RSSCategory: Psychology Cognition

The false belief in multi-tasking and the price we pay for believing in it

November 29, 2013 | By | Reply More

At New Yorker, “HOW TODAY’S COMPUTERS WEAKEN OUR BRAIN” makes some good points. First of all, humans, though they claim to be good at multi-tasking, are terrible at it.

[Humans are] not very good at achieving extreme states of concentration through sustained attention. It takes great training and effort to maintain attention on one object—in what Buddhists call concentration meditation—because the brain is highly susceptible to both voluntary and involuntary demands on its attention. Second, the brain is not good at conscious multitasking, or trying to pay active attention to more than one thing at once.

I am living proof of this struggle to focus.  When I am writing anything serious, I cloister myself in a room with phone off, door closed, no music.  That’s how it must be if I want to write something I’ll be proud of.   I can write in bad environments, but the product is often merely passable, not something excellent.

The article then makes a strong argument that modern computers mostly exacerbate this problem we have with focusing:

[T]oday’s computers feature programming and writing tools more powerful than anything available in the twentieth century. But, in a different way, each of these tasks would be much harder: on a modern machine, each man would face a more challenging battle with distraction. Kafka might start writing his book and then, like most lawyers, realize he’d better check e-mail; so much for “Das Urteil.” Kerouac might get caught in his Twitter feed, or start blogging about his road trip. Wozniak might have corrected an erroneous Wikipedia entry in the midst of working on Breakout, and wrecked the collaboration that later became Apple.

Kafka, Kerouac, and Wozniak had one advantage over us: they worked on machines that did not readily do more than one thing at a time, easily yielding to our conflicting desires. And, while distraction was surely available—say, by reading the newspaper, or chatting with friends—there was a crucial difference. Today’s machines don’t just allow distraction; they promote it. The Web calls us constantly, like a carnival barker, and the machines, instead of keeping us on task, make it easy to get drawn in—and even add their own distractions to the mix. In short: we have built a generation of “distraction machines” that make great feats of concentrated effort harder instead of easier.

It’s time to create more tools that help us with what our brains are bad at, such as staying on task. They should help us achieve states of extreme concentration and focus, not aid in distraction. We need a new generation of technologies that function more like Kerouac’s scroll or Kafka’s typewriter.

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The danger of too much happiness

November 27, 2013 | By | Reply More

At Edge.org, After explaining that “happiness” is a much more nuanced concept that traditionally conceived, June Gruber explains that positive emotion is a often-neglected topic. In fact, she has found is that positive emotions can present danger if not kept “in balance.” Based on psychological experiments, Gruber also concludes that there is a danger to making feeling good one’s goal.

We all think that positive emotion is something that should enhance our ability to creatively think about solving problems, that it just opens our repertoire to pick from different possible ideas or strategies. We find, though, that when people actually go beyond a critical threshold—hit a peak and pass that —they actually have a harder time solving problems effectively; they become more rigid or inflexible in their behavioral repertoires. It seems to be the case that too much positive emotion, thinking especially about these high arousal states of excitement and joy, actually leads us to become less creative.

Then the piece that I love the most is thinking about what are the action tendencies associated with some of our most common positive emotions. If we think of some of them, especially excitement or enthusiasm, they motivate us importantly to seek out rewards in the environment, to try to obtain them, and once we obtain them, to go about savoring them. In many ways I think it narrows our focus on rewards, how can we find them, attain them, and keep them for as long as possible.

What we find is that individuals who experience this sort of heightened magnitude of positive emotion (this is measured in a lot of different ways, using self-report scales, and also with children, parent and teacher-rated observations) out of balance, it causes you to neglect important threats and dangers, and pieces of information in the environment around you. And so as a result we see associations with greater risk taking—engaging in reckless driving, substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices. Some people would argue that this may help explain this one finding: looking at children who were rated in terms of their dispositional cheerfulness, and followed them longitudinally over the lifespan, and what you find is that children who were rated as more highly cheerful actually had a greater mortality risk later in life.

There could be many reasons to account for this, but I think one possibility might be, at least tentatively, that there’s something about heightened positive emotion beyond a critical threshold that we need to be careful of, and think about keeping in balance. In my lab, we try to study this in the clinical context of individuals suffering from emotional disorders. One entry point that we’ve begun to look at is among individuals with mania that show some characteristic signs of heightened positive emotion and this appetitive system that’s kind of go, go, go towards rewards, and finding (not surprisingly) that these are individuals who engage in all kinds of reckless behavior. They wipe out their bank accounts, they destroy some of the most important social bonds in their lives with their partners through lots of sexual promiscuity. They will report when you talk to them, and I interviewed a lot of these people clinically, that they just felt so good—that nothing else could enter their mind, that it was a one mind that was really all about feeling good, and finding ways to keep that going.

I think this first theme, and it’s a new theme, needed a lot more empirical attention on it. What it’s beginning to suggest is something about human nature that suggests that maybe we need to put aside these conventional notions of trying to maximize positive emotions, and that positive emotion may be in line with many psychological states that are subject to this principal of moderation. We really want to be experiencing things in balance— not too little, or not too much—and in many ways it’s also consistent with biological theories, postulating optimal functioning, and moving towards a sense of homeostasis, or equilibrium. . . . . in many cases the more we try not to be unhappy, the more unhappy we seem to be. So it suggests that in many ways this is this paradoxical backfiring, and in many ways that if we want to have affective or psychological goals for ourselves, then we ought not to make that the end focal point in itself, but perhaps to be focusing on other things from which those emotions might emerge.

Follow-up question by Daniel Dennett:

There is this question of whether we’re making a big mistake in trying to cocoon our children in a world of positive emotions, and shield them from ever really experiencing fear, or loneliness, or boredom, and I wonder has there been research on this.

GRUBER: Your intuition is absolutely right, and there’s been some work on this. We’ve been doing some with a colleague of ours, Michael Norton, that many of you know, looking at this concept of emotional diversity. If you think about it just within a broader sense of ecosystems, diversity is really important for health and survival of that particular system. We started taking this looking at the inner psychological system and what is most important for well-being. And when we talk about well-being, we’re talking about not only psychological function, but actually physical health functioning, so we have these large medical reports from people. What we’re finding is that it’s the diversity of emotional experiences that both cross-sectionally and longitudinally are predicting some of our best outcomes.

You want a mixture of things. It’s fine to have some joy, but you also want sadness; you want the experience of guilt; you want the experience of loss. All of these things are really important in building a psychological strength to know how to experience these emotions, to know how to cope with them, and to get information from the world around you, too. In terms of how does this relate to raising children, I think as much as you can expose them to different kinds of emotions, and not let any one kind predominate. I think that’s what’s going to be most critical, the diversity of experiences at the affective level.

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Stories about humans

November 23, 2013 | By | Reply More

I highly recommend this TED talk by Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York. He contrasts his own work with the stories we often see on the television “news.” What we see on television are stories carefully filtered to show conflict, sex, violence and danger. It’s not a bad thing, per se, to view such stories, but it is a bad thing to accept these stories as representative of the way the world is.

I find Humans of New York to be a calming counterbalance to the stories usually presented by the “news.”

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Niceness as a Machiavellian business strategy

November 22, 2013 | By | Reply More

Beware those nice people out in the business world. Although they are often taken advantage of, they can band together to create jauggernaut business operations. The following comment was written by David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt, and it appeared in Forbes:

Many people implicitly think that niceness is a virtue for the rest of life, but when it comes to playing business hardball, only the selfish survive. The message of Grant’s book is that this isn’t true, and he gives us both scientific evidence and entertaining profiles for understanding why. Grant divides people into three behavioral categories: givers, matchers, and takers. As their names imply, givers are sweeties who unstintingly share their time and talent, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it. Matchers calibrate their giving to their taking, and takers take whatever they can get. Who does best playing business hardball? It turns out that the givers do best and worst. When they succumb to the depredations of takers, they become doormats and chumps. But when they manage to work with other givers, they produce spectacular wealth and share the collective benefits. In other words, the costs and benefits of prosociality in the business world are no different than for the rest of life.

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About mentally strong people

November 21, 2013 | By | Reply More

Forbes has an article on mentally strong people. Here are the headings of what mentally strong people avoid:

1. Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves.
2. Give Away Their Power.
3. Shy Away from Change.
4. Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control.
5. Worry About Pleasing Others.
6. Fear Taking Calculated Risks.
7. Dwell on the Past.
8. Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over.
9. Resent Other People’s Success.
10. Give Up After Failure.
11. Fear Alone Time.
12. Feel the World Owes Them Anything.
13. Expect Immediate Results.

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Choice of religion as a Hobson’s Choice

November 21, 2013 | By | Reply More

This article at Paleolibrarian makes the argument that religion is a classic Hobson’s Choice.

If you are unfamiliar with Hobson’s choice it is essentially the option of no options. It is the illusion of fair and free choice set within only one possible outcome. So if you’re offered just one option and you’re told you can take it or leave it, is that really a choice?

How many religions have urged that they would encourage you to engage in free thinking, as long as you come up with the right conclusions? Stir in threats of ostracizing those who come up with the wrong conclusion combined with the fear of hell, and many a believer has been convinced to draw the curve before plotting the data. All of this is compliments of the confirmation bias, the cognitive bias that causes us to seek evidence that leads us where we want to go and blinds us to conflicting evidence. Thus, many people “choose” religion after asphyxiating their own thought process. But it feels as though one is thinking freely all the way to the preordained conclusion that embracing one’s religion–usually the religion one was taught as a child–is logical.

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Summary of Terror Management Theory

November 18, 2013 | By | Reply More

I’ve often written about Terror Management Theory (TMT). Recently I found this well-written illustrated review of many TMT principles.

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Robert Sapolsky discusses the alleged uniqueness of humans

November 18, 2013 | By | Reply More

Excellent lecture by Robert Sapolsky. Scientists used to think that humans were unique in many ways when compared to other animals. The number of ways in which we are truly unique is dwindling, however, and that dwindling number is the focus of Sapolsky’s talk. There is at least one way in which we are unique, and that is our ability to entertain a contradiction. Sapolsky, speaking to a graduating class, challenges them to take on this contradiction: They are highly educated and thus privileged human animals who are educated to such an extent that they realize that it is virtually impossible for one person to make a difference in the world. The more clear this becomes that it is impossible to make the world better, “the more you must.”

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Elizabeth Loftus discusses false memories at TED.

November 13, 2013 | By | Reply More

Excellent TED lecture by memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus:

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies memories. More precisely, she studies false memories, when people either remember things that didn’t happen or remember them differently from the way they really were. It’s more common than you might think, and Loftus shares some startling stories and statistics, and raises some important ethical questions we should all remember to consider.

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