is being presented? What are the details? What are the next steps?

Partners and hosts

My next session took a fresh look at sleep: not as an individual activity, but as an often shared experience which may be linked to romantic attachment. Heather Gunn (University of Alabama) presented the perhaps counter-intuitive finding that couples’ greater sharing of sleep-wake spells predicted negative interactions the next day. This was mostly in the context of the couples who had a ‘highly adjusted’ relationship. Could it be that they had more opportunity for negative interactions? Gunn concluded that we still don’t know whether ‘sleep concordance’ in a couple is a good thing. Other presenters concluded that attachment insecurity might only interfere with sleep in those who have disturbed sleep anyway, or those under stress. Lachlan McWilliams (University of Saskatchewan) suggested that attachment might be fairly benign for the person themselves, but has more impact on how their partner sleeps. 

A symposium on ‘latitudinal psychology’ then gave an ecological perspective on favouritism and aggression. Paul Van Lange (VU Amsterdam) explained how the ‘personality’ of a country can stem from climate, economics, pathogen prevalence and more. Seasonal variation in climate, for example, leads people to adapt by focusing on planning. Remarkably, cultural – research from Peter Dinensen suggests that immigrants from ‘low trust’ countries (such as Greece, Turkey) rapidly ‘adapt’ to differing attitudes in the country they travel to (e.g. Denmark, Germany). 

Other speakers considered the expectations refugees have, with Robert Bohm finding that those with more extreme beliefs have more negative expectations of how they would be treated if they emigrated to the West, and are therefore less motivated to go); and the role of ‘first appearances’ in how refugees are received. Then Sindhuja Sankaran from the University of Warsaw presented intriguing preliminary research which manipulated photos of real asylum seekers in Camp Moira, Lesvos to find that a wider stance – which tends to be associated with dominance and immorality –  seems to make those who view the photos less likely to help and donate, compared with ‘legs together’.

At an impasse

Sankaran was emphasising the importance of her findings in an increasingly ‘visual culture’, and later Christopher Ferguson (Stetson University) and others turned to video games and other forms of screen time. Ferguson’s survey of scholars’ views of ‘video game addiction’ found that respondents who were less experienced with games, or reported ‘I don’t like kids’, were more supportive of diagnosis. Sure, Ferguson said, some individuals have trouble regulating fun things, and there are elements of gaming (e.g. ‘loot boxes’) which may encourage this. But society tends to hear that the problem is entirely with the games, and criteria borrowed from fields such as substance use are unlikely to be helpful. 

The screen time debate is, in some ways, psychology’s replication crisis in microcosm, and James Ivory (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) bemoaned the field’s underpowered studies, inconsistent significance testing and low rates of sharing of materials. ‘We have to improve our approaches’, Ivory concluded, noting that in fact statistical power in such studies has declined over time. Andrew Przybylski (University of Oxford) was similarly critical, calling for nuance after ‘30 years of wasting time and money’. In terms of the link between gaming and aggression, Przybylski warned ‘It’s not sufficient if we have a really shitty answer to a question to say that the answer is no. Is there a key tipping point, or daily dose, of violent gaming which we would expect to be related to aggressive behaviour?’ What’s the role of so-called trash talking, of frustration, of parental perceptions of time spent on gaming and any subsequent aggression? ‘This literature is at an impasse,’ Przybylski said, ‘and the registered reports protocol gives us a way forward.’ 

Intense feelings

In the first Fred Kavli keynote address, B.J. Casey (Director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain lab, Yale) had hotfooted it from attending the Envision Festival with her teenage son. ‘It reminded me of the reason that I truly love adolescents,’ she said. ‘That intensity of the feelings – the highest highs, the lowest lows, the loves, the losses, the successes and failures. …It’s a process that needs to occur – the critical learning necessary to become a prosocial adult in society. Yet this stage that is such a huge task gets such a bad rap.’ Casey challenged the view of adolescents as having the ‘brain of a defective car… no brakes, no steering wheel, just an accelerator.’ Looking at the brain activity of 18-21 year olds in an experimental ‘threat’ condition (using an aversive sound), Casey finds that this age range appear more similar to teens than adults (with less lateral prefrontal and more limbic cortical activity). The findings suggest later development of socioemotional control processes relative to cognitive control processes; this parallels hierarchical changes in brain circuitry and function. 

However, Casey said, it’s essential to consider the social context and the cues which adolescents value. Particularly interesting was the work of Estee Rubien-Thomas, assessing self control in the prison environment. Unlike those in a more traditional jail, incarcerated young adults in a special ‘Truthfulness, Respectfulness, Understanding and Elevating’ unit appeared similar to a community sample, and most impulsive to positive cues. 

Kicking off day two, Lisa Feldman Barrett (Northeastern University) highlighted how our brains operate mostly by prediction. Loaded with bits and pieces of our past, running an internal model of our body in the world, ‘almost every psychological phenomenon is produced by a predictive process in the brain’. Interoception, Feldman Barrett said, is at the heart of this: ‘there’s a piece of your body in every concept you make’. Mapping information flow within the cortex, Feldman Barrett pointed to an ‘irony… limbic regions are supposed to be your inner beast. But actually, along with the hippocampus and cerebellum, they are driving prediction in the brain.’

Martin Paulus (Laureate Institute for Brain Research) then considered how interoceptive failures may give rise to psychopathology.  Using a Bayes model of how we pull in sensory evidence and then update expectation based on those observations, he identified two ‘interoceptive failure modes’: ‘hyper-precise priors’, where the expectation of afferent information is so precise that incoming evidence does not significantly alter the expectation; and ‘context rigidity’, where the person is unable to adjust the prior expectation of information to a different context. This, Paulus said, can lead to avoidance behaviour, or the inability to differentiate between volatile and non-volatile environments. 

School – what is it good for?

Also on hand with an integrative perspective was Nam Tran (University of Queensland), who has a background in sociology. His study of non-cognitive skills offers promising levers for raising the achievement of underprivileged children and, ultimately, closing achievement gaps based on race and income inequality. Highly disadvantaged students who have higher non-cognitive skills scores – optimism, goal orientation, persistence, impulsivity, effort, self efficacy etc – consistently go on to perform better than those who have lower non-cognitive skills. We must get children, particularly the disadvantaged, to value such skills. 

Others presented intriguing insight into whether school actually makes much difference at all. Kirsten Hancock (University of Western Australia) looked at absence from school, concluding that ‘in-term holidays are a policy distraction… they’re uncommon, tend to be experienced more by the higher achieving students, and are not shown to be linked to achievement.’ So-called ‘unexplained absence’ though, is more strongly linked with lower achievement – even amongst the high achievers – and should be a warning flag. Rebekah Levine Coley added thoughts on ‘the summer setback’: the finding that high income children continue to go up in their abilities during those months, whereas low income children tend to stagnate. Out of home activities – visits to zoos, museums, parks – appear particularly important for STEM learning, suggesting a need for subsidised resources for low SES children. 

Market it

Coming from a marketing and communications background, Tom Beckman urged us ‘work with the zeitgeist’ in order to effect behaviour change. Communication works like any ecosystem, such as an apple tree that wants only to create another apple tree via its delicious fruit. So your scientific article has to be shiny, nutritious. It must be designed to work in every market, like a James Bond film. Our senses are calibrated to register change, and Beckman referred to the power of ‘vuja de’: when we walk into a situation we’ve been in a thousand times, and notice something new. ‘The apple has to be tasty’, he said, using the example of Participant Media and their big budget, entertaining films which spark social change. 

Sticking with the power of stories, Enny Das (Radboud University) talked on ‘story-based, complex emotions to induce change’. Our minds love stories: they transport us, increase our attention and decrease resistance, and we identify with and model ourselves on their characters. And picking up on Beckman’s earlier point, fun stories are good. But what about ‘eudaimonic entertainment’: the difference between ‘I enjoyed that film’ and ‘I appreciated that film’? Tragic movies can promote reflective thought and satisfy fundamental human needs, such as the need to belong, and autonomy. So Das researches what happens when we remind people of their mortality, and have them watch highly tragic content. Do they connect with it, and does that help to transcend their existential fear? After a study manipulating the ending of the film ‘Me Before You’, Das concluded that tragedy may motivate some viewers to transcend their fear of death, and motivate others to fear death even more. ‘Eudaimonic entertainment may increase individuals’ openness to different worldviews’. 

The behaviour change theme continued with Steve Fleming (University College London) and ingenious (not to mention topical) research on how a previous decision is reversed, at a cognitive and neural level. He finds that when people have high confidence in a decision, their MEG activity is relatively insensitive to contrary evidence. ‘The neural metric of evidence accumulation displays this strong confirmation bias, particularly after a high confidence decision.’ Fleming also showed that people who are less sensitive to their own cognitive abilities were more likely to hold radical beliefs, and that ‘radicals’ have high confidence in their incorrect decisions. ‘Metacognitive training may induce a mindset that promotes changes of mind,’ he said. 

Thinking big next was Susan Michie, via video, on how Capability, Opportunity and Motivation lead to Behaviour. She painted a picture of a mass of messy evidence that is growing faster than humans can keep up with. Policy makers need up to date estimates of effectiveness, reasons that it varies, and ways to generate testable new hypotheses. This calls for big data and machine learning. Michie’s approach is sure to interest those who work in the many ‘Nudge Units’ which have sprung up across the globe, with representatives from five countries bringing their ‘field experiments from around the world’. There was tax avoidance in Norway, hand hygiene in Germany and gift-reporting at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The ‘behavioural insights’ specialists ‘threw a lot of nudges in there’ with each intervention, without losing sight of Francesca Papa’s simple conclusion that ‘maybe people just need to know what to do and how to do it’. 

The second Kavli keynote was from Atsushi Iriki (RIKEN Center), and this was really the integrative mission in overdrive. Iriki was one of the first scientists to train monkeys to use tools in a lab setting, and he took the large audience on an ambitious journey from this to the ‘externalised brain’ of artificial intelligence. The primate brain is a rapid, self-evolving machine, and it’s the construction of ‘neural niches’ which drives this. If you train a monkey to use an endoscope (seriously), they gain new resources of brain tissue, mostly around the parietal area. Areas start handling space differently – in perceptual, temporal, social and conceptual ways. So far, the mechanism of our own niche construction – environmental, cognitive, neural – has been growth (largely physical). But we are hitting the ceiling of our planet’s resources: we need to create a new niche. We will, Iriki says, move into symbolic space. That’s where the AI comes in.

Sex, guns and self-sacrifice

The final day for me was spent mostly in a Eurostar queue at Paris Gare du Nord. It was a shame to miss the final keynote, from Frans de Waal, on the ‘taboo’ around emotions that has hampered animal research. The study of animal emotions, de Waal argued, is a necessary complement to the study of behaviour. 

Before I left, thankfully, I took in some morning sessions in which the integrative mission remained to the fore. Claudia Bockting (University of Amsterdam) covered ‘minimal psychological interventions’ to reduce the mental health gap between high- and low- to middle-income countries. Such interventions may be low intensity and delivered by non-specialists; involve treatment protocols which seek to work across various diagnoses; and the use of technology such as apps. Promising work in Indonesia looked to overcome slow internet speeds via the use of simple drawings rather than videos, and Bockting ended by considering the potential of simplifying interventions even more (for example, the ‘friendship bench’ idea brought from Zimbabwe to the USA). 

To close, what delegate on their third day at a conference could resist a symposium titled ‘Extreme means: How sex, guns, social media, and self-sacrifice are used to attain social goals’? Cataline Kopetz (Wayne State University) looked into the evidence on whether risky sexual behaviour is a means to interpersonal goals – connection without emotional commitment. Jocelyn J. Belanger (New York University, Abu Dhabi) found that committing a sin (looking at bikini ads, or toasters as a control, since you ask) produces an emotional turmoil which shifts how God is represented in your mind, leading to prosocial behaviour. But darker motives were also evident, which Belanger suggested reflected taking on a role as ‘God’s messenger’. 

N. Pontus Leander (University of Groningen) then considered mass shootings as a means of compensating for disempowerment. Also assessing the ‘good guy with a gun’ model for stopping such shootings, Leander found that thwarting people’s goals in a lab task and then prompting a feeling of psychological closeness to a possible mass shooting made people more likely to see guns as empowering, and more willing to consider a vigilante role. ‘When threatening figures loom large in the mind, people may begin to assimilate their ways.’ Leander quoted Nietzsche: ‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.’ 

A touch of philosophy was a fitting close to a conference which aimed to broaden scientific horizons. This can only be a personal snapshot of such a large and eclectic program, which pulled in everything from a multi-disciplinary wine tasting (featuring Charles Spence), through speed mentoring sessions for women in cognitive science, to workshops on conducting and publishing integrative science. I hope to return for the 2021 event in Brussels.

Editor’s note: I couldn’t resist the cognitive psychology nod in the headline… did you spot it? Does anyone know where it came from? The first mention I’ve found was in a textbook from Michael Eysenck and Mark Keane.

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