Monday, April 29, 2013

Self-identity resonance, primary and secondary skills, and commitment.

I really want to be good at Skill A (e.g. basketball or public speaking).  It is part of how I see myself.  It is part of my self-identity, which as I have discussed before (for example here and here) is powerful in driving behavior.  Behaviors that support your true self-identity are much easier to stick to, even when they are hard. 

But most skills require you to also develop secondary skills that on their own are pretty boring.  To be a good basketball player, you might have to practice free throws – shooting 100 per day and focusing on the boring mechanics that will lead to expertise.  To be good at public speaking you may need to build slide templates or practice where to put your hands.  These secondary skills are not part of your self-identity, so they are hard to commit to.  It is easy to take short cuts.  To quit early and do something else. To convince yourself that you have done enough already.  That developing this sub-skill is not really that important. 

So we know we want to be good at the primary task and are willing to dedicate ourselves to practicing.  But to develop expertise requires a lot of practice (10,000 hours is now the bestselling benchmark) and includes a deliberate and concentrated focus on the secondary skills as well.  How do you keep at it?  I have to admit, this is a personal weakness of mine.  There are a lot of skills I want to get better at, some of them important to my career or personal life.  But those secondary skills get in the way.  I haven’t figured out the secret of dedicating the mental concentration needed to build expertise in the boring parts.  If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Nature v nurture in intelligence

My previous post looked at cognitive training.  The main point was that training is effective, but of course only at improving tasks that are fundamentally based on the cognitive skill.  It is unrealistic to think that training on a specific cognitive skill would magically improve activities across the board.

This post is related, but perhaps even more important. 

There is a general finding that there is a strong genetic component inherent in the kinds of intelligence measured by IQ, SATs and similar tests.  But some recent research findings summarized in an April 8 Scientific American blog written by Scott Kaufman, especially a study by Nandagopal, Roring and Taylor, find that there is a powerful mediation from learning strategies.  Essentially, genetics has a strong impact on the strategies and techniques that people use to learn - and it is these strategies that have the strong effect on IQ and SAT performance.

Why this is important is quite simple.  If it was genetics that makes you smart (or not), then there wouldn't be much you could do about it.  Either you had it or you didn't. 

On the other hand, if genetics pushes some genetically endowed children to instinctively use particular learning strategies, which is what makes them perform well on IQ and SAT tests, then we have an alternative pathway.  We can teach all children to use these strategies and give them all the same advantages as those genetically endowed with the instinct.  All children become equally capable at developing their intelligence - at least the kinds measured by IQ and SAT tests.

The strategies that were identified by Nandagopal et al are not too complicated either.  Active learning strategies, making connections between new material and pre-existing schema, seeking help when needed, studying early (rather than cramming at the last minute) - these are not too complicated or earth shattering ideas. 

Pretty cool if you ask me.  These results suggest that we can level the playing field pretty easily with the right intervention.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cognitive training and brain games

There has been a lot of controversy lately about the impact of cognitive training on tangible improvements in performance.  Specifically, I am referring to Gareth Cook’srecent piece in the New Yorker, Scott Kaufman’s article in Scientific American, and many heated debates in social media communities that cover this area. 

On one hand, there is a lot of evidence that many “brain games” are just marketing hype that sell electronic toys to parents for their kids in the hopes of developing the next Einstein and sell games to the typical consumer hoping to get a leg up in the workplace by improving their abilities.  Many of these games don’t really improve anything except the vendor’s bottom line.

On another hand, Scott Kaufman’s article cites many thorough, peer-reviewed studies that show specific benefits of cognitive training on performance.  Targeted training in working memory capacity really does improve working memory capacity.  So does this lead to tangible improvement in the real world?  Only for activities that rely on working memory.  But it turns out that high level reasoning does use working memory.  It takes good working memory to keep several hypotheses in mind, which is a key component of effective high level reasoning.  It is not a panacea to all cognitive activities but who would expect it to be?  Training your bicep muscle will make you stronger at some things, but is not going to improve your long distance running skills. 

Clearly, this is a rich area for future research and more work is necessary.  It demonstrates what we all should already know – that there are no shortcuts.  Getting better at something requires work.  Getting better at something that is multi-dimensional takes multi-dimensional (and thus a lot more) work. 

It also demonstrates something else we should all know.  When a company wants to sell you something, it may not work as well as advertised.  But that doesn’t mean the approach is fundamentally flawed.  Just because the brain games currently on the market don’t work all that well doesn’t mean that cognitive training is a failure across the board. 

So in the future, let’s take an honest approach to evaluating domains such as cognitive training and cognitive ability.  Don’t fall for the hype, but don’t disregard the positive results just because the hype is wrong. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Posts on Ergonomics in Design

Sorry I haven't been posting much here, but it is because some of my latest have gone up at Ergonomics in Design - the applied journal published by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  Here are links to that last few:

User Experience of Prosthetics:

Self Identity Resonance and Apologizing:

Virtual Entitlement - License to Indulge: