Posts Tagged ‘Belief’

The Upside of Stress

June 10, 2018

HM is surprised that he is writing this title. As a person and as a psychologist, he has thought that stress is harmful and something to be avoided. The author of the book, “The Upside of Stress” is also a psychologist, a health psychologist at Stanford University to be specific, who also thought that stress was harmful and something that should be avoided. But we psychologists change our minds, when data indicate that we should change our minds. The data so indicated and we changed our minds. The subtitle of Dr. McGonigal’s book is “Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.”

In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, “Do you believe stress is harmful to your health. Eight years later the researchers examined the public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43%, but this increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harmful to their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view they stress as harmful were not more likely to die. Moreover, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.

So it doesn’t appear that stress alone is harmful. Rather, it is the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted the study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that makes “believing stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. The researchers had looked at a wide range of factors that might explain the finding to include gender, race, ethnicity, age, education, income, work status, marital status, smoking, physical activity, chronic health condition, and health insurance. None of these facts explained why stress beliefs interacted with stress levels to predict mortality.

It is known that beliefs and attitudes are important. One example is that people with a positive attitude about aging live longer than those who hold negative stereotypes about getting oder. A classic study by researchers at Yale University followed middle-aged adults for 20 years. Those who had a positive view of aging in midlife lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who had a negative view. To put this finding in perspective, many factors we regard as obvious and important, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have been shown, on average, to add less than four years to one’s life span.

After learning of these findings, Dr. McGonigal had to face the fact that by teaching the dangers of stress, she was actually damaging the health of students, not helping them. Dr. McGonigal learned from these studies and from talking to scientists, who are part of a new generation of stress researchers, whose work is redefining our understanding of stress by illuminating its upside. “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps us learn and grow, and it can even inspire courage and compassion. The best way to manage stress is not to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.

The next thirteen healthy memory blog posts will be based on Dr. McGonigal’s book to help you rethink and embrace it.

Key to the development of an effective response to stress involves the concept of mindsets. The healthy memory blog has been a strong advocate of growth mindsets in which we embrace continual new learning. Learning about stress is just another topic to add to our growth mindsets.

Building a Firewall Against Folly

April 28, 2018

This post has the same title as a section of the book “Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling” by psychologist James E. Alcock. Dr. Alcock suggests that short of undertaking formal training in critical thinking skills, we can help ourselves think more critically by keeping the following points in mind. Although they clearly are not enough on their own to turn us into great critical thinkers, they can help us all to become better critical thinkers.

“Beware: We can all be fooled. Possibly the most common pitfall with regard to critical thinking is the belief that one is already a good critical thinker. The next step toward building a firewall against folly is to recognize that we can be deceived and that we can frequently deceive ourselves. No matter how good we are at critical analysis, every one of us is likely at times to depart significantly from rationality, especially in situations when emotion or intuition confronts reason. The corollary is that we all probably have pockets of irrationality where erroneous beliefs take shelter.
Be wary of your intuitions: Pay attention to them, but do not trust them. As the products of nonconscious information processing, intuitions can offer important guidance to decision-making when based on considerable past experience. On the other hand, they can also gravely mislead, especially when there has been little experience to back them up. To ignore intuition completely is unwise, but to accept it uncritically is even more so.
3. Be wary of the Fundamental Attribution Error, the tendency that we all have to attribute people’s behaviors to their characters and intentions while overlooking or minimizing the power of the situation, which often plays the greater role in determining people’s actions. It is easy to assume that suicide terrorists are deranged and merciless while ignoring the situation factors that render their actions altruistic in the eyes of their communities, just as it is easy to believe that all homeless people are lazy, or that a student who does poorly lacks intelligence.
4. Be wary of personal validation. While personal experience can be a great teacher, personal validation—judging a claim based only on personal experience—is often a poor guide to its validity. You may have had a powerful dream that seemed precognitive, or the psychic’s palm reading may have been impressive, or the yellow pill may seem to have cured you laryngitis, or your interaction with a memory of a minority group may have been less than pleasant, but this in no way demonstrates the reality of precognition, the psychic powers of the palm reader, the remedial qualities of the yellow pill, or that “those people” are difficult.
5. Beware of reliance on a single source of information. This should be obvious, but it is all too easy to ignore this caveat, especially with regard to the news. We naturally gravitate toward sources that are in line with our beliefs, and this risks sheltering us from information that might challenge what we erroneously take to be fact.
6. Beware of mistaking coincidence for causation. As we have seen, we are born magical thinkers, and magical thinking continues to lurk beneath the surface in wait for reason to falter. It is often difficult to resist the idea of causation when two meaningful events occur one after the other. Challenging automatic assumptions about causality is a key aspect of critical thinking.
7. Be wary of over-interpreting correlations. Just as with coincidence, we can all too readily mistake correlations for cause and effect. Observing that were seems to be more and more petty crime, while at the same time noting that the immigrant population is increasing, does not mean that there is a connection between the two. Moreover, some of the ‘correlations” that we observe may not actually be correlations at all. They may be illusory. For example, many emergency ward physicians and nurses are convinced that admissions jump whenever there is a full moon. Forty % of medical staff surveyed in a 2011 study expressed that belief, while 80% of the nurses and 60% of the physicians who responded to another survey were convinced that here were more mental health admissions during a full moon than at any other time. Such beliefs are in error, for many investigations have all found no evidenced of increased admissions, for either physical of psychiatric reasons, during a full moon. Again, experience can be a poor guide to reality.
8. Compared to what? The question of “compared to what” is vital to critical thinking. A sort of parable: Before the carcinogenic properties of asbestos were understood, some winemakers removed impurities by filtering their wines through asbestos. A 1977 test found asbestos fibers in every one of the fifteen wines tested, and a particular Hungarian wine was withdrawn from liquor store shelves after being measured for having almost two million asbestos fibers per liter. Not long after, a psychologist friend came to dinner bearing a bottle of that very wine. When I informed him of its high asbestos content, he replied—as any good experimental psychologist might—“compared to what?” and jokingly suggested that the city’s water supply might have an even higher asbestos count. The irony was that a newspaper reported a week later that city water at that time was also being filtered through asbestos and its fiber count did indeed exceed that of the wine. Avoid the water too! Asking “compared to what” is also an essential component of scientific inquiry, where it is typically addressed through the use of control groups, a practice that took root only in the early twentieth century but has ultimately become a mainstay of medical and psychological research. Though individuals can hardly be expected to set up control groups, we should all endeavor, as my friend was doing, albeit in humor, to engage in a control-group style of thinking. This comes naturally in some situations but rarely occurs in others.
9. Keep the Scottish verdict in mind and suspend judgment. Juries in criminal trials in Scotland are not forced to choose between guilty and innocent; they can also opt for not proven. It is often tempting to jump to conclusions: “They didn’t invite us because they don’t like us”; “Last night’s dream about today’s fire must have been paranormal.” Such quick conjectures are often wrong. If more information is to be had, then by all means we should seek it out, but in the meantime, rather than rely on whatever explanation comes readily to mind, the wiser strategy is to adopt the equivalent of the Scots’ “Not proven”; suspend judgment about how or why something happened and conclude simply that “I don’t know.”

Disturbing Data on What We Believe and Trust

April 27, 2018

This post is based on information in the book “Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling” by psychologist James E. Alcock. A 2017 Pew Research Poll carried out in the United States reported that 85% of Republicans and Republican leaners, compared to 46% of Democrats, believe that the reports of the traditional news media are having a negative effect on the country. The same research poll found that while 72% of Democrats in their sample consider colleges and universities to be an “overwhelming positive force,” only 36 % of Republicans share that belief, and more than half of Republicans view colleges and universities as having a negative effect on the nation. It is frightening to think that more than half of the people in a major political party regard higher education as having a negative effect.

Dr. Alcock writes, “The core beliefs of dogmatic political or religious fundamentalists are unlikely to change no matter what we do, for those beliefs are well entrenched. Even Marcel Proust observed about the facts of life, “do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; they did not engender those beliefs, and they are powerless to change them.”

In terms of Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process Theory of Cognition, these people are for all intents and purposes System 1 processors. System 1 is termed intuition and refers to our usual mode of thinking fast based on our learning and emotional feelings. To question and reevaluate thoughts, System 2 processing, called reasoning, or more commonly thinking, requires us to use attention. Virtually all learning involves System 2 processing, and System 2 processing is essential for critical thinking.

Republicans having negative views about the news and higher education characterized them as primarily System 1 processors. The world is changing rapidly and the news reports the changes. To understand the news requires System 2 processing, something these Republicans do not want to do. Similarly colleges, at least good colleges, need to advance with the thinking of the times. They need to be critical, but nevertheless there are topics that need to be studied and evaluated. One of the worst deeds these parents can do is to not send their children to college or to send them to colleges with a parochial (in the narrow sense, not necessarily the religious sense view). It is also harmful to the country.

It is important that not all Republicans be painted with the same brush. Republicans who have recognized that Trump is no Republican and have either left the party, as George Will did, or have refused to support Trump are clearly System 2 processors Their System 2 processing clearly indicated that not only is Trump not a true Republican, but that he also is a risk to the country and the world.

However, Dr. Alcock has some hope for people whose beliefs are not so dogmatically anchored that they are beyond influence. Even so, this is an arduous process. University courses that encourage critical thinking to help students distinguish science from pseudoscience have had mixed results. Psychologist Tom Gray assessed the effects of a one-semester university course that both emphasized critical thinking in the evaluation of evidence and offered natural explanations for various supposed paranormal phenomena. He found that, while belief in ESP, alien spacecraft, and reincarnation fell from 85% to 50%, over the course of the term many students simply did not change their beliefs at all. In other research, he found that university-level research methods and statistics courses, which might be expected to stimulate critical acumen, do not on their own enhance general critical thinking ability.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Belief

April 18, 2015

Our beliefs direct our lives and how we think.  The initial part of this post comes from an American Scientist (4 April 2015, 28-33) article by Graham Lawton.

Initially our beliefs are determined by default.  Children believe what they are told.  This is fortunate, otherwise the child’s development would be retarded.  So our brains are credulous.  A brain imaging study by Sam Harris illustrated how our brain responds to belief.  People were put in a brain scanner and asked whether the believed in various written statements.   Statements that people believed in produced little characteristic brain activity, just a few flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward.  However, disbelief  produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision making.  Apparently it takes the brain longer to reach a state of disbelief.  Statements that were not believed also activated regions associated  with emotion such as pain and disgust.  These responses make sense when regarded from an evolutionary perspective.

There is also a feeling of rightness that accompanies our beliefs.  This makes evolutionary sense except in the case of delusional beliefs.  People suffering from mental illness can feel quite strongly about delusional beliefs.  And when we here a belief from a friend or acquaintance we find to be incredulous, we might ask, “Are you out of your mind?”

So a reasonable question is where does this feel in of rightness originate.  One is our evolved biology, that has already been discussed.   Another is personal biology.  The case of mental illness has already been mentioned, but there are less extreme examples that researchers have found.  For example, conservatives generally react more fearfully than liberals to frightening images as reflected in measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate.

Of course, the society we keep influences both what we believe and the feeling of rightness.  We tend to associate with like minded people and this has a reinforcing effect on our beliefs.

The problem with beliefs is that progress depends on the questioning of beliefs.  The development and advancement of science depended on questioning not only religious beliefs, but the adequacy of these beliefs.  Progress in the political arena depended on questioning the validity of the concepts of royalty and privileged positions.

Beliefs are a good default position.  Absent beliefs, it would be both difficult and uncomfortable to live.  Nevertheless, beliefs should be challenged when they are clearly incorrect or when they are having undesired consequences,

My personal belief about beliefs is that we manage to live on the basis of internal models we develop about the world.  But I don’t believe that any of my beliefs are certain.  They are weighted with probabilities that can change as the result of new information (data) or as the result of new thinking and reasoning.  Even my most strongly held beliefs are still hedged with some small degree of uncertainty.

A good example of this is Pascal’s argument for believing in God.  His argument was that the payoff for not believing in God could be extremely painful.  However, even if one’s belief was infinitesimally small, one should believe.  I have always found this to be one of the few philosophical arguments to be compelling.  So I believe in God.  Anyone who does believe in God has the comfort of this belief while living.  And if there is no God, one will be dead and have no means of knowing that one was wrong.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist that has made significant contributions to science.  However, he is one of the most outspoken atheists.  Recently he has admitted that he does have some uncertainty and that he is more accurately an agnostic.  However, he argues that he is far enough down on the agnosticism scale to call himself an atheist.  Here we have a stupid argument from a brilliant man.

I find that  many of the problems people have regarding the existence of God stem from religion.  It is important to keep in mind that religions are human institutions and are flawed.  Religions have done much good, but they have also done harm.  Apart from Pascal’s wager, I have a philosophical need for God.  Of course, I realize that my philosophical needs are not necessarily supported by reality.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Believing You Can Increase Your Intelligence Is Important

February 26, 2012

A recent study1 demonstrates why this is so. How people respond to their mistakes depends on what they believe about learning and intelligence. People who believe that intelligence develops through effort see mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. People who believe that intelligence is a stable characteristic see mistakes as indications of a lack of ability. The former group is said to have growth mind-sets, and the latter group is said to have fixed mind-sets. The nature of an individual’s mind-set can be determined from questionnaire items. The researchers examined performance-monitoring event-related potentials (ERPs) to study the neural mechanisms underlying these different reactions to mistakes.

Twenty-five experimental participants performed a classification task, in which accuracy and speed were equally emphasized, while their ERPs were recorded. Upon completion of the experimental task, the participants completed a questionnaire using a Theory of Intelligence Scale to assess their implicit theories of intelligence (fixed or with growth potential). The findings indicated that participants with a growth mindset showed an enhancement of the error positivity component (Pe) of the ERP. This component reflects awareness of and allocation of attention to mistakes. So participants with a growth mind-set were more aware of their mistakes and allocated more attention to correcting these mistakes.

For a long time the argument was made that IQ tests indicated a fixed level of intelligence that was difficult or impossible to change. Recent research has indicated that this view of intelligence is not fixed, and that it can be improved. However, for intelligence to be improved the individual must believe that it can be improved. When this is believed, attentional resources are allocated for improvement. Otherwise, attentional resources are not allocated for improvement. This is in accordance with what makes a person a true expert. Many, many, many hours of deliberate practice are required to achieve true expertise (See the healthymemory blog post, “Deliberate Practice.”. Similarly to improve your IQ, you need to believe that it can be improved and work to improve.

It appears that whether or not you improve your intelligence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe it can be improved, it will likely improve. If you don’t believe that it can be improved, then it will not be improved. In other words, if you believe you are stupid or of average intelligence, you will remain being stupid or of average intelligence. To increase your intelligence, believe and apply yourself.

1Moser, J.S., Schroder, H.S., Heeter, C., Moran, T.P., & Lee, Y.H. (2011). M ind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments., Psychological Science, 22, 1484-1489.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.