Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Get rid of fear of humiliation and embarrassment in social situations

Case vignette
Mr. S. is a middle level executive officer in the Indian government service. As part of his official duty, he has to attend official meetings once or twice a week. His boss often compels him to answer queries coming up in conferences. Talking in a conference is a dreadful thing for him. Whenever he tries to talk his mouth becomes dry. His hands and sometimes whole body becomes shaky. He fumbles for words and sometimes he is unable to utter a word. He explicitly told: “Doctor, I fear humiliation and embarrassment not only in official conferences, but also in all the social situations.” For these reasons he tries his best to abstain from conferences. This has affected his career and his promotion to the next level position has been kept in abeyance. Therefore he decided to seek the help of a psychiatrist to get rid of his malady.
A case of social anxiety disorder   
Evidently Mr. S. is suffering from social anxiety disorder. Those who fear humiliation and embarrassment in social situations suffer from social anxiety disorder. This condition is also known as social phobia. It is characterized by intense fear in social situations.
The social anxiety disorder can be of a specific disorder (when only some particular situations are feared) or a generalized disorder. Generalized social anxiety disorder typically involves a persistent, intense, chronic fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed or humiliated by one's own actions. These fears can be triggered by perceived or actual scrutiny from others. While the fear of social interaction may be recognized by the person as excessive or unreasonable, overcoming it can be quite difficult. Physical symptoms often accompanying social anxiety disorder include excessive blushing, sweating, trembling, sensation of heart thumping (palpitation), nausea, and stammering often accompanied with rapid speech. Attacks of extreme fear or panic also may occur under intense discomfort. A lesser form of social phobia is shyness in social situation.
Some sufferers may use alcohol or other drugs to reduce fears and inhibitions at social events. It is common for sufferers of social phobia to self-medicate and this can lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders or other kinds of substance abuse.
Symptoms of social phobia
Social anxiety disorder is a persistent fear of one or more situations in which the person is exposed to possible scrutiny by others and fears that he or she may do something or act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing. It exceeds normal "shyness" as it leads to excessive social avoidance and substantial social or occupational impairment. Feared activities may include almost any type of social interaction, especially small groups, dating, parties, talking to strangers, etc. Possible physical symptoms include "mind going blank", fast heartbeat, difficulty breathing, blushing, stomach ache or feeling of “butterflies in the stomach”, and nausea or vomiting sensation.  Thoughts are often self-defeating and inaccurate.
Those who suffer from social anxiety disorder are afraid of being judged by others in society. People who suffer from this disorder may behave a certain way or say something and then feel embarrassed or humiliated after. Therefore, they chose to isolate themselves from society to avoid such situations. They may also feel uncomfortable meeting people they do not know and act distant when they are with large groups of people. In some cases they may show evidence of this disorder by not making eye contact or blushing when someone is talking to them. This is their way of showing discomfort.
Physiological aspects of social phobia
Physiological effects, similar to those in other anxiety disorders, are present in persons suffering from social phobia. In adults, it may be tears as well as experiencing excessive sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, shaking, and palpitations as a result of the fight-or-flight response.  Blushing is commonly exhibited by individuals suffering from social phobia. These visible symptoms further reinforce the anxiety in the presence of others. A study in 2006 found that the area of the brain called the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is hyperactive when patients are shown threatening faces or confronted with frightening situations. They found that patients with more severe social phobia showed increased response in the amygdala.
Cognitive model of social phobia
There are four essential elements in starting and maintaining social phobias. Understanding these elements is crucial in getting rid of the social anxiety disorder by self-help.
  1. Trigger. The social situation acts as trigger. (See the pictorial presentation of the cognitive model of social phobia) The trigger causes imagined social danger. At first the individual perceives a social danger. Typical assumptions and predictions of the socially anxious person are: “If I talk to them they will find me boring and reject me.”; “If I don’t get this just right, I will be humiliated.” Essentially these are fears centering on being negatively judged. The fears are not centered on the person’s ability to perform. This imagined danger acts as trigger.
  2. Focus of attention on the self. The social-anxiety cycle is maintained by intense self-awareness. This heightened self-awareness is distracting and disabling. It prevents the sufferer from reviewing the situations objectively.  This leads to misinterpretation of reactions of other.
  3. Emotional thinking: Intense introspection about the sensations of anxiety renders the sufferer acutely aware of symptoms such as sweating, shaking and blushing. The sufferer assumes that others are also able to see his/her symptoms.
  4. Safety behaviour: The socially anxious person will attempt to avoid predicted humiliation or embarrassment by avoiding social contact. They usually avoid eye contact also. In doing so, the social fear is not addressed and remains intact.

Get rid of social phobia without medicines
  1.   First step is re-focusing attention away from introspection. This helps the individual to reduce self-awareness.
  2.  Develop an assertive inner voice to combat the harsh criticism expected imaginatively from others. The individual should suggest to himself/herself: “What I am presenting is correct and relevant. If anybody criticizes me I don’t care.”
  3.  Re-evaluate the imagined social danger. Simultaneously one should review emotional reasoning. The individual should suggest to himself/herself: “I feel shaky because I am worried about the criticism from others; I should not bother myself with it. I need not give much attention to my sweating etc.” If possible the person can view videoed session which allows the individual to evaluate objectively the severity of his/her overt anxiety symptoms.

Along with these cognitive measures the individual should do relaxation and deep breathing for 10 – 15 minutes every day. This will help the individual to refocus attention away from introspection and to reduce self-awareness.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to improve comprehension of language?

The three important psychological factors which promote learning in students are interest, comprehension, and repetition. Interest is the manifestation of motivation and it is the psychological driving force that pushes the individual to take action and pursue goals. Lack of motivation is manifested as absence of or deficiency in interest and driving force.
Comprehension is understanding
The second factor which promotes learning in students is the cognitive process of comprehension. In psychology comprehension has roughly the same meaning as understanding. Comprehension has different facets like comprehension of mathematics, language, logic, problem etc. In this article the comprehension of language alone is discussed.
Building mental structures
While reading a text or hearing a verbal presentation recognizing the words of a sentence is the beginning of comprehension. Along with the meaning of the word one must also recognize the syntactic or grammatical relations among the words to build a mental structure of the sentence’s meaning. In the beginning the mental structures built by the reader start at the sentence level and then it proceeds to the units or paragraphs found in text or discourse. One must also identify the intended meaning of sentences when words with more than one literal meaning are used or when words are used in non-literal ways, such as metaphors.
Morton Ann Gernsbacher, psycholinguistic researcher, Department Of Psychology, University of Wisconsin – Madison said: 
In building a mental structure, as in building any structure, the laying of a foundation is critical. The time and effort needed to develop mental structures that incorporate the meaning of the text provide useful information about the process. For example, the first sentence of a paragraph takes longer to read than do later sentences because the reader uses it to lay the foundation of a mental structure.
Word Recognition through graphemes and phonemes
The first step in the comprehension of the text is word recognition. A word is recognized as a combination of graphemes. A grapheme is a letter or a number of letters that represent a sound (phoneme) in a word. Another way to explain it is to say that a grapheme is a letter or letters that spell a sound in a word. Some written scripts are simple in which 1 letter usually represents 1 sound. These letters and their corresponding sounds are consistent and transparent. For this reason languages like Italian or Spanish are easy to read. English has a complex code in which from 1 to 4 letter graphemes can represent one sound. Here is an example of a one-letter grapheme: cat. The sounds /k/ is represented by the letter ‘c’. A two-letter grapheme: leaf. The sound /ee/ is represented by the letters ‘e, a’. Three- letter grapheme: night. The sound /ie/ is represented by the letters ‘i, g, h’. A four-letter grapheme: through. The sound /oo/ is represented by the letters ‘o, u, g, h’.
When one reads a word, the individual letters and the visual shape of the word as a whole are processed as orthographic features. The graphemes used to represent visually the phonemes of a language must be identified. The phoneme is defined by the International Phonetic Association as "the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances."  While reading the text the identification of graphemes also activates phonological features. This can happen not only when reading a word aloud but also when reading it silently. The identification of the phonological or orthographic features, either together or separately, brings the meaning of the word to the consciousness. The words or morphemes are verbal labels for underlying concepts or ideas. The people know anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 words which are kept in the long-term memory store of the individual. When the word is recognized the meaning or the concept underlying the word is recalled instantly. This establishes the importance of learning more words and keeping them in memory for better comprehension of the text and speech.

Concept driven cognitive process in word recognition
Try to read the following sentence:
Rexmaxkaxly  xt  ix  poxsixle  xo  rxplxce  xvexy  txirx  

lextex of  x  sextexce  xitx  an  x, anx  yox  stxll  xan  

xanxge  xo  rxad xt—wixh  sxme  xifxicxltx.
You try to read the words using the concepts stored in your memory. Yet, you can’t read? Here is the clue: Every third letter is replaced by the letter ‘x’. But still you can read it by using the concepts. This is the concept driven cognitive process of comprehension of language. When the words do not fit the expectations of conceptually driven processes, extra effort is required in analyzing the data available and finding the apt word from memory storage.  
Sentence comprehension
It goes without saying that complex sentences are harder to comprehend than simple sentences. Here the complexity is not in the construction of the sentence, but in the sense of the sentence. For example, a sentence that negates an assertion is harder to comprehend than one that simply asserts a proposition. This is so because the listener or reader must first presuppose a positive proposition and then negate it. The psycholinguistic researchers Clark, H.H., & Chase, W.G. in1972 established this fact through a simple experiment. They first presented the picture with a star, a plus and a statement. Then they presented the following four sentences:
  1. The star is above the plus.
  2. The plus is above the star.
  3. The plus is not above the star.
  4. The star is not above the plus.

After presentation of the sentences the comprehension time was measured. The participants took more time to comprehend the falsity in the sentences 2 and 4. Also they found that the participants took more time to comprehend the sentence 3 which is true but in a twisted manner, than the sentence 1 which is true affirmative and so very simple.
Polysemy is the property of language that a single word can have more than one meaning. When a reader encounters word with more than one interpretation special cognitive process is required for comprehension. Homonyms and metaphors illustrate the problem that Polysemy poses for comprehension.  For example the word watch has more than one meaning. Illustration: I like the watch. I like to watch. When one reads the first sentence the second meaning is actively suppressed by a special cognitive process. But this cognitive process of suppression of other meanings of the word is supported by the context and syntax. If the context fully supports the cognitive process there may be delay in comprehension.
Example: the word quack has two meanings. One meaning refers to an unqualified medical practitioner and the second meaning indicates the sound of a duck. Consider this sentence: Sam was treated by a quack. The second meaning, the sound a duck, is actively suppressed. Only one meaning of the homophone is supported by the context. But when the context fails to bias a specific meaning both meanings may remain active for long time and comprehension is delayed. Example: Sam was annoyed by the quack.
Similarly, to comprehend a metaphor one must ignore or suppress the literal meaning of words in order to grasp the intended meaning.  Examples: Time flies. Untrammeled imagination. Words in a text must be actively interpreted because they can have more than one meaning. In comprehending metaphors the nonliteral meaning—not the literal meaning—must be activated.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cognitive aspects of Margret Thatcher illusion

Margret Thatcher illusion or Thatcher effect is the name given to a cognitive process in the perception of human faces. See the picture. In the panel (1) the face is beautiful. In the panel (2) also is the same face. What is the reason for this difference? The answer is: Thatcher illusion or Thatcher effect. Let us examine the cognitive processes behind the Thatcher illusion.
Pattern perception
For the face perception there is a specialized module in the brain which is formed by specific circuits in the cerebral cortex. In short the face perception is special form of pattern perception. The term pattern perception refers to the step between perception of the stimulus from an object in the environment and the conversion of this stimulus into a meaningful mental representation of the object in the mind. To make the stimuli from an object into a meaningful percept of the object in the mind it is necessary to categorize the object on the basis of its perceived features. See the pictures of the Sheltie dog. First a pattern is perceived and then the dog is recognized.
Inability of recognition of object is called agnosia. This is seen in patients suffering from lesions in certain regions of the brain. They can see the object but cannot recognize the object. The patient suffering from this lesion may not recognize the Sheltie dog in the picture in spite of the clear perception.
Module for face recognition
Specialized pattern recognition is adopted for perception of human faces. This specialized process for the face recognition is called modularity in face recognition. A module refers to a set of processes that are automatic, fast, separated and independent of other cognitive processes. The module acts through the activation of specific nerve circuits in the brain. There may be several modules, each dedicated to the perception of an important class of stimuli such as face or speech.
Social interactions are crucial to our survival and reproduction. These depend on the ability to recognize faces and speech.  So the cognitive system included specialized modules for processing these categories of stimuli. Facial expressions provide a key means for communicating emotional states.
Perception of parts and whole
In the process of perception, stimulus or light from parts of the object reach the brain and in the brain these parts are assembled and the individual sees only the meaningful whole object. This is the holistic perception. But in the process the parts are perceived first. For example in the perception of human face various parts like nose, eyes, lips, ears etc. are perceived separately and they are synthesized together and ultimately the individual sees the whole face only. The first part of the perception of face is called analytical process. The individual is unaware of the analytical process or the perception of the parts.
When one perceived human face in the upright position the holistic process is dominant and face is recognized as a whole. On the other hand when the human face is perceived in the upside down position the analytic process becomes dominant and each part, the nose, the eyes, the eyebrows, the lips and the ears are perceived separately.
Peter Thompson's demonstration - Thatcher illusion
Professor Peter Thompson in 1980 proved this phenomenon through a strange demonstration. The eyes and mouth from a picture of British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were cut and pasted upside down. This change caused grotesqueness to the picture which, surprisingly, disappeared when the cut-pasted picture is viewed upside down. This demonstration is called Thatcher illusion. This happened because when the picture is turned upside down each part of the face is perceived separately and appeared normal.
The psychological processes involved in face perception are tuned to upright faces. Faces seem unique despite the fact that they are very similar. It has been hypothesized that we develop specific processes to differentiate between faces that rely as much on the configuration (the structural relationship between individual features on the face) as the details of individual face features, such as the eyes, nose and mouth. When a face is upside down, the configuring processing cannot take place, and so minor differences are more difficult to detect.
This effect is not present in people who have some forms of prosopagnosia, a disorder where face processing is impaired, usually acquired after brain injury or illness. This suggests that their specific brain injury may damage the process that analyses facial structures.
Japanese neuroscientist Takashi Adachi-Yamada and associates in 2009 proved that rhesus monkeys also show the Thatcher effect raising the possibility that the brain mechanisms involved in processing faces may have evolved in a common ancestor 30 million years ago.
The human face's proportions and expressions are important to identify origin, emotional tendencies, health qualities, and some social information. From birth, faces are important in the individual's social interaction. Face perceptions are very complex as the recognition of facial expressions involves extensive and diverse areas in the brain. Sometimes, damaged parts of the brain can cause specific impairments in understanding faces.
Medial (inner) surface of brain. Yellow arrow indicates Fusiform gyrus 

Neuro-anatomy of face perception

Face perception has well identified neuro-anatomical correlates in the brain. Most scientists agree that during the perception of faces, major activations occur in the fusiform gyri. This part of the brain is often called Fusiform Face Area (FFA).

Sex-related differences in face perception

Studies using electrophysiological techniques have demonstrated gender-related differences during a face recognition memory (FRM) task and a facial affect identification task (FAIT). The male subjects used a right, while the female subjects used a left, hemisphere neural activation system in the processing of faces and facial expressions. Gender-related differences may suggest a role for sex hormones. In females there may be variability for psychological functions related to differences in hormonal levels during different phases of the menstrual cycle.
Ethnicity in face perception
Humans tend to perceive people of other races than their own to all look alike. Other things being equal, individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to our familiarity, to our contact with the race as whole. Thus, to the uninitiated American all Asiatic look alike, while to the Asiatic, all White men look alike. This phenomenon is known as the cross-race effect, own-race effect, other-race effect, own-race bias or interracial-face-recognition-deficit. 
 Artificial face perception
A great deal of effort has been put into developing computer software that can recognize human faces. Much of the work has been done by a branch of artificial intelligence known as computer vision which uses findings from the psychology of face perception to inform software design.
Another interesting application is the estimation of human age from face images. As an important hint for human communication, facial images contain lots of useful information including gender, expression, age, etc. Compared with other cognition problems, age estimation from face images is still very challenging. This is mainly because the aging progress is influenced by not only personal gene but also many external factors. Physical condition, living style etc. may accelerate or slow aging process. Besides, since aging process is slow and with long duration, collecting sufficient data for training is a fairly strenuous work.
In Greek "prosopon" means face and "agnosia" means not knowing. Prosopagnosia is a disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while the ability to recognize other objects may be relatively intact. The specific brain area usually associated with prosopagnosia is the fusiform gyrus. No successful treatment has so far been developed for affected people. Affected individuals often learn to use 'piecemeal' or 'feature by feature' recognition strategies. This may involve secondary clues such as clothing, gait, hair color, body shape, and voice. Because the face seems to function as an important identifying feature in memory, it can also be difficult for people with this condition to keep track of information about people, and socialize normally with others.
The study of prosopagnosia has been crucial in the development of theories of face perception. Because prosopagnosia is not a unitary disorder (i.e., different people may show different types and levels of impairment), it has been argued that face perception involves a number of stages, each of which can be separately damaged. This is reflected not just in the amount of impairment displayed, but also in the qualitative differences in impairment that a person with prosopagnosia may exhibit. Prosopagnosia is usually acquired through extensive neurological damage.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Psychology of bandwagon effect and other cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a deviation from what leads to correct decision in a particular situation. Cognitively biased deviation leads to errors in various spheres of life. The following are the common errors occurring due to cognitive biases.
Bandwagon effect
Let us first consider the meaning and origin of the term. Literally, a bandwagon is a wagon which carries the band in a parade, circus or other entertainment. The phrase "jump on the bandwagon" first appeared in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for his political campaign appearances. As his campaign became more successful, other politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with his success. Later, during the time of William Jennings Bryan's 1900 presidential campaign, bandwagons had become standard in campaigns, and "jump on the bandwagon"  was used as a derogatory term, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.
The bandwagon effect is a form of groupthink in social psychology. The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people, as fads and trends do, with the probability of any individual adopting it. As more people come to believe in something, others also "jump on the bandwagon" regardless of the underlying evidence. The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform, or because individuals derive information from others. Both explanations have been used for evidence of conformity in psychological experiments. When individuals make rational choices based on the information they receive from others, economists have proposed that information cascades can quickly form in which people decide to follow the behavior of others. Cascades explain why behavior is fragile—people understand that they are based on very limited information. As a result, fads form easily but are also easily dislodged. Such informational effects have been used to explain political bandwagons.
The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media), hoping to be on the "winner's side" in the end. The bandwagon effect has been applied to situations involving majority opinion, such as political outcomes, where people alter their opinions to the majority view. Such a shift in opinion can occur because individuals draw inferences from the decisions of others, as in an informational cascade.
Attentional Bias
We normally give increased attention or hyper-attention to both attractive and threatening materials. In cognitive psychology attentional bias refers to hyper-attention to threatening materials. The threat may be unrealistic. For example a person with arachnophobia (fear of spider) always shows attentional bias not only to spider but also anything related to spider. This hyper-attention occurs even with verbal material such as words like spider, web, creeping etc. Psychologists use modified Stroop test to demonstrate attentional bias in persons with phobias.
When the name of a color (e.g., "blue," "green," or "red") is printed in a color not denoted by the name (e.g., the word "red" printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color. The effect is named after American psychologist John Ridley Stroop (1897 – 1973) who first published the effect in 1935. The effect has been used to create a psychological test (Stroop Test) that is widely used in clinical practice and investigation.
To establish the attention bias in persons with phobia the Stroop Test is used in a different manner. If the person is suffering from spider phobia words related to spider such as “spider”, “web”, “creepy” are printed in different colours and the person is asked to name the colour of the word. If the person is phobic to spider he/she takes longer time to name the colour because he/she gives hyper-attention to the feared object. Reduction of attention bias through frequent exposure of the feared object is the remedy for this type of disorders. The modified Stroop Test is also used for measuring the improvement in the condition.
Attentional bias phenomena have been found to occur not only in a number of anxiety disorders (e.g., specific phobia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder), but also individuals with anxiety by trait. It appears that these traits point in the direction of a hyper-vigilant cognitive style that gives high processing priorities to threat-related stimuli, thereby promoting escalation of fear.
Belief bias
In everyday life people have to evaluate the validity of opinions given or conclusions arrived at by others. People accept or reject these conclusions or opinions depending if they are consistent with their everyday knowledge or prior beliefs. This cognitive process is called belief bias. Belief bias occurs when there is a conflict between existing belief or knowledge and the logical conclusion.
Let us consider the following logical conclusion:
All dogs are animals.
All animals have four legs.
Therefore, all dogs have four legs.
There is no conflict between existing knowledge or belief and the logical conclusion. Let us consider another logical conclusion.
All poodles are dogs.
All dogs are animals.
Therefore, all animals are poodles.
This logical conclusion contradicts with existing common knowledge and therefore it is considered as invalid.
People accept any and all conclusions that happen to fit with their system of beliefs. Beliefs and meaning, not the statistical analysis and other abstract systems invented by philosophers, lie at the core of human thinking. The supremacy of meaningful beliefs appears to be universal. Famous Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria asked illiterate farmers from Central Asia o reason deductively, giving them syllogisms of the following sort: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaga Zmlya  is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?”  The responses were of this sort: “I don’t know; I’ve seen a black bear, I’ve never seen any others…. Each locality has its own animals; it it’s white, they will be white; if it’s yellow, they will be yellow”. Some responses were: “How can I know?” Luria observed that the farmers simply ignored or forgot premises that contradicted their own knowledge.  
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias (also called my-side bias or verification bias) is an ally of belief bias. It is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization, belief perseverance or continuing existing beliefs after the evidence for them is shown to be false, the irrational primacy effect or a greater reliance on information encountered first in a series and illusory correlation or falsely perceiving an association between two events or situations. Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in military, political, and organizational contexts.
Confirmation bias has been described as an internal "yes-man", echoing back a person's beliefs like Uriah Heep. Uriah Heep is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield. The character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own "'humbleness". His name has become synonymous with being a yes-man.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Psychology of rule of thumb

The origin of the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ is uncertain. It might have evolved from the use of the thumb as a measurement device ("rule"). Some claim that it comes from beer brewing before the invention of thermometers, when brewers would use their thumbs to measure the temperature of batches of beer.
In Greek the rule of thumb is heuristic, which is term used in philosophy and psychology. In cognitive psychology it refers to experience-based techniques applied to various cognitive processes like problem solving, learning, and logical thinking. In situations where an exhaustive search is impractical, rule of thumb or heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. The terms such as educated guess, intuitive judgment and commonsense are considered as equivalent to heuristics.  In more precise terms, heuristics are strategies using readily accessible information to problem solving.
Cognitive biases
In psychology, heuristics refers to simple, efficient rules which are inbuilt upon the mental processes of the individual through evolutionary processes or learning. These rules have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or using incomplete information. These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to errors. These errors are due to cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is a deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations. This deviation from the normally expected thinking process leads to distorted or erroneous perception, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality. The concept of “deviation" refers to a standard of comparison with what is normally expected from an individual in a particular situation. This comparison may be with the judgment of people those who are outside the particular situation, or with a set of facts which can be objectively verified by others. A long and ever-growing list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgment and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics.
Cognitive biases are examples of mental behavior which are evolved in the course of the individual’s life or inbuilt by the evolution of the human species. Many of the cognitive biases are evidently adaptive because they lead to more effective actions in given contexts or enable faster decisions when faster decisions are of greater value for survival. These are called adaptive biases.
Adaptive bias is the idea that the human brain has evolved to gain the cognitive ability of reason adaptively, rather than rationally, and that cognitive bias may have evolved as a mechanism to reduce the overall cost of cognitive errors as opposed to merely reducing the number of cognitive errors, when faced with making a decision under conditions of uncertainty.
Example of adaptive bias
The ambiguity effect is an example of adaptive bias. The situation of ambiguity is created by lack of sufficient information. The decision making in such situations is affected by lack of information, or "ambiguity". People tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known, over an option for which the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown.
The 30-ball-experiment has proved the existence of ambiguity effect in human thinking. The test is as follows: A bucket contains 30 balls. The balls are colored red, black and white. There is definite information that ten of the 30 balls are red. Of the remaining 20 some are white and some are black, with all combinations of black and white being equally likely. That is all the combinations like 1:19, 2:18, 2:17…. And 19:1are equally possible. The participants should take a ball blindly from the bucket after selecting an option. In option X, drawing a red ball wins a person $100, and in option Y, drawing a black ball wins them $100. The probability of picking a winning ball is the same for both options X and Y. In option X, the probability of selecting a winning ball is 1 in 3 (10 red balls out of 30 total balls). In option Y there is uncertainty of the outcome because there is no information how many balls are black and how many are white. The difference between the two options is that in option X, the probability of a favorable outcome is known, but in option Y, the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown ("ambiguous"). But there is a chance in option Y the probability could be more than that in X because the combination of Black : White could be 19:1. If so, the chance of winning is 2 in 3. In spite of the chance for high probability of a favorable outcome, people have a greater tendency to select a ball under option X, where the probability of selecting a winning ball is perceived to be more certain. The uncertainty as to the number of black balls means that option Y tends to be viewed less favorably. Despite the fact that there could possibly be twice as many black balls as red balls, people tend not to want to take the opposing risk that there may be fewer than 10 black balls. The "ambiguity" behind option Y means that people tend to favor option X, even when the probability is equivalent.
One possible explanation of the effect is that people have a rule of thumb (heuristic) to avoid options where information is missing or where there is ambiguity. This will often lead them to seek out the missing information. In many cases, though, the information cannot be obtained. The effect is often the result of calling some particular missing piece of information to the person's attention. The ambiguity effect evidently helped the survival in natural conditions.
Assessment of probability by rule of thumb
In daily life people take decisions after assessing probability of outcome in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity.  In assessing probability people use the rule of thumb. Example: I am going to toss a coin for six times. Before actually doing it I am presenting two probabilities. Probability one: Head, Head, Head, Tail, Tail, Tail. Probability two: Head, Tail, Tail, Head, Tail, Head, Head. Which outcome is more probable? A trained statistician would say both are equally probable. But almost all non professionals would say the second outcome is more probable, because it appears to be the representative of the outcomes in the random events. People predict those which have a representativeness appearance more probable. This rule of thumb is called representativeness heuristic.
Availability in mind
Another rule of thumb in assessment of probability is whatever available in mind is thought to be more probable.  This is called availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that uses the ease with which examples come to mind to make judgments about the probability of events. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if you can think of it, it must be important. The availability of consequences associated with an act is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of consequences of that act. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequency that events come to mind is usually not accurate reflections of their actual probability in reality.
Media mislead in assessment of probability
Media coverage can help fuel a person's example bias with widespread and extensive coverage of unusual events, such as homicide or airline accidents, and less coverage of more routine, less sensational events, such as common diseases or car accidents. For example, when asked to rate the probability of a variety of causes of death, people tend to rate more "newsworthy" events as more likely because they can more readily recall an example from memory. For example, in the USA, people rate the chance of death by homicide higher than the chance of death by stomach cancer, even though death by stomach cancer is five times higher than death by homicide. Moreover, unusual and vivid events like homicides, shark attacks, or lightning are more often reported in mass media than common and unsensational causes of death like common diseases. Another instance of biased ratings is the relative overestimation of plane crash deaths, compared to car-accident deaths.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Emotions guide decision making unconsciously

Before we make a decision we assess the possible outcome and incentive value of the choice available to us. In this assessment we use both rational thinking (cognitive process) and emotions. Traditionally decision making is considered as part of rational thinking and motions are not regarded as part of rational thought. But recent researches have clearly demonstrated that emotions influence human judgment and decision making in important ways.
Antonio Damasio 
An emotional state can shift an individual away from a decision that might ordinarily be made. When people are in a good mood, they try to maintain the pleasant emotional state by avoiding negative thoughts which causes unpleasantness. This kind of mood maintenance can adversely affect aversion of undesirable outcomes. An individual usually try to avoid loss when he/she is in a positive mood and trying to maintain it. Thus tendency for risk aversion is heightened in positive mood.
Fear can also affect our judgments by heightening risk aversion. Professor Baruch Fischhoff, department of Social and Decision Sciences, Howard Heinz University and his associates Slovic, Lichenstein, Reid, and Combs studied attitudes held about the risks and benefits of different technologies in society. It turned out that judgments about safety of a technology were affected by emotional factors.  For example, nuclear power is feared by people in part because the radioactive waste from the technology must be stored for thousands of years in a safe way that prevents contamination of our water and air. It is also feared because the technology can be used to build nuclear weapons with devastating power. The disasters occurred in some nuclear power plants have added to the fear factor of the people. The dread that people feel about nuclear technology causes them to be much more risk aversive than the actual probability of a nuclear accident would warrant. These are the examples of emotions affecting decision making at the conscious level. But there are instances at which the emotions affect decision making in covert or unconscious ways.
Somatic marker hypothesis
Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (red)
When we face complex and conflicting situations we are unable to decide on the basis of rational thinking only. According to Antonio Damasio, the neuroscience researcher in University of Southern California, somatic markers help us decide in such complex and conflicting situations. This new theory in the cognitive neuroscience is called somatic marker hypothesis. The hypothesis holds that we experience sensations arising from the internal organs. These sensations are called visceral feelings. The visceral feelings guide our decisions based on the anticipated pain or pleasure of the outcomes of the decisions. These visceral feelings are called somatic markers. The signals producing somatic markers are generated in the ventromedial part of the prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) of cerebrum of the brain.
Brain Stem in green
In complex and conflicting situations this part of the brain gets activated, signals are sent to internal organs through the brain stem or the “stalk” of the brain and spinal cord and the individual experience visceral feelings which bias the cognitive process of decision making covertly or unconsciously. The somatic markers also influence the decision making overtly or consciously by sending signals to the cortical centers engaged in cognitive process. Damasio proposes that somatic markers direct attention towards more advantageous options, simplifying decision making process. The amygdala, a nucleus in the brain which acts as a hub of emotional reactions is also an essential part of somatic marker system. Therefore damage to the amygdala or the VMPFC would disrupt the action of the somatic markers.
Man learns unconsciously from experiences
The somatic markers are developed during the previous experiences of failures and associated negative emotions such as depression and anxiety. These emotions had created some subtle visceral feelings or sensations arising from the internal organs. The same sensations are produced during complex and conflicting situations. In such situations the somatic markers come into actions and visceral sensations are produced which guide the individual to a quick decision. 
According to economic theory, human decision-making is devoid of emotions and involves logical reasoning based on costs-benefit calculations alone. This theory assumes that individuals have unlimited time, knowledge and information processing power and can therefore make perfect decisions. In contrast to economic theory, the somatic marker hypothesis proposes that emotions play a critical role in our ability to make fast, rational decisions in complex and uncertain situations.
Pheneas Gage
Patients with frontal lobe damage provided the first evidence that the frontal lobes were associated with decision-making and social conduct. Frontal lobe damage, particularly to the VMPFC, results in impaired abilities to organize and plan behavior, learn from previous mistakes, and behave in a socially appropriate manner. Patients with damage to the VMPFC develop severe impairments in both personal and social decision-making that can result in choosing unsuitable friends, partners, and activities. In fact, these patients appear to lack concern for other individuals, which resembles a mild form of sociopathy. Surprisingly, patients with VMPFC damage have normal intellect in terms of working memory, attention, and language comprehension and expression. Pheneas Gage (1823 – 1860) was an example. He was an American railroad construction foreman now remembered for his improbable survival of an accident in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain's left frontal lobe, and for that injury's reported effects on his personality and behavior – effects so profound that friends saw him as "no longer Gage".
VMPFC patients also have difficulty expressing and experiencing appropriate emotions. This led Antonio Damasio to hypothesize that decision-making deficits following VMPFC damage result from the inability to use emotions to help guide future behavior based on past experiences. This damage prevents rapid emotional signaling to bias behaviors toward appropriate responses to simplify the process. Consequently, VMPFC damage forces those afflicted to rely on slow and laborious cost-benefit analyses for every given choice situation, which degrades accuracy and response-time.
Neurological mechanism producing somatic marker
Emotions, as defined by Damasio, are changes in both body and brain states in response to different stimuli. Physiological changes (e.g., muscle tone, heart rate, endocrine release, posture, facial expression, etc.) occur in the body and are relayed to the brain where they are transformed into an emotion that tells the individual something about the stimulus that they have encountered. Over time, emotions and their corresponding bodily change(s) become associated with particular situations and their past outcomes.
When making decisions in the future, these physiological signals (or ‘somatic markers’) and its evoked emotion are consciously or unconsciously associated with their past outcomes and bias decision-making towards certain behaviors while avoiding others. For instance, when a somatic marker associated with a positive outcome is perceived, the person may feel happy and motivate the individual to pursue that behavior. When a somatic marker associated with the negative outcome is perceived, the person may feel sad and act as an internal alarm to warn the individual to avoid a course of action. These situation-specific somatic states based on, and reinforced by, past experiences help to guide behavior in favor of more advantageous choices and therefore are adaptive.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Mr. S., a member of the Indian Communist Party came to the deaddiction centre to get admitted for the treatment of alcoholism. He told me that he was drinking alcohol very secretly because his party was against drinking and he wanted to get rid of addiction. He admitted to his feeling of guilt and was visibly depressed evidently due to a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger’s contribution
Leon Festinger
Cognitive dissonance is a mental condition characterized by feeling of discomfort arising from holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, and values simultaneously. The people suffering from this discomfort have a motivational drive to reduce the mental tension arising from the cognitive dissonance by changing the existing cognitions (ideas, beliefs, and values) or adding new ones to create a no-conflicting belief system in their mind. The phrase was coined by the American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) in his 1956 book titled When Prophecy Fails. This notable book chronicled the followers of a UFO Religion in the USA.
UFO religion is an informal term used to describe a group of people who believe the unidentified objects (UFO) come to earth carrying extraterrestrial (ET) beings that are interested in the well being of humanity. For the followers of UFO religion the ET beings are more akin to angels than physical aliens. They also believed in an impending apocalypse.
Leon Festinger and associates infiltrated a religious group that was expecting the imminent end of the world on a certain date. When that date passed without the world ending, the movement did not disband. Instead, the group came to believe that they had been spared in order to spread their teachings to others, a justification that resolved the conflict between their previous expectations and reality.
Cognitive dissonance in daily life
In daily life, smoking is a common example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, and smokers must reconcile their habit with the desire to live long and healthy lives. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one's life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by any number of changes in cognitions and behaviors. Some may try hard to quit smoke. Those who fail in their attempt to quit smoking may rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will. This case of cognitive dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept of the individual. He may believe: “I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions.”  When he smokes the thought may arise: “I am increasing my risk of lung cancer.” This thought can be dissonant with self-related belief. It is often easier to make excuses or pass judgments that it is to change behaviour or values. Cognitive dissonance research contributes to the abundance of evidence in social psychology that humans are not always rational beings.
Cognitive dissonance distorts perception
Researchers have found that cognitive dissonance can affect a variety of human judgments, from estimates of statistical likelihood to social assessments, to self-image. Social psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunning have established that cognitive dissonance can affect the human perceptual system. The researchers asked the students who participated in the experiment to walk through the campus to cover a specific distance with an unappealing way to estimate themselves the distance they have covered. In this experiment the distance across a university quadrangle was to be covered by walking. They asked students to walk that distance, in full daylight, while dressed as Carmen Miranda: wearing a grass skirt, a coconut brassiere, and, of course, a giant fruit-laden headdress. Carmen Miranda is probably best-known today as the former spokesperson for Chiquita bananas, but she was equally famous as an actress, singer, and dancer in the 1940s and 1950s.
The key to the study was the students' belief that they had chosen to do this. Some of the students were simply told that they were participating in an experiment about their reaction embarrassment and then told to put on the costume and walk across the quadrangle, after which they'd be quizzed about their reaction. Others were told they could either do the Carmen Miranda walk or some other (unnamed) embarrassing task. However, they were strongly encouraged to dress up in the fruity hat, and in fact, none of them chose the other task.
The students who believed they chose to dress up as Carmen Miranda estimated the length of the quadrangle as significantly shorter than those who were simply told to wear the costume. Another group of students was simply asked to estimate and walk the distance without the costume, and again, they believed the distance was significantly longer than those who thought they had chosen to wear the costume. Balcetis and Dunning say that this misperception of the distance (the quadrangle was actually 365 feet long) is caused by cognitive dissonance. Since they chose to walk in the costume, these students convinced themselves their decision must be rational: after all, it's not a very long distance to walk. They experienced less cognitive dissonance.
Brain centre for cognitive dissonance
fMRI showing anterior part of Cingulate Gyrus
Imaging studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) conducted by the Dutch neurologist Van Veen and his colleagues have established the front portion of the cingulate gyrus of the cerebral cortex is the brain centre of cognitive dissonance.