Thursday, January 30, 2014

What does the brain reveal about you?

As a cognitive scientist, I like the brain.  Over the years, the field has learned a lot from the study of brain damage as well as from brain imaging of normally functioning brains.  For example, the surgery on the famous patient HM that removed the hippocampus from both sides of our brain taught us a lot about the influence of that brain structure on our ability to learn new things as well as the kinds of learning that can be done without awareness. 

Like a number of my colleagues, I have been concerned about the growing desire to capitalize on our understanding of the brain for financial gain.  Over the past several years, neuromarketing firms have cropped up that aim to use brain imaging to help companies do a better job of understanding their consumers.  Neural approaches to lie detection aim to help us get directly at the source of lies to determine who is telling the truth.

These concerns are laid out in the book Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld.  I think these authors make some nice points, though the book itself is not as effective as it could have been.  My concern is that anyone who is not already well-versed in brain imaging research will have a hard time following the specifics of the arguments they make. 

That said, I think it is worthwhile saying a few words about why the current advances in neuroscience are not easy to translate into broad practical applications.  There are three broad problems.  First, the technologies we use to image the brain have limitations that limit their practical application.  Second, our understanding of psychology limits what we can learn from the brain.  Third, our theories of neuroscience are not advanced enough to create broad practical applications.

Limitations of Imaging.  It is absolutely amazing that we are able to get a view into what brains are doing while they are doing it.  Using EEG, we can measure electrical activity that comes through the scalp.  It is hard to know where that activity comes from, but we can measure it with a high level of precision in time.  Functional MRI examines changes in blood flow to regions of the brain.  This technique allows us to measure where these changes are happening, though the changes happen over a period of seconds, which is an eternity in the brain. 

Not only do these techniques have limitations in what they can measure, they are very noisy.  That is, there is a lot of variability in the data, so it takes a lot of observations in order to separate the valuable signal from all of this variability.

Practically speaking, then, these brain imaging techniques are not like an x-ray.  If you get injured, you take one picture (or perhaps a couple), and you can see whether a bone is broken.  With brain imaging, you may need to take 30 observations or more before you have some sense of what is happening in a person’s brain. 

Think about what this means for using brain imaging to understand what is happening in a person’s brain.  Consider lie detection.  What we want to know is whether a person is lying if we ask them a question (or perhaps 2 or 3).  If we have to ask the same question 30 or more times in order to be able to get a reading, then there is a good chance that person is adopting some other strategy that is different from what they would do when answering a question.

This is only one example, but it is important to realize that the technologies that we use to measure brains limit what we can tell about individual people from the results of these techniques.

Limitations of Psychology.  The psychologist and skeptic William Uttal wrote a great book in 2001 called The New Phrenology, in which he explored limitations in brain imaging techniques.  Phrenology is a 19th century theory that specific regions of the brain are specialized for particular functions and that the size of those regions determined people’s behavior.  The phrenologists used bumps on the head as a brain imaging technique.  The larger the bumps, the larger the region of the brain beneath. 

As Uttal points out, the problem with phrenology was not so much the assumption that the brain has regions that are specialized for different functions.  The brain does have distinct circuits in it.  One big problem with phrenology was the labels.  The phrenologists would like for brain areas that were associated with high-level concepts like gratitude or caution.  Based on our modern view of psychology, those labels seem quaint.

But, modern psychology has not completely cracked the code for behavior either.  We use terms like attention, memory, and even lying, but these behaviors all reflect many different psychological processes.  Hal Pashler’s classic book on attention, for example, makes clear that the term attention refers to many different things, and that we are just beginning to understand all of them.

Until we have a well worked-out theory of the psychology of areas like consumer behavior and lying, it will not be possible to develop brain imaging techniques that will give insight into specific aspects of people’s behavior.  The reason is that there is a temptation to look for a single neural signature related to particular aspects of behavior, even though a particular behavior may arise from many different underlying sources.  In their book, Satel and Lilienfeld point out that there are many different things someone might be doing when they are lying, so there is no reason to believe that all of them would lead to a clear pattern of brain activity.

Limitations of neuroscience.  A final hurdle to using neuroscience in practical applications is limitations in our understanding of what the brain is doing.  Obviously, neuroscience is a young field, and there is still a lot for us to learn.  But, there are still some fundamental questions that remain to be answered.

One key question surrounds the organization of the brain across different people for high-level thinking.  We know from studies of humans and other animals that there is a fair amount of similarity in the organization of the brain across individuals for functions like vision and hearing.  That makes sense.  We all grow up in a similar visual environment, for example.  The physics of light have not changed in billions of years, and so neural systems have been able to adapt to the way light bounces off surfaces on earth. 

When it comes to high-level reasoning, though, it is much less clear that different people’s brains have to act in the same way.  Even though we all form similar categories, we have very different experiences to create those categories.  We all learn similar reasoning skills through our years of education, but that does not mean that every person’s brain organized itself in the same way to serve those functions.  Until we resolve that question, it is hard to know how well we will be able to predict people’s behavior from what their brains are doing.

All this is to say that it is worth having a healthy skepticism for anyone who wants to sell you something that purports to predict what people are doing from some measure of their brains.  That said, the next decades are going to reveal a lot more about brain and behavior.  It is a great time to be in the field.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Do You Overearn?

In the 1980s, there was a bumper sticker that made the rounds that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  That phrase always made me pause.  On the one hand, toys are fun, and so if you work hard to accumulate lots of fun things to do and to enjoy, then perhaps that is true.  But, what if you die with a lot of toys that you never play with?  Is it possible to get so caught up in accumulating stuff that you work too much and play too little?

It is hard to answer that question in the real world.  Many people (like me) enjoy their jobs, and so work is part of what makes life fulfilling.  There is also uncertainty about the future, so making money when you can allows you to handle unexpected negative events that may happen.  Finally, because we can pass along any wealth we don’t use to our loved ones (or to our favorite charities), someone will get a benefit from our hard work, even if we don’t.  And that can create some incentive to keep working.

Still, it is an interesting question that was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Christopher Hsee, Jiao Zhang, Cindy Cai, and Shirley Zhang.  They created a laboratory analog to overearning to see whether people would mindlessly earn what they could regardless of what they were able to enjoy later.

The first study in this paper had two parts.  In Phase 1, participants listened to pleasant classical music for 5 minutes.  They could press a button to interrupt the music with 200 milliseconds of unpleasant noise.  Every 20 times that they pressed the button, they would receive a bite-sized candy bar.  In Phase 2, they listened to another five-minutes of music, and they could eat as many of the candy bars that they earned as they wanted.  They were told at the beginning that any candy they earned but did not eat had to be left behind.  A second group of participants did exactly the same study, except that they had to put in more effort to get each candy.  They had to press the noise button 120 times for each candy bar.

Unsurprisingly, the people who had to put in more effort earned fewer candy bars overall than those who had to put in less effort.  After all, the first phase of the study only lasted 5 minutes.  The people who had to press the noise button 120 times to get each candy bar only earned about 2.5 candy bars on average, and in Phase 2 they ate most of the candy they earned.  The surprising result was that the people who had to put in only a little effort ended up earning about twice as many candy bars as they actually consumed. So, they listened to about twice as much noise as they had to.  In short—they overearned.   

This overearning seems to reflect a lack of planning.  In a second study, some participants were asked to predict how much they would want at the start of the study.  (The prize in this study was jokes rather than candy, but the basic design was similar.)  People who could predict how much they would want made pretty good predictions, and they stopped listening to noise as soon as they earned wha they wanted.  Those who did not make a prediction in advance overearned.  They earned more jokes than they could listen to later.  Finally, all participants rated how happy they were during the first phase of the study.  Those who made predictions in advance were happier than those who did not.

In a third study, participants had to press a noise bar 10 times for each candy.  One group could earn as many candies as they wanted.  A second group was limited to earning as maximum of 12 candies.  The group that could earn as many as they wanted ultimately earned about 14 candies each.  They only ate about 5 candies apiece, and so they overearned.  The group that was limited earned only 10 candies apiece and ate about 6 of them.  So, they overearned a bit, but not as much as the unlimited group.  The group that was limited rated themselves as happier overall in each phase of the study than those who were not limited.  Presumably, they were happier both because they got to listen to more of the music in the first phase, and they felt like they wasted fewer candies in the second phase.

Obviously, this result is far removed from the real world.  But, it does have some interesting life implications.  It is possible that many of us spend too much time at jobs we don’t like just to earn toys that we never get to use.  It is worth being more strategic about what we want and what we need to do to get it rather than just mindlessly earning without thinking about what we need those earnings for.  At a minimum, we should stop every once in a while to play.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What does it mean to be happy?

Happiness is almost a national obsession these days.  The self-help shelves of bookstores are filled with entries that promise to help you find or achieve happiness.  The field of positive psychology has highlighted the importance of subjective well-being, which is the general sense people have of their good feelings and life satisfaction.  Businesses are focused on the idea that happy employees are productive employees and that the goal of most businesses is to surprise and delight consumers.

In this context, we rarely think about what the word happy really means.  If you are a native speaker of English, then you probably assume that you know what it means to be happy.  You probably also assume that people around the world share a similar idea of what it means to be happy (though they may differ in what makes them happy).  Finally, you probably believe that the general concept of happiness has been similar for humans for eons (though, again, the particular things that might have made people happy a few thousand years ago are not the same as the things that make people happy now).

A fascinating paper by Shigehiro Oishi, Jesse Graham, Selin Kesebir, and Iolanda Costa Galinha in the May, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores what it means to be happy both across cultures/languages and over time within the United States. 

This work demonstrates that there are big differences across cultures in what the term happiness means.  There has also been a drift in the meaning of happiness for Americans over the past 200 years.

To explore the meaning of the term happy, the researchers collected the term (or sometimes terms) for happiness that are used in 30 different countries.  Many of these countries represented different languages (French in France, Chinese in China), but there were several countries in which there was a common language (English is spoken in both Australia and the United States; Spanish is spoken in Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain).  They got these terms from informants who provided the best word (or words) used to describe the concept of happiness.  The researchers also provided their sense of the most authoritative dictionary in that country.

Research assistants than explored aspects of the meaning of the words for happiness across languages. 

A striking observation is that in 24 of the 30 countries, there was a strong element of luck associated with the meaning of the term happiness.  In English used in the United States, there is minor use of the term to mean luck (“That was a happy accident.”), but generally happiness in the US refers to an individual emotional state.  Other countries also had a component of the meaning of happiness that referred to the positive emotional state. 

Another interesting observation from this analysis was that the further countries are from the equator, the more that the luck aspect of happiness emerges.  The authors speculate that in colder climates, the environmental conditions play a bigger role in success and well-being than in milder climates.

Two other analyses examined changes in the use of the term happy in English over the past few hundred years.  One analyses demonstrated that the use of the words happy and happiness in State of the Union addresses by US presidents has declined over the years.  In addition, there has been a shift.  In the 1800s, when Presidents talked about happiness, they were referring to luck and prosperity.  By the mid-to-late 1900s, though when Presidents talked about happiness, they were referring to the positive emotion of satisfaction.

A second analysis looked at how often books in the United States talked about a happy nation versus a happy person.  That is, if happiness is a circumstance associated with luck and prosperity, then we should talk about it in reference to groups like the country.  If happiness is an internal emotional state, then we should talk about it related mostly to people.

To explore this question, the researchers searched for the phrases happy nation and happy person in the books in English books published in the United States in the Google digital database between 1800 and 2008. 

In 1800, people were much more likely to talk about a happy nation than a happy person.  The number of references to a happy nation decreased steadily throughout the 1800s, and by 1900, it was relatively rare.  Starting in about 1925, there was an uptick in the use of the term happy person.

There are two interesting aspects to these data analyses.  First, there has been a shift in the US from a focus on happiness as a state that is caused from the outside through luck and prosperity to an internal emotional state that is under the control of the person.  Second, the view that happiness involves strong elements of external forces like luck is still common around the world, even if it is not common in the United States.

This issue is important, because much of the scientific world uses English as the basis for describing key psychological states and processes.  If English is a little quirky in the way that it uses one of these terms, that can have a profound influence on what science believes it should be studying.

Finally, even if you are not a scientist, it is important to realize that there are many components to happiness.  If you are feeling sad, then you may be prone to focus on what is wrong with you that makes you unhappy.  When you realize the role that life situations play in happiness, though, it helps you to see how changing your environment can also change your outlook on life.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why did you know it all along?

There are always predictions to be made. We are a few weeks away from the Super Bowl, and sports pundits are making predictions about who will win.  You might also have a belief about who is going to make it to the big game and which team will come out on top. 

No matter what your level of confidence is in the outcome of the Super Bowl, chances are that after the big game, your confidence that the winner was actually going to win will be higher than it is now.  Psychologists call this tendency hindsight bias, though you can think of it as the belief that you knew it all along.

A nice new review paper in the September, 2012 issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science by Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs summarizes the research on hindsight bias.

When they review the research, they identify two kinds of factors that promote hindsight bias.

First, there are influences on memory and knowledge.  After an event has happened, you know the outcome, and so that outcome is easier to think about than the alternative.  In 2008, Barack Obama won the election, and so that alternative is easier to think about than one in which John McCain won.  This ease (or fluency) makes the outcome feel more certain.  In addition, your memory for the uncertainty you felt initially tends to fade over time, and that makes it harder to remember that you once were not sure what was going to happen.  Finally, after an event like an election, there is a lot of discussion about why it happened.  These explanations also increase your belief that the outcome was inevitable.

The second influence on hindsight bias is motivational.  In general, our cognitive system tries to resolve inconsistencies.  The familiar “cognitive dissonance” effects occur when people hold inconsistent beliefs.  This inconsistency often results in people changing their beliefs in subtle ways to make them more compatible with each other.  These mechanisms kick in after an event occurs as well.  The world as it is now often matters more than the world as it might have been.  As a result, your beliefs tend to shift to make the past feel more like the world as it is today.  That shift can make you feel as if you knew what was going to happen.

Why does this matter?

Your beliefs about why an event happened affects how you react to it in the future.  If you believe that something was inevitable, then you may not spend much time thinking about how things could have come out differently.  As a result, you may not uncover factors that might influence future outcomes.

For example, most new businesses do not succeed.  There are many factors that contribute to the success or failure of any new venture.  If you start a business and it fails, you may ultimately come to believe that there were clear reasons that doomed the business to failure.  As a result, you may not see all of the things you did that nearly made it succeed.  In this way, you may not take away valuable lessons that will help you to succeed in the future.

One suggestion that the authors make for counteracting hindsight bias is to spend some time thinking explicitly about how things could have turned out otherwise.  For example, after the next Presidential election, spend some time thinking about all of the reasons why the other candidate might have won.  This exercise will have two benefits.  First, it will help you to hold on to the uncertainty you are feeling right now about the outcome.  Second, it will help you to think about all of the reasons why the world could be different than it is.  And these reasons may help you to deal with new situations in the future.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Disgust, morality, and attention

Our sense of morality helps us to do the right thing even in situations where there is a temptation to do something wrong.  For example, when you engage in an action that you know is morally wrong, you experience guilt.  When you see others engaging in an act that is morally wrong, you often judge them.  Those judgments may also serve to keep you from engaging in those acts yourself. 

An interesting observation from this research is that people’s moral judgments are also related to disgust.  When people witness (or hear about) a moral transgression, they often get a disgust reaction.  In addition, feelings of disgust increase people’s sense of moral outrage.  A fascinating element of this work is that the sense of moral outrage may increase even when the feeling of disgust comes from another source.

The idea is simple.  As with most feelings, we look around the world trying to find the source of those feelings.  Most of the time, those sources are obvious.  Imagine you are walking down the street, and suddenly you see a car speeding toward you.  You jump back onto the sidewalk, and feel a combination of fear (that you were almost hit) and relief (that you were not).  It is pretty clear that the reason for these feelings is that you were almost hit by a car.

In some cases, the source is less obvious.  You might wake up in the morning feeling some stress because you have an exam coming up or a big presentation at work.  That underlying stress may make you anxious about making a big purchase, even though the stress came from another source.

The same thing can happen with disgust.  Encountering a disgusting situation can influence other judgments about morality.  A fascinating set of experiments by Lotte Van Dillen, Reine van der Wal, and Kees van den Bos in the September, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored individual differences in this tendency to misattribute disgust in moral judgments.

They pointed out that people differ in their level of attentional control.  Consider the classic Stroop task.  In the Stroop task, color words are written in fonts of different colors.  People are asked to name the color of the font.  The task is easy when the font is the same color named by the word.  That is, people are fast to say that the font is red when the word is RED.  The task is hard when the font is a different color than the one named by the word.  So, people are slow to say that the font is red when the word is GREEN.

There are individual differences in how hard people find this task.  Some people find it very hard to name the font when the word is different, while others are able to guide their attention toward the font color more exclusively and so they find the task easier.

In one experiment, the researchers told participants that they were going to do a series of unrelated experiments.  First, they gave participants a Stroop task and measured the difference in speed for naming the font when the word named the same color or a different color.  That speed was a measure of the ability to control attention.  Next, participants read sentences that either described mildly disgusting events (“Ann bit into an apple and found a worm inside.”) or neutral events (“Ann bit into an apple that she brought for lunch.”). 

Finally, participants read a story about someone who found a wallet and decided to keep it.  They were asked to rate how strongly they disapproved of that action.  Participants who read neutral sentences tended to rate this action as moderately severe.  Participants who found it easy to identify the font color when the word named a different color (so they had a high degree of attentional control) also rated the action as moderately severe.  However, those who found it hard to identify the font color when the word named a different color (so they had a low degree of attentional control) rated that they strongly disapproved of the action.

Another study in this series manipulated the instructions given to people viewing disgusting events.  Some were told to feel as strongly as possible, while others were told to distract themselves while viewing the disgusting events. Later in the session, participants read a story about someone who leaves his/her family after having an affair and were asked how strongly they disapproved. 

In this case, people who were asked to feel when viewing the disgusting events rated themselves as more disapproving of the person in the story than people who were asked to distract themselves.

Putting all of this together, then, you can use your sense of disgust to help you determine whether an action is morally right.  You are prone to use any feeling of disgust you are experiencing to make this judgment.  However, the higher the level of your ability to focus attention, the more likely you are to restrict your use of disgust to those feelings that are actually related to the event you are judging.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Those pesky unconscious goals.

Have you ever had one of those days where you just find it hard to get anything done?  You sit at your desk trying to work, and your mind keeps wandering off.  Eventually, you may just give up and do something else for a while.

There are many reasons why this might happen, of course.  If you don’t get enough sleep, it can be hard to concentrate.  Stress can make it hard to keep yourself focused.  Some new research by Hans Marien, Ruud Custers, Ran Hassin, and Henk Aarts published in the September, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that another reason why you might be having trouble getting work done is that you might have another goal that you subconsciously want to achieve.

Psychologists have known for a long time that it is possible to get you interested in pursuing a goal without being aware that the goal is influencing you.  For example, research on goal contagion (originally done by some of the authors of this paper) shows that people will unconsciously adopt the goals that people around them are pursuing.  In experiments, people can be nudged to pursue a goal by flashing words at them that are related to a goal they have.

In these studies, the researchers were interested in whether activating a goal without conscious awareness would interfere with tasks that people were consciously trying to pursue. 

In one experiment, participants were shown a string of letters (like aaaaAaaaa) and were asked to identify whether any of the letters were capital letters.  For a brief period while participants looked at the letters, they were replaced with words.  The flash was too brief for people to be consciously aware of what they saw.  For some participants, the words were related to the goal of socializing.  For the rest of the participants, the words were not related to any particular goal. 

After this priming task, participants did an interesting memory test.  They were shown a string of four different letters (say XRBQ) and then a probe letter (T) and were asked whether the probe letter was in the string of letters they had just seen.  (In this example, the answer would be ‘no.’)  People did a long sequence of these trials.

Now, consider the following sequence of trials.

XRBQ           Target—B  (Answer: Yes)
VRMS           Target—T  (Answer:  No)
TBLX            Target—R  (Answer:  No)

For this last trial, the letter R that is part of the probe is not part of the most recent string of letters, so the answer is no.  Notice, though, that the letter R was part of the previous two strings.  So, in order to answer this question correctly, the participant has make sure that they base their response just on the last set of letters they saw.  That is a somewhat difficult task to do.

The researchers measured the amount of time it took people to make responses like this (relative to easier trials where the target letter had not been seen for a while).  People who were primed to pursue the goal of being social took much longer to respond to these difficult memory trials than people who were not primed to pursue a goal.  This finding suggests that when you are unconsciously focused on achieving a goal, it interferes with your ability to do difficult tasks.

Several other studies in this series clarified the results.  One study demonstrated that the effect of unconsciously priming a goal was similar to the effect of consciously asking people to think about a goal that they have.  Another study found that this effect was obtained, even when people were told that if they performed well on the memory test that they would be eligible for a large payment.  So, it was not the case that the unconscious goal was just making the memory task uninteresting.

There are many things in your world that can serve to activate goals.  In the modern world, for example, people are often drawn to check their email and text messages frequently.  These goals can be made stronger by the badges on email programs that alert you that new messages have arrived.  These unconsciously activated goals can sap your performance. 

So, what can you do?

Goals often require some trigger in the environment to be activated.  If you find that you get distracted at work often, try to minimize the sources of distraction in your work space.  Keep your email program closed except when you are checking your email.  Don’t open up social networking sites when you are trying to get work done.  Keep your smart phone off.  In this way, you can protect the main goals you are trying to achieve from the goals that may get activated unconsciously.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Becoming bi-cultural makes you more creative

Innovation provides a key path to business success.  In the 1970s, it may have seemed inconceivable that computers would some day become just another commodity.  Just 40 years later, most manufacturers of computers are competing to produce the fastest cheapest machines, and so they operate on small profit margins.

The exception to this trend comes from innovative companies like Apple.  Companies that bring out new and exciting projects capture people’s imaginations and ultimately people are willing to pay a premium for their new products. 

Because of the key role of innovation in generating new business, companies are on the lookout for people who are likely to bring a creative spirit to their work. A paper by Carmit Tadmor, Adam Galinsky, and William Maddux in the September, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores how living abroad can influence people’s creativity.  This research expands on a previous paper involving some of these researchers. 

When people live abroad for an extended period of time, there are three possibilities for their relationship to their host culture.  One possibility is that they will retain their original cultural identity and keep themselves separate from their host culture.  A second possibility is that they will assimilate to the host culture and lose their original cultural identity.  A third possibility is that they will become bicultural, and will retain a strong tie both to their original culture and to the host culture.

The researchers suggest that when people become bicultural, it helps them to see many sides to an issue.  This integrative complexity allows them to be more creative.  After all, being creative often involves seeing things in more than one way.

They tested this prospect in a series of studies using people who had lived abroad.  In each study, the researchers measured whether people were separate from their host culture, assimilated to it, or bicultural.  They also assessed a variety of personality characteristics to ensure that the findings were based on the degree to which people became bicultural and not because of a basic personality variable that leads people to be more accepting of a new culture.  They also measured people’s tendency toward integrative complexity by having them write essays about a dilemma.  Essays displaying integrative complexity were ones that acknowledge both sides of the dilemma and talked about the relationship between the opposing sides.

In one simple study, participants were asked to list as many functions as possible for a brick.  Previous research suggests that creative people are more likely to find many uses for a brick than those who are not that creative.  Participants who were bicultural typically found more uses for a brick than either those who were separate or assimilated to the host culture.  Statistical analyses suggested that the best explanation for this difference was that the bicultural participants also displayed more integrative complexity in their essays.

Two other studies explored the workplace.  One study found that bicultural individuals were more likely than separated and assimilated individuals to start new companies based on new ideas and to generate new ideas that were successfully implemented in their companies.  A second study found that bicultural individuals were also more likely than separated and assimilated individuals to be promoted and to achieve high levels of status in their company.  In both cases, the degree of integrative complexity supported by being bicultural was the best statistical explanation for these findings.

Putting all of this together, the value of living abroad comes from putting in effort to understand the new culture while at the same time retaining an original cultural identity.  Truly understanding and identifying with two cultures allows people to see the same issue from multiple perspectives.  In real world settings, this ability to consider different sides of a situation allows people to generate new ideas and to innovate.  These findings suggest that companies would do well to find employees with experience in more than one culture.