Thursday, December 20, 2012

The right kinds of resolutions

As we approach a new year, it is common for us to take stock of our lives and think about things that we’d like to do differently in the coming year.  Often, the resolutions we think about are negative resolutions.  That is, we have some behavior that we currently perform that we’d like to stop.  It might be quitting smoking, or eating less junk food, stopping drinking or drugs, or even cutting back on bad language.

Unfortunately, if we are thinking about these kinds of resolutions, it is probably not for the first time.  Mark Twain is supposed to have said that quitting smoking is one of the easiest things he ever did, he has done it thousands of times. 

There are many reasons why stopping these behaviors are difficult, and I have written about some of these difficulties in past entries.  Here, I want to focus on the form of the resolution itself.

I called these resolutions “negative resolutions” because they focus on a behavior to be stopped.  Often, this behavior is already a habit, and so it is strongly driven by the environment.  That is, parts of your environment already suggest the behavior to you.  Just drinking a cup of coffee may promote the desire to smoke.  Walking through the kitchen may increase the urge to eat.

In order to try to stop a behavior, you have to think about that behavior consciously.  That is, if you want to cut down on your eating, you must exert effort to think about what you are doing.  To watch yourself to make sure that you don’t eat too much.

Research by Peter Herman, Janet Polivy and their colleagues suggests that people who are actively trying to diet become “restrained eaters.”  Restrained eaters are people who are thinking about their diet and about restricting the amount of food they eat.  The problem with being a restrained eater is that it creates a paradox.  You want to stop eating, so you have to think about your eating behavior.  The more you think about eating, the more that concepts related to food and eating stay active.  As I have discussed in previous posts, when a concept is active, it is easier for people to perform actions relating to that concept. 

So, focusing on reducing your eating can actually make it harder for you to eat less.  The same is true for any negative resolution.  Thinking about not smoking or drinking or cursing will activate related concepts, which will make it easier to smoke, drink, or curse. 

In the end, the problem lies with the resolution itself.  You cannot replace something with nothing.  The habit system will still have connections between the environment and your behavior, and so it will continue to suggest the behavior you are trying to stop.  As a result, you will have to continue thinking about stopping the behavior. 

So, rather than making negative resolutions, make positive ones.  Do not resolve to stop smoking, resolve to start exercising.  If you really start an exercise program, your smoking will get in the way, and you will have a reason to stop.  Do not resolve to eat less, resolve to eat differently.  Cut red meat out of your diet, and start eating other foods.  With the number of really good meat substitutes on the market now, it is easy to replace high-fat foods with low-fat foods without sacrificing taste.

If you focus your energies on positive resolutions, then you will not suffer the paradox of negative resolutions.  If you start exercising, you will not be consciously thinking about smoking.  You will have removed one source of failure in your resolutions.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why do you close your eyes to remember?

Ask somebody a difficult question, and chances are they will either look up at the sky or close their eyes.  What is going on there? 

Quite a bit of the brain is taken up with understanding what is going on in our sensory world.  For example, if you clasp your hands behind your head, most of the area taken up by your hands reflects the amount of the brain that is devoted to making sense of the information coming in through your eyes.

Those same areas of the brain are also involved in visual recollections of things that you have seen in the past.  It makes sense that the brain would re-use areas devoted to vision to help in memory for visual information.

When your eyes are open, those areas of the brain that are involved in vision are getting input from the eyes, and this input keeps those areas busy.  Consequently, when you have to answer a difficult question or think about some visual memory from the past you either close your eyes or look upward to help you disengage from the world.  (Looking up helps, because the ceiling of the room or the sky are often much less visually interesting than what is happening at eye level and below.)

As an example exploring the influence of looking at the world on memory, there was a nice paper in the October, 2011 issue of Memory & Cognition by Annelies Vredeveldt, Graham Hitch, and Alan Baddeley.

In this study, people watched an 8-minute clip of a television show in which a character got shot, stitched up, and then engaged in a fight.  After a 5-minute delay, participants were then asked a number of questions about what they saw and heard in the clip. 

There were four groups of people in this study.  One group answered questions while looking at a blank computer screen that had been shut off.  A second group answered questions with their eyes closed.  A third group watched a computer screen as nonsense images were shown on it.  A fourth group stared at a blank screen, but heard words from an unfamiliar language being spoken as a distraction.

The group that stared at a blank screen and the one in which people closed their eyes answered more of the questions correctly overall than the ones that saw visual distractions or heard words in an unfamiliar language.  That finding suggests that people close their eyes in order to avoid any interesting visual input that would interfere with their ability to remember.

A particularly interesting finding of this study was that the group that saw the images had most difficulty answering questions about the show that asked about visual details.  The group that heard the foreign words had most difficulty answering questions about auditory details of the show. 

In the end, sensory distraction has both a general and a specific component.  Any kind of a distraction makes it harder for you to remember things to some degree.  In addition, having a visual distraction makes it particularly hard to remember visual details.  Having an auditory distraction makes it particularly hard to remember details of things that you heard.

So, the next time you are trying to remember something important, look up, close your eyes, and minimize distraction.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The upside and downside of envy

There are many unpleasant emotions.  We may feel anxious in stressful situations, sad when we do not achieve our goals, and envy when others have something that we want.  These negative emotions are often physically unpleasant.  It is really uncomfortable to be stressed, and it feels almost physically painful to be sad. 

It is important to remember that there have to be some benefits to having negative emotions.  In the short-term stress can create energy and focus to overcome a problem, though long-term stress is dangerous.  Sadness about failing to achieve goals often leads to rumination.  Thinking about what went wrong in a situation is often useful (at least for a little while) to help you succeed in the future.

What about envy?

An interesting paper in the October, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Sarah Hill, Danielle DelPriore, and Phillip Vaughan explored both positive and negative consequences of envy.

On the positive side, envy seems to create attention to people in the world who are the targets of envy.  In one study, participants either wrote about situations in which they experienced envy or they wrote about everyday situations that were unrelated to envy.  Later, they read newspaper articles about other college students.  The people who were primed with envy by writing about it spent more time reading the articles about other students and remembered more about the students than the people who were not primed with envy. 

Another study found that this increased attention and memory for people happens most for those people who provoke envy.  A third study ruled out the possibility that this result was based on other emotions like admiration for the person. 

So, the upside of envy is that it helps you to pay attention to people who have things that you want. 

What is the downside?

When you are experiencing envy, it seems to get in the way of doing other thinking.  There is quite a bit of research suggesting that stressful emotions can get in the way of thinking.  Envy is like stress in that it is a negative emotion.  Consistent with the research on stress, people who were experiencing envy spent less time than people who were not envious working to do a difficult task in which they had to unscramble letters to form words.

Putting this all together, then, envy is an emotion that may help you to get what you want in life by allowing you to focus on people who have things that you desire and to learn about those people.  The cost of this focus, though, is that it makes you worse at focusing on other types of thinking.  Finally, like anything else, too much envy is clearly a problem.  If you spend all of your time focusing on what other people have that you do not, you will not spend enough time doing what is necessary to get what you want out of life.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Infants and imitation

There is a pendulum that swings back and forth in the study of child development.  The work of Piaget generally assumed that infants have very little knowledge and react to the sights and sounds of the world as their movement abilities improve.  Gradually, children learn more complex concepts, and in the end adults have an impressive capacity to reason.
Starting in the 1980s, there was a challenge to this view.  Studies of young infants suggested that they have a much greater understanding of the world than Piaget proposed.  For example, studies by Renee Baillargeon and her colleagues suggested that infants as young as 5-months-old understood that objects that were hidden by a screen were still there.  These studies led to a flurry of research exploring infants’ abilities.
More recently, the pendulum has started to swing back.  The difficulty with doing studies with infants is that you can’t ask them specific questions, because their language abilities are just developing.  Instead, you have to find indirect ways to explore what they are thinking. Then, you have to interpret what infants’ must have been thinking in order to have acted that way.  It is easy to fall into the trap of rich interpretation, which you (as an adult) think about what would have made you act that way.  That can lead you to overestimate what infants know.
This pendulum can be seen in research on imitation in infants. 
Anyone who has been around an infant for any length of time can see their imitation skills in action.  I have a great picture of my brother holding one of my kids who was about 5-months old.  Both of them are sticking their tongue out at the camera.  This picture was the result of an hour in which my brother stuck his tongue out, and then my son stuck his tongue out in response. 
How does this imitation happen?
One theory, which falls in the “infants don’t know that much” camp, assumes that imitation is based mostly on the way that infants represent movements.  This theory suggests that the way that people understand the movements of other people is based in part on using the parts of the brain that are associated with making movements.  In essence, when we watch someone else performing an action, our own movement system is engaged in simulating what the other person is doing.  Infants imitate, because this activity of the movement system prepares them to make the same movements they just observed.
A second theory, which is more in the “infants know a lot” camp, assumes that infants are trying to figure out what the person they are imitating was trying to do.  This view suggests that infants are constantly reasoning about why people do what they do, and then they imitate what someone intended rather than what they actually did. 
The view that infants are imitating the goals of someone else got support from a 2002 study in the journal Nature by Gyorgy Gergely, Harold Bekkering, and Ildiko Kiraly.  They had an adult sit in front of a box with a light on the top.  The light could be turned on by pressing on it.  The adult sat across from a 14-month-old infant (who was sitting on a parent’s lap).  In one condition, the adult had her hands on the table, and then bent over and pressed the light with her forehead to turn it on.  In the other condition, the adult was wrapped in a blanket so that her hands were not available to use, and she bent over and pressed the light with her forehead.  After watching the experimenter, the infant was allowed to play with the lamp.

The idea here was that if infants just imitate actions, then they should press the light with their forehead in both conditions of the study.  However, if infants are reasoning about what the adult is trying to do, then when the adult’s hands were under the blanket, infants should realize that the adult just wanted to turn the light on and used her head because her hands were not free to use.  Consistent with the idea that children were reasoning about goals, the infants were much more likely to touch their head to the light when the adult had her hands on the table (so that she clearly chose to use her head) than when the adult had her hands under the blanket.

A study in the July 2011 issue of the journal Child Development by Markus Paulus, Sabine Hunnius, Marlies Vissers, and Harold Bekkering suggests that children might not have been reasoning about the goal of the adult after all.

These researchers note that for infants to use their head to turn on the lamp, they have to put their hands on the table to steady themselves, because their stomach muscles are not strong enough to hold them up when leaning over without support.  That action is quite similar to the one the experimenter makes when putting her hands visibly on the table in the original study. 

To see whether children are focusing on actions they are able to perform, these researchers added three
more conditions to the study I just described (in addition to the conditions in which the adult had her hands on the table and the one where her hands were trapped under a blanket). 

In one condition, the adult had her hands under a blanket, but the blanket had an obvious button that was holding it closed so that the adult could easily use her hands if she wanted to.  If the infants are just reasoning about the adults’ goal, then they should use their heads to press the button, because the adult clearly chose to use her head.  However, if it was important that the adult had her hands on the table, then the infants would not use their head in this case.  In fact, infants rarely used their head to turn on the light when the adult had her hands under the blanket with the button holding it closed.

In another condition, the adult had her hands in the air and then bent over and pressed the button with her head.  Again, children reasoning about the adult’s goals should use their heads, because the adult clearly chose to use her head rather than her hands.  However, children can’t lean over with their hands in the air, so if they just wanted to imitate an action, they wouldn’t use their head in this case (because they would fall over).  Once again, infants rarely used their heads.

In the third condition, the adult started the task by playing with two foam balls.  Then, she held one ball in each hand and put her hands on the table while holding the balls and bent over and touched the light with her head.  Children reasoning about goals should not use their heads in this case, because they should see that the adult’s hands were occupied holding the balls and so she used her forehead out of convenience.  Children who are imitating an action they can perform should use their heads, though, because the adult had her hands on the table, and if the infants put their hand on the table, they could support themselves as they bent over.  In this condition, the infants often pressed he light with their head.

Putting all of this together, then, it looks like the pendulum has swung back toward a focus on the influence of movement ability on imitation.  Early on, infants are trying to imitate actions they can perform themselves.  These findings are quite consistent with a lot of research about the way that adults think about actions.  Generally speaking, even adults understand actions by thinking about how we could perform them ourselves.  It is just a short step from that understanding to doing the same thing.    In that way, infants may not be that different from adults.  Perhaps we’re guilty of rich interpretation of adult performance as well.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Choice and power are both means of controlling our lives

Control is an important aspect of our psychological well-being.  Many of the most frustrating situations in life involve cases where events are happening around you, and you have no say in how they turn out.  Patients suffering from significant illnesses must come to grips with the lack of control they have over their disease.  Low-level employees in a business may be frustrated by their inability to control their work day. 

An interesting paper in the August, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Ena Inesi, Simona Botti, David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky examines two sources of control in our lives:  choice and power.  They suggest that the motive for control is so important in our lives that choice and power can substitute for each other.

Their logic is straightforward.  If the goal that is important to people is control, then in situations in which people do not have power, they should seek situations that give them more choices.  In situations in which people have limited choices, they should seek power.

The authors test this possibility in a series of studies.

In one study, participants read about being the boss or being an employee and had to imagine how they would feel and what they would do in this role.  This task creates a reliable difference between people in how much power they perceive that they have.

Then, participants were told about two stores selling eyeglasses.  One store was close by, and had a choice of 3 pairs of glasses.  The other store was further away, and had a choice of 15 pairs of glasses.  When people were asked how much further they would be willing to drive to get the larger assortment, people who were made to feel that they had low power were willing to drive 10 miles on average to get to the store.  People who were made to feel that they had high power were willing to drive only about 6 miles. 

Another study demonstrated the opposite effect.  In this case, people first read a scenario in which they had to make a choice about a consumer product.  The choice involved either 3 options or 15 options.  In this case, the smaller set made people feel like they had less control over their choice than the larger set.

Next people evaluated the features of jobs they might take on. Some characteristics were those associated with being the boss.  Others were associated with job enjoyment, but were not related to power.  People’s ratings of the features related to job enjoyment were not affected by which choice set they encountered.  But, people rated the features associated with being the boss as more attractive after making a choice from a small set than after making a choice from a large set.

Finally, a third set of studies manipulated both people’s feeling of the degree of choice they had as well as the amount of power they had.  Of importance, people acted similarly when they had either high power or lots of choice as they did when they had both high power and lots of choice.  As long as people felt that they had control in some way, that was enough.

Putting all of this together, we all want some kind of control in our lives.  When our control in one area is restricted, we look for another outlet.  That means that it is worth spending some time thinking about the areas of your life in which you can exert some control.  Perhaps you have a creative outlet in which you feel that you have mastery.  One reason why these kinds of creative outlets are therapeutic is that they provide you with an arena in which you have control that you can use as a refuge when other elements of your life feel out of your control.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Infants don’t see fast changes

Most of what I write about in this blog focuses on motivation, action, and choice in adults.  Every once in a while, though, I come across a study that I just think is cool, and I write about that.  This is one of those times.

A paper by Faraz Farzin, Susan Rivera, and David Whitney in the August, 2011 issue of Psychological Science addresses a question I would never have thought to ask.  How quickly can infants notice changes in the world?

We live in a world in which we often need to notice the way things are changing.  If you are driving down the street and a squirrel suddenly runs into the road, you need to see it in time to apply the brakes.  If you are playing a sport, you need to be able to see where other players have moved, find the ball, or observe a play develop.

Studies with adults show that most people can detect differences that occur in about a tenth of a second.  One way to study this is to have adults look at a screen with four squares on it.  The squares are set to flicker between black and white.  Three of the squares are in phase.  That is, they change from black to white and back at the same time.  The fourth is out of phase.  When the others are black it is white and when the others are white it is black.  Over the course of an experiment, the squares are set to flicker at different rates, and the question is when can adults detect which square is not in phase with the others.  When the rate of change is less than 10 Hertz (one change every 10th of a second) adults can do this reliably.  When the squares flicker faster than that, adults can’t figure out which square is changing differently from the others.

The authors of this paper used the same technique with infants ranging in age from 6 months to 15 months.  With infants, of course, you can’t ask them what is changing.  However, infants have a tendency to look at things that are different in a display.  So, you can focus on what infants are looking at to see if they reliably start to look at the square that is changing out of phase with the others.

Infants are terrible at this task at the speeds where adults do well.  In fact, up to about 2 Hertz (two changes a second) infants up to 15-month-olds don’t seem to distinguish between the squares that are in phase and the one that is out of phase.  At 1 Hertz (one change per second), though, the older infants do well.  At one change ever 2 seconds, infants as young as 6-months look longer at the square that is out of phase compared to the ones that change together.

A control study suggests that kids are able to see flickers at high speeds just as adults do.  So, the problem isn’t that infants are not able to see that something is flickering between black and white. So, the infants are able to see that something is changing, but not able to detect what is changing and exactly when that change is occurring.

There isn’t really a valuable life lesson here.  Infants live in a world in which the changes they can pay attention to are the ones that happen more slowly.  That is probably useful for infants who are just learning about how the world works.  Many of the most important things that infants need to learn about are the ones that are a constant presence in their world.  People and objects that are always present are the ones that infants have to focus on to learn how language works and what kinds of activities other people perform.

Infants only need to be able to detect really fast changes in the world at the time that they are moving around on their own well enough to have to deal with rapidly changing situations.  It seems that the infant visual system is set up to give infants the kinds of information that is likely to be useful for them to develop.