Showing posts with label Psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psychology. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Case for Not Reading

Tennis player Andy Murray responded to a number of questions posed by readers of The New York Times. One answer in particular:
Q. Last book you read? (Nimmi Matthew from Calgary)

A. I never read. The paper or anything. I watch a lot of movies, and TV series and stuff. But I never, never read.
caught the attention of James Fallows:
Andy! Say it isn't so! I speak for all your fellow Scots* in saying, Well done at the Olympics, but this is not a plus for ethnic pride. Scots are supposed to be thrifty, freckled, somewhat ornery, and literary. Or at least literate.
Fallows also urged Andy Murray "to hit the books".

Although I am not aware of any Scottish blood in my family, I share the sentiment in encouraging Murray to change his habits. However, my feelings are tempered by wondering why Murray never reads.

During my days of cognitive science research, my main quest was to better understand the functioning of the typical human brain. In this pursuit, I tested a number of people with cognitive deficits -- in short, seeing how something can break can provide clues about how it operates when not broken. Some of the deficits I studied made reading, which requires a complex set of processes, difficult or impossible for a person regardless of any training or level of interest. So it is almost a reflex for me to question whether Murray does not read because he has a cognitive deficit. It is even possible that a deficit exists which has not been identified and Murray is not consciously aware anything is amiss except for lacking a desire to read.

Some may now be asking: "How could someone as talented as Murray have a reading deficit? And if he did have a reading deficit how could it have gone unnoticed, presumably by him, teachers, parents, and others?"

Instead of fully answering these questions, I will share a relevant example that can begin to address them. Michael McCloskey, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University*, in a most unexpected manner discovered a person with a fascinating deficit:
To the casual observer, the student seemed absolutely normal. Though she often made mistakes in spelling and math, those were usually ascribed to carelessness. After all, the girl — known here as "AH" to protect her anonymity — was a top student in history at The Johns Hopkins University...

"She approached me one day after a lecture during which I was talking about a patient who had difficulty spelling after a brain-damaging stroke, and she mentioned that she wasn't a very good speller," McCloskey remembered. "I offered to give her the same spelling test I routinely use in research, and was surprised to find that this obviously bright student misspelled nearly half of the words. That was a clue that something was going on here."

McCloskey discovered exactly what was going on through further tests. He said that the student was "startled" to learn about her deficit, but that in the end, it probably helped explain certain challenges she had faced in her life.

According to McCloskey, it was AH's ability to compensate for this deficit that allowed her to be such a successful, high achiever.
More about AH's deficit can be found by visiting the link above. And a much fuller account can be found in McCloskey's book "Visual Reflections: A Perceptual Deficit and Its Implications". What McCloskey discovered about AH's deficit and how she perceived the world is simply incredible.

If Murray has a deficit there is little reason at the moment to think it would be anything nearly as dramatic as AH's. But what I want to emphasize about AH's story is that someone with a profound, yet long unidentified, cognitive deficit could function at a high level, even in some of the areas affected by the impairment. Just as amazing as how cognitive processes can go awry is how the brain can sometimes adapt to them.

Of course, Murray may not have any reading deficits at all, and I am not saying that anyone who does not read has a cognitive deficit. But although I do not advocate the press hounding Murray on this issue, if I had the opportunity I would at least ask Murray a few questions in private. After all, there might be a discovery to be made that may not only surprise me, but Murray as well.

*Disclosure: Michael McCloskey also has another important identifying characteristic: he was my graduate school advisor.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Hole in Xi'an: Understanding People's Willingness to Help Accident Victims in China

In "People Not Helping Accident Victims in China" I considered the tragedy of a little girl in Foshan, Guandong province who was hit by a truck and then ignored by numerous people. This single incident was particularly notable not just because of its graphic nature as seen on a video. There were reasons to believe it was indicative of significant issues specific to mainland China, although people differed on the nature of those issues.

The lack of response by many passersby to the injured girl in Foshan brought to my mind a far less dramatic incident I had seen in Taipei: people quickly assisting a woman whose leg was stuck in a hole created by a collapsed sidewalk. I mentioned it in the post because it provided a contrast and occurred in a culture outside of mainland China. But I would not (and did not) claim that the cultures in Foshan and Taipei could fully (or at all) explain the different reactions of passersby in these two specific incidents. Other factors could have been at play--for example, the type of accidents and the immediate environments in which they occurred.

It could be that neither of these incidents are truly representative. For example, I am not aware of any formal psychology studies or analyses of a large number of accidents which strongly indicate people in mainland China are less likely to help accident victims. As I mentioned in the earlier post, there are incidents of people ignoring accident victims in places other than mainland China, including the U.S. But as also mentioned in the above linked posts, there are reasons to believe that mainland China does significantly differ in how people react to accidents.

In light of this complicated issue, I think it is valuable to consider a recent incident that happens to be more similar to what I saw in Taipei. In Xi'an, Shaanxi province a portion of another sidewalk collapsed. But this time the resulting hole was larger and swallowed an entire teenage girl who fortunately survived relatively unharmed. The dramatic moment was caught on video:

In contrast to the incident in Foshan, but similar to the incident in Taipei, people quickly provided help.

So what does this mean?

There are two things I feel confident to say.

One, it highlights that the conditions under which people are likely or not likely to help accident victims appear to be varied and complex. Numerous possible explanations exist just for the different behaviors seen in the Foshan and Xi'an incidents. For example, there is a large amount of diversity between different regions in China, and the willingness of people in Foshan to help accident victims may differ from Xi'an. Or people may be less worried about being blamed for someone falling into a newly created hole than for other types of accidents. Or witnessing the accident may increase the chance of people involving themselves. Other explanations are also possible and they all lead to further questions. Although at the moment there is no clear answer to which explanation(s) is correct, there is plenty of reason to believe a variety of factors need to be considered in order to explain why a person did or did not help an accident victim.

Two, the example in Xi'an further highlights that even if mainland Chinese are more likely to not help an accident victim, it would not be appropriate to assume the actions of any individual. The Foshan incident itself also includes a person who eventually saw and provided help to the little girl. If it were a fact that 70% of Americans and 40% of mainland Chinese would help an accident victim, the difference may be indicative of a negative condition in China. But it would be ridiculous to say to an individual, "I know you probably won't help an accident victim since you are from mainland China," when over 500 million would indeed help. In reality, these percentages are unknown. But the available evidence does not suggest that the blanket statement "mainland Chinese do not help accident victims" is justified.*

The incidents in Foshan, Taipei, and Xi'an are all striking in their own ways. They are single examples but together with others they suggest possible avenues of exploration to better understand the willingness of people to help accident victims. They also suggest that applying such an understanding appropriately requires thoughtful consideration.

*As a point of comparison, I do believe it is reasonable to say "mainland Chinese use chopsticks" or "mainland Chinese do not want to blow up the world". The likely proportions of people covered by the claims seem high enough (even though they may not be 100%) to make the statements reasonable for most typical purposes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More on People Not Helping Accident Victims in China

In my previous post "People Not Helping Accident Victims in China" I shared the disturbing case of the little girl in Foshan who after being run over by a van was ignored by many passersby.  It's a darker topic, but I hope that discussion of it can serve a role in helping spur changes that may reduce such incidents in the future.  For more on the accident in Foshan and its significance in China see this post by Evan Osnos on The New Yorker.

In contrast to the previous post, I'll share some reactions of readers who I believe are all Americans.  I will refrain for now from commenting on them or attempting to answer any questions (one of which in particular I have little knowledge about) but I think they're worth sharing as they are informative or revealing of people's thoughts.  You're welcome to respond.

One reader wrote about a potentially relevant study and some of her personal thoughts:
This classic social psych study seems relevant if you haven't heard of it:

These were *seminary students* and many had just been primed to think about the good samaritan, and yet only 10% offered aid to the man in need when they were told they were late for their next appointment. The conclusions are about "haste", but I think a broader theme is simply that fear of inconvenience or trouble makes people less willing to help. If the Chinese government has created a situation where helping is so costly, then blaming the government might be more effective than blaming the passerby if it leads to productive legal reform. (Though really, I am perfectly willing to hate on everyone involved in that case and I hope they get shamed into oblivion.)

... That could be my child. I like to think that where I live this could never happen, because people here believe the police and emergency responders are here to help us, and because there are good samaritan laws. I also like to think people around here are brought up to care somewhat about others. Even if this third reason isn't true, I'll take the first two. :\
"The Reluctant Expat" wrote:
 As an American I am appalled at any person observing an accident and not stepping in to help. The incident you noted more than likely happened in a gang area where everyone shuts up and do not give police, yet the person who said that even making a 911 (emergency call) makes you 'involved' has to be highly uneducated. That is an untrue, stupid remark.

The article in Yahoo concerning the little girl made a statement about Chinese being afraid of being sued for helping another, "because his intervention broke government rules on dealing with accident victims." Is that true. Another person cannot help with accident victims and what does that entail? I am curious.
To which "Myra" replied:
Oh, response to The Reluctant Expat: No it's not the rule, however in the case of the little Foshan girl, according the the 'Rules" she should have been left there until the police arrived. BUT, no one in China follows rules about many things, and this was an atrocious lack of human decency and kindness. People should have helped.
"AC" provided this comment:
always scary to hear, not matter the society.
Maybe it is that good deeds are less newsworthy...or a dark way to put it is that as long as terrible cases such as this is deemed newsworthy it is a "positive sign" for the society as a whole that such acts are still considered deviant?
On that note, a reader brought my attention to a recent accident in the US state of Utah that was deemed newsworthy for the help offered to a motorcyclist who was entrapped under a burning car.  In light of the other recent news, I found it particularly inspiring.  I believe it shows how people anywhere possess an incredible potential to help others.

Here is what I believe to be the complete raw video footage (no sound) of the event.  I think it's worth watching as you can see how more and more people arrive to assist in a very dangerous situation.

There's also a video of a segment from The Early Show on CBS providing more commentary and including interviews with some of the people involved.  I can't embed it but you can find it here:

As I noted in the previous post, significant societal changes may be required to impact the degree to which some people are willing to help accident victims.  Whatever the case may be, I hope scenes such as the one in Utah can be inspirational to all -- whether in China, the US, or elsewhere.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

People Not Helping Accident Victims in China

A couple of weeks ago I was walking near the Shida Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan when I saw an ambulance approaching.  A few moments later I saw this scene:

Lady with her leg stuck in a hole in the sidewalk

Apparently, a brick in the sidewalk collapsed as a lady stepped on it and her leg fell into the newly created hole.  Her leg was wedged in so tightly that she couldn't get it out.  Several people tried to help her, including by pouring cooking oil around her leg to act as a lubricant.  However, it wasn't until emergency workers were able to pry another brick away that they were able to pull her free:

Hole in sidewalk and lady's hurt leg

Based on what I saw, both the people who were nearby and the rescue workers who later arrived reacted in a very helpful manner.  It was particularly notable to me as I was reminded of a recent post by Adam Minter on Bloomberg's "World View" about the unwillingness of some people in mainland China to help elderly who are involved in more serious accidents.  He explained why people might behave that way:
In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of elderly men and women who have collapsed or suffered accidents in public spaces who then sue the good Samaritans who have tried to help them. These cases have created a genuine and widespread fear that helping a person in need will lead to personal financial loss.
The post is worth reading in full and raises some points I've heard a number of people, both Chinese and foreign, mention in China.  It may also help shed some light on a shocking story not involving an elderly person but a little girl who was hit by a car in Foshan, Guangdong province.  Kenneth Tan on the Shanghaiist uses some understandably strong words to describe the incident:
This is the top story on Sina Weibo today, and it's FUCKED UP to the nth degree. On Thursday afternoon in Foshan, Guangdong province, a two-year-old toddler was run over by a van outside a hardware market. The first passerby, who is very likely to have witnessed what happened, walked around the girl, without even looking down to see what happened to her. Behind him was another man, who apparently also witnessed the accident, but decided to make a u-turn so he wouldn't have to come up close to the girl lying on the road. One cyclist took a brief look at the girl, but decided to cycle away as if nothing happened, and a fourth passerby also walked around the toddler.
Sadly, that's not all.  Read the story here for more details.  However, a video on Youku that is now making the rounds in China may be more than enough.  Warning: the video is "graphic" and could be very upsetting to some.  It includes video of the little girl being run over more than once, numerous people passing by without helping, the reactions of the parents upon seeing the video, etc.  It's in Chinese but if you skip to the 1 minute mark what you see doesn't require translation.

(note: if you're using a VPN and having trouble viewing the video try turning off the VPN and reloading)

I must say the video left me stunned [Update: The girl has passed away; Update 2:  Earlier reports were incorrect and the girl's condition has stabilized; Update 3: After one week in intensive care the girl has passed away.]  It is positive, though, that the story is being reported and passed around in China on sites such as Sina Weibo.

When I asked someone from Shanghai about it she wrote, "I really dont know what to say... an abnormal society leads to this. When I learned about it I felt guilty to be a Chinese in this abnormal society."

I asked someone from Hong Kong whether she thought this could happen there.  She carefully said, "Not now."  She then explained that she regularly sees news of people not helping accident victims in mainland China and that she worried things in Hong Kong might change as more mainland Chinese visit or move to there.

What seems particularly telling is that neither of the two people were surprised that something like this could occur in mainland China.

While I certainly would be surprised if it happened in the US, the US is not completely innocent in this regards.  One related case occurred in Hartford, Connecticut when an elderly hit & run victim was not aided by many people passing by.  An article on ABC News reported one of the possible reasons:
Park Street, where Torres was hit, is part of a notorious high-crime area, with many residents unwilling to help police or be labeled a "snitch" by others.
People in the neighborhood struggled to explain why no one helped a seriously injured elderly man.

"This area here is hot, a lot of bad stuff," one man who declined to give his name told ABC News. "I gotta go now."

When asked why people wouldn't call for help, he said, "If you want to, but you're involved then."
Like in mainland China, the fear of putting oneself into a negative situation may have been a key reason for why a number of people didn't help an accident victim.  Not only does this put some people's behavior in a new light, but it suggests that the behavior could be better influenced if the sources for the fear were to be addressed.  Unfortunately, in both Hartford and Foshan the sources may be part of societal issues that are not easily changed.  Regardless, after watching the video of the little girl in Foshan maybe more people in China and elsewhere will be willing to try.

To end on a more uplifting note I'll mention that just a few days ago a stranger saved a woman from an attempted suicide in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.  In light of the stories about people not helping accident victims in China, it is hard not to notice the identity of the rescuer.  It is emphasized in the content and title of an article by Xu Wenwen on the Shanghai Daily: "Praise for foreigner's lake rescue bravery".

Why was the American rescuer willing to help?  Was she worried about getting herself embroiled in a bad situation?  I can't say in part because she took what may have been a very smart action in China.  As noted in the Shanghai Daily:
Afterwards, she didn't leave her name or contact information, Hangzhou police said.

Update: Follow-up on this post here: "More on People Not Helping Accident Victims in China"