Planning your course effectively – more overlaps

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Similarly to the biological approach, there are many overlaps between the cognitive approach and the options of abnormal psychology, development, health and human relationships.  For example, the psychology of cognitive processes and their reliability can explain clinical biases in diagnosis of disorders, debates regarding the etiology of  disorders and also inform their treatment.

Watch out for more of these!

Can we learn to love anything or anyone if we just hang around them long enough?

One of the Cognitive Approach studies that we cover in our fabulous book, ‘Psychology Sorted, Book 1’ is by Slovic et al. (2017) and which concerns the Affect Heuristic. The Affect Heuristic is a cognitive bias composed of several dimensions, one of which is:

  • The ‘mere exposure effect’: this may be a factor in the affect heuristic. It involves a favourable (‘good’) judgement being made of stimuli by participants who had been presented with that stimuli several times over compared to less familiar material. In other words, the participants in the study preferred the stimuli they had simply seen/been exposed to more times than the other stimuli.

So, this finding shows we human beings to be fairly simple creatures: we like something on the grounds that it is more familiar than the alternative choice. This obviously saves us a lot of time and effort in trying to compare the relative merits and demerits of two possibly similar items or people. For example, I am interviewing two candidates for a job. One of the candidates already works at my company and I have known her for two years now. She’s a good enough worker, doesn’t cause any trouble and well, let’s face it, she’s a known quantity.

The other candidate is someone that I don’t know. On paper they seem far more interesting than the candidate I already know: they have some good ideas for the role and they may bring a breath of fresh air to the company. But…..what if they aren’t as good as they seem? What if they don’t get on with the team? What if their ideas never actually see the light of day? Can I be bothered training up someone new? Maybe the candidate I already know is actually the best person for the job. Hmm, yes, maybe the familiar person is best – I’m used to their face, they fit in etc, etc.

This choice may, in fact, turn out to be the best choice but it is still an example of the mere exposure effect guiding someone’s behaviour rather than a fair and unbiased assessment of the evidence. Could the mere exposure effect explain seemingly baffling phenomena such as particular politicians becoming less reviled and more accepted the longer they are in office? Could it explain you humming along to a song you detest simply because it is constantly being played on the radio? Be aware of this in your own life – we all do it and it’s not necessarily the best way to make decisions as to what is good and valuable in our lives.

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Child Poverty

cry-2764843_640Psychology comes right up to date with the study of the effects of child poverty on cognitive and social development.  In Psychology Sorted we make the link between child poverty, brain imaging technology and child development.  We could just as easily have also added in an abnormal psychology link to mental health, for as child poverty rates in the US and UK soar, so does the number of children in poor mental health.  (For a further cross-cultural perspective, the same is also true of Australia and New Zealand).

Luby et al. (2013) uses MRI scans to investigate the relationship between child poverty and brain development in pre-school and early school age children, and found that it was associated with less white and cortical grey brain matter and reduces hippocampal and amygdala volumes. The effects of poverty on the volume of the hippocampus were mediated by a close relationship with a good caregiver, but increased by stress and hostility. The effects on the cognitive development and  mental health of young people have been well documented.

While some subjects studied in schools may not always seem relevant to the world outside the classroom, psychology will never be one of them.

Research from Psychology Sorted: Social Identity Theory

sitHow we develop our social identity is still a hot topic today, and for those of you studying the effect of technologies, especially social media, on social identity, there is a developing literature on the subject.  But we should start with the classic minimal groups paradigm from Tajfel (1971), found in our new book Psychology Sorted, as it is still so relevant today.

The predominant 1960s theory of social identity formation came from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study which led to the development of his 1966 realistic conflict theory that competition for scarce resources is the foundation for group (social) identity, and also one cause of conflict. Think of the worldwide competition for water and oil on a large scale and maybe sporting competitions on a smaller scale. Why do you think that schools have ‘houses’, ‘sporting colours’, ‘house badges’?

However, Tajfel’s research contradicted this, demonstrating that only minimal conditions were necessary for group identity to form: his experiment randomly allocated schoolboys to two groups.  The boys thought they had been allocated their group according to their preference for a painting by either Klee or Kandinsky, but this was a deception and the allocation was random. This perception of belonging to a certain group was enough for boys to show in-group favouritism when allocating virtual money via a complex matrix of rules.  The minimal groups paradigm formed the basis of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which remains a powerful explanation of in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination.

The three sequential steps Tajfel & Turner (1979) deemed necessary for social identity to form are:

  • social categorisation – we understand that people (and things) can be grouped
  • social identification – we identify with a group
  • social comparison – we compare ourselves favourably with another group

Social comparison underlies stereotyping, gang fights (though these can also be seen as competition for scarce resources), between-class competitions, girl/boy competition, online identities…how many more can you think of?

Tajfel’s theory can be used extensively in the curriculum, from his lab experiments in the 1970s (research methods), to an argument for the formation of stereotypes (sociocultural approach), to an explanation of how competition and maybe even conflict is generated in human relationships, to how images are cultivated socially on Snapchat, Instagram and (amongst us oldies) Facebook for cognitive psychology.  This is an example of a classic theory that can be easily accessed through Psychology Sorted.

Cognitive biases – don’t let them confuse you.

Studying the reliability of thinking and decision-making leads us into the slightly

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System 2 thinking

complex world of System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow) thinking and heuristics.  Teaching cognitive biases is straightforward, and less is more.  The key point is that we are inclined to base our current thinking and decision-making on past experiences and present perceptions.  Our memories distort the past, and the media and our selective attention distort our present, especially if we are being pushed into a fast decision.

Tversky & Kahneman (1974) review a range of research in which they themselves have tested different heuristics, looking for evidence of ways in which System 1 thinking (effortless, fast, a short-cut to the answer) may operate when tested under specific conditions.  They describe three different heuristics, leading to cognitive bias.

The representative heuristic is based on the idea that one event is representative of other events very similar to it, using the idea of how probable something is according to the individual’s prior knowledge of it. Even though participants knew that 70% of the descriptions of people that they had been given had referred to engineers, while 30% had referred to lawyers, when faced with a description of a man who could have been either, they judged that there was an equal chance of John being either an engineer or a lawyer.  Similarly, when given a description of a shy quiet person, they were immediately judged to be most likely to be a librarian, even though the list of possible occupations included those that were much more statistically probable.  This can be seen as the basis for stereotypes – taking a shortcut based on prior knowledge and assumptions.

The availability heuristic works by people tending to judge an event using the probability of its occurring, according to their prior knowledge: e.g. a middle-aged man with chest pains might be assumed to be having a heart attack but a four-year-old child with similar pains would not elicit the same response as four-year-old children do not tend to have heart attacks.  This can lead to bias in diagnosis, as clinicians base their diagnoses on previous examples that come readily to mind; they are cognitively available.

The anchoring bias involves an initial value or starting-point in an information processing task determining how the final value is arrived at. The researchers tested high school students asking them to estimate one of the following: 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 or 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8. Of course, each answer is the same as the numbers are identical per list. What Tversky and Kahneman found was that the descending list (8x7x6 etc.) produced a much higher estimate than the ascending scale (1x2x3 etc.) with the researchers concluding that the first value anchored the value as either high or low and that this is what caused the adjustment to the estimations.  This is related to our first judgements about people: if we judge them in a positive light because of their friendly behaviour, this can ‘anchor’ our appraisal of their subsequent behaviour.

Use these examples as the basis for discussing how stereotypes are developed, or how diagnoses can lack validity, and they are also useful for discussing the lab experiment method.  I am sure students can think of many more examples of how these heuristics can occasionally (not always) work to distort our thinking and decision-making in real life. But that might take some time and some logical, patient reasoning using System 2 thinking!

Psychology Sorted cognitive research: The effect of digital technology on memory and learning

There has been a lot in the news recently about the effect of social media on mental health, but less about the effect on school and university students of reading or responding to texts during lectures.  As students expect to be ‘connected’ throughout the day, gradually mobile phones have been finding their way into classrooms and lecture halls. Students often argue this makes no difference to their learning, as they can disregard texts and interruptions.  But is this true? Another study from Psychology Sorted  is explored today, with examples of how it may be used.

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Rosen et al (2011) conducted a field experiment to examine the direct impact of text message interruptions on memory in a classroom environment and found the effects to be a slight, but significant, reduction in memory.  This is an example of a study that can be used to illustrate research into the influence of technology and also to explore a common method used to research the influence of technology – the field experiment.

The researchers conducted their experiment in a classroom during a lecture.  The independent variable was the  number of texts received and sent (3 groups, no/low, medium and high), and the dependent variable was the score on a test based on the lesson content. 185 college students (148 female and 37 male) were told that they were going to view a 30-minute videotaped lecture relevant to their course and that during the session some of them would receive texts from the researchers to which they should respond as promptly as possible. They were informed that they would be tested on the material after the lecture.

The results were that the no/low texting group performed 10.6% better than the high texting group in their tests. The test score was significantly negatively correlated with the total number of words sent and received. Those participants who chose to wait more than 4-5 minutes to respond to a text message did better than those who responded immediately.  But in all cases the difference was only just significant. This led the researchers to suggest that metacognitive skills (including learning to wait before responding to disturbances that make us lose focus) should be explicitly taught and that it might be wise for teachers and lecturers to use strategies that focus on when it is appropriate to take a break and when it is important to focus without distractions.

Some schools have opted to require all mobile phones to be turned off or left in lockers, but the problem is that just because the student’s technology is ‘out of sight’ it is not ‘out of mind.’ Maybe teachers should share the results of this study with their students?

Cognitive Dissonance theory explains a lot.

cigarettes-3564364_640Cognitive dissonance theory was developed by Leon Festinger in 1957, and, for an old-ish theory is in very good health today.  Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when trying to reconcile our beliefs with our actions and cognitive dissonance theory explains how we try and reduce this.

An excellent example to illustrate this is teenage smoking.  We all have the clear evidence that smoking leads to heart disease and/or lung cancer in the majority of people who smoke.  At the very least it reduces lung function and gives you a hacking cough and some breathlessness, especially if you catch a cold or have a chest infection.  This is often when most people try their hardest to give up.  Yet 19% of UK adults smoke, and 40% of these began smoking before they were 16.  (UK Cancer Research statistics, 2017). So how do teenagers deal with the cognitive dissonance created by smoking?

Firstly, fewer teenagers smoke now than ever before.  So by not starting, they are avoiding cognitive dissonance in that their actions mirror their beliefs – they are what is called ‘consonant’.  Others try and give up, and while the dangers of ‘vaping’ remain fairly unknown, this is a viable alternative that allows them to argue that the tar, and not the nicotine addiction is the problem, and they are solving that.  Those who are already too addicted to give up have to change their beliefs, as the discomfort of knowing that you are negatively impacting your health becomes unbearable.

They do this through statements like: ‘While I’m young and doing sports, the impact will be minimal, and I’ll give up when I get older.  Therefore it won’t affect me.’  Or they rationalise that they have never had a cough in their life and can still run and play sports better than most adolescents their age.  Or they admit that they would like to give up, but it’s just too difficult at the moment, as they’re under a lot of stress, but will definitely do it later.

The point at which teenagers and young people who smoke give up is when they cannot ignore their underlying beliefs and the facts any longer.  This usually happens when someone close to them dies of a smoking-related disease or is told by their doctor to give up before they do die of it.  Sometimes, the sociocultural approach can explain smoking or non-smoking behaviour: as friendships change, the teenager may find him/herself socialising largely with a non-smoking group, and the attractions of smoking become less.  The cognitive dissonance then becomes too large to ignore as friends dismiss your arguments and rationalisations to point out the harm you are doing yourself.

Cognitive dissonance theory can explain our behaviour while (not) dieting, or when feeling a dislike for a certain person, or even when choosing a political party to support.  We show a confirmation bias, by selectively attending to information that supports our decision, and closing our ears to dissenting voices.