I heartily believe in studying dry, abstract psychological concepts through super-boring, totally unrealistic experiments for the sake of #science. I built my degree around this process. I'm kind of an expert at it.
But every once in a while psychologists (and other researchers) can gain insights about people from unexpected places. Some offer new ways of thinking about human psychology, while others offer unique, concrete ways of explaining dense topics. Here is a small sampling of some of my favorite fun sources of insight into human psychology.
In true hindsight bias fashion, the thing that surprises me most about researching magic is that it has only recently entered cognitive science as topic of study (within the past decade or so). Magic provides unique insight into human cognition because its effects often created by capitalizing on human cognition, such as perception, attention, and expectations. Misdirection, for example, makes use the fact that we can really only be aware of a fraction of what we can see. By directing our attention from what the magician doesn't want us to notice, the magician can perform tricks right in front of us (1). This can be achieved in multiple ways, such as capitalizing on our tendency to look where others are looking (i.e., where the magician is looking). We look where the magician looks, and fail to notice what's going on with the hands elsewhere. Alternately, a magician may set expectations about where an action will take place (such as throwing a ball up into the air multiple times); because we have a tendency to attend where we expect an action to occur, the real action can take place elsewhere and we will miss it entirely (e.g., while we are looking up where we think a ball was just thrown). Researchers have begun looking to magic as a means of exploring human cognition and even co-authoring review articles with well-known magicians (2). If you want to learn a lot more about the connection between cognitive neuroscience magic, you can check out the book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about our Everyday Deceptions (Macknik, Martinez-Conde, & Blakeslee, 2011).
Watch Penn and Teller break down slight of hand point-by-point:
This one was actually first brought to my attention through my colleague here at QIC, Tarah Daly, who alerted me to a study investigating personality differences among participants who were sorted into different houses based on the online Pottermore sorting quiz (3). This particular study seems to suggest that some of the expected personality traits (based on the description of the houses in the books) do pan out: Hufflepuffs were more agreeable than the other houses, Ravenclaws were higher in need for cognition, and Slytherins scored higher on narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
However, the use of Harry Potter as an area of study doesn't stop with testing whether different houses really have different personality traits. Researchers are using Harry Potter as a research tool to study a wide variety of topics. For example: a neuroscience study where participants read Harry Potter in an fMRI experiment to investigate the neural correlates of feeling 'immersed' in a book (4); social psychology, where it was found that reading Harry Potter reduced attitudes of prejudice (5); and cognitive psychology, where Harry Potter was used to investigate how people engage in causal reasoning (6) (short summary: people prefer explanations for events that have a narrower latent scope, that is, how many types of events the explanation could account for). The lesson here is, I think, that everyone loves Harry Potter. Brand new information, I know.
For ethical reasons, we can't really dig up people and try to turn them into zombies. And they probably wouldn't be very cooperative research participants. However, in the book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep (Vestynen & Voytek, 2014), two neuroscientists explain how the brain works through the lens of diagnosing the symptoms of zombies. For example, why do zombies walk the funny way that they do? Well, clearly there is something wrong somewhere in the brain circuitry that plans and executes movements. However, given the types of problems they have (e.g., they are capable of movement and they don't stall in the middle of a movement, but the movements are lumbering and uncoordinated), the zombie shuffle is linked to dysfunction in the cerebellum. What about fast zombies, you ask, like in 28 days later? Don't worry, there's an explanation for that, too, as well as the many other recognizable symptoms of being a zombie.
Have you learned something interesting about human behavior from an unusual source? We’d love to hear about it!
1. Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(9), 349-354.
2. Macknik, S. L., King, M., Randi, J., Robbins, A., Thompson, J., & Martinez-Conde, S. (2008). Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(11), 871.
3. Crysel, L. C., Cook, C. L., Schember, T. O., & Webster, G. D. (2015). Harry Potter and the measures of personality: Extraverted Gryffindors, agreeable Hufflepuffs, clever Ravenclaws, and manipulative Slytherins. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 174-179.
4. Hsu, C. T., Conrad, M., & Jacobs, A. M. (2014). Fiction feelings in Harry Potter: haemodynamic response in the mid-cingulate cortex correlates with immersive reading experience. Neuroreport, 25(17), 1356-1361.
5. Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121.
6. Khemlani, S. S., Sussman, A. B., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2010). Harry Potter and the sorcerer's scope: latent scope biases in explanatory reasoning.
I moved about a year ago into a new house and I'm still trying to organize my life by removing clutter and unwanted items (as many of you may be able to relate). As I was going through my old papers and magazines, I came across a stack of Ergonomics in Design magazines from the turn of the 21st century (that's the year 2000) and, as usual, my curiosity piqued as I was perusing the hot topics of the field at that point in time, reflecting on how they have changed today, and wondering if we have resolved any of these issues. As I was paging through one of them, I came across an article in the Provocations sections written by the Engineering Psychology pioneer John W. Senders (2001).
I fell victim to the technological black hole again. A funny video of a dog snoring reminded me of a relative who has notoriously bad sleep apnea, which eventually led me to videos filled with pranks and acapella groups. I then began reading posts by random people, collecting memes, and googling information about the creator of "Teletubbies." By the end of my binge, I began to ask myself the same question when I eat a whole tub of peanut butter in one sitting, "why?!"
I know I'm not the only one. We've all wasted hours on our devices. Yet, technology has provided the ability to increase efficiency as well as opportunities to sustain long-distance relationships. I can contact my family from (almost) anywhere in the world and send a message at any time. My phone can tell me how to get to my desired destinations (albeit, not always reliably) and even augment reality when playing Pokémon GO. Needless to say, technology is continuously revolutionizing the way we live. However, the black hole I fell into is just an example of the downside to our society's relationship with technology. When we should be driving, we are too busy finishing a text or scrolling memes. When we're at dinner, we forget the beauty of face-to-face communication and become distracted by things that can wait an hour. We lose sleep, we lose time to be productive, and we sometimes lose sanity. Everything is right at our fingertips to the point that we forget to think about why we are doing those particular actions and lose sight of intention.
Intention is used to explain human goal directed behavior. We all hear that intention without action gets you nowhere, but rarely do we look at the detrimental effects of action without intention. These detrimental effects are particularly prevalent when using technology, creating an unhealthy relationship with our devices. For example, we get side-tracked when talking to a long-distance friend by a video of a snoring dog. We wake up in the morning or sit in our cars for an embarrassingly long time while scrolling on our phones without any reason (guilty), wasting time and reducing efficiency.
Individuals in everyday life are not the only perpetrators of mismatched or nonexistent intentions with technology. This is also occurring in the simulation and training realm. Although training technology advancements are occurring every day and pushing our capabilities further than ever before, these technologies are not developed with a specific intention. We're so worried about being on the cutting-edge that it is common for people to look at a piece of technology and ask how it could be implemented instead of asking why it is useful. As a result, technology becomes implemented into a program that doesn't necessarily benefit, reducing cost effectiveness and potentially hindering training effectiveness.
Our efforts at Quantum Improvements Consulting involve conducting research and applying human factors principles in effort to answer "why," reducing the gap between intention and action. We acknowledge that our actions, whether it be in our personal or work lives, have the potential to be a waste of time and effort without intention. Therefore, it is critical to use and develop technology for a specific purpose. At that point will we use technology to advance ourselves rather than fall victim to the black holes.
Happy New Year from all of us at QIC! We're all back and ready to make 2018 our best year yet. 2017 was a great year for us. Our crew went from 5 to 10, we graduated from the UCF Business Incubator, and moved into our first real office. We completed our second Phase I SBIR for NAWC-TSD, started our first project for CTTSO, and continued our work for the Army Research Laboratory and ADL Initiative. Our researchers presented papers and posters at conferences like SIOP, ATD, HFES, HCII, and I/ITSEC. I had the opportunity to serve as chair of the I/ITSEC Emerging Concepts and Innovative Technologies subcommittee, which was a great experience. We discovered - and mastered - the greatest VR music game ever developed, Audioshield. And, of course, I got to spend some quality time in Uranus, MO. I'm honored to have such an inspiring team working for me, to collaborate with great technology partners, and to do meaningful work in support of our Service members.
Toward the end of the year, I like to do some self-reflection and take stock of everything I've learned...
A few months ago I had an incredible opportunity to join the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute (BASI) and an interdisciplinary team of social scientists to discuss the future of human-centered research in regards to deep space exploration. Human space travel has become a hot topic once again, but this time it’s beyond orbits around the earth, trips to the International Space Station (ISS), or even lunar surface landings. This time our eyes are set on the fourth rock from the sun…Mars.
You are starting to feel that pang of anxiety again. Situations- a presentation, test, date, or deadline- flood you with unwanted feelings of worry and panic. You are left with a racing mind, sweaty hands, and a pit in your stomach. You are not alone. Nearly everyone has experienced anxiety. For some individuals, these feelings are frequent and linger in every corner. We can blame behavioral learning and genetics for that (thanks, Mom).
As we deal with our anxiousness, we are also reminded about how terrible stress and anxiety are for our health. According to WebMD, it causes a slew of health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Despite occasional anxiety being considered part of normal life, approximately 40 million people in the US are diagnosed with actual anxiety disorders (NIMH), leading stress and worry to be considered an epidemic.
Stress and worry however, can be used to your advantage. I deemed my anxiety as an expression of passion and a form of motivation rather than a debilitating disorder. Of course, people have debilitating anxiety that can wreak havoc, but mine only seemed to make me work harder, think deeper, and push myself as far as possible.
I thought I was the only one feeling this sense of positivity with my spurts of anxiousness until I stumbled upon research by Strack, Lopes, Esteves, and Fernandez-Berrocal (2017). They conducted a three-part study that found a positive correlation between the use of anxiety for self-motivation and performance. An article from Psychology Today also reported research to show that anxiety may be a motivator for those that continuously expose themselves to anxiety-provoking situations. Rather than avoiding the situation, those that confront the discomfort develop and ability to use anxiety to their benefit. Their perception is heightened, focus is narrowed, and emotional agility is increased.
Unfortunately, most people tend to shy away from any level of discomfort. We are so quick to stop talking to someone, pass on giving a presentation, or give up an opportunity that seems to produce short-term negative emotions. This also extends to other "negative" aspects of our character such as sadness or attention deficits. Avoiding our negative states only inhibits us from resolving the causes or tapping into the benefits. As author of "The Upside to Your Dark Side" Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener eloquently states, "when we avoid the problem, we avoid the solution."
We also stunt the positive aspects of our negative emotions by numbing ourselves every time we have a burst of sadness, worry, or inability to concentrate. Rather, we should focus on our emotions that can contribute to performance: anxiety increasing focus, sadness allows us to notice more details, and attention disorders can enhance creativity. We must experience the discomfort in order to reap the benefits within our spectrum of emotions. We must embrace the negatives.
Have you been able to harness uncomfortable experiences to your advantage?
Leave a comment below!
QIC is thrilled to announce that Dr. Amanda van Lamsweerde has joined our growing team as a Research Psychologist! Dr. van Lamsweerde has 10 years of experience conducting research in human cognition and cognitive neuroscience. She has expertise in perception, attention, and memory and has conducted research in these topics using a variety of methodologies, including: measuring behavior, monitoring eye movements, monitoring brain activity through electroencephalogram (EEG), and non-invasive brain stimulation with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). She has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Cognitive Psychology from Louisiana State University and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Irvine. She has worked on projects investigating visual attention with the Naval Research Laboratory, identified neural markers of knowledge transfer, and developed research to create more efficient materials to improve sleep behaviors. Her research interests include the interaction between perception, attention, working memory, and long-term memory, with the purpose of developing solutions to problems rooted in human cognitive demands and limitations, in order to improve task performance as well as overall health. Dr. van Lamsweerde and her expertise will be a tremendous asset to QIC as we continue to grow and seek out and win new work. Welcome!
Synesthesia. Syne-what? Synesthesia (sinəsˈTHēZHə)! From Dictionary.com, synesthesia is "a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color." Go on the synesthesia journey with one of QIC's Research Psychologists, Corinne Novell, as she discusses the visualizations produced by different flavors!
These posts are written or shared by QIC team members. We find this stuff interesting, exciting, and totally awesome! We hope you do too!