Debunking an Urban Myth

For my latest post, I want to quickly address an urban myth that apparently has been making the rounds for years. In fact, I heard this recently in one of my classes. The myth is that states use third grade literacy scores to determine how many prisons to build (or how many prison beds they will need). This is not true, and although it has been cited repeatedly, nobody seems to know the origin of the myth.

One possible source might be a book titled The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. I haven’t read the book, but a few weeks ago someone I know was discussing it and cited the third grade literacy quote in such a way that it seemed it came from the book. At any rate, the idea that officials use third grade reading scores to determine how many prison beds they will need has now been debunked and relegated to the dustbin of urban myths. The only problem, of course, is that (almost) nobody knows this.

Here are a few links to explain how and why the erroneous quote has been proven false, including the original article in The Oregonian that was the first to debunk the myth:

Prisons don’t use reading scores to predict future inmate populations: “The myth probably has survived and circulated for more than a decade because it reflects the more fundamental truth that there is a powerful connection between school failure and crime.”

Cite the Source: “The idea that prison-planning is based on elementary school literacy drop-out rates is a commonly held assumption…The problem is that I can’t find one single piece of state legislation or governmental corroboration for this. Nowhere can I locate official documentation that prisons indeed “use reading scores to predict future inmate populations.” As far as evidence goes, I can find nothing.”

PolitiFact Oregon: “We started with a basic Google search and came across the claim we’d kept hearing: Prison officials use third grade reading scores to predict the number of beds they’ll need. That claim, it seems, is nothing more than an Internet rumor that has been soundly disputed. In fact, The Oregonian happened to refute the adage a couple years back. “This is an urban myth,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton wrote in an email to Oregonian reporter Bill Graves.”

On the Differences Between Terrorists and Mass Murderers

A few days ago my uncle, Dr. Jeff Victoroff, appeared on a local news program to discuss the differences between terrorists and mass murderers in light of the shooting in Aurora, CO. A specialist on human aggression and terrorism (among other things), Jeff breaks down the different types of mass murderers and explains why the suspect in the Aurora case “doesn’t even deserve the title terrorist.” That’s an important distinction, as it is common to blur the definitions of certain loaded terms for the sake of political expediency. It does not dilute the horror of what happened to make clear that because someone has terrorized us does not mean he is a terrorist. In this case, the shooter’s actions define him as a mass murderer.

Click on the image below to watch the segment:

The Adolescent Brain: Still Under Construction

You may have read recently that the United States Supreme Court ruled in May that life sentences for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The Court declared that sentencing youths to die in prison, without the possibility of parole, violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, cited the “distinctive attributes of youth” that must be taken into consideration during sentencing. Paraphrasing the Miller v. Alabama ruling, and references to precedent throughout, here is a simplified list of some of those distinctive attributes. Children…

  • Lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.
  • Are “more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures” (including family and/or peers).
  • Have limited control over their environment.
  • Lack the ability to remove themselves from “horrific, crime-producing” settings.
  • Do not have the same well-formed character development adults do.
  • Exhibit traits that are “less fixed” than an adult’s, so that their actions display less evidence of “irretrievable depravity” (i.e., they are more open to the possibility of rehabilitation).

Based on these attributes, the Court decided that “penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children,” and “sentencing practices that are permissible for adults may not be so with children.”

Source: iStockphoto

While that list makes intuitive sense to most of us, there is an ever-growing body of scientific research to back up the assertion that teenage brains are fundamentally different from those of adults. For example, MRI research has shown that the prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to fully develop, not reaching maturity until our mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is the area responsible for so-called executive functioning, and is the locus of planning, impulse control, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, and initiating appropriate behavior. From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior.”

New technologies are also being used to study the adolescent brain. For example, British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a leading researcher in this area. Professor Blakemore recently gave an extended interview to in which she discusses some of her work. She explains that her interest in the adolescent brain is largely due to the fact that nearly all adult mental disorders have their origins in youth. Anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, eating disorders – most of these have their onset at some time during the teenage years. Her hypothesis is that something goes awry during the development of the teenage brain that triggers these disorders.

Professor Blakemore’s research involves studying brain structure and function, mainly through the use of fMRI scans of adolescent brains engaged in various tasks. It’s a fascinating interview, and she is an engaging speaker. I can’t link to the video directly, but you can get there by clicking the image below. You’ll find the video, audio and a transcription of the entire interview.

Work like this has potentially wide-ranging implications. For society, as demonstrated by the Supreme Court decision discussed above, so we can better understand how to effectively punish, but also rehabilitate, juvenile offenders. And for those of us in school psychology, work like this helps us understand the unique needs of children. Especially when it comes to developing academic interventions and monitoring progress, both up-and-coming trends in our field. As Professor Blakemore says so succinctly,

“There’s no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can’t change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s, and even after that it’s plastic forever, the plasticity is a baseline state, no matter how old you are. That has implications for things like intervention programs and educational programs for teenagers.”

If you’re interested in the topic and want to explore it further, here are a few links you might find interesting (click on images below):

  1. The Social Brain. A 2010 talk by Professor Blakemore.
  2. Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough? A New York Times Magazine article about Greg Ousley, who killed his parents when he was 14 years old and is serving a 60-year sentence.
  3. The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction. Free NIMH pamphlet with information drawn from the largest longitudinal study to date on the adolescent brain.
  4. The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Book by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith.

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Altruism Linked to Specific Region in the Brain

An interesting study was just published by the University of Zurich, purporting to link altruistic behavior to the size of a specific brain region. From the news release:

“The volume of a small brain region influences one’s predisposition for altruistic behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich show that people who behave more altruistically than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing for the first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.”

Yellow area indicates the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes.

The quickie news reports of the findings are focusing on just one aspect of the research – that there is “more gray matter” in the brains of altruists. Specifically, the junction between the parietal and temporal lobes of the brain. In and of itself, describing differences in the size of brain regions is not all that helpful. We do not yet have a way to determine the difference between causation and correlation when we see these types of images on brain scans. For example, can we say with certainty that the subjects in this study seem to behave altruistically because they have more gray matter in that specific region? Or do they have more gray matter because they behave more altruistically?

Brain imaging research is still in its infancy when it comes to being able to explain human behavior. Lead researcher Ernst Fehr makes this clear when he says,

““These are exciting results for us. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that altruistic behavior is determined by biological factors alone.” The volume of gray matter is also influenced by social processes.”

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find something interesting. In the official news release about the study, there is a longer description of what the size differences of that brain region seems to indicate.

“The participants in the study also displayed marked differences in brain activity while they were deciding how to split up the money. In the case of selfish people, the small brain region behind the ear is already active when the cost of altruistic behavior is very low. In altruistic people, however, this brain region only becomes more active when the cost is very high. The brain region is thus activated especially strongly when people reach the limits of their willingness to behave altruistically. The reason, the researchers suspect, is that this is when there is the greatest need to overcome man’s natural self-centeredness by activating this brain region.”

That is a far more interesting proposition than simply saying some parts of the brain are found to be larger than other parts of the brain in some individuals. Essentially, the researchers are saying it takes more work to be altruistic. It is hard to be generous, as human beings are understood to be inherently selfish. So our brains have to work harder when faced with potentially “costly” decisions.

CASE STUDY: So, on a lighter note, given what we’ve learned about altruistic behavior, what do you think about Mr. Matheson’s actions in this short parody? Does he have more or less gray matter in the junction between his parietal and temporal lobes? On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being lowest, 10 being highest), how would you rate Mr. Matheson’s altruism?

Procrastination, Deferred Gratification, and Success

Author Frank Partnoy has written a new book about the benefits of procrastination. Titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the book discusses why we need to take time out in our fast-paced world to sit back and think before we act. Drawing on research in diverse fields including psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, law, history, finance, and even sports, Partnoy makes the case that,

“[G]iven the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home. Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock.”

Portnoy’s philosophy about making decisions can be summed up in three simple steps:

  1. Figure out how long you have to make the decision
  2. Ponder the decision as long as possible
  3. Act quickly at the last possible moment

Apparently this method is used by top experts in every field – they wait, wait, wait…and then act. Another way of framing this is to call procrastination delayed gratification, or as Partnoy calls it, “managing delay.” In a famous experiment in the 1960s by Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, the chosen term was “deferred gratification.” Mischel tested the ability of four-year-olds to defer gratification when presented with a choice: they could either eat one marshmallow now, or wait a few minutes and receive two marshmallows. Overall, about 1/3 of the children were able to wait. Long-term follow-up found that the children who were able to defer gratification had better outcomes on a variety of measures as adults (test scores, behavior problems, relationships, etc.). Partnoy summarizes the findings this way,

“[R]esearchers have found, again and again, that children who can delay their reactions end up happier and more successful than their snap-reacting playmates: they are superior at building social skills, feeling empathy, and resolving conflicts, and they have higher cognitive ability. Kids with good preschool-age delay skills have higher self-esteem later in life, cope better with stress, are less likely to use cocaine and crack, and aren’t as fat. Children who can decide to wait do better.”

In a related cross-cultural analysis, motivational speaker Joachim de Posada replicated the Stanford marshmallow experiment with Hispanic children in Colombia. He got the same results as Mischel did in the 1960s: about 1/3 of the children were able to defer gratification. Here’s Mr. de Posada’s TED talk on his study, with some compelling (i.e. hilarious) footage of children trying not to eat marshmallows:

So we know that being able to defer gratification is a key component to success. But we still don’t know why some children (read: people) are better at deferring than others. That is one of the questions Partnoy attempts to answer in Wait. I look forward to reading the book, and may write up a brief review at a later date.

If you want to explore the topic further:

Radio interview with Frank Partnoy.

Wait book review.

– Fascinating New Yorker article about the marshmallow experiment, with more recent data about, and interviews with, the subjects in the original Stanford study.

Neighborhood Pride in Chicagoland

I moved to Chicago about three years ago, never having visited before then. I wish I had known about it sooner, because it is truly one of the great places to live. One of the unique things about Chicago is the vast number of distinct neighborhoods, all with their own character and (in most cases) charm. According to Wikipedia, Chicago has 200 neighborhoods and 77 community areas. That’s a lot! So you might be surprised to find out that local graphic designer Steve Shanabruch has started a project to create “brand” logos for each and every Chicago neighborhood. He’s calling it “One designer’s take on Chicago.” Steve says he’s currently up to about 90 neighborhoods, with no plans to stop anytime soon. You can read an interview with him here. So far, it looks like the logos are only available on T-shirts, which you can buy here.

This is a great way to show neighborhood pride, and also would make an excellent gift idea. We were talking in class yesterday about ways to motivate kids to read, and one of the recurring ideas was, essentially, swag. Lots of us remembered that when we were young, libraries would hold reading contests and the winner would get some sort of prize. Imagine if your school’s librarian had one of these t-shirts to offer the student who ________ (fill in the blank). Oh, and how did the librarian find out about these hip shirts? Why, the super-cool school psychologist, of course! Or, just buy one for yourself and wear it on Casual Friday…or to your school’s next basketball/volleyball/softball game. Either way you’ll be supporting a great local project and showing some Chi-Town pride. What’s not to love?

Letters For Kids

My assessment class had a lively discussion yesterday about whether or not schools should spend a lot of time teaching handwriting to young children. Not writing, per se, but specifically whether or not teachers should put a lot of effort into making sure children master neat – and by extension legible – handwriting. On one side were those who thought handwriting will eventually become irrelevant as we move more and more towards a technologically-based society. On the other side were those who said they still write handwritten notes and that nothing compares to getting an actual letter in the mail.

So for those who still value the written word, here’s a neat service being offered to kids. Designed for children age six and older, Letters for Kids has enlisted a group of young-adult authors to create letters that will be mailed to subscribers twice a month. The cost is $4.50/month or $48/year. From their website:

You’ll get two letters a month written by middle-grade authors like Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler, Adam Rex, Kerry Madden, Natalie Standiford, Susan Patron, Rebecca Stead, Cecil Castellucci, and more. Some of the letters will be illustrated. Some will be written by hand. It’s hard to say! We’ll copy the letters, fold them, put them in an envelope, put a first class stamp on the envelope, and send the letters to you (or your child).

And if you sign your child up and start to feel left out of the fun, there’s a version for adults called Letters in the Mail. For just $5/month you’ll receive a letter nearly every week – what a deal! Past authors include Stephen Elliott, Margaret Cho, Marie Calloway, Dean Haspeil, Lorelei Lee, Matthew Specktor, Rick Moody, Aimee Bender, Padma Viswanathan, Sari Botton, and Matthew Zapruder. Future authors will include Dave Eggers, Tao Lin, Janet Fitch, Nick Flynn, Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Marc Maron, Elissa Schappel, Wendy MacNaughton, Emily Gould, MariNaomi, and Jonathan Ames. Some letters will even include a return address if you want to reply to the author.

Happy reading & writing!