Archive for February, 2011


as exam season approaches…

February 16, 2011

I’m always on the look out for solid studies that help illustrate how understanding “the mind” can impact our day-to-day lives. Test taking is obviously one endeavor that is grounded in cognition. However, getting students to appreciate the complexity of studying (encoding) and retrieval (spitting out the answers) is tough because they have a wonderfully simple, and naive, sense of what is involved in the process. Often times, frustration they experience after an exam centers on this issue of “I studied all the material, but I just couldn’t remember it for the test”. Of course this is frustrating, but once you understand better the complex set of processes that is involved, you can make sense of it (and maybe find ways to avoid it in the future).

So, with all this mind, a study by Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock (click here for the article and click here for a related podcast with Dr. Beilock) from the University of Chicago caught my eye. The premise of the study was quite simple – too much anxiety has a negative effect on test taking performance, and some of that negative impact seems to be the result of rumination (thinking about the challenges and consequences of the testing). The researchers reasoned that the rumination could be tying up working memory resources (you can think of working memory as those processes that allow you to “keep information in mind”) that are needed to succeed during the testing. They also noted that expressive writing, writing about thoughts and feelings associated with a specific event, has been used by clinical psychologists to help patients with depression attenuate rumination focused on negative thoughts and experiences. With these ides in mind, the researchers examined whether a short (10 minute) expressive writing task would assist students in high pressure testing situations by diffusing some of the rumination associated with the upcoming test, thus freeing up working memory resources and allowing for better test performance. The short answer is “yes”. You can read the article in Science (it is short) to get all the details, but the summary is that performance for participants in the control conditions (no writing or writing about an “unrelated emotional event”) decreased from a low-pressure pretest to the high-pressure target test while the performance of the participants in the expressive writing condition improved. I especially like that the authors included a couple of field experiments as well – using ninth grade biology students facing their final exam – that nicely replicated the findings and added some external validity to the results. They were also able to show how the effect of the expressive writing is especially positive for “high-anxiety” students.

So, whether you’re preparing for your midterm exams or giving midterm exams or helping your child study for these exams, this is an interesting study to think about. Go cognitive science!


case study – ourselves…

February 8, 2011

The New York Times picks up on this story about a social psychologist who is creating some hubbub by suggesting that psychologists (he was focusing on social psychologists) are a rather homogeneous bunch. He specifically notes that most social psychologists identify themselves as politically and socially liberal, while very few (openly) identify themselves as politically and socially conservative. Numerous conservative commentators have made a career out of lampooning academics and their “liberal biases”, so this is not exactly a new claim. However, he develops an argument focusing on the fact that this shared moral framework within the field creates a situation where theoretical assumptions may go unnoticed (and untested) and those with a different viewpoint may find themselves shut out of the conversation. Given that science is supposed to encourage an open and multifaceted exchange of ideas, this would be a not good situation… Here is a link to a narration of the presentation he gave, so you can get a sense of his ideas – listen to it, it is interesting. Go. Now.

John Haidt is the psychologist at the center of all this. He is a Professor at the University of Virgina  and has studied issues related to how people make moral judgments for the past 25 years. He has proposed the social intuitionist model (Haidt, 2001) Рfocusing on unconscious processes as opposed to explicit moral reasoning as the basis for how people decide what is right and what is wrong (those of you who are students of psychology can compare his ideas to those of Kohlberg to appreciate the significance of this notion). So, even though academic psychologists may have the best intentions of developing an understanding of human nature, if we begin with a shared set of implicit preconceptions they will shape our subsequent theories and research.

Briefly, I think Dr. Haidt is correct to have the concerns that he does. However, there are several passages in the NYT article that I found disconcerting. These issues are really tough ones to work through, and I thought the author leaned a bit too heavily on the dramatic “statistics” and anecdotes. There are some fundamental issues that should be addressed, but the article instead looked to some high-profile, lightning rod episodes that do more to polarize than engage with the real issues. There are a whole host of reasons why social psychology might be overly-liberal, but the article misses these (although Haidt addresses them somewhat in his talk). Regardless, it is worthwhile for psychologists to be open to this issue and to actively find ways to address the problems it creates.

Here is a link to a short interactive survey you can take to learn more about your own moral perspectives.

By the way, you can check out the interesting literature developing that examines these liberal/conservative personality differences (a good example is Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008 published in Political Psychology). You can check out work by John Jost to get a sense of what is happening in this sub-field of psychology.


the opposite of precognition…

February 3, 2011

I am very late to the game on this (that is what I get for “giving myself a break” because I am not teaching any classes this semester), but I wanted to archive some of these events here. And for those of you who have not encountered this little dust-up, it is time you gave it a bit of thought…

Here is the short version: Daryl Bem, emeritus professor of Psychology at Cornell, published a paper just over a month ago that provides evidence for “psi phenomenon” (in this case premonition, or precognition – awareness of events that have not yet occurred). It created a BIG uproar: see here, here and here for some reactions (note: this is the first and quite possibly only time I will link to “The Atlanta Vampire Alliance”, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity). I have read the article (and you can too – it is downloadable from numerous sources, including Dr. Bem’s site linked prior), but I have not fully decided how I think about it…

  1. It appears methodologically sound.
  2. He finds evidence for the same theoretical phenomenon across several samples and variations of the basic methodology.
  3. It doesn’t make sense to me given my understanding of “how the world works”…

So, what to be done with a study like this?

  1. Replicate to verify the findings. This endeavor is already underway: here and here.
  2. Maybe the way we approach analyzing data is flawed: see here for an introduction to this issue (there are more in depth treatments of this issue, e.g. this one by Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom, & van der Maas)
  3. Embrace the findings and work to develop a suitable theoretical framework that can account for them? (I don’t dare link to any of the attempts to do this that I found…)
  4. Ignore it. Unfortunately, I imagine a good number of scientists will do just that… and they will miss out the opportunity for a really good think.

Regardless of the outcome, this is one of those “interesting moments” in science. Some of the assumptions we live by are being tested. People are a bit uncomfortable. We aren’t sure just what to think. This is what makes being a scientist exciting. Enjoy.


real scientists… exposed.

February 3, 2011

I just ran across this article in Wired magazine – it is from just over a year ago, but provides a very interesting look at how science works. You should read it if you have any interest in (a) how scientists go about being scientists (b) how to create situations that will encourage the cultivation of new ideas, or (c) you have a few extra moments and want some insight as to how to best learn from your own failures…

If you are a Research Methods student, be sure to think a bit about how this article relates to “how science works”.

Kevin Dunbar has done a great deal of interesting research beyond what this article touches on – his ideas are worth checking out.

Article Link: Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up