Monday, 9 August 2010

Our Online Personalities

The study of personality is one of the most researched areas of psychology, and also one of the most lucrative. Unfortunately, I think it is one of the most flawed.

However, it seems natural that, as the internet has developed as a means for humans to express themselves, the personality psychology of 'cyberspace' would grow as an interesting field of study. Indeed, I have recently come across these two eye-catching studies.

The first investigated the bias or 'skew' in the About Me section on the Facebook profiles of the study participants.

Based on their profile information, researchers assessed each of the participants on the "big five" common personality factors - openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness and extroversion. This measure was then compared with actual personality test results, and from assessments made by four close friends.

The profiles derived from Facebook were surprisingly accurate, with the exception of neuroticism, which is a measure of emotional instability.

Apparently, people don't lie about themselves on Facebook..

The second study investigated the "big five" personalities of bloggers (ha!). The results indicate that people who are high in openness, and women who are high in neuroticism, are more likely to be bloggers.

So, according to this research, you might be able to get a pretty accurate measure of what my personality is like from my Facebook profile and the fact that I have a blog. 

But you've got no idea how neurotic I really am.

Thankfully, I don't believe in personality.

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I don't believe in personality for three reasons:

I basically believe that personality 'factors' are an error of perception that are based in the language and metaphors we're used to framing ourselves in.

I think our behaviour has a passing shape that is most significantly determined by the situation we're currently in.

The "big five" theory is based in the fundamental lexical hypothesis, which is an unfalsifiable and speculative hypothesis that lacks the evidence it needs to justify its hype.

Don't even get me started on the assumption that there is something in the brain that "is" personality.

Photo Courtesy Of: Flickr @sitmonkey

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Common Sense & Animal Testing

Home Office statistics released last week showed that, for the first time, there are more genetically-modified animals being used for medical and scientific research than normal animals, with a total of 3.6 million animal experiments being carried out in 2009.

This is excellent news that is made even better by the findings of a recent Ipsos MORI poll.

It reported that the proportion of people who agree that animal testing is right when there is no valid alternative has doubled to more than 50% of the sample over the last decade.

These animals are being used to study the genetic and biological basis of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, with the aim of developing new and more effective treatments.

However, some people won't see these new statistics as good news. But frankly, I think those people are misinformed at best, idiots for the most part, and violent extremists at worst.

There is an organisation called SPEAK, whose members unfortunately fall into these categories. They have protested unsuccessfully against the building of a new biomedical sciences laboratory in Oxford, beside my old 'stomping ground' of the Dept. of Experimental Psychology.

SPEAK's members would protest every Thursday. It was normally a pathetic collection middle-aged, middle-class women who seemed like they needed a cause. Their arguments were so misinformed it was laughable.

I was once shouted by one of these ladies. She pointed at me, and shouted these words exactly.. "YOU inject horse-radish into the brains of monkeys!"

Horse-radish?

This accusation was false on two fronts. Firstly, undergraduates are not allowed to test on primates. 

Secondly, horse-radish?

This was a reference to the use of the enzyme horse-radish peroxidase, which is used as a tracer signal for specific molecules. However, if SPEAK's members cannot fathom the difference between a chemical tracer enzyme, and a thick spicy sauce, it is perhaps unwise to expect them to grasp the more advanced arguments for animal testing, let alone put across the reasoned arguments against animal testing.

One of the founders of this organisation can legally be classified as a violent extremist. Mel Broughton has recently been sentenced to be detained for 10 years at Her Majesty's pleasure for planting petrol bombs at Templeton College of the Oxford University.

The less said about this man, the better, probably. 

But it seems that common sense might, for once, be prevailing and be correct.

I know that animal testing is not an ideal solution, and that because the theory of evolution holds that the difference between humans and animals is one of degree, we cannot morally justify animal testing. However, it is the best solution available to us at the moment, so I am very happy that public opinion seems to be changing.

And I have never injected any sauce, spicy or otherwise, into the brain of any animal.

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Photo Courtesy Of: Flickr @fftang

The Economist covers this story here. The comments are worth a read - there is some rational input from an organisation called FRAME - Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments.

83% of animal experiments in the UK in 2009 involved rodents - they're considered by most to be pests, and they are in no danger of extinction.

Rhesus macaque monkeys are the main primate used in animal testing - they are considered a pest in the countries of the world they live, and are in no danger of extinction.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Care Burden Dilemma

Today, it was announced that the government was creating a fund of £50 million for local health services to fund new and expensive drug treatment for rare types of cancer.

Obviously, this is fantastic, and will hopefully extend the lives of many people.

However, what has been announced with less fanfare is that this £50m has come from the cancellation of the last government's Personal Care plan, which aimed at providing more, and improved care and treatment for dementia sufferers.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the mental health care burden on the NHS is very large - perhaps up to 25%. However, it does not seem that mental health is 'fashionable' or attractive to politicians. Here are some quite sobering statistics from the Alzheimer's Research Trust.

  • Dementia costs the UK economy £23 billion per year. That is over twice the cost of cancer at £12bn.
  • 163,000 new cases of dementia occur in England and Wales each year - that's one every 3.2 minutes.
  • If a treatment was developed that could reduce the cognitive impairment in older people by just 1% per year, it would cancel out all estimated increases in the long-term care costs due to our aging population.

Now, as a government that has promised to do 'more with less', this new fund does not seem to make a huge amount of sense in the context of such figures.

It makes still less sense given that the healthcare watchdog NICE (National Institute for Clincial Excellence) had also concluded that the drug treatments supported by this fund were neither cost effective, nor likely to increase cancer survival rates.

Surely it couldn't be the case that our new government is playing for big headlines while underfunding mental health care?

No, surely I'm being too cynical.


I feel I should make it clear that I am not arguing that cancer treatment, or indeed any other form of medical treatment, should be cut, and have preference given to mental health. My intention is simply to demonstrate the consistent lack of funding and attention given to mental health care.

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The Alzheimer's Research Trust cites the following studies as the sources of their statistics:

Comas-Herrera, A., et al. (2007). Cognitive impairment in older people: its implications for future demand for services and costs. Personal Social Services Research Unit

Matthews, F., et al. (2005). The Incidence of Dementia in England and Wales: Findings from the Five Identical Sites of the MRC CFA Study. PLoS Medicine, Vol 2, Issue 8, e193, 1-11

Photo Courtesy Of: Flickr @horiavarlan

Monday, 26 July 2010

Drunk Lefties?

The BPS Research Digest recently covered this little study by Kevin Denny at University College, Dublin, which investigated the mooted link between handedness and alcohol consumption.

There had been suggestions in the 1970s that there was a link between being left-handed and increased alcohol consumption, with a disproportionate number of left-handed patients in an alcoholism in-patient ward.

It was even suggested that a possible explanation of this link might involve the increased levels of stress of being a leftie in a right-handed world.

While this was news to me, it might explain some of my recent behaviour.. Ahem.

However, after his analysis of 25000 participants from 12 countries, Denny reports that left-handed people drink more often than right-handed people, but that "there is no evidence that handedness predicts risky drinking."

Thank heavens for that.

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Photo Courtesy Of: Flickr @mac_filko

The BPS Research Digest is here.