Monday, August 24, 2015

Intelligence, Spatial Ability, and Creativity


One of the goals of intelligence testing has been to help to identify those people who are likely to be productive in life and to give them access to resources that will allow them to maximize their potential.   

The danger with these intelligence tests, though, is that they do not perfectly predict what will happen to people in the future.  In his fascinating book, Ungifted, Scott Barry Kaufman provides both a personal story as well as data about the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence testing.  On the personal side, he had difficulties in school early on, and performed poorly on tests of intelligence, but he has published significant scientific work in the field of intelligence.  So, the tests were not a good predictor of his future success.  He is not alone.  Intelligence tests predict only a small part of what makes people successful.

Perhaps what is missing is other intelligence tests.  This question was explored in a paper in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and James Steiger.  

They examined data from a longitudinal study of participants who were first given the SAT as 13-year-olds in the 1970s.  The participants all scored in the highest one-half of one percent on either the math or verbal SAT.  Later, they were given other tests, including two tests of spatial reasoning ability.  One of these tests, (the Mechanical Reasoning portion of the Differential Aptitude Test explores people’s ability to reason about configurations of devices like gears and pulleys.  Another (the Spatial Reasoning portion of the DAT) looks at people’s ability to construct boxes and shapes from segments. 

The researchers examined whether the 563 individuals in this sample had published papers in research journals and had gotten patents for inventions.  Overall, 160 individuals from this sample had published journal articles or had a patent.  

A key finding from this research was that the combination of math and verbal SAT score could be used to predict which people in the same were likely to publish in research journals.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who published in science and technology journals tended to have higher Math SAT scores as children than those who published in Arts, Humanities and Social Science Journals.  Those who published in journals tended to have higher verbal SAT scores as children than those who just had patents.  

Overall, this analysis predicted about 11% of the difference among people in their types of publications.  

Spatial ability added to this prediction.  Those people who published in the sciences and who held patents had higher scores on the tests of spatial reasoning as children than those who published in arts and humanities journals or in biology and medical journals.  The addition of the spatial ability scores added the ability to predict an additional 7% of the differences among people.

How should these results be interpreted?

On the one hand, it is clear that extraordinary intelligence scores obtained as children do have some influence on later performance.  Over 25% of the people in this sample ultimately published papers in research journals or had patents.  That is a higher percentage than you would expect in the population of the United States at large.

At the same time, that means that most of the people in this sample did not publish or have patents.  In addition, though SAT scores and spatial ability scores help to predict the fields people will enter to some degree, most of the differences among people involve factors beyond these tests of ability.

Ultimately, tests of intelligence or ability are a relatively small predictor of people’s success.  As I discuss in Smart Thinking, raw ability is useless on its own.  Success is built on a basis of hard work acquiring an area of expertise and honing that knowledge to use it to solve new and interesting problems.  Intelligence may make it a little easier to acquire that knowledge and to use it, but it does not substitute for years of hard work.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Does Cognition Get Worse With Age?


We all know that cognitive ability gets worse as we age.  Even healthy older adults think more slowly and remember less than healthy young adults.  The declines are slow and steady, though clearly not debilitating.  Many older adults continue to make important and productive contributions to their fields into their 70s and 80s and beyond.

An interesting question about the performance of older adults is whether the declines reflect that older adults are just worse than younger adults on a day-to-day basis or whether older adults are more variable.  That is, do older adults have more extreme good days and bad days than younger adults?

This issue was explored in a paper by Florian Schmiedek, Martin Lovden, and Ulman Lindenberger in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  They analyzed data from a long-term study of Germany younger adults (on average 25 years old) and older adults (on average 71 years old).  Each participant completed roughly 100 sessions of a battery of cognitive tasks measuring memory skills, perceptual ability, and working memory capacity.  (Working memory is the ability to hold onto information in the moment to use it during thinking.)  Overall, participants performed 9 tests in each session.

Participants did this battery of tests at least twice a day during the study period, so that it was possible to disentangle variability in performance that was just a result of different times of day and variability in performance that was due to having good days and bad days.

Overall, the older adults performed less well on the variety of cognitive tests than the younger adults.  Interestingly, the older adults were more consistent in their performance over time than the younger adults.  The older adults showed less variability across all of the different tasks both from one time of day to another and from one day to the next than the younger adults.
This finding helps to explain why declines in cognitive performance with age are not 
debilitating to older adults.  Even though older adults do get worse overall, their performance stays within a narrow range from day-to-day.  Generally speaking, older adults do not have rapid swings from really good days on which they perform exceptionally well to really bad days on which they fall apart.  This low level of variability helps older adults to maintain reasonable performance each day.

Indeed, one of the signs of significant declines in aging associated with senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is that there is a lot of daily variability in performance.  The rapid daily changes associated with these disorders cause real problems for patients.  They also serve as a warning sign for people who are on the lookout for cognitive problems in themselves or aging relatives.

Friday, August 14, 2015

When Does Choosing a Treatment Matter?


In the United States, many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) is the law of the land.  Opponents of the law have been concerned that it will ultimately reduce some people’s options for the care that they receive, even as it increases the number of people who are insured overall.  
The long-term implications of this law for health care are not at all clear, but there is an interesting question about the role of options in health care.  Does it matter if people have a choice among a set of treatment options?
This question was explored in a paper in the October, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Andrew Geers, Jason Rose, Stephanie Fowler, Heather Rasinski, Jill Brown, and Suzanne Helfer.  They were interested in whether the option to choose a treatment would influence people’s perception of pain and discomfort.
In one study, participants came to a lab set up to look like a medical testing facility.  Prior to the experiment, the participants had filled out a questionnaire measuring how much they like to have control over situations in their lives.  When they arrived at the experiment, they were told that they would be placing a hand in very cold water.  Then, they were shown two jars of creams.  One group was told that these creams were two different kinds of protection against the cold.  One cream was described as warming the hand to protect like a glove, while the other was described as blocking pain receptors.  A second group was told that the creams were different kinds of cleansers, one of which was organic and the other of which was made in the United States.  Half of the people in each group were allowed to choose which cream they wanted to have applied, while the other had a cream selected for them by the experimenter.  Then, they put their hand in the water for over a minute and then rated their discomfort.
The people who had no choice over the cream they got experienced slightly less pain when they were told the cream was a protector than when they were told it was a cleanser.  This finding is a classic placebo effect.  People who had a choice showed a different pattern. When people had a choice and like to have control over their lives, then they showed a large placebo effect.  Choosing a protecting cream led them to feel much less pain than choosing a cleansing cream.  People who do not desire control over their lives showed no difference in their perceived pain regardless of whether they were offered a choice between protecting creams and cleansing creams.
So, the placebo effect was most powerful for those people who desire control and were given a choice.
This finding was repeated in a second experiment involving a choice of colors that some people were told are soothing, where the pain was a loud noise.  In addition, a third experiment found that the desire for control could be manipulated by having people imagine situations in which they did not have control and wanted it or had control when they didn’t want it.  The same pattern was observed in both of these studies.  When people had a high desire for control, then choosing a treatment led to large placebo effects.  When they had a low desire for control, then choosing a treatment removed the placebo effect.
What does all of this mean?
Placebo effects are extremely powerful, particularly for pain relief.  So, it is valuable to know when the largest placebo effects will be observed.
Choice of treatments can be good, but it depends on how much people like to have control.  Those people who (either because of their personality or the situation) like to have control over their lives should be able to choose their treatments.  Those people who do not like to have control over their lives should have their treatments chosen for them. 
Finally, it is important to recognize that this study involved only placebos.  There were no active ingredients in any of the treatments given in this study.  It is not entirely clear what will happen when the treatments also involve actual drugs.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why Do People Engage in Extreme Rituals?


It is pledge season at fraternities and sororities all over the US.  New initiates into these groups spend a chunk of their first semester engaging in all kinds of activities from the mundane (wearing an article of clothing to distinguish them from other members of the group) to the extreme.  Occasionally, stories of hazing rituals make the news when a student is injured. 

Fraternities and Sororities are hardly the only groups in the world that engage in extreme rituals.  Anthropologists have documented all kind of practices from a variety of cultures that can be hard to understand for outside observers.

Clearly, these rituals have to serve some function.  The speculation is that the most extreme rituals create some kind of social bonding among the individuals who participate in them as well as those who observe them.  A fascinating paper by Dimitris Xygalatas and several co-authors in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science presents a field study that provides some data to back up this proposal.

This study was done in Mauritius.  The people there have a number of cultural identities including their religious identity as Hindu and their national identity of being Mauritian. 

The researchers studied two rituals surrounding the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.  One ritual involved a period of group singing and prayer.  The second ritual was more extreme.  In this ritual participants were given several piercings on their body, they had to carry heavy objects, drag a cart attached to their skin with hooks, and had to climb a mountain barefoot.  In this second ritual, some people perform the ritual, while others observe it and walk alongside the performers.

Participants were tested either right after the prayer ritual or right after the extreme ritual. All participants would ultimately participate in both rituals in some way, so the results do not reflect that different types of people do the prayer and extreme rituals.  The participants were given questions about their identity to determine whether they identified more as Hindu or more as Mauritian in that moment.  Those involved in the extreme ritual as performers rated their level of pain.  Those involved in the extreme ritual as observers rated the level of pain they perceived in others.

Finally, at the end of the study, participants were given an envelope with money (200 rupees, which is a lot of money for these participants).  They were allowed to keep that money, but were also given the opportunity to donate that money to the temple.  The donations were made in a private room where the participants were not being observed, but the experimenters had a way to track the amount of money given by each participant.

 The people who performed the extreme ritual identified most strongly as Mauritian rather than Hindu.  Those who were tested after the prayer ritual also identified as Mauritian, but much less strongly than those who performed the extreme ritual.  Those tested after observing the extreme ritual came out in between in their identity.

The participants who engaged in the extreme ritual as performers or as observers donated significantly more money to the temple than those who were tested after the prayer ritual.  The amount of money people gave following the extreme ritual was correlated with the level of pain they experienced or perceived in others.  The more pain, the more that they gave. 

This work suggests that extreme rituals have two important influences on communities.  First, they increase people’s identity with the group, particular at the time that those rituals are being performed.  Second, they make people more likely to sacrifice their own personal resources for the group.  Participants were paid a lot of money in this study, and yet those who had just performed the extreme ritual gave nearly all of it back to the temple.  These benefits are an important reason why cultures keep performing painful and potentially dangerous rituals. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Improve Your Success By Contrasting


A big problem in learning to achieve your goals is being selective in what you do.  As much as you might value keeping all of your options open, at some point you have to commit time and energy into particular goals in order to attain them. 

A key part of being selective is figuring out which goals to pursue and which ones to leave behind.  To make that decision, there are two criteria you can use.  One is to determine how important a particular goal is to you.  The second is to think about how achievable that goal is.  Ultimately, you want to put your effort into things that are important to you that you also believe you can achieve. 

In the past, I have written about the research of Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues.  Their research suggests that an important part of the process of selecting particular goals to achieve involves comparing the present to the future.  These comparisons highlight what has to be done in order to help you achieve your goals.  When people are forced to make these kinds of comparisons (rather than focusing selectively on the present or the future), they are more likely to commit to achievable goals and to take steps to reach them.

How common is it for people to make these comparisons?

Timur Sevincer and Gabriele Oettingen explore this question in an interesting paper in the September, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

First, they developed a scheme for analyzing what people write about their goals in order to tease out whether they were contrasting the present and the future.  To do that, they asked people to write about goals that were important to them.  Some people were asked to focus only on the present and how they were currently achieving the goal.  Some people were asked to focus only on the future.  A third group was asked to contrast the present with the future.  Looking at this writing, they were able to tease out the statements that referred to the present and the future.  People’s writing did indeed show evidence of these instructions.  Those who were asked to compare the present to the future wrote more about both the present and the future than those asked to focus selectively.  This initial study demonstrated that the researchers could identify who was contrasting the present to the future just from the way people write about their goals.

In a second study, over 300 participants in an internet study were asked to write about a goal that was important to them.  They were given no particular instructions on whether to focus on the present or the future or both.  People were later asked to rate whether they thought the goal was achievable.  Finally, a week later, people were asked a number of questions about how hard they worked that week to try to achieve the goal they wrote about.

In this study, 9% of people spontaneously contrasted the present and future.  The most common types of writing focused selectively on the present (36% of people) or the future (24%).  The remaining participants talked about their goals in a different way. 

Interestingly, the people who spontaneously contrasted the present with the future were most selective in their goal pursuit.  They were most likely to take actions to achieve their goals when they thought the goal was achievable and least likely to take actions when they thought the goal could not be achieved.  The people who wrote only about the present, only about the future, or used another strategy were less selective.  They put in about the same amount of effort on their goals regardless of how achievable they thought the goal to be. 

The researchers obtained a similar result using a laboratory study in which students first wrote about their goal to get into graduate school and then wrote sample personal statements for an application.  In this laboratory study, a somewhat higher percentage of people spontaneously contrasted present and future (27%).  The most common strategy in this study was to focus on the present (51%).  Only 3% of participants in this study focused selectively on the future.

What does this mean?

First, following previous work, it is clear that if you want to focus selectively on the goals that you believe you will be able to achieve, then you have to start by contrasting the present and the future.  Figure out what you are doing in the present.  Then, think about what you want the desired future to be and how you will feel if you achieve your goal.  Finally, determine what needs to be done to bring that desired future into being and elaborate on the obstacles that will get in the way of reaching your goal.  That strategy is the best path for success.

Second, despite the importance of this mental contrasting, it is not something that most people do spontaneously.  People are much more likely to focus selectively on what they are currently doing now or what they should be doing in the future rather than on comparing the present to the future.  Next time you are thinking about goal achievement, make an effort to contrast the present and the future to improve your chances of success.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Goal Conflict Helps You See Both Sides of an Issue


One of the most persistent findings in psychology is confirmation bias.  When we have a belief about something in the world, we tend to seek out information that will confirm that belief.  For example, if you meet a new person, and you believe that they are an extravert, you might focus on finding out information consistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy attending big parties and meeting new people) rather than information inconsistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy time alone or like to stick with the same close circle of friends). 

An interesting paper by Tali Kleiman and Ran Hassin in the September, 2013 issue of the Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology suggests that people might be more prone to consider two sides of an issue when they are experiencing a goal conflict. 

Goals drive our behavior. One thing that makes it difficult to achieve our goals, though, is that sometimes they conflict.  For example, a student might want to study in order to get a good grade on an upcoming exam, but might also want to go out with friends to have a good time.  When it is not possible to do both, the goals are in conflict. 

Kleiman and Hassin suggest that when goals conflict, it puts people in a mindset that forces them to consider two sides of issues, because resolving the goal conflict requires that people consider the strengths and weaknesses of the opportunities before them.  Interestingly, goals can conflict even when people are not consciously aware of the conflict.

To test this possibility, participants were brought to the lab to do what they were told were two unrelated studies.  First, they did a lexical decision task.  In this task, they see strings of letter and have to respond whether they form a word.  If they saw the letters BROGI, they would respond that it was not a word.  If they saw the letters PARTY, they would respond that it was a word.  One group saw words that referred to both an academic goal (like CLASS and STUDY) and a social goal (like PARTY and MOVIE).  This condition created an unconscious goal conflict.  A second group saw words that were not consistently related to any goals.

After doing this lexical decision task, participants were told that they could ask a series of questions to someone to find out whether he was an extravert.  They were given a list of 25 possible questions and were asked to pick 12. Ten of the questions would ask for information that would confirm that the person was an extravert.  Ten of the questions would ask for information that would suggest the person was an introvert.  The remaining questions were unrelated to extraversion. 

People in the control condition chose far more questions relating to extraversion than introversion.  The people who were given the goal conflict asked about the same number of extraversion and introversion questions.  This result suggests that people primed with a goal conflict were not influenced by confirmation bias as strongly as those given no goal conflict.

A second study primed people with words that were opposites rather than just goal conflict, and found that opposites still lead to a confirmation bias.  A third study found that when people were primed with two unrelated goals that do not conflict directly, they still exhibit confirmation bias.  Each of these studies also replicated the finding that goal conflict reduces confirmation bias.

Putting these results together, the motivational system influences both actions and thinking.  Clearly, having an active goal pushes you to act in ways that are consistent with the goal. An active goal also pushes people to think about information that is related to that goal.  But, when goals compete, it pushes people to think in ways that will help them to resolve conflicts.  Reducing confirmation bias is one way to help resolve those conflicts. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

You See What You Believe


The world can be chaotic.  Cars whiz by on the road. People walk past you.  There may be birds and planes flying overhead. Despite all of this potential confusion, you manage to make sense of most of what is happening around you.  The ability to comprehend the world reflects an interaction between the things you see around you and your beliefs about the world.

An interesting question is the degree to which your beliefs influence what you are seeing in the moment.  This question was explored by Christos Bechlivanidis and David Lagnado in a fascinating paper in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science. 

They created a simple computer-based environment in which basic shapes (like squares and rectangles) could move and influence each other.  By playing with the environment for a while, participants could learn how the various objects worked.  For example, when a green square collided with a barrier, it caused the red rectangle to become a star.  The blue square would only allow squares, but not other shapes to enter its borders.  So, in order to get the red rectangle inside the blue square, the green square had to collide with the barrier first. 

In one study, some participants were given a series of exercises in this computer environment so that they learned how the objects acted.  Eventually, they learned how to get the red rectangle inside the blue square.  A second group got no training.

Afterward, participants saw a video of the objects moving in the world.  In this video, the red rectangle entered the blue square about 100 milliseconds before the green square hit the platform.  The red rectangle turned into a star after the green square hit the platform.  All of this happened in the same spatial position, so that participants could see all of the objects without having to move their eyes.

The participants then described the order of events in the test video and gave information about why the events happened in that order.  Those who received no training generally saw the events happen in the order in which they happened in the video.  They recognized that the red rectangle turned into a square before the green square hit the platform and that the rectangle became a star after it entered the blue square.  When asked, they said that this was the order they saw the events.

The participants who received training were much more prone to describe the events in the order that fit with their training.  They reported that the green square hit the platform before the rectangle turned into a star, and that the rectangle turned into a star before it entered the blue square.  They were also likely to say that this ordering happened, because that reflects the way the environment works. 

At one level, it should not be surprising that we have to use a lot of conceptual knowledge to help us make sense of what happens in the world.  Causal relationships do not often change that quickly, and so it is valuable (most of the time) for our beliefs to influence our interpretation of what we see.

However, this influence of belief on behavior can be a problem in situations like eyewitness testimony.  It is well known that the reports of eyewitnesses are not that reliable.  If people perceive events in a way that is consistent with how they believe that the world works, then their reports of the order of events in a complex situation may be wrong.   Because groups of people are likely to share causal beliefs, even entire groups may see events in the wrong order, so having multiple witnesses who provide corroborating testimony about the order of events does not necessarily mean that the events happened in that order.