Courage is loosely defined as the ability to confront fear, pain, risk, intimidation, or uncertainty.
There are also moments that call for acts of courageousness, like the firefighter who runs into a burning building to check for trapped people, or a teenager with moral courage, who chooses not to go along with a group of friends who are planning to rob a convenience store.
Basically, some of us have it, and the rest of us wish we had more (see picture).
Can you tap into your courage center?
According to new research, published in the June issue of Neuron, yes, you may be able to access and increase your courage center, since the scientists involved in this experiment have located that spot in the brain.
The courage center of the brain was found by an experiment dealing with two extremes: live snakes (the fear factor) and toy teddy bears (the control).
About 60 people volunteered for the study, which hoped to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning technology to see where the brain lit up when courage was summoned in a given situation.
One group was composed of 40 people who were found to have a serious, debilitating fear of snakes. From here on, we will refer to them as the Fear group. (To determine this group, all of the possible participants had to take a questionnaire that graded their fear level.)
The second group was composed of 20 people who handled snakes on a regular basis and had absolutely no fear of the animal. We will refer to those as the No Fear group.
Step One: Teddy Bears…
Participants, laying down under an fMRI scanner, saw either a LIVE snake or cuddly teddy bear on a conveyor belt with a series of steps. The end of the conveyor belt was near the participant’s head.
The subjects either chose “Advance” or “Retreat” options on a button, and when the choice was selected, the snake or teddy bear moved down to the next step or farther away from the participant.
Unsurprisingly, no one was afraid of the teddy bear.
A side note, those in the No Fear group chose “Advance” for the snake to come closer just as quickly as they chose “Advance” for the teddy bear to move closer. So to them, the snake had the same result as the teddy bear.
So for the control group, no courage was needed for the participants to move either object closer.
Step Two: Those in the Fear group were shown SNAKES!!!
All the participants were aware that the goal was to bring each object as close to their heads as possible (even if it was necessary to summon all the courage you felt you had), so some were able to bring the snake closer, but a larger percent of this group chose “Retreat” to move the snake away.
After each button selection, the participants were asked to report their fear level on a scale of 0-100. Those in the Fear group reported, on average, a 62 score of fearing the snake.
In addition to the after-selection question, the participants were also monitored with a brain scan and also a SCR, or skin conductance response (layman’s terms for sweating when nervous).
The after-selection questions helped to determine how much courage the participants summoned in order to bring the snake a step closer.
The researchers asked:
“To what extent did you try to overcome the fear?” and “Did you need to make a larger effort to overcome your fear as [the snake got closer]?”
The average answer to both was a 4 on a 0-5 scale, indicating that not only did the Fear group participants recognize their mounting fear; only some were able to force themselves to overcome their fear and press the button to bring the snake closer.
The Courage Center
The activity in their brain, according to the fMRI results, showed a significant difference when the participants chose to bring the snake closer or not.
It turns out that there was a part of the brain that lit up when people showed courage (moving the live snake closer to them even when they were scared), as opposed to choosing for the live snake NOT to come closer (the people who did not show courage).
This part of the brain is located in the sgACC, or subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for fear, emotion, stress, perception, and a variety of other tasks.
And the cool thing is that when you show courage it is activated, and when you wimp out it is not!
To me, a surprising part of this study is where the courage center is located. In other articles, we have discussed the role of the amygdala and how it controls the fight-or-flight response humans feel when threatened.
It would seem as if the amygdala would be at work here, forcing the human to stay, and fight, instead of run away, in a situation where more courage is needed.
This article indicates that the sgACC (when activated) is actually able to cancel out some of the fear activated by the amydgdala. So you can see courage trumping fear in the brain – what a system!!
What is more interesting, if you recall a post from last week, which said that your brain makes a choice 6-7 seconds before you’re aware of it, is that the activity in the sgACC of the Fear group started to rise 6 seconds before participants chose the “Advance” option for the snake to move closer.
So, they chose to act courageously before consciously making the decision to do so.
Can we bottle this courage?
Unfortunately, we will probably have to wait a few years before scientists figure out how to create and bottle synthetic forms of liquid courage that we can drink before situations that require bravery.
More realistically, scientists will continue their research to discover how to exploit this area, and to call it up in a necessary moment.
Research on depression has actually shown that Deep Brain Stimulation (a surgical treatment involving the implantation of a medical device called a brain pacemaker, which sends electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain), on the saACC has shown a therapeutic result.
So maybe all the lion needs is a little Deep Brain Stimulation!!
Nili, Uri. “Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage.” Neuron 66. June 24, 2010: 949-962.
Previous research has shown that being exposed to nature has a variety of health benefits. Here is a brief list:
- Children suffering Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) get tangible benefits from just limited time in “green” spaces.
- Attention scores in classrooms are higher after playing in “green playgrounds” versus asphalt.
- People experience almost twice the mood elevation when walking in the country versus walking indoors. (Take that, “retail” therapy.)
- Simply looking at nature can be healing. A number of studies have demonstrated that viewing nature (even just from windows) offer a range of benefits, including:
- less stress
- lowered blood pressure
- fewer headaches and illnesses
- greater job satisfaction
- quicker recovery rates for post-operative patients
- One study conducted in Indianapolis found that children in greener neighborhoods had a reduced risk of being overweight or obese.
So, just how much nature exposure is associated with these benefits?
Some new research suggests that it might take as little as 5 minutes per day…
In a meta-analysis recently published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers show that just 5 minutes of physical activities in the presence of nature led to demonstrable benefits in both mental and physical health.
Walking, cycling, fishing, horseback riding, farming, and even gardening all constitute “physical activity.”
Five minutes was determined as the most efficient number. Longer times were still beneficial, but lead to diminishing returns. For example, 10 minutes of activity does not double the benefits!
Some interesting side notes:
- A blue/green setting seemed to cause a better health response.
- The presence of water caused an even greater effect.
- Light intensity activity (as compared to intense or moderate) seemed to have the best effect on self-esteem.
Why nature is so good for mood and self esteem…
Now that it is clear there is an effect, the interesting question is why this may be the case.
The answer seems to be that it helps restore our capacity for attention.
We evolved in non-urban environments. This makes not having exposure to nature similar to taking an animal out of their natural habitat. And, without access to at least some exposure to our natural habitat, bad things happen.
According to Doctor Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois:
“Humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat. In animals what you see is increased aggression, disrupted parenting patterns, and disrupted social hierarchies.”
Dr. Kuo (who I quote a lot here!) goes on to say:
“In evolution, those of us who found it — nature — sort of inherently interesting probably were more likely to remember where the berries were… And so the idea is that we’re selected for being interested in relevant natural phenomena.”
So being exposed to nature, helps reset our capacity for attention. And according to Kuo,
“allows us to be our best selves, so we are able to inhibit impulses that we want to be able to inhibit; we can take the long view of things; we can think better.”
I think the new study that shows all it takes is light activity for only 5 minutes a day to get the majority of the “nature benefit” is great news. I personally thought it would be a whole lot more time required. And a special thanks to Dr. Kuo, who provided most of the insight on this blog post!
I am curious; does anyone already have a 5 minute-a-day nature practice?
Barton, Jo, and Jules Pretty. “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis.” Environmental Science & Technology, 2010.
Sullivan, W.C., Kuo, F.E., & DePooter, S. (2004). “The Fruit of Urban Nature: Vital Neighborhood Spaces.” Environment & Behavior, 36(5), 678-700.
**Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E. & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). “Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings.” Environment & Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.
In a kind of spooky experiment, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences reveal that our decisions are made seconds before we become aware of them.
In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their right or left hand.
The only condition was that they had to remember when they made the decision to either use their right hand or left hand.
Using fMRI, researchers would scan the brains of the participants while all of this was going on in order to find out if they could in fact predict which hand the participants would use BEFORE they were consciously aware of the decision.
By monitoring the micro patterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex, the researchers could predict which hand the participant would choose 7 SECONDS before the participant was aware of the decision.
“Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done,” said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.
I don’t even know where to begin here! I know from the hypnosis research that the unconscious pretty much controls everything and that consciousness is extremely limited.
But, I do find it a bit disconcerting that decisions are made by unconscious me 7 seconds before conscious me…
I am not the only one.
Watch Marcus Du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) go through the study himself. The 7 second delay is in full effect.
Marcus is really disturbed here and brings up the subject of free will. Does this mean we really do NOT have free will? I am really curious what you think about this, please comment below.
Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze & John-Dylan Haynes, “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain.” Nature Neuroscience, April 13th, 2008.
Have you ever eaten something every day for a long period of time, and then one day decided you never wanted to have that food again?
Or, perhaps you’ve had a song stuck in your head on repeat for so many days in a row that you swear that you never want to hear that song ever again?
Or, maybe you’ve tried numerous healthy eating plans in an effort to lose weight, but fell off the wagon after a few days because you couldn’t stomach eating the same diet meals day after day?
We have all experienced this feeling, but there is an actual technical term for it, called satiation.
In a clever group of experiments, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Management may have found a way to overcome satiation by eliminating something called ‘variety amnesia.’ Best of all, this news may help you stay on track with any food plan you choose.
The researchers conducted three tests using different satiation triggers, including: a close friend, a favorite candy flavor, and the chorus of a favorite song.
I will not go over all three studies as they were all similar in structure, so below is how the “favorite song” study went down…
Fifty students picked his or her own favorite song, and a clip was made for each person, on average about 30 seconds long, and it consisted of just the song’s chorus.
The goal was to make the student grow sick of hearing the same song over and over, so they made each person listen to their clip 20 times in a row! After each listen, the student would rate the clips on a 101 point favorability scale.
Not surprisingly, as time went on the favorability rating dropped. Starting at an average of 78, after 20 listens the clips were rated at an average of 35. This is a 50% decrease in enjoyment after just 30 minutes or so of repeated play!
Three weeks later, the same students were brought back to the lab and randomly split into two groups.
One group was asked to recall all the television shows that they had watched during the previous three weeks. (The Control)
The second group was asked to recall all the music they had listened to in the past three weeks. (The Experiment)
Then, all of the participants listened to their chosen songs (from the earlier part of the experiment) one more time. They were then asked how much they desired to listen to the full version of that song again.
The control group (that was asked to recall TV shows) expressed much less interest in listening to the song – they were still satiated. They ranked the song at 45.
However, the music-recall group expressed a much greater interest in listening to their previously tired-of song choice. They ranked the song at 69. This is because subjects were reminded of the variety in the same category in which they were experiencing satiation.
In short, it was the recall of previous experiences in a similar category, in this case, music, that helped relieve the variety amnesia.
A second trial, with jellybeans, further proved that the recalling of similar experiences had to be within the same category (food) to help end the satiation with the target food (jelly beans).
In other words, people become satiated with a particular item because they forget about the other varieties of that item that they have enjoyed in the past.
Therefore, by recalling some of your past experiences with items of the same type, you can more easily get over your satiation of a target item.
Why Does This Matter?
Some things you do repetitively can be good for you. Eating the same healthy breakfast, staying with the same partner, etc…
So, for example, if you feel like you’re getting tired of your partner, recall all the partners and dates you have ever had. This will help eliminate the satiation caused by the variety amnesia.
Lastly, if you are drinking diet shakes or eating prepared meals, perhaps simply thinking of all of the decadent meals you recently had, or other drinks you’ve had, will help you to stay on track with your current program.
I’d love to hear what you all think, so comment below.
Galak, Jeff, Joseph P. Redden, and Justin Kruger. “Variety Amnesia: Recalling Past Variety Can Accelerate Recovery from Satiation.” Journal of Consumer Research. December 2009, Volume 36: 575-584.
You might have read the news about how your performance suffers while multi-tasking. If you haven’t, here it is in short: your performance suffers and suffers badly.
There have been hundreds of studies since the 1980s demonstrating this.
For example, Harold Pashler demonstrated that when you do two cognitive tasks at once, that their cognitive capacity could drop all the way from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8 year old…*
So, it is no surprise that you do better work when you focus on one thing at a time without distractions.
However, new research points to something far worse…
According to new research from coming out of Stanford University, people who spend long periods of time multi-tasking might lose their ability to pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another.
Even more relevant is that the chosen multi-taskers were “people who regularly deal with several streams of electronic information simultaneously.”
And the irony here is that as you continue to multi-task over time, you lose the ability to multi-task well!
100 students were split into two groups:
Group one consisted of regular media multi-taskers.
Group two consisted of people who did not consider themselves to be regular multi-taskers.
Experiment One: Dealing With Distractions
In the first experiment, the two groups were shown two red rectangles in isolation and then shown two red rectangles surrounded by differing amounts of blue rectangles.
Each configuration was shown twice, and the students had to figure out if the two red rectangles had changed position from the first frame.
The results were that the NON-multi-taskers did just fine (they were able to ignore the surrounding blue rectangles and identify a change in position of the red rectangles). The multi-taskers, on the other hand, did not do as well. They could not ignore the distraction of the surrounding blue rectangles, though they were told to do so.
Experiment Two: Memory Control
The next experiment was a simple memory sequence involving remembering sequences of alphabetical letters. The main task was to see if they could remember if a letter was making a repeat appearance.
Again, the multi-taskers did not do as well as the non-multi-taskers.
Experiment Three: Switching Tasks (true multi-tasking skills!)
In order to test whether multi-taskers were actually good at switching from one task to another, students were shown pictures of numbers and letters at the same time and were told what to focus on.
If they were told to pay attention to letters, they had to say whether the letters were vowels or consonants. When told to concentrate on numbers, they had to identify if the number was odd or even.
[There is a link at the end of this article where you can take an online version of this test]***
Again, the heavy media multi-taskers failed in comparison to the non-multi-taskers on an actual test determining one’s ability to multi-task!
Again, the irony is painful. This is a big cognitive price to pay for the multi-tasking lifestyle.
Cause > Effect?
We do not know for sure whether this is correlation or causation. We would need a baseline before subjects decided to live the multi-tasking lifestyle.
Maybe people with these attributes naturally gravitate toward electronic multi-tasking, while people with greater concentration powers gravitate towards single-tasking. My gut feeling is that there is at least some cause-effect going on, but that is just a hunch.
I am not immune…
As I was writing this article, I definitely checked on other things… I answered over 20 emails, took a couple of unscheduled calls, wrote an advertisement and was fiddling around with some new brain software someone just sent me for to review!
Even worse, I was conscious of it, since I was researching this article. But I am sure that 99% of the time, I would not notice myself giving in to these distractions. It is just a way of life.
If you are like me, you pride yourself on this ability. And if you are like me, you are probably also kidding yourself.
Are you immune?
The New York Times has an online test which replicates experiment three. Take it and let us know your results! Click here.
Now, please excuse me while I go check my email.
*Pashler, H. “Attentional limitations in doing two tasks at the same time.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 1 (1992):44-50
**“Cognitive control in media multitaskers.” By Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 33, August 25, 2009.
You have probably heard that the best way to lose weight over the long term is slow and steady.
You might have also heard that if you lose weight fast that you will just gain it back.
BUT NOT SO FAST
According to a study published in May 2010:
“Losing weight at a fast initial rate leads to greater short-term weight reductions, does not result in increased susceptibility to weight regain, and is associated with larger weight losses and overall long-term success in weight management.”
The study continued by stating:
“We suggest that, within lifestyle weight control programs, substantial efforts should be focused on promoting large rather than small behavioral changes during the initial weeks of treatment.”
It seems as if this new research contradicts the old adage about weight loss that we have all heard: lose weight slowly and it will stay off longer.
So which one is right?
This new study was conducted at the University of Florida, led by Lisa Nackers. It was published online in the May issue of Springer’s International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
The researchers were trying to find out if keeping weight off for a long period of time (months after completing an obesity treatment program) was easier to do if:
In the first month of treatment, the participants lost weight very quickly or slowly?
To test this, 262 middle aged obese (BMI over 30%) women were enrolled in strict diet and exercise programs. Each woman was given a personal plan that would result in consistently losing 1 pound per week.
After the first month, the ladies were split into three groups, labeled FAST, MODERATE, and SLOW, depending on how much weight they had lost.
The FAST group contained women who had lost 1.5 pounds each week. The MODERATE group lost between .5 and 1.5 pounds, while the SLOW group lost under .5 pounds each week.
They continued the study for six months and, of course, the FAST group lost the most weight, followed by the MODERATE GROUP, and then the SLOW group…
No surprises here, but read on.
18 Months Later
Contrary to the popular belief that if a person loses weight too quickly, they are more likely to put it back on – the FAST group kept on going.
After 18 months (12 months on their own), the researchers checked in with the ladies for the final time. The results determined that members of the FAST group were five times more likely to achieve their goals of 10% weight loss.
And, most importantly, they were able to maintain their new weight after 18 months.
The researchers also calculated that ladies in the MODERATE group were three times more likely to achieve and maintain their weight loss goals than the SLOW group members.
So is Losing Weight Fast the Secret to Long Term Weight Loss?
You hear all the time about the secret to long term weight loss is a slow “lifestyle change.” If you don’t change your lifestyle, then a “diet” will just be a short term affair.
However, in this study, the FAST group lost weight at a rate of 1.5 pounds a week, which is considered safe by most if not all weight loss authorities.
What I am saying is that most dietitians would not say that losing 1.5 pounds a week is fast. So I wouldn’t go on an overly aggressive diet thinking that this study somehow gives credence to the idea that fad diets are the key to long term weight loss!
What This Might Mean
It does indicate that it might not be wise to lose weight too slow. More research might need to be done, but it appears that if a person isn’t seeing tangible results in a short enough time that it can hinder motivation.
And 1.5 pounds might just be that magic number. So again, be careful about using these results to go on an eating plan that is overly aggressive.
I will do more research and try to find that magic number for you. If you know of any other research please comment below.
Nackers, Lisa M., Kathryn M. Ross, and Michael G. Perri. “The Association Between Rate of Initial Weight Loss and Long-Term Success in Obesity Treatment: Does Slow and Steady Win The Race?”International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, May 2010.
At one point in time, we have all been told that it is best to learn a new skill slowly. To learn to hit a correct forehand in tennis, you need to practice over and over again. To prepare for a test in school, you should study every day leading up to the exam.
This is still great advice, but what if you practice or study consistently and show no signs of improvement?
Should you just give up?
No, you shouldn’t, and here is why:
It turns out that for a lot of tasks, improvement doesn’t come gradually…but instead comes in a flash of insight and clarity, and BOOM: you are perfectly able to hit that forehand or able to ace your test.
Scientists at the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia sought to find out if there was activity in the brain that mimicked this ‘eureka!’ moment of clarity, and their findings, although not too surprising, are quite interesting.
Previous research has already determined that the ability to apply new rules (or learn a new skill) lies in the frontal lobes. This is where the executive control center of the brain is located.
A new study, published in the May 2010 issue of Neuron, sought to find out how the neurons in the frontal cortex (in rat brains, which operate similarly enough to ours to test) will switch from encoding a familiar rule (or behavior) to a completely new rule that could only be tested through trial and error.
In other words, when the rats are forced to figure out a new task, how would their frontal lobes react to learning new behaviors?
To see how the brain would respond, the rats were set up in a cage with two levers. Each lever had a light over it, which switched from the left to right levers. If the rats pressed the level that had the light over it, they would receive a treat.
After the rats were successful at this 20 times in a row, the researchers changed the game so that the rats would only get a reward from pressing the right level, regardless of which one had the light.
It took the rats between 30 to 40 trials to fully comprehend and conquer the new game and reward system.
In other words – it took about 30 to 40 trials to learn the new behavior.
Analyzing Brain Patterns
Brain scans showed that although there were different brain patterns going on in the rat’s frontal lobes while learning the new behavior, they actually had to learn the new behavior for the lights to go on…literally.
The researchers offer an analogy that compares the patterns in the brain to a string of lights. All the lights on the string are on (representing the neurons constantly firing within the brain) but for each different pattern, SOME of the lights would shine brighter than others.
When the rats comprehended the new task for the first time, researchers noticed a vastly different pattern of ‘lights’ in the frontal lobe, likening this pattern to their ‘eureka!’ moment, when the rats first successfully completed the new task and received a reward.
The results suggest that when measuring improvement, you may not see constant improvement – but instead you are more likely to see big improvements in chunks over time.
As the researchers note, “there are situations where…it’s really an all or none shift in the brain.”
The big issue then is how do you know when you are improving if you can’t measure gradual improvement? More research is needed here as I don’t think we know the answer.
So, as you are learning something new, like a tennis stroke, do not get discouraged if it doesn’t appear you are making any progress at first. It takes your brain time to learn the new skill set, just as it took for the rats in the experiment.
However, instead of quitting, keep trying, because your ‘eureka!’ moment of clarity may be just moments away.
Durstewitz, Daniel, Nicole M. Vittoz, Stan B. Floresco, and Jeremy K Seamans. “Abrupt Transitions between Prefrontal Neural Ensemble States Accompany Behavioral Transitions during Rule Learning.” Neuron. May 2010. Volume 66, 438-448.
New research presented at the 24th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies* exposed alarming information for insomniacs.
Results of the study indicated that individuals with chronic insomnia have an elevated risk of death. In fact, people with insomnia have a “hazard ratio” for all types of mortality that is over three times as high as people without insomnia.
According to lead author, Laurel Finn, “The most surprising result was the increased high risk for mortality among individuals with chronic insomnia versus those without insomnia, even after adjustment for all of the potential confounding variables.”
So, if you have chronic insomnia, this is something you are going to want to take care of right away.
Treating Chronic Insomnia
Some proven strategies to help beat insomnia include:
- Good sleeping habits.
- Go to bed only when sleepy.
- Sleep only in the bedroom.
- If still awake after 20 minutes, leave the bedroom and return when sleepy.
- Get up at the same time each morning regardless of the amount of sleep during the night.
- Discontinue caffeine and nicotine in the evening (if not completely).
- Establish a daily exercise program.
- Avoid alcohol because it may disrupt continuity of sleep.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques.
Hypnosis and Insomnia – The Not-So-Good News…
Surprisingly, although hypnosis in practice seems to help people with sleep issues – we have not been able to create a program that gets the results we require in order to sell a program. Believe me: we have created a bunch by some prominent psychologists! We just can’t sell them because they do not meet our standards. We have also evaluated competitive hypnosis products and found them lacking as well.
On a positive note, we have found a home use program that is getting great results that does NOT involve hypnosis. We are almost done with the evaluation, and when it is done I will share it with you, so stay tuned.
Please comment here if you are interested in such a solution.
*The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute on Aging; and the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health.
Although often discussed, there is actually very little research that has been done on the structure of self-talk and how it can motivate us…until now.
Published in the April 2010 issue of Psychological Science journal, Professor Dolores Albarracin and her team sought to find out if asking yourself (introspective talk) a question about your potential behavior would increase or decrease the likelihood of that behavior?
In simpler terms, what would work better?
- A basic affirmation like: “I will (be able to solve the task).”
- Or to frame it as a question: “Will I (be able to solve the task)?”
Before reading on, which do you think worked better?
Affirmations versus Questions – Experiment One
In the first test of two tests, 50 participants were asked to solve a series of anagram puzzles (rearranging letters within words to form new words, like when/hewn).
Before they began the puzzles, researchers directed some of the participants to tell themselves, “I will solve the anagram,” while others were told to ask themselves “Will I solve the anagram?” They were told to think of either the question or the statement for one full minute before beginning the puzzles.
The graph below shows how many anagrams were correctly answered in relation to the two different phrases, “Will I?” and “I will.”
As you can see, the non-affirmation (framed as a question) out-performed the traditional affirmation.
In fact, it increases performance by over 85%…
Quick note: there was no control group (those who did not say any sort of affirmation to themselves before beginning the task). I have no idea why they did not have a control group.
The main point is that the question group outperformed the affirmation group by over 85%.
Writing Affirmations – Experiment Two
In In the beginning of a second experiment, researchers did not tell the participants that they were going to solve a puzzle or perform any task.
This group was split into 4 smaller groups, and simply asked to write down either “Will I?” or “I Will” or “I” or “Will” on a piece of paper as many times as they could in one minute. (The researchers had told them that they were involved in a hand-writing analysis experiment).
After this was completed, without any warning, the 50 participants were then given the same anagram puzzle as in the first experiment.
Again, results showed that those who wrote “Will I?” were able to solve more anagrams correctly than those in the “I Will” group.
This test also had a control, to see if the words “I” and “Will” in a pairing or alone would change the results. Using “I” and “Will” alone acted as the control in this experiment.
The results show that not only did the pairing of words impact the test results, but the specific pairing of “Will I?” again outperformed any of the other combinations.
Why Questions Work Better than Affirmations – Intrinsic Motivation
These new findings are counter to the idea that if you tell yourself you can do something, you will be able to do it.
Even as children, we learn to project self-affirmation– just like The Little Engine Who Could story, where the Engine forced itself up a steep hill by chanting “I Think I Can” until he reached the top.
Professor Albarracin’s results suggest that the Little Engine would have had better success if it had asked itself, “Do I think I can?” on his journey instead. (Or, “Can I?” – etc).
According to these researchers, asking yourself a question (instead of forming a positive affirmation) increases your intrinsic, or inner, motivation.
To put it another way, in the form of a question, you are basically challenging yourself to complete a task. The desire to complete a challenge triggers each individual to create his or her own internal motivation.
The structure of self-talk, therefore, in the form of a question, can be enough to motivate you to action, perhaps more so than the idea of telling yourself that you can do something.
The Power of Questions
The findings of this study reveal how the structure of language can be a link between thought and action. It also demonstrates how far we are from knowing the “ultimate” self-improvement tool.
There are literally thousands of affirmation programs, CDs, books, etc… published in the world today that are only half as effective as this new structure. So we have a lot to learn!
On a personal note, for some strange reason, I am enjoying these results. It kind of reinforces the human spirit that a question is more powerful than a command.
I also am interested to see how other verbs, instead of just “will,” may impact intrinsic motivation and behaviors. What do you think?
Albarracin, Dolores, and Ibrahim Senay. “Interrogative Self-Talk and Intention: Motivation Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.” Psychological Science. April 2010. Volume 21, Number 4.
Image also from site listed above.
Most of us need some type of motivation to hit the gym on a regular basis.
New research has revealed that the best motivator to exercise harder and faster may not be an upcoming High School reunion, a pair of pants purchased in a smaller size, or that expensive personal trainer you hired.
Instead, it may be you.
You and Avatar Technology
An avatar is a computer user’s representation of his or her self online.
You may already be familiar with the concept: there are plenty of websites where digital beings direct you around the sites. There are also video games that encourage you to create a digital you to play online and interact with other gamers.
More recently, Stanford University has utilized Avatar technology for a very different and much healthier means.
Doctoral candidate Jesse Fox led a study to determine the impact that Avatars could have on the duration and intensity of one’s workouts.
To test her theories, she composed a test pool of over 80 people and separated them into 3 groups.
Avatars were developed for 2 of the 3 groups – participants submitted photos of themselves so that their Avatars looked as identical as possible.
During the tests, all groups wore virtual reality helmets. Members of the first group watched an Avatar of themselves hanging out, reading, and doing other non-physical activities.
Members of the second group watched Avatars working out, but those Avatars did not resemble the study’s participants.
The third group watched their personal identical Avatars running on treadmills.
After viewing their digital counterparts, the participants were sent home. Jesse Fox and other researchers phoned them a day later to find out the level of physical activity they had engaged in after leaving the lab.
Turns out that members of group three (the identical avatar group) worked out a full hour longer than other participants.
By now, you might be asking yourself, if the study was checking to see if Avatars help people to work out longer, why was the second group (those who had watched unfamiliar Avatars work out) not as motivated to work out as long as the third (who had seen their own Avatars running)?
The Key is Seeing Yourself in Action
Previous research in psychology, especially sports psychology, has determined that if you visualize yourself completing a task, you may be not only more eager to try the task in real life, but you may be more successful at it as well.
The same psychology is in play here, but more tangible evidence (the Avatar) takes this one step further.
Being able to see the Avatar moving may jumpstart your real self’s motivation to exercise, as you aspire to imitate your digital self.
Weirder and even more interesting, it does not take an action for the Avatar’s image to have an effect. When people watched their still, non-moving Avatars becoming thinner or heavier, they still exercised significantly more than when it was an unfamiliar Avatar.
This bolsters the weird phenomenon that is really depends on who the Avatar is that the participants are watching. If the Avatar is not you, it does not matter what it is doing. It has little effect on you.
The Brain and Self-Image
This study is interesting for a lot of reasons, but for me it is the tie in with the brain and self image that is most fascinating.
Over a year ago, I blogged about some really interesting research involving hypnosis and paralysis: http://exploringthemind.com/decisions-and-actions-who-is-in-control/.
There is a part of the brain called the precuneus. The precuneus is involved in mental imagery and especially in making representations of self (it is heavily involved in creating your self-image).
Various studies have demonstrated that representations of self can guide behavior (this is part of how hypnosis works). You can see it in the brain with an fMRI.
It would be really interesting to see what would happen if they were to do brain scans of the group using Avatars, versus not using Avatars to see if this part of the brain was more activated in the Avatar group.
Obviously, there needs to be a lot more research done in this direction and I personally can’t wait. Tell me what kind of research you would like to see done using Avatar technology.