Mind Games


April 11, 2014

orignal aritcle is an interactive quiz at NYTimes.com

Steven Pinker is every bit the populist. All but three of his nine books are aimed at the general public (“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” is available in 21 formats and editions; the CD comes out this week). Dr. Pinker’s teaching is similarly accessible. Just look at the test questions here, culled from one of his Harvard courses, “Psychological Science.” He explains his approach: “The questions that psychology tackles are the ones that obsess us in everyday life: family relations, sexuality, kindness and aggression, the reliability of knowledge. Not surprisingly, many concepts in academic psychology have crossed over into popular culture, such as conditioning, Freudian psychoanalysis and cognitive dissonance. Exams that invoke these memes test whether students understand the theories well enough to reason about them when they are presented away from a familiar textbook context and are applied to real life.” APRIL 11, 2014

1 According to Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, why do the office workers in the comic strip think they have learned something?


The team-building exercise forces them to cooperate, and they realize they cannot accomplish a task if they bicker and fight.

Teams of people learn more after they have set aside their differences and shown signs of solidarity (hugging) and shared emotion (crying).

People who succeed with one difficult task will be more confident in taking on new ones.

People who have been manipulated into a pointless task will rationalize their behavior and conclude that it must have been worthwhile.

Cognitive dissonance theory holds that when people hold contradictory beliefs (“I’m a rational, autonomous person” yet “I just did something pointless”), they experience an unpleasant state, cognitive dissonance, which they mitigate by bringing one of the beliefs into consistency with the other.

2 Did you hear the joke about the statistician who drowned while wading across a river whose average depth was three feet? What did the statistician forget to take into account?

The standard deviation

The correlation coefficient

The median

Inferential statistics

Standard deviation is a measure of variability around a mean, in this case variations in the depth of a river.

3 Imagine a movie called “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which the heroine bludgeons the victim with a frozen leg of lamb. She then cooks the lamb and feeds it to the police, who are searching her house for a baseball bat, which they think is the murder weapon. The fact that the police never considered the leg of lamb as a weapon is a perfect example of:

The availability bias

The effect of language on reasoning

Functional fixedness

The representativeness heuristic

Functional fixedness is the cognitive blind spot in which people think about an object in terms of its function and forget about its physical properties. In the textbook example, subjects are given a candle, matchbook and box of tacks and are asked to affix the candle to the wall. Few reach the best solution, which is to empty the box, tack it to the wall and place the candle on it, because they think of the box as a container rather than a shelf.

4 A husband and wife are considering divorce. Under what circumstances would they be said to be in a “prisoner’s dilemma”?

The lawyers’ fees are so expensive that they forgo divorce and remain trapped in the unhappy marriage.

Each spouse wants to hire an inexpensive lawyer, but both hire expensive lawyers because they realize the outcome will be better for both of them.

Neither spouse wants to hire an expensive lawyer, but each ends up doing so out of fear that the other spouse will do so and leave them at a disadvantage.

When one spouse hires an expensive lawyer, less money is available to the other for a lawyer, so whoever hires the more expensive lawyer first has an advantage.

In the prisoner’s dilemma, a scenario from game theory that illustrates a paradox of cooperation, two people acting selfishly end up worse off than if they had cooperated, but neither dares cooperate out of fear the other will act selfishly.

5 Pete Townshend, lead guitarist of The Who, has publicized his ailment to warn fans of the negative long-term effects of too much:



Rock 'n' Roll


The course textbook, Peter Gray’s “Psychology,” notes that Pete Townshend, who suffers severe hearing loss, has campaigned to warn young people of the danger posed by prolonged exposure to loud music. Sensation and perception — including the workings of the sense organs that convert environmental energy into neural impulses — have been topics in psychology for as long as the discipline has existed.

dog psychiatry

6 Consider this cartoon. How would the man in the chair and a contemporary psychologist, respectively, explain the dog’s problem?

Primary process thinking; operant conditioning

Transference; stimulus discrimination

Defense mechanisms of the ego; stimulus generalization

Oral fixation; classical conditioning

The man in the chair is a psychoanalyst, so he would apply Freud’s theory that some people never outgrow a childhood stage in which their desires are automatically gratified by breast-feeding. Contemporary psychologists would recognize the dog’s allusion to Pavlov’s classic experiment in which dogs learned to salivate to a bell paired with food.

Hamlet of Elsinore
Ruffled the critics
by dropping this bomb:
“Phooey on Freud
And his psychoanalysis.
Oedipus, schmoedipus,
I just loved Mom.”

7 In the double dactyl above, Hamlet crucially disagrees with Freud by denying that his feelings for his mother were:


Confined to the “phallic stage” of psychosexual development


Freud’s Oedipal complex, in which a man struggles to resolve a sexual desire for his mother and rivalry with his father, has been applied to Hamlet’s reluctance to slay his stepfather, with whom he supposedly identified unconsciously.

8 Robert Trivers’s argument that evolution can select for self-deception is similar to which aphorism?

Knowledge is power.

Honesty is the best policy.

The best liar is the one who believes his own lies.

A liar must have a good memory.

Robert Trivers argued in “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life,” published in 2011, that evolution does not always select for honesty. We try to win allies by exaggerating our competence and generosity, but then they try to see through these exaggerations by noticing signs of nervousness or other tells. If we’re wired to believe our own exaggerations, we can’t betray ourselves.

9 If Jimi Hendrix’s song “Manic Depression” had been written by a clinical psychologist, what would its title be?

“Nervous Breakdown”

“Bipolar Disorder”


“Borderline Personality Disorder”

Many vernacular terms for psychological disorders that have negative or misleading connotations have been replaced with neutral alternatives. Manic depression is now called bipolar disorder, the two “poles” pertaining to the opposite moods the patient swings between.

10 What would an evolutionary biologist say about Calvin’s use of the word “altruist”?


He is using it incorrectly, because he shares half his genes with his father.

He is using it correctly, because he is being asked to confer a benefit to someone else at a cost to himself.

He is using it incorrectly, because the cost to himself is small and the benefit to his father is large.

He is using it correctly, because his motives are selfish and he is withholding a favor accordingly.

Biologists define “altruism” as behavior that benefits another organism at a cost to the self (sharing food, offering protection or, in this case, taking a message). Unlike its everyday definition as an unselfish regard for others, biological altruism pertains only to behavior and its effects, not to the actor’s motives; if a sacrifice benefits the organism or its genes in the long run, a biologist will still call it “altruistic.”