Category Archives: science

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Great experiments overturning conventional knowledge

Science is awesome – get an idea about how the world works, create an experiment to test that idea, repeat. That simple process is how mankind has come so far.

Along the way there have been several cases where the scientific process has overturned conventional “knowledge”. For example people thought that the Earth was flat because that is what came naturally to them – but that was rubbish. Don’t be so smug though, I guarantee that today we believe things that are equally untrue (about human nature, morality, and consciousness for example).

The stories of the open minded scientists who made these breakthroughs are interesting reading. Here is an article discussing 10 great experiments of history: “moments when, using the materials at hand, a curious soul figured out a way to pose a question to nature and received a crisp, unambiguous reply”.

I’ll summarise an example:

William Harvey – the heart actually pumps blood
In the 1700s conventional wisdom said that invisible spirits called “pneuma” caused the blood to “slosh back and forth like the tides” but Harvey thought the heart had something to do with it. He tested his theory but cutting open a live snake and pinching the main vein entering the heart. The heart became paler and smaller as it was starved of blood. When he pinched the main artery coming out of the heart the opposite happened, the artery swelled up with blood like a balloon. He had shown that the heart pumps blood around the body.

Fertile women have more attractive voices

New Scientist has this article about a study showing that a woman’s voice becomes more attractive when she is most fertile. The researchers made recordings of women during four different phases of their menstrual cycles. The recordings were played in random order to both men and women, who consistently rated recordings made during fertile stages as more attractive. It seems that using voice alone both men and women are able to subconsciously detect fertility.

I’ve previously blogged about another experiment showing that fertile lap dancers earn more tips – this is just another example of the fact that we can subconsciously detect fertile women.

I explain the evolutionary reasoning behind these interesting effects in that article. In short, it pays women to conceal when they are fertile – so men will stick around all the time to be sure. It pays men to know when women are fertile so that they can focus energy when it counts.

Does eating carrots really improve night vision?

No. Carrots do contain high levels of Vitamin A which is essential to eyesight, among other things. However, eating carrots only makes a difference to sight for those who have a serious Vit A deficiency.

The myth was started by the British during World War 2 as a plausible explanation for their remarkable success rates at shooting down German planes at night. Stories were told about pilots with amazing night vision like, Lieutenant John “Cats Eyes” Cunningham who was said to have exceptional night vision thanks to his love of carrots.

In fact, the Brits were making use of a secret invention – radar – and they didn’t want the Germans to realize something was up. So they told the public that they were feeding the defenders massive amounts of carrots and that was leading to improved night vision.

They were so persuasive that the British public actually increased carrot consumption in an effort to improve their own night vision – which was important when cities were being blacked out to prevent bombing!

Animals showing intelligence we thought was uniquely human

National Geographic Magazine has an interesting article on some of the smart animals that are being used to learn about intelligence and cognition. Most people who have had a pet ‘know’ that animals can think because of the way that they react to us – they sometimes seem almost human.

But for a long time this idea was seriously out of fashion – experts agreed that people were projecting human emotions and thoughts onto animals (known as anthropomorphism). For instance at school I had a friend who claimed that her goldfish was embarrassed – surely a case of anthropomorphism.

However, the view that intelligence and emotions are purely human is simplistic and a little arrogant. Intelligence (and emotions) has obvious evolutionary advantages for social and long-lived animals. Humans are also just animals – we arrived through the same evolutionary processes. Isn’t it more plausible that there are levels of intelligence with some species showing more or less?

Plenty of scientists agree with me and have been working with animals to show that many of the qualities supposedly unique to human intelligence are shared by animals. The article goes into a lot of detail with awesome examples involving dogs, chimps, bonobos, parrots, jays, crows, dolphins and others. I thought that I would extract a few of the stories about clever animals.

Alex the parrot could speak and understood numbers, shapes and colorsAlex the parrot was taught to pronounce English words and could understand several concepts. He was able to count, and distinguish shapes and colors. For instance when shown a group of toys and asked how many yellow ones there were he could tell you – ‘Five’. Alex even got impatient with other parrots who were getting their pronunciation wrong – calling out ‘Talk clearly!’ when they made mistakes.

Betsy understands over 300 wordsBetsy the border collie understands more than 300 words and is able to learn new ones easily. One test involved putting several new toys (which Betsy had not seen before) in the kitchen. Betsy was then shown a picture of a Frisbee and told to fetch it from the kitchen. That she was able to do so shows that not only does she understand words like fetch and kitchen (something the testers already knew) but that she understands that a picture represents something in the real world.

Betty was able to create toolsBetty the New Caledonian crow was able to create and use tools. In one test Betty was shown into a room in which there was a treat in a basket down a tube – out of her reach. There were also two pieces of wire in the room, one with a hook and one straight. The researchers had expected Betty to use the hooked wire to get the basket out, but another crow had already removed it….

“Betty is undeterred. She looks at the meat in the basket, then spots the straight piece of wire. She picks it up with her beak, pushes one end into a crack in the floor, and uses her beak to bend the other end into a hook. Thus armed, she lifts the basket out of the tube.”

People are less rational when they’re hungry

The Economist has this article about a study recently published showing that when blood sugar levels are low, people use more intuition to make decisions. You know, when you have been thinking hard about something for a while and then there is one last decision that you just can’t be bothered with? That is what the scientists were studying.

The scientists got a bunch of students to do a mentally taxing task and then gave half of them lemonade with sugar and half lemonade with another sweetener. Using a psychological trick (read about it in the article if you want) the scientists were able to show that those who had been mentally worked and not given sugar were more likely to make decisions using intuition instead of reason.

So it turns out that you really should take food into exams and that you really shouldn’t make important decisions on an empty stomach…

Price really does impact enjoyment

The Economist recently ran an interesting article on the impact of price on our perceptions of quality. It seems obvious that price would have an impact on the expectations of quality.

However, a recent paper has used brain scans to show that people really do enjoy wine more when they think it is expensive.


  • Volunteers were asked to rate 5 wines of differing prices (from $5 to $90 a bottle)
  • What the volunteers didn’t know is that there were actually only 3 different wines – 2 of which were served twice at different prices
  • While tasting the part of the brain responsible for registering pleasant experiences was scanned


  • The wines tasted twice at different prices were rated as better when served at a higher price
  • The brain scans showed that people really did enjoy a wine more when they thought it was more expensive

A follow up blindfolded experiment was done where volunteers weren’t given the prices. In that case they rated a wine tasted twice as the same both times. This shows that it is the price that substantially impacts enjoyment.

So the ideal is to have a situation where you are paying for a medium quality product but you believe it is worth a lot more. The key is making sure that you actually believe it is worth more.

Brightness optical illusions

Boing Boing has this post showing some cool illusions that rely on brightness differences. There are a few of them, but this is the a good one. The two squares A and B are actually exactly the same color. Seriously.

I have copy-pasted the areas next each other as proof below.

I love optical illusions because they show just how fallible our brains really are. It feels like we are getting a reliable picture of the world when in fact our consciousness is actually getting something far more complex from the subconscious.

We don’t see an image like a camera – at any one time we are only really seeing a surprisingly small area and our subconscious is doing gymnastics to give what we think we see.

Generally this works very well, but these “tricks” can sometimes mistakes – enter the optical illusion. You can be sure that this kind of thing happens in lots of areas other than vision – for example our sense of morality.

Growing a replacement jaw bone in your abdomen

Here is an interesting report on how some Finnish scientists were able to replace “a 65-year-old patient’s upper jaw with a bone transplant cultivated from stem cells isolated from his own fatty tissue and grown inside his abdomen.”

Stem cells are cells that are still able to turn into other types of cells. In adults stem cells act as a repair system for the body by replenishing specialized cells – bone, skin, kidney, etc. Because they have this ability they show a lot of promise for medical science.

For instance, in this case the researchers harvested stem cells from the patients fatty tissue and “attached them to a scaffold made out of a calcium phosphate biomaterial and then put it inside the patient’s abdomen to grow for nine months. The cells turned into a variety of tissues and even produced blood vessels.”

This new bone was then be surgically inserted into the patients jaw in order to replace bone which had previously been lost to a tumor.

This is a very promising science which could plausibly be used to one day provide replacement organs for people. I recently read about a team who were able to grow a mouse heart from stem cells on a scaffold which was actually able to beat.

Unfortunately, due to George Bush’s moralistic meddling in science, stem cell research has been held back for the last 8 years in the USA. Luckily it looks like a more sensible president is one the way.

The truth about morality

This post is loosely based on the superb article by Steven Pinker: The Moral Instinct

Humans are afraid of heights. Around the world humans of all cultures have an in-built fear of heights. Have you ever wondered why people have that fear? It’s to prevent injury and death as a result of falling. Right?

If proximity to heights induces fear then people will feel an urge to get away from the heights. Humans who are afraid of heights are therefore less likely to die by falling (even if they aren’t conscious of why they fear heights). Evolution has made fearing heights part of what it is to be human. It is an instinct wired into our brains.

Pretty simple. But did you ever think that morality – our sense of right and wrong – is also an evolved instinct? It’s a little less obvious but true.

The basic moral principles
By studying people’s moral judgments around the world anthropologists have realized that there are basic moral principles which appear to be universal to almost all people and across all cultures (they are instinctive, not cultural). A list of these basic moral principles has been suggested by Jonathan Haidt:

  • Harm: Don’t harm innocent people
  • Fairness: Reciprocate favors and punish cheaters
  • Community: Loyalty, sharing, and solidarity among group members. Conforming to group norms
  • Authority: Follow authority and respect people with high status
  • Purity: Aim for cleanliness and and avoid defilement and contamination

These moral heuristics (rules-of-thumb) are instincts that have evolved for very good reasons – they helped our ancestors. Violating these principles makes people uncomfortable so in general the principles are obeyed. Pinker gives details on the evolution of the moral heuristics and he points out that the same moral principles have even been observed in monkeys (I have blogged about monkeys having a sense of fairness).

As an illustration I’ll go into more detail on the evolution of fairness and it’s associated emotions.

The evolution of morality – fairness
Humans benefit by working together in groups: we are all better off working together than any of us would be working alone. If I share my extra mammoth meat with you today when I have too much anyway, then you share with me later when I really need it. It pays both of us to work together.

However, as I have noted in the past, if people can cheat they will cheat – that complicates things.

Axelrod (and Dawkins among others) has shown that cooperation can and does evolve. Axelrod showed that evolutionary agents (for our discussion these are people) do naturally evolve toward a basic cooperative strategy (known as tit-for-tat). This strategy basically specifies:

  1. Cooperation by default. This means that you get the benefit of cooperating with other ‘friendly’ people.
  2. Punishment of cheating. Don’t let the ‘bad’ people get away with it.
  3. Forgiveness. Once the cheat has been punished try to cooperate again.

If you think about it, this kind of strategy makes excellent sense – cooperate as much as possible, but don’t tolerate cheats. Robert Trivers suggested that humans unconsciously implement a kind of tit-for-tat strategy through their moral emotions. Steven Pinker has given us the following examples:

  • Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest.
  • Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the cheat or sever the relationship.
  • Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past.
  • Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future.

So, we can see how several emotions and the moral sense of fairness have evolved in order to help humans implement a strategy for cooperation. Evolution is brilliant!

So what?
All this is fascinating, but it also has some interesting and powerful implications:

1. There is no absolute right and wrong – it’s all in our heads
Our sense of right-and-wrong is actually just an evolved instinct. There is no universal right-and-wrong or good-and-evil. There is just the moral judgment that each person makes using their instincts.

If my moral judgment in a situation is different to yours then who is right? There is no universal morality to appeal to for an answer. We are both just letting our moral instinct make a judgment – so we are both right… If there is no universal morality then what can we use to compare moral judgments?

Humans have a pragmatic way of dealing with this: we agree on moral judgments and then expect everyone in our society to abide by those judgments. It’s a real cop-out and, as we will see below, sometimes those judgments don’t make all that much sense.

2. Our moral ‘sense’ is as fallible as other senses – moral illusions
Our moral sense is evolved just like our sense of sight. There are countless examples of optical illusions illustrating that even something as trusted as our sense of sight regularly gets things wrong. Similarly, our sense of morality can get things “wrong” quite easily.

We know that our sense of sight has got something “wrong” when we realize that what we thought we saw doesn’t match reality. As we have learned (implication 1 above) we have no similar way of judging our moral instincts. So when I say that our moral sense gets things wrong, I mean that if you think about some moral judgments rationally they don’t always make sense.

This is because morality is based on heuristics (the 5 moral principles from earlier) which don’t necessarily lead to rational and consistent judgments every time. The trolley problem (worth an entire posting itself) is an excellent example but here I will give a simpler example from Pinker.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body, cook it and eat it for dinner.

What is so wrong with that? Seriously? It causes us to feel disgust because it hits the purity principle, but rationally there is actually nothing wrong with it. No one is harmed; the family is happy and had a cheap and delicious meal to remember their dog by. Be rational. We just feel that this is wrong but we don’t have good reasons for it. Perhaps this is a case of the purity instinct firing unnecessarily.

Disclaimer: As you will see if you read about the trolley problem, rationally examining moral judgments can make you feel very uncomfortable. I still don’t know what to think…

3. Sometimes what we perceive as immoral is just a different weighting on the basic moral principles
We now know that there is no universal moral code against which we can measure moral judgments. We also know that sometimes our moral judgments don’t even make rational sense. How can we judge others as wrong or immoral if their judgments differ from our own?

As Pinker points out, the other party is often also acting morally, he/she has just used different priorities on the 5 moral principles:

Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Where to from here?
In short: I don’t know.

For instance, I have previously attacked those Muslims who thought it just to execute a teacher for naming a teddy bear Muhammad. Now I realise that they were acting by their own moral judgments. I still disagree strongly with them, but I now know that I don’t have any moral high-ground.

I would like to appeal to rationality to show that I am right, but I’m not at all comfortable using rationality against all moral decisions so that would be cheating.

Knowing more about the true nature of morality hasn’t given me the answers – it has made me realise that I wasn’t even aware of the questions!