Category: Thought

Critical thinking skills are more important than IQ for making good decisions in life

GettyImages-536092577.jpgBy Alex Fradera

To lead a good life, we need to make good decisions: manage our health and financial affairs, invest in appropriate relationships, and avoid serious lapses like falling for online scams. What equips us to do this? One candidate is IQ: after all, people who score higher on intelligence tests tend to go on to do better academically and in their careers. But many of us know intellectual titans who still make grave errors of judgment in their lives. Book-smart doesn’t necessarily make you life-smart, and a new article in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity examines the utility of IQ in navigating existence, and how another mental ability may put it in the shade.

Continue reading “Critical thinking skills are more important than IQ for making good decisions in life”

Researchers are figuring out how sense of self develops differently in autistic teens

Teenage woman looking at herself in a mirrorBy guest blogger Dan Carney

Our autobiographical memory is fundamental to the development of our sense of self. However, according to past research, it may be compromised in autism, together with other skills that are also vital for self understanding, such as introspection and the ability to attribute mental states to others (known as mentalising).

For example, experiments involving autistic children have highlighted retrieval difficulties, “impoverished narratives”, and a greater need for prompting, while also suggesting that semantic recall (facts from the past) may be impaired in younger individuals.

Now a UK research team, led by Sally Robinson from London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital, has published the first attempt to assess the nature of – and relationships between – autobiographical memory, mentalising and introspection in autism. Reporting their findings in Autism journal, the group hope their results will shed more light on the way that autistic children and teens develop a sense of self.

Continue reading “Researchers are figuring out how sense of self develops differently in autistic teens”

5 Reasons It’s So Hard To Think Like A Scientist

By Christian Jarrett

Thinking like a scientist is really hard, even for scientists. It requires putting aside your own prior beliefs, evaluating the quality and meaning of the evidence before you, and weighing it in the context of earlier findings. But parking your own agenda and staying objective is not the human way.

Consider that even though scientific evidence overwhelming supports the theory of evolution, a third of Americans think the theory is “absolutely false”. Similarly, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has contributed to climate change, yet around a third of Americans doubt it.

We Brits are just as blinkered. In a recent survey, over 96 per cent of teachers here said they believed pupils learn better when taught via their preferred learning style, even though scientific support for the concept is virtually non-existent. Why is it so hard to think like a scientist? In a new chapter in the Psychology of Learning and Motivation book series, Priti Shah at the University of Michigan and her colleagues have taken a detailed look at the reasons, and here we pull out five key insights:

Continue reading “5 Reasons It’s So Hard To Think Like A Scientist”

High population density seems to shift us into a future-oriented mindset

613445810_2249c2d193_bBy Christian Jarrett

In the UK we’re familiar with the practical implications of increasing population density: traffic jams, longer waits to see a doctor, a lack of available housing. What many of us probably hadn’t realised is how living in crowded environment could be affecting us at a deep psychological level, fostering in us a more future-oriented mindset or what evolutionary psychologists call a “slow life history” strategy.

In their paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Oliver Sng at the University of Michigan and his colleagues present a range of evidence that shows how this strategy plays out in the more patient ways that we approach our relationships, parenting and economic decisions. In essence, the researchers are proposing that the presence of greater numbers of other people in close proximity prompts us to invest in the future as way to compete more effectively.

Continue reading “High population density seems to shift us into a future-oriented mindset”

Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism

Two woman holding their hands in summer sunny dayBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have become very interested in the causes and consequences of our beliefs about free will.  For instance, many consider that progress in neuroscience is likely to undermine our belief in free will (though this has been challenged). And in terms of consequences, less belief in free will has been shown to affect our own behaviour and judgments, for example increasing our tendency to cheat, and making us more lenient towards other people’s criminal culpability.

One unexplored issue is how experiencing deep, romantic love is likely to affect our belief in free will – or indeed vice versa. A new series of online studies in Consciousness and Cognition has made a start, looking at whether thinking about a more passionate versus less passionate relationship is linked with a greater or lesser belief in free will and, separately, stronger or lesser belief in determinism (the idea that the future is pre-determined and beyond our control). The answer, it turns out, is both. Thinking about a more intense passionate love affairs tends to go hand in hand with stronger beliefs in free will and stronger beliefs in determinism.  Continue reading “Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism”

Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic

Numbers of the MindBy Christian Jarrett

Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s international best-selling book is titled Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to the idea that we have two mental systems, one that makes fast, automatic decisions based on intuition, and a second that is slower, deliberate and logical. A further detail of this “dual processing theory” is that given time, and if we make the effort, the second system can step in and correct the intuitive illogical reasoning of the trigger-happy first system.

It’s an elegantly simple model supported by a huge number of studies, but it’s far from perfect. As demonstrated by a new paper in Cognition, it seems that contrary to Kahneman’s caricature of the mind, our intuitive System One is perfectly capable of logic, without the need for any help from System Two. Moreover, it’s actually rather rare for System Two to step in and overrule System One; more common is for System One to find the logical answer all by itself.  Continue reading “Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic”

If you do everything you can to avoid plot spoilers, you’re probably a thinker

It’s a vexing First World Problem – how to avoid people giving away, on Twitter or at the water cooler, the events of the latest Game of Thrones episode before you’ve caught it. Psychologists are beginning to study this modern scourge, albeit in the context of written stories rather than TV shows, but so far their findings have been contradictory – one study suggested that spoiled stories were actually more enjoyable (possibly because they’re easier to process), while a later investigation found the precise opposite. Now a research team led by Judith Rosenbaum has entered the fray with a study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that suggests one reason for the contradictory results is that the effects of spoilers depend on how much a person likes to engage their brain, and how much they enjoy emotional stimulation.

In psychological jargon these traits are known as “need for cognition” and “need for affect”, respectively. The former is measured through disagreement with statements like “I only think as hard as I have to” and the latter via agreement with statements such as “Emotions help people get along in life”.

Figure from Rosenbaum et al 2016

The researchers first presented over 350 students, mostly African Americans at a university in Southeastern USA, with several previews of classic short stories, some of which contained plot spoilers and some that didn’t, and then asked them to say which of the stories they’d like to read. The students also completed measures of their need for cognition and affect, and the critical finding was that those who scored low on “need for cognition” tended to say they would prefer to read the full versions of stories that were previewed with plot spoilers. “When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing”, the researchers said.

Next, the students read some classic short stories (such as Two Were Left and Death of a Clerk) in full, some of which had been “spoiled” by a preview, and some not, and then rated their enjoyment of the stories. This time, “need for cognition” was unrelated to enjoyment, but “need for affect” was, in that people with a greater desire for emotional stimulation got more pleasure from unspoiled stories, as did the students who read fiction more frequently.

One positive way to look at these findings is that encountering a spoiler may not ruin your enjoyment as much as you think it will (if you’re a deep thinker), but probably will be a downer if you’re the kind of person who likes emotional surprises. Alternatively, perhaps this study is just too far removed from reality to offer much insight – after all, as the researchers acknowledge, they didn’t look at TV shows or movies (where plot spoilers are arguably more common), nor did they consider important variables such as genre (spoilers are presumably much more of an issue for horror and suspense) or story/show length.

Who’s Afraid of Spoilers: Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment

further reading
A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?

Most of us have unwanted thoughts and images that pop into our heads and it’s not a big deal. But for people with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) these mental intrusions are frequently distressing and difficult to ignore. A new article in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy explores the possibility that the reason these thoughts become so troubling to some people is that they play on their fears about the kind of person they might be. Continue reading “Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?”

Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people’s minds

By guest blogger Vaughan Bell

Can you think a thought which isn’t yours? A remarkable new study, led by psychologist Jay Olson from McGill University in Canada, suggests you can. The research, published in Consciousness and Cognition, used a form of stage magic known as “mentalism” to induce the experience of thoughts being inserted into the minds of volunteers. It is an ingenious study, not only for how it created the experience, but also for how it used the psychology lab as both a stage prop and a scientific tool.

Years before he was famous, stage illusionist Derren Brown wrote a book called Pure Effect, where he argued that presenting tricks as “psychology” could be an effective form of misdirection. In his innovative shows, Brown often claims he is debunking psychics by demonstrating how psychology can be used to manipulate people’s minds. In practice, his mind-reading and mind control feats can involve the same traditional techniques used by stage magicians, it’s just that he presents them as psychology rather than magic.

Olson and his colleagues from McGill took this approach a step further, telling their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brain scanner could read thoughts and influence their mind.

Hidden from the participants was the fact that the experiment was actually conducted in a mock scanner – something that exists in most neuroimaging facilities to test experiments before they are run on the genuine equipment. To add to the plausibility of the story, the participants went through a realistic briefing, safety screening, and calibration procedure for an fMRI brain scan.

Participants were then asked to complete what they thought were “mind reading” and “mind influencing” experiments.

In the “mind reading” stage, researchers asked each participant to lie in the “scanner”, silently think of any two-digit number and press a button when they were done. The fMRI machine then produced a number on screen and the researcher could be seen writing the result onto a clipboard.

Next, the participant was asked to name the number they had silently thought of. The researcher turned the clipboard, stunning the participant by showing exactly their number – seemingly “read” from their mind by the power of fMRI.

The researchers are coy about exactly how this was achieved, only referencing an old mentalism book. In fact, they likely used a variation on a technique called the “swami gimmick” where the mentalist – the researcher in this case – has a fake rubber tip on the end of their thumb, which includes a barely visible shard of pencil lead. Earlier, when the researcher appeared to be writing the fMRI “mind reading” results, he was just pretending. What really happened is that, in the split second after the participant announced their secretly selected number, the researcher discreetly wrote it down on the clipboard using their thumb.

In the second, “mind influencing” condition, the participant was told that the machine was programmed to put a number into their mind. This time the researcher “wrote down” the number the machine had chosen to “transmit”. As before, the participant was asked to silently think of any two-digit number and after the “scan” the researcher seemed to show that the participant had thought of exactly the number the machine had ‘transmitted’ to them – using, of course, exactly the same thumb-writing trick as in the mindreading phase.

So here’s where the real psychology came in. After the scans, the researchers asked the participants to rate how much control they felt they had over their choice of numbers. Of course, in reality all their choices were completely voluntary, but in the second stage of the experiment, they believed they had less control and that the machine had influenced their thinking. Consistent with this perception, they also took longer to choose a number in the mind influencing condition than in the “mind reading” condition.

The researchers checked whether anyone had worked out what was really happening. A few participants expressed doubts about whether the “fMRI machine” was really influencing them and were removed from the analysis, but none suspected stage magic.

Olson and his colleagues replicated their results using a second experiment, run in exactly the same way, but this time they also interviewed the participants to find out what they’d felt during the procedure. They reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being “inserted” into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

But the research team’s motivations where not purely focused on everyday psychology. In some types of mental health problems, people start to experience their thoughts and actions being controlled by what seem like outside forces. Olson’s team hope that their work can provide a way of studying one aspect of this experience, safely and temporarily in the lab, potentially providing a window into how these more debilitating experiences affect the mind and brain.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Olson, J., Landry, M., Appourchaux, K., & Raz, A. (2016). Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 11-26 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.04.010

Post written by Dr Vaughan Bell (@vaughanbell). Vaughan is a senior clinical lecturer at University College London and a clinical psychologist in the NHS.

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We all differ in our ability to cope with contradictions and paradoxes. Introducing the "aintegration" test

Life is full of paradoxes and uncertainty – good people who do bad things, and questions with no right or wrong answer. But the human mind abhors doubt and contradictions, which provoke an uncomfortable state of “cognitive dissonance“. In turn, this motivates us to see the world in neat, black and white terms. For example, we’ll decide the good person must really have been bad all along, or conversely that the bad thing they did wasn’t really too bad after all. But a pair of researchers in Israel point out that some of us are better than others at coping with incongruence and doubt than others – an ability they call “aintegration” for which they’ve concocted a new questionnaire. The full version, together with background theory, is published in the Journal of Adult Development.

If you want to hear what the researchers found out about who copes best with uncertainty, skip past the two example items coming up next.

Jacob Lomranz and Yael Benyamini’s test begins: This questionnaire explores the way people think and feel about various attitudes. In the following pages you will be presented with attitudes held by different people. Please read each attitudinal position carefully and use the ratings scale to state your general and personal reaction as to such attitudes.

The test then features 11 items similar to these two:

EXAMPLE ITEM 1 There are people who will avoid making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. In contrast, other people would make decisions even under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. 

(a) In general, to what extent do you think it is possible to make decisions under
conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity?
1,2,3,4, or 5 (choose 1 to 5 where 1= not at all and 5=to a very great extent)

(b) Assuming someone does make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and
ambiguity, to what extent do you think this would cause her/him discomfort?
12345

(c) To what extent do you make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and
ambiguity?
12345

(d) Assuming you made a decision under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, to
what extent would that cause you discomfort?
12345

EXAMPLE ITEM 2 There is an opinion that in every relationship between couples there are contradictory feelings; on the one hand, the individual benefits from the relationship (for example, love) and on the other hand loses from the relationship (for example, loss of independence).

– Some people claim that even when the couple has contradictory feelings about their relationship, a good relationship can still exist.
– In contrast, there are those who claim that when there are contradictory feelings about the couple relationship, it is impossible to maintain a good relationship.

(a) In general, to what extent do you think it is possible to have a good relationship when a couple has contradictory feelings about that relationship?
1234, or 5 (choose 1 to 5 where 1= not at all and 5=to a very great extent)

(b) Assuming someone persists with a relationship about which they have contradictory feelings, to what extent do you think this would cause her/him discomfort?
12345

(c) To what extent do you have contradictory feelings about your relationship(s)?
12345

(d) Assuming you have contradictory feelings, to what extent would that cause you discomfort?
12345

Higher scores for (a) and (c) questions and lower scores for (b) and (d) questions mean that you have higher aintegration – that is, that you are better able to cope with uncertainty and contradictions.

To road test their questionnaire, the researchers gave the full version with 11 items to hundreds of people across three studies and they found that it had high levels of “internal reliability” – that is, people who scored high for aintegration on one item tended to do so on the others.

Lomranz and Benyamini also found some evidence that older people (middle-aged and up), divorcees, the highly educated and the less religious tended to score higher on aintegration. So too did people who had experienced more positive events in life, and those who saw their negative experiences in more complex terms, as having both good and bad elements. Moreover, higher scorers on aintegration reported experiencing fewer symptoms of trauma after negative events in life.

This last finding raises the possibility that aintegration may grant resilience to hardship, although longer-term research is needed to test this (an alternative possibility is that finding a way to cope with trauma promotes aintegration).

Higher scores on aintegration also tended to correlate negatively with the established psychological construct of “need for structure”.

The researchers said their paper was just a “first step” in establishing the validity of aintegration and that the concept could help inform future research especially with people “who dwell in states of transitions or ‘betweenness’, for example, struggling with national identities, cultural adjustment or conflicting values.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Lomranz, J., & Benyamini, Y. (2015). The Ability to Live with Incongruence: Aintegration—The Concept and Its Operationalization Journal of Adult Development, 23 (2), 79-92 DOI: 10.1007/s10804-015-9223-4

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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