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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

This post is being written primarily for UQPsycBlog, a blogging collective written by PhD students at UQ, which primarily focuses on a day-in-the-life... Given that I kinda rub shoulders with a number of the contributers to the blog, and I intend to pursue a Phd, I've been asked to contribute...

And so here it is, a follow up to 'My Experimental Virginity' and 'Willful Self-Deception is Bliss' - both of which were about the ongoing process of running this study.

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Many moons ago, eager to impress and to rise above the clatter of all the other undergrads, I started looking for RA work. I kept my expectations low. I expected that as an untrained, unqualified undergrad I'd be doing menial grunt work. I was not disappointed. I spent three weeks coding videos for specific behaviours of couples arguing in the lab. It was depressing. I walked away feeling like a bad boyfriend, but relieved that everyone fights about the same thing - money, sex and alcohol.

Despite my inauspicious introduction to the world of experimental psychology I knew what I wanted to do. Not too long later I was asked by the professor running the study if I wanted to take the lead on a bigger, more involved study.

He (and his colleague) hypothesized that a thing called Executive Function would beneficially assist men in impressing women. Executive Function, essentially, is your ability to inhibit certain behaviours. It's a very high level cognitive capacity, and relates to all kinds of things, like delayed gratification and being a successful social agent. However, Executive Function (or 'Ego Depletion') is a finite resource. A classic study involving this phenomena involved putting participants in a waiting room with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (or a bowl of radishes) and permitting them to either a) eat some, or b) not eat any. Afterwards, participants from both conditions were asked to persist on some impossible problem solving task. Those who were tempted but barred from eating the warm, fresh cookies persisted for far less time than those who were allowed to eat the cookies, or those who were allowed (or not allowed) to eat the unappealing radishes.

Executive Function is more than just not eating a cookie, though. It's you inhibiting the urge to punch your boss when he screws you over, it's inhibiting sexual desire and action in inappropriate circumstances or with inappropriate people (i.e. situations with dire consequences), and the list goes on. The question is why, if we have such a capacity, is it finite?

Some evidence has been produced that demonstrated that two participants (one white, one black) in an American University, when asked to speak on race relations, had a more beneficial, enjoyable and positive experience when depleted than when undepleted (i.e. in command of their full executive faculties).

From an evolutionary perspective, though, this is fairly banal. What if Executive Function - when depleted - allows people to form more favourable social impressions ... on the opposite sex! There must be a reason it's finite, and it may be to facilitate a mating advantage. If, when depleted, we make better impressions, then we may earn ourselves an increased chance at the procreative act*.

So we took a number of participants, depleted half, and stuck them in a room with a pretty girl and a hidden camera. The girl was a confederate, and was in on the trick, but was blind to condition of each participant. They then engaged in a 10-minute unstructured conversation, after which time both parties went away and answered a survey about the experience.

What did we find? Well... nothing. Not a damn thing. No meaningful p-values at all... except one. Which showed that our manipulation did the opposite of what we intended.

So the study was a bust. My first study, was a bust. In fact, it was backwards. I was nervous - as a first time undergrad - walking into the professor's office knowing that there was nothing in the data. Was it me? Did I plan it wrong? Did I confound the study somehow? Did I miss something critical, something that would have turned the whole thing around?

Probably not. We probably used the wrong kind of depletion. For instance, warm cookies makes you persist less in impossible problems, but would it cause you to be unable to inhibit saying certain things.... Thus, it may follow that the updating task we used (an n-back task [download it here]) depleted the wrong thing. It may not stop you being a cagey conversation partner, but may make you a crappier black-jack player (a task which involves counting cards, working on and updating probabilities, and taking measureable risks).

Despite being nervous the Prof just said 'Such is research...' and that was that. It wasn't me, it was the nature of the beast. Now, as an undergrad, I have a much better idea of what I'm getting in to. When I do honours next year, and when I finally hit the PhD, I have a slightly improved idea of what to expect. Though I didn't get any decent p-values, I did get a far better idea of what it's like to be a researcher and academic... and a stronger, more clear idea about what I want to do, and how I want to go about it.

 

*Seriously... ever met a girlfriend/boyfriend when under the influence of alcohol?

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ResearchBlogging.org Apfelbaum EP, & Sommers SR (2009). Liberating effects of losing executive control. Psychological science, 20 (2), 139-43 PMID: 19170942 Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642

Muraven M, & Baumeister RF (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological bulletin, 126 (2), 247-59 PMID: 10748642

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becca
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Are there any studies of the effect of *witnessing* someone exercising executive function and effect on attractiveness?

"Oh, my gawd, look at how he doesn't eat his marshmallow... so hawt"

 

Don't the results of your study kind of suggest that using 'executive funcition' is kind of a mushy term? There are mutliple cognitive resources at work if different tasks really deplete different things.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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And sometimes your hypothesis is just wrong and there's nothing technical that you could have done better, well, other than manipulate the data.


yannisguerra
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And between 1 and 5% of the times...you get nothing due to randomness!


Psycasm
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Yup, you guys are exactly right - the hypothesis might have just been wrong. And I think, particularly as a first time researcher, that it's really easy to lose sight of that. I know I did.

I personally didn't agree with the hypothesis that it aids mate selection, I kind of feel it has more to do with conflict resolution and being a successful social agent... but that's just my gut.

However, I do want to address what Becca said:

I'll be the first to admit that Executive Function is a mushy term.

We don't really know how it operates or by what mechanism. It likely does constitute a range of different faculties (see wiki for a brief outline - though not comprehensive); and yes, I think the results of the study (as you suggest) do imply that we depleted the wrong element. Someone else in our labgroup is running a study using depletion, and they're using a task that involves crossing out all the e's in a paragraph. Just look through and count them in this response - it's a demanding thing to do accurately and a quickely. I suspect this would be a more appropriate task as it invovles suppressing the automatic tendency to read in order to evaluate the individual letters (i.e. it ought to deplete one's ability to inhibit themselves).

However, I think your characterization that watching someone not eat a marshmellow is misleading. There are plenty of characteristics that aid in mate selection that are not directly (or even indirectly) attractive to the opposite sex.In the animal world barbed penis' do this exceptionally well - it's hard to imagine something that is potential harmful to a female is attractive, yet it does aid in reproductive success.

The same follows with executive function... though you may not watch me eat the marshmellow and feel attracted, the capacity to delay gratification (to inhibit certain behaviours) is predictive (at least in children) of income, success at school, and intelligence, in later life - all of which are/can be attractive. Though that's slightly unrelated to being depleted, the trait itself does aid in selection, and the question still holds why is the capacity finite?


becca
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Dude I was serious. The guy that doesn't eat his marshmallow is more likely to share it with ME (and all my potential marshmallow goblling offpsrings). Thus, HAWT.

 

As an aside, I don't think the data supporting the notion that executive functions being finate. Limited, perhaps.

But what if the executive function you need to avoid the cookie is different than the executive function you need to keep trying on impossible problems, then it may not be that you deplete it so much as you get stuck in one mode?

Like if you asked people to do a reading task, and them asked them to do a math task instead of asking them to do one reading task after another. The part of my brain that verbalizes doesn't mesh well with the part of my brain that calculates. At least subjectively, it seems like my brain has to take a moment to 'switch gears' that takes time/energy. What if the same is true for executive functions? Then the mushiness of the term is a real problem.

Heck, those data are difficult to be sure of- it's even possible that the little extra glucose kick helps your brain kick into gear and *realize* the problems are impossible and opt not to continue because it's stupid to do so.


Psycasm
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Yup, i entirely agree... Though i have heard a lot of dissent about the glucose...
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