Archive August 2009

Managing Multi-tasking Darcy Cowan Aug 28

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It is virtually taken for granted nowadays that multi-tasking is a must. The demands on our time seem to be coming ever faster and in more complicated ways than we ever had to deal with before. Most of us are resigned to the fact that we are expected to be able to type up emails while on the phone and organise our calendar at the same time. If you’re a teenager (or ultra-hip oldie), throw in txting friends, updating your Facebook status and keeping a running commentary on pointless activities on Twitter. Previous studies on multi-tasking have shown that switching rapidly between tasks incurs a cost in time but what is actually happening when we do two (or more) things at once?

It certainly seems when we perform two tasks we are familiar with that we drop into “autopilot” where we might do one task without conscious thought while we focus our attention on another task, say driving while talking to a passenger. While we are deep in discussion it seems as though we are allowing the actions required for driving to be  handled by a “lower” part of our brain while we actively think about appropriate responses to the conversation. Anyone who has accidentally “driven to work” while meaning to go somewhere else would swear this interpretation is true.

Recent work published in the July16th issue of Neuron however disputes this interpretation of how our brain works. The study seems to show that instead of tasks becoming automatic and thus not requiring oversight by the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for conscious control), this area actually works more efficiently and switches tasks faster. In other words we are still only doing one thing at a time but swapping between tasks fast enough that it gives the appearance of multi-tasking. In the words of the researchers:

“The effect of training is to speed up information processing through this pre-frontal bottleneck, thereby reducing temporal processing overlap of the sensory-motor tasks in this brain region”

So, next time you boast of being a multi-tasking maven you can add that this actually means your brain works faster than those lounging in non-multitasking mediocrity. On the other hand, no need to inspire unnecessary ire among your peers unless you can handle the multiple tasks of running away and dodging projectiles.

Posted in Sciblogs, Science Tagged: Brain, fMRI, multi-tasking, neurology, Research, Science

The Bigger the Morals, the Harder the Fall Darcy Cowan Aug 23

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Most of us consider ourselves to be good or moral people, the heroes of our own stories so to speak. Even so we all seem to lapse from time to time into behaviour that is difficult to reconcile with our view of ourselves. Perhaps it is something small like keeping the extra change a check-out person gives you or perhaps a larger slip like cheating on a test, or your partner. Why is it that we can sometimes not help ourselves from falling into those ethical traps and why is it that those we look up to as moral paragons seem to fall furthest with despairing regularity? There are of course probably many reasons why those in the public eye may come crashing down amid spectacular revelations of alleged debauchery but one that is receiving attention at the moment is the notion of ’Moral Credentialing’.

This concept, as discussed in this Boston Globe article, posits that humans exist in a kind of moral equilibrium, that any departure from our moral set point prompts action to return to baseline. In three different experiments researchers at Northwestern University, Illinois, looked at how increasing or decreasing a person’s moral barometer affects their subsequent behaviour. For the first two experiments the subjects were told they were participating in a handwriting analysis test and afterward were given the opportunity to give up to $10 dollar to the charity of their choice. The subjects were then given lists of either positive or negative words to copy, reflect on and write a self referential story using. The positive list included words like kind, caring and honest while the negative list included words like selfish, dishonest and cruel.

After writing the stories those in the negative group gave an average of $5 dollars while those in the positive group only gave $1. A neutral group was also included whose word list had things like book, car and house; these subjects gave approximately $3. In the second experiment subjects were spilt into four groups and asked to write either a positive or negative story about themselves or about someone close to them (Positive/self, positive/other, negative/self, negative/other). Those who wrote positive stories about themselves donated less than those who wrote positive stories about someone else while those writing negatively about themselves gave more than those writing negatively of others.

In the third experiment the researchers looked at practical behaviour, specifically involving environmental considerations. The subjects were cast in the role of manufacturing plant managers and given the choice of whether to implement a costly filtering system for their smokestacks. They were told that other managers had decided to run the filters 60% of the time and so those that used them more than this would incur higher costs. Participants who had been primed to feel negatively about themselves operated the filters 73% of the time while those in the positive condition only ran them 55%. Neutrally primed subjects used the filters 60-65%.

These findings fit with research into other aspects of our lives which suggest we have inbuilt levels for our psychological needs and will adjust our behaviour to keep them constant. For instance studies have shown that making cars safer may actually promote unsafe driving practices. People adjust their driving behaviour to maintain a certain level of risk, anti-lock breaks and air-bags allow people to justify driving faster and following closer because they perceive the risk to be similar to driving more carefully in less safe car.

Unsurprisingly this view of human morality does not make for optimistic reading nor does it seem to correlate how people view themselves. People consider themselves as essentially moral with occasional lapses not as constantly see-sawing like a poor funambulist trying to keep his balance. The key to consistent moral of ethical behaviour may be to make good deeds more routine and habitual instead of accomplishments of their own, in this way they cease to be goals we achieve and then use to prop up our moral self-esteem but become simply another part of our lives.

Posted in Psychological, Sciblogs, Science

WAKE UP SHEEPLE!* Darcy Cowan Aug 14

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A few weeks ago my wife went out dancing with friends, when she came back the one thing that had stood out for her in the evening was how similarly certain groups of people had been dressed. As the youngsters dancing around her left and were replaced each new batch had it’s own discernible style, this type of clothing with that kind of jewelry. Of course there were variations within each group but the similarities, at least to her, were far more striking. We all know of people around us that seem to slavishly follow the crowd, who wear the popular clothes, style their hair the popular way, listen to to popular music or in other ways agree with the popular opinion. We are certainly not as easily influenced as them, we are individuals.

There does seem to be this tendency to be able to recognize conformist behaviour in those around us while simultaneously denying such influences in ourselves. Our peers follow the pack while we make reasoned and informed choices. This effect is the focus of a study performed by Stanford and Princeton Universities. Students were subjected to a number of different surveys and situations designed to show how much they deemed their own choices were dictated by social influences versus their peer group. From university policy decisions to political party positions, driving behaviour  and why they bought an iPod respondents consistently followed popular behaviour themselves while ascribing to their fellows more susceptibility to such influences.

This pattern seemed to hold whether or not such conformity was described as positive or negative behaviour. In other words even when making the same choices as their peers was set up as being desirable they still denied that it was a factor in their own choices. As discussed in the final paragraphs of the study this difference in perception of other’s behaviour compared to our own is likely to contribute to exacerbation conflict and misunderstandings when dealing with those whose views disagree with our own. In such circumstances if we regard ourselves as rational and others as blindly following the crowd (and vice versa) then this makes finding common ground more difficult and demonising the enemy easier. So it may be more constructive not to wonder why are they behave the way they do but to step back and consider why do I think the way I do?

* Obviously this title is ironic, I am of course trying to show people that they are following the pack even while admitting that I must do so myself.

Posted in Psychological, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: conformity, popular, psychology, Research, Science, sheep, sheeple, subconcious

Measles Outbreak Darcy Cowan Aug 07

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There was a story in the NZ Herald this week regarding a Measles outbreak in Auckland and the response to this event by the Powers That Be. Whether or not the action taken (keeping unvaccinated children at home following possible contact with carriers)  is correct, either practically or ethically is a question that will be endlessly discussed by others. I would like to focus on a point made in the article about vaccination coverage in New Zealand children. It was implied that approximately 25% of NZ children are unvaccinated, at the moment data is collected at childhood “milestones” 6,12,18 and 24 months of age. At 24 months the coverage is 77%, after this age no information (currently available) is collected but it is reasonable to expect that the numbers do not climb appreciably after this age.

I found it interesting that the article did not mention that compared with other developed countries this coverage is practically dismal. The coverage in the USA is >95%, though school attendance is predicated upon receiving vaccinations exemptions are available. In the UK where recently there have been concerns over vaccination rates dropping encouraging outbreaks over there, the coverage is still >80%. Even Australia has 82% coverage at age 5. The target coverage for NZ is >95%. Why do we lag behind?

According to the National Childhood Immunisation Survey conducted in 2005, 25% of those whose children do not receive the vaccinations have made this choice due to fears of vaccine safety (another 5% had concerns over a particular vaccine). 3% of respondents reported that they did not believe vaccines work at all. More mundane reasons were also quite prominent: child was on a different schedule or immunisation was done overseas – 19%, medical reasons – 11%, thought the child was vaccinated/not sure if vaccinated ~10%. A laundry list of other reasons each had <3%. Compared with the US where the reasons mostly cited were “Philosophical or Religious beliefs against vaccination” ~66%. Considering that in many states exemption due to religious reasons are about the only ones the law will accept (barring medical reasons) this is likely to cover a wider array of actual reasons.

How should NZ tackle the vaccination issue?

See also:

Evidence Based Thought: What’s wrong with catching the Measles?

Posted in Medicine, Psychological, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Children, epidemic, fears, measles, New Zealand, outbreak, survey, Vaccination

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