One of the best things about maternity leave is watching my daughter learn new things, almost daily. A few weeks ago she realized she could control her feet. This week she’s using her hands to grab at objects and starting to pull them in for further, mouth-based inspection. It really is exponential – the more she learns, the more she is able to figure out.
Children also learn a lot from what they hear. And they are apparently sensitive to the particulars at a surprisingly young age. Take, for example, the phrase “some birds fly” vs. the generic version “birds fly”. Psychologists have shown that halflings as young as two years old can tell the difference between these two phrases, and they can also use the generic version appropriately. What’s more, when adults use generic language in conversation with very young children, the children are able to infer new categories and make predictions about the world. This has been shown in experiments where psychologists talk about new, fictional categories (like Zarpies and Ziblets) with children. The results of these studies suggest that children are essentialists: i.e., they tend to carve up the world into categories, and view members of the same category as sharing a deeper, inherent nature. And these categories are easily transmitted through language.
This can have some unintended consequences. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik describes a study by Susan Gelman and colleagues where mothers and their children were given pictures of people doing stereotyped (a girl sewing) and non-stereotyped (a girl driving a truck) activities, and their conversations were recorded and quantified. It turns out that even mothers who were feminists used generic language most of the time. Moreover, there was a correlation between how often mothers used generic language and how often their children did.
Worst of all, moms used generics that reinforced the very stereotypes they were trying to combat. As Gopnik puts it:
Saying “Girls can drive trucks” still implies that girls all belong in the same category with the same deep, underlying essence.
I can’t help but wonder how this might affect our daughter as she grows up.
Although her book is not meant to be prescriptive, Gopnik does say that we probably can’t avoid this by careful wording – it just wouldn’t work to try to consciously control our language. Instead, the best antidote may be to have children observe many examples and talk to many different people.
My article on the behavioural economics of grades is out, and it’s the cover story this month in University Affairs magazine!
I had a blast doing interviews for this story. I tried to pick profs with a reputation for being great teachers in classes that are popular despite being tough. I learned a ton talking to them, but I have to say I was disappointed that I couldn’t take this story further. I was hoping for something more conclusive about how behavioural economics could be applied to grades. We know that humans aren’t particularly rational when it comes to incentives, and grades perform a dual feedback/incentive role – and yet we have no idea how students respond to grading schemes, or whether some of the most common practices might be entirely counterproductive. In the end, I think the incentive effect of grades is something that we should be studying experimentally.
I finally had a chance to watch Steven Pinker’s excellent lecture on science communication this weekend. Pinker, a psychologist, linguist and top-notch writer, argues that psychology can help us tune up our writing and become better communicators.
His first point is that cognitive psychology points to the model that we should be aiming for: prose that directs the reader’s attention to something in the world that they can then come to understand on their own.
He also discusses why this is so hard to do: The Curse of Knowledge. Once you know a lot about something, it’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of your readers – i.e., the people who don’t know anything about the thing you are trying to write about. This is because it’s hard work, cognitively, to keep track of what other people know. The classic example of this is the false belief task in psychology. If you show a child a box of Smarties (the chocolate candy), and then ask him or her what might be in the box, the child will say candy. Suppose you then reveal that the box actually contains something else – coal. Then close the box and ask the child what another person would think is inside. A 7 year old will correctly say candy, but a child younger than 4 or so will claim that others would think it contains coal. Up until about age 4, we don’t seem to grasp that other people can have false beliefs about the world. Pinker’s point is that this ability – also known as theory of mind – isn’t a cut and dried thing that we suddenly achieve at age 4. It’s a sophisticated skill that proves to be a challenge even for adults.
His advice on writing? It’s pretty standard stuff. Pinker enlists his mom – or in other words, an intelligent reader who just happens to not know a lot about his particular topic already. His other point is to take a break from your writing before you edit, to give yourself time to shift away from the mental state you were in when you wrote it. You can also read your work aloud, since that seems to engage a different mental state as well (I wonder why?). It makes me wonder whether there is anything we can do to harness this mind reboot effect more efficiently. Say you don’t have a lot of time and your mom is not available. How can you reset your brain on demand? I’m thinking of a 20 minute nap, reading some fiction, or doing some physical exercise before editing your paper – which is best? I imagine this is something that cognitive neuroscientists will be able to tell us pretty soon.
Pinker ends with some sage advice: most good writers learn by example. So find a bit of writing that you admire, and try to figure out what makes it great. His choice? The short essay called “The Owl”. It’s remarkable for its clarity and worth checking out in the video below:
If only it was that easy for the rest of us to escape the curse of knowledge.
The Shark Worlds came to Kingston last month – not a fish thing, but rather the world championships for the Shark class of sailboat. My friend Martin was competing (his boat name? Cloaca. Martin is a biologist who takes taxonomic accuracy seriously).
As he was recounting some of his adventures, he mentioned that he had done quite well in the preliminary practice race. Memories flooded back from my former life as a sailor: “Did you finish it? Never finish the practice race!”
I explained that it was bad luck, especially if you win the practice race. Better to duck the finish line instead of crossing it. Our friend Chris, another evolutionary biologist, dismissed my advice. What did luck have to do with it? We’re rational scientists, right?
I struggled to explain it. “It’s like wearing the conference T-shirt during the conference.” It marks you as new and vulnerable. And if you do well, it does nothing for your mental game. Why set yourself up to have something to lose before the event even begins?
Chris was not convinced, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since – especially since today is a near-miss Friday the 13th. Can someone be rational and superstitious at the same time?
Like most ideas, this one arrived in the shower. I needed to write a post for this week, but my list of topics was wearing thin and the weather is finally starting to get nice enough to distract me. Sure, I had a few promising ideas lined up, but they all need more time to develop. Plus I had a DVD to watch: a Nature of Things episode on serendipity in science due back at the library. Then it hit me – of course! I’ll watch the episode and then write about that.
Serendipity – supposedly one of the top ten most untranslatable words in the English language – was coined in the 1700s by Horace Walpole as a play on the tile of a Persian fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip takes place in Sri Lanka. It follows the adventures of three brothers exiled from the island by their father the king, in hopes that his sons might achieve a more worldly education. In the course of their travels, the princes go on to solve many mysteries – like unintentionally tracking down a lost camel on scant evidence – thanks to their sagacity and a series of lucky accidents.
Since Walpole, the word has taken on a close association with Eureka moments in science, starting with Archimedes’ famous bath. Supposedly, the ancient Greek mathematician solved the problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects after noticing how his own body displaced water in the tub.
Scientists have taken a great interest in tracking serendipity, perhaps because it seems to play a role in research success. Wikipedia has an extensive list of celebrated examples, from Viagra to chocolate chip cookies. Many have looked for ways to encourage this kind of scholarly luck. For instance, after his Nobel prize winning work on viruses, the molecular biologist Max Delbrück is perhaps best known for coming up with the principle of limited sloppiness: researchers should be careless enough that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that they can’t reproduce them when they do. Alexander Fleming had this advantage when he discovered penicillin. He first noticed its antibiotic effects in a stack of dirty culture dishes that he hadn’t bothered to clean before leaving for summer vacation.
So how do people study something that is by definition rare and unusual? Psychology Today has summed up some of the latest research on luck, most of it based on surveys of people who claim to be especially serendipitous1. Not surprisingly, they are more competent, confident and willing to take risks than the rest of us. They are also more extroverted and less neurotic than most. Being born in the summer apparently helps as well – especially May.