Wink wink

Two interesting papers.

  1. How Focusing on Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray (Chater & Loewenstein, 2022)

    “An influential line of thinking in behavioral science, to which the two authors have long subscribed, is that many of society’s most pressing problems can be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of the individual, without modifying the system in which individuals operate. Along with, we suspect, many colleagues in both academic and policy communities, we now believe this was a mistake. Results from such interventions have been disappointingly modest. But more importantly, they have guided many (though by no means all) behavioral scientists to frame policy problems in individual, not systemic, terms…”

  2. No evidence for nudging after adjusting for publication bias (Maier, et al., 2022)

    ‘Thaler and Sunstein’s “nudge” (1) has spawned a revolution in behavioral science research. Despite its popularity, the “nudge approach” has been criticized for having a “limited evidence base” (e.g., ref. 2). Mertens et al. (3) seek to address that limitation with a timely and comprehensive metaanalysis. Mertens et al.’s headline finding is that “choice architecture [nudging] is an effective and widely applicable behavior change tool” (p. 8). We propose their finding of “moderate publication bias” (p. 1) is the real headline; when this publication bias is appropriately corrected for, no evidence for the effectiveness of nudges remains…’

On a relevance criterion

Logicians study logics – plural. There are different logics for different reasoning tasks. Classical logic, the flavour taught to undergraduate students of all persuasions, falls apart when confronted with the kinds of reasoning that people do effortlessly every day. My favourite way to break classical logic involves an innocent “if” and “or”.

Ponder the following sentence (based on an example by Alf Ross, 1944):

If Alex posted the letter [P], then Alex posted the letter [P] or Alex set fire to the letter [F].

If you think this sentence is true, then your interpretation and reasoning are compatible with translating it into classical logic using the material conditional (\(\Rightarrow\)) for the “if” and inclusive disjunction (\(\lor\)) for the “or”. You could write it like this and it’s trivially true: \(P \Rightarrow (P \lor F)\).

Some people are perfectly content with this interpretation, but many think the sentence is fishy and false.  There are a number of ways to explain what has happened.

One is to assume that the issue is language pragmatics rather than logic. Pragmatics studies the ways in which context and social conventions for communication affect people’s interpretation of language. According to one theory of communication (see Liza Verhoeven’s 2007 explanation), asserting that you posted the letter or burned it under the assumption that you posted it violates principles of cooperativeness. These principles affect the meaning of a sentence and its truth, so in this case the sentence is false.

Another way to make sense of what has gone wrong is using a relevance criterion devised by Gerhard Schurz (1991). The first step we need to take is to transform the “if” into an argument with a single premise and conclusion.

Premise: Alex posted the letter [P].
Conclusion: Alex posted the letter [P] or Alex set fire to the letter [F].

This is an uncontroversial step in classical logic, e.g., application of a rule for introducing an “if” in natural deduction.

Schurz introduces a criterion for a conclusion relevance that roughly goes as follows. The starting point is an argument that is valid according to classical logic. That’s the case for the argument above. If there are any terms in the conclusion that can be substituted with arbitrary alternatives without affecting the argument’s validity, then the conclusion is irrelevant. Otherwise the conclusion is relevant.

For our letter example, we can replace “Alex set fire to the letter” with anything and it has no effect on the validity of the argument. Alex opened the letter. Alex scribbled on the letter. Alex swallowed the letter. The letter was a surrealist painting. The letter was the size of house. And so on. No substitution in the second half of the conclusion can affect the validity of the argument, so the conclusion is irrelevant.

How about an argument where the conclusion is relevant? The trick is to ensure that everything in the conclusion is… relevant. That’s what I like about the criterion: it formalises (and the details are fiddly) an intuitive property of arguments. Here’s an easy example:

Premise: It’s raining and I left my umbrella at home
Conclusion: I left my umbrella at home and it’s raining

This is an example of the conjunction, “and”, being commutative in classical logic: the order of the conjuncts in the sentence (the parts on either side of “and”) doesn’t affect its truth. There are many ways to edit the conclusion so that the argument is no longer valid. For instance replace one or both of the conjuncts with “I posted a letter”. Then the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise since the premise doesn’t tell us anything about a letter.

Colleagues and I explored people’s interpretations of these kinds of sentence about a decade ago in the context of an alleged paradigm shift in the psychology of reasoning. Read all about it. I was reminded of this again as Google Scholar dutifully notified me that Michał Sikorski recently cited it (thank you kindy Michał!).

A psychoanalyst walks into a bar(red subject)

A psychoanalyst walks into a bar with a book on logic and set theory. He orders a whisky. And another. Twelve hours and a lock-in later, all he has to show for the evening is a throbbing headache and some indecipherable rubbish scrawled on a napkin.

That’s the only conceivable explanation for these diagrams from The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious, by Jacques Lacan (published in the Écrits collection):

But, surely this notation means something? After all, Lacan is famous and academics across the world dedicate their lives to understanding his genius.

Also the notion  f(x) is a function, f, applied to argument x – that’s recognisable from maths. So the I(A) and s(A) must mean something…?

To see how function notation is used, consider the Fibonacci sequence, which pops up in all kinds of interesting places in nature. It is defined as follows:

f(0) = 0,
f(1) = 1,
f(n) = f(n-1) + f(n-2), for n > 1.

In English, this says that the first two numbers in the sequence are 0 and 1. The numbers following are obtained by summing the previous two, so the sequence goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, … The function notation “does something”. It provides a way of defining and referring to (here, mathematical) concepts.

Less well-known, but appearing in university philosophy courses, is the lozenge symbol, ◊, which means “possible” in a particular kind of logic called modal logic. It seems plausible that there is something meaningful here in Lacan’s use of the symbol too.

Here is Lacan, “explaining” his notation for non-mathematicians:

Huh?

Lacan doesn’t try to explain what the notion means; he doesn’t seem to want readers to understand. Maybe he is just too clever and if only we persevered we would get what he means. However, elsewhere in the same text Lacan uses arithmetic to argue that “the erectile organ can be equated with √(-1)”. I’m told this is a joke because √(-1) is an imaginary number. Maybe trainee psychoanalysts learn about complex numbers so get the joke (I doubt it though)? Maybe all Lacanian discourse is dadaist performance.

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have written a book-length critique of Lacan’s maths and others’ similar use of natural science concepts. Having read lots of mathematical texts and seen how authors make an effort to introduce their notation, I think it’s entirely possible Lacan is a fraud, ◊(Lacan is a fraud). That might sound harsh, but forget how famous he is and just look at the pretentious rubbish he writes.

Why can psychological therapy be helpful?

Research explaining how therapy might help is saturated with pretentious jargon, e.g., invoking “transference”, “extinction”, heightening access to “cognitive–emotional structures and processes”, “reconfiguring intersubjective relationship networks” (see over here for more).

Could simpler explanations be provided? Here are some quick thoughts, inspired by literature, discussing with people, and engaging myself as a client in therapy:

  • You know the therapist is there to listen to you – they’re paid to do so – so there’s less need to worry about their thoughts and feelings. One can and is encouraged to talk at length about oneself. This can feel liberating whereas in other settings it might feel selfish or self-indulgent.
  • The therapist keeps track of topics within and across sessions. This can be important for recognising patterns and maintaining focus, whilst allowing time to tell stories, meandering around past experiences, to see where they lead.
  • The therapist has knowledge (e.g., through literature, supervisory meetings, and conversations with other clients) of a range of people who may have had similar feelings and experiences. So although we’re all unique, it can also be helpful to know that others have faced and survived similar struggles – especially if we learn what they tried and what helped.
  • Drawing on this knowledge, the therapist can conjecture what might be going on. This, perhaps, works best if the conjectures are courageous (so a step or two away from what the clients says) – and tentative, so it’s possible to disagree.
  • There can be an opportunity for practice, for instance of activities or conversations which are distressing. Practicing is a good way to learn.
  • Related, there’s a regular structure and progress monitoring (verbally, with a diary, or using questionnaires). Self-reflection becomes routine and constrained in time, like (this might be a bit crude but bear with me) a psychological analogue of flossing one’s teeth.
  • (Idea from Clare) “… daring to talk about things never spoken of before with someone who demonstrates compassion and acceptance; helpful because allows us to face things in ourselves that scare us and develop less harsh ways of responding to ourselves”
  • The therapist has more distance from situations having an impact on someone than friends might have so, e.g., alternative explanations for interpersonal disputes can more easily be provided.
  • It’s easier for a therapist to be courageous in interactions and suggestions than for a friend as – if all goes wrong – it’s easier for the client to drop out of the therapeutic relationship without long-term consequences (e.g., there’s no loss of friendship).
  • Telling your story to a therapist gives you an audience who is missing all of the context of your life. Most of the context can feel obvious, until you start to tell your story. Storytelling requires explaining the context, making it explicit. For instance who are the people in your life? Why did you and others say and do the things they did? Perhaps this act of storytelling and making the context explicit also makes it easier to become aware of and find solutions.

“How I became an analyst” by Arthur Valenstein

Interesting multidisciplinary background — some excerpts from Valenstein (1995):

“When I was sixteen years old I built my own short-wave receiver and transmitter and became a ham radio operator. This bent towards electronics motivated me to enter the engineering school at Cornell University in 1931 with the intention of becoming an electrical engineer…”

“But those were depression years, and it seemed unlikely that I could make a sufficient livelihood as an electrical engineer.”

“… from early years I had been curious about people, how and why they were as they were. I was puzzled about myself as well, feeling myself to be something of an ‘outsider’ in school. As I learned later, this is one of the elements contributing to psychological-mindedness, a predisposition that is conducive to psychoanalytic inquiry.”

“I have always had one foot in hard science and one foot in literature and the humanities, and fortunately I don’t seem to have fallen between the two.”

“George Henry was carrying out a heavily funded research project on homosexuality. This opened a whole world to me that I had never known, especially the gay world, and I learned something about it, even getting to know some of its colloquial terms. Later Henry and his research assistant, who in retrospect I realize was homosexual, published several books on homosexuality from a descriptive point of view.”

“… I came to be in Boston, which I never left except for one year in neurology with Foster Kennedy (a colourful man, a Northern Ireland Orangeman of great sartorial splendour and the gift of marvellously eloquent, elegant speech) at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and my years in the military.”

“My initial exposure to the activities and ambience of the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic [now the Anna Freud Centre] forty years ago, and my continued contact with it and with Anna Freud over many years, greatly influenced my identity as a psychoanalyst, both theoretically and clinically. Before my sabbatical in London in 1955, I had become interested not only in what nowadays seems to be called ‘cognitive developmental psychology’ and ‘attachment theory’, but also what might be termed ‘affect developmental psychology’.”

Reference

Valenstein, A. (1995). How I became an analyst. Bulletin of the Anna Freud Centre, 18, 283–291.

Individuals versus aggregrates

“Winwood Reade is good upon the subject,” said Holmes. “He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.”

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (hat-tip MP)

“… something more besides [psycho]analysis…”

“When the ego has taken its defensive measures against an affect for the purpose of avoiding unpleasure, something more besides analysis is required to undo them, if the result is to be permanent. This child must learn to tolerate larger and larger quantities of unpleasure without immediately having recourse to his defense mechanisms. It must, however, be admitted that theoretically it is the business of education rather than of analysis to teach him this lesson.”
—Anna Freud (1966, pp. 64-65)

Reference

Freud, A. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defense (revised ed.). New York: International Universities Press.

FIGJAM-based practice

Alternative to evidence-based practice: FIGJAM-based practice.MM0726_Fig_Jam__66623_std
(F**k I’m Good, Just Ask Me.)

Evidence is for the bureaucrats.
Trust us, we’re experts.
Join the school of the FIGJAM.
Throw your positivist randomised trials on the fire.

“I used the FIGJAM approach and I felt better.”

Coming to a social enterprise near you soon.

Book review: High-quality psychotherapy research, by Areán and Kraemer (2013)

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are great, the gold standard of empirical research. The only thing better than RCTs are systematic reviews of lots and lots of RCTs. (So the story goes.) The reader may have noticed that RCTs evaluating CBT for psychosis have been vigorously debated for many months after a review was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (Jauhar et al., 2014). Maybe not everyone agrees that RCTs are great (disclosure: I have analysed a couple), but I think it’s fair to say they are unavoidable whether you are trying to design or demolish them.

High-quality psychotherapy research by Patricia Arean and Helena Chmura Kraemer sets out to be a “practical, step-by-step guide” to designing and running RCTs. So why bother with an RCT? Observational trials, the authors explain, might involve studying participants who choose one of two or more interventions of interest by simply observing how they get on. This is problematic as differences in outcomes might be due to whatever factors led to them ending up receiving an intervention rather than the effect it had. RCTs use randomisation to overcome this problem so that people differ only in terms of the intervention received. That’s about it for the “why”: don’t expect debate on the epistemology.

The book’s strengths emerge as it develops: it catalogues issues that should worry study investigators and the authors draw on their own experience to offer hints. The Delphi consensus-building approach is introduced to solve the problem of developing an intervention manual and examples are given of how to word a letter asking for feedback on the proposed result. Randomisation techniques are introduced including horror stories of how they have gone wrong and invalidated RCTs. Ideas are provided for control groups, e.g., waiting list, usual care, and “gold standard” controls, and their strengths and drawbacks. The importance of not using pilot study results to determine sample size choices is explained. Guidance is provided on the people required; for example you need three or more therapists, at least two research assistants in case one takes ill, and a good statistician amongst other people. The Appendix includes a sample budget justification. All practical advice.

The text runs to under 200 pages so this could never be a comprehensive guide to all aspects of RCTs. What this book does do well is provide a systematic menu of options and ideas for things to consider. It might possibly give some ideas of what to demolish too, should you be so inclined, but this book is really only for those who are already sold on RCTs and want to get on with the seemingly painful task of designing and running one.

References

Areán, P. A., & Kraemer, H. C. (2013). High-quality psychotherapy research: from conception to piloting to national trials. Oxford University Press.

Jauhar, S., McKenna, P. J., Radua, J., Fung, E., Salvador, R., & Laws, K. R. (2014). Cognitive-behavioural therapy for the symptoms of schizophrenia: systematic review and meta-analysis with examination of potential bias. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 204, 20–29. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.112.116285

 

Brand names in psychology

‘The “brand names” tend to make difficult the analysis and comparison of these mechanisms or the exchange of knowledge between research groups. One can argue that it has caused and causes an enormous amount of duplication of effort. Physicists did not divide quantum mechanics into the Heisenberg Brand, the Schrodinger Brand,and the Dirac Brand, but analyzed in detail the relations among these and use one or the other according to their computational power in particular situations. When specific “brand name” choices have arisen (wave v. particle theories of light, Ampere’s v. Faraday”s theories of electromagnetism, phlogisten v. oxygen theories of production), they used experimental techniques to analyze both similarities and differences and to sort them out.’

Herbert Simon (spotted over here)