NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2008


Cutting-Edge Research

Political Wiring

by Sabine Heinlein / GSAS '07

For years, “stay the course” has served as a Republican mantra for the Iraq war, even amid the conflict's increasing unpopularity. Meanwhile, some high-profile Democrats have been accused of “flip-flopping” on their support for it, among other things. Now, a new study by department of psychology assistant professor David Amodio suggests these reactions could reflect a deeper cognitive difference between partisans—not merely politics as usual.

While psychologists and political scientists have long found conservatives more constant in decision-making and liberals more open to ambiguity and change, Amodio's research is the first to link brain activity to political attitude. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, concludes that conservatives are more likely to stick to their guns—and possibly make a wrong choice—when confronted with a sudden decision that goes against habit. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to adapt—and respond accurately—because their anterior cingulate cortex, a region in the frontal brain, appears to host more brain activity.

Amodio asked 43 college students to rate their degrees of liberalism and conservatism, among other personality traits. He then hooked them up to an electroencephalograph, which records electric activity from the brain, and instructed them to look at a computer screen and tap a keyboard when the letter M appeared but refrain when confronted with a W. The M showed four times as often as the W, conditioning students to habitually press the button. Each letter occurred for a tenth of a second and participants had half a second to respond. The result? Liberals more often resisted pressing the keyboard when faced with an unexpected W. (In case anyone thinks the loaded W—our conservative president's middle initial—had something to do with it, researchers repeated the experiment with the letters reversed.)

"I didn't design the study to pander to politics," says Amodio, who describes it as a side project to his larger research on how personality and brain function relate to self-regulation. Nevertheless, some took offense at the notion that conservatives are less equipped to respond to conflicts, while others delighted in the possibility. An article in the Concord Monitor titled "DNA May Determine One's Political Destiny" theorized that Dick Cheney shot his longtime hunting buddy because "[his] genes apparently let him down." Amodio dismisses much of the press coverage as "junk journalism," because the study made no conclusions about genetic predisposition.

Other critics considered the study itself junk. The online magazine Slate condemned its "sweeping terms." "Tapping a keyboard is a way of thinking?" William Saletan mockingly asked. "One letter, one-tenth of a second. This is 'information'?"

But Amodio explains that his approach, the so-called Go/No-Go task, has long been used by scientists as a simplified model of everyday behavior. And he believes future studies might reveal cognitive advantages that conservatives have over political rivals, such as an improved ability to tune out distractions. "Some balance between neurocognitive styles is probably optimal," he laughs, "which could make your case for being a political moderate."

management psychology

Putting the E in Empathy

by Suzanne Krause / GSAS '08

Power may not corrupt, but there is new evidence that it can blind people in top positions. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, one's ability to consider another perspective decreases proportionately to the level of power—defined as control of information or resources—one wields in a given relationship. The results offer insight into everything from corporate decision-making to spousal harmony. "Power is sort of like the gas pedal in a car, and 'perspective taking' is essentially the steering wheel that guides you through the world," says Joe Magee, study co-author and assistant professor of management at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "If you don't have the awareness to consider other people's perspective, you are going to drive the car into a brick wall, basically."

Study participants completed several tasks that indicated high-powered people are less accurate at detecting others' emotions, make egocentric presumptions, and are less inclined to consider another's visual perspective. In one test, subjects were asked to write an E on their own foreheads. Those individuals primed with high power were nearly three times more likely to write an E that appeared backward to onlookers. But, Magee cautions, power holders are as capable as anyone to judge other's needs and ideas fairly—they just often have much less incentive to do so.

green-thumb technology

Your Ficus on Line One

by Renée Alfuso / CAS '06

In the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors, when Seymour's plant orders him to, "Feed me!", it's a classic sci-fi horror moment. But a group of postgraduate students at the Tisch School of the Arts are working to make such demands a less terrifying reality with Botanicalls, a system that allows your house plants to alert you via telephone when they're parched or wanting a bit of sunshine.

The brainchild of Rebecca Bray, Rob Faludi, Kate Hartman, and Kati London (all TSOA '07), Botanicalls equips each plant with a small sensor to monitor soil moisture and light exposure. When the plant needs something, a microcontroller sends a wireless signal that connects via the Internet to an open-source phone system called Asterisk, which launches a call based on the particular plant's information.

The group created the system when they decided to add green life to soften up the sterile, tech-heavy student lounge at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program but feared the new flora might be neglected. Rather than create an automatic watering system and risk that the plants become background shrubbery, the team aimed to cultivate a daily relationship between the plants and people. "We really wanted the ITP students to make a connection with the plants rather than just being stuck at their laptops and soldering irons," Faludi says.

To strike the right tone for interspecies communication, the Botanicalls team recorded human voices that reflect each variety's characteristics and imagined personality: The Spider Plant calls with a bubbly voice that suggests its prolific nature, while the Scotch Moss greets with a burly brogue. "I feel much more guilty when I fail them now because they've developed these personalities," Hartman says.

Beyond the student lounge, Botanicalls has exhibited as an interactive art installation, and the group hopes to launch the system in community gardens and office buildings where it can gather even more people around their plants. While the system isn't available for retail just yet, the team is designing a simpler, less expensive do-it-yourself model for homes, which turns potted plants into rather pleasant housemates: They don't just call when they need something, but also to say thanks.

Illustration © Lars Leetaru; Photo © Jennifer Whitson