I live in Bristol, and work in Cardiff, so I spend a lot of time on buses and trains, and whilst I’m pretty efficient at working on buses and trains I’ve always hated that ‘waiting around’ time at stations and stops… until I discovered podcasts. Like millions of others, I got hooked on Serial and the Moth, and now I think I may have a new favourite: Invisibilia. Produced by NPR (like Serial), Invisibilia ‘is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions’. Sounds a bit… weird? If you do nothing else this weekend, listen to Batman, it’s first episode (sent to me by Alison R – thanks Alison!). Listen to it whilst you’re washing up, driving somewhere, running on a treadmill. And if listening isn’t the medium for you, there’s a transcript.
Batman opens with a discussion of an incredible experiment by Bob Rosenthal on rats, about expectancy effects. In this experiment, Rosenthal hung signs on the cages of lab rats of average (lab rat) intelligence – saying that they were either very smart or pretty stupid. There wasn’t any difference between the intelligence of these rats, just the signs. Then he brought in researchers and asked them to conduct experiments to see how well they could learn a maze (a classic paradigm in lab rat experiments). And even though there was no ‘actual’ difference in the abilities of the rats, the rats whom the researchers believed were ‘smart’ were twice as good as the rats who the researchers believed weren’t smart. In other words, the expectations of the researchers somehow influenced the performance of the rats.
I found this study just staggering. It immediately called to my mind work by Ian Hacking, a philosopher, on what he calls ‘Looping effects’ – the effect of categorising a person with a particular label (Hacking often discusses psychiatric labels) on that person’s identiy, self-perception and behaviour. The label can it itself cause behaviours which are linked to that label (sorry philosophers who are gnawing your fists at that gross over-simplification of Hacking’s work – but I have a whole heap of stuff to do and don’t have time to do Hacking justice). Anyway, the point is, I’ve always read Hacking’s work as being about the way we use language and a feature of human society (as opposed to other natural kinds). So what’s staggering about Rosenthal’s experiment, is these expectancy and categorisation ‘looping’ effects may apply even to other non-human sentient beings, who don’t even share our language or understand the labels applied to them.
The rest of the Batman, is about Daniel Kish, who you may have heard of – Kish has no eyes, but he taught himself to ‘see’ by echolocation – making clicking sounds with his mouth (Kish has a great TED talk about this). Kish believes that many people with visual impairments are discouraged from learning methods like echolocation for two key reasons linked to the culture they grow up in. Firstly, clicking is regarded as weird and socially unacceptable (confession: I found myself making clicking sounds on my way in to work to see if I could ‘see’, with the result that a) I couldn’t, and it probably didn’t help that I was listening to a podcast at the time, and b) I attracted some very strange looks). And secondly: love. There’s a really powerful moment towards the end of the episode where Kish is teaching a visually impaired five year old to echolocate in a sports field near a main road. The child moves closer and closer to the road. Eventually, when the child gets close, his Godmother swoops in to stop him from walking into it. From her perspective, the risks of him walking into the road were too great. For Kish and others, this is a ‘stolen’ learning moment, As the presenter discusses, for Kish that moment before the child hits the road is the crucial moment for learning about a risky environment, but those who loved that boy were fixated on the moment after, where he might walk into the road. The controversy of Kish’s outlook and methods are discussed at length in the podcast and are well worth listening to.
As I was listening I was (of course) thinking about mental capacity. One of the arguments against ‘mental capacity’ approaches is that the effect of the label of mental incapacity is a self-fulfilling prophecy (for example, Bruce Winick and Amita Dhanda often make this point). To me, this fits so closely with Hacking’s work on ‘looping effects’ that I’m amazed nobody has written about this (hint hint, philosophers!). There is also a large literature on the ‘dignity of risk’, and the importance of risk taking in learning to cope with risk and live in a risky world. The issues around risk and ‘mental capacity’ are in many ways hugely evocative of the moment in the sport’s field in Batman – should you step in, ever, what happens if you don’t? What happens if you do? How should we respond to risks taken by others?
Batman also made me think about the Viper project, a London based study by and about disabled children. One of its findings was that:
‘…many disabled young people continue to be denied the opportunity to exercise choice in central aspects of their own lives, for example about the care they receive, or transfer to adult services. Parents are more likely to be involved in making such decisions on their behalf. This means that disabled young people may miss out on developing essential decision-making skills, experience or confidence. This could contribute to a vicious circle with disabled young people potentially being excluded from participation more generally – on the grounds that they lack the relevant skills or experience. One theory discussed in the literature review is that disabled young people then internalise these beliefs about their inability to participate, making the problem worse.’ p2
It concluded that because many young disabled people aren’t given opportunities to make decisions about their lives, for instance about their care, ‘they may not learn how to make decisions’. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out for you how this links into mental capacity.
Anyway, I need to get back to work – but please listen to the program, it’s really fascinating and thought provoking. Like me, you might get so hooked on podcasts you are actually pleased when the bus is late or stuck in traffic…