Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Don't regret regret - cool new talk by Kathryn Schulz

Kathryn Schulz gives an excellent and personal account of what it means to experience regret. In this recently added TED talk, she outlines the main aspects of thought that make up regret and why it can be such a strong feeling using her, admittedly, ultimately minor, regret of getting a tattoo as an example. The important aspect of her talk is that regret in itself is not something that must be avoided - that negative feeling associated is a strong sign that whatever happend (or didn't happen) was genuinely important to us. From this we can use strategies such as reappraising the situation (like Kathryn does in regards to her tattoo) in order to better understand ourselves and how we would like to be in the future.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Moodscope 2: reflections and thoughts


One of the more frequently visited posts on this site is the semi-review of Moodscope, written in June last year, and since then, I have received requests to write an update on how I've found it to use. Moodscope is an online tool designed to track the ups and downs of your moods using a simple positive to negative scale based around answering items from the PANAS (positive affect negative affect schedule). These results can be emailed to your friends or other important people in your life so that they are kept in the loop and, if necessary, can respond accordingly. I'll cover how I found using it first and then whether it worked for me.
One of the main comments I had last time is the theory behind the development of the tool. It has been designed based on the understanding of the Hawthorne effect that to simply measure an aspect of psychology is also to improve it. Last time, I considered this to be an incorrect application of the effect and would still stand by this. That isn't to say that increasing self-awareness of our mood cannot also lead to improvements in how we feel - evidence for and against this concept were given last time. Also, in my own research into mood changes over time, I have had participants tell me, after the study closed, that the diaries they kept helped raise awareness of their moods and also how positive they felt. Although, it should be noted that that stray observation definitely does not count as evidence for mood boosts derived from measuring how we feel.
Moodscope has a novel means of actually recording your mood instead of the traditional make-a-mark-on-a-linear-scale approach, meaning that you have to make a series of clicks in order to manipulate cards until the correct score is showing to match how you feel. Despite the general rule for psychological measures that they should be as quick and simple to use as possible (e.g. requiring as few decisions and mouse clicks as possible), the approach employed at Moodscope works well. However, despite the interesting and engaging means of presenting the measures (in a bid to keep people paying attention and refrain from answering blithely), I leant the process quickly and can near automatically make the appropriate clicks to give the answer I want. I imagine that this would counteract the benefits of an unusual or interesting means of giving answers and so things are back to square one.
In terms of using positive and negative measures, it seems a bit of a waste to then only use a single scale from feeling positive to negative. Also, this scale does seem a bit erratic at times although in general it would approximate any overall rating I would make. There's a base line score built into the black-box calculations for establishing mood, in that if you 'game' the results so that every rating given is the minimum of feeling "0: not at all" you get a score of 20 from the 0 to 100 scale where 50 would be neutral and 100 be most positive mood. This score of 20 is also seen if each rating give is the maximum of feeling "3: extremely", even though the subjective state of an individual answering in this manner is going to be greatly different to that of someone who answers feeling "0: not at all" for every question. Separate positive and negative scales would be a better application of the data that the site collects, while maintaining much of the site's aims and applications.
Each day (more or less), I received an email circular from the founder of the site, with some helpful sounding advice, stories or news. It's a nice personal feel to the way that site is run but, thinking as a person researching into the psychology of emotion regulation, I didn't find the 'self-help' nature of these emails to be either particularly useful or informative. Saying that, I'm sure that others might appreciate the emails and their content but we know so much more backed with evidence to not need to rely on a folksy style of advice. The opt-out option for the email circular was appreciated.
Did the site work for me?
Truth be told, I don't think the site had much of an effect on me. Like anyone else, I experience ups and downs in my mood as part of the everyday ebb and flow of life. At times, I feel in command of my emotions and capable of both coping with negative events and regulating my general positive feelings and expressions; while at other times, I'm overwhelmed and don't feel like there is a way back towards a more comfortable state. Over the course of the PhD, I have learnt much about managing feelings and what different regulation strategies may achieve. Conceiving of emotional regulation as a controllable process or more specifically a controlled process, which seeks to reduce the difference between what we feel and want to feel has placed a certain emphasis on monitoring what I feel anyway. Moodscope as a means to help raise self-awareness of feelings simply wasn't designed for me and so I no longer use it.
In terms of its accuracy, Moodscope does alright generally. My top score sits at about 85% (100% being maximally positive) and my average score is about 65%. This reflects how I would describe my overall trend for how I feel. Further to this, a weekly trend in mood prevails through the general noise of one-time events affecting how I feel. Across a week, mood would slowly drop by a small degree before rising at the weekend - this matches known trends and my subjective experience, which indicates that measurements used are the right ones. Unfortunately, I stopped using the site before I made a significant change to my routine and so I don't have any data to examine the effects of shifting my working schedule to part of the weekend on my mood. Lastly, of note is the days in which I report a low mood (my lowest being about 30%). Looking back at some of the days in which I've left notes alongside a mood score, the lower moods about equally coincide with me feeling a conflict of both positive and negative emotions as well as days in which I have just felt low. This seems to reinforce my comments that the site could be better used with the scores being divided into two dimensions of positive and negative affect.
An aspect of the site I can't review is the mailing of mood results to those close to you. I tested its functionality with an alt account and I can say that the mechanics behind it all works. In terms of it actually doing anything for helping with your mood, I can't say because I didn't have these results sent on to others. I understand its purpose in breaking the self-perpetuating loop associated with social withdrawal and depression as it automatically lets others know how you are feeling. I would believe that this is potentially the site's strongest asset, providing that the process actually encourages support from others.
At the time of writing this, Moodscope has advertised that there are changes ahead for how the site is going to work. I wish them the best of luck for the future and hope that as the site grows, their resources for accessible, effective, and evidence based means of regulating our moods does so too.
Photo links to source

Friday, 18 November 2011

Do we need shoves or just better nudges?


Can big changes in our behaviour come from seemingly small changes to our environment? This is the general premise of the book Nudge - an exploration of the applied aspects of the emerging field that is behavioural economics. Nudge has drawn its praises (from political figures eager for a quick fix to society) and criticisms (from political figures who don't think a quick fix is feasible), in the three years since its publication and we can look forward to a whole new back-and-forth in light of other more recent popular science publications. To save everyone time, the Financial Times has wrapped up a collection of book reviews of human behaviour into a neat overview of the state of play of behavioural economics.
The FT article argues that each of the books reviewed makes for compelling evidence that we are not rational mechanical agents, making trade-offs of risk and reward. Alongside this, it also picks out each book's specific criticisms of the 'Nudge' approach, largely along the lines that it is too small an influence. Sometimes those impulsive acts or drives will overcome any influence on our surroundings that a Nudge may have had. Questions arise then, how much do you have to nudge someone before their behaviour changes to a non-trivial degree, and how much of a nudge can give without it turning into the full shove of regulation (something that this government would happily oppose*)?
The second question is a broadly drawn policy matter, which is far beyond my scope and all I would be confident in saying is that regulations are not an a-priori bad that the government paints them to be. My dentist apologised to me, in my last visit, that recent regulations required me to wear plastic glasses so that if the dentist did drop her tools, the tools wouldn't fall and stab me in the eye. I don't look back on the more adventurous times, in which dentists were freer to have a go at some impromptu eye surgery, with any particular fondness. But I am distracting myself.
The first question is the important one. Just what do you have to do to get people to change their behaviours? In the past, I've looked at papers describing our limited capacity for self-control, which is ultimately what the FT article regards as needing to be overcome - picking salads over meatballs and saving for later instead of spending now. There are means of improving self-control capacity, though so far have all been through the exercising of our self-control. This creates a bootstraps problem, in which our capability to improve our self-control relies on existing self-control. It's a similar situation to companies requiring work experience in candidate employees who are applying in order to get work experience.
A paper out this year offers a new insight into improvements in self-control, without the longer term requirements of training and exercising our restraint. Alberts Martijn and Vries (2011) indicate that increasing our own self-awareness can overcome the effect of ego-depletion. Through an implicit priming of our attention to themselves, depleted participants were shown to perform in a second self-control task just as well as those who had not undergone depletion. A neutral prime showed no effects, and the implicit prime of self-awareness did not boost a non-depleted person's performance. The authors postulate that these effects occur because of the priming's implicit nature and that explicit calls to attend to ourselves do not show similar influences. In a similar position to a previous paper, they argue for self-regulation failures to be considered along the motivation intensity theory that if we perceive a goal to be too difficult (say through feeling fatigued) we will ignore it unless the goal is rewarding enough. It's an interesting prospect and one to be taken a closer look at in due course.
It seems that there may be criticisms of nudges still to come, particularly that they are the wrong sort of nudges. Putting clear caloric and health information on food packaging may only go so far, if people aren't considering the food's effects on themselves. I seriously doubt that there is going to be any variant of the quick fix that has a lasting sizable influence on people's behaviour but it's possible that redesigning nudges that appear to have us in mind rather than 'the average adult' could be more effective. Would we reconsider that bag of crisps if it described its contents as 184 of my calories for the day rather than 184 calories - 9% of an adults GDA?
*This is the last week that you can submit your ideas to the Department for Transport for which rail regulations that you want removing. I may know nothing about trains but I do know a lot about how to make this world a less safe place.
Alberts Martijn and Vries (2011) Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011) 58 – 62
Photo links to source

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Science of Emotions - Event Video

Last Friday, the EROS research group hosted a public event at the Manchester Museum exploring the Why, What and How of Emotions. For the event, each of the research groups in EROS created interactive exhibits and demonstrations looking at different aspects of emotion such as: people's perceptions of emotion, how can emotions help with sport, and how we can change or regulate our emotions. It was an excellent afternoon and a great chance to speak with the public - too often a missing component in scientific research. We look forwards to hosting more of these type of events in the future. Here's the head of the EROS research group, Peter Totterdell, describing the day:

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Psychology to the rescue - in praise of reappraisal.

In the past week, BPS research digest has run a special edition looking at how psychology has helped or influenced researchers in their own lives. As my PhD heads ever closer to an actual finishing point, the BPS article serves as a timely reminder for me to look back and ask myself, what have I actually leant? Moreover, what have I actually leant that's useful to me?
The main thing that stands out as a significant learning point for me would be the realisation that our emotional experiences are in some ways controllable. This may seem obvious to some but before the PhD, I had never really given much consideration to my emotions. They were an aspect of my life that just was and I'd not properly thought how emotion and cognition interact, choosing to focus on the latter with little regard to the former. That isn't to say that I wouldn't engage in emotion regulation strategies such as reappraisal, or distraction, I just wasn't aware that these were actual, recognised strategies that can be actively managed.
For this, I'll pinpoint a specific incident in which emotional regulation served an unambiguous role in shaping my behaviour for the better. This example highlights the recursive nature of emotions influencing thought and thought influencing emotions but it also touches on how psychological studies and findings cannot and should not exist in a vacuum, even if we would like to parcel phenomena into neat boxes.
On my walk to the department, I passed by a 40 to 50-year-old man who appeared very obviously drunk, half-sitting half-lying in a heap on the floor in the very inconvenient location for all: an ambulance loading bay at a children's hospital. The situation presented itself almost as an archetypal example of Piliavin's classic study in 1969. As I continued to walk by, I figured that most people would make (and possibly already had made) the exact same calculations I was in the process of - just how high are the costs of helping someone who might be aggressive or even violent towards me? I stopped walking and forced myself to re-appraise the situation and how I felt about the matter. "This person may be in a state of hypoglycaemia and not brought their circumstance upon themselves; even if he is 'just' drunk, drunk people still can need help too; if I still choose not to help after what I know about helping behaviour, how would I regard myself as a psychologist?"
The back and forth conversation with myself must have lasted a couple of seconds but already I had successfully reappraised the situation so that I felt really guilty about my current lack of helping behaviour*. To rectify this, I went over to the man to check that he was ok and was greeted with a "Fuck off you shit!". A good sign: he was conscious and lucid. I felt comfortable in leaving him for a moment to get some proper assistance for him from the staff at the hospital. The A&E receptionist identified him as one of the regulars and that she'd fetch some orderlies to 'help him out', if I could just go back and wait with the man until they arrived.
In the brief moment I had left the man in the ambulance bay, he had attracted the attention of another passer by, who had his own ideas about what to do. A young man had taken offence to the various gestures made by my partner in this story and had decide that the best way to engage in helping behaviour would be with fists raised and shouting "You what? You what?!". I immediately had to intercede and try and diffuse the situation, especially as someone on my team (i.e. a member of the original situation) was in danger. In a neat parallel to my original need for intrapersonal regulation to get things moving, I needed interpersonal regulation to stop things developing. I managed to calm the aggressor with reassurances that I worked at the hospital (not entirely a lie because I did used to), we were dealing with things just fine and that we'd take care of him. I think the ambiguity in the last line satisfied this young man and he went on his way, at which point the orderlies arrived and I was absolved of any further duty.
In this story, there's both a flexibility and rigidity to my feelings and thoughts and that fascinates me. With a little effort I could change my thoughts and feelings about helping someone I had initially categorised as a possible threat. Once I had decided on my course of action though, I didn't perceive an option to change my mind back and just walk away, even when faced with an actual threat.
*being spurred into action to diminish negative affect, as argued by Carver & Scheier's dual process model. I was motivated to act to distance myself from the negative goal of feeling like a bad person, or worse a bad psychologist.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Mood Altering Effects of Greenfield

Researchers are showing increasing concern regarding exposure to Greenfield. Greenfield seems to cause, in many, a wide array of severe mood altering experiences. In low doses, mirth and tittering appear to be the main signs of contact with Greenfield, but at higher concentrations, people begin to experience extreme emotional changes including: anger, frustration, and an overwhelming sense of despair. There may also be substantial negative cognitive effects as many people report feeling ‘confused’ and left wondering why they bother with anything. Curiously, despite the insistence that they do not enjoy any part of the experience, participants seem to seek out their next ‘hit’ of Greenfield and are expected to go through this all again at the next opportunity.

While research is still preliminary, that shouldn’t stop me from reporting it anyway. Brain scans of participants who view even just a picture of Greenfield show that brain activity significantly changes in the Fusiform Face Area (FFA) and researchers theorise there would also be potentially irreversible changes in the wiring of the Hippocampus. Researchers highlighted that these changes could well be perfectly normal but could also be made to sound scary if necessary. Activity in the FFA is associated with social interaction and the Hippocampus with memory, both of which are vital in today’s world and can be trained using my own series of computer games (to be released). Repeated exposure over several hours to different pictures of Greenfield leads subjects to show signs of a serious deficit of attention and an increase in fatigue. In addition to this, they develop a restless, irritable, and confrontational manner, demanding that they be left alone and allowed to go home.
Researchers have worked intensively to understand the root cause of the apparent mood and congitive changes in response to Greenfield but still are yet to come to any conclusive decision. Controlled tests of the presentation of other Baronesses has largely shown minimal effects, with most participants failing to show any emotional responses or in many cases, recognition. One notable exception is the severe mood alterations experienced when subjects are presented with the Baroness Thatcher, often forcing researchers to recalibrate their scales for anger.