Neurons Cast Votes To Guide Decision Making

There should be an image here!We know that casting a ballot in the voting booth involves politics, values and personalities. But before you ever push the button for your candidate, your brain has already carried out an election of its own to make that action possible. New research from Vanderbilt University reveals that our brain accumulates evidence when faced with a choice and triggers an action once that evidence reaches a tipping point.

The research was published in the October issue of Psychological Review.

“Psychological models of decision-making explain that humans gradually accumulate evidence for a particular choice over time, and execute that choice when evidence reaches a critical level. However, until recently there was little understanding of how this might actually be implemented in the brain,” Braden Purcell, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the new study, said. “We found that certain neurons seem to represent the accumulation of evidence to a threshold and others represent the evidence itself, and that these two types of neurons interact to drive decision-making.”

The researchers presented monkeys with a simple visual task of finding a target on a screen that also included distracting items. The researchers found that neurons processing visual information from the screen fed that information to the neurons responsible for movement. These movement neurons served as gatekeepers, suppressing action until the information they received from the visual neurons was sufficiently clear. When that occurred, the movement neurons then proceeded to trigger the chosen movement.

The researchers also found that the movement neurons mediated a competition between what was being seen — in this case, the target and distracting items — and ensured that the decision was made to look to the proper item.

“What the brain seems to do is for every vote it receives for one candidate, it suppresses a vote for the other candidate, exaggerating the differences between the two,” Jeffrey Schall, E. Bronson Ingram Chair in Neuroscience and co-author of the study said. “The system that makes the response doesn’t listen to the vote tally until it’s clear that the election is going towards one particular candidate. At that point, the circuitry that makes the movement is triggered and the movement takes place.”

The findings offer potential insights into some psychological disorders.

“Impairments in decision-making are at the core of a variety of psychological and neurological impairments. For example, previous work suggests that ADHD patients may suffer deficits in controlling evidence accumulation,” Purcell said. “This work may help us to understand why these deficits occur at a neurobiological level.”

An important piece of this research is the novel model the researchers used in the study. The new model combined a mathematical prediction of what they thought would transpire with actual data about what the neurons were doing.

“In a model, usually all the elements are defined by mathematical equations or computational expressions,” Thomas Palmeri, associate professor of psychology and a co-author of the study, said. “In our work, rather than coming up with a mathematical expression for the inputs to the neural decision process, we defined those inputs with actual recordings from neurons. This hybrid model predicts both where and when the eyes move, and variability in the timing of those movements.”

“This approach provides insight between psychological processes and what neurons are doing,” Schall said. “If we want to understand the mind-brain problem, this is what solutions look like.”

[Photo above by ewedistrict / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Melanie Moran @ Vanderbilt University

[awsbullet:John Medina Brain]

Addressing Negative Thoughts Most Effective In Fighting Loneliness

There should be an image here!Changing how a person perceives and thinks about others was the most effective intervention for loneliness, a sweeping analysis of previous research has determined. The findings may help physicians and psychologists develop better treatments for loneliness, a known risk factor for heart disease and other health problems.

Recently, researchers have characterized the negative influence of loneliness upon blood pressure, sleep quality, dementia, and other health measures. Those effects suggest that loneliness is a health risk factor, similar to obesity or smoking, which can be targeted to improve patients’ health in several dimensions.

“People are becoming more isolated, and this health problem is likely to grow,” said John Cacioppo, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. “If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what we can do to mitigate it.”

To determine the most effective method for reducing loneliness, Cacioppo and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago examined the long history of research on the topic. Published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, their quantitative review found that the best interventions targeted social cognition rather than social skills or opportunities for social interaction.

The team’s review, called a meta-analysis, analyzed the methods and results from dozens of papers that tested loneliness interventions. Strategies fell into four categories: improving social skills, increasing social support, creating opportunities for social interaction, and addressing social cognition.

When the researchers pooled the 20 studies that employed the most rigorous study design of randomized, controlled trials, they found a small, but significant effect on reducing loneliness. Sub-dividing the studies by their strategy revealed that interventions targeting social cognition — a person’s thoughts about themselves and others — were far more effective than the other strategies.

“We’re getting a better understanding of loneliness, that it’s more of a cognitive issue and is subject to change,” said Christopher Masi, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center and lead author of the study.

Specifically, the four interventions that helped people break the cycle of negative thoughts about self-worth and how people perceive them were the most effective at reducing loneliness. Studies that used cognitive-behavioral therapy, a technique also used for treating depression, eating disorders and other problems, were found to be particularly effective, the authors reported.

“Effective interventions are not so much about providing others with whom people can interact, providing social support, or teaching social skills as they are about changing how people who feel lonely perceive, think about, and act toward other people,” Cacioppo said.

The quantitative analysis also examined whether group interventions were more effective than individual-based therapies for loneliness. Despite previous findings from qualitative reviews that favored group formats, the current review found no advantage for either group or individual interventions.

“That’s not that surprising, because bringing a bunch of lonely people together is not expected to work if you understand the root causes of loneliness,” Masi said. “Several studies have shown that lonely people have incorrect assumptions about themselves and about how other people perceive them. If you bring them all together, it’s like bringing people with abnormal perceptions together, and they’re not necessarily going to click.”

Cacioppo, Masi, and colleagues next hope to apply what they learned from their review toward designing new ways of measuring and treating loneliness. Interventions of various intensity can also be designed for use by psychologists and primary care physicians on people with minor or severe loneliness. But all such designs would do well to focus on social cognition above other tools to reduce the health hazard of loneliness.

“I think loneliness is increasingly recognized as an important problem in medicine – and certainly the demographic trends in society will likely exacerbate this problem,” Masi said. “We found a type of intervention which seems to be effective and we are looking forward to testing a new intervention based on these findings.”

[Photo above by the Italian voice / CC BY-ND 2.0]

Robert Mitchum @ University of Chicago Medical Center

[awsbullet:Positive Solitude]

Survive A Workplace Screw-Up

No one is perfect and we have all screwed-up at some point. Unfortunately, a workplace screw-up can be far more embarrassing and stressful than a personal screw-up. If you are in the midst of a workplace screw-up, here are a few tips you can use to get by:

  • First of all, if you do screw-up, just admit to it. It is far more professional to admit to your mistake as opposed to making excuses or trying to put the blame on someone else. Also, the sooner you admit to a mistake, the sooner you can move on from it.
  • Conversely, if you do screw-up and your manager isn’t aware of it yet, be proactive and tell your manager before they find out about it from someone else.
  • Expect others to criticize your screw-up. When they do, remember to listen and accept the criticism, as opposed to getting overly emotional.
  • Don’t be defensive when others criticize your mistake. Accept the criticism and try to learn from it.
  • After receiving criticism, don’t dwell on it. Dwelling on negative events and criticism will only make you negative. In addition, others are more likely to move on if they know you have.
  • Finally, turn your screw-up into a positive by gathering your team members and discussing the lessons learned.

[awsbullet:work julie jansen]

Virtual Universe Study Proves 80-Year-Old Theory On How Humans Interact

There should be an image here!A new study analysing interactions between players in a virtual universe game has for the first time provided large-scale evidence to prove an 80 year old psychological theory called Structural Balance Theory. The research, published today in PNAS, shows that individuals tend to avoid stress-causing relationships when they develop a society, resulting in more stable social networks.

Today’s study, carried out at Imperial College London, the Medical University of Vienna and the Santa Fe Institute, analyses relationships between 300,000 players in an online game called Pardus. In this open-ended game, players act as spacecraft exploring a virtual universe, where they can make friends and enemies, and communicate, trade and fight with one another.

Scientists currently study data from people’s electronic interactions, such as emails, mobile phones and online retail behaviour, to improve our understanding of human societies. Online games such as Pardus produce vast amounts of data that scientists can also use to study interactions between players, applying their findings to understanding the way that people interact in society.

Structural Balance Theory is an 80 year old psychological theory that suggests some networks of relationships are more stable than others in a society. Specifically, the theory deals with positive and negative links between three individuals, where ‘the friend of my enemy is my enemy’ is more stable (and therefore more common) than ‘the friend of my friend is my enemy’.

In today’s study, information about interactions between players in the game is more detailed than that from other electronic sources, because it includes data on the types of relationship and whether the interactions are positive or negative. This has enabled the authors of the study to show that positive relationships form stable networks in society, proving Structural Balance Theory for the first time.

Dr Renaud Lambiotte, one of the authors of the study from the Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Imperial College London, said: “I find it fascinating to understand how we all interact with one another to form complex social networks. I think it is astounding that I’m this tiny point in such an enormous network of people. Our new study reveals in more detail than ever before the key ingredients that make these networks stable.”

In today’s study, mathematicians looked at six types of interaction between players in an online game: friendship, communication, trade, hostility, aggression and punishment. Each one defines a network on its own; all six together combine to form one large network. A unique aspect of the data is that some of the links have a positive connotation (friendship, communication and trade), while others correspond to negative interactions (hostility, aggression and punishment).

The researchers analysed data from the game on two levels: first by analysing individual networks; and then by looking at the interplay between all the networks.

The authors found that in positive relationships, players are more likely to reciprocate actions and sentiments than in negative ones. For example, if player A declares player B to be their friend, player B is likely to do the same. If player A declares player B to be their enemy, however, player B is not likely to reciprocate.

The research also revealed strong interactions between different types of links, with some networks overlapping extensively, as players are likely to engage in similar interactions, and others tending to exclude each other. For example, friendship and communication networks overlap: as we would expect, friends tend to talk to each other. However, trade and hostility did not overlap at all, showing that enemies tend not to trade with one another.

Dr Renaud Lambiotte said: “This may seem like an obvious finding, as we would all prefer to communicate more with people we like. However, nobody has shown the evidence for this theory on such a large scale before.”

The researchers are currently developing their mathematical tools for large, complex networks in order to study patterns of communication between millions of people from mobile phone data and also to examine biological problems such as the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other.

Lucy Goodchild @ Imperial College London

[Photo above by ioerror / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:Leil Lowndes]

The Psychology Of Food Cravings

There should be an image here!Swimsuit season is almost upon us. For most of us, the countdown has begun to lazy days lounging by the pool and relaxing on the beach. However, for some of us, the focus is not so much on sunglasses and beach balls, but how to quickly shed those final five or ten pounds in order to look good poolside. It is no secret that dieting can be challenging and food cravings can make it even more difficult. Why do we get intense desires to eat certain foods? Although food cravings are a common experience, researchers have only recently begun studying how food cravings emerge. Psychological scientists Eva Kemps and Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University, Australia, review the latest research on food cravings and how they may be controlled in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

We’ve all experienced hunger (where eating anything will suffice), but what makes food cravings different from hunger is how specific they are. We don’t just want to eat something; instead, we want barbecue potato chips or cookie dough ice cream. Many of us experience food cravings from time to time, but for certain individuals, these cravings can pose serious health risks. For example, food cravings have been shown to elicit binge-eating episodes, which can lead to obesity and eating disorders. In addition, giving in to food cravings can trigger feelings of guilt and shame.

Where do food cravings come from? Many research studies suggest that mental imagery may be a key component of food cravings — when people crave a specific food, they have vivid images of that food. Results of one study showed that the strength of participants’ cravings was linked to how vividly they imagined the food. Mental imagery (imagining food or anything else) takes up cognitive resources, or brain power. Studies have shown that when subjects are imagining something, they have a hard time completing various cognitive tasks. In one experiment, volunteers who were craving chocolate recalled fewer words and took longer to solve math problems than volunteers who were not craving chocolate. These links between food cravings and mental imagery, along with the findings that mental imagery takes up cognitive resources, may help to explain why food cravings can be so disruptive: As we are imagining a specific food, much of our brain power is focused on that food, and we have a hard time with other tasks.

New research findings suggest that that this relationship may work in the opposite direction as well: It may be possible to use cognitive tasks to reduce food cravings. The results of one experiment revealed that volunteers who had been craving a food reported reduced food cravings after they formed images of common sights (for example, they were asked to imagine the appearance of a rainbow) or smells (they were asked to imagine the smell of eucalyptus). In another experiment, volunteers who were craving a food watched a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a monitor (similar to an untuned television set). After viewing the pattern, they reported a decrease in the vividness of their craved-food images as well as a reduction in their cravings. According the researchers, these findings indicate that “engaging in a simple visual task seems to hold real promise as a method for curbing food cravings.” The authors suggest that “real-world implementations could incorporate the dynamic visual noise display into existing accessible technologies, such as the smart phone and other mobile, hand-held computing devices.” They conclude that these experimental approaches may extend beyond food cravings and have implications for reducing cravings of other substances such as drugs and alcohol.

Barbara Isanski @ Association For Biological Science

[Photo above by Alexandre Chang / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:food cravings]

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

There should be an image here!Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, write:

“Change is hard.” “People hate change.” Those were two of the most common quotes we heard when we began to study change.

But it occurred to us that if people hate change, they have a funny way of showing it. Every iPhone sold serves as counter-evidence. So does every text message sent, every corporate merger finalized, every aluminum can recycled. And we haven’t even mentioned the biggest changes: Getting married. Having kids. (If people hate change, then having a kid is an awfully dumb decision.)

It puzzled us — why do some huge changes, like marriage, come joyously, while some trivial changes, like submitting an expense report on time, meet fierce resistance?

We found the answer in the research of some brilliant psychologists who’d discovered that people have two separate “systems” in their brains — a rational system and an emotional system. The rational system is a thoughtful, logical planner. The emotional system is, well, emotional — and impulsive and instinctual.

When these two systems are in alignment, change can come quickly and easily (as when a dreamy-eyed couple gets married). When they’re not, change can be grueling (as anyone who has struggled with a diet can attest).

In those situations where change is hard, is it possible to align the two systems? Is it possible to overcome our internal “schizophrenia” about change? We believe it is.

In our research, we studied people trying to make difficult changes: People fighting to lose weight and keep it off. Managers trying to overhaul an entrenched bureaucracy. Activists combating seemingly intractable problems such as child malnutrition. They succeeded — and, to our surprise, we found striking similarities in the strategies they used. They seemed to share a similar game plan. We wanted, in Switch, to make that game plan available to everyone, in hopes that we could show people how to make the hard changes in life a little bit easier.

Those Less Motivated To Achieve Will Excel On Tasks Seen As Fun

There should be an image here!Those who value excellence and hard work generally do better than others on specific tasks when they are reminded of those values. But when a task is presented as fun, researchers report, the same individuals often will do worse than those who say they are less motivated to achieve.

The study appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings suggest that two students may respond quite differently to a teacher’s exhortation that they strive for excellence, said University of Illinois psychology professor Dolores Albarracín, who conducted the research with William Hart, of the University of Florida.

One may be spurred to try harder, while another could become less motivated.

The study also suggests that those who are “chronically uninterested in achievement” are not operating out of a desire to do badly, Albarracín said. Their differing responses simply may reflect the fact that they have different goals.

“The competitive mindset, the achievement mindset becomes a huge de-motivator for those who don’t necessarily value excellence as much as they value their well-being,” Albarracín said. “Perhaps the reason they don’t care to do well is because they want to do something else; they want to enjoy themselves — which is not a bad goal,” she said.

In four studies, the researchers evaluated how participants’ attitudes toward achievement, called their “chronic achievement motivation,” influenced their performance on various tasks.

The researchers found that those with high achievement motivation did better on a task when they also were exposed to subconscious “priming” (the flash of a word on a computer screen, for example, that appeared too briefly to be consciously noticed) that related to winning, mastery or excellence. Those with low achievement motivation did worse under the same conditions.

Similarly, when given a choice, those with high achievement motivation were more likely to resume an interrupted task, such as a word-search puzzle, which they were told tested their verbal reasoning ability, than their peers, who were more likely to switch to a task perceived as fun.

But in a final study the researchers found that those with high achievement motivation actually did worse on a word-search puzzle when they were told the exercise was fun and they had been exposed to achievement primes, such as the words “excel,” “compete” or “dominate.” Their counterparts, who were not very motivated to achieve, did better under the same conditions.

These finding suggest that achievement primes inhibit the desire to have fun in those who are motivated to achieve, the authors wrote. But in people who lack achievement motivation, the same cues seem to enhance their desire — and ability — to perform a task seen as fun.

“It’s not that those with high achievement motivation always perform better,” Albarracín said. “You can also get the low achievement motivation folks to perform better than the highs when you present a task as enjoyable and fun.”

These findings should be of interest to educators hoping to motivate their students in a way that improves performance, she said.

Diana Yates @ Univeristy of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

[Photo above by Mi Pah / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:motivation fun]

Study Reveals Wanted Objects Are Seen As Closer

There should be an image here!We assume that we see things as they really are. But according to a new report in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, if we really want something, that desire may influence how we view our surroundings.

Psychological scientists Emily Balcetis from New York University and David Dunning from Cornell University conducted a set of studies to see how our desires affect perception. In the first experiment, participants had to estimate how far a water bottle was from where they were sitting. Half of the volunteers were allowed to drink water before the experiment, while the others ate salty pretzels, thus becoming very thirsty. The results showed that the thirsty volunteers estimated the water as being closer to them than volunteers who drank water earlier.

Our desire for certain objects may also result in behavioral changes. In a separate experiment, volunteers tossed a beanbag towards a gift card (worth either $25 or $0) on the floor, winning the card if the beanbag landed on it. Interestingly, the volunteers threw the beanbag much farther if the gift card was worth $0 than if it was worth $25 — that is, they underthrew the beanbag when attempting to win a $25 gift card, because they viewed that gift card as being closer to them.

These findings indicate that when we want something, we actually view it as being physically close to us. The authors suggest that “these biases arise in order to encourage perceivers to engage in behaviors leading to the acquisition of the object.” In other words, when we see a goal as being close to us (literally within our reach), it motivates us to keep on going to successfully attain it.

Catherine Allen-West @ Association for Psychological Science

[Photo above by Dani Vazquez / CC BY-ND 2.0]

[awsbullet:human psychology]

Beating Vacation Angst

Leaving the office to go on vacation should be relaxing. However, many people find it to be very stressful. Will poor decisions be made in your absence? If there is an operational breakdown, who will solve the problem? Is there a competent person to act in your capacity? Such concerns understandably make it difficult to take a worry-free vacation.

So what can you do to relieve some of your vacation angst?

  • Choose vacation dates wisely. This usually means taking your vacation when the pace is slower (or less crazy). Knowing there is nothing critical going on will help you relax.
  • Get a jump-start on your plan. A few weeks before your designated vacation period, start creating a list of important information for the individual who will be the key contact in your absence.
  • Brief your employees on priorities. This way your employees know what tasks and projects need to be completed prior to your return.
  • Notify your clients and co-workers of your absence. If they know you are away, they are more likely to leave business matters until you return.
  • Provide an emergency contact number. This way, if a real emergency does occur, you know that someone can get in contact with you.

Thorough preparation should help to alleviate any vacation angst. However, if after all this you still feel angst consider starting small. Take a few mini-vacations, such as four-day weekends. After a few of these you will see that the office can survive in your absence and hopefully, relieve your angst enough that you can take a long two-week vacation.

[awsbullet:work office psychology]

Dealing With Complainers

Some people are born to complain and the constant complainers who walk around with black clouds over their heads. Now imagine having to work with someone who complained about everything, right down to the pens and the paper.

If you work with a constant complainer, there are ways of dealing with the situation. First of all, most of the time, the complainers want to be heard and acknowledged, definitely not ignored or argued with. With this is mind, here are a few tips you can use if your co-worker is a complainer.

  • Don’t try to solve their problems. Any solutions you proposed will only be met with more complaining.
  • When the complaining starts, use open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no) to get the individual thinking about possible solutions to the problem. This puts the accountability back on the individual to resolve their problems.
  • Don’t agree with the complaint. A complainer will take your agreement as an invitation to continue complaining.
  • Finally, when dealing with a true chronic complainer, disengage the conversation as soon as possible. You can do this by indicating you have to go right away and asking them what exactly they need to discuss with you.

[awsbullet:work office psychology]

Common Causes Of Employee Negativity

Employee negativity has risen drastically in the workplace over the past year because of the economic conditions. However, even before the economy took a turn for the worse, employee negativity was still common in the workplace.

Aside from the economic conditions, there are some common reasons behind employee negativity. Some of the most widespread causes of employee negativity include:

  • Direct Management — There are many reasons why an employee’s direct manager can be the cause of negativity. These reasons may include an employee’s lack of confidence in their manager’s leadership, micro-management, etc.
  • Salary — An employee feels that their salary does not match their performance
  • Recognition — Some employees require more recognition. Employee negativity can result from insufficient recognition.
  • Job Security — Negativity often stems from an employees concern over their job security.
  • Workload — Negativity can also be the result of an employee’s extreme workload.

[awsbullet:work office psychology]