Thursday, April 30, 2015

Can Video Games Make You Smart (Or At Least More Flexible)?

The potential ills of video game play have been broadcast all over the media.  Playing violent video games can prime aggressive behavior.  Kids who get video game systems perform worse in school after they get the system than they did before. 

Not all effects of video games are bad, though.  There is evidence that playing video games can make people faster at processing visual information like searching for an object among a set of other distracters. 

One hallmark of smart thinking is flexibility.  People who are able to see the same object in different ways and can keep lots of possibilities in mind at the same time are often able to develop novel and creative solutions to problems.  A paper by Brian Glass, Todd Maddox, and Brad Love in the August 2013 issue of PLoS One suggests that some kinds of video games can help to teach this skill.

They compared the effects of playing real-time strategy games to playing games that require no particular strategic thinking.  The participants in this study were all women, because the experimenters had trouble finding enough men who do not play video games regularly.  The women were assigned to one of three groups. 

One group played a simple version of the game StarCraft.  In this game, participants have to create, organize, and deploy armies to attack an enemy.  In the simple version of the game, the player had one base and the enemy had one base.  In the more complex version of the game, the player had two bases and the enemy had two bases.  The overall difficulty of the game was then set up so that the simple and complex versions of the game were about equally hard to win.  This way, the games differed primarily in how much information players needed to keep in mind while playing.  The control condition had people play a life simulation (the SIMS), which does not require much strategy or memory.  Participants played their assigned game for 40 hours.

As a test, participants were given a pre-test and post-test of a series of tasks that tap cognitive abilities.  Some of the tests require cognitive flexibility.  For example, in the classic Stroop task, people name the color of a font for words that name colors.  The typical finding is that people are slow to name the color when the word names a different color than the font. 

In task switching procedures, people flip back and forth between the responses they make.  For example, in one task, people are shown a letter and a number (say e4).  On some trials, they are prompted to identify whether the letter is a vowel or consonant, while on other trials, they are prompted to identify whether the number is odd or even.  People generally slow down when asked to switch from one task (say identifying letters) on one trial to the other task (identifying numbers) on the next.  The faster you are able to switch between tasks, though, the more flexibly you are thinking.

Other tasks did not require flexibility.  For example, a visual search task requires finding a particular object among a set of distracters.  That task requires perceptual speed, but not flexibility.

The results of the study were striking.  Participants who played StarCraft showed significant improvement on the cognitive flexibility tasks, but not the other tasks compared to those who played the SIMS.  The improvement was largest for those who played the complex version of the game, and smaller for those who played the simple version.

Additional analyses found that the people who played the complex version of the game had to keep more information in mind while playing than those who played the simple version.  Practice using all of this information may have been the root of the improvement on the flexibility tasks.

These results are intriguing.  It is hard to get people to work on difficult tasks for long in school settings, but much easier to get them to work for long hours while playing video games.  If games can be structured to promote skills that improve flexible thinking, then they can be a valuable tool in helping people to get smarter. 

That said, flexible thinking is only a part of being smarter.  In order to really do smart things, you also need to know a lot of information in order to be able to use that knowledge to solve problems.  As much fun as video games may be, they will not substitute for the hours you need to put in to become an expert in at least one domain.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Having a Hot Hand Increases Confidence, But Not Success

One of the great things about doing research is that you can actually test the beliefs that people take for granted.  And sometimes, those beliefs are shown to be false.  A classic example of this approach comes in the belief in a hot hand in basketball.  When you watch a basketball game, a player will make a couple of shots, and the announcers will decide that player is “on fire” and that he ought to take the team’s next shot.

Back in 1985, though, Tom Gilovich, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky actually analyzed data from the Philadelphia 76ers.  They found no evidence for a hot hand.  The hot hand would say that if a player makes one shot, then they should be more likely to make a second.  Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky found that the probability that a player would make a second shot was independent of whether they made the first one, suggesting that there is no hot hand.

An interesting question, though, is whether the belief in the hot hand influences the behavior of the players themselves. That question was explored in analyses by Yigal Attali reported in the July, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  He analyzed all of the data from every game in the 2010-2011 National Basketball Association season.  Modern transcripts for games include lots of information including who took each shot, whether it was made, and the distance of the shot. 

Attali found evidence that the belief in a hot hand did affect the behavior of players.  When a player made one shot, it affected whether they would take the team’s next shot.  When the shot was from a short distance (a dunk or layup), then players took about 20% of their team’s next shots regardless of whether they made or missed the shot.  However, when they made a shot that was longer than 4 feet, they were much more likely to take the team’s next shot than if they missed that shot.

That’s not all.  When players made a shot, the next shot they took was generally further from the basket than when players missed their last shot.  Because longer shots probably reflect that a player has more confidence in his ability, this suggests that making a shot increases a player’s confidence. 

Paradoxically, though, this confidence has a cost.  Longer shots are more likely to be missed than shorter shots, so when a player takes two shots in a row, he is much more likely to miss the second shot than to make it, because the second shot is probably taken from further away following a hit than following a miss.  (Indeed, Attali re-analyzed the data from the Philadelphia 76ers that Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky used, and found a similar effect that when a player makes one shot, they are actually less likely to make the second shot than when they missed the previous shot.)

Finally, Attali explored the effect of making a shot on the behavior of coaches.  He found that players were much less likely to be taken out of a game following a made shot than following a missed shot.  So, coaches are also acting as though they believe in a hot hand.

What does all of this mean?

In lots of domains (including basketball), we have theories about the way the world works.  Those theories influence our actions.  However, it is important to know whether our theories about the way the world works are actually true.  Sometimes, as in the case of the hot hand in basketball, not only is the theory false, but acting based on the theory also makes people’s performance worse than it would be if they did not believe in the theory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rituals Make the World Taste Better

In the United States, we have a strange relationship with food.  Most of us eat on the go.  We drive through at fast food restaurants and then stuff our faces as we get where we’re going.  We eat at our desks while working.  We grab dinner in between other tasks, sometimes standing at a counter in the kitchen.
Food is fuel, of course, so perhaps this approach makes sense.  We don’t make an elaborate ceremony of putting gas in the car, so why should mealtime be any different?
Yet, cultures have often created rituals around food.  In many countries, mealtime is an oasis from the troubles of the day.  Everyone sits down around a well-set table.  Dishes are placed in the center.  People may say a prayer before eating.  And then the meal and the conversation commences. 
What exactly do we get out of creating ceremonies around eating?
An interesting paper by Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science examines whether rituals affect the taste of food. 
In one study, participants ate carrots three times over the course of an experimental session.  Carrots are an interesting food choice, because they taste good, but they are not high on most people’s lists of desirable foods (compared, say, to ice cream or chocolate).  One group was given a ritual to perform before eating each carrot.  They would bang their knuckles on the table, close their eyes, and take a deep breath.  A second group was given a different sequence of actions before each carrot.  So, they performed an action, but it was not a ritual, because the actions were always different. 
Before eating the last carrot, participants rated how much they thought they would enjoy it, and after eating it, they rated their enjoyment of the carrot.  Finally, some participants were able to eat the third carrot immediately after performing the ritual, but others had a delay before eating the carrot.  The participants with the delay performed an unrelated study before eating the carrot.
Overall, participants who performed the ritual anticipated enjoying the carrot more than those who performed random actions, and their ratings of actual enjoyment were also higher.  The delay actually enhanced the influence of the ritual.  When people knew there would be a delay, they believed they would enjoy the carrot more and they actually did enjoy it more.
Another study (this one involving lemonade) found that you have to perform the ritual yourself to get the benefit of it.  Participants who watched the experimenter perform the ritual enjoyed the lemonade less than those who performed the ritual themselves. 
One last study (this one involving chocolate) found that participants who performed a ritual were more interested in the food than those who did not perform a ritual.  So, the ritual seems to have affected people’s intrinsic interest in the activity of eating.
Rituals are a pervasive cultural invention.  Every culture asks people to perform actions that have no obvious value in and of themselves.  I have written before about studies demonstrating that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to a community.  These studies expand this influence to show that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to food as well.
If you find that you are not enjoying the food you eat and that you tend to treat your food as fuel, then consider creating some rituals around the way you eat.  Set your table.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Close your eyes for a moment and prepare to eat.  And then…enjoy.