Cognitive Daily

Misleading headline of the week

An article in ScienceDaily proclaims Success A Family Affair? Willingness To Take Risks And Trust Others Are Inherited, Study Suggests.

Actually, the study suggests the opposite: C only that children have similar risk profiles to their parents. This indicates that risk-taking behavior isn’t inherited, but learned. I This study can’t show whether the trait was inherited, learned, or acquired through a combination of both. For example, if it was inherited, then it might be the case that sometimes kids would be riskier than their parents, and sometimes less risky — just like brunette parents sometimes have blond kids. The article itself makes this clear. But it still uses “inherited” (in quotes) to describe how kids learn from their parents. This careless use of terminology will likely serve only to confuse. That said, the study results are quite intriguing:

“With regard to willingness to take risks children are astonishingly similar to their parents,” is how the Bonn economist Professor Armin Falk sums up the results. “This is not only true for the overall estimate, but also for the different categories. There are people, for example, for whom no mogul piste is too steep when skiing, but who invest their money in secure government bonds. An identical risk profile can often be found with their children.”

And here’s another example of irresponsible journalism, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE bigger the brand, the bigger the brain wave.

That’s the thrust of new neurological research presented at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America on Tuesday.

Wow, that’s interesting! Who did the research? The article makes no indication, other than to say it was led by a “German Scientist.” But which one? Heisenberg? Trolling through the RSNA program, I think I managed to find the abstract of the study. Look! It has names! And even a title: “Brand Perception–Evaluation of Cortical Activation Using fMRI.”

But armed with an author name, Christine Born, I could do a Google search, and found many more articles — for example, this one from the Washington Post. Of course, I still want to know more about the study, which brings me to another pet peeve of mine: mainstream media reports on research that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed. This article doesn’t appear to have been published, just presented at a conference. We don’t know how the group defines “better-known” brands, or even what brands were used. We don’t even know if this research is actually publishable.

In other news:


  1. #1 coturnix
    November 30, 2006

    Well, learning is a type of inheritance, just not a genetic inheritance.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    November 30, 2006

    I have never seen “inheritance” used to describe learning in a scientific context (other than in the MSM), but I’m happy to be corrected. Do you have any examples?

  3. #3 coturnix
    November 30, 2006

    Well, the whole Developmental Systems Theory is dealing with multiple modes of inheritance, from genes and epigenetics-proper (e.g., DNA-methylation), through maternal effects (e.g., intrauterine effects, maternal RNAs in the egg, choice of ovipositing sites) and organizing effects of hormones, all the way to teaching/learning/imitation and even the fact that one inherits, from one’s parents, the environment in which one is born – sunlight, gravity, 24h day-night cycle etc.

  4. #4 Skrud
    November 30, 2006

    I hate the way science-y articles are treated in the mass media. All too often they have far too little information to be of any use. Popular science magazines like Seed are a little better, but it’s tough to find a good balance between readability and “hardcore technical jargon” for those of us who don’t have the sufficient background knowledge to read the academic papers directly.

  5. #5 Dennis
    November 30, 2006

    Dave, you are absolutely correct in pointing out the imprecise and misleading use of the word “inherited” in the article. However, your own interpretation that risk-taking behavior was, in fact, learned is simply invalid. The truth is: The study has absolutely nothing to say about the nature-nurture issue. Pick up a textbook on behavioral genetics to learn what type of study would be needed to address the issue (e.g., a twin study).

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    November 30, 2006

    Thanks for the correction, Dennis. I wrote this a little too early in the morning.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    November 30, 2006

    Coturnix, under your definition of “inherit,” what traits would not be inherited?

    I would also submit that since this is a MSM article, “inherit” in this context should refer only to genetic inheritance, since that’s the most common definition of the term (other than the financial definition, which clearly doesn’t apply).

  8. #8 Fletcher
    November 30, 2006

    While you’re at it, engineers, how about a single machine that does both the washing and drying?

    I spent a couple of years in Italy in the late 80’s and saw machines there that would do both. I have never seen them in the US though.

  9. #9 LeisureGuy
    November 30, 2006

    Sears at one time sold a combination washer/dryer. Great for small homes/apartments. Frontloader. Don’t know why they discontinued it. Could have been engineering problems, but could also have been customers not quite being able to accept the idea.

  10. #10 etbnc
    November 30, 2006

    Regarding clothes washers: Just yesterday I read a complaint by a UK blogger that the washer-that-dries, dries badly.

    That makes sense to me, offhand. Looking inside my washer I see some nooks and crannies to harbor residual water. Evaporating that residual water would require some extra time and extra energy and generally be a design downer. I suppose one might start from scratch to design away those wet niches; I wonder if William McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle designers have looked into it? (

    But from a sustainability point of view, unpowered air drying still seems like a good way to go. I’ve read that it’s relatively common for UK homes (and apartments? and perhaps other European residences?) to have ceiling-mounted racks for air drying clothes. A good solution, methinks, and one I’ve pondered for my laundry area.

    And to plug into the original theme: It seems to me appliance designs tend to demonstrate meme inheritance.


  11. #11 The Neurocritic
    December 1, 2006

    Thanks for digging up the abstract to that overblown neuromarketing study.

    Significant increase of activation was found bilaterally in the inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula and the anterior cingulated [sic] while presenting the strong brand.


    The opposite contrast (weak>strong) on the other hand showed significant activations bilateral in the frontal gyrus and in parts of the anterior cingulate as well as in the occipital lobe bilaterally.

    Huh?? Which frontal gyrus? The anterior cingulate is activated in both comparisons? And how do the authors draw this conclusion:

    Better-known brands stirred up areas of the brain’s cortex and elsewhere that are “involved in positive emotional processing and associated with self-identification,” Born said.

    This dataset does not appear publishable (as reported in the abstract, at least).

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