How to formulate a good resolution

We could spend all year living healthier, more productive lives, so why do we only decide to make the change at the start of the year? BBC Future’s psychologist Tom Stafford explains.

Many of us will start 2016 with resolutions – to get fit, learn a new skill, eat differently. If we really want to do these things, why did we wait until an arbitrary date which marks nothing more important than a timekeeping convention? The answer tells us something important about the psychology of motivation, and about what popular theories of self-control miss out.

What we want isn’t straightforward. At bedtime you might want to get up early and go for a run, but when your alarm goes off you find you actually want a lie-in. When exam day comes around you might want to be the kind of person who spent the afternoons studying, but on each of those afternoons you instead wanted to hang out with your friends.

You could see these contradictions as failures of our self-control: impulses for temporary pleasures manage to somehow override our longer-term interests. One fashionable theory of self-control, proposed by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, is the ‘ego-depletion’ account. This theory states that self-control is like a muscle. This means you can exhaust it in the short-term – meaning that every temptation you resist makes it more likely that you’ll yield to the next temptation, even if it is a temptation to do something entirely different.

Some lab experiments appear to support this limited resource model of willpower. People who had to resist the temptation to eat chocolates were subsequently less successful at solving difficult puzzles which required the willpower to muster up enough concentration to complete them, for instance. Studies of court records, meanwhile, found that the more decisions a parole board judge makes without a meal break, the less lenient they become. Perhaps at the end of a long morning, the self-control necessary for a more deliberated judgement has sapped away, causing them to rely on a harsher “keep them locked up” policy.

A corollary of the ‘like a muscle’ theory is that in the long term, you can strengthen your willpower with practice. So, for example, Baumeister found that people who were assigned two weeks of trying to keep their back straight whenever possible showed improved willpower when asked back into the lab.

Yet the ‘ego-depletion’ theory has critics. My issue with it is that it reduces our willpower to something akin to oil in a tank. Not only does this seem too simplistic, but it sidesteps the core problem of self-control: who or what is controlling who or what? Why is it even the case that we can want both to yield to a temptation, and want to resist it at the same time?

Also, and more importantly, that theory also doesn’t give an explanation why we wait for New Year’s Day to begin exerting our self-control. If your willpower is a muscle, you should start building it up as soon as possible, rather than wait for an arbitrary date.

A battle of wills

Another explanation may answer these questions, although it isn’t as fashionable as ego-depletion. George Ainslie’s book ‘Breakdown of Will‘ puts forward a theory of the self and self-control which uses game theory to explain why we have trouble with our impulses, and why our attempts to control them take the form they do.

Ainslie’s account begins with the idea that we have, within us, a myriad of competing impulses, which exist on different time-scales: the you that wants to stay in bed five more minutes, the you that wants to start the day with a run, the you that wants to be fit for the half-marathon in April. Importantly, the relative power of these impulses changes as they get nearer in time: the early start wins against the lie-in the day before, but it is a different matter at 5am. Ainslie has a detailed account of why this is, and it has some important implications for our self-control.

According to this theory, our preferences are unstable and inconsistent, the product of a war between our competing impulses, good and bad, short and long-term. A New Year’s resolution could therefore be seen as an alliance between these competing motivations, and like any alliance, it can easily fall apart. Addictions are a good example, because the long-term goal (“not to be an alcoholic”) requires the coordination of many small goals (“not to have a drink at 4pm;” “not at 5pm;” “not at 6pm,” and so on), none of which is essential. You can have a drink at 4pm and still be a moderate drinker. You can even have a drink also at 5pm, but somewhere along the line all these small choices add up to a failure to keep to the wider goal. Similarly, if you want to get fit in 2016, you don’t have to go for a jog on 1 January, or even on 2 January, but if you don’t start doing exercise on one particular day then you will never meet your larger goal.

From Ainslie’s perspective willpower is a bargaining game played by the forces within ourselves, and like any conflict of interest, if the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable isn’t clearly defined then small infractions can quickly escalate. For this reason, Ainslie says, resolutions cluster around ‘clean lines’, sharp distinctions around which no quibble is brooked. The line between moderate and problem drinking isn’t clear (and liable to be even less clear around your fourth glass), but the line between teetotal and drinker is crystal.

This is why advice on good habits is often of the form “Do X every day”, and why diets tend to absolutes: “No gluten;” “No dessert;” “Fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays”. We know that if we leave the interpretation open to doubt, although our intentions are good, we’ll undermine our resolutions when we’re under the influence of our more immediate impulses.

And, so, Ainslie gives us an answer to why our resolutions start on 1 January. The date is completely arbitrary, but it provides a clean line between our old and new selves.

The practical upshot of the theory is that if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.

Good luck for your 2016 resolutions!

Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer forum for Cognitive Science. The Stack Exchange model works well for computer programming and now is one of the 150+ sites in their family, which includes topics as diverse as academia, mythology and pets.

There’s a dedicated community of people answering questions and voting on answers, producing  a great resource patterned around the questions people have on Cognitive Science topics. Three examples:

So head over, if you have questions, or if you can lend an evidence-based, citation-supported, hand in working on answers:

Link: Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

pro_lockThe Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative” is a grassroots attempt to promote open science by organising academics’ work as reviewers. All academics spend countless hours on peer review, a task which is unpaid, often pretty thankless, and yet employs their unique and hard-won skills as scholars. We do this, despite misgivings about the current state of scholarly publishing, because we know that good science depends on review and criticism.

Often this work is hampered because papers don’t disclose the data upon which the conclusions were drawn, or even share the materials used in the experiments. When journal articles only appeared in print and space was limited this was excusable. It no longer is.

The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative is a pledge scholars can take, saying that they will not recommend for publication any article which does not make the data, materials and analysis code publicly available. You can read the exact details of the initiative here and you can sign it here.

The good of society, and for the good of science, everybody should be able to benefit from, and criticise, in all details, scientific work. Good science is open science.

Link: The Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative

5 classic studies of learning

Photo by Wellcome and Flickr user Rebecca-Lee. Click for source.I have a piece in the Guardian, ‘The science of learning: five classic studies‘. Here’s the intro:

A few classic studies help to define the way we think about the science of learning. A classic study isn’t classic just because it uncovered a new fact, but because it neatly demonstrates a profound truth about how we learn – often at the same time showing up our unjustified assumptions about how our minds work.

My picks for five classics of learning were:

  • Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts”
  • Skinner’s operant conditioning
  • work on dissociable memory systems by Larry Squire and colleagues
  • de Groot’s studies of expertise in chess grandmasters, and ….
  • Anders Ericcson’s work on deliberate practice (of ‘ten thousands hours’ fame)

Obviously, that’s just my choice (and you can read my reasons in the article). Did I choose right? Or is there a classic study of learning I missed? Answers in the comments.

Link: ‘The science of learning: five classic studies

Why do we forget names?

A reader, Dan, asks “Why do we forget people’s names when we first meet them? I can remember all kinds of other details about a person but completely forget their name. Even after a lengthy, in-depth conversation. It’s really embarrassing.”

Fortunately the answer involves learning something fundamental about the nature of memory. It also provides a solution that can help you to avoid the embarrassing social situation of having spoken to someone for an hour, only to have forgotten their name.

To know why this happens you have to recognise that our memories aren’t a simple filing system, with separate folders for each kind of information and a really brightly coloured folder labelled “Names”.

Rather, our minds are associative. They are built out of patterns of interconnected information. This is why we daydream: you notice that the book you’re reading was printed in Paris, and that Paris is home to the Eiffel Tower, that your cousin Mary visited last summer, and Mary loves pistachio ice-cream. Say, I wonder if she ate a pistachio ice cream while up the Tower? It goes on and on like that, each item connected to every other, not by logic but by coincidence of time, place, how you learnt the information and what it means.

The same associative network means you can guess a question from the answer. Answer: “Eiffel Tower?” Question: “Paris’s most famous landmark.” This makes memory useful, because you can often go as easily from the content to the label as vice versa: “what is in the top drawer?” isn’t a very interesting question, but it becomes so when you want the answer “where are my keys?”.

So memory is built like this on purpose, and now we can see the reason why we forget names. Our memories are amazing, but they respond to how many associations we make with new information, not with how badly we want to remember it.

When you meet someone for the first time you learn their name, but for your memory it is probably an arbitrary piece of information unconnected to anything else you know, and unconnected to all the other things you later learn about them. After your conversation, in which you probably learn about their job, and their hobbies, and their family or whatever, all this information becomes linked in your memory. Imagine you are talking to a guy with a blue shirt who likes fishing and works selling cars, but would rather give it up to sell fishing gear. Now if you can remember one bit of information (“sell cars”) you can follow the chain to the others (“sells cars but wants to give it up”, “wants to give it up to sell fishing gear”, “loves fishing” and so on). The trouble is that your new friend’s name doesn’t get a look in because it is simply a piece of arbitrary information you didn’t connect to anything else about the conversation.

Fortunately, there are ways to strengthen those links so it does become entrenched with the other memories. Here’s how to remember the name, using some basic principles of memory.

First, you should repeat any name said to you. Practice is one of the golden rules of learning: more practice makes stronger memories. In addition, when you use someone’s name you are linking it to yourself, in the physical act of saying it, but also to the current topic of the conversation in your memory (“So, James, just what is it about fishing that makes you love it so much?”).

Second, you should try to link the name you have just learnt to something you already know. It doesn’t matter if the link is completely silly, it is just important that you find some connection to help the name stick in memory. For example, maybe the guy is called James, and your high school buddy was called James, and although this guy is wearing a blue shirt, high school James only ever wore black, so he’d never wear blue. It’s a silly made up association, but it can help you remember.

Finally, you need to try to link their name to something else about them. If it was me I’d grab the first thing to come to mind to bridge between the name and something I’ve learnt about them. For example, James is a sort of biblical name, you get the King James bible after all, and James begins with J, just like Jonah in the bible who was swallowed by the whale, and this James likes fishing, but I bet he prefers catching them to being caught by them.

It doesn’t matter if the links you make are outlandish or weird. You don’t have to tell anyone. In fact, probably it is best if you don’t tell anyone, especially your new friend! But the links will help create a web of association in your memory, and that web will stop their name falling out of your mind when it is time to introduce them to someone else.

And if you’re sceptical, try this quick test. I’ve mentioned three names during this article. I bet you can remember James, who isn’t Jonah. And probably you can remember cousin Mary (or at least what kind of ice cream she likes). But you can you remember the name of the reader who asked the question? That’s the only one I introduced without elaborating some connections around the name, and that’s why I’ll bet it is the only one you’ve forgotten.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

No more Type I/II error confusion

Type I and Type II errors are, respectively, when you allow a statistical test to convinces you of a false effect, and when you allow a statistical test to convince you to dismiss a true effect. Despite being fundamentally important concepts, they are terribly named. Who can ever remember which way around the two errors go? Well now I can, thanks to a comment from a friend I thought so useful I made it into a picture:


a gold-standard study on brain training

The headlines

The Telegraph: Alzheimer’s disease: Online brain training “improves daily lives of over-60s”

Daily Mail: The quiz that makes over-60s better cooks: Computer brain games ‘stave off mental decline’

Yorkshire Post: Brain training study is “truly significant”

The story

A new trial shows the benefits of online ‘brain training’ exercises including improvements in everyday tasks, such as shopping, cooking and managing home finances.

What they actually did

A team led by Clive Ballard of King’s College London recruited people to a trial of online “brain training” exercises. Nearly 7,000 people over the age of 50 took part, and they were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group did reasoning and problem solving tasks. A second group practised cognitive skills tasks, such as memory and attention training, and a third control group did a task which involved looking for information on the internet.

After six months, the reasoning and cognitive skills groups showed benefits compared with the control group. The main measure of the study was participants’ own reports of their ability to cope with daily activities. This was measured using something called the instrumental activities of daily living scale. (To give an example, you get a point if you are able to prepare your meals without assistance, and no points if you need help). The participants also showed benefits in short-term memory, judgements of grammatical accuracy and ability to learn new words.

Many of these benefits looked as if they accrued after just three months of regular practice, completing an average of five sessions a week. The benefits also seemed to affect those who went into the trial with the lowest performance, suggesting that such exercises may benefit those who are at risk of mild cognitive impairment (a precursor to dementia).

How plausible is this?

This is gold-standard research. The study was designed to the highest standards, as would be required if you were testing a new drug: a double-blind randomised control trial in which participants were assigned at random to the different treatment groups, and weren’t told which group they were in (nor what the researcher’s theory was). Large numbers of people took part, meaning that the study had a reasonable chance of detecting an effect of the treatment if it was there. The study design was also pre-registered on a database of clinical trials, meaning that the results couldn’t be buried if they turned out to be different from what the researchers (or funders) wanted, and the researchers declared in advance what their analysis would focus on.

So, overall, this is serious evidence that cognitive training exercises may bring some benefits, not just on similar cognitive tasks, but also on the everyday activities that are important for independent living among the older population.

Tom’s take

This kind of research is what “brain training” needs. Too many people – including those who just want to make some money – have leapt on the idea without the evidence that these kind of tasks can benefit anything other than performance on similar tasks. Because the evidence for broad benefits of cognitive training exercises is sparse, this study makes an important contribution to the supporters’ camp, although it far from settles the matter.

Why might you still be sceptical? Well there are some potential flaws in this study. It is useful to speculate on the effect these flaws might have had, even if only as an exercise to draw out the general lessons for interpreting this kind of research.

First up is the choice of control task. The benefits of the exercises tested in this research are only relative benefits compared with the scores of those who carried out the control task. If a different control task had been chosen maybe the benefits wouldn’t look so large. For example, we know that physical exercise has long-term and profound benefits for cognitive function. If the control group had been going for a brisk walk everyday, maybe the relative benefits of these computerised exercises would have vanished.

Or just go for a walk

Another possible distortion of the figures could have arisen as a result of people dropping out during the course of the trial. If people who were likely to score well were more likely to drop out of the control group (perhaps because it wasn’t challenging enough), then this would leave poor performers in the control group and so artificially inflate the relative benefits of being in the cognitive exercises group. More people did drop out of the control group, but it isn’t clear from reading the paper if the researchers’ analysis took steps to account for the effect this might have had on the results.

And finally, the really impressive result from this study is the benefit for the activities of daily living scale (the benefit for other cognitive abilities perhaps isn’t too surprising). This suggests a broad benefit of the cognitive exercises, something which other studies have had difficulty showing. However, it is important to note that this outcome was based on a self-report by the participants. There wasn’t any independent or objective verification, meaning that something as simple as people feeling more confident about themselves after having competed the study could skew the results.

None of these three possible flaws mean we should ignore this result, but questions like these mean that we will need follow up research before we can be certain that cognitive training brings benefits on mental function in older adults.

For now, the implications of the current state of brain training research are:

Don’t pay money for any “brain training” programme. There isn’t any evidence that commercially available exercises have any benefit over the kinds of tasks and problems you can access for free.

Do exercise. Your brain is a machine that runs on blood, and it is never too late to improve the blood supply to the brain through increased physical activity. How long have you been on the computer? Could it be time for a brisk walk round the garden or to the shops? (Younger people, take note, exercise in youth benefits mental function in older age)

A key feature of this study was that the exercises in the treatment group got progressively more difficult as the participants practised. The real benefit may not be from these exercises as such, but from continually facing new mental challenges. So, whatever your hobbies, perhaps – just perhaps – make sure you are learning something new as well as enjoying whatever you already know.

Read more

The original study: The Effect of an Online Cognitive Training Package in Healthy Older Adults: An Online Randomized Controlled Trial

Oliver Burkeman writes:

The New Yorker (2013):

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.