Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are ADHD drugs Smart Pills?

It is scary to contemplate, but I am in the middle of my 22nd year teaching at a university.  Students use lots of techniques to try to get an advantage in their studies.  Obviously, some students resort to real cheating by trying to steal exams or to copy successful papers from past semesters.  Others try more subtle means.  There are students who come to office hours after each exam trying to get back points they lost by arguing about why their answer is really correct.  Starting about 10 years ago, there was an uptick in rumors about students who were buying medications normally used to treat ADHD to use to help them study.

Two of the most prominently used prescribed medications for ADHD are the stimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) and amphetamine (Aderall).  Do these drugs make you smarter?

This question was addressed in a fascinating set of papers in the September, 2011 issue of Psychological Bulletin.  The issue begins with a broad review by Elizabeth Smith and Martha Farah and continues with a commentary by James Swanson, Timothy Wigal, and Nora Volkow and a second commentary by Glen Elliott and Mark Elliott.

Before starting this discussion, it is important to make a point made by all of the articles (and particularly the commentaries by Swanson Wigal and Volkow and by Elliott and Elliott).  These ADHD medications are Schedule II drugs.  It is illegal to take them without a prescription.  An important part of the reason why it is illegal to take them is that they are potentially addictive.  The haphazard way that people who try these drugs to improve their cognitive performance may actually increase the likelihood of addiction compared to the regular schedule of use by ADHD patients. 

Do ADHD stimulants make you smarter?  Smith and Farah looked at 45 published papers examining different kinds of cognitive tasks. 

You might think that these medications would help people with executive control.  Most people think of ADHD as a difficulty with controlling thought, and so perhaps ADHD medications help with control.  In fact, over half of the studies they found that examined aspects of control showed no effect of the medications at all compared to a placebo.  For example, people often have difficulty giving up a small reward now in order to get a larger reward in the future.  ADHD medications do not make people more likely to forgo the smaller reward in order to take the larger reward.  

So, where do ADHD medications have an effect?  The evidence that Smith and Farah review suggests that when people are given rote learning tasks, their performance is improved by ADHD stimulants.  A rote learning task is one in which people have to memorize the items on a list.  These effects are strongest when people learn the items on the list and have to remember them at least a day after learning.  This effect does seem to come from learning, because the participants do not need to be on a medication during the test in order to see the effect.

It is important to be clear that few studies have looked at memory for complex kinds of information that require real deep understanding of the material.  So, it is impossible to know whether ADHD stimulants are just helping with learning the sorts of random items that typically appear on memory tests or whether they would also help with the kinds of complex knowledge that must often be learned in high school and college classes. 

The other place where ADHD stimulants seem to have some effect is with what is called working memory.  Working memory is the amount of information that people can hold in mind at the same time.  About half of the studies Smith and Farah reviewed suggest that these medications have no effect on working memory, while the other half show small effects in which the medications improve performance.  This improvement is often seen most strongly in those people whose normal working memory capacity is the smallest. 

What does all this mean?

Any pill is a blunt instrument.  It has pervasive effects across the brain and body.  Being smart, though, is a more subtle interaction among regions of the brain.  So, it is hard to truly make yourself smarter with a pill.

In addition, understanding the effects that an ADHD stimulant may have depends on other characteristics of the person.  For example, Smith and Farah point to new studies being done that look at a specific gene that is responsible for breaking down the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.  These chemicals are neurotransmitters that affect the way neurons in the brain operate.  The effects of ADHD stimulants appear to be different depending on which version of this gene a person has. 

Remember, ADHD stimulants are strong medicines that have the potential to lead to addiction.  So, there are serious costs that come with the modest benefits that the pills might provide.

Finally, it is not clear that the benefits of ADHD medications truly are benefits.  The strongest effect of ADHD medications is that they seem to enhance learning of items from a list.  There are times, of course, where it is important to learn arbitrary kinds of information.  I remember taking a neuroscience exam in college for which I had to know the names and locations of many brain regions.  But, there are also lots of times where it is more important to know why something occurs rather than what happened.  It simply is not clear from the studies that have been done so far whether ADHD stimulants help with that kind of learning.  In some learning situations, it might be better to forget some of the specific details in order to remember the gist of what you have encountered.

In the end, it is important to be armed with facts when considering any kind of medication.  If you are seriously thinking about taking any kind of medication hoping that it will act as a smart pill, read the research yourself and make an informed decision.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Should you look back on the past with rose-colored glasses?

An old song says, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”  The advice in this song is simple.  Focus on the positive elements of your life.  Don’t dwell on negative things that have happened.  Is that the key to your future happiness?

A fascinating paper in the September, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Erin O’Mara, James McNulty, and Benjamin Karney suggests that it isn’t as simple as that.  They explore two key factors that affect whether you should think positively about negative experiences in the past.

The first factor is controllability.  Some negative things that happen to you are uncontrollable.  A car accident, serious illness, or loss of a loved one is generally uncontrollable.  There was nothing you could do about the event that happened, and you have little control whether something like that is likely to happen in the future.

Other negative things are more controllable.  If you have a friend who is mean to you, you can choose not to spend time with that friend again.  If your job causes you stress, you can choose to do things differently at work, or even to change jobs.

The second factor is the severity of the negative event.  Some events are very negative.  Losing a loved one or being abused by a romantic partner are highly negative events.  Other events are not that awful.  A flat tire on your car, or a miscommunication with your partner are negative, but not tragic.

The authors of the paper first review evidence on uncontrollable events, and suggest that there is good reason to think that having a positive attitude toward uncontrollable events in the past is a good thing.  Classic research by Shelley Taylor, for example, suggests that a patient with breast cancer will adjust better and suffer fewer symptoms of depression by being optimistic rather than by being pessimistic about her disease.

The studies in this paper were particularly interested in controllable events.  To explore this issue, the studies followed newlyweds for several years.  They started by interviewing new husbands and wives about negative experiences they were experiencing.  They also counted the number of symptoms of depression that the members of the couple experienced.

For each negative experience (which could range from a miscommunication to emotional abuse), the individual rated how serious they thought it was.  The interviewer also rated the seriousness of each event.  That allowed the researchers to calculate the difference between how severe a person considered an event to be and the severity as rated by a more objective rater.  That difference was a measure of how strongly the person was wearing rose-colored glasses for a past event.

The researchers then followed couples for several years.  In one study, they also interviewed the couples a second time 2 years after the initial interview to find out what kinds of negative events they were experiencing.

So, what happened?

People who thought positively about negative events that were not that severe generally showed a decrease in symptoms of depression over time.  So, people who did not get that upset about the small things in life (like miscommunications) tended to feel good about life over time.

People who thought positively about severe negative events, though, actually showed an increase in symptoms of depression over time.  The reason for this increase is that these negative events were controllable.  By minimizing the importance of things like emotional abuse, people opened themselves up to experience more of it in the future.  The continued presence of severe negative events in a person’s life led to more symptoms of depression.

What does this mean?

It is important to be realistic about the controllable but negative events in life.  You cannot find ways to eliminate the negative in life if you always accentuate the positive.  If you are experiencing stress or abuse at home or at work, then the first step to changing the situation is being realistic about how bad it is.  Then, you can work toward making your life better.

On the other hand, life has lots of little stresses.  It is easy to get caught up in the details of who is doing the most housework or the latest nasty thing said by your teenage child.  For those situations, put on your rose-colored glasses and smile your way through them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Test yourself to learn better

The school year is in full swing.  For students, school means learning and testing.  Most students believe that learning is the real reason that students are in school, and then they are tested to make sure that they learned what they were supposed to have learned. 

Because students believe that learning and testing are separate things, they often study inefficiently.  A favorite mode of studying is to sit down with a textbook and notes and to read over the chapter and class notes.  Once the material looks familiar, students assume they are done studying.

Growing evidence from a variety of researchers including Robert Bjork at UCLA and H.L. (Roddy) Roediger at Washington University suggests that one of the most effective ways to learn new material is to test yourself on it. 

Ideally, you start with some learning experience.  Perhaps you go to a lecture or read an article.  Then, rather than just looking over the material again some time later, actually give yourself a test.  Ask yourself questions about the material you are learning and try to formulate your own answer.  When you are tested on that material again later, your performance will be better than if you just looked the material over again and thought about it.

A paper by Vered Halamish and Robert Bjork in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition describes a number of the advantages of studying by testing yourself over traditional methods of studying.

The authors point out two key benefits of studying by testing.  First, the longer the delay between studying and testing, the bigger the advantage for studying by testing rather than traditional studying.  When the test happens immediately, then there is no big difference between the two types of studying.  When the test happens days or weeks later, though, there is a big difference between these conditions.

In addition, the harder the test, the bigger the advantage of studying by testing over studying in the traditional way.  If the test questions can be answered just by recognizing the correct answer, then there is less of a difference between the types of studying than if the test questions require the student to construct an answer.  That is, studying by testing has a bigger advantage over traditional testing for essay questions than for multiple choice tests. 

In order for studying by testing to be effective, though, it is important that you actually remember the information that you’re studying.  When you test yourself, you are asking yourself questions about the material.  (Many books even have sample questions you can use.)  The testing effect works because you successfully get to the information in memory, and that makes the memories stronger and easier to retrieve later.  

Another reason why studying by testing is effective is that it is always best to study in the way that you are going to be tested.  That is, the more that the study situation resembles the testing situation, the more likely you are to remember the information during the test. 

Putting this all together, then, when you have to learn something new, you must be active about it.  Don’t read new material passively or just listen to someone give a lecture.  Instead, after you are exposed to something, test yourself on it.  It takes some effort to succeed at a test you give yourself, but that effort will be rewarded down the line.

Finally, this works even if you’re not in school.  Whenever you are in a position where you have to learn something new, don’t just study it.  Test yourself. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender, anxiety, and purchases

Some kinds of purchases provoke anxiety.  Many men hate to shop for clothes.  In general, men do not keep up on the latest fashions and don’t really have a sense of what will look good.  Even men who do know about fashion may be concerned about buying clothes, just because they know there is a stereotype out there that men are fashion-challenged.  Similarly, there is a stereotype that women don’t know much about cars.  As a result, women often experience a similar kind of anxiety when car shopping.

A paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Kyoungmi Lee, Hakkyun Kim, and Kathleen Vohs explored this kind of stereotype-induced anxiety.

Their studies focused on women.  They reasoned that women might often feel anxiety when faced with choices involving science and math because of the widespread (if false) stereotype that women are worse at science and math than men.  They suggested that in cases in which women had to make choices of products involving math or science, they might minimize their anxiety by trying to work with a female salesperson.  Working with a female salesperson would minimize the importance of gender in the interaction and thus would reduce the overall anxiety.

To test this possibility, one study asked men and women to choose whether they would want to do business with a financial planning company.  Everyone saw an ad for a company.  Some people saw an ad with mathematical formulas in it, while others saw an ad with no formulas.  The formulas were expected to increase the importance of math for the decision, which was expected to increase anxiety about the choice for the women in the study.  Finally, the financial advisors depicted in the ad were either men or women.

Men in this study were equally likely to be interested in doing business with this company regardless of whether there was math in the ad or whether men or women were shown as financial advisors.  The women did not care about the gender of the advisors when there was no math in the ad, but were much more likely to want to do business with females than with males when there was math in the ad.  The women also expressed more anxiety when shown the ad with the math in it than when shown the ad with no math.

If it really is anxiety that is affecting women’s decisions, then it ought to be possible to get rid of women’s preferences for a female salesperson by reducing their anxiety in some way.  In another study, women participants were asked to imagine that they were visiting a car dealer.  In the scenario, they were greeted either by a male or female salesperson.  They were asked to rate how likely they would be to buy from that car dealer.  Consistent with the previous study, women who just read this scenario indicated that they were more likely to purchase from this dealer if they had a female salesperson than if they had a male salesperson.

As a clever way of trying to decrease anxiety, half of the participants were presented with these scenarios in a packet of papers that had been covered in a vanilla scent.  Previous research suggests that the scent of vanilla is effective at helping to reduce anxiety.  The women who read the scenarios while smelling vanilla liked the car dealers equally well regardless of whether they had a male or female salesperson.

When shopping gets stressful, it is clear that you will try to find a way to make it less stressful. It is important to be mindful of what kinds of shopping situations are stressful for you, though, because the ways that you reduce stress may not be the ones that allow you to make the best choices.  Often, you might be tempted to make stressful choices as quickly as possible, even though spending a bit more time might allow you to make a better choice.  In those cases, a pleasant scent or some deep breaths might help to reduce the anxiety that goes with some choices.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Your view of the future is shaped by the past

It seems easy to think about what you will be doing next week.  In general, your life next week feels like it will be a lot like your life is this week.  You will have the same friends, the same job, the same home.  Your distant future is a bit murkier.  It is hard to picture where you’ll be living, what you’ll be doing, and who you will be spending time with.
How do you envision your future?  This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of Memory and Cognition by Kathleen Arnold, Kathleen McDermott, and Karl Szpunar.
They start by pointing out that your ability to envision the future is strongly influenced by your memory for the past.  That is, you tend to use memories of past experiences to predict what your life will be life in the future.
It is easier to use your memories when the future you are predicting is close in time.  Chances are you have experienced many specific locations and events that are like the ones you will encounter next week.  As a result, you can do a good job of simulating what your life will be like next week.  It is harder to guess what memories from your past will be relevant for understanding your life in the distant future, and so it is harder to make specific predictions.
Indeed, in one study, people were asked to envision an event that was going to happen next week or in five years.  After thinking about this future event, people were asked whether it was set in a familiar location.  People were far more likely to set a predicted future event in a familiar location if they were thinking about the near future than if they were thinking about the distant future.
Another study demonstrated that it is possible to make more specific predictions for the future by imagining that future in a familiar place rather than an unfamiliar place.  For example, college students asked to envision an event happening five years from now in their current dorm room were able to make much more specific predictions about that event than those asked to envision an event happening at the Egyptian pyramids.
Why does this matter?
We use our ability to envision the future to help us make plans.  Our beliefs about what might happen in the future help us to plan for obstacles that will confront us.  A lot of good research on planning suggests that those people who prepare for failure are the ones best equipped to handle problems when they come up.
By setting your predictions for the future in a familiar landscape, you allow yourself to use your memories of the past to help you predict what might go wrong in the future.  If you are only able to think abstractly about the future, then you are much less likely to find specific problems that may arise.
Clearly, the future has ways of surprising us, and nobody can be completely prepared for what the future will bring.  But, it is important to recognize that the only way you can plan for the future is by drawing on your memories of the past. Envisioning your future in a specific location gives you the best chance of helping yourself succeed. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why do we like people who like the music we do?

When you’re at a party and you meet new people, you’d like to have some way to get to know about them quickly.  You can try to talk about sports with people, but not everyone follows sports.  You can try to talk about politics, but those conversations can get heated quickly.

Instead, people often ask others about music.  Finding out the music that someone else likes seems to give you a lot of information about them quickly.  A study by Peter Rentfrow, and Sam Gosling published in Psychological Science in 2006 found that college students getting to know each other over the internet are more likely to ask about music preferences than about all other categories of conversation topics combined.  This research also found that knowing someone’s music preferences allowed students to do a reasonable job of predicting some of the new person’s personality characteristics and values.  Personality characteristics are the basic dimensions of behavior along which people differ.  Values are beliefs and goals that influence how people approach the world.

On top of that, when we find out that someone shares our musical interests, that increases how much we like them.  This idea was explored in a paper by Diana Boer, Ronald Fischer, Micha Strack, Michael Bond, Eva Lo, and Jason Lam in the September, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

In one study, they asked fans of metal or hip-hop music to evaluate descriptions of people who either shared their musical taste, had a different music preference, or had no stated music preference.  The participants were asked how much they thought they would like this person.  They also rated how similar they thought this person was to them along a variety of personality characteristics and values.    

Unsurprisingly, people expressed that they liked a new person better when finding that they shared the same musical taste than when they did not.  The amount that someone felt that they would like the new person was based strongly on how much they thought the new person would share similar values rather than similar personality characteristics. 

This effect was also observed in a study of college roommates in Hong Kong.  In this study, college students who had been rooming together for a few months were asked about music preference, how much they liked each other, and a variety of questions about similarities in values.  Music preferences predicted similarities in values, which in turn predicted how much the roommates liked each other.

This research suggests that we often ask people about their musical preferences, because musical taste serves as an easy indicator of whether we are likely to be similar to new people in ways that will influence how much we like them. 

In the end, of course, we can’t know from this research whether music influences values or values influence the music people like (or both).  That is, people may generally spend time with others who share their values.  In these social settings, music is often shared, and the music you hear affects what music you like.  So, sharing values could cause music preference. 

But, the opposite could also be true.  Music expresses values.  Lyrics have social messages.  In this way, listening to particular musical styles could affect people’s values.  But, that is a topic for future research.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Group membership and commitment to goals

One of the local high schools has an interesting fundraising tradition for their marching band.  Each instrument section goes out as a group and “infests” someone’s yard with pink plastic flamingoes.  Then, they request a donation to clear up the infestation.  The kids get to bond while collecting funds for the band, and the sections engage in a friendly competition to see who can collect the most money.
 How does this kind of group identity influence people’s commitment to a goal like raising funds?
 This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Ayelet Fishbach, Marlone Henderson, and Minjung Koo.  They suggest that people’s commitment to a group affects commitment to a goal differently depending on how the goal is framed.   
 When people do not feel strongly that they are members of a group, then just being part of the group does not give them a sense that the goal is important.  Instead, they try to estimate how important the goal is to the other individuals.  The best way to do that is to see how much progress the group members have already made on the goal.  The more progress that has been made, the more strongly these people will commit to the goal.
 Those people who feel more strongly attached to the group have a commitment to the goal just because they are part of the group.  For them, they are interested in helping the group succeed, and so they are more motivated by seeing how far there is to go to reach the goal than by seeing how much progress has been made so far.
 In one study, college students were told that they were going to be assigned to a group that had to generate ideas for a project.  They were shown the group members who had already been selected and those members were either all from the same school as the participant, or they came from different schools.  Having students who came from the same school gave the participants a greater sense of belonging to the group. 
 Participants were told that the goal for the group was to generate at least 50 ideas for a marketing campaign.  Half of the participants were told that the group members who had gone so far had generated 24 ideas total.  The other half of the participants were told that after the initial group members had gone there were still 26 ideas left to be generated.  Then, they were asked to come up with ideas for the group.
 Consistent with the proposed influence of group membership on motivation, when the group consisted of students from many different schools, participants generated more ideas when the progress was framed in terms of the number of ideas already generated rather than the number of ideas yet to be generated.  When the group consisted of students from the same school, then participants generated more ideas when they were focused on the number of ideas yet to be generated rather than on the number of ideas generated so far.
 As another example, participants from a university in the Midwest read about wildfires in California.  The description either focused on California as being distant from the Midwest (saying Californians and referring to the victims using the pronouns “they” and “them”) or they focused on the group identity of Californians and Midwesterners as Americans (and using pronouns like “we”). 
 People who read the description using the pronouns “they” and “them” were more interested in giving money to help the victims of the wildfires if they were told how much money had been collected so far than if they were told how much remained in the goal to raise $10,000.  Those people who read the description using pronouns like “we” and focusing on common group membership were more interested in giving money if they were told about the amount that remained to be collected rather than the amount collected so far.
 These results demonstrate why it can be so difficult to figure out how to motivate group members.  The level of motivation that group members have for a goal depends both on how strongly each person identifies with the group and how people think about progress toward the goal.
 For the high school band, of course, everyone seems strongly committed to being a part of the group.  For them, then, it is probably best to focus on how much remains to be done to achieve their goal.