Monday, September 29, 2014

Structure of a life

The film Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, offers interesting insights into how we construct stories of our lives. Filming took place a few days at a time, every year or so, over a twelve-year period, with the same characters, played by the same four principal actors. The film’s protagonist is Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane). He is six when the film starts. Then there is his older sister, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Then there are these children’s parents, who are separated: Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette) and Mason senior (played by Ethan Hawke).

The film seems in some ways like a documentary, but it's actually a fiction film. In its first half its structure is a series of episodes that all seem distinct, linked not by a plot but by a continuity of characters’ lives and relationships. So we see the affection between Mason and his mother, the children's squabbles, them being taken out by their father on days when he has custody, scenes in the class room, Mason being bullied by some boys who are larger than he is, Olivia introducing a man who will move into the family home, and become a stepfather to the two children.

In its second half, the film starts to take on a recognizable plot structure. This reflects psychological work of Dan McAdams (see, e.g. McAdams & McLean, 2013) on how people give themselves a sense of unity and purpose by remembering episodes in their lives and, from them, constructing narratives of selfhood: life stories. In the film, this narrative structure begins for Mason when he is given a camera and takes up photography. He starts to conceive his own aspirations, and to direct his own plans and actions. He wants to be an artist, and to go to college. Tilmann Habermas and Susan Bluck (2000) extend McAdams’s work by showing that, before adolescence, children’s cognitive capacities are such that they can remember events in their lives, but can’t yet link them together, or link such events to their current plans in a narrative way. The film gives a wonderfully seamless transition between its pre-adolescent episodic structure, and its adolescent narrative structure.

As Mason starts to make choices in his life, we see how he begins to influence his own character. He has been affected by his parents’ divorce, and not just by his first step-father who turns out to be a drunk and an abuser, but by a second step-father who is cold and rigid. Although Mason is attractive to others because he is temperamentally amiable and equable, in his identity-constructing conversation with his friends he takes on a stance that is cynical, and verges on nihilism. It’s another accomplishment of Boyhood that it leaves us wondering how this life might continue when the film stops.

Habermas, T., & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting a life: The emergence of the life story in adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 748-769.

Linklater, R. (2014). Writer and director. Boyhood. USA.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Research Bulletin: Traumatic Brain Injury in Asterix and Obelix Comics

Here at OnFiction we are primarily concerned with employing the tools of psychological science to better understand the cognitive processes associated with narrative fiction. Fiction, however, can also be usefully employed to illustrate the principles of psychology. In a light-hearted article published in the journal Acta Neurochirurgica, Marcel Kamp (Heinrich-Heine-University) and his colleagues analyzed all of the instances of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurred within the popular Asterix comic books. For those unfamiliar with this series, it describes how a single tiny village in (formerly) Gaul successfully fends off the Roman occupation thanks to a magic potion that confers great strength to its warriors. Asterix, the Gaul warrior, and his friend Obelix (a menhir delivery man) have a great many adventures that inevitably involve Roman legionnaires (and others) getting thumped on the head an awful lot. The researchers read all of the Asterix comic books and noted evidence of TBI (e.g., raccoon eyes, A.K.A. periorbital ecchymoses), rated its severity, and noted the important contextual factors. Across all of the books there were a shocking number of instances of TBI, with over 700 suspected cases. Nearly all of the cases could be described as adult males receiving blunt-force trauma to the head within the context of an assault. Romans seem to have gotten the worst of it, accounting for 450 of the 704 cases, but the Gauls did not go unscathed, likely suffering a TBI in 120 cases. As far as perpetrators go, Asterix and Obelix were often involved (402 cases) although the other Gauls also got their lumps in (208 cases). Thankfully, all symptoms of TBI appeared to resolve within a few hours. One of the most important factors appears to be whether a helmet was worn by the victim or not. Although most victims wore a protective helmet, in the vast majority of cases this helmet was lost during the traumatic incident (88%), which resulted in a more severe TBI. This study holds important relevance for readers wishing to avoid TBI. Namely, leave the Gauls alone and keep your helmet chinstraps fastened.

Kamp, M. A., Slotty, P., Sarikaya-Seiwert, S., Steiger, H.-J., & Hänggi, D. (2011). Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books. Acta Neurochirurgica, 153, 1351–1355.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Research Bulletin: What attracts children to stories?

One needs only go through a child’s bedtime routine to quickly learn that children are highly attracted to stories. Children love storybooks, can be motivated by the chance to read storybooks (e.g., “brush your teeth or there will be no stories tonight!”), and form strong bonds with particular stories. That said, there has been little empirical work on what exactly attracts children to these stories. Jennifer Barnes and Paul Bloom (Yale) recently published a series of studies to explore this question. These researchers employed a simple paradigm, presenting children with two options of a possible book to read and recording the preference expressed. By systematically varying how the two options were introduced, they were able to assess whether certain aspects of stories are more appealing to children. In Study 1 (N = 32), they found that children between the ages 4 and 8 preferred stories that were about a person rather than an object (e.g., a boy at a picnic versus a blanket in the backyard). A second study (N = 16) found that 4 and 5 year-olds preferred stories about a person’s goals relative to a story about a person’s actions (e.g., a boy who wants to get a dog versus a boy who goes swimming). Lastly, a third study (N = 72) found that children between the ages of 4 and 8 had a preference for stories that had more characters (e.g., three boys at a circus versus one boy at the zoo), but did not have any preference with respect to stories containing more complex embedded mental states (e.g., a boy who doesn’t know he wants to win the big race versus a boy who wants to play baseball). As a whole, these studies demonstrate that it is the social nature of stories that attracts children, but that embedded mental-states (i.e., second-order theory-of-mind) do not seem to influence preference.

Barnes, J. L. & Bloom, P. (2014). Children’s preference for social stories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 498-503.

* For a copy of the full article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in profile).

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Research Bulletin: Does reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma result in long-term changes in attitude?

Although the primary focus of this site is on the psychological processes associated with engaging with fiction, a recent study on nonfiction is likely to interest our readers. Julia Hormes (Albany), Paul Rozin (Pennsylvania), Melanie Green (Buffalo), and Katrina Fincher (Pennsylvania) capitalized upon an initiative in which incoming freshman were all assigned to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before arriving on campus. Students were mailed a copy of the book and once they arrived on campus they attended a lecture and participated in group discussions along with other events pertaining to the book’s themes organized throughout the year. These students, along with other students from previous years not assigned to read the book, then took an introductory psychology course in their first-year (2007; N = 594) or their second year (2008; N = 567). This provided a sort of natural experiment in which data could be collected on this freshman population either right after reading the book or a year later, along with a comparison population of people who hadn't read the book. The researchers measured the food attitudes of those who read the book along with those who did not read the book that same year (in 2007), and compared these to measures of attitudes a year later (in 2008) for those who read the book and those who did not. Notably, these samples in 2007 and 2008 did not include the same individuals; in other words, the attitudes measured 1 year later were not based on the same sample of people, but were drawn from the same larger population of students. What the researchers found was that although the book did change people’s attitudes toward food initially, a year later many of these attitudes did not differ from those who did not read the book. There were some exceptions, however. A year later, those who read the book were still more likely to disapprove of government subsidies and to believe that food quality overall was in a decline compared to those who did not. This is an interesting study as it incorporates a large sample and a long-term follow-up, along with exposure to an entire book. Those interested in the details of this work are encouraged to read the full-text, available below.

Hormes, J.M., Rozin, P., Green, M. & Fincher, K. (2013). Reading a book can change your mind, but only some changes last for a year: Food attitude changes in readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Frontiers in Eating Behavior, 4: 778.

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Adjusting Phenological Expectations

The leaves on the trees along the Mississippi River where it runs through my neighborhood are just starting to turn. This has prompted a dissonance of expectation that is unprecedented in my experience: I will be spending the northern hemisphere winter in the southern hemisphere this year, so I have the chance to experience the seasonal transition into autumn without the bracing involved in facing cold weather. This has started me down a fascinating path of adjusting all of the expectations that collect around the phenological transitions we notice with the changing of seasons in a particular place, like when the leaves bud and leaf and color and fall.

I have discovered that I appreciate existential preparation for things like seasonal change. Unlike my mother, for example, who (as a schoolteacher by profession) covered her eyes whenever she saw a schoolbus before Labor Day and tried to hold off on acknowledging the coming change of season, I find seasonal changes less jarring if I play with them at least a little bit before they happen. Even welcome changes, like the emergence of leaves, suddenly taking up so much of the experiential space of the sky in the spring, can come with challenging feelings, for example of those leaves pressing in on me in an unaccustomed manner. This transition can be much more interesting and less dissonant if I have anticipated them adequately. This year, for example, with spring so late, I willed the leaves to come out, staring them into sprouting in the side yard with so much effort that when they appeared, it was more as if they were filling a void than taking up space I had been enjoying. I also travelled to places a bit further ahead of us where leaves were concerned, refamiliarizing myself with the feeling of leaves and the changed spatial relationship with trees.

The inverse moment, when the leaves come off again, has a more glorious compensation, but for a much more woeful change: a reduction in aerial spaciousness is a trivial price to pay for the transition out of the six months of freeze; the colorful riot has to be awfully amazing to store up equanimity for return to the cold half of the year. But this year, I am gleeful about the ability to experience some distance between the dying of the summer and the anticipation of cold. But what will this be like? I anticipate that I will learn not only about the many ways I may unconsciously brace for the worst* (and hopefully unlearn some), but also about the way that foreshadowing works in the experience of narrative. This hemispheric transition will also give me a chance to re-explore the relationship between the warm and cold seasons, something that has been creeping up in my priority list, as my recent hip reconstruction has suddenly relocated me, socially, into the set of people who feel seasons in their bones, and as my scholarly work brings me more often into the problem spaces created by less predictable climate regimes.

I have often wanted to stockpile some of the warm experiences of the green land of summer—the space one can move through in bare skin and relaxed limbs—to sustain me in the snowed-in dark months, and I have a picnic project opening tomorrow that is designed, in part, to do just that: to collect and catalogue moments of un-seasonally-encumbered exploration for unpacking in the inside months. Perhaps narrating my way through these picnics will also help me approach this season of preparation in ways that let the seasons talk to each other more in my experience, and that let the reading of phenology always have compensating comforts.
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Monday, August 25, 2014

Narrative and understanding

Although it was published some time ago, a paper by Terre Satterfield, Scott Slovic and Robin Gregory (2000) is still very much up-to-date in thinking about the value of narrative. It’s about the possible benefits of narrative for understanding not just interpersonal matters, but matters about which one needs to think carefully about complex policy issues, and to make political decisions.

Satterfield and her colleagues were concerned about how to offer people information about the environment so that they could think about it productively to evaluate planned changes, and to take part in meaningful dialogue about policy decisions. How, for instance, do ordinary people understand what kinds of information are important and of good quality, and how can they come to know enough to make informed political choices? The researchers hypothesized that offering people information in a narrative form would increase comprehension of the main ideas of a problem, enable them to become emotionally engaged, and enable them to develop active imagery about an issue.

There were 239 participants in the study. They were from the University of Oregon community, and 52% were female. Each participant read either a utilitarian text or a narrative text and was asked to evaluate a policy that would reduce power produced by a Pacific Northwest hydroelectric system by letting more water through the system’s spillways to improve salmons’ ability to return from the ocean to their spawning grounds, to reproduce, and to let more young salmon make their way back to the ocean. A change to double the number of salmon returning to the river would increase the cost of household power by $60 annually, and a change to increase the number of returning salmon by ten times to would increase the cost by $360 annually. 

The utilitarian text included this:
Key policy decisions involve concerns such as the timing of power production (e.g. letting more water through dams on a regular basis would decrease the amount of power produced but also increase spawning habitat and food availability for young salmon) …  The expectation is that increased water flow will raise the number of returning salmon on the river by at least 2-fold (8000 salmon instead of the current 4000) …
The narrative text included this:
My neighbor, an engineer, has taught me a thing or two about how dams and their hydroelectric technology can be managed in ways that kill fewer young salmon. She says that increasing water flow around the dams would help. Right now only about 4000 salmon are making it back per year but if more water is released through the dam, salmon habitat and food availability will improve ...

In both formats, the information was exactly the same. Among the outcome measures was the importance of a set of values related to the decision: cost, salmon population, spirituality, and significance of salmon to the community.

The results were that receiving the information in a narrative format did not determine the relative importance of each of the values to the participants. People who received the information in a narrative format were, however, more aware of the issues of value in relation to the decision and made better use of the value dimensions provided.

One interpretation of this result is that narratives may be useful in enabling people to make better mental models of the world, with which they can think about complex issues, perhaps also to think for themselves, and to think more effectively than they might otherwise about political decisions.

Satterfield, T., Slovik, S., & Gregory, R. (2000). Narrative valuation in a policy judgment context. Ecological Economics, 34, 315-331.
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