Thursday, April 27, 2006

Do Some People Literally See Red When They're Angry?

A couple of years ago, Russ Hurlburt and I gave a woman a random beeper to carry around for six days, spread out over a month or two. When the beep went off, she was to note whatever her "inner experience" was at the last undisturbed moment prior to the beep. After collecting several samples, she came into Russ's lab and we jointly interviewed her about those sampled experiences -- Russ from the point of view of several decades as a practitioner of this method of learning about people's stream of conscious experience, I as a pessimist about reports of one's conscious experience.

I found these interviews immensely useful in thinking about the issues involved in both the epistemology and the nature of conscious experience. Russ and I are currently working on a book manuscript based on these interviews.

To give you a flavor of the kinds of issues that arise, the woman we interviewed claimed that immediately prior to one of the beeps she experienced a "rosy-yellow glow" associated with the humor of a thought she was having. She said that she literally experienced this color at the sampled moment, and she had a sense that this was not at all atypical of her emotional experience.

Now, to me, this report was surprising. Some people report synaesthesia of, say, color with number -- claiming literally to see a particular color when they view or think about a particular number (e.g., green with 4) -- but this is rather rare, and I hadn't heard much discussion of literal color experiences attending emotion. However, Russ reminded me that people often claim to "see red" when they're angry. Indeed, he has had people claim to literally "see red" or feel "blue" when the beeper catches them in one of those moods. He finds such reports credible.

So: Do some people literally "see red" when they're angry? If you're familiar with my pessimism about experiential reports, you'll know that I'm very wary about such claims. So I wonder if there's some way to verify or disprove them, without relying entirely on subjective report. Suggestions welcomed!

One thing that occurred to me was that if some people literally see red when they're angry, there may be some basic physiological reason for that. If so, it may be a cross-cultural phenomenon, and we might see traces of the red-anger association in other languages. So I informally polled some acquaintances whose native tongue was not English. The poll did not support this hypothesis. In German, I'm told, "rotsehen" (lit. to see red) does mean to be enraged, but German is so linguistically close there may be a common etymological relationship to the English phrase. In no other language of the ten or so polled could I find evidence of an association between red and anger.

Of course, it may be that if some people literally see red when they're angry, that association is culturally derived. Then the lack of cross-cultural corroboration is irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Do You Know If You're a Racist?

Consider the Implicit Association Test:

The stimuli are a mix of faces and words. In one condition, the task is to press one key (e.g., "e") if you see a dark-skinned face OR a positively valenced word (e.g., "happy") and another key (e.g., "i") if you see a light-skinned face OR a negatively valenced word (e.g., "nasty"). In another condition, the task is to press one key for a light-skinned face or a postively valenced word and another for a dark-skinned face or a negatively valenced word.

Most light-skinned people, it seems, perform more slowly and make more errors in the first type of condition than in the second. They seem, implicitly, to find it more difficult to associate dark-skinned faces with positive words and light-skinned faces with negative words than the other way around. (The performance of dark-skinned people is more variable.)

So here's the question: Suppose you perform "poorly" on the Implicit Association Test, despite sincerely -- apparently sincerely, for all you can tell -- avowing that dark-skinned people are no worse, no more prone to be nasty, bad, unhappy, etc., than light-skinned people. Are you a racist?

Well, perhaps it depends on one's overall patterns of behavior. But what behavior? What you sincerely -- sincerely for all you can tell -- avow about the races? What your automatic, implicit, gut-level reactions tend to be when confronted with people of different races? What your more deliberate actions are toward people of different races, when you're on top of your game, as it were -- once you've had time to reflect and self-regulate?

Aaron Zimmerman has been telling me that what we really believe is revealed better by our speech and self-conscious choices than by our gut reactions and implicit associations -- that only in the former cases do we do what is essential to belief, that is, reasoning -- and only in such matters are we held to rational and epistemic norms. That's an interesting thought, but at the same time I think we are to a considerable extent responsible for our implicit associations and gut-level reactions, especially if they end up guiding our behavior unbeknownst to us. The person who just implicitly expects dark-skinned people, say, to be less intelligent than light-skinned people does not fully believe in the intellectual equality of the races, no matter what she may say aloud about that issue or what she might do on occasions in which she self-consciously corrals her implicit racism.

Does such an implicit racist simply believe that light-skinned people are more intelligent? Well, that doesn't seem quite right either. This seems to me a case of what I've called "in-between believing" -- a case in which it's not quite right say that a person fully believes some proposition and not quite right to say she fails to believe it. Such in-between cases of belief are, I think, extremely common, and it takes a certain amount of self-regulation, self-shaping, environmental control, and post-hoc confabulation to present a relatively consistent face to the world -- and to oneself.

So do you know if you're a racist? Do you know what you believe about the intellectual equality of the races? I doubt it!

(Oh, by the way, you can go ahead and take the Implicit Association Test right now, if you like, here.)