Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Scientific American Book Club

Just a quick note - The Science of Consquences is a selection of the Scientific American Book Club!  It's under the Biology/Neuroscience category.

Here's the link, for anyone who's interested.

Consequences Without Awareness

Consequences are everywhere--sometimes when we don't even realize it!  The Science of Consequences includes a number of examples of research demonstrating how we can be influenced by consequences for what we do without our awareness.  (Another reason why it's helpful to know more about how they work.)

File:Hugh specs.jpgThis fact was recently brought home to me in an unexpected way.  I was at my optometrist's office, getting my vision checked with one of those eye charts--you know, the standard one with the big E on top, and rows of letters that get progressively smaller and harder to read as you move down. 

The optometrist asked me why I was tilting my head. Was I?  I was!  I hadn't even realized it, it was so well-learned and automatic an adjustment. Tilting my head back a little brought the letters into slightly better focus, as I verified when I experimented, trying to read different rows on the eye chart with my head at different angles.  It wasn't a large effect, but under the pressure of struggling to make out the tiniest letters, tilting definitely helped.  It's almost spooky.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Joy of Checklists

After the euphoria of my book launch, a return to reality meant that I began feeling buried in book-related work again.  So I've reverted to a consequence-based technique I took advantage of when I was beginning the research for the book so many years ago:  a variation of the ubiquitous checklist.

Learning is fun and rewarding, so it wasn't hard for me to read journal articles and books.  Taking notes on the important points wasn't hard either.  But categorizing and recording all the notes in appropriate computer documents was time-consuming and tedious.  (I ended up with several thousand pages.)  I tried a number of tricks to help myself keep motivated, such as different schedules of reinforcement:  Work till 3 PM, then take a break.  Or finish entering the notes from this book, then break.  These common techniques can be quite effective.  But not always.  In this case, I still found myself dreading the drudgery.  Could I use my own science to do better?

In one of the classic forms of checklists (there are many), you might make a list of errands to run, or items to buy at the store.  Upon accomplishing each goal, you check it off.  That's frequently rewarding in itself, and can bring a small but noticeable feeling of satisfaction.  At the end of the trip, you get to toss the whole list.  Mission accomplished.

To help with the note-recording drudgery, I simply created a new document in which I summarized what I'd accomplished that day, and I did this as I finished each task (immediate reinforcement). It's not really a checklist, but it's a kissing cousin, I'd say.  For five extra minutes of work each day, the difference in motivation and emotion was significant.  Instead of just working to avoid the negative of lots of notes piling up, I was also working for a positive reinforcer:  the chance to record the completion of a task, and see all those accomplishments add up in black and white.  Clearly I was getting somewhere after all. These sorts of progress markers can help ease any large project along, at work or at home. 

Plenty of research backs up this merely anecdotal evidence, and I provided some examples in the book.  My only question is, why did it take me so long?! 

What works for you?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Consequences in Literature

Consequences are all over literature, of course, so this could be the first in a long series!  Good novelists frequently understand psychology even though they may never have studied the science.  American novelist William Maxwell (who died in 2000) is a fine example.  His best-known work, So Long, See You Tomorrow, won the National Book Award, and I highly recommend it.

From the start of one of Maxwell's last published stories, "Grape Bay (1941)," comes this description of its shy protagonist:

"When he was six years old his parents died, one immediately after the other, and he went to live with his paternal grandfather, who did not like children.  It did not take him long to learn what it means not to be wanted.  Now that he was grown, his first impulse was always to withdraw before it became necessary, before someone asked him to."

The effects of a history of aversives are presented as straightforward in this case--and so well-learned that the withdrawing, shy personality patterns become automatic ("his first impulse").  The process of overcoming these patterns often makes for a great story, and indeed, that's part of the attraction of "Grape Bay."  

Anyone have any favorite examples to share?