Archive for September, 2011

Negative results in anti-smoking ads: Law of Unintended Consequences

Originally posted at the All Results Journals

In economics there is a concept known as the law of unintended consequences, which, in simple terms states, that when you upset a complex system – by, say, government intervention – the results can often be unexpected, and sometimes deleterious. One such recent example looks at ratios in child births.

“There’s a natural ratio of men to women for our species, and it is not equal. For every 100 girls, 105 boys are born. But in some places, like India and China, the ratio is skewed. One Chinese city recorded an astounding 163 boys born per 100 girls. So, why is this happening?

The ultrasound.”

Expecting parents, wanting a boy – a much more valued resource in some economies – are able to abort unwanted girls. Infanticide. And the advent of technology is helping in this.

When researchers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the US set out to study the effects of two types of content commonly found in anti-tobacco television messages – namely the use of fear and images of disgust – they found that such a strategy may not be effective.

Communicating health and promoting better living is hard to do at the best of times. When it involves trying to get people to change habits, it becomes far harder, especially when such a habit is addictive. Anti-tobacco messages commonly and increasingly employ shock tactics, essentially to scare you into giving up smoking.

In a study published in the Journal of Media Psychology, researchers studied how subjects responded to different anti-tobacco messages (differing in combinations of the level of threat/fear and disgust used in the ads); assessed on the basis of memory retention, change in behaviour, heart rate, corrugator response, and recognition memory.

Interestingly, there is a muscle in the body – the corrugator muscle – located just above the eye socket on the brow, that is commonly used as a marker of negative emotional responses. Activity in this facial muscle is positively related to negative emotional responses.

Messages high in both fear and disgust content were rated the most unpleasant, but also reduced corrugator muscle responses, accelerated heart rate, and worsened recognition memory.

Noting of accelerated heart rate relates to the fact that the cognitive resources allocated to cognitive and emotional processing changes depending on the level of unpleasantness and disgust in the message content. And that change is marked by a change in heart rate.

When viewing content there is a process at work allowing the information to be initially encoded, then draws on long-term memory to make sense and interpret the message content, and finally the information is stored to memory. Unpleasant or disgusting content increases cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message, as evidenced by significant cardiac deceleration.

A “defensive cascade” exists – that allows individuals to avert away from such images of fear and disgust. This defensive processing in some form underlies responses to fear. Add to this the fact that individuals have limited cognitive resources to allocate to mental tasks involved in processing messages, means the researchers were able to mark at what point the individual withdrew away from the content in the messages. The hallmark of the “defensive cascade” is a gradual withdrawal from stimuli that are increasingly unpleasant, marked by an increase in heart rate. During exposure to unpleasant imagery, we initially increase cognitive resources allocated to encoding; but as unpleasantness increases, individuals begin showing signs of a stronger and stronger defensive response.

Researchers concluded with the unintended consequence: “when the goal is to enhance encoding of message content into memory, the combination of threat and disgust in a single anti-tobacco message is probably not a good strategy”.

Motivated Processing of Fear Appeal and Disgust Images in Televised Anti-Tobacco Ads
Leshner et al. Journal of Media Psychology 2011; Vol. 23(2):77–89
DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000037


Debating Aid…

Earlier this month Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh published a piece in Alliance magazine that raises some interesting and thought-provoking question about the role of the Gates Foundation in setting the global health agenda.

Since the end of the last century, it has been evident that a new way to tackle global health problems was needed. A new way emerged – spurred on by the rise of many vertical funds that took the problem out of the hands of large pharmaceutical companies and governments and into the hands of donors that went after specific problems. The result was a largely fragmented global health landscape, and over the years the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has risen to the top.

In their Alliance magazine article they elude to the global health agenda being set by Bill Gates.

It is not inconceivable that you might find yourself some day reading a story about a Gates-funded health project, written up in a newspaper that gets its health coverage underwritten by Gates, reported by a journalist who attended a Gates-funded journalism training programme, citing data collected and analysed by scientists with grants from Gates.

You might feel like that was hyperbole just for the sake of it but, really, it’s not all that unthinkable. But you have to ask yourself why. Perhaps Gates is the only one that cares enough to put his money to publicise and get people talking about the development issues he’s interested in. That was a simplistic answer. The more complicated answer is simply… money talks. The aid world, like everything else, is rule by money.

Certain things jump out at me when reading the piece. Firstly, many in the aid world see aid as a problem within a social context. Cue mentions of Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo. Aid in that context has failed those it is trying to help.

It’s easier to develop a diarrhoea vaccine than to get the faeces out of the water supply, but clean water provides benefits far beyond diarrhoea prevention.

Yes, some diseases are caused by poverty — and attacking the roots will go a long way to alleviating the problem.

I sit at the aid and development table purely on the scientific side. Disease is disease. In the aid world they call them diseases of poverty. The term “diseases of poverty” is a term far too glib for my liking. Yes, there are elements of poverty linked to many of these diseases, but for some diseases — people don’t get them because they are poor… they die from them because they are poor.

They go on to say “But if malaria can’t be eradicated and must instead be managed or contained, as many scientists believe, then four years and hundreds of millions of dollars may have gone towards answering the wrong research question.

Is there really such a thing as the wrong research question? No one was seriously talking about a Malaria vaccine before Gates cames along. There are benefits in striving for technological and purely scientific solutions to problems. Some of the drugs we’ve been using to tackle some of the deadliest diseases across the aid world have been used for the better part of a century. There was no development for better drugs and treatments. We can claim that reinventing the toilet is a step too far but some problems of the development world will require that magic bullet, that perfect vaccine, that one-a-day pill… that miracle drug.

Surely with all the problems, social and political, that come along with traditional aid efforts a purely technological/scientific approach is worthwile. Cut out the middle man and head straight to the problem.

7 billion…

As we get ready to say hello to the 7th billion person on earth (best estimates place that birth in India) we get reminded of what it actually means to be born into poverty.

Since 2009, 1 million more children have been added to the poverty list, and that is in the US alone. One in every four children under the age of 6 live in poverty.

Ever since the world’s population was at a mere 500 million, we have always asked if we have enough resources to cater for everyone. The last farming revolution allowed us to get to the 6 billion mark. More revolutions will come and go, famines will also come and go, populations in Europe will shrink, populations in Africa will grow. Most of us will live in cities and endless urban sprawls. Indeed, at the 7 billion mark, and beyond, we shall continue to strive for equality for all, food security for all, health and prosperity for all.

How different things would have been…

From a memo. As one of Richard Nixon’s speechwriters, Safire at the age of thirty-nine completed this statement on July 18, to be read by the president if the astronauts got stranded in space.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


The president should telephone each of the widows-to-be.

AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, at the point when NASA ends communications with the men:

A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Emilie du Châtelet…

This is a love story – a love story between a woman, her great mind, the man who treated her as an equal, and two souls that were seemingly made for each other.

Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil du Châtelet was born December 17th, 1706. She was the cream of the upper class. She was the daughter of Louis-Charles-Auguste le Tonnelier de Breteuil and Gabrielle Anne de Froulay. As a child she was given lessons in fencing, riding and gymnastics in an attempt to improve her less than graceful nature. Proper etiquette was taught to her at home, tutors provided a basic education, and Emilie’s father instructed her in Latin. In these times ladies were groomed as such. They were excluded from all realms of higher education. Women were fit but for one thing and one thing only: marriage.

What made her stand out from the crowd was the simple fact that Emilie was a genius. She had a high aptitude for languages, mathematics and the sciences. By the time she was twelve she could read, write, and speak fluent German, Latin, and Greek. She also liked to dance, was a passable performer on the spinet, sang opera, and was an amateur actress – she had more than average talent. And in these times she was considered smarter than the average woman – something that would haunt her for the rest of her life.

She married on 20th June 1725 to the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet, and thus became Marquise du Chastellet. But this was not the match made in heaven… that was to come much later. This was an arranged marriage of convenience. After the birth of their third child she deemed her marital responsibility complete. She would go on to have many lovers and affairs. But it was not until the spring of 1733 that she finally met her match – a man by the name of Voltaire. Voltaire was known throughout France as a playwright, a poet, and a writer for social reform. This man’s writing spoke out against war, religious intolerance, and political and social injustice. This was the meeting of two great minds. Together, Emilie and Voltaire studied and wrote, discussed and debated; determined to find the truth to all things: moral philosophy, history, natural science, and critical deism…

In the year of her death she completed the work regarded as her outstanding achievement: her translation into French, with her own commentary, of Newton’s celebrated Principia Mathematica, including her derivation from its principles of mechanics the notion of conservation of energy. To date this is still the standard translation of the work in French.

She was a great man who’s only failing was being a woman — as it was said during those times. Emilie Du Châtelet died at the tender age of 43 after giving birth.

“It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”


What had I twaught…

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