Overlaps between cognition and health

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There are several overlaps between the cognitive approach and the health option. For example, cognitive psychology can explain stress through the theory of cognitive appraisal: how we appraise our level of stress can affect the level that we experience. The theory of planned behaviour can explain addictive behaviours and the varying success of health promotion programmes, mainly through its concept of perceived behavioural control. But remember, as with any option, no one approach can act independently of the others. We are our biology, our cognition and our social interactions – no getting away from it!

References:

Ajzen, I. (1985). From Intentions to Actions: A Theory of Planned Behavior. In Kuhl, J. & Beckmann, J. (eds.), Action-Control: From Cognition to Behavior. Heidelberg: Springer.

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behaviour. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 50, pp. 179 211. 

Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From Psychological Stress to the Emotions: A History of Changing Outlooks. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, pp. 1-21.

Lazarus, R. S., & Alfert, E. (1964). Short-circuiting of threat by experimentally altering cognitive appraisal. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(2), pp. 195-205.

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.

Social media ‘addiction’ – the evidence.

screen timeWhile most of us think of addiction as the physical and psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol, cigarettes or any kind of drugs, the word has also been used for psychological dependence on behaviours like shopping, eating, gambling, and now screen time – especially the time that adolescents spend on social media. But what is the evidence for this?

Well, as everyone knows, when doing research, first of all the terms have to be operationalised.  Given that screens are multi-media, and the person could be reading a book, Skyping with a grandparent, watching a TED talk for their homework, contacting a friend, or posting their latest pics on Instagram, we need to be clear that it is time on social media that is causing the moral panic.  Though it is also worth noting that every time a teenager is seen staring at a screen, the assumption is always that they are on social media. In his latest letter to social media firms, Jeremy Hunt (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) proposed a future where every child gets a state-imposed social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day.

To implement such an extreme policy, scientific evidence of damage would be needed.  And this is where the problem begins:  the evidence is controversial.  Social media use has been found to be correlated with depression and  sleep disturbance  in young adults. The popular press has many alarming stories of permanent damage done to young people.

However, longitudinal studies of social media suggest that frequent social media use is generally associated with increases in self-esteem and empathy for adolescents.  As Professor Sonia Livingstone notes in her TEDx talk on how children engage with the internet, research suggests that little has changed in terms of youth mental well-being since the pre-internet era which makes the causal connection between internet use and lower mental well-being unwarranted.  Moreover, US statistics on crimes against children showed a significant decrease in physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children between 1990-2014, with sexual abuse (the crime most often associated in the public imagination with internet use) showing the biggest decrease.

All new forms of media, especially those used predominantly by young people, tend to disturb the equilibrium of older people.  Newspapers, radio, TV, video games and now social media all receive or have received negative attention and been blamed for a perceived decrease in moral values amongst the young. Socrates blamed writing for weakening memory, and allowing the pretence of understanding, rather than true understanding.

Overstimulation of newborn mice leads to deficits in cognition and attention

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This research could be a useful counter argument to the classic Rosenzweig, Bennett and Diamond study (1972) into enriched environment and neuroplasticity.   It suggests disco lights are out, but toys are in!

This study was based on earlier findings by Christakis et al. (2004) that young children’s excessive television watching led to later attention problems. Christakis, Ramirez and Ramirez (2012) subjected ten mice to overstimulation by flashing lights and noise for six hours a day for 42 days.  They then compared them with a control group on four different cognitive tests, and found that the experimental group subjected to the stimulation performed the tasks significantly worse than the control group in terms of memory and attention, exhibiting ‘increased activity and risk taking, diminished short term memory, and decreased cognitive function.’

The results suggest that overstimulation during periods of critical development can have unexpected negative effects on cognition.  However, this is a very small experimental study, and no measurements of brain changes were taken, so its reliability remains open to question.

 

Emotion and memory

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We all remember those special moments, don’t we?  The birthday party with the huge cake, or our first day at school, or when we broke our arm playing in the snow.  They seem as if they only happened yesterday, the memories are so vivid!

Many years ago, some classic research was conducted by Brown and Kulik (1977) into the phenomenon of what they called ‘flashbulb memories’:  memories of where we were when we heard startling news that had a strong emotional impact on us.  Their questionnaires and interviews suggested that indeed people did remember where they were and exactly what they were doing when they heard of President Kennedy’s death or the shooting of Martin Luther King.  Do you remember what you were doing when you heard of Michael Jackson’s sudden death? Maybe your parents remember where they were when the sad news of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident was broadcast?

However, later research showed how our flashbulb memories may not be so accurate as we think: one fault of Brown and Kulik’s method was that they had no independent way of checking the accuracy of their participants’ memories of where they were and how they heard the news.  Neisser and Harsch (1992) interviewed people one day after the 1986 Challenger Shuttle Disaster and again two-and-a-half years later.  One day after the event, 21% of participants reported hearing about the disaster on TV. But years later, 45% reported hearing about it on TV. Their memories of how they knew about the Challenger explosion had changed over time. Moreover, in the second interview, some of them reported being at certain events when they heard, despite such events not taking place at the time.  Neisser and Harsch concluded that although flashbulb memories are vivid and long-lasting, they are not reliable.

Test it for yourself – ask a person who was present when you both heard some shock news, and see how your memories coincide or how they are different.  You may be surprised!

Cognitive Biases

reflectionCognitive biases – distortions of reality

Cognitive biases arise from heuristics (shortcut thinking) and systematically distort the way we think and affect our decision-making. Three of the most common cognitive biases are confirmation bias, anchoring bias and  cognitive dissonance. All three arise from our tendencies to focus on part of a story, especially the part that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and to avoid holding two inconsistent beliefs at the same time.  That is, we are selectively attentive, and filter out what we don’t agree with.

Confirmation bias – this is when we seek out information that tells us we were right all along! It affects the type of information we seek out, and also how we interpret neutral information that we meet along the way.  If I post on Facebook or Instagram and don’t get immediate positive feedback, I feel that people dislike what I’ve posted, and are ignoring me. I think we can all identify with this. We look for evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs about ourselves, or others, rather than useful information.

Wason (1960) demonstrated the confirmation bias by giving British university students the 3 ascending numbers 4-6-8 and asking them to guess the rule he had used to devise the series. (It was simply ‘any 3 ascending numbers’.)  Students had to generate their own sets of 3 numbers, and ask if they conformed to the rule. Of course, they did, as any three numbers that were neither identical nor descending conformed, but this stopped them from isolating the rule. They were seeking evidence that confirmed what they thought, not evidence that refuted the rule, so it could be more easily identified. This is a mistake, as an attempt to refute the hypothesis would have given more clues to its true identity.

Anchoring bias – this is when we make estimates of a total or of a probability by starting from an initial idea, which ‘anchors’ us to it.  An experiment described by Tversky & Kahneman (1974) illustrates this:

Two groups of high school students estimated the total of a calculation written on a board. Group 1 estimated the product of  8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x l while Group 2 estimated the product of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8.  The earlier numbers in the sequence acted as anchors for the expectations, and Group 1 estimated  a median of 2,250 and Group 2 estimated  a median of 512.  (The correct answer is 40,320 – I had to check it to believe it!)

Cognitive dissonance – if people cannot change their behaviour, then they change their beliefs about that behaviour, so there is less mis-match between belief and behaviour.  The best example of this is the young smoker who feels unable to give up.  They know that smoking causes cancer, but choose to believe it doesn’t do so in people as young and fit as them, who will, anyway, give up in the future.  They know it makes breath and clothes smell, so they keep to the social circle of other smokers and choose to believe that ‘smokers have more fun.’

Festinger et al. (1956) empirically tested this theory by conducting a covert participant observation study of a cult that believed the world would end at midnight on 21 December 1954. They alone would survive and start a new civilization, and for this, a spacecraft was coming to pick them up earlier on that night.  When the spaceship did not come and the world continued, then the cult members believed the world had been saved through their prayers.

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