On November 5th, 2015 we learned about

Slack cognition stirred up by askew cultural cues

Given the chance, the human brain likes to coast. As much as we’re interested and stimulated by new things, when experiencing the familiar we check out a bit, running on a sort of light cognitive autopilot. This would be fine, except that it actually comes with a reduction of our decision making abilities. Familiar environments might not just be easy on our brains, they actually make them lazy.

Perked up by plates

While none of this seems that startling to describe, a group of researchers set out to test not if familiar events dulled us, but if breaking up expectations could snap us back to a more aware state. One test involved something as simple as holiday decorations. At a Fourth of July picnic, most plates were what most of us would expect, printed with American flags to match the other decorations’ motifs. However, a smattering of plates were simply white, which proved to be enough of a break in the routine that people with the less typical plates behaved differently.

As the white-plated people served themselves at a buffet line, they consistently gave themselves smaller portions than people with patriotic flatware. By noticing that small difference in the dishes, they seemed to be noticing other details in the world as well. In this scenario, that meant paying more attention to just how many hot dogs they were feeding themselves.

Cognitive benefits beyond counting calories

A number of variations on these ideas were tested, all based around making small tweaks in familiar cultural events and iconography. The results extended beyond simply feeling self-conscious about eating too; People aware of these disrupted expectations were more conscientious about about impulse shopping and indulging in sweets. These small adjustments even boosted people’s performance on cognitive reasoning tests, showing that this was more than an issue of self-control and actually seemed to be how active participants thinking was at the time.

Source: Cultural Goofs Gear Up Gray Matter by Erika Beras, Scientific American

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