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Wednesday
Dec042013

Why Cheating Is Like A Drug 

Every so often a news story comes out about a celebrity caught shoplifting. The standard response is “Why?” The reason isn’t lack of money, and it’s certainly not that getting arrested is good for the celeb's career, so what would make an A-lister take the chance?

New research suggests that, for some people, stealing or cheating has much in common with doing a line of cocaine – it’s all about the buzz.  Psychologists call it the "Cheater’s High."

Researchers from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington conducted three experiments to test the theory.  The first used a cash reward as the carrot for solving word puzzles. The researchers set up the experiment in such a way that participants had a chance to illicitly get a look at the correct answers, with the expectation that many of them would use the answers to cheat on the test. As predicted, more than 40% of the participants cheated. After the test, participants were asked to report on their emotions. Researchers found that the cheaters consistently reported a bigger boost in positive emotion (such as a sense of “self-satisfaction”) compared to those who didn’t cheat.

In a follow-up study, the research team removed the financial-reward factor (which by itself could spark positive emotions) and asked a different group of participants to solve a series of math problems on a computer.  Once again, the test was set up so that participants could—if they chose—get a peek at the answers. This time almost 70% of participants cheated, and once again they reported higher levels of positive emotion than the non-cheaters, despite not winning any money.

In the final study, the research team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey site to recruit 205 people online and offered them a chance to win cash for solving word puzzles. The researchers sent a portion of the participants a message that they were on the “honor system” when reporting their answers because the researchers wouldn’t be able to tell if they were cheating (in truth, they actually could tell). The purpose of the message was to remove the possibility that cheaters weren’t aware that they were cheating, or that they might “play dumb” about having cheated. The message also implied that if the participants chose to cheat, they were in effect stealing the money.

The results in this case were even more significant: not only did the cheaters report more positive emotion than non-cheaters, but the cheaters who received the warning message reported even greater self-satisfaction than cheaters who didn’t get the message.

The research team’s takeaway from all three experiments is that the cheaters high is sparked by the thrill of getting away with it.  The final experiment showed this most clearly, because the plain face truth that participants were knowingly cheating actually increased their “high.”

Since this study only focused on cheating and stealing, it's not clear that the same dynamic plays out in cases where someone directly harms another person, which would of course be hard to test for obvious reasons.

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Sunday
Dec012013

Study: Making Direct Eye Contact Is Not An Effective Way To Persuade

Few popular beliefs are as unshakable as, “If you want to influence someone, always make direct eye contact.” But new research suggests that this bit of sturdy pop lore is hardly gospel – in fact, in many circumstances a direct gaze may result in the exact opposite effect.

Researchers from Harvard, the University of British Columbia and the University of Freiberg used newly developed eye-tracking technology to test the claim during two experiments.  In the first, they had study participants watch a speaker on video while tracking their eye movements, and then asked how persuaded they were by the speaker. Researchers found that the more time participants spent looking into the speaker’s eyes, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument. The only time looking into the speaker’s eyes correlated with being influenced was when the participants already agreed with the speaker’s opinions.

So the first takeaway is: when a speaker gives an opinion contrary to the audiences’, looking into her or his eyes has the exact opposite of the intended effect.

In a second experiment, some participants were told to look into the speaker’s eyes and others were told to watch the speaker’s mouth. Once again, participants who looked into the speaker's eyes were less receptive to his opposing arguments, and also said they were less inclined to interact with advocates of the speaker’s argument.

Which leaves us with another takeaway contrary to the popular belief: if your audience is already skeptical of your arguments, looking into your eyes will not only reinforce their skepticism, but also make them less likely to interact with others expressing your views.

According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-lead researcher of the studies, “The findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.”

Her advice to everyone from parents to politicians: “It might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you're trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you.”

In the next round of research, the team is going to investigate whether eye contact in certain situations correlates with patterns of brain activity associated with responding to a threat, and an increase in stress hormones and heart rate.

There’s a corollary to these findings that’s found throughout the animal world, one that everyone who deals with everything from dogs to gorillas already knows – looking directly into a potentially aggressive animal’s eyes is not a good idea. The gesture is taken as a threat and might draw an attack.

Quoting another of the researchers, Frances Chen, “Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

Saturday
Nov232013

Why Willpower Fails You And What To Do About It

Thursday
Nov142013

How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers. 

 

Research into “neurogenesis”—the ability of certain brain areas to grow new brain cells—has recently taken an exciting turn. Not only has research discovered that we can foster new brain cell growth through exercise, but it may eventually be possible to “bottle” that benefit in prescription medication.

The hippocampus, a brain area closely linked to learning and memory, is especially receptive to new neuron growth in response to endurance exercise. Exactly how and why this happens wasn’t well understood until recently. Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we’re breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses – the connection points between nerves – and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.

What this boils down to in practice is that regular endurance exercise, like jogging, strengthens and grows your brain. In particular, your memory and ability to learn get a boost from hitting the pavement.  Along with the other well-established benefits of endurance exercise, such as improved heart health, this is a pretty good reason to get moving. If jogging isn’t your thing, there’s a multitude of other ways to trigger the endurance effect – even brisk walking on a regular basis yields brain benefits.

Now researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have also discovered that it may be possible to capture these benefits in a pill.  The same protein that stimulates brain growth via exercise could potentially be bottled and given to patients experiencing cognitive decline, including those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

"What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain," said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS and co-senior author of the research report with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.

In the new study, the research team artificially increased BDNF in the brains of mice by using a harmless virus to piggyback FNDC5 molecules through the bloodstream of the mice.  After seven days, researchers found a significant increase in BDNF in the hippocampus area of the mice brains – the brain area crucial for memory and learning.

"Perhaps the most exciting result overall is that peripheral delivery of FNDC5 with adenoviral vectors (i.e. a virus) is sufficient to induce central expression of BDNF and other genes with potential neuroprotective functions or those involved in learning and memory," the authors said.

The research team cautions that since this is an animal study, it’s far too early to conclude that the same effect will work in humans, but the significant results of this study show promise for future research into delivering cognitive benefits to the human brain via a similar mechanism. Cognitive boost for suffers of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases in the form of a brain-growth pill may not be too far off.

More immediately, neurogenesis research has provided yet another great reason to get up, get out and get moving.

The research report was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative.

Wednesday
Nov062013

How Neuroscience Could Make Your Resistance Futile

David DiSalvo's newest book, Brain Changer, is now available at AmazonBarnes and Noble and other major booksellers.

 

Comply. That’s an uneasy watchword at the very center of social cohesion. Without enough social norm compliance—such as the norm that stresses fairness in our dealings with others—humans aren’t great at getting along. The question is, what’s at the heart of our willingness to comply with social norms?  Are our brains pre-packaged with compliance wiring? Or do we bend to the dictates of fairness and equal treatment only because our laws press us into compliance? Or is it some of both?

Neuroscientists are quite interested in these questions, and they’ve even made some progress answering them. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have identified brain areas that appear to be involved in our decisions about when and why we treat others fairly or unfairly. These studies have shown, for example, that a region in the right hemisphere of the brain called the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) is activated when people comply with social norms (or "rules"), suggesting that the rLPFC is an important part of a neural network that could be considered our brain’s social-norm wiring. But as with all fMRI results, brain activity does not conclusively prove a causal relationship between a given brain area and a given behavior—the results can only suggest it.

new study from researchers at the University of Zurich took all of this a big step forward by using a painless and harmless electrical charge to positively or negatively stimulate the rLPFC  (something called “transcranial direct current stimulation”) while study participants took part in a computerized fairness game.

The game works like this: participants are given an amount of money and told to share it with a randomly assigned partner. In one game scenario, they are allowed to make the decision of how much money to give away without the threat of a penalty for being unfair.  In another scenario, they are told they can still make the decision, but their partner will be able to penalize them if they act unfairly.

In the first phase of the study, participants played the fairness game without experiencing the electrical charge. The social norm of fairness dictates that people give away an equal or near equal portion of the money, but without the threat of a penalty most participants only gave away between 10-25% of their stash. With the threat of a penalty, the percentage increased to between 40-50%.

Researchers then had the participants play the game again, but this time while experiencing a positive electrical charge designed to increase activity in the rLPFC.  Participants receiving the positive charge increased the amount of money they gave away by about 33%. When researchers switched to a negative charge (which decreased rLPFC activity), participants decreased the amount they gave away by about 22%.

But here’s the twist: these results only held true when a penalty was threatened. Without threat of a penalty, the positive and negative charges to the rLPFC actually had an opposite effect.  Researchers also checked to see if the electrical charges changed the participants’ expectation of how strong or weak the penalty would be, and found no change in threat expectation.

What this means is that stimulating the brain region didn’t make people fairer -- it made them more sensitive to threats of being punished if they didn’t act fairly.

The implications of this finding are potentially massive, and more than a little alarming. If we can biochemically alter activity in the rLPFC with a pill, just as these researchers did with an electrical current, then we’re looking toward a brave new pharmacological world that serves up a daily dose of compliance via threat sensitivity (assuming, of course, that there might be a market for such a drug). On a more positive note, the finding opens a door to treat people with damage to their rLPFC, who may be dangerously non-compliant with social norms.

However you choose to view the results, the research is significant because it bridges a chasm between seeing brain activity in relation to a behavior (in an fMRI brain scan) and changing behavior by manipulating brain activity. And while that's also a little frightening, it's a necessary step toward figuring out where ambiguous concepts like "social norm compliance" play out in the brain. This study is just a tiny taste of what's to come.