The tricky business of unblocking your brain

Don’t read this if you’ve got an aneurysm.

Spend 24 hours in the company of a couple of hundred brain surgeons and you’d have a sense of unease too. I’m at a conference where “minimally invasive neurological therapies” are being discussed. My take-home message? No one knows anything for sure. Until it’s too late, that is.

Not that they aren’t good at their job – they’re the best in the world at getting at blockages and other problems inside your brain. But they are here to discuss the things they don’t know. And those are conversations you’d rather not overhear.

The typical presentation goes like this. “So, we went to perform an angioplasty on patient A, who was suffering from acutely reduced vision” (I may be paraphrasing badly). “Here’s the imaging.”

On the screen appears a picture of some loopy, tangled-looking blood vessels. There are murmurs and sharp intakes of breath. A voice just behind me mutters “ay-ay-ay”.

I have no idea what I’m looking at. I’m only here to give a talk about more general issues in scientific research. But I have that sinking feeling, like in the first five minutes of an episode of Casualty, that something bad is about to happen.

“I’d like to know: what would you have done?” the presenter asks. She offers two options. The room votes. The split is even, an observation that makes me hugely uncomfortable. There is no consensus. Why is there no consensus? Surely there’s a right thing to do in any situation? The presenter goes on to explain what she did. There is another round of murmuring in the room. Clearly, many people – approximately half – think this was a very bad idea.

The next presenter describes a surgery that started to go wrong 4 hours into an operation. He talks like it’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “What do you think?” he asks the audience. “Shall I go on or stop now?” A voice from the back shouts, “No, no, no. Stop. You have to stop!”

He did go on, as it happened. He describes how the procedure progressed, blow by blow. “No, no, don’t do that!” comes an anguished shout, like this is Surgery Live. It’s not: this all happened last year. “Yeah,” the presenter mutters. “Thanks, I know that now.”

The next presentation ends with, “Well, I’ll never do that again.” Then comes another: “So, I’d like your opinions – should I treat this? If so, how?” The audience is calling out answers like a classroom full of show-offs. The session chair asks for calm.

Not all the answers are helpful. “If you get bleeding there, that’s going to be catastrophic.” The presenter furrows his brow. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I’m asking.”

This one is not a done deal, as it turns out. “Thanks,” the presenter says as the deluge of conflicting answers abates. “I’m due to see her again in ten days, so that’s really helpful.”

Here’s hoping she’s not reading this.

 

A patient prepped for surgery. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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