Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surrogates, Stereotyping and VR

I had seen a trailer for the film Surrogates, and was intrigued by the idea that one day in the not too distant future we could live our lives virtually--through robotic surrogates that interact in the "real" world. Here's the trailer.

I haven't yet seen the film (the DVD Surrogates comes out in January), but to find out more about it, I recently read The Surrogates by Robert Venditti--the graphic novel on which the film is based. First, though, here's the premise of the book: People can purchase a surrogate robot of any race, sex, age and appearance that the buyer wants. Another option is to purchase a model that looks as you did when you were younger. In the comfort of your home, connected to your surrogate via a headset, you experience the actions of your surrogate, sense what your surrogate senses, and your thoughts animate the surrogate. The words you speak into the headset get spoken by your surrogate. It's virtual reality taken to an extreme. Police officers all use surrogates, and they can't get killed or injured in the line of duty; if a surrogate gets shot, it's simply out of commission until repairs are complete. The officer is safe at home.

Here are three (of the many) psychological nuggets that came to mind while reading the novel.

Nugget #1: Stereotyping and Prejudice

Here's a quote from the graphic novel, in an "article" about surrogates in the "Journal of Applied Cybernetics."

"The use of surrogates across demographic groups has opened a new approach to confronting inequality. Offering operators a certain measure of anonymity, surrogates render actual race and gender irrelevant and instead shift all demographic classifications to the implied race and gender of the surrogate unit being operated. The result is a cross-cultural condition of ambiguity, through which operators can remove race and gender considerations from their social interactions. When taking into account this function of ambiguity, it is logical to conclude that the proliferation of the surrogate in contemporary American culture would abolish…prejudice and stereotyping."

Would our stereotypes and prejudices evolve when everyone knows that the surrogate you see and interact may not have the same demographic characteristics as the surrogate's operator?

To some extent, this situation already occurs via the internet: If you "meet" someone through the internet, there's no way to be sure that who the person says he or she is corresponds to who he or she actually is. Would people's stereotyping shift with the use of surrogates? How much could it shift? Humans seem to be wired to sort people into social categories ("us" versus "them") so how much could this tendency be minimized if we knew that what we see isn't what is "real"?

Nugget #2: Reality Versus Virtual Reality

What is reality anyway? As I've noted in previous posts here and here, whether you experience something in virtual reality or regular reality, you've still had that experience. You could live almost your entire waking life virtually, and not necessarily feel the poorer for it. Could such a virtual reality ultimately be destructive? The quick answer is absolutely.

In the novel, the protagonist's wife almost never interacts with the protagonist in the real world; she prefers to do it through her surrogate, who looks younger and more attractive than her real self. In some sense, she seems addicted to living through this youthful version of herself. Is this drive fundamentally any different than people having cosmetic surgery to give themselves a more attractive or youthful appearance?

Nugget #3: Freed of Physical Limitations

In the novel, the inventor of the early surrogate prototype developed a motor neuron disease and became "all but paralyzed." His assistant explains:

"He created the surrogate so that he, and others like him, might have a better life."

Surrogates allow people with physical limitations to live virtually without those limitations. It would be a matter of time, I think, before surrogates came with enhanced physical abilities—stronger, faster, enhanced senses, more endurance than surrogates who were crafted to be like humans. Once surrogates were better than humans, what a downer it might be to "disconnect" from the surrogate at the end of the day. The analogy seems to be that of a superhero (or supervillain) having his or her superpowers taken away. Or taking off your prescription glasses or hearing aid, Going off steroids.

Good science fiction stories bring to the fore issues with which humans struggle. Surrogates is one of those stories, and may forecast real issues with which we'll have to grapple.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Liberation of Anonymity, Part II

As noted in my last blog post, I've been thinking about alter-egos, masks, and the psychological effects of choosing to be anonymous (think of the online anonymity found in Second Life, World of Warcraft, and even anonymous commenting on other people's websites). And let's face it, Halloween is the right time of year to think about masks.

So I'm going to talk more about deindividuation, which social psychologists define as the loss of sense of self that occurs when people in a group are anonymous. More generally, deindividuation can also be thought of as the loss of self-awareness the comes with anonymity.

First, what's the effect of wearing a mask? Psychologists have addressed this question. Research on the effect of wearing a mask goes back at least as far as the 1950s. Research on mask-wearing among stutterers finds that they stuttered less when they wore a mask (e.g., Pollaczak & Homefield, 1954). In another study, children who wore masks were more likely to take (e.g., steal) extra candy when the experimenter left the room, compared to children who didn't wear masks (Miller & Rowold, 1979).

Psychologists Mullen Migdal, Rozell (2003) did a study that had participants answer various questions about how aware they felt about themselves, such as "I am thinking about who I am" and "I am alert to changes in my mood." The part of their study that is relevant here is that some of the participants answered these questions while sitting in front of a mirror; other participants answered those questions while wearing a "feature-less" mask, without a mirror. The results, graphed below, reveal that participants who wore masks reported that they were less self-aware than participants who sat in front of a mirror. (The results may seem intuitively obvious, but part the role of research is to find out whether intuitions are accurate.)

So how might this relate to superheroes (and supervillains) who wear masks? In addition to the utility of the mask—it hides the "real" identity to of mask-wearer—it can have some interesting psychological effects on the wearer. We can hypothesize that wearing a mask—and being less self-aware—might confer a variety of advantages. If you're less self-aware, then you might:
• Feel less pain
• Feel less angry, sad, etc.
• Be more aware of what is going on around you (because of being less aware of what's going on inside of you). This could be a very good thing to have happen during combat. And when fighting, you'll also be flooded with adrenaline, which will narrow your attention and further heighten your awareness of what's happening around them.

The down side, though, is that by being less self-aware, you're also more likely to have your anger, frustration, and aggressive impulses get out of control while you're fighting (and so you might inadvertently kill your enemy). For superheroes worried about not crossing the line—not being more violent than they need to be to apprehend the villain—wearing a mask can make it harder to monitor that line.

Speaking of villains, wearing a mask--being anonymous—makes people more likely to break rules. (Think back to the kids wearing masks, who took more candy). This might advantage mask-wearing villains.

So does the Joker feel that he's wearing a mask—or does his permanently disfigured face feel like that of his "real" self. What do you think?

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Liberation of Anonymity, Part I

Sorry for taking so long to blog again…been up to my ears in work, but in the future, I will post at least monthly (at the beginning of each month).

Last week, I was part of a symposium at Ashland University; we panelists addressed the question: What is a (Super)hero? Joining me on the panel were Tom DeFalco (current writer and former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics) and Mark D. White, editor of Batman and Philosophy; Ashland history professor, John Moser, did a great job moderating the panel.

Before the panel, I had a chance to ask Tom DeFalco his opinion about a particular aspect of the alter-ego relationship between Peter Parker and Spiderman. Some background first: I've been doing some reading and thinking (and soon, some writing) on the topic of alter-egos. I've been thinking about what it would be like to be Peter Parker, and then to become Spiderman—to go swinging around the city, cracking wise, acting with derring-do—and then to go back to being Peter Parker. It's the going back to being Peter Parker that's stumped me. I imagined that, for the most part, being Spiderman was liberating. How could he then stuff this big personality (as Spiderman) back into the contained and relatively demure Peter Parker?

Tom helped me see the situation differently. First, he suggested that Peter Parker's appearance is deceiving: Basically, he lets himself be dressed by his aunt. Taking Tom's point a step further, in a way, his Peter Parker clothes are a kind of costume. They make him appear more nerdy or geeky than he actually is (although clearly he's very bright, being bright isn't the same as being nerdy or geeky). Riffing on what Tom said about this, there's a sense in which Parker's high school persona isn't dissimilar to Clark Kent's—the nerdish exterior hides a different personality underneath. (More food for thought in that, I think.)

Back to Tom: He also pointed out that, in fact, Peter Parker often has witty retorts to people, but these comebacks often go over everyone's heads. So Parker and Spiderman are similar in their dry, smart-ass sense of humor, but Parker (at least the high school version) is surrounded by people who don't get his jokes. Spiderman's villains are generally smarter than average, and so more likely to get his jokes. Extending this point, that fact that Parker has a different sense of humor than that of people around him heightens the sense of his being different than his peers (e.g., nerdy/geeky).

Tom's third point about PP/Spiderman was that wearing a mask can be very liberating, and can lead people to act differently—or in more extreme ways—than their usual selves. Tom said he'd talked to people who have gone around wearing masks (e.g., "real life superheroes"), who described the experience as being very liberating.

This last comment of Tom's got me thinking about the something I was pondering over the summer—the ways that the internet allow people to electronically wear a mask (that is, to be anonymous, or a different persona) and how it changes—or can change—our behavior. Just read comments on any newspaper, magazine, or blog website to see proof of how anonymity, or the ability to hide our identity by assuming another one, does change how people behave. The most vitriolic comments are likely to be from people who are not identified by their real names. For some people, the anonymity afforded by an internet mask leads people to let go of some—or all—of the restraint they impose on themselves in their everyday lives.

Psychologists have examined an aspect of this phenomenon that typically happens not over the internet, but in actual face-to-face encounters where otherwise law-abiding citizens lose their moral restraint. One situation in which this occurs is among soccer fans who, after their team has lost, take to the field and become violent. Psychologist explain the underlying phenomenon as deindividuation: the loss of sense of self that occurs when people in a group are anonymous—not seen as individuals and their identities are unknown to others in the group.

More about deindividuation in my next post.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

San Diego Comic Convention 2009

The convention was a bit of a madhouse; lots of people, long lines to get into many panels, thousands of people in the exhibition area. Several things stood out, though:

  1. Despite the crowded conditions, people were remarkably well behaved. I didn't see or hear any fights break out, any rowdy behavior, or pushing/shoving/cutting in lines. I think that's remarkable, and think it says something about the type of people who are drawn to comic conventions. Despite the violence in some of the games, comics, tv shows and films featured at Comicon, at heart this passionate group of fans are generally friendly and law-abiding folks—at least in this context.
  1. People had been camping out overnight outside the convention center in order to get in to see a clip of the upcoming film New Moon, the second installment of the Twilight series. Most of the people in line were female (no surprise, I suppose since that the big fan base for the film). Here's a photo of what the line looks like in the morning to get in to see such previews:

I did think that it was ironic that the same day that this New Moon clip was airing, there was a panel on “Wonder Women: Female Power Icons in Pop Culture,” with Sigourney Weaver and Eliza Dushku, among others. (As I've noted in an earlier blog entry, the protagonist of Twilight is anything but a strong female.) Yet here were hundreds of women camping out to get a glimpse of an extended trailer for the sequel—a story in which a young intelligent woman who has a lot going for her feels that her life is meaningless without her vampire boyfriend. Sigh….

  1. My panel on "Is the Joker a Psychopath? You Decide!" was SRO and the audience and panelists seemed to enjoy it. The audience asked good questions (e.g, "Can psychopaths like the Joker be rehabilitated?" Answer: "not really") and the panelists gave their opinions on the Joker and his motivations. I hope to post some video of the panel next week.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blackest Night/Green Lantern

Those comic fans who are following the Green Lantern/Blackest Night story might find this 3-part article about emotions and the different colored Lanterns:

"Interestingly, when you talk about the rainbow spectrum being used here, there is something about these negative emotions that is very intense," she said. "Intense greed is maybe a funny one in there, but intense fear and intense anger are very real. They really do narrow your focus cognitively. Even your awareness is limited. You're focused on what's right in front of you and less on the periphery. And that's true of your visual awareness and your perception, but it also guides your thinking. You're not really thinking at all – you're feeling.

"Hate swamps your emotional system. And that's true for fear as well, typically. It's not just specific to rage. But that's true of any intense emotions. They literally become overpowering," she said.

For the full articles (Parts 1-3) in Newsarama go to:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Is the Joker a Psychopath? You Decide!

On Saturday morning, July 25, at the San Diego Comic Convention, I'll be joined by Jerry Robinson (co-creator of the Joker), Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of all Batman films), Steve Englehart (Batman comic book writer), and fellow psychologist Travis Langley to discuss whether the Joker is psychopath.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Colbert and Top Down Processing

What follows is an abstract of a recent journal article; the article describes a study how a viewer's political affiliation affects how he or she interprets the politics of Stephen Colbert's persona on the Colbert show. What they describe it was psychologists refer to as top-down processing: mental processing that is influenced by your expectations, beliefs, and knowledge. 

More explanation after the abstract.

The Irony of Satire

Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report

Heather L. LaMarre

The Ohio State University, HLaMarre@gmail.com

Kristen D. Landreville

The Ohio State University

Michael A. Beam

The Ohio State University

This study investigated biased message processing of political satire in The Colbert Report and the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert. Results indicate that political ideology influences biased processing of ambiguouspolitical messages and source in late-night comedy. Using data from an experiment (N = 332), we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantlypredicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. Finally, a post hoc analysis revealed that perceptions of Colbert's political opinions fully mediated the relationship between political ideology and individual-level opinion.

It appears that viewers--in particular, conservative viewers--expect that their political views will be shared by Colbert, and so they interpret his (mostly) straight-faced extremely conservative coverage of the news in ways that are consistent with their own beliefs. Even when confronted with evidence that Colbert's conservative views are a put-on (for instance when he laughs while delivering some of his more egregious comments), top-down processing will lead conservative viewers either to ignore those lapses, or to interpret them in some other way--a way that allows them to preserve their view of Colbert as one of them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dr Robin on the Radio: Talking about Real Life Superheroes

Real-life superheroes walk among us. Today I spoke with Gillian Findlay of the Canadian Broadcast Company about them.

You can listen to it by going to the link to the show, and scrolling to the bottom.

Look for: Part 3: Chapter Three ... The Rise of the Real Life Superhero

All of part three is interesting; I'm about halfway into part 3.

Here's a link to the real life superhero website.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Movie Review: Must Read After My Death

I recently saw the documentary film, Must Reader After My Death. The film consists of audiotapes and home movie footage made by the Dews family in the 1960s. Director (and grandson of the Allis and Charley, the film's protagonists) Morgan Dews has stitched together a too-intimate look at the dissolution of a family—akin to the 1973 PBS series An American Family, but in less screen time.

Here's the story behind the film: The Dews family began dictating "letters" between the father (Charley) and the rest of the family (mother Allis and their four children: Anne, Chuck, Bruce, and Doug) when Charley moved to Australia for 4 months on business. They continued the audio letters and diaries upon his return home. It is these diaries and letters that tell the tale of the Dews family's escalating struggles (with no other narration): Parents with each other, children with their father, parents' anguish about their children. These tapes were then stored away and discovered by director Morgan Dews upon his grandmother Allis's death. Here's a trailer for the film.

Watching the film, I was struck by several elements:
  1. When someone in a family is an alcoholic, it extracts a terrible cost from ALL members of the family. Although most people know this intellectually (and some know this first-hand), the role that alcohol plays in this family's problems is heart-wrenching to see.
  2. How generally unproductive it is when people yell at each other. When families or couple come for psychotherapy, usually part of what a therapist will try to do is help members speak (and listen) to each other in more adaptive, constructive ways, so that they can understand each other's positions and find common goals, positions of compromise, and paths to resolution. Yelling and frequently interrupting each other makes it almost impossible to move a chronic problem toward a solution. (Granted, yelling can signal to the other person that you have strong feelings about something, but the content of what is yelled—rather than stated—often gets tuned out or responded to in anger.)
  3. The havoc that unrecognized psychological disorders and problems can wreak. (That's not to say that once they're recognized all is well; at least, though, when a problem is named and identified, it's easier to take steps to remediate it or manage it.) For instance, the oldest son, Chuck, struggled academically for many years, much to the consternation for his parents and himself. It turns out that he had an undiagnosed learning disorder. 
  4. How frustrating and demoralizing under-employment can be (as was certainly true of Allis and many women of that era). Underemployment refers to someone holding a job that is below the person's training or ability; underemployment may become even more common in the current economic climate, as folks who are laid off take jobs that are below the level of their previous job, because they need the work. Research indicates that being underchallenged at work brings its own stresses.

Although the film provided a lot of food for thought, I was frustrated by the combination of the lack of narration and the elliptical nature of some of the audio entries—family secrets alluded to but not made clear, problems mentioned but not explained.

If you're interested in watching the documentary online, the distributor has offered a complimentary pass to the first ten people who send me an email:Robin@DrRobinRosenberg.com. I'll forward your email addresses to the online distributor who will provide the pass to you.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Whedon's Dollhouse: Which Personality for Which Mission?

After watching the first episode of Joss Whedon's new television show, The Dollhouse, I was struck by the prominence of the concept of personality. If you haven't seen the episode—or don't know about the show—here's a summary from Wikipedia:

Eliza Dushku plays a young woman called Echo, a member of a group of people known as "Actives" or "Dolls." The Dolls have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas, including memory, muscle memory, skills, and language, for different assignments (referred to as engagements). The new persona is not an original creation, however, but an amalgam of different, existing personalities. The end result incorporates some of the flaws, not just the strengths, of the people used as templates. The Actives are then hired out for particular jobs -- crimes, fantasies, and the occasional good deed.

And here's a video summary of the show:

What really stood out for me was the show's psychological premise: Some personality traits work better than others in a given situation (and so the "dolls" or "actives" are programmed with traits that will best help them accomplish their missions). Of course, on one level, this premise is obvious; we know that certain types of people function better than others in a given situation. But the specifics of what makes a good fit are less clear. In a given situation, which type of personality is a better fit? Which is the best fit? (Or even, is there such a thing as a best fit?)

In The Dollhouse, the puppet masters know the answer to these questions—or at least they think they do. In real life, though, the questions aren't so easy to answer. Psychologists and people in the employment business have learned which skills or personality traits are associated with better job performance in a given type of job (click here for an example of such matching).

The current state of knowledge may be able to inform us about which skills are advantageous for an ongoing job, and might even be able to tell us what characteristics make for the best hostage negotiator—the job in question in the first episode of Dollhouse. But when a job is a one-shot occasion—a consulting gig, if you will—the situational factors can become more important. And those situational factors can be unpredictable, which makes it harder to identify the best fitting personality traits.

As research on personality shows, global personality traits don't predict behavior as well as very specific personality traits. So, for instance, someone who is "shy" and goes to a party with friends may become a wallflower at that party. Then again, maybe not. A prediction about a shy person's party behavior would be more accurate if we could assess shyness "when meeting new people at party where some friends are present." It may turn out that this "shy" person can be the life of the party when feeling secure, standing near a pal or two.

This line of research suggestions that when a "doll" goes out on a mission, the particulars of the situation will influence which specific personality traits would be the best fit. If the predictions about the upcoming situation in a mission are off the mark, the personality traits programmed into a doll—those thought to be most advantageous—can become handicaps or obstacles. This unexpectedly poor fit might make for interesting television viewing. We'll see whether that happens as the season evolves.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Twilight, Vampires, and Romantic Love

As you might notice from some of my other blog entries and my website, I'm interested in superheroes, particularly what their stories reveal about psychological phenomena. "Superheroes" can be defined somewhat loosely, including supernatural heroes, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Joss Whedon's Buffy is a strong female character: physically strong, plucky, tenacious, direct, and with a dry sense of humor. (To see Joss Whedon talk about his inspiration for Buffy, click here).

Whedon inspired others to create strong female super(natural) heros. So it's clear that Buffy is the mother, or grandmother, of a whole genre of supernatural female supes. One example is Sookie Stackhouse—the protagonist and selfless hero in Charlaine Harris' book series (and also protagonist of HBO's series, True Blood; I've read the Harris books, but not seen the TV show).

I thought that the female protagonist in Twilight, Bella (book by Stephenie Meyer), would be another daughter or granddaughter of Buffy. The film—and the fan hoopla—was getting a lot of coverage in the news, so I thought I'd see what the fuss was about and read the book. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen the movie.)

Boy was I wrong.

In fact, the character Bella—a teenage girl recently come to live with her father in rural Washington—is far from being a hero, super, supernatural, or "regular." Although clearly a bright and capable teenager, Bella seems to have little motivation or passion about much of anything except for [spoiler alert] the vampire who becomes her boyfriend.

A little background for those of you who don't know the story; bear with me. Bella transfers to the small local high school where she meets five very pale high school students who don't eat. No surprise to the reader—they're vampires. Girl meets vampire, vampire meets girl. Cue the violins. As the story unfolds, the only thing she's interested in is her vampire boyfriend. (In fact, though, she doesn't really "know" her boyfriend all that well, nor does she know all that much about vampires.) Despite these gaps in her knowledge, by the end of the book she wants to become a vampire—for all eternity—so that she can live with her boyfriend, both of them forever physically looking young. Bella feels so little interest in "regular" life—potential careers, relationships with others, the possibility of children—that she doesn't think twice about relinquishing her life to have a perpetual adolescence with her vamp boyfriend.

As an aside, the five vampires in this story who are high school students are chronologically older than teens; some of them are hundreds of years old. But they became vampires as teenagers, so that's how old they look; one assumes that they must go to high school forever or get in trouble with the authorities for truancy. Can you image having to go to high school forever? Moving towns and enrolling in a new high school every four years? Endless years of biology, English, and math? Does that sound appealing? [end of spoiler alert]

Back to Bella. Okay, so I was wrong about her being Buffy granddaughter. She's more like Buffy's antithesis. She can't get herself out of jams, doesn't act heroically, and is generally ineffectual.

What really got to me about this book is its themes of disaffected youth and nihilism. And the public's positive response to the film, which I assume is at least somewhat true to the book, leads me to feel even more anguish. This book endorses a concept of romantic love (for girls and young women for sure, and maybe for boys and young men) that goes beyond the "I love you so much that you are my life" type of all-consuming but inevitably flawed and unsustainable type of love. It endorses "love" nihilism—that beyond the relationship, life doesn't really matter. It's the "I love you so much that I will give up life to become undead with you" type of all-consuming but inevitably flawed and unsustainable type of love. But once that love peters out, the consequences are still there.

It seems to me this love nihilism is a vamp variant of the disempowering notions of romantic love that I had hoped were behind us for good:
  • "I love you so much, I don't want to think about the consequences of my actions—nothing matters but this moment."
  • "I love you so much, I'll do things that I know are against my self-interest."
  • "I love you so much, I'll have sex with you even though I don't really want to because I'm afraid of losing you,"
  • "I love you so much, I'll have sex with you even though you don't want to wear a condom."

What happened to role models of female teens who were able to see love without blinders—to have the good sense to realize that life shouldn't be put on hold because one is in love? That being in love doesn't mean giving up oneself?

Buffy was strong, practical and pragmatic, and selfless for others.
Bella is weak, impractical and not pragmatic, and selfish.

Can we have Buffy back—please?