How does a scientist measure your unconscious mind?  It turns out, it can be done.  With a technique called the Implicit Association Test, psychologists can measure your unconscious beliefs about anything: whether, deep down, you associate Black men with weapons, Asians with foreigners, fat people with laziness, men with science, and more.  You can test yourself on all manner of implicit beliefs here.

It works by putting a pair of words on each side of a computer screen. Sometimes the pair matches your unconscious mind; like (for most of us, unfortunately) young and good.  Sometimes the pair challenges your unconscious mind; like (for most of us, unfortunately) old and good.  You’re asked to do a timed test focusing on just one of the pair; we’re all quicker when the terms match than when they don’t.  For more, read up about it here.

In any case, it turns out the phenomenon has a name — the Stroop effect — and the best illustration of it I’ve ever seen was featured on BoingBoing.  It involves colors and color names. For a lifetime, we’ve been taught to associate certain colors with certain names. Accordingly, our brain fires faster and more confidently when we see the name in the color, compared to when we see the name in an opposing color.  See for yourself: can you read both lists of colors equally comfortably, un-self-consciously, and quickly?Probably not.  So, for better or worse, scientists see this same effect when they try to get our brains to process paired words like Asian/American and men/science.  The results of these experiments are depressing (both abstractly and often personally when we take the tests ourselves), but it’s pretty amazing that we’re able to delve that deeply into the mind with such a simple task.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Symbolic interactionism, one of the most common theoretical perspectives adopted by sociologists, explains human behavior through the meanings we place on objects or symbols in our environment. These symbols can be material objects, but they can also be words, gestures, actions, events, as well as people and groups. The symbols’ meanings are not innate. They are created and applied through human relations and interactions. In other words, they are socially constructed. Consequently, our behaviors and relationships change as meanings are altered. Some social conflict is the result of different groups defining objects differently.

This extends to human cognition, as a previous post on cultural differences in susceptibility to optical illusions demonstrated.  Another example involves how we hear animal sounds, illustrated in this clip from the television show “Family Guy.” In this segment, we see Stewie playing with a European see and say, a toy designed to teach animal noises. He is frustrated because the animals are said to make sounds that do not ring true to his ear.

For a list of the various sounds animals make in different parts of the world, see this compilation by Derek Abbott at The University of Adelaide.


Deeb Kitchen is an assistant visiting professor at Drake University specializing social movements, the sociology of knowledge and poplar culture. He has done research on higher education, graduate labor unions, and the culture industry.

On the heels of our guest post describing the surprising rise in hypersexually-objectified women on the cover of Rolling Stone, comes troubling research out of cognitive neuroscience, sent in by Dolores R.

Mina Cikara and colleagues did a series of experiments — using Implicit Association and fMRI — to test whether sexist and non-sexist men’s cognition varied when looking at sexualized versus non-sexualized images of women. In fact, when men who tested high on a scale of sexism were shown images of sexualized women, they associated them more easily with words that implied an objectified “thing” than a thinking “person.” This was reflected in the fMRI study.

The take home message? When sexist men are exposed to strongly sexualized messages, they are inclined to dehumanize women, to see them as things.  Seeing someone as a thing is the first step towards treating her like her desires, thoughts, and preferences do not exist (because objects don’t think).  In other words, it facilitates sexual assault.

So… hmmmm… who to pick on here.  How about American Apparel…

American Apparel, this is brain poison (after the jump; NSFW):


For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.


Jay Livingston, at MontClair SocioBlog, alerted me to a fascinating phenomenon called “change blindness.”  The term refers to the fact that people must choose what to pay attention to in any given setting. Accordingly, when the details they’ve decided aren’t important change, they don’t notice. This often includes the very people they are interacting with.
In an experiment by psychologist Daniel Simons, an assistant behind a counter, pretending to sign students in for an experiment, is surreptitiously replaced by another person. A full three-quarters of the people don’t notice. Awesome:

Here is a shorter illustration of a similar experiment with the same results (pictured above):

If you haven’t had enough yet, here’s one more example that shows that you can even switch race and gender and it still works!

See also our post on Privilege and Perception.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.


It seems obvious that basic cognitive perceptions shouldn’t vary by society.  That is, that our eyes should see, and our brains should process, essentially the same no matter what we call ourselves, what language we speak, or what holidays we observe.  It turns out, however, that even basic cognitions vary across the world.

Most Americans, for example, perceive the two lines in this optical illusion to be of different lengths, with line a shorter than line b.  In fact, they are the same length.

But, as argued by Joseph Henrich and colleagues in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, our susceptibility to this illusion varies by culture.  On average, line a needs to be another fifth longer than line b before the average American undergraduate evaluates the lines to be equal in length.  Most other societies that have been tested on this illusion, however, require substantially less manipulation.  The figure below compares how individuals in different societies perform on this test.  The measures are tricky, and you can read more about them here; what you need to know for now is that the societies on the right are more susceptible to the illusion and the societies on the left less.

Observing that individuals in more developed societies (e.g., Evanston, Illinois) tend to be more vulnerable to the illusion — indeed, that in some societies, such as the San foragers of the Kalahari, it doesn’t qualify as an illusion at all — Henrich and his co-authors argue that exposure to “modern environments” may be the culprit:

…visual exposure during ontogeny to factors such as the “carpentered corners” of modern environments may favor certain optical calibrations and visual habits that create and perpetuate this illusion.  That is, the visual system ontogenetically adapts to the presence of recurrent features in the local visual environment.

Even basic cognition, that is, varies across cultures.

As Henrich et al. argue, this calls into question all of the truisms of psychology based, primarily, on experimental research with Western subjects.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo tries to explain how seemingly ordinary, average people can become involved in, or passively fail to oppose, evil acts. Zimbardo is the researcher who designed the (in)famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment,  in which students were randomly assigned as “prisoners” or “guards” for an experiment on how prison affects human behavior. The experiment, meant to last two weeks, had to be called off after 6 days because of the extreme negative effects on, and brutality emerging among, the participants. Zimbardo’s study, as well as others such as Milgram’s obedience experiment, highlighted the role of conformity to social norms and obedience to apparent authority figures in leading people to engage in actions that would seem to be so ethically unacceptable that any decent person would refuse.

Dolores R. sent in a Candid Camera clip from 1962 that illustrates the power of conformity:

As Zimbardo says on his website,

We laugh that these people are manipulated like puppets on invisible strings, but this scenario makes us aware of the number of situations in which we mindlessly follow the dictates of group norms and situational forces.

From Open Culture, via Boing Boing.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that there were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, out of a population of 305.7 million. That is 15.1%, or if you prefer whole numbers, call it 151 out of every 1,000.

Most news reports seem to prefer reducing the rate to a numerator of one — which makes sense since it uses the smallest whole number possible, for your mental image. In that case, you could accurately call it one out of every 6.6, but no one did. Like the Washington Post and NPR, most called it some version of “nearly one in six.” That’s OK, if you’re willing to call 15.1 “nearly 16.7.”

Using percentages, here’s the difference:

A substantial minority of reports on the poverty report took the low road of rounding the fraction in the direction of their slant on the story. Some reports just went with “one in six,” including people on the political left who may be inclined to enlarge the problem, such as Democracy Now and the labor site American Rights at Work.

On the right, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield called it “one in seven” in a column carried by the Boston Herald and others. (Their point, repeated here when the new numbers came out, is that the poor aren’t really poor anymore since they have many more amenities than they used to.) That’s cutting 15.1% down to 14.3%, which is actually closer to the truth than 16.7%:

It’s not that far off, but if your story is about the increase in poverty rates, it’s unfortunate to round down exactly to last year’s rate: 14.3%.

Then there are the people who may have just gotten stuck on the math and couldn’t decide which way to go, like the columnist who called it “essentially one in six” (which was ironic, because the point of his post was, “That’s the nice thing about most statistics, handled deftly, they can say just about anything you want them to.”) In some cases headline writers seem to have been the culprits, shortening the writer’s “almost one in six” to just “one in six.”

The worst exaggeration was from Guardian correspondent Paul Harris, who wrote, “the US Census Bureau has released a survey showing that one in six Americans now live in poverty: the highest number ever reported by the organisation.” The number — 46.2 million — is the highest ever reported, but the percentage was higher as recently as 1993.

If the point is to conjure an image that helps make the number seem real to people, it probably doesn’t matter — you may as well just go for accuracy and say “fifteen percent.” (You definitely shouldn’t use pie charts, which are hard for viewers to judge.) That’s because most people can’t immediately make an accurate mental image of either six or seven — after four they count. But I could be wrong about that. Consider these images — would the choice of one over the other change your opinion about the poverty problem?

They both create a reasonable image. But the choices people made are revealing about their biases  — and the unfortunate state of numeracy in America. Because it does matter that the number of people in poverty rose by 2,611,000.

Maybe more important is who and where these poor people are. Here’s two other ways of representing it, with very different implications.

Fifteen percent over there:

Fifteen percent spread according to a random number generator:

Note that those are just abstractions for visualizing the overall percentage of poverty. But there is a real geographic distribution of rich and poor, described in recent research by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff (free version here). They found that, not surprisingly, as income inequality has grown, so has income segregation — the tendency of rich and poor to live in different parts of town. And that probably makes reality even more abstract — and more subject to media construction — for people who aren’t poor.

Editor’s Note: Christie W.,  Michel E., Andrew S., and an anonymous reader asked us to write about the recent discussion of Thylane Loubry Blondeau.  We’re pleased to feature a guest blogger doing just that.

There is no shortage of sexualized images of girls in American culture.  Shows like TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras frequently contain over-the-top sexualized portrayals of girls.  Images like these are undeniably sexualized.

However, these images of Thylane Loubry Blondeau, a 10-year-old French model making headlines this week, are creating controversy instead of condemnation.  Some argue that, unlike the child beauty queens, the photographs of Blondeau are art.  There is an interesting class effect here; unlike the hypersexualized girls on shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, the photos of Blondeau are high fashion, therefore high class, and therefore acceptable.

I’m no prude.  I think that children are – and have a right to be – sexual beings.  However, there is a difference between sexuality (feeling sexual) and sexualization (being seen as sexy). I (and many other like-minded feminists) believe that girls should be sexual; but, sexualization (and its concomitant focus on appearance instead of desire) is bad because it denies girls’ sexual subjectivity in favor of sexual objectification.

There is ample psychological research to support this notion that sexualization is bad.  An American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls reported in 2007 that sexualization is linked with negative consequences such as disordered eating, low self-esteem, and deficits in cognitive and physical functioning.  These links have been identified in both girls and women – some as young as Blondeau.

Sexualized images like these are troublesome at the societal level as well.  They encourage others to view young girls as objects of sexiness.  Additionally, these images are hugely problematic for girls and women with body image issues.  The fashion industry already promotes the thin ideal.  These pictures of Blondeau push the envelope by explicitly promoting the prepubescent thin ideal, a body type that is wholly unattainable for women.  The normalization of beautifying a 10-year-old’s body type can have potentially disastrous consequences for women’s body image.

It is dangerous to assume that “high fashion” sexualization is “art” and therefore less of an issue than lower class sexualization.  I do not take the paternalistic view that girls should be “protected” against sexualization. Instead, we should work with girls (and boys) to discourage sexualization and to encourage strength, intelligence, and sexual agency.

Images from tvtropesJezebel, and Snob.

Sarah McKenney is a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin where she studies gender development and the sexualization of girls.