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10 Things Police Get Wrong About Psychology
Researchers tested police on major misconceptions about the psychology of policing
It’s reasonable to expect the police to know the basic facts about psychology that are vital to properly doing their job, but according to a recent study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, which tested a small sample of British police officers, many of them don’t. The researchers found that the police didn’t fare any better than the average man on the street, and in some cases their knowledge was somewhat worse. Below are a few of the misconceptions that Dr. Julia Shaw and her colleagues tested the police on:
1. “When people lie, they look up and to the left.”
FALSE! The old wives tale that liars look up to the right (not the left) is believed to have originated in the mysterious world of neuro-linguistic programming, but it had never been empirically tested, until three years ago when it was proven wrong in a study by Richard Wiseman who found absolutely no correlation between eye gaze and lying. The phrase “not even wrong” comes to mind. The misconception was believed by 63 percent of police and 67 percent of the general public.
2. “The death sentence is an effective way to deter criminal activity.”
FALSE! There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Police fared only slightly worse than the general public, with 45.5 percent answering incorrectly compared to 42.9 percent of control participants.
3. “We never forget the source of our knowledge.”
FALSE! This was one of the misconceptions where a minority of police really let their side down: 18.2 percent of police believed this myth, compared to 5.4 percent of the general population. We forget the source of our knowledge all the time.
4. “Eyewitnesses are always the most reliable source of case-related information.”
FALSE! Psychologists have known for a very long time that eyewitness testimony is incredibly unreliable. This message doesn’t seem to have got through to police however: 18.2 percent of officers still incorrectly believed this misconception, a score only 5 percentage points better than the general public. This is particularly worrying because eyewitnesses still remain the most important evidence in most convictions, a fact that only half of officers believed.
5. “Most mentally ill individuals are violent.”
FALSE! The mentally ill are less likely than the general population to engage in violence, while being more likely to be the victims of violence. Police fared a little better than the general population, with 15 percent believing this myth, compared to 21 percent of the public.
6. “Memory is like a video camera.”
FALSE! It is certainly not news that our memories are vulnerable to error and manipulation, but the message doesn’t seem to have got through to 14 percent of the police officers, which is only slightly worse than the 9 percent of the general population who agreed with this statement.
7. “The ultimate goal of any interrogation should be gaining a confession.”
FALSE! Once upon a time in the dark days of policing (also known as the 1950s), interrogations existed primarily to extract confessions. Now, we know better. Not only does coercion lead to false confessions, but also it is simply an ineffective tactic. Police are now trained to use interviews to gather as much information as possible, rather than to manipulate suspects. Police were more informed than the 41 percent of the general public who still believe the aim of interrogations is to gain a confession, but 27 percent still believed the myth. Worryingly, a similar number of police (25 percent) actually believed that “pressuring individuals to confess is the best way to find out the truth.”
8. “Accurate memories of childhood sexual abuse usually arise years after the abuse”
FALSE! The misconception that memories of childhood sexual abuse need to be recovered has been dubbed “The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health.” It has long been debunked, but only after sparking one of the most bizarre moral panics in living memory. Psychologists who believed they could recover memories from patients made a series of allegations about widespread satanic ritual abuse, after decades of inquiry it became overwhelmingly clear that the recovered memories were virtually exclusively false memories. If memories can be repressed at all, at the very least it is a phenomenon that is extremely rare. Astoundingly, a massive 68 percent of police officers still believe this myth, a number that is precisely the same for the general public.
9. “Police can tell when a suspect is lying.”
FALSE! Police should know better than anyone that this statement simply isn’t remotely true. Amazingly, 32 percent of police agreed with this statement, compared to only 13 percent of the general public, which perhaps is somewhat less surprising.
10. “People cannot have memories of things that never actually happened.”
FALSE! The creation of false memories has been repeatedly demonstrated both in the laboratory and in the real world. These “implanted memories,” which people were coerced into believing were their own memories, have ranged from being lost in a mall to having tea with Prince Charles. Astoundingly, 18 percent of police and 8 percent of the general public still believe that this is impossible.
Curiously, while overall the police officers weren’t any worse than the public at getting the answers correct, they were more confident that their beliefs were correct. Importantly, the differences between the police officers’ individual answers and the answers of the public weren’t statistically significant due to the study's tiny sample size and the effect of controlling for multiple comparisons. It’d certainly be interesting to see the study conducted on a larger scale, until then we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the beliefs of the police except for the fact that most people, police included, are likely largely misinformed regarding many basic facts of criminal psychology.
Reference: Chaplin, C., & Shaw, J. (2015). Confidently Wrong: Police Endorsement of Psycho-Legal Misconceptions. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 1-9.
Image Credit: Shutterstock
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.