Archive for June, 2015

Why False Confessions Trump Evidence

June 30, 2015

Perhaps the most blatant example of the title  is the case of the Central Park Five.  This case attracted enormous attention as it supposedly characterized “wildings”  that were taking place.  Here five black men were convicted of raping and brutalizing a young woman.  There is a video piece on this that I encourage you to watch should you get the opportunity. You will see how the police interrogated these suspects, not with the hope of getting at the truth, but rather at getting them to confess, which they did.  However, it was quite clear from the physical evidence that the police were intent on getting confessions rather than seeking the truth.  The physical evidence at the scene indicated that this was not a gang rape.  And the DNA evidence, which is regarded as close to a gold standard as one can find for legal proceedings, completely exonerated these five men.

One of the reasons that confessions are regarded so highly is that juries ask themselves “Why would individuals incriminate themselves?  Don’t they know about their Fifth Amendment rights?
If you have viewed or get the opportunity to view the interrogations of the Central Park Five  you will see the extreme pressure these individuals are placed under in uncomfortable conditions for prolonged periods of time.  Moreover, there is psychological research showing that people can be falsely convinced that they did actually commit the crime (see the healthy memory blog post “False Memories Leading to Confessions” ).  And they are told that the investigation will continue, so being desperate or wrongly convinced, they reason that eventually truth will out and that they will be exonerated.

Research has indicated why these false confessions are so powerfully persuasive.  Common sense informs people that people will not incriminate themselves, these confession contain credible narratives (which often are created during the interrogation process), these narratives corrupt other evidence and undermine the truth-seeking process.

So what can be done about this?  First of all,  people, police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and appeals courts should be made aware of this research and question the reliability of these confessions.  Interrogations should be videotaped and reviewed.  There are recommended procedures for these interrogations and these procedures need to be followed.

Other Side of Positive Psychology

June 27, 2015

If you’re not up on positive psychology enter “positive psychology’ into the healthy memory search block.  In brief, it  emphasizes the focus of psychology on positive factors rather than conventional problems such as depression, neuroses, and psychoses.  The title of this session, presented at the 27th meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) would lead one to believe that this session was going to debunk positive psychology.  Instead it produced research shoring up some holes in psychology and providing methods for making positive psychology more effective.

An optimistic outlook and positivity alone can be counterproductive and have the opposite effect.  They discussed mental contrasting mechanisms for considering possible future outcomes.  One of these mechanisms is captured in the acronym WOOP.  This stands for wish, outcomes, obstacles, and plan.  So one begins with a positive realistic wish.  Then one imagines possible outcomes of this wish, including negative and neutral outcomes with the goal of identifying unintended outcomes.  Then one thinks of possible obstacles to achieving positive outcomes.  When these obstacles are identified, then feasible plan(s) are developed to overcome these obstacles.  If an effective plan cannot be developed, then one would abandon this wish, and wish for something more achievable.

An important concept that was discussed is emodiversity.  Emodiversity is an appreciation for the desirability of experiencing a variety of emotions.  It is neither possible nor desirable to be positive and happy all the time.  In music, there are the blues.  In the theater, there are tragedies.  These are legitimate emotions to be experienced and appreciated.  Problems occur when one becomes stuck in them.  Diversity is key.  Hence, emodiversity.

So instead of debunking positive psychology, this session discussed research for making positive psychology more realistic and achievable.  If the session could be summarized in one phrase, that phrase would likely be to “keep an even keel.”

Self Control and Grit

June 24, 2015

Angela Duckworth is a 2003 recipient of a MacArthur Award, better known as a genius award.  She is currently a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her research holds many practical benefits and also accords with common sense.  Unfortunately this “common sense” is not often followed.

Her research has found that changing the external situation is more effective than cognitive strategies in achieving self control.  Perhaps one of the most conspicuous examples concern the company we keep.  Bad company can easily lead to bad behavior and bad consequences.  She related an anecdote of what she observed at a school.  An older student was counseling a younger student with respect to the gang the younger student was “hanging” with.  He warned the kid that he should change the company he was keeping.  He told the kid that when he was the age of the kid he hung out with the wrong crowd that led him to do bad things and suffer bad consequences.

She recommends students sit at the front of the class.  Doing so increases their attention to the subject matter and their engagement with the class.

She also requires that all students in her classes close their laptops.  She insists upon gaining their entire attention.  And she instructs her students to continue to close their laptops in their other classes if they want to excel.

She reported research using experience sampling data to describe the phenomenology  of academic compared to other daily pursuits.  She found that adolescents felt more productive during academic work, and yet, in these same moments were less happy, less confident, and less intrinsically motivated compared to other daily activities.

She reported an experiment with adults on the effect of self-distancing (taking an outsider’s perspective) to stimulate effort on a tedious, but beneficial academic task.  Relative to control, adults in the self-distancing condition persisted more on a math task despite tempting media distractions.

Although laypeople usually connote self-control with the effortful exertion of willpower in the immediate face of temptation, the most effective self-control strategies are actually the ones that preempt situations or temptations that interfered with goals, thereby eliminating the need to exert willpower.  She did a study in which students assigned to implement situation modification rather than straightforward willpower or no strategy at all better accomplished their academic goals.

She uses the term “grit” to refer to staying engaged and overcoming frustration, that is  frustration tolerance.  She assesses grit by measuring the time spent on a frustrating task.  Grit predicted Grade Point Average, standardized math and reading achievement scores above and beyond demographic characteristics, general intelligence, and task importance.  Thus, grit, frustration tolerance, is highly important to academic achievement.

Cognitive Capital

June 21, 2015

I was intrigued by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) session on cognitive capital, primarily because of the title.  I had not encountered this concept very often in the past, yet the concept would seem to hold much promise.  The papers presented at the session defined factors leading into what they called cognitive capital and then showed a high positive correlation between cognitive capital and the the economic success of  different nations.  Although interesting, I really was not interested that much in the papers themselves.  First of all, even if they have regressions equation indicating the contributions different variables make to cognitive capital and economic success, and no matter how big the data are, they are still correlational studies and do not prove causation.  And some of the variables were political in my view, such as private ownership.  Private ownership might indeed be a factor in a country’s success, but I don’t regard it as being a measure of cognitive capital.  It might help the exploitation of cognitive capital, but I regard the concept to be too important to be muddied up by questionable factors.

When I did a search for “cognitive capital”  I discovered a variety of enterprises capitalizing on the name, but I found no entry in the Wikipedia.  To me, this indicates that the concept deserves serious attention from serious researchers.  The concept has enormous intuitive appeal.  So much work and productivity is dependent upon thinking, and that is cognition.  Brains do provide the neurological substrate for cognition, but it is effective cognition that leads to success, and the failure to recognize good ideas, that is, the cognitive failure to recognize cognitive success.

One of the best examples I can think of regarding the importance of cognitive capital is Korea.  Korea was a rural country that was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century.  The Japanese exploited Korea until they were defeated in World War 2.  Unfortunately, the United States permitted the country to be divided in half with the result of the northern half becoming a ruthless communist dictatorship, and the southern half being a struggling capitalistic state.  However, the Koreans put a great deal of importance and had a high literacy rate.  They had cognitive capital to develop and exploit, which they did.  The result is one of the most advanced countries with respect to technology.  And it is important to realize that it is only half a country.  North Korea is one of the poorest and most oppressive countries on earth.  One that suppresses rather than fosters cognitive capital.  Unfortunately, the limited fostering of cognitive capital that they have done has lead to nuclear weapons and computer hackers.

So I think a good question is how can cognitive capital be fostered.  Free higher education is one means.  Perhaps the best investment the United States ever made in cognitive capital was the GI Bill after World War 2 that provided the means for millions of veterans to pursue higher education.  I believe that much of the subsequent success of the United States was the result of the GI Bill.  So why is higher education so expensive in the United States? Research should be targeted at initially reducing and ultimately eliminating these costs and examine the benefits that stem from this investment in cognitive capital.  Similar experimental studies should be done so that causation can be established in lieu of correlational studies.  In elections I want to see politicians saying that they will invest in cognitive capital.  And citizens should demand public investments in cognitive capital.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Integrative Body-Mind Training

June 17, 2015

As was mentioned in the immediately preceding post, during his Opening Address at the Meeting of  the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Posner discussed Attention and two main approaches to training the mind.  The previous post discussed his talk on attention training.   This post discusses his talk on attention state training. Integrative body-mind training (IBMT) is an example of the attention state approach to training the mind.  IBMT was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine in the 1990s in China, where it is being practice by thousands of people. Posner  has brought this technique to the United States at the University of Oregon.

IBMT does not try to control thought, but instead relies on a state of restful alertness that allows for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach.  The coach provides breath-adjustment guidance, mental imagery and other techniques as soothing music plays in the background.  Gradually thought control is achieved through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balancing breathing.  Having a good coach is important.

Two experiments were run at Chinese universities.  In both experiments participants who had not previously practiced relaxation or meditation received either IBMT or general relaxation instruction for 20 minutes a day for five days.  Although both groups experienced some benefit from the training,  those in IBMT showed dramatic differences  based on brain-imaging and physiological testing.

IBMT subjects had increased blood flow in the right anterior cingulate cortex, which is a region associated with self regulation of cognition and emotion.  Compared with the relaxation group, IBMT subjects had lower heart rates and skin conductance responses, increased belly breathing amplitude and decreased chest respiration rates all of which reflected less effort exertion by participants, more relaxation of body and a calm state of mind.  The following is complicated, so please bear with me, “IBMT subjects had more high-frequency variability than their relaxation counterparts, indicating successful inhibition of sympathetic tone and activation of parasympathetic tone in the autonomic nervous system.”  Sympathetic tone becomes more active when stressed.

Posner has essentially replicated these results at the University of Oregon.    He has conducted another study using a group of smokers (randomly assigned either to basic relaxation training or to IBMT.  Although this study used smokers it was not portrayed as a study designed to help them stop smoking.  After two weeks the IBMT group (but not the relaxation group) showed an average 60% reduction in cigarette smoking.  Brain scans confirmed  an increase in brain activity in areas related to self-control, including the anterior cingulate..

What specially amazed Posner was that many of the subjects did not realize that they were smoking less, despite the fact some of the reduction levels approached those of a quitter!

Posner on Mind Over Matter

June 13, 2015

Mind Over Matter was the title of the opening address given by Posner at the 27th Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.  He began his address by saying that humans are an easily distracted species.  He quoted from an ancient Hindu book called the Bhagavad Gita in which Arijuna remarks to Krishna that the mind “is as difficult to control as the wind.”  The blessed lord replies that with practice and indifference to worldly objects, the mind indeed can be restrained.

Posner noted that psychological science has figured out quite a bit about controlling the mind.  We know how the attention system develops in childhood, how it operates in adults and how to restrain it with practice.  He noted that these insights might help relieve mental illness.  “There are many, many attractive projects in psychology these days,” said Posner.  “I believe among  them will be the effort to understand attention in way which can improve the human condition.”

Posner defined attention as the product of two neural systems.  One is called the “orienting network.”  This is the part of the brain that helps us orient to external stimuli in our environment.  The other neural system is called the executive network, which helps us resolve conflicts and execute goals.  One of the key areas that assists this executing network is the anterior cingulate gyrus.  When children reach the age of 7 or 8, the executive network assumes most of the responsibility for maintaining attention.

One of the tools Posner uses is the Attention Network Test (ANT).   Individuals watch a target arrow and press a left button if the arrow is pointing left, and a right button if it is pointing right.  This target arrow can be flanked by congruent arrows (pointing in the same way) or incongruent arrows (pointing different directions).  The differences in reaction time for the congruent and incongruent condition is a strong measure of attention and of self-control.  Research has shown that higher effortful control scores as early as age 4 can predict health (less sickness), wealth (higher income), and crime (lower rates) at age 35.

Posner and his colleagues have identified two main approaches to learning how to control our minds with practice:  attention training and attention state training.  Attention training helps strengthen the mind with executive network tasks.  In one stud, young children were given a juvenile version of the ANT, then trained for 5 days on tasks such as using a joystick to control movement, improving working memory, and resolving mental conflicts.  When they took the ANT again at the end of the training period, the children showed changes in reaction time toward the direction of adult functioning.  He said that least 10 subsequent studies, using a variety of executive training methods have found similar results.

The second approach to learning to control our minds through practice is called attention state training.  Attention state training will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

Attendance at 27th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS)

June 9, 2015

I attended the first meeting of APS (although it was called the American Psychological Society then) and gave a poster presentation.  I haven’t attended all of these meetings, but I have attended some of them, and I’ve found that they don’t disappointment.  Nor did the 27th meeting.

The Keynote Address at the Opening Ceremony was given my Michael Posner.  It was titled “Fostering Attention for Human Needs.”  Posner is one of the leading researchers of attention, and attention is central to human cognition, human behavior, and human health.  At least one additional post will be done on Posner’s work.

One of the first session was titled “Cognitive Capital:  Causes and Consequences.”  The researchers were relating the economic success of different countries to what they called cognitive capital.  To do this they needed measures of cognitive capital, which they produced.  The notion of Cognitive Capital is an intriguing, one which will be addressed in subsequent posts.

Another session was on the “Biased Processing of Political Information.”  This is an important topic and is one of the obstacles to an effective democracy.  Some interesting reach was presented that suggested that judges and lawyers process information different that we lay people.  Obviously, they have biases also, but within these biases the evidence suggests that legal minds think differently.  This session also included a paper on the topic of why historical misconceptions endure, such as the holocaust being a myth, or that 9/11 was a tragedy done by the United States to the United States for nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, there was no information on how holders of these misconceptions can be disabused of their misconceptions.  People’s biases simply blind them from facts.

There were many papers on how cognition works, and on the neural structures underlying cognition.

Michael Gazzaniga gave a presentation that I was unable to attend, but I think it was similar to the presentation he gave at the 2013 meeting of APS that was reviewed in this blog.

LeDoux presented his new concepts on the differences between fear and anxiety.

Angela Duckworth, who is a 2003 MacArthur Award recipient gave a presentation on Grit, which she defined as staying engaged to overcome frustration.  There will be a post devoted to her work that will includes some tips for fostering grit.

A highly worthwhile session was given on the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  There have been prior healthy memory blog posts on Positive Psychology.  Instead of debunking Positive Psychology, this session provided some very useful advice on “fine tuning” Positive Psychology.  There will be blog posts on this topic.

There was an interesting session of false confessions that will be covered in subsequent healthy memory blog posts as well as on a session on the “Central Park Five.”

The work on Timothy Wilson was covered in the Healthymemory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves.”  He gave a presentation expanding on this topic.

Franz B.M. de Waal gave the Bring the Family Address titles “Humans and Animals:  Politics, Culture and Morality.  It was very interesting and highly entertaining.

There was a very interesting presentation on Free Will.  I shall be discussing a book, in a future healthy memory blog titled “Free Will” by the philosopher Mark Balaguer.   I informed the presenter about this book as they have similar views to Balaguer.  They were grateful for this information.

As always, there were too many interesting presentation to attend.  And even when one was able to attend presentations, there was too much information to absorb.  These conventions leave me physically and mentally depleted, but with the knowledge that I have learned much.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My iPAD at the Association for Psychological Science Meeting

June 7, 2015

I hope that regular readers of this blog will know what transactive memory is.  This iPAD certainly doesn’t as it repeatedly change my spelling to “transitive.”  Transactive memory refers to memories that are not held in our biological brains, but rather in our fellow humans or in technology, which can vary from paper to computers.  I think the APS did a splendid job of putting the program on the iPAD.  It had the schedule with links to paper abstracts and to locations, which made it easy to find the presentations.   The primary failure I experienced was not the iPAD, but to my failure to consult the iPAD.  I relied on my biological memory and arrived late for an interview with Steven Pinker that I wanted to attend.

I took notes the old fashioned way on a paper pad.  I still lack the proficiency to enter notes on the iPAD keypad, and my writing on the iPAD is even worse than my writing on a paper pad.  But I needed to take fewer notes as I could use the iPAD later to enhance the notes.

I also thought of how future technology could change the convention.  For example, the actual presentations could be streamed to mobile devices, so we could still interact with the speaker without being physically present in the room.  However, I doubt this will ever happen.  The convention could be attended live without ever leaving home.  Of course, the flesh component of the meeting would be missing, and these conventions are money makers for the societies.  Still, they could charge fees for participating, and the savings in travel and hotel fees would be enormous!

In an earlier state of technology, similar conventions did take place.  In 1999, 2002, and 2005 Cyberg  conventions were held remotely.  The topic of these conventions was human factors and ergonomics.  The idea originated with colleagues from the southern hemisphere where travel is especially troublesome.  I actively participate in all of these conferences and actually won an award for my active participation in 2005.  I found it interesting learning about research throughout the world.  Third world countries had some interesting ergonomic problems that we in the advance world would never consider.  Unfortunately, we have not had another meeting since 2005.  This is understandable as they do constitute quite a bit of work for the hosting countries.  Yes, there needs to be a physical host.

If anyone has had any experience with similar meetings, I would be interested in learning about them.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.