Monday, December 05, 2011

Do we have to be sad?

Some new research challenges a myth that has been around since Freud.  When someone important to us passes away, or some other major traumatic event happens, we are expected to have a rush a sadness, distress, and grief.  If we don’t, then everyone around us warns that it is going to come out eventually, so we should just “let it out.”  Or even seek therapy to help deal with these buried emotions.

Well, it turns out that some people are just more emotionally resilient than others.  It doesn’t mean we didn’t care about the person who passed away, it just means that our emotional constitution doesn’t bend as much in the face of adversity.  You don’t need therapy, you don’t need medication, you don’t need to “let it out.”  You just need these people to leave you alone.

If you need a reference to prove this to the people always getting on your case, there is an article in the November/December 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind that cites research by Camille Wortman of Stony Brook University, Kathrin Boerner of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and George Bonanno of Columbia University.  Plenty of ammunition. It's behind a firewall, so you will have to Google it.

How do we imagine things?

One of the most important higher order skills we can develop is the use of imagination.  We do this with mirror neurons.  These are connected to all the major parts of the brain so they can do almost anything that we can really do, but just imagining it.  If we want to imagine what we think will happen in the future, we create a simulation in our mirror neurons and run the model forward to see what happens.  This can happen with regard to our environment, or we can imagine ourselves physically doing something and seeing what happens. Without really doing it.

If we want to understand what other people are thinking or doing, we create a simulation in our mirror neurons of what we think they are thinking and doing, and run the model forward to see what conclusions they might draw.  This is good for negotiating, arguing, and understanding people in social situations.  When we lie, we create the alternative reality in our mirror neurons and save it so we don’t forget it and get caught in the lie.  All of these are really important when dealing with other people.

So a new research paradigm looks at people who read fiction.  It turns out that even though we usually read alone, it is very helpful in the development of social skills.  Because it does all of the above.  It forces us to imagine an alternative world, a completely different person with different objectives, values, and knowledge.  We don’t just run a model forward, but we have hundreds of pages and an entire story to go through.  And since we don’t usually read the whole book in one sitting, we have to store it for later several times.  Reading fiction makes you better at understanding other peoples’ points of view, more open to new situations, and actually better able to change yourself if you want to.  It helps you develop your mirror neurons.

One surprising (at least to me) finding was that people who read fiction are better able to read and interpret expressions and emotions on real faces.  I guess when we read about someone experiencing an emotion, we imagine their expression in our mirror neurons so we get lots of practice.  

Great stuff!!!

Milgrams other finding

Stanley Milgram’s research back in 1961 was very controversial.  His main findings, and the unethical way he conducted his study, were so controversial that some of his less salient findings were missed.

For those of you who are not familiar, he is the one who asked volunteers to act as “teachers” in a study of motivation.  The job of the teacher was to ask the “student” some memory questions.  And each time they got an answer wrong, they got an electric shock.  The shocks increased each time from a minor zap, through extreme pain, through a potentially fatal dose.  The experimenters told the volunteers it was to see if the shocks helped learning, but the real study was to see how far the volunteers went.  The “students” were really actors who were hired to give specific responses for each level of shock, ranging from a simple “ouch” to shrieking in excruciating pain, through begging for the experiment to stop.  The controversial finding was that most volunteers went all the way to “fatal shock.”  Sometimes they asked if they should go on, but they almost always did.  Milgram did a variety of studies with all different situations to see how this compliance varied.  The full set of studies is fascinating.  His 1974 book “Obedience to Authority” summarizes them all.  

But there is a variation that has not received much attention that I think is specifically relevant to managers, supervisors, IEs, and also parents and teachers.  This finding is the difference between value-based and command-based instructions from the experimenter to the volunteer “teachers” when they asked if they should keep going.

In the value condition, the experimenter said  “Your help is very valuable to this research, you must continue.”  The idea was to concentrate on the benefits of the research.  In the command case, the experimenter said “You have no other choice, you must continue.”  This was more of an authoritative style.  Milgram hypothesized that the command style would be stronger because it gives the volunteer no choice. 

But it turned out to be just the opposite.  The volunteers were more likely to administer these excruciatingly painful and potentially fatal shocks when they thought they were doing something valuable then when they thought they were under the experimenter’s control.  Apparently, we don’t like it when our choices are taken away from us.  But we do like doing valuable things. 

Think about the way your shop floor supervisors instruct workers.  Do they use the authoritative style?  “Do it that way because that’s the way it is supposed to be done.  Follow your training and the written procedures.  Those are the rules.”  Or do they promote the value?  “Based on the entire value chain, this is the way we need to do it to make sure that we satisfy our customers while still making a profit.”  “If you change the way you do your job, it may make you faster but it could mess up something elsewhere on the line.” 

Or how do you as parents instruct your children?  "Do it this way because I told you to!!!"  Or "This is the way that works the best, you will learn the most," etc.

If volunteers are more willing to give fatal shocks to complete strangers while not even getting paid under the value-based instruction, imagine how much more productive your employees would be and responsible your kids will be!!!

How Our Youngest Students Learn

In Mind and Brain (yeah I read geeky magazines) there was a great article on preschools and how we teach kids younger than 7.  Seven is a key age because 0-7 is the most malleable time in the brain’s development. What and how we teach kids below that age is much more important than what we do after.  This is the period where they develop critical thinking skills, interest in creative thought, and enjoyment of exploration and uncertainty.  This is where they figure out that they can learn informally from the people around them by paying attention and being social.  The under-seven year old's brain is actually not designed to learn through focused, goal-directed, in-the-seat, learning.

But instead of leveraging the wonderful abilities that our children can develop at this age, we are intimidating our preschool teachers by instituting standardized tests that focus on isolated facts and skills that force them to teach to the test. Teachers are evaluated based on their students' standardized test scores.  One mother in New York sued her daughter's pre-school because it was not teaching to the test (the entrance exam of the private preschool she wanted her daughter to attend).  Are you serious??? 

But it gets worse.  It turns out that when we teach to the test, children learn that the correct way of learning is to imitate the teacher.  They don’t develop their capacity for creative and innovative learning.  During this malleable stage of life, it is important that they practice and develop these skills.  If they don’t, it is much harder to develop them, even at only 8 years old.  Use it or lose it.

And then it gets EVEN WORSE than that.  It turns out that this creative exploration is also what provides the basis for the child’s future mental health.  In one study, 6% of children in a play-based preschool went on to develop emotional problems, compared to 50% in the heavily academic preschool.  The focused, in-the seat, kind of learning causes stress that physiologically damages the child’s developing brain.   It can cause anxiety, depression, and even cardiovascular problems.  The feeling that they have no personal control causes the release of toxic neurotransmitters that can damage the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory.

Children ages 0-7 should never see a flashcard, a multiple choice question, or a fill-in-the-blank (OK, I am exaggerating a little here).  But the focus of preschool should definitely be on exploring, innovating, playing, creating, being social, trying new things, failing often and not being penalized for it, being comfortable with uncertainty, and using their imaginations. In a further damage to this last trait, more and more young learners are being plopped in front of a computer screen for their education. Online-only education, previously reserved for students going for online college degrees through for-profit schools who are mature enough to handle this kind of independent responsibility, has now been adapted for K-12 education. Nearly 2 million kids are now taking class through a computer screen, in a move that's saving money for school districts, but sure to reduce the interactions between students. The age of the care free pres-schooler seems to be coming to an end, as young learners learn how to master the linear progression of schools, when they should really be learning how to be themselves.

Is it possible to overcome this trend in today’s gridlocked politics, tight education budgets, and fear of global competition?  Are we stuck teaching to the test and losing our edge in innovation (the one competitive advantage the US still has left)?  You think the economy is bad now, just wait. 

Interest take on climate change

I just heard an interview with a scientist who is a carbon emission-caused climate change skeptic.  But rather than just refuse to believe it on principle (see my previous post on motivated denial), he decided to investigate some alternative hypotheses.  

One thought he had was that the world is getting warmer not because of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere but because we are doing more hot stuff.  People are moving to cities, paving streets, cutting down shade trees, building factories, cranking up the heat during the winter, mowing our lawns during the summer etc.  Maybe we are just being hot.  So what he did was look at local measures of temperature change over the past decades instead of global changes.  He investigated the temperature rises in cities versus suburbs versus rural areas.  He looked at industrial cities versus less industrial cities.  He looked at areas that had factories, but not high population density.  Or places that had high population density but no factories. 

What he concluded is that it is true that humans are causing global climate change, but most of it can be explained by these variables rather than greenhouse gas emissions.  So he is still worried about climate change.  He still thinks that the world needs to change its behavior or we are all screwed.  But because he finds different causes, he recommends different changes.  Some of them are the same or similar, but some are different. He agrees with the idea of painting roofs white, but not switching to Priuses if they run just as hot as regular Toyotas.

Who is right?  I don’t know – I heard him on an interview rather than reading his peer reviewed research.  And it is not my area of expertise.  And he is just one person compared to thousands studying greenhouse gases.  And his research is funded by the Koch Foundation, which makes me suspicious that he started out with an agenda.  But, it is definitely important enough to merit consideration and further research. 

Everything is deniable if you want it bad enough

I often read and blog about emerging research that investigates why people make less than optimal and less than rational decisions.  As I usually make sure to say, it isn’t that we are irrational, it is that we evolved over millennia and for most of that time it made sense to value speed and staying alive over making optimal rational perfect decisions.  Even now, I would usually rather be fast and alive than perfect and either dead or spending all day making each decision.

But sometimes, this can give us short term  benefits at the expense of the long term existence of our species.  For example, there is a general tendency not to believe in scientific findings that question our understanding of how the world works.  Galileo, Copernicus, Columbus, Darwin, and many others have experienced this directly.  If we have thought for thousands of years that earth is the center of the universe because G-d said so, it is hard to change our entire mindset – first to believe that earth revolves around the sun, then our solar system revolves around the galaxy, and the galaxy shoots through space because of a big explosion at the beginning of time. 

It is even worse when the scientific research forces us to change a behavior that we enjoy.  I like eating bread, so I am less likely to believe Dr. Atkins.  You like bacon, so you are more likely to believe him.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the evidence or our scientific intelligence or knowledge.  I don’t want to give up my SUV, take the time to recycle, or take shorter, colder showers.  So I don’t want to believe in human-induced climate change, polluting the ecosystem, or future water shortages.  If I don’t believe it, then I don’t have to give any of these things up.  This is called motivated reasoning and we usually don't even know we are doing it.

Why does this matter?  Well, we have to find better ways of explaining scientific findings to the public if we want to generate enough energy to make a difference in this world.  Instead of preaching to everyone to go buy a Prius (or turn the thermostat down and put on a sweater), we need to explain it differently.  Every time a new scientific finding that the public needs to know about is discovered, serious thought needs to be put into how to release that information. How to make it fit the mindset they already have and make the behavioral change seem small or even beneficial.

Scientists need to work closer with experts in public communication.  Perhaps scientists' raw data can go into the peer reviewed journals that the public never reads, but we need to make sure that by the time the media gets a hold of it, we have already decided how to frame it so that the public reacts in a way that is good for society.  I am not suggesting that we do anything dishonest or even misleading.  But let’s not be na├»ve either.