Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Internet changes how we remember

Lots of recent research findings have serious implications for how we remember information when we have the Internet (i.e. Google) at our fingertips.  Having a regular and reliable source of external artifacts gives us a crutch, essentially using this “transactive memory”  by remembering where something is rather than what it is.   The results of all of these studies basically find that if we know a permanent record of something will be kept externally (in a computer we can access either locally or on the Internet, or even in an expert person that we trust), we use fewer resources to store it in our own personal memory (our heads).  We just remember where to find it.

Some authors conclude that this makes our thinking more superficial because we don’t think about content, just location.  Other authors conclude that this makes thinking deeper because we don’t think about details so we can think about implications. This is a really important difference.  If one is right, the Internet is a good thing for learning and education.  If the other is right, we could be starting a downward spiral to a society like the Eloi in the Time Machine.

How far can you take simulations?

Now here is a very interesting case.  There is one family of a 9/11 victim that is still suing the government.  This is the family of a passenger in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.  The dispute that I want to talk about today is that the family has put a very large monetary value on the terror that this person must have felt in the few minutes after he realized that the plane was going to be flown into the Towers.  The jury needs to decide how long he would have known this, how much fear that would have created, and how much compensation this is worth.  In order to do that, the family asked the judge to allow them to create a simulation of those last few minutes to show the jury and let them experience it personally.  The judge agreed. 

Can a simulation like this work?  In human factors research, we try to create ecologically valid scenarios to test user interfaces all the time.  Sometimes it is important to understand the users’ emotion, like frustration or hurriedness.  But this legal case takes it up a whole order of magnitude.  I am not sure if the typical juror could really watch a simulation and imagine what the passenger felt like, let alone put a dollar value on it. 

What do you think?

Philosophy and the behavioral science of decision making

I was reading an article today that brought up a very interesting conundrum.  What should you do if the law, professional ethics, and/or your personal morals disagree?  Which one takes precedence?  The article concerned medical caregivers.  They focused on what to do when the decision based on your personal morals would benefit the patient but the decision based on your professional ethics would benefit the hospital.  Or if the decision based on professional ethics would benefit yourself, but the decision based on your personal morals would benefit the patient.  There are many different possible combinations.

One example is palliative care.  The law says that you can’t give patients drugs that don’t benefit their health.  The Hippocratic Oath says basically the same thing.  But what if the dose of morphine that would ease the patient’s pain would make their medical condition worse and hasten their death?  The law says you can’t do it, your morals might say that you should do it, and medical ethics are currently debating the subject and so are unclear.  The hospital might have a policy that is murky also, or may be designed to cover their legal butts. 

This is the kind of question I think I could sit with a handful of thoughtful friends around a table and debate for hours over a few bottles of wine or pots of cappuccino.  And enjoy every minute of it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Overloaded Brains

Angelika Dimoka at Temple did some fascinating research on decision making using fMRI.  When people were overloaded, what happened was much more complicated than just their ability to make decisions was degraded.  What she found is that the part of the brain that is in charge of tough decisions just gives up and lets other parts of the brain make the decision.  And it is even worse than the rational brain letting the emotional brain decide.  To make good tough decisions, you need both the rational and emotional brains to participate.  Prior research has shown that when the emotional centers are damaged, people can’t make rational decisions either.  But in these fMRI studies, too much information made the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, which is what allows the rational and emotional brains to collaborate, just turns itself off.  And it stops inhibiting the anxiety and frustration areas, so those run wild. 

A lot of other research, for example some work by Sheena Iyengar at Columbia and Ap Dijksterhuis from the Netherlands (I have blogged about his work before), shows that trying to use too much information in a decision makes it worse, not better.  We are much better off focusing on the few most important characteristics and ignore the others.  One reason for this is that we have a limited working memory and we can only focus on a few characteristics at one time so it may as well be the most important ones.  Another reason is that our brain has trouble assigning small importance values to attributes.  So if a less important attribute is considered in a decision, it is probably going to be overweighted and therefore degrade the decision.

So what does all this tell us?  When making important and tough decisions, you can spend as much time as you want collecting information and advice. But when it comes time to actually decide, shut off your email, your twitter, your TV, etc. and just cogitate for a little while.  It will do you (and your dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex) a lot of good.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Do vacations make you happy?

I blog a lot about happiness research, but this one I have some personal experience with.  A couple of recent research studies, summarized in today's Boston Globe, show a few interesting findings that many people probably instinctively realize, but are kind of stark when written as fact.

First, they found that ones happiness goes up just before vacation (in antipitation) but is often not higher when you get back (compared to someone who never went on vacation).  Basically, we need a vacation from our vacation.

It is even worse these days because people are so worried about the economy, their jobs, and the money they are spending that they don't even enjoy it while they are on vacation.

And then a third study found that family vacations are stressful in general, because, well, you know how families can be.  One guy actually pretended to go fishing every afternoon, drove a block to a nearby bar, and spent the afternoon there.  None of his family cared about fishing, so he never got a question he couldn't squeak out of. I gotta remember that one :-D.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another way to Nudge for good health

Two connected papers were published in Judgment and Decision Making last quarter that have great illustrations of the "Nudge" effect I have blogged about many times in the past.

The first study looked at how people take food from salad bars.  The salad bar had three rows of 24-oz containers of food.  So as you walked down the bar, half of the items were in the front row and half of the items were in the middle row, and then in the way back was a repetition of whatever was in the front row (for people walking down the other side). They moved the items around to see what effect location had.  It turned out that just the slight inconvenience of having to reach to the middle row decreased how much of those items were taken.  They also looked at whether items were at the beginning of the bar, middle or end.  Some things were taken more at each location, so this basically canceled itself out.  Finally, they found that customers took less of items that had tongs than items that had spoons.  Just the small inconvenience of having to use tongs reduced the amount that people took.

The second study looked at the location of items on a printed menu. They moved the items around the menu to see what effect the location would have.  They only looked at one thing, but it was significant.  Items at the beginning and end of the menu were ordered more than items in the middle of the menu.

So what does this matter?  You could take two approaches:

Maximize profits:  put the items with the highest profit margin in the front row of a salad bar and the beginning or end of a printed menu.

Maximizing health:  put the healthiest items in the front row of a salad bar and the beginning or end of a printed menu.

Why we dream

Some new research on dreaming used fMRI to see what brain areas are active during dreaming and compared it to what these same areas do during conscious thought.  The idea was to predict what benefits dreams provide and perhaps why we evolved to have dreams.  This Scientific American article summarizes several recent studies in this area.

One of them found increasing frontal theta activity.  This is where we create memories of our personal experiences.  This is probably why dreams seem like they really are happening to you, even when the dream has events that never really happened.

A second found that in the dreams we remember, there is more activity in the amygdala and hippocampus.  The amygdala is used to process emotion and the hippocampus converts short term memory to long term.  So dreams perhaps are used to help us remember the important events of our day, since important events usually have stronger emotions than unimportant events.  It might be more important to remember the emotion associated with an event then it is to remember the details.  Remembering that an experience was pleasurable, painful, frustrating, saddening, fun, or whatever is probably more important than remembering that it happened at 3:12pm or that you were wearing a yellow shirt when it happened. 

A third study supported the link to emotion by finding that when people don’t get REM sleep, they have trouble processing emotions the next day.  That area doesn't get its rest.

Interesting, huh?