A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Prejudice Go Down

I wasn’t really paying attention to the radio. I was busy cooking, but it sounded to me as if the question Clive Anderson asked the film-maker Andrea Calderwood on Saturday’s episode of Loose Ends amounted to ‘how come a nice woman like you is making films about the nasty episode that was the Biafran civil war?’. Of course he didn’t use those words but it certainly smacked of that. Her response amounted to ‘I‘ve been inappropriately called a wee lassie before‘ but she remained entirely civil. Too often women are asked questions no one would consider asking a man. Questions such as ‘how will you sort out child-minding?’ or ‘are you tough enough to work in the world of film, physics, engineering…..[insert noun of your choice here]?’. The interview with Calderwood, I fear, smacked of that sort of thing.

Was this unconscious bias? Stereotyping? Yes to both I fear. Unconscious bias is so ingrained and I’ve written about it many times before (e.g. herehere and here), but when the University of Sheffield’s Jenny Saul came to talk at Cambridge recently specifically about the subject she introduced me to a study I’d not come across previously which raised a new dimension. Possibly something simple that could be done easily during the interview process to even things out. Something involving biscuits, or possibly cake.

The study she referred to appeared in 2009 and is entitled ‘Stereotypes and prejudice in the blood: sucrose drinks reduce prejudice and stereotyping ‘. The authors from the Netherlands (Gailliot, Perucke, Plant and Baumeister) examined ‘ whether bolstering self-control by giving participants glucose would reduce stereotype use for an impression formation task‘. The control group were given a zero calorie drink, the ‘glucose condition’ group were given a drink containing about 140kcal 12 minutes before completion of the test to allow time for sugar metabolism. The test consisted of writing down what participants thought a day in the life of a homosexual man might be like. Separately they assessed the level of prejudice of participants using a specific but distinct questionnaire about attitudes towards homosexuality.

What were their conclusions?

Compared to the control group, the participants in the glucose condition used fewer stereotypes when writing an essay about a day in the life of a gay man. In addition, high-prejudice participants in the glucose condition used fewer derogatory statements in their essays than high-prejudice participants in the control condition.

In other words, even for those with quite strong prejudices, these negative thoughts could be ameliorated by a quick sugary drink. Of course, I am sure we all have noted our own grumpiness when our stomachs are rumbling. In this context, the Economist has reported this week a very different study, on marital relationships, headlined  ’Low glucose levels can lead spouses to lash out at one another’, where the severity of ‘torment’ a spouse was willing to subject their partner to was correlated with blood-sugar levels.  However, the study on prejudice did not seem to be dealing with a situation where the participants were deliberately being kept hungry until given the glucose drink and I would not necessarily have expected grumpiness to extrapolate to expressions of actual prejudice.

Looking at subsequent citations to the Mailliot paper, they mainly seem to be dealing with aggression (more equivalent to the grumpiness) and how self-control is affected by low sugar levels, rather than prejudice per se.  Thus it isn’t clear to me whether this study has broad applicability to different kinds of prejudice and stereotyping. It is interesting that no one seems to have picked up on it to extend the original framework of the study. Nevertheless, maybe it is something worth trying out before some important decision is to be made. I’m not sure I’d lay in the Lucozade/Gatorade to ply an interview panel or committee with, since they might well turn up their noses, but some chocolate biscuits wouldn’t be stretching the budget too far and if appropriately fancy-looking maybe they would tempt people sufficiently to get them to indulge. It’s an interesting idea that wouldn’t obviously do any harm.

The evidence keeps piling up as to how stereotyping can harm women’s job prospects. If they are expected to be less adventurous, assumed to be someone else’s lieutenant rather than the driving force or ‘not yet ready’ for the big move before they’ve even opened their mouth at interview, then let’s ply the panel with sugar and see if things improve. However if, as is too often likely to be the case, the bias is established as soon as the name on the CV is read, then this strategy won’t be adequate. Either way, a good dose of unconscious bias training to add to the spoonful of sugar seems desirable.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Stuff of Brains

That migraine I was waiting for finally struck this week. Amazingly it didn’t throw my life into disarray, because it hit me during a week I was supposed to be having ‘off’. Consequently it only spoiled a day of relaxation, the day I intended to sort out and take a bag of old clothes to the Oxfam shop and do otherwise virtuous but non-professional activities.

One of the odd things about migraines is what it does to one’s brain. My first action was to turn my radio down from its typical volume level, my second was to put dark glasses on to hide from the bright light when I went outside. Conversations with my husband almost felt as if I was having to deal with a foreign language. 48 hours later (long after pain and aura had vanished) I was still finding myself using the wrong words in demented sorts of Malapropism’s, except I knew full well they were wrong but the right ones had gone AWOL. What does a migraine do to one’s neural connections that so mess up the ability to join up the dots of one’s thoughts over a relatively extended period? I find it scary to observe my brain losing control in this way, even if it is transient and I am fully aware of the cause.

My thoughts have anyhow been, in a very amateur way, turned to the workings of the brain. I have been reading Matthew Lieberman‘s book Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. I learned a lot from this book, even if there was plenty more I am sure I didn’t grasp or take in. I realise how much I don’t want to engage with the mere labelling of parts of the brain. I know of course it’s very important, but to me it is part of the ‘classification’ aspect of biology that bored me as a child. My mind simply glazes over with all the acronyms. But let’s put my failings aside.

One of the things that the book explored was how stimulus can lead to reward and increased connections in different ways. It led in many fascinating directions but, of relevance to my own personal interests, I was intrigued to read of studies into the effectiveness of ‘self-affirmation’. I first came across this idea specifically in the context of encouraging girls to stick with physics (a 2010 study is written up here). A year later a different but related study looked at the effect on the sense of belonging of African-American students at Yale and this was the paper discussed in the book. In both cases the students were asked to articulate some thoughts about who they were, how they fitted in and what they valued, although there were subtle differences between the two studies. In each case there were measurable long-term benefits to the ‘minority’ group (i.e. the girls or the African-American students) and there was no observed impact, good or bad, on the majority group. I didn’t understand why this strategy works when I first read about this approach and, to be honest, I still don’t.

Matthew Lieberman says ‘This is a pretty crazy finding if you think about it for a minute. Three years after spending an hour in a psychology experiment that momentarily amped their sense of belonging, students were still benefiting from it in their academic performance.’ Yes I think it is pretty crazy. The explanation?  The author implies there is a link between feeling good and the ability to think clearly and that this is at the heart of the benefit the studies identify, but that still doesn’t explain the durability of the effect to my mind and I remain baffled. Nevertheless, if this effect is real and of extended assistance in overcoming both stereotype threat and a sense of disadvantage arising from not being the same as everyone else, then perhaps we should be applying the technique very broadly. I would be interested to know if there are other studies out there that confirm the apparent advantages that self-affirmation can offer to minorities.

However, the Lieberman book, like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (that Stephen Curry described on the Guardian blogs here) points out that we do many things that logically are illogical: we make different decisions according to how the same question is posed, we are willing to accept less advantageous propositions if they involve not gaining money as opposed to the actual possibility of losing some, and we rely on what looks like information even when all the evidence shows it’s worthless. So our brains are treacherous beasts that fool us into doing some pretty stupid things as well as some really smart ones.

The trouble is knowing what to do with this insight. We all suffer from cognitive illusions, those false beliefs that we intuitively accept as true. The illusion of validity is a false conviction regarding the reliability of our own judgment. Kahneman admits that he himself still suffers from this, that he cannot escape the illusion that his own intuitive judgments are trustworthy. We all do this; however I haven’t seen it discussed in the context of how we actually judge ourselves. It is usually pitched as something that concerns external judgements, such as choosing between two financial alternatives (which is how it applies in economics and why the psychologist Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics) or selecting candidates based on job interviews – but maybe it can also apply in how we think about ourselves. As in ‘I’m a girl and most physicists are male so I can’t be any good at it‘ whatever evidence there is to the contrary, perhaps in the shape of stellar exam results. Maybe self-affirmation is powerful because it helps to counter the implicit and invisible cognitive illusion that is otherwise internalised.

There is so much still to be learned about the workings of our brains, but even when the facts are out there somehow we have to find ways to act upon what we learn and not stick with the same old, same old. And that is something that is very hard to do when one ‘knows’ that something works, whatever the evidence.

Posted in Neuroscience | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Science and Nerves at the BBC

Last week you would have found three professors gathered nervously together in the depths of (Old) Broadcasting House waiting for the studio to be ready to air the week’s broadcast of In Our Time. Three professors who had never met before but who instantly got onto the subject of nerves in the face of the coming performance. I was one of the three; the second was Justin Wark from Oxford and the third was Andrea Sella from UCL. Andrea Sella and I each had one previous In Our Time notched up, Justin Wark was a first-timer. Given that the blurb for Andrea Sella’s Life Scientific interview describes him as a ‘science showman’ it may seem surprising that he too suffers from nerves in the face of a live recording, but we all agreed that nerves are really a necessary part of doing a task such as talking to Melvyn Bragg live to an audience of some millions (I believe; I may be wrong about that number). One needs the adrenalin to flow to help to keep focus and so do as good a job as one can. This is certainly helped by being able to look at the people you’re interacting with: those people who have done interviews ‘down the line’ i.e. remotely in some impersonal studio will know that engaging with a disembodied voice is much harder.

The topic of the week was States of Matter, and you can listen to it here. I won’t pass comment on the actual event since you can judge for yourself whether we acquitted ourselves with aplomb and accuracy but my guess is that signs of the lurking nerves will not have been audible (I can’t bring myself to listen to it so I can’t be sure). Apart from anything else, once the conversation starts there is no time to think about anxiety or terror; that is part of the act of concentration to erase all such extraneous thoughts. I think the programme team had done an excellent job of getting a diverse bunch of us together, one chemist (Sella) and two physicists but with totally dissimilar research interests. We each could bring something very different to the table. In fact literally we each brought a page or two of jotted notes in case of temporary memory failure of some critical fact.

When I was first approached a couple of weeks ago I thought this was an excellent topic and my mind immediately flitted, not to the obvious states of gases, liquids  and solids, but to the states that I feel are more interesting because less familiar. In my case, as a soft matter physicist, I wanted to discuss liquid crystals (familiar to you all through the screens on which you read this post) and gels and glasses, non-equilibrium states which couldn’t be described as phases in a thermodynamic sense. In practice, we didn’t get very far with these, or other, more unusual states.

With hindsight I think this topic was simply too large to make a satisfactory programme. Looking at the list of topics covered in the past I see that whole programmes have been devoted to a single book (including Silas Marner, Brave New World and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) or a single individual, Bishop Berkley and Spartacus being recent examples. Taking a relatively well-defined topic such as a single novel means that there is space to discuss many interesting issues in some depth, whereas (at least in my view) the problem with the topic of States of Matter was that too much of the programme needed to be devoted to the basics of the phase changes themselves. As a physicist I may take boiling and melting for granted but it takes a long while to explain what is going on (I tried) to a general audience. Anyhow I still think the liquid state is pretty mysterious!

Andrea Sella did a great job of describing the nature of a phase diagram with words alone (likening it to a map of Africa with the phase boundaries denoted by the borders of different countries). Being the showman that he is described as, he brought along an audible toy: dry ice, to use as a prop for discussing sublimation by placing a lump of it against some metal to hear it squeak and crack as the gas sublimed. (Privately, we joked about the health and safety implications of travelling with a Dewar full of it. I should add he didn’t use the BBC lifts.)

The trouble was that so much of the programme had to be devoted to basic definitions because the audience could not be assumed to know them, possibly not even to know the difference between an atom and a molecule.  I may think that distinction is a piece of basic science literacy like knowing the outline plot and context of Silas Marner (a book I love), but unfortunately that is not how science is perceived.  This media perception that science is somehow ‘different’ as well as probably ‘difficult’ was reinforced by a curious set of images in this weekend’s Guardian of ‘secret scientists‘. The people featured ranged from the obvious and much-cited examples of physics-trained Brian May and Dara Ó Briain to the less well-known ones of Harry Hill – who practised as a doctor – and biology-graduate Lisa Kudrow. By using the word secret it was if they were expected to be trying to keep their early love of science quiet. It is hard to imagine a newspaper running a similar set of photos of ‘secret lawyers’ or ‘secret modern linguists’, so it is rather hard to understand the motivation for the photo-gallery beyond the apparent assumption that to be a scientist is to be peculiar.

I applaud programmes like In Our Time which include science as a major feature in their chosen topics: I am encouraged to see that, with 180 episodes classed as science on their available downloads it is the largest of their 5 categories. Nevertheless, it is difficult to go into the depths that other topics do because one has to assume a general unfamiliarity on the audience’s part. Looking at their top 10 in the science category I note that it includes Genetics. (It also includes Macromolecules, the programme I featured in previously so that is something I feel rather pleased about). How could they expect to cover a topic as vast as this in a single programme? I suspect it will have had to be very superficial not least because of starting from a standing start. How does this contrast with two episodes variously on Aristotle’s poetics and his politics and does this make the balance right?

I am delighted that In Our Time has invited me to participate (twice) and share my love of science with the non-scientist at home in their living room. I would hope one day they might do follow-up programmes solely touching on one of the exotic states of matter we could barely touch upon this time, such as liquid crystals. There is plenty of history there, which seems to go down well, plus modern applications familiar to all so there would be no shortage of material. The problem remains that in our media (as in our schools), science is regarded too often as other and alien and its basic vocabulary still does not sit comfortably with people in the way that historical and philosophical facts do so that they can be taken for granted.

It is encouraging that science does get its look-in on Bragg’s programme, billed as discussing the history of ideas. But across the board it is too easily perceived as a specialist interest, including in the BBC’s own workforce. Science is fundamental to our lives and ignorance of basic scientific facts should be regarded with as much unease as any other kind of illiteracy. We are a long way from that position yet.

Posted in Communicating Science, Education | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

On Saying No

The comments on my last post have prompted me finally to write this one, one that I have had in mind for a few weeks. In fact, ever since I gave a talk at Merton College, Oxford, when an audience member pointed out I had both stated that one should seize opportunities and not say no without thinking and that it was important to be able to say no when stuff was dumped on you. I’m sure I did say both those things – and I don’t feel they are incompatible. I hope this will become clear when I expand upon them, so that the two different contexts I had in mind become apparent.

When starting out on one’s career as a PhD student, it is easy to feel that anything but the straight and narrow of research is unimportant, a distraction or too difficult.  Thus, an opportunity to try out something else, outreach perhaps, a little teaching, giving an oral presentation at a conference or getting involved with committees in your department, may feel a bridge too far. Better to stick with what you know best and keep your head down may be a natural reaction. But all four of those options I mention I think should be a natural part of development as a researcher and should be, if not mandatory, at the very least a normal expectation during a PhD. Similar considerations apply later on too. As an early stage research fellow or postdoc it is all too easy to feel that opportunities to expand horizons equate with threats sent to cause confusion, distraction and distress and that is not a wise reaction.

If that reaction sounds like you, maybe it’s time to reconsider. I’d advance two reasons for this. Firstly there is the trivially obvious one that having skills beyond pure research to write on your CV may well be beneficial in the job market as you seek to progress (in whatever sector that may be). But, at a more personal level, if you never try something new you won’t know whether you were cut out for it. If you don’t spread your wings how will you know what exactly you want to do? This becomes particularly acute it if it turns out that pure research or an academic career is not right for you. If you’ve gone into schools to enthuse kids about your project, maybe you’ll discover a career in teaching is much more to your taste than the bench. If you’ve sat on a committee or two, organised social or research-based events for the department or written up some material for the student magazine, you may have found skills that your first (and possibly second) degrees had never highlighted: skills that suggest a new career path, chosen with enthusiasm and certainty, not merely as a mental second best.

I believe, and many previous posts have said this too, that seizing opportunities opens doors and can provide much satisfaction – as well as, naturally, the occasional embarrassment or failure. Saying no because of fear of either of those outcomes is likely to mean you’re holding yourself back. However, there are other times when equally I believe saying no is the right thing to do. This is when you realise you’re being taken advantage of. I believe this is potentially a perennial problem at any stage.

If this happens to you it may mean you are the kind of person who can always be relied on to do the tasks no one else wants to do or, too often, it can be because you are the minority that everyone feels is needed to give balance to a committee. This, you will recognize, is more likely to be a problem for women but it could apply to anyone. These are the times when thinking hard about whether a firm ‘no’ is the right answer applies. I worry about the people I know who seem buried in repetitive responsibilities that may be very valuable to the community as a whole, but that go way beyond what could be regarded as a reasonable load on the individual. Unfortunately it may not always be easy to distinguish between being a pillar of the community and a doormat when stuck in the midst of a situation like that.

Now, it would seem that some of the readers of my last post thought the fact that my life is always close to descending into chaos meant I must be incapable of saying no. I hope that isn’t the case, although I am quite sure that things might be better if I said no even more often than I do. But I don’t think I am guilty of being guilt-tripped into doing the repetitive tasks that I am discussing here. It is those guilt-trips that can cause problems. Comments such as ‘we need a woman – and you’d be so good at it‘ are a giveaway. If gender (or unusual disciplinary expertise or some qualification other than the skillset itself) is offered as the primary reason why you are wanted, no may be the appropriate answer. Except, that is, if it is actually a task you want to do or feel that it would give you invaluable experience. If that is the case it is then I would put the request in the ‘opportunity to be seized’ camp.

So if you want my excuses for why my life is at the edge of chaos I’ll offer three, which may not be convincing to the reader but to my mind explain why I am where I am relative to equilibrium. Firstly, more than one task I took on willingly and with pleasure some time back has mushroomed into a role quite different from how they were ‘sold’ to me. That may be largely down to the opportunities they have offered me to make a difference, as I hope I have. That being so it makes it, if you like, my own fault. I’m not going to regret this fact, because the work gives me satisfaction. I merely note that what initially looked like a balanced portfolio of responsibilities has bulged in all directions.

Secondly, through my gender work I get many invitations to talk to schools, departments and institutions as a whole, each coming in as a separate request obviously. These have tended to arrive long in advance when the diary looks quite empty luring me into accepting more of them than I probably should, but by the time they arrive they are hemmed tightly into a packed week.  I simply cannot accept all of them, interesting though they each individually may be, but I do feel apologetic at the number I have to turn down due to the state of my diary. Both these problems are now compounded by the new responsibilities which I will take up at Churchill College in the autumn. Already there are things it is helpful for me to do straight away to help me acquire a firm background on which to build when I formally take up the reins later on.

Saying no is important. Knowing when to say no even more so. There are times when it is absolutely the right thing to do and your goodwill is being abused. There are other times when saying yes may offer all kinds of experience, interest and satisfaction that the timid who won’t seize the moment may miss out on. Saying no, in that case, may be a grave mistake. Work hard at distinguishing these two types of requests!



Posted in Research, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Living on the Edge of Equilibrium

Last week my bike got a puncture. So what, you might ask. In itself this is totally trivial, but it also represents the way the trivial gets in the way of everything else. A puncture for me represents potential disaster. If I get a puncture, then I’ll miss my train (meeting, lecture, insert some appropriate noun according to your own life); if I miss the train then I won’t get to the meeting in London(miss my plane, miss my next train, miss the dinner I’m speaking at….); if I miss the meeting then I won’t be able to influence the decision (deliver my talk, support my colleague, know what’s going on….). For each of you the specifics may vary but the general picture will be the same. You see what I mean: a puncture is not simply a thing in itself but can have significant knock on consequences.

Migraines are another common, relatively minor disaster I know are waiting to disrupt my plans. Losing a few hours to blindness and nausea mean that those hours I had set aside to write a talk, prepare my teaching or referee a paper irretrievably vanish. If the talk is to be given the next day, if the deadline is imminent, these lost hours can seem crucially important and their loss can add to the misery the migraine itself induces. A fever, a heavy cold or ‘flu are worse because longer-lasting (although occasionally one can struggle on through some illnesses, ill-advised though this may be and anti-social to your colleagues).

The best laid schemes – of mice, men and women – gang aft agley. It only takes one small incident to disturb them.  The puncture in question brought home to me just how close to the edge I and many of my colleagues live: there are an unreasonable number of things to be fitted in to the standard 24-hour day. I have reached the point where any train journey will mentally have a set of tasks lined up against it. I don’t think how nice it will be to look out of the window as I head off to some scenic part of the country; I worry about how reliable the 3G connection is due to this very same scenery.

Life as an academic has long since ceased to resemble the quiet contemplation of a monk or the dilettante pursuits of a gentleman who only has to give a handful of lectures a year to some well-heeled youths. We live in a world where there seem to be more deadlines than days, more emails than minutes and a system that requires us to demonstrate excellence on every front simultaneously from the first moment of appointment to a permanent position (with equivalent stresses before that joyous moment). And the trouble with living like this, however satisfying many of the tasks may be in themselves, is that the satisfaction is sapped by the constant need to change gear and deliver against a different task. Far too often there is no space for creative thought or time to take genuine pleasure in something long sought – a difficult experiment finally working or a hypothesis thoroughly tested – when it comes, finally, to fruition. And of course it is a system that can too easily make failure, on one front or another, the only possible outcome. It cannot be good for academia’s collective health, mental or physical, however much the buzz when things do go right may do to compensate for these negative aspects.

It seems to me unreasonable that I have not only to use every moment of my train journeys (all too frequent, even if only up to London) but even to timetable their use in advance so I can fit in everything I need to do. A trivial perturbation of a puncture is enough to throw my day out and to tip the balance from feeling on top of things to suspecting that everything is just going to slip away into the darkness of chaos. At the best it is as if I am existing in a state of metastable equilibrium surrounded by deep troughs into which I might sink at any moment, although the metaphor breaks down if you assume the troughs are nicely ordered low energy states. Whatever else these troughs are not ordered life!

On this occasion the puncture caused nothing more than a few minutes irritation. I was not only close to a bike shop in town, it even could do a repair within the 2 hour slot of my next meeting. Disaster was repelled. I avoided the pitfalls that would have befallen me had the puncture happened elsewhere in my peregrinations. Who says luck doesn’t play a part in life? Of course it does.


Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , , | 31 Comments