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February 22, 2012
  Beautiful explanations
Edge, the intellectual online salon founded and edited by literary agent John Brockman, has posed its latest annual question: 'What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?' Alongside other scientists and thinkers, numerous psychologists have once again contributed their own thought-provoking answers.

Evolution by natural selection was a recurring theme. Susan Blackmore (University of Plymouth) said her choice 'had to be Darwin'. The reason no one thought of such an elegant idea before Darwin, she reasoned, is that evolution appears at first to be tautology: 'It seems as though you are saying nothing when you say that "things that survive survive" or "successful ideas are successful". To turn these tautologies into power,' she said, 'you need to add the context of a limited world in which not everything survives and competition is rife, and also realise that this is an ever-changing world in which the rules of the competition keep shifting.'

For John Tooby (University of California at Santa Barbara), the founder of evolutionary psychology, the theoretical lens of natural selection 'was a permanent revelation, populating the mind with chains of deductions that raced like crystal lattices through supersaturated solutions'. A conundrum for Tooby, who nearly became a quantum physicist, is how natural selection drives the emergence of complex organisms in a universe governed by the second law of thermodynamics, in which physical systems always move towards greater entropy (or disorder). The answer, Tooby said, comes from different frames of reference - the fact that entropy exists in different domains, from cells to membranes. Natural selection, he explained, uses entropy in one domain to drive increased order in another. 'Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do they often fall into place.'

Other contributors chose social psychology theories. The leading US psychology textbook author David G. Myers (Hope College) highlighted group polarisation - the tendency for initial opinions to become more extreme in like-minded groups. Our attraction to similar others combined with the facilitative effect of the internet means this process is leading to ever more polarised views. Myers pointed to the dramatic rise in the percentage of landslide counties in the US: those voting 60 percent or more for one presidential candidate nearly doubled between 1976 and 2008. '... one elegant and socially significant explanation of diverse observations is simply this,' Myers said, 'opinion segregation + conversation = polarization'.

Adam Alter (Stern Business School) chose John Darley and Bibb Latane's bystander effect. Their classic experiments showed how in some situations, a person in the company of others, as opposed to alone, was less likely to act to help a victim or raise the alarm in an emergency. 'Their elegant insight', Alter said, 'was that human responses aren't additive in the same way that objects are additive. Whereas four light bulbs illuminate a room more effectively than three light bulbs...two people aren't always more effective than a single person. People second-guess situations, they stop to make sense of a chain of events before acting, and sometimes pride and the fear of looking foolish prevent them from acting at all.'

Stanislas Dehaene (Collège de France) focused on decision making. He described the way the mind functions according to Bayesian principles, in which available evidence is combined with prior knowledge and a decision is made once a threshold is exceeded. ' a first approximation,' he said, 'this law stands as one of the most elegant and productive discoveries of twentieth-century psychology: humans act as near-optimal statisticians, and any of our decisions corresponds to an accumulation of the available evidence up to some threshold.'

There were also contributions from developmental psychologists. Paul Bloom (Yale University) quoted D'Arcy Thompson 'Everything is the way it is because it got that way', which he said was a perfect motto for developmental psychology (the biologist PZ Myers also titled his contribution with the same quote). Bloom outlined a series of potential explanations for why adults end up the way they are - such as circumcision in infancy affecting men's pain sensitivity; first borns tending to develop into more intelligent adults than their younger siblings because their early environment is more intellectually sophisticated; and romantic attachments in adulthood being influenced by early bonds with one's parents. 'I don't know if any of these explanations are true,' Bloom said. 'But they are elegant and non-obvious, and some of them verge on beautiful.'

Simon Baron-Cohen said he enjoys deep, elegant and beautiful explanations in the factors that give rise to sex differences in the brain, including the, on average, 16 per cent greater number of neurons in the male brain and the typically larger planum temporale (a language area) in the female brain.

His favourite is the masculinising effect of fetal testosterone. Castrating a male rat shrinks his amygdala to the average size found in a female. A paper Baron-Cohen has in press links testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid of human mothers to the size of the planum temporale in their child. In turn this fits with prior research linking amniotic testosterone with a child's vocabulary size at age two and is consistent with relative language precocity in girls compared with boys.

But it's tricky to measure testosterone levels in the womb. A non-invasive proxy is the relative length of the second and fourth digits of the hand (greater testosterone is associated with a lower second to fourth digit ratio). Baron-Cohen was sceptical about this, but last year a study showed 'how even in mice paws, the density of receptors for testosterone and oestrogen varies in the 2nd and 4th digits, making another beautiful explanation for why your finger ratio length is directly affected by these hormones. That same hormone that masculinizes your brain is at work at your fingertips.'

Some of the most famous names in psychology also contributed answers. Philip Zimbardo (Stanford University) focused on a topic that's occupied his research in recent years - time perspective theory. This states that each of us has a bias towards thinking in terms of either the past, the present or the future. In turn, each of these orientations comes in two forms - there's past positive and past negative; present-hedonistic and present-fatalistic; and goal setters versus those focused on the transcendental future. Recently the theory has been applied in a therapeutic context, helping veterans with PTSD acquire more positive time perspectives. 'It is so rewarding to see many of our honored veterans... discover a new life rich with opportunities, friends, family, fun and work by being exposed to this simple, elegant reframing of their mental orientation toward the life of their time,' Zimbardo said.

On a related theme, your reporter's favourite contribution was from Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) on why in modern life we seem to feel more pressed for time than ever. Despite anecdotal reports, Dunn said there's no evidence from actual data to suggest we're working any longer or relaxing any less than we used to. She said that 'a beautiful explanation' for why we feel time pressured was offered recently by Sanford DeVoe, at the University of Toronto and Jeffrey Pfeffer, at Stanford, who've suggested that time comes to feel scarcer when it feels more valuable. And it feels more valuable when we're richer and capable of earning more. In studies, DeVoe and Pfeffer have taken this further and by inducing students to feel more affluent (through careful design of response categories on a questionnaire), they've led them to also feel more time pressured. A curious flipside of this explanation is that giving our time away (thereby devaluing it), should lead us to feel less time pressured. Some organisations are realising this. 'Companies like Home Depot provide their employees with opportunities to volunteer their time to help others,' Dunn said, 'potentially reducing feelings of time stress and burnout.'

Visit to read all the responses, including answers from more psychologists, such as Steven Pinker, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Bruce Hood and Alison Gopnik, and non-psychologists, including Eric Kandel and Richard Dawkins.

- We'd love to hear your own views on the most elegant and beautiful explanations: e-mail

-- Christian Jarrett

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    Posted By: Jon Sutton @ 22/02/2012 02:59 PM     News from the Psychologist  

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