On November 13th, 2017 we learned about

Imaginary creatures help illuminate the specific boundaries of people’s visual intelligence

If you’re smart, you should have an easy time assessing visual information, right? Humans are a very visually oriented species, and seeing the world around us is tied to so many parts of our lives, it only makes sense that interpreting visual stimuli is tied to your overall cognitive abilities. At least, that’s what most people have thought, until professor Isabel Gauthier set out to actually test this connection. It turns out that we have a lot of assumptions about our visual skills, and they don’t really hold up when they’re properly tested.

The first assumption that these tests busted was that people are good at guessing their own visual skills. While not all of us rely on visual skills to find abnormalities in medical x-rays, or track aircraft on radar screen, just about everyone does rely on visual pattern recognition to navigate the world around us. However, since these skills can be built up with frequently seen objects, you can get good at recognizing a specific object without actually improving your overall ability to seek out visual clues in your environment. This means that not only do most people misjudge their visual skills in relation to others, but many tests of these skills have misrepresented people’s skills as well.

Isolating the intended abilities

To really test how well people can find specific visual information, Gauthier designed some imaginary creatures that guaranteed a clean slate among test participants. Since her greebles, ziggerins and sheinbugs were made up for the test, there was no way anyone might skew their results due to a preexisting familiarity with these “creatures.” When coupled with more traditional intelligence assessments, this Novel Object Memory Test (NOMT) allowed for a more accurate comparison between visual skills and other forms of intelligence.

After 2000 people were tested online, the pattern that emerged was that one’s ability to find specific visual information is unrelated to other forms of intelligence. Math and verbal abilities had a decent range among test participants, but their visual skills were more tightly clustered. So while a person may be great at math, that’s no predictor that they’ll be good at visually analyzing fingerprints. Spotting details on video screen won’t tell us anything about your problem solving skills. This may sound intuitive in retrospect, but may actually spur some skill assessments in various arenas, like job placement, to be reconsidered. Now that we know to test visual abilities as a discreet skill, we can finally start to learn more about where people’s strengths actually lie.

Source: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ by David Salisbury, News at Vanderbilt

On October 18th, 2017 we learned about

STEM students can, and probably should, do a bit of dancing

When my wife was a graduate student, she helped run a dance troupe, took ballet classes, and performed and help produce a campus-wide dance show. The program ran over an hour, featuring everything from hula to ballroom, lyrical to… something approximating hip-hop. These performers probably weren’t going to give up their day jobs, but they all looked pretty amazing considering their day jobs had them working in some of the world’s most prestigious research labs across a huge range of fields. Nobody questioned the value of dance in these scientists’ lives, and the school community was very supportive of the show each year. A more formalized study from North Carolina State University has come to similar, if more specific conclusions. Even top-notch biochemists benefit from time on the dance floor.

Finding balance with ballet or ballroom

The study was framed against the multitude of calls for more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States. As technology continues to shape our economies and capabilities, STEM proponents feel that students need to be more thoroughly prepared to have an active role in those fields, or else risk falling behind. However, focus shouldn’t mean ignoring other activities, and it seems that students from all disciplines, including STEM, can improve their lives by participating in creative arts like a dance troupe or class.

The pattern that emerged through surveys and interviews was that dance was both complementary and supplementary to academic work. Rehearsing a specific dance for a class or possible performance requires, and reinforces, self-discipline that is crucial for any form of research. Students reported dance helped them work with larger groups, and it was easier to incorporate multiple viewpoints into their thinking. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that dance can be fun, allowing for personal expression and a sense of community, all without the need for a keg of beer. Researchers hope to follow up with a more quantifiable study, looking at how participating in dance affects work performance and personal health.

Mental challenges of choreographed movement

Beyond proving the value of dance in STEM-oriented environments, many previous studies have looked at how dance can benefit individual brains. The rhythmic movement has been found to trigger reward centers, which are further boosted by the accompanying music during a performance. Coordinated efforts in choreographed and spontaneous dance have been found to increase activity in the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, all in order to handle planning, control and movement of the body. Some of this is likely true for other physical activities as well, but in a 2003 study, only dance classes were found to help lower participants’ risk of developing dementia. This is thought to be tied to some of the social aspects of dance that isn’t replicated in a game of golf, for instance.

Where does all this lead us? To Dance Your PhD, of course.

Source: How Dance Can Help Students in STEM Disciplines by Fay Cobb Payton and Matt Shipman, NC State News

On September 25th, 2017 we learned about

Acknowledging negative emotions makes us better equipped to cope with negative experiences

There’s something deeply satisfying about listening to sad songs when you’re feeling down. Picking a song list that matches your mood just feels right, and now research is suggesting that it may also help you feel better. There’s a point where acknowledging your sorrows can become full-blown moping, but experiments are finding that denial of negative feelings can make things significantly harder.

Seeing more than the sunny side

Of course, researchers couldn’t induce negative emotions by breaking up couples and causing pets to run away. Instead, they came up with three different experiments that let them study the relationship between how people acknowledged negative feelings and how well they coped with stress, difficulty and life in general. The first test was a simple survey with questions asking about people’s view of negative emotions. When coupled with outside emotional assessments, participants who accepted feeling bad sometimes probably spent less time feeling bad overall.

To test more acute stress, 150 participants were put through mock job interviews with two minutes of preparation. This wasn’t expected to be a pleasant experience for anyone, but participants were asked about how they felt about the interviews afterwards. Following the trend of the surveys, people who acknowledged and accepted negative feelings were generally less stressed by the interview experience. By allowing themselves the space to feel bad, bad experiences didn’t seem be so overwhelming when they came up.

Finally, 200 people were asked to keep a diary for two weeks about their most difficult experiences each day. Those diaries were then analyzed to see how much each writer acknowledged their own negative feelings when things didn’t go their way. Six months later, a follow-up evaluation looked at the writers’ mental health, and again found that people who accepted that life has its rough patches were generally better off, with fewer symptoms of mood disorders being turning up in their interviews.

Writing to reduce worry

An unrelated study from Michigan State University looked different, more direct form of acknowledging negativity. Chronic worriers aren’t in denial of negative feelings, but they do stress themselves trying to constantly control their worry. Researchers compared it to uncontrollable multitasking, effectively increasing a person’s cognitive load no matter what other tasks were at hand. To test how forms of engagement could make a difference in these cases, test participants were asked to either write about their feelings for eight minutes, or just what they got up to the day before.

After this brief writing exercise, all participants were given a computer based test that could assess accuracy and response times while sensors monitored their brain activity. People who wrote about their feelings didn’t become more accurate or faster, but the EEG sensors did find that they had an easier time performing at that level. It suggests that acknowledging anxiety in writing reduced the difficulty of controlling it moment by moment.

Source: Feeling bad about feeling bad can make you feel worse by Yasmin Anwar, Berkeley News

On September 24th, 2017 we learned about

Babies act more determined after their parents demonstrate dealing with difficulty

I may need to teach my son to struggle more. It’s not that things are too easy for him, but that he expects them to be easy. In many scenarios, it’s not that his four-year-old brain or hands are incapable of say, putting on his shoes, but if there’s frustration involved he’d rather skip it. So keep him from quitting before he gives himself a chance, research indicates that I need to show him how hard a time I have with my shoes, even if that means faking it.

The research in question actually looked at kids much younger than four, focusing on babies around 13 months old. 260 babies were divided into three groups to see how long they would attempt a difficult task based on what kind of examples nearby adults set beforehand. One group of babies watched their guardians struggle with getting keys off a carabiner or open a container, only succeeding after a preset time of 30 seconds. A second group of babies watched their guardian repeatedly succeed at these tasks, again for 30 seconds to ensure that the amount of interaction was basically the same. A third group of babies were just left to ponder on their own a bit as a control group, with no adults to model their behavior on either way.

After the adults dealt with their difficult keyrings or containers, they presented the baby with a music box. The box had one obvious button that did nothing, plus a hidden button the guardian would trigger before leaving the room. The activated boxes would play a bit of music, prompting the baby to try and reactivate the box on their own, presumably by interacting with the big fake button. As expected, no babies actually figured out how to activate the music on their own, but they did vary quite a bit in how hard they tried.

When is struggling worth the effort?

The kids that didn’t watch an adult at all didn’t give the box too much of their time, nor did kids that got a demonstration of repeated success. In contrast, the babies that witnessed their guardian put in a lot of fruitless effort before finally dealing with their keys and containers put in more work themselves. Even though they were attempting a different task, their expectations for how to solve a problem seemed to shift, and they were less likely to give up. This doesn’t necessarily scale forever- it wasn’t tested, but researcher suspect that a guardian that never succeeded after 30 seconds might be discouraging as well.

It’s unclear if these practices are only effective in babies, or if kids old enough to say “I can’t!” will be impressed to see their dad fumble with his sneakers for 30 seconds before we head out the door. I’ve never felt like I was making things look easy in front of my kids, but at the very least, pretending to have a hard time certainly sounds like an easy task to try out.

Source: Babies Learn Perseverance by Watching You Sweat by Christopher Wanjek, Live Science

On September 20th, 2017 we learned about

Experiments demonstrate how to manipulate monkey (and human) metacognition

For as many times as we tell our kids to believe in themselves, it’s good to keep in mind that confidence can sometimes be misleading. This isn’t to say that doubting your every decision is helpful or healthy, but that sometimes we don’t realize why we’re confident in the first place, opening us up to manipulation, such as putting more trust in a statement because it’s written in larger letters. This susceptibility isn’t exactly our fault though, as researchers have found that our primate cousins fall for the same tricks. While falling for these influences may seem like a drawback for us, it’s also proving that monkeys have a more sophisticated sense of self than they’re usually given credit for.

Understanding exactly what you do and do not know is called metacognition. It’s very helpful to know where your gaps in knowledge are so that you can adjust your actions accordingly. For instance, if you know you’ve never eaten a particular berry before, knowing you don’t know what it is will probably push you to investigate it more carefully before popping it into your mouth. This might seem obvious, but people, and apparently other primates, commonly make mistakes when evaluating our personal knowledge base, and that can obviously get us into trouble.

Confirming monkeys’ confidence

To test metacognition in monkeys, researchers had to train them on a multi-step game that would allow these non-verbal test subjects to demonstrate how much they thought they knew about something. Monkeys were presented with touch screens showing a single image, like a cricket, which they had to poke at to proceed. They then see that same cricket image again, along with three other images meant to distract them from their task, which is to poke the same cricket again.

After they make their selection, they’re shown a screen where they need to rate how confident they are about their previous poke. If they’re sure they’re right, they can pick an option that will net them three tokens for a correct answer, but cost them a token if they’re wrong. If they’re less sure about their answer, a low-confidence indicator will let them gain one token, even if they’re wrong. Monkeys are only rewarded once they earn a specific number of tokens, forcing them to play the long game to get a treat.

It’s a lot to throw at a monkey, but they seemed to get it enough to play and reveal patterns in their decision making. Once a monkey seemed to understand the mechanics of the game, researchers started manipulating how information was presented in order to manipulate confidence levels. For instance, higher-contrast images made the monkeys wager with more confidence, while low-contrast images had the opposite effect. These sorts of attributes change confidence levels in humans too, along with shorter, easier-to-pronounce vocabulary and the aforementioned larger text size.

Indecision versus imprecision

This isn’t to say that metacognition is just a form of self-delusion. Knowing when to take a shortcut, or react quickly and decisively, can be very helpful in certain scenarios. These traits probably evolved in a distant primate ancestor, and have been helping humans and monkeys for millions of years. Of course, it’s probably also helpful to know what you know versus what you think you know, since sometimes that same confidence can get you into trouble.

Source: Monkey sees. . . monkey knows? by Lindsey Valich, Rochester Newscenter

On August 6th, 2017 we learned about

Our favorite robots are those with faults and flaws

You may not find the antics of R2-D2 terribly charming, but apparently a bit of bumbling can make a robot much more appealing to the humans that need to interact with it. This may seem counterintuitive, since any robot that’s tasked with assembling our airplanes or fighting fires should perform those tasks as accurately as possible to help keep us safe. However, robots performing more socially-oriented functions, like helping you check in for a flight, are more likely to get on your good side if they make an error or two (and correct it.) This is great news for roboticists, since we’re a long way off from any robot that can handle every social interaction perfectly… not unlike actual humans.

A study from the University of Salzburg, Austria, asked people to perform various tasks with a robot assistant. The tasks weren’t the focus of the study though, as the real variable was how the robot behaved along the way. Some robots performed the tasks as smoothly and flawlessly as possible, and were were generally rated by their human partners as being very anthropomorphic and intelligent. Other robots were programmed to make mistakes from time to time, and while they weren’t rated as being so intelligent, they were nonetheless the most likable robot to partner with. This is important, because people will be more willing to work with an automaton on any project or transaction if they can find it likable in some way.

Our fondness for flaws

Researchers believe that this is a case of what’s known as the Pratfall Effect. It has been demonstrated experimentally by showing people video of a peer successfully answering questions in a game show setting. After getting 92 percent of the questions right, some viewers see this person spill their coffee in their lap, while others don’t. Everyone can agree that this is a highly competent person, which is good, but the people who saw the spilled coffee also find the person to be very likable. Small flaws make a person, or robot, feel relatable and “human.”

Mistakes only make people, or robots, more attractive if they’re already seen as competent though. So a robot can’t do everything wrong and expect to win anyone over. However, perfection isn’t a practical goal, so researchers propose that robots be designed to take advantage of the Pratfall Effect when mistakes are inevitably made. If a robot can read social cues from humans well enough, it may be able to better scrutinize it’s own behavior for mistakes to correct. Correcting the mistake would then show competency, but also “humanize” the robot in a way that would be otherwise hard to plan for.

Source: Why Humans Find Faulty Robots More Likeable, Scienmag

On December 1st, 2016 we learned about

Supposedly ‘personal’ opinions are shaped by perceptions of price, prestige and popularity

Even if you don’t know much about art, you probably know who’s opinions you like. As much you might feel a gut reaction to a painting or sculpture, your impression of it is likely shaped by what you think the world thinks of it. Being impressed by qualities external to the art itself isn’t exactly a proud notion if you’re interested in making up your own mind, but experiments were able to confirm how malleable our opinions are such matters of “taste.” Price and prestige, measured along a couple of different lines, were all found to make a difference to how well people found an otherwise unchanged painting.

Swayed by others’ status

University students were asked to take a look at a series of paintings and share their opinions of each. Before they saw the paintings, researchers were set them up with potential biases by sharing what a third party thought of the collection. Those fictitious viewers were described as belonging to one of three groups— art experts, the students’ peers, or college dropouts essentially described as doing nothing with their lives. Compared to test subjects who were not primed with any social context about the art, these participants generally made a point of agreeing with the opinions of the experts and friends, while disagreeing with the dropouts. These biases could work either as positives or negatives, indicating that people’s opinion can be nudged in any direction as long as there’s a social incentive to do so. Basically, endorsements from respected groups work.

Persuaded by prices

The second form of bias tested concerned the paintings’ supposed monetary value. Rather than having opinions primed by fictitious social consensus, test subjects’ opinions were pushed by fictitious sales prices. As you might expect, more expensive art was more likable than cheaper pieces. This is in line with similar studies of how people rate their enjoyment of wine, with the a single wine receiving more praise when it has a higher price attached to it.

This may not seem horribly relevant if you’re not actively shopping the art market, but it demonstrates psychological tendencies that likely shape our experiences more than we realize. It seems that even when our “personal opinion” may feel personal, there’s a good chance it has a lot to do with our desire to fit in with the opinions of other people.

Source: We like what experts like — and what is expensive, Scienmag

On November 17th, 2016 we learned about

People show subtle hesitation when sharing our own possessions

Sharing our possessions is apparently harder than most of us realize. Even outside the context of a toddler anxiously gripping his favorite toy firetruck at daycare, people seem to have a predisposition to avoid giving up what’s ours, even temporarily. Even for friends. Even over a silly coffee mug that was given to us for the purpose of sharing it.

Helping with the hand-off

A study of people’s behavior when handing objects to each other was predicated on the idea that, overall, we do want to get along with each other. There are simple, small things we can do to facilitate cooperation, such as positioning an object so that it’s easier to grasp for the person we want to give it to. A pointed (ahem) example of this would be turning a knife around so that you pass the handle to your partner, instead of passing the blade, but this kind of action even happens when people give each other something safer, like a room-temperature coffee mug.

At the same time, the degree that we help out recipients apparently varies depending on how attached we feel to the object being shared. Test participants were prompted to pass a recently acquired mug to a friend or a stranger. If the participant expected their partner would pick the mug up, they were more likely to position the handle in a helpful orientation. But the partner’s expected response didn’t fully determine how people arranged the handle— ownership played a factor as well.

Who’s mug matters

When people were sharing someone else’s mug, basically returning it, they were more helpful. When asked to hand over their own mug, they would subtly, and almost certainly unconsciously, keep the handle just a bit closer to themselves. On it’s own, it’s a small tick in human behavior, but it likely reveals instincts that also influence bigger moments. Even when we intend to share with others, we can’t seem to help but keep a subtle or symbolic grip on what we think is ours. So the next time you want to be generous, maybe make a point stretch yourself and really reach out to whomever you’re helping.

Source: Yours or mine? How we handle objects depends on who owns them, Scienmag

On November 10th, 2016 we learned about

Payments to persuaders pare down how well they drum up donations

It’s a pretty straight-forward assumption that rewarding people helps motivate them to carry out tasks. Just about anyone would rather wash dishes for a $10.00 than for nothing. Commissions assume that bigger rewards should provide bigger motivations, spurring people to be more successful at their work. However, there are side-effects to compensation sometimes, as it may actually hurt job performance in specific instances, such as when the task at hand involves charitable giving. In that case, charity may work best when it starts with the employee.

Earnings vs. earnestness

An experiment was done where test participants were tasked with soliciting donations via short, persuasive videos. All participants were interested in the cause receiving the money, but half had the situation sweetened by the promise of a one dollar payment for ever 10 dollars they brought in. Videos were then shown to 243 potential donors who did not know which pitches were tied to a payment or not. Donors were given money to contribute, so their personal finances wouldn’t be as much of an influence on their decision to donate or not. It was up to the impression made by the so-called “persuaders” in the videos.

Without knowing the full parameters of what was being tested, the donors proved to be good at picking out which persuaders were promised a payment. They generally rated them as being less sincere in their videos, and felt less motivated to donate to them. It seemed that receiving a payment for their pitch created an internal conflict for persuaders, and that was somehow reflected in the quality of their solicitations.

Payments without personal profit

A follow-up looked at the idea that feelings of insincerity could possibly be reversed through a different kind of incentive. Rather than pay the persuaders, the offer was changed to be a matching donation for the charity itself, possibly making the persuader feel like they were helping more without any conflict of interest. However, that didn’t seem to make them any more effective than the control group, which had not additional payment structure to worry about.

This study didn’t pin down exactly what cues made the difference to donors, but it does seem to point conclusively to the need for persuaders to feel honest about their requests. Further study is planned to see what verbal and nonverbal behaviors are most common with paid persuaders, and which cues bother donors, which may have application beyond fund-raising.

Source: Paying do-gooders makes them less persuasive, Scienmag

On August 8th, 2016 we learned about

Figuring out the origins of our visual fear responses to snakes, spiders and shots

Once babies are old enough to grasp objects, we start offering them brightly colored shapes, or squeaky giraffes or perhaps snugly bunnies. Some animals, like snakes and spiders, seem to be off limits though, even if their bodies or appendages would actually be really convenient for tiny hands to grip. This probably isn’t surprising, because many humans have what may be an inherent fear of occasionally dangerous animals like snakes and spiders, and that fear seems to turn up at such a young age it may be built into our brains. Scientists have been trying to figure out the exact parameters of these fears though, and how they seem to be a template for new fears we learn later in life.

Searching for snakes

Tests have found that people of all ages respond to the shapes of snakes and spiders with higher priority than other objects. These tests often require an user to pick the potentially scary animal out of a batch of visual information, with even nine-month-olds registering interest in the image of a snake faster than that of a flower. There’s evidence that this interest in potentially venomous animals has been part of the primate experience for a long time, with monkeys showing similar preferences for snakes over other visual information. The priority to avoid grabbing a colorful snake has even been linked to the some primates’ renewed ability to see the color red after it was abandoned by earlier ancestors.

Seeking out spiders

Spiders apparently made some strong impressions on our ancestors as well. They’re one of the most consistent things that children routinely list as a top fear, even outweighing kidnappings, general predators or “the dark.” The scary factor in spiders seems to be very much linked to their physical appearance, as people who break down what bothers them about the mostly benign arachnids point to things like “legginess” and “sudden movement” over explicit physical risks associated with a venomous bite. It’s almost like our brain doesn’t like the way they look, even if it can’t explain why.

Like people’s fears of snakes, this response to spiders seems to be built into our brains. Attitudes towards spiders seem to run in families, with arachnophobic parents being more likely to have arachnophobic children. This was tested with studies of identical twins, who’s attitude towards spiders matched their gene-sharing sibling more than the people who shared their local environment, which would presumably be a better gauge of actual threats from spiders.

Acquired anxieties

This doesn’t mean that our fears are completely set in stone though, since obviously that would leave us vulnerable to responding to real threats in the world that didn’t happen to slither or stick in webs. Negative experiences seem to build visual fear responses akin to the reflexes some of us experience with snakes or spiders. For example, children who had never been cut by a knife weren’t especially interested in images of them, but a kid who had been given a vaccination through a syringe could immediately react to the image of a needle in visual tests. These reactions could even be designed, as volunteers who were given small electric shocks when viewing images of dogs eventually learned to jump at the site of a canine.

Conversely, people exposed to fear-inducing images for tiny but repeated duration of time can have their fear-response blunted to a degree. While these innate responses are processed very quickly, it’s possible to flash images so briefly that they don’t fully register, and thus are “seen” without triggering a fear response. Repeated rounds of such micro-exposures decrease the fear response loop from our amygdala where threat responses are decided.

Situational stress

The last big influence on these visual fear responses is our mood. If you’re already in an aroused state, possibly from watching a scary movie, every object starts to draw attention the way images of snakes or spiders do. People with phobias are more sensitive to the subject of their fears, and people with social anxiety disorders are on constant alert to any threatening cues, like angrier facial expressions on strangers. Assuming we can selectively desensitize ourselves to unwanted fears, the first crucial step is then to identify what your brain is looking for, then helping it train its attention back to the pleasant flowers in the world.

Source: How do children learn to detect snakes, spiders and other dangerous things? by Vanessa LoBue, The Conversation