Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Wilson’

Hacking Our Unconscious

July 31, 2018

A few years ago HM posted a piece titled “Strangers to Ourselves.” That post reviewed a book by Timothy Wilson titled “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.” The post describes some techniques for coming into contact with our unconscious minds. Of course Wilson’s book discusses more techniques in much more detail.

Most of our processing is unconscious. Our unconscious mind keeps operating below our awareness. We can try to remember someone’s name and fail. If we continue for a while, still fail and give up trying, it is not uncommon for the name to pop into our conscious minds much later. Apparently, the unconscious mind continued the search even though we had consciously given up. There are also accounts of scientific theories and mathematical proofs suddenly popping into consciousness. The unconscious mind had been at work. The 28 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist has a series of feature articles on hacking our unconscious minds. This current post and the following posts will be reviewing these feature articles.

The lead New Scientist article by Emma Young writes, “Far from being a malign adjunct to the conscious mind, the unconscious is responsible for all sorts of important stuff. It is smart and it is often running the show.” Neuroscientist Michael Shadlen of Columbia University says, “The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness.” That’s too much to miss out on.

Research into this topic is still in its early days, but already our growing understand of the human mind means we can begin to hack our unconscious powers of inspiration, pain relief, emotional control, memory, and more. The following posts will address these topics.

Revenge, Sweet, but Not Healthy

November 22, 2017

This post is based on an article titled “Revenge” by Jennifer Breheny Wallace in the Health Section of the 14 November 2017 Washington Post. She wrote, “People are motivated to seek revenge—to harm someone who has harmed them—when they feel attached, mistreated or socially rejected. Getting an eye for an eye, Old Testament-style, is thought to bring a sense of catharsis and closure. Unfortunately, a growing body of research suggests it may have the opposite effect.

Evolutionary psychologists think we are hard-wired for revenge. Absent laws and prisons, our earliest ancestors relied on the fear of retaliation to keep peace and correct injustices. Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami says, “Acts of revenge not only sought to deter a second harmful act by a wrongdoer, but also acted as an insurance policy against future harm by others, a warning signal that you’re someone who will not tolerate mistreatment.”

In modern life, betrayal and social rejection still hurt. According to research reported in the Journal of Personality Psychology the desire to repair that pain and improve our mood may be one of the things that motivates us to seek revenge.

In one experiment 156 college students wrote a short essay to be submitted for comments. Then the essays were randomly given either positive or negative feedback. Next all participants were given a test that measured their emotional state, and then offered a chance to retaliate by sticking pins into a voodoo doll that represented the grader of the essay. Not surprisingly getting revenge felt good such that the moods of the ones given negative feedback were as high as the moods of those given positive feedback.

In another study, 167 participants were invited to play a video game where some players were snubbed by others. Rejected players were given the chance to seek revenge by increasing the volume in the other player’s headphones. But before they could retaliate, some participants received what they were told was a cognition enhancing drug (which was a placebo) that would steady their mood for 60 minutes. Although most wronged players turned up the volume, those who took the placebo, who presumably thought they wouldn’t be given a mood boost for doing so, were less likely to retaliate because we think it will make us feel better, according to David Chester who studies the psychological and biological processes involved in human aggression at Virginia Commonwealth University.

According to new research by Chester revenge may provide a lift, but the positive effects appear to be fleeting. “Revenge can feel really good in the moment,” he says, “but when we follow up with people 5 minutes to 10 minutes and 45 minutes later, they actually report feeling worse than they did before they sought revenge.”

University of Psychology Professor Timothy Willson and colleagues conducted a study on the “paradoxical consequences” of revenge. Research participants played an investment game where they were told that they could earn money if they all co-operated but that if one player betrayed the group, that person would earn more and the other players would earn less. This is called the “free-rider paradigm.” The game was staged so that players were double-crossed and some were given the chance to retaliate. When asked by researcher how they imagined they would feel after seeking revenge, the players predicted it make them feel better. However, when surveyed afterward, those who had retaliated reported feeling worse than players who didn’t get the opportunity to punish and so had “moved on.” Wilson theorizes that seeking revenge when we were wronged and can make an event appear even larger. He says, “by not retaliating, we’re able to find other ways of coping, like telling ourselves that it wasn’t such a big deal.

Ruminating about getting even by stewing over what the person did to you and what you would like to do in return can interfere with day-to-day well-being and happiness. Psychotherapist Beverly Engel says, “When someone persists in revenge fantasies, over time they can develop anxiety and remorse as well as feelings of shame. These feelings can also take up important cognitive resources, depleting you of time and energy that could be better spent on healthier, more constructive ways of dealing with anger, such as learning to accept the injustice, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes or acknowledging that you, too, may have hurt someone in similar ways.”

With respect to valuable relationships McCullough says “what the angry mind ultimately wants is a change of heart from the transgressor.” He cites studies showing the when a victim receives an explanation and an apology, the desire for revenge decreases. Similarly research suggests that doctors who apologize to patients when they have made a mistake may decrease their risk of a lawsuit.

McCullough also says that sometimes the most helpful thing a wronged party can do is to create conditions that make it easier for the person who hurt you to be honest about what they did and to take responsibility. He says, “You’re not giving the person a free pass, but it may be in your best interest to stay open to an apology and to help pave a road that would allow the offender to make it up to you.”

He concludes, “Revenge may make you feel better for a moment. but making the effort to repair a valuable relationship can pay bigger dividends over a lifetime.”

REDIRECT: Range of Applications

July 11, 2015

This is the fourth consecutive post on Timothy Wilson’s.book REDIRECT.  To get some idea of the range of applications for which REDIRECT is appropriate consider the following chapter titles:

Shaping Our Narratives:  Increasing Personal Well-Being
Shaping Our Kids Narratives:  Becoming Better Parents
Just Say…Volunteer:  Preventing Teenage Pregnancies
Scared Crooked:  Reducing Teenage Violence
Everybody’s Doing It…Or Are They?  Reducing Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Surely They Won’t Like Me—Or Will They? Reducing Prejudice
It’s About Me, Not My Group:  Closing the Achievement Gap
Sustained Change:  Finding Solutions

As you can readily see, the application of REDIRECT is wide.  In reading these chapters, you will gain insights into how redirecting personal narratives work.  You will also read about research assessing effectiveness and find that there are many problems for which REDIRECT works, but some intuitively appealing, and sometimes popular programs do not.  The primary problem is that the majority of programs are not evaluated at all.  However, the book includes two websites that provide such information.  The U.S. Department of Education  created a ss))website called the What Works Clearinghouse, which reviews the research literature and provides educating with descriptions of programs that work (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc//).  The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado evaluates the effectiveness of programs that attempt to reduce violence and drug used and publishes their results on a website (http://www.colorado.edu/cspv/blueprints//).

There is way too much research above to even attempt to summarize.  However, one that I find most interesting are stereotypical threats covered in It’s About Me, Not My Group: Closing the Achievement gap.  An example of this used the test Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices Test (Raven APM).  There were three experiments.  One in which the Raven APM was described as an IQ test.  The second in which it was described as just a test.  In the third experiment it was simply described as a bunch of puzzles.  One group of students taking the test was White.  The other group of students was black.  When the Raven APM was described as an IQ test there is a large difference in favor of the white students.  When the Raven APM was described as just a test this gap was greatly reduced. However, when the Raven APM was described as just a bunch of puzzles, the black bar graph overtook the white bar graph.

Another example is the elderly.  When thinking that a memory test was about differences between age groups, the elderly group performed more poorly than the younger group.  However, when they were unaware that the memory test was about age, this difference disappeared.  In reality there are some memory tests in which performance improves with age, and others in which it declines with age.  Apparently the memory test involved in this study was age neutral.

Both researchers and individuals need to be aware of this threat of stereotyping.  Researchers need to be sure that there results are not due to stereotypes.  Individuals need to assure themselves that they are not victimized by the stereotype threat.    So it’s not about me, it’s about my group, and even that is not true.  I will not be defined by a stereotype.  Similarly, we need to be careful that we do not define others in terms of stereotypes.

Redirecting Personal Narratives

July 9, 2015

This is the third post that reviews Wilson’s new book REDIRECT.  First of all it it important to realize that we all have personal narratives.  We might not even realize that we have them, but basically they are stories that inform us what we think about things, people, and most importantly, ourselves.  Consider a student preparing to take an exam.  This student thinks she is smart and expects to do well on the examination.  But supposes she fails the examination.  Then what becomes of her personal narrative.  She might decide that she was really wrong about herself and that actually she is stupid.  She might even drop out of school.  But suppose she decides that she did not study hard enough.  So now she can still think of herself as being smart, but as being a smart person who needs to study more and work harder.  So there are two ways of redirecting her personal narrative.  One that informs her to give up.  And the other that informs her to study more and work harder.

This approach began with the theorizing of Kurt Lewin, who helped found the field of social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s.  Lewin thought that to understand why people do what they do we have to view he world through their eyes and understand how they make sense of things.  Moreover, he had the radical insight that not only do we need to view a problem through other people’s eyes, we can also change they way they view i through relatively simple interventions.

New generations of social psychologists have refined Lewin’s ideas into an approach that Wilson calls story editing.  Storing editing is a set of techniques designed to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the social world in a way that leads to lasting changes in behavior.  There are core narratives that help people understand some of the most basic questions in life.  At other times, people’s quick initial spin on events, such as the interpretation of the reason for failing a test that was described earlier, is changed.  Story editing in its simplest form induces people to make sense of an event that has gotten under their skin.  This is what Pennebaker’s writing exercise accomplishes (see previous post). This writing techniques is not a magic cure for all psychological problems.  Sometimes we can’t construct a coherent narrative on our own, and in such cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy is specifically designed to teach people how to turn negative thinking patterns into healthier ones.  But the writing technique has proved to be remarkable beneficial for people with a wide range of traumatic experiences.

Sometimes the goal is to provide people with a better interpretation of their  behavior, by spoon feeding them. For example  labeling children as “helpful people” encourages them to internalize this view of themselves.  Research has shown that  having this in their personal narrative has many beneficial effects.  The majority of the book shows how this approach works in a wide range of areas.  All of the research is based on sound experimental methods.  As was shown in the previous post, approaches that are highly appealing, do not necessarily work, and can have adverse consequences.   And this research must be based on actual behavior.  Asking people if it works, does not work.  Wilson has a section under the Testing chapter titled, Don’t Ask, Can’t Tell.

Experimental Evaluation: A Key Theme In REDIRECT

July 7, 2015

This is the second post reviewing Timothy Wilson’s REDIRECT.  Consider the following traumatic incident.  Two police officers responded to a house fire.  When they arrived they heard what every emergency worker dreads—screams for help from inside a house engulfed in flames.  Through a window, they could barely make out the silhouette of a man stumbling and falling, just short of escape.  By the time the police officers managed to get in, it was too late.  The man was “curled up like a baby in his mother’s womb.  That’s what someone burned to death looks like.  One of these officers knew the victim personally.  He was so haunted by seeing his friend die that he had trouble eating and sleeping.  His bosses sympathized and wanted to help, so they did what police departments do: they scheduled a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) session for the fire.  The premised of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).  In a typical CISD session, which lasts from three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological  symptoms they are experiencing.  A facilitator  emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.  Numerous fire and police departments have made CISD the treatment of choice for officers who witness horrific events.  It is also widely used with civilians.  Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than nine thousand counselors rushed to New York City to help survivors deal with the trauma and prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of theses counselors employed psychological debriefing techniques,

Now consider another approach.  Rather than asking the traumatized individual to relive the trauma, suppose we let a few weeks go by and see if he is still traumatized by the tragic event.  If so, we could ask him to complete on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he writes down his deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his life.  That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice, just a writing exercise done by oneself four nights in a two.  This is known as the Pennebacker method.

When CISD was tested properly, and it took a while to test it properly because so many thought it was obvious that it was beneficial.  When they did they found that not only was CISD ineffective, but it might also cause psychological problems.  People who had been treated with the CISD interventions had a significantly higher incidence of PTSD, were more anxious and depressed, and were less content with their lives than those who were not treated.  It turns out that making people undergo CISD right after trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even “freeze” memories of the event.  Harvard psychologist Richard McNally and his colleagues recommended that “for scientific and ethical reasons, professional should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”  Nevertheless, in 2007 after a disturbed student at Virginia Tech University killed thirty-two students and faculty, students and emergency worker underwent stress-debriefing techniques similar to CISD.

On the other hand, dozens of experiments in which people were randomly assigned to write about personal traumas or mundane topics such as what they did that day.  In the short run, people typically find to express their feelings about traumatic experiences.  But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects.  They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.

You will find this theme throughout REDIRECT, well established programs that are highly esteemed proven worthless.  And you will find other programs that, when evaluated with properly designed experiments, are found to be effective.  You will get a sense of what works and what does not work and why.

For more on Pennebaker, go to his homepage
http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/Faculty/Pennebaker/Home2000/WritingandHealth.html

Timothy Wilson and REDIRECT

July 5, 2015

Timothy Wilson gave an interesting talk at APS, but rather than blogging about the talk, I will be doing several blog posts on the recent book he has published, REDIRECT:  Changing the Stories We Live By.  This is a very important book and deserves a thorough treatment, although there is no way I can do justice to this book, and I highly recommend that you read it yourselves.  There is a previous healthy memory blog post on a previous book by Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, which I also strongly recommend.

One of the objectives of the book is to debunk the self-help book industry, which is not to say that all self-help books are junk, but most of them definitely are.  Consider such best selling volumes as, You Can Heal Your Life, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Secret.  These books ran up more than $700 million in sales in 2005.  When other forms of self-help are added to the mix, such as infomercials, seminars, and sen personal coaches, the total amount spent on self-improvement reached $9.6 billion in 2006.  The fact that there are so many self-help books on the market might indicate that none of them is highly effective.  If one of them did unlock the secret to everlasting happiness, it would corner the market and crown out the others.  In the self-help industry there is what is known as the eighteenth-month rule, which is that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone who bought one eighteen months earlier.

Consider “The Secret,” which was distributed as both a film and a companion book released in 2006.  Both have been phenomenology successful.  The DVD has sold more than two million copies and the book more than 4 million copies.  The secret revealed in this book is the “law of attraction,” which says that thinking about something makes it more likely to happen to you.  If you understand this basic “law of the universe,” there are these three simple steps to getting to what you want: first, think about it—focus on the positive and not the negative.  The second step is to believe in what you want and have faith that it will soon be yours.  The third step is to receive the idea of having what you want, feeling as you will once you get.  Now here’s how all this works.  “Thoughts have frequencies that are magnetic, attracting things that are on the same frequency.  Moreover, the frequency you transmit reaches beyond cities, beyond countries, beyond the world.  It reverberates throughout the entire universe.”  Can you believe this?  Is there such stupidity rampant in the world?  Is the name of our species, homo sapiens, a misnomer?  Please tell me that people are buying these books and videos for laughs.  I realize that most self-help books are not this much off the wall, BUT LOOK AT THE LARGE NUMBERS OF SALES!

Now there is nothing wrong with being positive per se.  It is a quite prominent theme in self-help books,  Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than five million copies.  Positive Psychology has similar problems that were reviewed and remedied in the healthy memory blog post the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  And you will see the positivity also plays an important role in REDIRECT, but positivity cannot stand alone.

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 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.