You become what you do, not what you think

According to psychologist Timothy Wilson:

People draw inferences about who they are by observing their own behavior. 

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. Two powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.

Stay sharper for longer

With the advent of old age, incidences of misplaced keys and embarrassing moments of forgotten names occur more often. As you inch closer to becoming a senior citizen, certain cognitive skills start to decline and others improve. But you can still find some 70-year-olds who can beat those at 50 on a memory test. How do they retain such abilities and how can that knowledge be used to our advantage? Results emerging from unique studies show that there might indeed be ways to slow down the inevitable slide.

Stay sharper for longereu:sci, Autumn 2012 issue.

A list of main references here. Free image from here.

Stay sharper for longer

Fighting cognitive decline can be simple but needs an early start 

With the advent of old age, incidences of misplaced keys and embarrassing moments of forgotten names occur more often. As you inch closer to becoming a senior citizen, certain cognitive skills start to decline and others improve. But you can still find some 70-year-olds who can beat those at 50 on a memory test. How do they retain such abilities and how can that knowledge be used to our advantage?

Results emerging from a unique study titled “Midlife in the United States” (or Midus) have shown that there might indeed be ways to slow down the inevitable slide. Margie Lachman, psychologist at Brandeis University and principal investigator for Midus, found education to be the most essential element of mental fitness. For middle-agers, a university degree obtained in younger days can slow the brain’s aging process by up to a decade.

Intelligence can be viewed as a composite of cognitive skills. Those skills that decline with age are categorised as fluid intelligence (pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking), while those that improve are called crystallised intelligence (verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment). Critically, it is fluid intelligence in the younger generation that gives them an advantage over the older.

Midus researchers found a robust correlation between senior citizens with the strongest cognitive skills and those who exercised frequently, engaged in social activities, coped well with stress and felt more in control of their lives. To probe into ways of delaying the decline in fluid intelligence, Dr Lachman and colleagues reviewed results from Midus studies. They were surprised to find that even into middle age and beyond, people could improve their fluid intelligence enough to make up for a lack of formal education.

To understand the factors that enabled this cognitive leap, Dr Lachman tested thousands of Midus participants for memory, calculation and reasoning. It involved reciting 15 common words and then recalling them after a 90-second delay, a check for verbal memory; counting as many digits as possible backwards from 100 in 30 seconds to assess processing speed; and, for numerical reasoning, completing a series of numbers, for instance, determining the next number in the series 1, 4, 9, 16.

Results from this study, that were published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, indicate that being regularly exercising the brain with activities such as reading, writing, attending lectures or completing word puzzles help maintain fluid intelligence to a similar extent as younger people (<40 years of age). Such simple habits seemed to even compensate for the intellectual stimulation offered by formal university education.

A closely related study titled “Whitehall II”, conducted in Britain, indicates that cognitive decline begins at 45 years, which is much earlier than previously thought. The study, which spanned a period of 24 years and involved thousands of civil servants, has brought into question the widely accepted results of two smaller American studies which put the onset of cognitive decline at 55 years. The Whitehall II study began in 1985, and recorded responses from 7500 men and women. Archana Singh-Manoux, lead author of the study and research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, also found that health practices that are good for our heart are good for our brain, too. A lifestyle that reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as regular exercise and balanced diet, seems to also slow down cognitive decline. Well-directed clinical practices and public health policies may enable better cardiovascular care and hope to preserve our fluid intelligence.

Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology has also published a number of studies about factors that can mitigate cognitive decline. One such study published in Psychology and Aging in June this year found that those who were more open to new experiences were more likely to preserve their fluid intelligence.

As the western economies face an increased aging population and signs of cognitive decline appear at an earlier age, continued development from such studies could aid older generations to stay at their peak performance for longer. At an individual level though, starting to incorporate simple habits today could turn misplaced keys and forgotten names into distant memories.

This article was first published in the Autumn 2012 issue of eu:sci, Edinburgh University’s science magazine.

References:

  1. Lachman et al., American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2010
  2. Whitehall II study
  3. Hogan et al., Psychology and Aging, 2012

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A judgment call

Judges’ sentencing is erratic. Safety in numbers?

The best time to come before a judge is never. But courtroom lore suggests that after lunch is better than before it. A study of Israeli parole hearings shows that just before a meal the chances of success are slim. But other biases abound too. A study of 181 American trial judges this summer in Sciencea journal, showed that explaining the biology of psychopathy brought lighter sentences, by an average of one year. When the defence simply told the judges that the convict was a psychopath, the average sentence was 14 years.

Judges—flawed decision makers, like all humans—find sentencing the hardest bit of their job. Paul Chernoff, a retired American judge, says determining guilt or innocence is easier. Biases are visible across countries and cultures: for the same offence, male culprits get harsher sentences than women. Black criminals serve longer sentences than white ones. Attractive women and baby-faced men get shorter sentences.

Seemingly peripheral factors can skew decisions, too. In a 2006 German study judges were asked to roll (rigged) dice between reading the documents in a (hypothetical) case and making their judgment. Those who rolled a one gave lower sentences than those who rolled a six. A response to such studies has been the introduction of mandatory guidelines for judges in America. They recommend what sentence to give for which crime, based on previous cases. Judges dislike having their hands tied down in such a way. This week a freedom-of-information request showed 22 judges in Ohio are trying to have such rules relaxed.

Other, perhaps better, remedies are on offer too. One is training. Birte Englich, a psychologist at the University of Cologne, suggests exposing judges to the occurrence of biases and playing games that make them less susceptible. Another would be to use several judges in criminal cases. For instance, in Germany three judges decide on crimes carrying a maximum sentence of less than three years; for more serious crimes, five judges are required.

Some believe that juries would do better. In New South Wales, Australia, the Law Reform Commission wants to increase public involvement in sentencing. Judges say that laymen cannot grasp the complexities of the law. But nobody has studied what lunch does to laymen’s mood.

First published in The Economist. Also available in audio here.

 

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