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I don’t want to think about it—Oh wait.

November 27th, 2020 No comments

Do you ever find yourself driving somewhere or walking to a place without even thinking about it? Take this for example: Your friend invited you over to their house to hang out. So you get ready to leave, jump in your car, and make your way there. As you begin to drive, you take all the normal turns you would to regularly get there until you realize you are five minutes away from their old address. They recently moved to a different house about 20 minutes from their old one, and what was going to be a 10 minute trip has turned into a 30 minute one. You’ve been to their new house before but for some reason you unconsciously still drove to their old address. Overtime, you continuously begin to remember that your friend does not, in fact, live at their old address until the association with them and their new address remains in the forefront of your mind while the old address is locked away in your archives of “things that are a distant memory”.

Inhibition is used to help block out things that we don’t necessarily want to remember.

This happens to people all the time in different scenarios during our daily lives, but why does this happen even when we know the correct route to take or decision to make? One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Olivia O’brien, made me wonder, briefly, this same thing after listening to her song “Inhibition” as it came on my playlist. I never really knew what inhibition actually meant but it really didn’t matter to me, the song was catchy and I figured it probably made sense in the context of the lyrics. Next thing I knew, we were discussing O’brien’s song title in my Cognitive Psychology class! Normally, I would be able to listen to music and go about my daily life without psychoanalyzing everything about it, but studying a subject such as cognitive psychology tends to make you question a lot of really normal processes that occur during everyday life. Taking this even further, to what extent can our inhibitory processes work sufficiently before we can’t keep unwanted memories from entering our present thinking state?

We use inhibition very often in many different situations, whether it’s something like the described scenario above, or something as simple as focusing our attention in any given moment. In many ways, inhibition is a fancy way of describing our control of memory retrieval when different cues remind us of things that we don’t necessarily want or need to remember in that moment (Levy & Anderson, 2002). This can be caused by different learned actions or traumatic experiences that link certain things in our environment to specific memories. Our inhibitory mechanisms take control of different conspicuous behaviors and they also target memories that are directly related to a cue to manage retrieval of them (Levy & Anderson, 2002). In this way, we can look at our inhibitory processes as a way for us to suppress unwanted accessibility to particular memories (Bjork, 2011). Things as simple as reading can cause us to use our inhibition to correctly read a word and find the right memory to pull into our working memory.

The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the Orbitofrontal Cortex all work together in the inhibition process.

So inhibition is clearly important for us in order to go about our day without being entirely conflicted with ourselves and what we are seeing and trying to interpret. But what happens when we fail to use it? It feels like it would lead to a catastrophic level explosion of information trying to be interpreted by our working memory, ending what I imagine would be a mental breakdown. Thankfully, our inhibitory neurons do a really good job at making sure this doesn’t happen. Angie McCalla, a speech and language Pathologist at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers outlines the three parts of the brain involved in making sure our inhibition abilities are set and ready to go. Altogether, the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), and the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) work with each other to ensure that certain unwanted responses to things we are seeing and doing don’t end up occurring. The DLPFC is used to handle different thought processes and behaviors in the moment, which includes working recall and response inhibition. The ACC helps find competing responses to a cue and works to push back the incorrect response. Lastly, the OFC manages things such as impulse control and socially appropriate behaviors. This seems like a lot and is a little confusing. It took me a second to figure this out too, but luckily Benjamin J. Levy and Michael C. Anderson thread it together nicely in their article in the 2002 issue of Trends In Cognitive Sciences. They explained that since the ACC can help identify when two responses are trying to respond to one cue, it sends a signal to the DLPFC to put more restraints on our working recall and to put our inhibitory processes into action. This then signals the OFC to make a decision as to which response is the correct one to use based on the cue we are interacting with, and in turn, signals to inhibit the other unwanted response from our working memory. 

Still with me? Okay. Now that we know way more about how inhibition works than we did before, let’s look at how Kefi Mohamed Zeid found out that people who can fluently speak more than one language generally will have a more efficient ability to inhibit information using the Stroop Task.

The Stroop Task forces us to slow down and pull apart our automatic processes and inhibit our learned behaviors to correctly complete the task.

Using a total of 180 participants (90 younger and 90 older) who spoke both Arabic and French, Zeid tested them all on the Stroop Task with a slight twist. On top of reading the words, naming the colors, and the color-word condition, the participants also had a fourth condition in which they were shown the color-word condition but in the two languages (Arabic and French). Reid and his team found that participants who were more dominant in either language performed better on that test that was in their dominant language, but participants who were balanced in both languages performed equally as well on both the French and Arabic Stroop tests. Furthermore, they saw that the un-dominant language in participants who were more dominant in one than the other, is harder to retrieve information for as the older a participant was (Zeid, 2004). You may be wondering what the point of including this was, so let me explain: Since the older participants with a bias towards one language or the other had a progressively harder time on the Stroop Task in their non-dominant language, we can understand that over time, things that are not used as often can slowly became harder to access and are suppressed more heavily by our inhibition.

Let’s circle back to our hypothetical selves driving to our friend’s house. If we think of the two addresses, old and new, as the two languages present in Zeid’s study, we can see how the old address may have once been the dominant language to us, which is why it isn’t as easy to inhibit at first. As we slowly begin to learn the new address, however, we strengthen what was initially our non-dominant language. The more we practice it and don’t practice the other language, we almost switch which one is our dominant and non-dominant source of information. Once this switch is made, the newly dominant language, or our friends new address, has easier access to our working memory, leaving the non-dominant language, or our friends old address, under a heavier influence from our inhibitory processes.

After this deep, deep dive into inhibition, what it is, and how it works, I can officially say that Olivia O’brien’s song makes a lot more sense to me now, and that she is very lyrically gifted. Maybe someone else who reads this and listen’s to the song will be able to appreciate it as much as I do right now.

 

References

Anderson, M. C., & Levy, B. J. (2016). On The Relationship Between Interference And Inhibition In Cognition. In 1084770490 823458394 A. S. Benjamin & 1084770491 823458394 R. A. Bjork (Authors), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: A festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 107-132). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group.

Levy, B. (2002). Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(7), 299-305. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01923-x 

McCalla, A. (2017, July 26). Executive Functioning – Where is it Controlled and How Does it Develop? / Remediation Techniques for Deficits and Dysfunction. https://www.rainbowrehab.com/executive-functioning/ 

Zied, K. M., Phillipe, A., Karine, P., Valerie, H., Ghislaine, A., Arnaud, R., & Didier, L. G. (2004). Bilingualism and adult differences in inhibitory mechanisms: Evidence from a bilingual stroop task. Brain and Cognition, 54(3), 254-256. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2004.02.036

Be happy. Be productive

November 26th, 2020 No comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened fear, social isolation, and economic anxiety across many communities around the country.  In a recent survey of roughly 300 American workers, about 40% said they feel less productive than usual during the pandemic (Ducharme, 2020). College students, including those at Colby College, are not immune to similar feelings such as a lack of productivity, inability to pay attention, and an overall decrease in work performance. When talking to students at Colby College there is a general consensus that one’s ability to focus on one’s work has decreased in addition to overall cognitive performance. This general belief of decreased productivity and ability got me thinking about possible reasons for this widespread feeling. I began to wonder, “have students become lazier?”, “have Colby College students become less intelligent?”, or “have classes become harder?”. Logically thinking through these questions, I conclude a reasonable answer to these questions is “no” to all. But what could be driving these changes in cognitive performance across the Colby campus and beyond? Thinking back to my own peaks in academic performance, I think about the times in which I have seen the greatest success. Overall, I have found that my academic performance seems to be positively correlated with my level of happiness. These observations from the world of the pandemic, my own life, and the general trends on the Colby campus this year has led me to wonder, how do emotions affect one’s cognitive performance? Due to the magnitude of studies varying by different moods and cognitive processes, this blog will primarily focus on positive mood’s effects on learning and memory.

 

Fray, B. (2020). ‘I’m sick and tired of your mood swings, Frank!’. Cartoon Stock, https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/m/mood_swings.asp

 

Feelings consume daily lives, yet we fail to fully recognize their impact on our cognitive functions. Mood can be described as a dispositional state that lasts for several minutes or hours (Mitchell & Phillips, 2007). While research on emotional science did not emerge as an organized specialty until the introduction of the International Society for Research and Emotions (ISRE) in the mid-1980s, many studies following this period have revealed the diverse and prolific ways positive emotions can affect human’s ability to learn. A leader in research on positive emotions, Barbara Fredrickson states, “positive emotions are brief, multisystem responses to changes in the way people interpret their current situation. When this response registers good prospects or functions, a positive mood is produced (Fredrickson, 2013). Researchers have found that negative and positive emotions alike evolved from selective pressures related to survival. While negative emotions are important for flight and fleeing responses, positive emotions allow for strategic and long term actions. According to a 2013 study, positive emotions play a great role in humans’ past and present ability to make discoveries, acquire new knowledge, form new alliances, and gain new skills. (Fredrickson, 2013). According to these ideas, positive emotions as a whole can help with new skills and knowledge, positive emotions should be able to help with academic performance. The Broaden-and-build theory proposes that positive emotions broaden people’s thoughts and actions. Research has found that positive moods can be linked to broadened cognition in a variety of characteristics increase creativity (Isen, 1987), visual attentional expansion(Rowe et al, 2007), and beyond.

 

 Alice Isen has been a leader in mood effects on cognitive performance. Throughout her research, she has found that positive affect as a whole gives rise to enlarged cognitive context (Isen, 1987). One of her studies conducted in 1978 found that positive mood has been shown to facilitate a broader focus of attention and memory ability. For example, she found that individuals in a positive mood state can recall more words than those in a negative mood state (Isen et al., 1978). This ability to recall more words could be due to positive effects, the tendency to see more relatedness and interconnections among various thoughts and further process material in a more integrated and flexible fashion. In one of her research experiments, she found that relative to individuals in a neutral control condition, individuals in a positive mood were able to name more unusual associations to neutral words. Going off of this research, Isen also found that those in a positive mood used more inclusive categories as a whole (Isen & Duabman, 1984). In this study, those in a positive mood sorted a set of 14 colored chips into fewer categories than those in a neutral mood. Increasing the amount of information placed into a smaller subset of categories is referred to as chunking. Miller pointed out that limits in our working memory capacity for processing information led to the necessity of organizing items into chunks. Due to the limited capacity of short-term memory, when placed into chunks of information based on prior knowledge, this allows the new information to become easier to retain and recall. Isen’s finding that positive moods increase inclusion in categories demonstrates that the chunking process can be aided and therefore memory recall. This idea of enhanced ability to chunk information due to positive mood is further supported by a study that found that consumers are more likely to encode a brand’s category membership when they are examining a brand named in a positive mood (Anderson & Bower, 1973). This result is proposed to be caused by an increased number of brands to be linked during encoding by an associated network. This allows an increased number of brands to be used as an effective cue for retrieval of a target brand. The enhanced chunking can thus free resources to encode more brands and categories. Due to positive emotions’ ability to increase chunking capacity, people are able to obtain more information which can aid in learning and performance. This increased ability to chunk could be explained by additional Isen findings that people in positive moods are better at creative thinking. This research conducted in 1987 found that subjects in positive affect conditions were able to break the normal route and see additional features of items used in the task that aided their full potential for solving the problem (Isen et al., 1987). Creative problem solving is crucial for academic and lifelong success. 

 

Further research supported Isen’s proposition that positive emotions can increase attention as a whole. In a study conducted by Wadlngr and Isaacowitz (2006), they found that when participants were asked to look at one central image and two peripheral images in various locations, those that were induced to be in a good mood changed the focus of their gaze more frequently, and looked more at the peripherally located images. This data further suggests that not only do people in positive moods broaden their scope of general attention but this extends to people’s visual attention and semantic attention Rowe et al., (2007). In order to understand, memorize, and recall this before us, we must first pay attention to it. Attention allows you to “tune out” information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that’s important. The ability to tune out irrelevant information is crucial in a place where someone needs to learn and thus aids in performance as a whole. In summary, Isen’s research along with supportive research is able to show that people in positive moods in comparison to those in a neutral state are able to offer more unusual cognitive associations, create and use more inclusive categories, recall larger numbers of words, and freeform better on standard tests on creative thinking. These enhancements would suggest that positive moods broaden a person’s scope of cognition, and therefore can positively influence a person’s academic and work performance. 

 

Fran (2020). “People aren’t happy enough…I want a 15% increase in happiness by the 1st of the month or heads will roll!”. Cartoonstock. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/p/personal_contentment.asp

 

So how exactly are positive emotions able to help with our problem-solving abilities, recall, and overall performance? One prominent theory of mood proposed by Ashby, looks at these benefits through a biological lens, stating that the benefits of consolidation of long-term episodic memory, working memory, and the ability to problem-solve are due to the release of dopamine in the anterior cingulate (Ashby et al., 1999). While some studies have concluded that positive emotions produce many benefits, other studies demonstrate that there are limitations to positive emotion’s perceived benefits. One of the earliest theories of mood and cognitive function, the mood-congruency framework, tends to maintain that the effects of positive and negative mood states are thought to bias information in favor of mood-congruent stimuli (Bower, 1981). This proposed theory elicits that while positive moods can enhance memory, it does so primarily when the information is in itself positive or was learned in a positive state of mind. Additionally, research has found that while positive moods can broaden a person’s attention, this broadened perspective can come at a cost of higher distractibility (Dreisbach & Gischke) and harder time ignoring task irrelevant tasks (Rowe et al., 2007). While there remains to be some controversy on the extent to the benefits of positive mood, its significant effects on creative problem solving, chunking ability, and attention demonstrates that positive emotions have the ability to improve academic performance. While it is incredibly hard to keep a good mood during this time on campus and at home, you should know that the effort to be in a good mood can go a long way for your academic long term performance. 

 

Freepik (2018). Group of happy business people in a meeting at office. FeePik. https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/group-happy-business-people-meeting-office_2549456.htm

 

 

Reference

Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1972). Recognition and retrieval processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 79(2), 97–123. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033773

Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106(3), 529-550. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.3.529

Bower, G. H. (1981). Mood and memory. American Psychologist, 36(2), 129–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.36.2.129

Ducharme, J. (2020). How to Concentrate and Focus During the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://time.com/5878780/how-to-focus-covid-19-pandemic/. 

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.56.3.218

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2

Isen, A. M., & Daubman, K. A. (1984). The influence of affect on categorization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1206–1217. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.47.6.1206

Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122-1131. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.6.1122

Isen, A. M., Johnson, M. M. S., Mertz, E., & Robinson, G. F. (1985). The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(6), 1413-1426. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1413

Isen, A. M., Shalker, T. E., Clark, M., & Karp, L. (1978). Affect, accessibility of material in memory, and behavior: A cognitive loop? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 1-12. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.36.1.1

Mitchell RLC, Phillips LH. The psychological, neurochemical and functional neuroanatomical mediators of the effects of positive and negative mood on executive functions. Neuropsychologia. 2007;45:617–629.

Rowe, G., Hirsh, J. B., & Anderson, A. K. (2006;2007;). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 104(1), 383-388. doi:10.1073/pnas.0605198104

Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 87-99. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9021-1

Are you sure about that? How different lineup presentations affect eyewitness testimony

November 24th, 2020 No comments

Imagine that you find yourself being a stand-in for a police lineup, they called you in because you roughly match the profile of the suspect. Yet you know in your heart that you never committed the crime, you were sitting on your couch at the time that the crime occurred, but nobody could verify your whereabouts. You glance around at the other people in the lineup with you, and you notice that they bear a strange resemblance to you, like a bad photocopy. But you know that there is a possibility that the real suspect, the actual person who committed the crime is somewhere in the lineup. Behind the two way mirror stands a victim, pointing to your face and telling the detectives with earnest that it was you who they saw. Next thing you know, you are locked up in a prison cell in a scratchy uniform with dangerous criminals eyeing you up. For 15 years you maintain innocence and for 15 years you sit and wait for justice to be served. But it never does. You serve your full sentence for the murder of someone that you didn’t even know. 15 years of your life that you will never get back. Your reputation is ruined and there is no going back to the way things were before. False eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, most for major crimes such as murder and rape. And while you may be moping about that the entire criminal justice system failed YOU (and it most certainly did), the actual perpetrator is still walking free! This situation is exactly what Sir William Blackstone warned against in his famous statement that it is “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – meaning that it is better to focus on finding those who are guilty but not at the expense that an innocent person should go to jail. 

A peep in a simultaneous line-up

The devastating consequences of arresting innocent people and locking them in jail for several years can be exemplified in the case of the Exonerated Five, in which five youth individuals who were African American and Hispanic were imprisoned for aggravated assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park (read more about them here). They served out their sentences before being exonerated when the true perpetrator confessed. Instead of going to high school and being a carefree teen like the rest of individuals in their age group (14-16), the Exonerated Five were sitting in prison for a crime they did not commit. Eyewitness identification did not play a role in this case, but the Exonerated Five exemplifies how harmful wrongful imprisonment is. As it relates to eyewitness identification, when the people in the lineup are a different race than the eyewitness, they are already at a disadvantage. The Own-Race Effect is the phenomenon that occurs when we can recognize people that are of our own race better than people of different races (read more here). This puts BIPOC (black/indigenous/people/of/color) at a higher risk of being misidentified, especially when the rates of black people getting arrested is disproportionately larger than any other raceHundreds of innocent people (a majority of them BIPOC) have been sent to jail for major crimes such as rape and murder on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The Innocence Project works at exonerating people stuck in this situation on the basis of DNA evidence.

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Moving From Autopilot Towards Mindfulness

November 24th, 2020 No comments

https://memebase.cheezburger.com/tag/zoning-outHave you ever been carrying on a conversation with a friend when you realize you have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about–let alone how you’re still talking? Or, maybe you’ve been driving when you blink and an entire hour goes by leaving you wondering where your mind went… and how your car is still intact? I could just be a bad friend, or a slacker driver, but I suspect I’m not alone. It’s likely that you’re zoned out a lot more often than you realize, and this isn’t without negative repercussions. In 2010, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used a phone app to randomly record what 2,250 subjects’ minds were focused on in a specific moment in relation to what they were doing and how they were feeling. They discovered that the average person spends about 47% of their day on “autopilot,” following automated behaviors while their thoughts wander from the task at hand. Equally intriguing, when the participants reported their mind wandering, they also reported being significantly less happy in that moment. It may be unsettling to realize that you aren’t consciously aware of your behavior for half of your day, and that generally the more time we spend directed by automated behaviors, the less happy we’re likely to feel. (Killingsworth, 2010)
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The Rise of Opinionated News Sources: How Confirmation Bias is Affecting How We Vote

November 24th, 2020 No comments

As Donald Trump’s four year term is coming to a close, people all over the United States–and the world– were more anxious than ever to see who would win the election. Would Trump be rewarded with a second term, or would former Vice-President Joe Biden get enough votes to make Trump the first one-term President since Clinton beat Bush in 1992? Regardless of the fact that Biden won, one thing is clear: our country seems to be more politically divided than ever before. The rise of biased news sources combined with the power of confirmation bias have contributed to much of our current, incredibly-divided, political climate.

Walter Cronkite, a retired CBS news anchor who was widely trusted by Middle America.

Before cable and internet news, the three television networks in the United States were ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they had to appeal to very broad and diverse audiences, these networks relayed the news of the day fairly objectively, and it was challenging to decipher whether news anchors, such as Walter Cronkite, were liberal or conservative based on their reporting (Poniewozik). Over the last 30 years, with the rise of cable and internet news, news sources have become increasingly more biased and focused on niche audiences. These networks are supplying the public with opinionated accounts of what’s going on instead of seeking to simply report objective facts (Pearson). Those who follow the news know that many networks and sites like CNN, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and MSNBC are left-leaning news sources, and thus share the news from a more liberal point of view. The opposite is true for networks like Fox News, Breitbart and the National Review, which are right leaning and promote more conservative opinions, as expressed through the data found by AllSides–a Media Bias chart that collects information from people across the political spectrum through blind bias surveys, editorial reviews, independent reviews, and third party data.
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Don’t Let Your Anchor Control Your Shopping: The Anchoring Bias

November 23rd, 2020 No comments

Imagine walking into a clothing store before the holidays. You are on the lookout for a long-sleeved shirt to wear to a dinner party next week but do not have much time due to a haircut appointment in half an hour. While driving there you thought this would be a fairly quick and easy task, but now, while wedged between a mother and daughter, you are repeatedly asking yourself why you didn’t just buy something online. You don’t

Figure 1. Clothing rack during the holidays.

have time for this! Once you finally locate the long-sleeved clothing rack and maneuver through all of the people, you find the perfect black long-sleeved shirt. You hold up the shirt to get a better look and glance down at the price tag. The first two numbers on the price tag are two and nine which are followed by two small nine’s but you only fixate on the first two and nine. You decide that $29 is too expensive which is fine because the material seems like it would be itchy anyway. As you are putting the shirt back, you notice a big red sign above the clothing rack. The sign reads “50% off” in the middle with sixty dollars crossed out on the top followed by the new price of 29.99 dollars on the bottom. You freak out while thinking to yourself: “it used to be 60 dollars! I must get this!” It becomes a no-brainer and you immediately walk towards the cash register completely forgetting about the possibility of the material being terribly itchy. 

While walking to the cash register, you immediately remember that you were also supposed to pick out a Christmas present for your mother. Before leaving your house you briefly researched some popular winter jackets and read somewhere that the average price for a winter jacket is roughly $150. While quickly flipping through the jackets, you find a warm blue jacket that costs $115. You immediately buy it without much further thought. 

What just happened? Let’s unpack this shopping scenario together. Why do you think the individual did not want to buy the long-sleeved shirt when it was $29 but immediately bought it when she or he noticed it used to be $60? It was the exact same potentially itchy sweater for the same price in both scenarios, but what made it more intriguing in the second? Additionally, why did the individual buy the winter jacket as soon as he or she saw it was $115? Why didn’t the individual keep looking? 

Your intuition may lead you to believe that this occurred solely because they were both great deals, which they were, but empirical evidence states there’s more to this rash behavior than just two good bargains at a clothing store. Before diving into it, take a moment to think about how numbers are absolutely everywhere. You can see numbers on signs while driving, on the TV while relaxing, on reading assignments while

Figure 2. Numbers overwhelm our daily lives.

working, and even on food labels while eating. Yet a great deal of us, including myself, do not give much thought to such numbers unless they are directly related to the task at hand. For example, do you remember the numbers that were woven into your recent homework assignment? Do you remember the numbers that were presented in class or some advertisement on Instagram? How about the first number on this very post? Probably not. But believe it or not, those numbers were in some shape or form processed and could have played a role in a subsequent decision. In other words, such arbitrary and seemingly random values could have systematically manipulated your assessment of reality in terms of uncertain quantities. This cognitive phenomenon pertaining to human judgment is formally known as the anchoring bias and can help us further understand the shopping scenarios above.

The anchoring bias, also known as the anchoring effect, is one of the most robust cognitive heuristics in human judgment. Such a cognitive process concentrates on the human tendency to make judgments that are biased toward an initially presented value. In other words, the subconscious mind has a strong tendency to refer to recently encountered values while trying to make a decision or figure something out. Individuals frequently end up relying too heavily upon such previously presented values (i.e. anchors) as a reference or starting point in moments where motivation and ability to make a correct judgment are lacking. It is important to note that such judgments are independent of the informational relevance of the anchors. Irrelevant anchors generate similar effects in human decisions as to those of relevant informational anchors (Furnham & Boo, 2010). 

Figure 3. Individuals heavily rely on previously presented values to make subsequent decisions.

Through such a preliminary description of the cognitive bias, we can begin to further unpack the seemingly rash behavior of the individual while shopping. First, let’s start with the small, yet important detail in which the individual completely disregarded the 99 cents on the price tag of the long-sleeved shirt. The anchoring effect sheds light on such a moment as the individual appeared to have latched onto the numbers before the decimal place as the ‘anchor.’ More specifically, the individual decided to use the very first piece of information he or she learned to make the subsequent decision of buying the shirt or not rather than focusing on the whole. The rushed nature of the moment also played a role as the individual did not have the ability to make the correct decision. In addition, a similar phenomenon occurred when the individual discovered that the long-sleeved shirt they were hold used to be sixty dollars. While looking at the sale sign above the clothing rack, the human being latched onto the sixty dollars as the anchor and therefore based the subsequent decision on the notion that it was basically free money and a no-brainer purchase as similarly depicted in Figure 3. The second scenario consists of a similar process in which the human being subconsciously placed the average price of $150 as the anchor. Therefore, when the individual arrived at the clothing store, whether they were consciously aware of this or not, they were on the narrow lookout for a winter jacket with little deviation from the price tag of $150. Once he or she got ahold of a jacket for $115, the individual immediately bought it because it was $35 less than what they were expecting to pay and, once again, was almost like free money. This is starting to bring some much-needed clarity to the shopping scenarios, but there is still more to uncover.

One can further understand the anchoring bias and this particular shopping incident through the ground-breaking study by Tversky and Kahneman in 1974. This study illustrated the extent to which irrelevant information can manipulate one’s subsequent judgments as well as the general prevalence of the anchoring effect in the human decision-making process. In the study, Tversky and Kahneman had participants make a judgment centered around if the percentage of African countries in the United Nations (UN) was higher or lower than the value randomly generated by spinning a

Figure 4. Participants in the Tversky and Kahneman study make judgments about the percentage of African nations in the UN.

wheel of fortune in their presence. The participants were under the impression that the wheel could land on any number but, in reality, the wheel was rigged to stop on either the number 10 or the number 65. It is important to note that the wheel and the numbers had absolutely no connection to the correct percentage of African nations, but yet a connection was formed anyway in the subconscious minds of the subjects. Thus, the researchers found that those who landed on the 10 estimated roughly 25% of the UN members were African nations, whereas those who landed on 65 estimated a higher average of about 45%. This is a significant difference that was generated solely by the irrelevant act of spinning a wheel of fortune (to learn more about this particular study, press this link).  

Before diving any deeper into the content, it is highly important to underline the numerous cognitive processes involved in the anchoring bias. First, in order for the process to begin in the first place, the anchor must receive a sufficient amount of attention. Although this might sound fairly easy and straightforward, attention is not always guaranteed as human beings have a limited attentional

Figure 5. Individuals cannot fully process all of the information in their environment.

capacity. The amount of attention placed on stimuli often greatly depends upon the number of tasks being performed, the attentional demands of such tasks as well as the individual’s amount of available cognitive resources. Thus, it is critical that the anchor is somehow related to the individual’s general interests so that it receives some level of processing and encoding, allowing it to be stored and eventually retrieved from one’s memory (McBride & Cutting, 2019). 

The processed anchor is then subconsciously retrieved from memory in a moment in which the individual has to make sense of something. This can be understood through the selective accessibility model and more specifically confirmatory hypothesis testing and semantic priming. Confirmatory hypothesis testing refers to individuals retrieving information from one’s prior knowledge that supports or confirms what they are looking for. In a sense, it is similar to confirmation bias. Such a cognitive process can be found in the anchoring bias when individuals encounter a moment of uncertainty and consider the anchor to be a plausible answer. In other words, they tend to test whether the target’s value is equal to the anchor value by focusing primarily on retrieving anchor-consistent knowledge. Through such an act, the selective accessibility model comes into play which generally highlights how selectively retrieving information from memory makes it more accessible than others. Therefore, once retrieving relevant attributes of the anchor from memory, human beings selectively generate and thus activate semantic knowledge that is similar to the anchor. This selectively prompts or primes the information such that when it’s time for the individual to make a decision, they resort to such semantic knowledge as it has been rendered easily accessible. The final judgment comes to mind fairly quickly due to the priming as well as is highly influenced by the anchor-consistent information (Mussweiler & Strack, 1999). It is important to note that while the anchor primes features or attributes of the target that are compatible with the anchor, features that differ from the anchor are subsequently reduced in availability causing a rather biased outcome (To learn more about semantic priming, click this link). 

This can be seen in a study by Chapman and Johnson in 1999 in which participants were asked to make a judgment about the age of Gandhi. More specifically, participants were asked to make a judgment about whether Gandhi lived longer or shorter than 120 years which made the individuals search through their prior knowledge for information supporting the target’s notion of Gandhi’s old age. Such an act activated the confirmatory search for anchor-consistent information and thus such information became easily accessible for the final judgment. 

The anchoring bias is extremely pervasive in all forms of human judgment, however, such a phenomenon varies from person to person depending on individual differences in prior knowledge. Based on the finding that anchoring is mediated by the selective search of one’s knowledge about the particular target, the content of one’s knowledge base must be a critical variable in the process. The dispersion of distribution depends on the amount of knowledge one has about the matter. The more an individual knows, the more certain he or she is, and therefore the narrower the range of plausible values. Whereas, the less someone knows about the target, the wider the range of plausible values as one might only be aware of the general category that the target belongs to rather than the exact value itself. Thus, individuals can encounter the exact same anchor value but it may be processed quite differently depending on one’s knowledge base (Mussweiler & Strack, 1999). This could be seen in the shopping scenarios above as the individual may not have had a great amount of prior knowledge on winter jackets and therefore relied heavily upon the anchor of $150 rather than the physical features of the jackets. 

Cognitive abilities also play a role in the individual differences of the anchoring bias as all individuals are subject to the psychological constraints of the resource-limited nature of human cognition. More specifically, all individuals have varying levels of cognitive ability as well as engage in different cognitive loads on a daily basis. Elements such as time pressure and cognitive load can greatly influence how well one is able to thoroughly retrieve relevant information from their knowledge base. In particular, Blankenship et al. (2008) found that those who have a lower cognitive load have a higher ability to engage in deeper thinking as well as elaborate more upon background knowledge to develop concrete answers. Cognitive abilities can uncover more about the shopping scenarios as the individual had a hair appointment looming over them and therefore had a lot of pressure to be in and out of the clothing store quickly. The thoughts of the hair appointment as well as many other thoughts generated a high cognitive load and thus made it difficult for the individual to fully retrieve relevant information, leading to rash shopping decisions (Teovanović, 2019).

Figure 6. The dangers of anchoring when it comes to group decision-making.

What if the individual was with a group of friends? Would group decision making make the anchoring process more rational? We often assume that groups are less biased and make better decisions than individuals, but it turns out that empirical evidence outlines that groups often end up being as biased, if not more, than individuals operating independently. According to (Wilde et al. (2018), this often occurs because group members tend to pool preferences early on as well as often settle for either the majority or the median preference. Therefore, the more biased the individual preferences are within the group, the more likely such biased information will be selectively primed as such information is pooled and integrated together. Thus, based on this information, even if the individual in the shopping scenario was with a group of friends, he or she still would have made rash decisions. 

When it comes down to it, you cannot hide from the anchoring bias regardless of factors such as the relevance of anchor cues, motivation, and cognitive load. It is exceptionally robust and most of the time individuals are not even aware of it in the first place. That being said, some researchers have found that one technique that may help individuals mitigate the strength of such a cognitive bias is known as the consider-the-opposite strategy. According to Mussweiler et al. (2000) and the selective accessibility model, retrieving anchor-inconsistent information after accessing anchor-consistent information can increase the accessibility of anchor-inconsistent knowledge and thus generate a less biased final judgment. 

Unlike many cognitive biases, the anchoring effect has clear practical relevance for a multitude of decisions in the real-world. So the next time you are in a clothing store and about to make a decision, give a little thought to the potential impact of the anchoring bias. Take a moment and pause every time you feel the sudden urge to buy something because it is on sale or because it is far less expensive than you expected. This is not just a great day full of bargains. No, this is a scheme that the sales and marketing organizations have been putting in front of you for years and years. Do not fall victim to your own anchoring thoughts while holding that long-sleeved shirt or winter jacket. 

 

Reference 

Furnham, A., & Boo H. C. (2010). A literature review of the anchoring effect. The Journal of               Socio-Economics, 40(1), 35-42. doi:10.1016/j.socec.2010.10.008

McBride, D.M., & Cutting, J.C. (2019). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Sage Publications, Inc.

Mussweiler, T., & Strack, F. (1999). Hypothesis-consistent testing and semantic priming in the         anchoring paradigm: A selective accessibility model. Journal of Experimental Social                   Psychology, 35(2), 136-164. doi:10.1006/jesp.1998.1364

Mussweiler, T., Strack, F., & Pfeiffer, T. (2000). Overcoming the inevitable anchoring effect: Considering the opposite compensates for selective accessibility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(9), 1142–1150. . 10.1177/01461672002611010 

Teovanović, P. (2019). Individual differences in anchoring effect: Evidence for the role of                   insufficient adjustment. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 15(1), 8-24.                                    doi:10.5964/ejop.v15i1.1691

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science (New York, N.Y.), 185(4157), 1124–1131. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

Wilde, T. R., Velden, F. S., & Dreu, C. K. (2018). The anchoring-bias in groups. Journal of                 Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 116-126. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.001

 

Photos

https://webstockreview.net/image/clipart-clothes-clip-art/2519511.html

https://www.bernardmarr.com/default.asp?contentID=1376

https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/anchoring-bias/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFiDdbquWJY  

https://www.mentalup.co/blog/selective-attention 

https://www.searchenginejournal.com/a-personalized-entity-repository-in-the-knowledge-graph/379043/

Why Can’t I Stop Eating?

November 20th, 2020 No comments

Can you ever imagine that you can finish eating all forty pieces of cookies, one bucket of pretzels, two packs of chips, one pot of boiled milk, one jar of nuts, half of the pomelo, and two chocolate pies just in an hour without a second of rest? And can you also imagine even after you finish all of that food, your brain still craves for food though your belly is so swollen that you are about to puke? You may think that the person who can eat all of these must be a monster. Unfortunately, the truth is not (though you may recall the scene Kung Fu Panda ate 103 dumplings). Or you are probably going to think of those competitive eaters. They can shovel so much food into their stomach in a short period of time. However, what might surprise you is that many people(including me myself), even including those skinny, ripped athletes, can finish the amount of food all at once, roughly equivalent to nine meals for an adult. And this behavior is neither normal nor beneficial for people’s mental and physical health. So, what is this uncontrollable, torturous, and unstoppable action of food-intaking? The answer is binge eating disorder (BED), which is defined as the uncontrollable consumption of a large amount of food. Then what led to the creation of “glutton”? Why can’t these people control themselves from eating normally and healthily? And what are some treatments for the abnormal cravings and intaking of food?

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You Should Be Paying Attention(al) to this Bias 

November 26th, 2019 2 comments

Putting all of your attentional resources towards studying!

You rush into a library late on a rainy night, toting all your calculus notes with you. In just a few days, you have the biggest exam of the semester, and you know you have to do well to keep up your grades. As you walk in, you are greeted by an extensive number of stimuli, the warmth of the library, the smell of coffee floating through the air, the sound of pages rustling. You head to your favorite spot in the cubicle section of the library, pull your books out of your backpack, and get ready to start studying for your exam. Before you do though, you take a quick look at the people around you. You notice a person in a bright red rain jacket about 20 feet away from you, sitting on a chair reading a book. You also notice a group of students huddled around a table, and a man in a suit typing away on his laptop. But that’s enough of observing people, you are here to work on calculus! You really immerse yourself in the math, reading your textbook, reviewing notes, and solving problems in your notebook. You check the clock on the wall every once in a while and after a solid hour and a half of intense studying, you decide to take a break. You feel proud of what you’ve accomplished and decide to go to the next door cafe to get yourself a treat. As you stand up you scan the environment around you – to your surprise, you don’t see the group of students, the businessman, or the woman in the bright red raincoat. Instead there are new people around you that you don’t recognize – How did this happen? You weren’t asleep and you didn’t leave your spot in the library, yet you didn’t notice people leave or enter the space. This is an example of attentional bias, which causes people to pay attention to certain things while ignoring other stimuli. In this example, your attention was directed to the task at hand – so much so that attention was not paid to your surroundings.

Now, imagine you are in a classroom where a professor is going through a lecture with slides. You start to zone out, thinking about something completely unrelated to the class, while staring at the floor. You snap back to reality, look at the slides, and don’t recognize what your professor is talking about. Despite being in the closed classroom without distractions, you can’t remember what your professor was talking about, or what the past couple slides covered. This once again is attentional bias allowing you to ignore certain stimuli in your environment.

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Rhymes and Reasons, why Poetry is Treason

November 26th, 2019 5 comments

Tale as old as time, why we believe rhymes. Does the truth reside or it is a lie? From childhood to adulthood,

Apples are good for you, but that doesn’t mean that you can avoid going to the doctor altogether! (https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-apple-day-keeps-doctor-away-funny-version-proverb-motivational-inspirational-poster-representing-sayings-simple-image49903569)

we are surrounded by rhymes of all kinds. First, they were nursery rhymes and now they take the forms of aphorisms and commercial slogans. Though we might not realize it, these rhymes have the ability to affect how we perceive the world. Given the choice between “woes unite foes” or “woes unite enemies,” participants generally found the former more accurate although the two phrases have similar meanings (McGlone & Tofighbakhsh, 2000). Why is that? The answer lies in a phenomenon called the Rhyme as Reason Effect, which means that we are more likely to believe something to be true if it rhymes. Think about it, how many times have you been told “i before e except after c” or “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and thought that they were sound advice? Though these phrases are not necessarily correct, they are often repeated and believed to be true.

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The Real Reason Why Freshmen are Always Early and Seniors are Always Late to School

November 26th, 2019 4 comments

The First Day of Freshman Year

Imagine it is the morning before the first day of your freshman year of high school. You have only visited your new school once before for orientation so the drive there is unfamiliar. After getting dressed and eating your breakfast, you inform your Mom that you need to leave by 7:20am to get to school by 7:50am. As planned, you and your Mom get in the car at 7:20am and drive to school. The drive seems to take forever but somehow you manage to get to school ten minutes earlier than you had originally planned. Embarrassed by how early you are, you ask your Mom if she can wait in the parking lot until it is socially acceptable to arrive at school. She agrees and finds a spot to park. You recline your seat all the way hoping that no one will see you through the car window. While you wait, you wonder why you got to school so early.

The First Day of Senior Year

Fast forward to the morning before the first day of your senior year of high school. Now that you are a senior, you drive yourself to school. The route to school is no longer new and unfamiliar. Sometimes you wonder if you could drive there with your eyes closed. After getting dressed and eating breakfast, you determine that you need to leave by 7:35am to get to school by 7:50am. The drive seems to fly by but somehow you manage to pull in to the parking lot at 7:55 am. With only five minutes to spare instead of ten minutes, you sprint from the parking lot to class. As you slide into your seat just before the bell rings, you wonder why you got to school so late.

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