Archive for the ‘Cog Psych Stuff’ Category


how to think science…

September 6, 2013

One of the first quotes I share with my students is one that (as far as I know) is attributed to Carl Sagan

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

I think at first, the students shrug and say, “Ok, neat quote, C-P.” But I really want them to internalize this idea. Mull it over. Reorganize their understanding of what they (think they) know about science and the world they live in. Really appreciating what this means can be transformative for a student. Often, they have developed a sense that “knowing science” is simply having at their disposal a set of facts and statements about the relationships between those facts. It is difficult to convince them that “knowing science” is more about understanding how those facts came to be, to what degree we can accept or work with those facts, and how it is that science moves forward. It is not about simply gathering “more facts”. It is about how we can best maintain a balance between being skeptical and accepting ideas about the world that are put before us.

With that thought in mind, I thought I would share a recent rumination by Dan Simons on a study that was recently published in Nature (article here and a more accessible description of the study here). Simons provides a textbook example of how a scientist thinks… The study in question examined how playing a video game might affect the visual attention and multitasking capabilities of an older adult. In short, the study found evidence that the game play increased certain cognitive functions of the older adults (aged 60 to 85). The response that Simons has is what he calls a “HIBAR” (“Had I Been A Reviewer” – referring to the peer review process that scientific publication undergo before being published). Some of his concerns are methodological (e.g. tasks completed by the control conditions), some are statistical (e.g. lack of measures of variability for differences scores), some are theoretical (e.g. why the video game affected some functioning but not others). Altogether, they illustrate what productive skepticism looks like. He is not simply dismissing the study or blindly embracing it. He is trying to better understand what the results show (and don’t show) about the topic, and he is trying to work through how we should think about those results. It would be silly to think that a single study answers all the potential questions about something as complex as attention, training, and aging. However, if we take a single study, like the one in question, and then carefully assess it, we see a way ahead. That is science.


creativity… going it alone or with the herd?

January 18, 2012

So, this week begins a new semester, and with it a certain resolution to more frequently add to the information I share through this little portal. Hopefully, I can maintain that focus and make a this a useful stopping point for my students (and others) who have some interest in various matters of a psychological nature. This semester, I am teaching a seminar (“Creativity & Cognition”) and a section of Research Methods. This may flavor the topics I choose to pick up on for this blog.

Case in point – with impeccable timing, the New York Times ran an opinion piece this past week looking at creativity and collaboration (The Rise of the New Groupthink). Susan Cain argues that the shift towards an emphasis on collaborative work (as evidenced by brainstorming meetings, shared work spaces, etc.) in the classroom and corporate office has been counter-productive because it stymies the endeavors of people who feel more comfortable and productive working on their own. Her new book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” would seem to further develop this idea (although I haven’t read it and don’t see much of an opportunity to do so arising anytime soon). I just wanted to point out a few things in the opinion piece that caught my eye.

I think Cain’s closing idea is right on. In the second to last paragraph, Cain says, “… we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a nuanced approach to creativity and learning”. Creativity is complex – once you begin considering “why” and “how” it occurs, you realize that it involves the interaction of various components, none of which is sufficient alone to explain “why” or “how” creativity occurred. This means that there are no easy answers to either the “why” or the “how”, and most current theories of creativity reflect that idea. What I see as being the most complete theories of creativity engage with the notion of convergence in some way – the attributes and experiences of the individual interact with the current state of the domain that person is working within and the resulting ideas get picked up and transmitted by others if they are sufficiently novel and appropriate to the issues at hand. Cain’s comment in the closing reflects that complexity, but the main point of her article (that being forced into these group collaborations gets in the way of the creative individual) actually works against recognizing that complexity. She emphasizes the experience of the creative/introverted individual (e.g. Steve Wozniak of Apple), working alone, tirelessly endeavoring to create the breakthrough that will change things forever… (what in her last sentence, she appears to call “the real work”). But this ignores that fact that all of the hard work of the individual is for nothing if it is not situated properly within the domain (e.g. having the opportunity to start Apple with Steve Jobs who seemed to provide a vision for Wozniak’s tireless brilliance) and subsequently picked up by the others involved in developing home computers (from the computer “Homebrewers” she mentions to the consumers who provide a market for the yet to developed pcs). Her deference to the creative individual is reflected in the mention of Gregory Feist (who focuses on studying creativity as arising from a cluster of personality traits – a clear focus on the individual) at the start of her piece. More curious is her mention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same point – Csikzentmihalyi has proposed a “systems view” of creativity that takes the notion of convergence mentioned above to heart. In one chapter, Csikzentmihalyi (1999) states very clearly his dissatisfaction with a focus on the individual as of critical importance in the creative endeavor:

“What the present chapter seeks to accomplish, however, is to point out that creativity cannot be recognized except as it operates within a system of cultural rules, and it cannot bring forth anything new unless it can enlist the support of peers. If these conclusions are are accepted, then it follows that the occurrence of creativity is not simply a function of how many gifted individuals there are, but also how accessible the various symbolic systems are and how responsive the social system is to novel ideas.” (p. 333)

Csikzentmihalyi is proposing that we distort our understanding of creativity by putting too much emphasis on the role of the individual, something that Cain appears to be doing in her proposal. And because she identifies the “creative” individual as being of a certain type (introverted), she fails to recognize the potential interactions between the person and the situation that are truly critical in understanding creativity. It could be that bustling and rich environments keep introverts from their creative potential, but it may benefit others. With a quick search, I found several studies that found positive correlations between extroversion and creative potential (Borod, Grossman, & Eisenman, 1971; Khosravani & Guilani, 2008; King, Mackee Walker, & Broyles, 1996), and these other creative types might just flourish in that environment.

If classrooms and workplaces are becoming as chaotic and socially focused as Cain proposes, it may not be an ideal environment for some people to create within. However, it may be the right kind of environment for others, and moving back to everyone sitting in neat rows and individual offices is hardly going to be the solution. There is a lot of interesting and meaningful research being done to better understand creativity (and much of it is focused specifically on the classroom and workplace environment), and I think we are better able to determine how different environments affect different kinds of individuals and their ability to create than Cain’s opinion piece suggests.


steppin’ out to learn about human behavior…

September 5, 2011

Fields for Psychology – Association for Psychological Science.

This is one of those easy posts – all I essentially have to say is “go read the article linked above”. The article is written by Doug Medin, so you know it will be a quality read.

Just a bit of background though. I want to direct my Research Methods students to this article to emphasize some of the points I’ve made in class about the relative strengths and weaknesses of various research methodologies used in psychological research. I also wanted to get my Cognitive students thinking about the impact of relying nearly exclusively on laboratory experimentation in the study of cognition. Dr. Medin does a great job articulating the issues and presenting the challenges for psychological researchers. Enjoy.


psychological science and the who-dunit?

September 1, 2011

Even though it was a year ago that we (the Denison “we”) had a wonderful visit with Elizabeth Loftus, I wanted to make sure folks were still thinking about some of the issues she had discussed. You can click here for an interesting article in the on-line magazine Slate that discusses Dr. Loftus’s work, as well as some of their own inquiry into various false memory phenomena.

Once you have revisited some of the basic issues, I invite you to read the current New York Times “Room for Debate”. They have comments from five experts (including Dr. Loftus) about the use of eyewitness testimony in jury trials. This is a great chance to see psychological science making important contributions to difficult discussions. This is definitely one of those situations where there are no “easy answers”, so it is especially important that the science that can inform the debate. From what I could tell, all five experts sided with the general conclusions of a recent ruling handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court – the ruling outlines a series of procedures for handling challenges to eyewitness evidence in criminal trials, and in a large part the decision is based firmly on conclusions drawn from scientific study of eyewitness identification. Yeah.  I’m not sure this will completely fix the occurrence of wrongful convictions based on faulty eyewitness testimony. From what I can see, it looks as though the next issue will be with the juries themselves… People have a tendency to hold onto their naive theories about the world pretty strongly, so simply requiring the judge to inform the jury about the potential for eyewitnesses to be mistaken may not be enough for some members of the jury to shift how they weigh that evidence. Still, it is refreshing to see this kind of shift occurring in how the courts think about eye witness testimony.


the “myth” of learning styles…

August 30, 2011

I meant to post on this many moons ago when the topic first came to my attention by way of a review in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Now, with school back in session, it seems timely again, especially because NPR had a brief piece on the topic this morning… You can check out the webpage and listen to the segment here. If the short bit here piques your interest, you can read a full review of the research that they are discussing (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork (2009) – pdf available, scroll down).

The take home message is fairly straightforward. In education, there has been a rather pervasive, and seemingly intuitive, notion that different people learn best through different forms of presentation of material. I taught high school for several years and remember the focus among my colleagues on engaging all learners, whether they are auditory or visual or kinesthetic learners, because the learning style of the child made a big difference. It came up in my teaching training, but primarily during the courses dealing with pedagogy (as opposed to those that dealt with educational psychology for example). There is a huge industry offering teacher training and curricular materials to engage with the variety of learning styles. BUT… despite the intuitiveness and pervasiveness of the idea of learning styles, there has been incredibly little empirical validation of the ideas this approach. Simply, it sounds good, but so far it doesn’t seem to be true… Caveats, of course. The Pashler et al. (2009) study does impose a rigorous bar for what should be counted as evidence for the learning styles hypothesis, so even though there has been some study of the idea, the research was not methodologically sound enough to insure the validity of the findings. Also, basic research can be difficult to equate with what happens in more applied settings (like a classroom). Finally, the conclusion that there is no evidence for the notion is not the same as “the idea is totally wrong”. It could be wrong (and given that some of the most rigorous studies found no effect of learning styles indicates that might be the final conclusion), but it can also be taken as a call to action – more research needs to be done on this topic to specify what are the benefits and what sort of gains do they provide before we spend time and money trying to accommodate different learning styles.

Final note – there is good evidence that motivated learners learn better. So, if students are motivated by different instructional approaches, we should use those different approaches. And, encountering information through different modalities (visual, auditory, tactile) can enrich the learning experience for everyone. From my own experience, the best teachers recognize that varying the ways that students engage with the material is a sound practice. So, setting aside the idea of learning styles doesn’t mean that we should embrace any singular approach to learning.

Side note – students in Cognitive Psychology this semester, please note that the NPR segment includes some comments by Daniel Willingham, the esteemed author of your textbook.


the kind of things that keep me up at night…

May 26, 2011

The Unconscious Has a Mind of Its Own – Association for Psychological Science.

I’ve been doing a bit of writing about how goals play a role in conceptual acquisition. Fun stuff which hopefully I’ll get a chance to share down the road some. The topic has brought me closer and closer to issues related to consciousness (cue the creepy organ). As a result, this recent study caught my eye.

So, let’s start there. I just said that study “caught my eye” – did I (the free-will toting me) willfully direct my attention to this study because of my interests? Or is there some whirring and buzzing processing occurring within me, over which I have no control, and it latched onto this study and brought me (the conscious me) along with it? In case you didn’t know, there is a bit of debate going on among psychologists about what is “consciousness” and what it is for (I’ll blame those pesky social psychologists for stirring up this hornet’s nest). At one end of the spectrum, you have folks who believe, often just an assumption really, that conscious experience reflects exactly the cognitive processing that is on-going, and that we (as in the conscious we) are ultimately in control of that processing. For instance, I will now tell myself to type the word “frog”. Frog. See. I (the free-will me) thought of something and then action followed. At the other end of the spectrum, there are folks that believe that conscious experience is simply that, an experience. Much like you may see a movie, you experience consciousness, but you are just along for the ride. As much as you might want to shout at the actor on the screen to not open the door (especially when the serial killer lurks on the other side), you have no real opportunity or power to actually change the course of the ongoing action. There is a lot out there on this debate (I especially have enjoyed reading some of Daniel Dennett‘s ideas, not that I fully agree with or understand them, mind you). Hopefully, you can see why this keeps me up at night.

The study is interesting because it takes aim at one of the strongholds of consciousness. One of the ideas out there is that the unconscious is important, but that conscious processing is necessary for the really “hard thinking”. Sure, the unconscious processing can cue us to information or shape how we interpret some incoming information, but when it comes to the difficult processing, like integrating meaning across objects and scenes, the conscious processing is ready to take over. The study by researchers at Tel Aviv University shows that the story may be a bit different. Participants viewed scenes in a way that was designed to curtail conscious perception of the images. However, they reacted faster to incongruous scenes (someone placing a chessboard into an oven) than congruous ones (placing food into an oven), indicating that the unconscious processing was sufficient to integrate the scene (the objects and background in the images) in terms of its meaning. This interpretation fits with the ideas proposed by several researchers (check out some work by John Bargh and Ap Dijksterhuis for some stuff that could keep you up at night) about the importance of unconscious processing. It still leaves some important cognitive real estate for conscious processing (dealing with the incongruous information), but it does shift the debate, and not in the favor of those who have held out that conscious processing is the pinnacle of human cognition.

Reading the article though, a couple of issues came to mind. The first is related to “doing science” (research methods students should pay attention these concerns). The interpretation the authors provide relies on the methodology (continuous flash suppression) achieving the proposed disruption of conscious processing. I am not a vision scientist, so I don’t have the expertise to make any meaningful critique of the methodology, and I recognize that there is a growing literature (although currently limited) that addresses the use of this methodology. Still, before I fully accept these findings, I need to do some reading about CFS and how its effectiveness at knocking out conscious processing. Also, the authors have made their stimuli available on-line so the stimuli used in the study (the congruous and incongruous images) can be evaluated, and possibly used, by other researchers. This kind of sharing and openness is essential to the scientific process. It specifically allows others to evaluate whether the only difference between the two types of images is the relations that exist between the objects and background in the image. If other differences exist – something as simple as luminance or amount of detail – that could relate to the differences seen in responses, critically changing the interpretation that can be made of the results. The second issue is more related to the “keeps me awake at night” aspect of the study. One could look at this kind of research and say, “So what?”. Or, one could look at it and wonder at what it tells us about our mind. Or, one could consider what it means about how we operate in the world. Our behaviors. The supposed focus of psychology. This is much trickier, but an earlier study pops to mind. Three years ago, Voh and Schooler (2008) published a study illustrating how exposing participants to ideas that challenged the notion of free-will resulted in an increase in “immoral” behaviors (cheating on a test and taking money that was not earned). You can also check out this link to an article by a social psychologist that gives the research and its implications a more thorough treatment. Anyhow, as unconscious processing takes on more and more of what we have considered to be the realm of conscious, willful processing, we have to sync these ideas with what we think about free-will, personal responsibility, such and so forth… Fascinating. I’ll be up tonight thinking about it.


getting all meta…

April 19, 2011

I haven’t been posting much to this site as I have been on leave this semester. I had to share this article though – hopefully some future students will browse back through this collection and take a moment to read this… Even if you aren’t a student of psychology, it is worth a read.

“Come on, I thought I knew that!”

The premise of the NY Times article linked above is fairly simple – we often misjudge how well we know something and we can increase the likelihood we will remember it at a later point in time if we work a bit more at the point we initially encode the information.

The first issue deals with meta-memory, the way in which we think about our memory. For instance, I know I have a difficult time remembering names, so when I meet someone new I spend a few seconds rehearsing the name, looking for distinctive cues about the person’s mannerisms or face, and trying to make connections between the name and other information about the person. At that point, I am thinking about my memory ability (or lack thereof) and trying to use that awareness to augment the encoding process. Meta-memory also comes into play when we make judgments about our memory, like when I recall the name of a person I met recently and my darling wife asks “are really sure that was his name?” (and I am typically not very sure). The article mentions the work of Dr. Robert Bjork who has spent years studying human memory – it worth stopping by his research site to learn some more about the work he has done and is currently involved in.

The second issue, has to do with cognitive fluency – how difficult a task seems to be during the course of processing (check out the article linked to the term for lots more info). Fluency plays a very interesting and important role in meta-cognition (and thus meta-memory). Basically, the easier it is to process information, the more comfortable we are with it and thus the greater influence it can have in our thinking and subsequent behaviors. In the article, the author discusses some of the work of Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer – go check out some of his other research; he has done quite a bit examining fluency effects among other topics, and it tends to be quite interesting. The NY Times article summarizes a few studies that have explored how fluency plays a role in memory, particularly a role in the type of encoding and retrieval we associate with “studying for a test” (although it would have effects on a myriad of the interactions we have during the course of the day). Although it may be counter-intuitive, and even seem counter-productive, making the processing more difficult at the time of encoding (studying) can actually increase the likelihood the material will be available at retrieval (at the test). Much of the research involves manipulating seemingly extraneous variables (like the font the information being studied is written in). However, these changes create disfluency, a sense of effort in the processing, and this means more cognitive resources are brought into play during the encoding which then increases the likelihood of successful retrieval later. Personally, I thought it was interesting that they proposed that providing extra study sheets and outlines to students might be a detriment to learning:

“Even course outlines provided by a teacher, a textbook or other outside source can create a false sense of security, some research suggests. In one experiment, researchers found that participants studying a difficult chapter on the industrial uses of microbes remembered more when they were given a poor outline — which they had to rework to match the material — than a more accurate one.” (of course, this finding is not linked to a particular study in the article, just the assertion “in one experiment” – c’mon, show me the citation… luckily I had a vague recollection of the study and was able to hunt it down: Mannes, S. M. & Kintsch, W. (1987). Knowledge Organization and Text Organization. Cognition and Instruction, 4, 91 – 115.)

It is worth thinking about – I really do sometimes try to make it easy for students to study by providing lots of support and trying to organize the material “optimally”. I sometimes forget the value of the hard work (which is associated with a sense of disfluency) that goes into true learning… I think that it comes down to a balancing act. Too much disfluency and the student is likely to shut down because it is just too difficult to encode the information. Too little disfluency and the student develops a false sense of mastery of the information. There is a middle ground where the information is provided in an accessible and useful way, but the onus is on the student to work with that information by developing their own outlines and other ways to organize the material, weighing the value of the information, and finding ways to relate the information to what they already know. There are many ways to relate fluency to issues outside of the classroom (political discourse, religion, relationships), but we’ll have to save that exploration for another day…