Q&A with Dan Harrell

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Longtime custodian and 2000 Penn grad Dan Harrell talks about the important roles that Penn and The Palestra have played in his life. (Penn Current)

Sex, Drugs and Moral Goals: A Penn Psychology Study of Reproductive Strategies and Recreational Drug Use

Jordan Reese | jreese@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-573-6604
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PHILADELPHIA –- Why is there so much disagreement about whether using recreational drugs is morally wrong? A University of Pennsylvania psychology study shows that the debate about drugs might really be about sex.

The study compared two competing theories.

One theory -- the conventional wisdom in political science -- sees drug attitudes as primarily coming from people's political ideology, level of religious commitment, and personality, for example, openness to experience. 

The other theory, proposed by the researchers and driven by ideas from evolutionary psychology, holds that drug attitudes are really driven by people's reproductive strategies.

When the Penn researchers questioned almost 1,000 people in two subject populations, one undergraduate and one Internet-based, a clear winner emerged between the competing theories:  Differences in reproductive strategies are driving individuals' different views on recreational drugs.

While many items predict to some extent whether people are opposed to recreational drugs, the most closely related predictors are people's views on sexual promiscuity.  While people who are more religious and those who are more politically conservative do tend to oppose recreational drugs, in both study samples the predictive power of these religious and ideological items was reduced nearly to zero by controlling for items tracking attitudes toward sexual promiscuity.

“This provides evidence that views on sex and views on drugs are very closely related,” said Robert Kurzban, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology at Penn.  “If you were to measure people's political ideology, religiosity and personality characteristics, you can predict to some degree how people feel about recreational drugs.  But if, instead, you just measure how people feel about casual sex, and ignore the abstract items, the predictions about people's views on drugs in fact become quite a bit better.” 

From a theoretical perspective, the study also concludes that considering morality from the standpoint of strategic reproductive interests is a potentially useful way to understand why humans care about third-party behavior.

According to the researchers' evolutionary model, people develop complex differences in their sexual and reproductive strategies.  One key difference that creates strategic conflict arises in people's orientations towards casual sexual activity.  The relationships of people following a more committed, monogamous reproductive strategy are put at greater risk when casual sex is prevalent.  On the other hand, people pursuing a less committed lifestyle seek to avoid having their choices moralized, forbidden and punished.

The researchers cite prior work showing that recreational drug usage is often associated with promiscuity.  The results of the study imply that attitudes against recreational drugs are part of a larger attempt to advance the cause of committed, monogamous reproductive strategies.

“Condemnation of drug usage might be best understood in the context of strategic dynamics, with individuals influencing moral rules in a way that favors their own competitive reproductive strategies,” Kurzban said.  “We expect that this relationship between sexual strategy and moral stances will occur in other areas as well, such as attitudes toward prostitution, sexual education or abortion.”    

The research team analyzed questionnaires from 516 undergraduate students from the University of Central Florida and 471 individuals recruited from a Web-based recruitment site, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or Mturk.

Participants reported their overall liberal/conservative political identification, rated their support or opposition to a number of current political issues and answered questions about their personalities, disgust sensitivity, moral views, sexual attitudes and level of religiosity.  The measure of recreational drug attitudes consisted of questions on the morality and legal status of using marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy, as well as general attitudes towards recreational drugs.

The study, published in the current issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was conducted by Kurzban of Penn’s Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, Jason Weeden of the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology at Penn and Amber Dukes of the University of Central Florida.

Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban

Irish like me

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Based on research of images depicting Irish Americans during the 19th century, Sharrona Pearl of the Annenberg School for Communication builds a case that whiteness as an identity is not free of discrimination and repression.

Penn Epidemiology Professor Awarded Individual Recognition Award by College of Physicians

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, professor of Epidemiology, has received an individual recognition award by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, section on Public Health and Preventive Medicine, for her leadership role in shaping Healthy People 2020. Since 1979, Healthy People (HP) has set and monitored national health objectives to meet a broad range of health needs, engage people across the nation to work together, guide individuals toward making informed health decisions, and measure the impact of prevention activity.

Click here to view the full release

Shiriki Kumanyika

Shiriki Kumanyika

Rebecca Maynard of Penn GSE to Serve as NCEE Commissioner

Jill DiSanto-Haines | jdisanto@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-898-4820
Monday, June 14, 2010

PHILADELPHIA – Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education has been named commissioner of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

The appointment was announced by John Easton, director of the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Maynard is University Trustee Chair Professor of Education and Social Policy at Penn and director of the University’s Predoctoral Training Program in Education Sciences, an IES-funded program that supports 26 Ph.D. students annually from arts and sciences, business and education. 

She helped develop the What Works Clearinghouse, and her work was instrumental in the creation of the Campbell Collaboration, an international association of public-policy professionals who work to solve societal problems through scientific research and analysis.

“Dr. Maynard is an exceptional evaluator and researcher,” Easton said.  “She is among the very strongest specialists in this field, and she shares our belief that education research and evaluation should be useful and relevant and should help improve education policy and practice.” 

As commissioner, Maynard will oversee NCEE, one of four centers in the Institute of Education Sciences.  NCEE helps educators and policy makers make informed decisions about education.

Rebecca Maynard

Rebecca Maynard

Lennie Briscoe's vote?

Monday, June 14, 2010

What does Oliver Twist have in common with "Law & Order"? According to Diana Mutz of Political Science and the Annenberg School for Communication both may be examples of fictional content with consequences for political attitudes.

Article Source: SAS Frontiers

Center for High Impact Philanthropy Issues Investment Guide on Long-Term Development in Haiti

Jill DiSanto-Haines | jdisanto@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-898-4820
Thursday, June 10, 2010

PHILADELPHIA — The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy has released its latest investment guide, “Haiti: How Can I Help? Models for Donors Seeking Long-Term Impact.”  The guide focuses on health, livelihoods and education, and it points to solutions where charitable dollars could make the biggest difference.

“Haiti: How Can I Help?” illustrates sustainable, high-impact models for donors to fund, all of which have been operating on the ground in Haiti, and it provides cost-per-impact estimates for each philanthropic opportunity. 

“For $25 per person, there are health systems that dramatically decrease child death rates,” Katherina Rosqueta, the Center’s executive director, said. “For $90 a year, there are agriculture models that produce more food and increase a farmer’s income while regenerating Haiti’s deforested soil.  These are the kind of high-impact opportunities we found can have a lasting effect after the headlines have faded.”

To help potential donors understand where high-impact opportunities exist, the Center’s multi-disciplinary team researched effective models and compiled background information to provide independent, objective and practical advice for donors who wish to move from simply having good intentions to actually making an impact.  They found that although Haiti’s poverty existed long before the Jan. 12 earthquake, the nation’s problems can be addressed.

“Philanthropists can be a part of the solution by supporting programs that are known to be effective.  The guide outlines ways donors can help Haitians develop the capacity they need to build a brighter future,” Carol McLaughlin, the project leader for the Center’s Haiti efforts, said.  “By involving affected communities in their own recovery and rebuilding, the models profiled in the guide produce sustained results, positive change that lasts long after you have made a donation.”

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy is a resource established by alumni of Penn’s Wharton School and housed at the School of Social Policy & Practice.  It provides independent analysis and decision-making tools for ensuring that philanthropic dollars have the greatest possible impact.

The Center’s latest guide is available here: Haiti: How Can I Help? Models for Donors Seeking Long-term Impact: http://impct.info/aGY5ZZ.

The general public can now download the guide for free at: www.impact.upenn.edu.

Photo credit: Darcy Kiefel, provided by Fonkoze.

Photo credit: Darcy Kiefel, provided by Fonkoze.

The United States of debt

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Harris Sokoloff of the Graduate School of Education says America’s growing debt is threatening the country’s ability to fund social initiatives, the military and programs that improve our quality of life.

Article Source: Penn Current

University of Pennsylvania Analysis: Contrary to Popular Models, Sugar Is Not Burned by Self-Control Tasks

Jordan Reese | jreese@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-573-6604
Thursday, June 10, 2010

PHILADELPHIA –- Contradicting a popular model of self-control, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist says the data from a 2007 study argues against the idea that glucose is the resource used to manage self control and that humans rely on this energy source for will power.

The analysis, conducted by Robert Kurzban and published in the current issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology, shows that evidence previously presented in favor of the claim that the brain consumes extra glucose when people exert self-control shows no such thing.

The new analysis contradicts results published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology based on "resource" models of self control, suggesting that when people exert self control -- by, for example, carefully focusing their attention -- a resource is "depleted," leaving less of it for subsequent acts of self control.  This study identified glucose as this resource that gets depleted.

“For this model to be correct, it obviously must be the case that performing a self-control task reduces glucose levels relative to pre-task levels,” Kurzban said.  “Evidence from neurophysiology research suggests that this is unlikely, and the evidence for it is mixed at best.”

By analyzing the portion of the data made available by prior researchers, Kurzban discovered that, in the studies reported, glucose levels did not decrease among subjects who had performed self-control tasks.  In short, his reanalysis shows that the researchers' own data undermine the model they advance in their paper.

Kurzban’s new analysis is consistent with the neuroscience literature, which strongly implies that the marginal difference in glucose consumption by the brain from five minutes of performing a “self-control” task is unlikely in the extreme to be of any significant size.  Further, research on exercise shows that burning calories through physical activity, which really does consume substantial amounts of glucose, in fact shows the reverse pattern from what the model would predict: People who have recently exercised and burned glucose are better, not worse, on the sorts of tasks used in the self-control literature.  

“The failure to find the effect predicted by the glucose model of self control is not
surprising given what is known about brain metabolism,” Kurzban said.  “Even very different computational tasks result in very similar glucose consumption by the brain, which tends to metabolize glucose at similar rates independent of task.”

Furthermore, even if exerting self control did reduce levels of glucose, the cause of the reduction could be factors such as increased heart rate when people perform certain kinds of tasks, rather than consumption by the brain.  Glucose levels are probably influenced, Kurzban said, by a cascade of physical and psychological mechanisms that mediate glucose levels throughout the body. 

“The weight of evidence implies that the glucose model of self control in particular –- and perhaps the resource model in general –- ought to be carefully rethought,” he said.  “From a computational perspective, a ‘resource’ account is the wrong kind of explanation for performance decrements to begin with.  No one whose computer is performing slowly would think that the fault lies in not having sufficient electricity –- or that running Excel for five minutes will drain the battery and so make Word slow down –- even though no one would deny that electricity is necessary for computers.”

One way to put the prior data in context, according to Kurzban, is to consider the data in terms of the familiar unit of calories.  The brain as a whole consumes about one quarter of one calorie per minute.  Obviously, the consumption rate for just the fraction of the brain involved in “self control” must, logically, be much smaller than .25 calories per minute.  A 1 percent increase across the entire brain would, over the course of a five-minute task, consume .0125 calories.  If one assumes an order of magnitude greater effect, a 10-percent increase, the amount of energy consumed would still be much less than a single calorie.

“Even with these extreme assumptions, potentially off by orders of magnitude, the caloric cost would still be well less than .2 calories,” Kurzban said.   “The brains of subjects categorized as ‘depleted’ in this literature, have, relative to controls, used an additional amount of glucose equal to about 10 percent of a single Tic Tac."


Brave new world

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Knowledge@Wharton interviews Mauro Guillén and two MBA candidates about their research on sovereign wealth funds.