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The Science of Human Behaviour

Posts Tagged ‘self-esteem

Unconscious perceptual processes

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This article was inspired by a lecture given by Pamela Smith at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

The purpose of perception is to support behaviour.

Why do we perceive things in the first place? What is the point of it? Is it so we can understand the world? That sounds logical, but that cannot be the whole story. For example a frog can taste, smell and see, but hardly understands. If you look at “lower level” animals you see the direct connection of perception and behaviour.
Frogs have two perceptual systems, one is for finding small objects (=get it and eat it) and the other one is for avoiding large objects (hop away and hide). Thus (at least in frogs) behaviour always follows perception.
But we humans are pretty elaborate creatures (at least we like to see ourselves that way). Do we also have that direct perception-behaviour link? When we see a cup, we do not necessarily have to grasp for it.

What makes us different?

There are two theories of why humans do not react directly to perception (at all times). One of them is called the facilitator-hypothesis and it states that there needs to be another source of energy (facilitator) in order (for the individual) to become active.However another hypothesis has received much more experimental attention and results: The inhibition-hypothesis: Perceptions always elicits action, but action can be inhibited (Gilbert, 1989).
The inhibition option makes sense, because important parts of the brain are the same as in reptiles. However we have some new structures as well. The neocortical area is sort of built on top of older parts of the brain, so it would make sense that it “adds” a function to the basic brain functions. Another important source of information are patients with prefrontal cortex damage. They often have problems controlling their actions and (re)act impulsively. It would seem that their “inhibition” system has somehow become damaged.

Experimental proof for the inhibition hypothesis

Seeing-Grasping
Tucker and Ellis (1998) looked at how we perceive objects. Participants had to say whether objects show where right up or upside down. All objects had handles either pointing to the right or the left. They found an interaction effect between handle side and object orientation. For example when the participants saw a teapot pointing to the right they were faster pushing the right key, even when object orientation was irrelevant to the task. The results of this experiment is usually interpreted as proof for the existence of automatic tendencies to interaction with the object. (If you find that interesting read some studies about embodied, embedded cognitions.)
But this is not the only experiment supporting the inhibition hypothesis. There is a brain circuit that is connected to a grasping motion (Chao and Martion 2000). Chao and Martion showed participants different tools. Objects that could be grasped elicited activated that specific brain circuit, even though grasping was not a relevant feature of the task.

Seeing – Taste
Simmons et al. (2005) showed that looking at food pictures activates taste perception. In a study by Zwaan and Taylor (2006), participants turned a button either clockwise or counter-clockwise to indicate whether a sentence makes sense or not. Some of the sentences proposed a clockwise or counter-clockwise motion. Those sentences that implied a certain motion facilitated turning the button in this direction. Again it is important to notice that turning the button was irrelevant to the task.

Chameleon Effect
What about if you see somebody performing a certain behaviour? Are you more likely to perform the same behaviour? Yes: It is called imitation and it makes other people like you. It is what Cartrand & Bargh (1999) call he Chameleon effect. A participant described different pictures together with a confederate. In one condition the confederate did rub their face and shook their feet. Participants did rub the faces and shook their feet more if the confederate did so. The best explanation of why they did so seems to be that through imitation they can build rapport with the other person.

Couples’ facial expressions
Another example is the imitation of emotional expressions. From a functional point of view this might help understand emotion (Zajonc et al. 1987). Zajonc looked at romantic partners. If you spend a lot of time with a certain person you naturally mimic that person a lot. If that happens for decade you develop the same sort of wrinkles, because you are making the same sort of facial expressions every day, again and again. Observers rated husband and wife as looking much more similar than random paired strangers.

Priming “elderly” reduces walking speed
Reading about old people makes you walk to the elevator much slower (Bargh, Chen, & Burruws, 1996). In their experiment the task was to make sentences with words that included words that primed participants with the concept of elderly. Thought the spreading of activation with activate the concept of elderly, which in turn activates the concept of elderly. This actually influences walking speed on the way back to the elevator (dependent measurement).

Smell of cleaning fluid makes you behave in a clean way
Rob Holland could show that the same effect can be shown using smell as the activator of a concept (Holland et al. 2005). People filled out an questionnaire in one room. Some participants sat in a room where there was a bucket of water with a little bit of cleaning fluid. Then all participants went into a room free of smells. They then had to eat a biscuit that crumbles a lot (very messy). Participants were recorded on video and observers counted how many times participants picked up the crumbs/cleaned the table. People who first sat in the room with the smell of cleaning fluid did pick up the crumbs significantly more often. Thus we see the concept of perception and action coming back once again. Presumably the smell of the cleaning fluid activated the concept of “clean”, which then became connected to action while eating the biscuit.

Conscious or unconscious?

Owen at al. (2006) put patients that were in a vegetative state in the FMRI and they were given instructions to visit different situations, such as playing tennis or visiting the rooms in their home. You can clearly see that the brain activity in the patient and the control show pretty much the same activation pattern. So the patient was able to understand the instructions and act upon it. However was the patient really conscious or could the effect also be explained by unconscious processes?

Unconscious Processes

Pierce and Jastrow 1884 were the first people to research unconscious processes. They had objects that differed in weight. They made themselves blind to what the weights were and took two weights and wrote down which one was heavier (you can try that yourself!). Even when they had a confidence rating of zero, they were doing better than chance. Even though they were reporting the differences, they were not consciously aware of the difference in weight.

Otto Pötzl (1917) showed participants pictures for 10 ms. Some of those pictures appeared in their dreams. More recently Bob Zajonc (1980) said that affect is primary, that it occurs before cognition and does not require cognition. Staple et al. (2002) elaborated on this idea and presented faces to participants on a computer screen. The faces were showing emotional expressions and had clear gender cues. What they found was that when things were presented very quickly people only picked up the emotional information (30ms). When presented a little bit longer (100ms) people were also able to pick up on the gender cue. This makes also sense form a evolutionary perspective: It is very handy to pick up fast on the emotional state of someone.

Murphy and Zajonc (1993) presented participants with happy and angry faces for either 4ms or 1000ms. After the picture participants saw a Chinese ideograph. They had to rate the ideograph on the emotional valence (“What does that mean?”). They showed that the presentation of the face did indeed influence the rating of the ideograph when the picture was presented subliminally. In the other condition (1000ms presentation) the effect was not present. So when people become consciously aware of the emotional stimulus they might correct for emotional influences. However as subliminally presented stimuli never react the conscious mind, one can not be aware of the effect it has on behaviour.
Whalen et al. (1998) presented participants with a happy or a fearful face for 33ms and a neutral face for 167ms. People cannot report seeing two faces, but they only see the neutral face. However they showed different reaction to the faces in the amygdale, a part of the brain that is involved in reactions to dangers.

From unconscious perception to unconscious behaviour

Bargh, Chen & Burrows (1996) subliminally presented participants either with Black faces or White faces. Participants were presented with the face for 26 ms and the immediately saw a bunch of circles. They had to judge whether it is an even or an odd numbers of circles on the screen. After 130 trials they got an error message. The experimenter came in and told them that they had to start all over again. The crucial measurement in the experiment was how the participant would react when told that he or she had to do the task all over again? The results show that people who saw the black faces acted more hostile than people who saw the white faces.

Fitzsimons et al. (2008) did research with subliminal brand perception, especially Apple and IBM computers. Participants saw numbers on the screen and had to keep track of the sum of numbers While participants did that they were primed with either the Apple or the IBM logo (or something unrelated). Then they did a creativity task (Something like “How many unusual uses of the item X can you think of?”). Apple primed people showed more unusual uses than the IBM primed group. Someone should repeat that experiment and test the brand perceotion of Linux…
Subliminal perception is closely related to subliminal advertising. Can we influence People to buy those products that we subliminally brand people with? James Vicary primed people with “drink Coke” or “eat popcorn” and told that people bought a lot more. However this most probably is a hoax, as no one has ever seen real data.
But people had already an attitude about Coke. Can we also change attitudes that people already have? You might remember the subliminal advertising that the Bush campaign used in the 2000 election? The gore administration as the bureauc-RATS. But that really was not subliminal.

So can you affect peoples behaviour? Johan Karremans looked at that in a consumer behaviour situation. He started out by making some participants thirsty and others not. Participants had to taste salty sweets (drop) – in an alleged tong letter detection test to make sure they were really sucking on the drop. Then were then primed with Lipton ice or Npeic Tol. There was a priming effect, but only to people who were thirsty. So subliminally priming works but only when people are in the right state.
Does subliminal self-help work?

Ap Dijksterhuis (2004) tried to improve participants self-esteem with a subliminal condition paradigm with the word I and positive adjectives such as warm, sweet, nice, sincere…
————–
Frame 1: Xxx
Frame 2: I
Frame 3: Nice
————–
When people see themselves paired with positive words they showed more positive self-esteem (tested with the name-letter-effect).
So what can we do with subliminal influencing? Well it is not sure, the field is just starting, Only in the last decade we have computers that can present stimuli in a very short time. There is good experimental software now that we can use and a lot of new test paradigms have been developed.

Self-Enhancement: A Universal Process with Culture-Specific Content?

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The individual is the smallest entity, that can arise from any group-division. The word individual actually means “that which is un/(in)-dividable”. Thus the meaning of the individual is closely connected to the group, because the individual only gets meaning in the context of the group. In the same way that the individual gains meaning from the group, the self gains meaning from the culture. As the experiences of our daily life shape your thought and realities, it makes sense to assume that the mental representation of our-selves are shaped by those experiences. Because the self is related to the group, the “independent self” is also an expression of a social mode of interaction. Although the content of the term seems non-social, the implicit context of the term is social.

For a long time the constructs of social psychology have been assumed to be universal. Especially the highly appreciated concept of self-esteem was seen as a basic cognitive process that extends to all humanity. However in the recent past this view has changed. In the same way that Newton’s mechanic does not make sense in a quantum universe, some constructs of (European) social psychology make no sense in an intercultural, globalized world. And so we find ourselves in the middle of a fierce empirical battle between two opposing views: Universalism and Panculturalism. The one side, Universalism claims that self-enhancement is a basic cognitive process that is shared by all humans. The Panculturalists claim that self-enhancement is a cultural process that is functional in some contexts (cultures), but not in others. This one example can be seen as a battle within a much greater war, namely: Does the structure of the mind, as we know it today, also apply to different (non-European) cultures or do we need an own way of psychology for every kind of culture there is? Those that still cling to the Cartesian system of science will be afraid psychology will lose it’s status as “real science” when it cannot provide universal laws. How 20th century is that…

The concept of self has gone through a transformation phase in the last years. Whereas before it was defined as an independent entity that stresses the role of the subject, later definitions of the self also allow a definition in more interdependent terms, which better represent the way people in the eastern world experience being an individual. However the role of the self is still not defined conclusively. Recent studies have shown that independent / interdependent are not the two extremes of one dimension, but that individuals incorporate both constructs within themselves. The meaning of the term enhancement is even more unclear: Usually if you want to enhance something you want to make something better. However as the object of the enhancement, “the self”, is not clearly defined, the process also remains somewhat undefined. I believe the main point where the two views differ from each other depends on the definition of the self. Whereas the Universalists resolve the unclearness by moving to a more abstract level, saying that the self defined by the culture can be enhanced in ways specific and natural to that culture, the Panculturalists implicitly still hold on to the independent, western view of the self. For them enhancement = good = more self-esteem.

If you take the meta-perspective on the discussion at hand, one could wonder if there can ever be an answer to the problem at hand, because both groups argue on a different level of abstraction. Whereas Panculturalists seem to discuss the content of self enhancement, the Universalists discuss the more basic aspects of the process itself. I believe that both views are right in some regard. There definitely is a universal human wish to be a good and appropriate person and there are cognitive processes to make sure that we behave accordingly. However what is considered good and appropriate differs between cultures, thus the deducted goals and ultimately the behaviour might be very different. When we look at self-enhancement on an abstract level, we see its the universal components. If we look at the content of the process, we see the cultural boundaries of the process. In order to really see the big picture and the underlying processes we will need multicultural psychologist. They will be able to distinguish between universal process and culture-specific content much better than most researchers today, because they will live in a multicultural environment and their sense of self will be different from that of a person who grew up with one dominant perspective.

Through the evolution of human societies from early hunter groups to cyber-communities there has been one constant: The need for social acceptance and support. Notwithstanding the differences between the two positions, Panculturalists and Universalists have highlighted the diversity in which humans choose to live together and the diversity of self-concepts and related processes that are used to adhere to the standards of the group. Being able to perceive oneself as an object of social interaction and reflect on that interaction is a key prerequisite for the development of elaborated and fine tuned rules that guide our social interactions: culture. It remains to be seen how new cultures and new ways of social interaction brought about by digital communication technology and globalization will influence the self-concept of generations to come. Maybe the discussion about the nature of the self and the related cognitive processes can never end as long as human culture and interaction styles evolve, because our self-concepts will also keep on evolving.

Written by Martin Glanert

October 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Questions about “The Self”

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In recent times there has been a lot of discussion with regard to social psychology constructs such as self-esteem, self-determination and self-affirmation. Due to rapidly changing societies and new insights into cognitive processes of memory formation some old theories of self-psychology have recently been challenged. For example Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) postulated that self-esteem, conceptualized as positive self-regard, is not a universal value and should be replaced by the concept of self-enhancement. However, all those theories are closely connected to the concept of self, which in itself still remains unclear. Since there are many different interpretation of the self, many discussions end in despair, each side holding on to their specific conceptualization of the self, which are not interchangeable. But can there be any definition that fits them all? Does “talking about myself” and “exercising control over myself” relate to the same objects?

Terms such as self-esteem suggest that there is stability of that process on the influence of behavior. However people can switch between different roles (selves?) with relative ease. Reinders et al. (2003) showed that in patients with Multiple Personality Disorder, there are specific cerebral blood flow patterns mainly in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior associative cortices that can produce different senses of self. It is parsimonious to assume that the same process also mediates the different senses of self in healthy persons, however to a lesser extend in the sense that every self is aware of its coexistence within one person. Different selves have been postulated, such as the social self, the future self, the past self, the material self, the spiritual self… But do constructs such as self-esteem relate to all the selves in the same way or do they apply differently to different selves? Are there processes that extend through all the possible selves? Should we specify a specific self when looking at a process such as self-esteem?

People who have grown up in different cultures report that their self-concept differs in relation to the environment, as shown by Markus and Kitayama (1991). Chinese Canadians completed different measures with regard to the self, such as a measurement of independent, interdependent self-construal. When the test was conducted in a European setting (English researcher, English questions) their self-construct was predominantly independent. However if the setting (environment) was different (Chinese researcher, test in Chinese) their self-construct was more interdependent. Ross, Xun and Wilson (2002) replicated those findings and extended the method to other self-related constructs. They conclude that identities of bicultural persons may be stored in separate knowledge structures, which can be activated by the associated language.

At that point let’s take a look at different theories about the self. Descartes thought that the self was some entity that existed outside of the material body. William James defined the self as an object of knowledge consisting of whatever the individual views as belonging to himself (Epstein, 1973). George Mead noticed that the self-concept arises in social interaction as product of the individuals concerns of how others will react. Rogers saw the self as an organized fluid, but conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘Me’, together with values attached to these concepts. Allport used the term proprium instead of self to stress the aspects of the individual that he or she regards of central importance and which contribute to a sense of inward unity. Furthermore the self has been described as a self-theory (Epstein, 1973),and as a cognitive knowledge structure. Sarbin remarked that behavior is organized around cognitive structures. Recently neurobiological pathways (especially the CMS, cortical midline structures) have been found to play an important role in self-referential processes. Those processes, distinguishing stimuli related to one’s own self from those that are not relevant to one’s self, might be the computing basis for the different kinds of self-concepts that have been observed.

I believe that the concept of self entails different cognitive processes, which should be looked at in the most abstract way still meaningful. Arguing from a philosophical, mechanical perspective I believe that having cognitive processes that assign a self / non-self marker to different knowledge objects should be enough to construct a theory of self. I assume that “the self” is a cognitive object that is constructed on-line, depending on the task and environment at hand. The content of those temporary self-representations is drawn for the knowledge that has been marked by the reflexive process as possessing the self-attribute. Those knowledge objects frequently used for the construction of the self should over time become chronically accessible. Such a definition of self would allow many degrees of freedom and would fit many definitions of the self previously given. Thus I propose that whenever “the self” is involved, it is necessary to specify which cognitive processes are suggested to be involved. I also propose that the environment for which the theory or hypothesis is formulated should be explicitly described. Ultimately it might be better to talk about reflexive processes instead of the self.

References

Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited. American Psychologist, 28, 404-414.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, (98), 224-253.
Reinders, A. A. T. S., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Paans, A. M. J., Korf, J., Willemsen, A. T. M., & Boer, J. A. (2003). One brain, two selves. NeuroImage, (20), 2119-2125.
Ross, M., Xun, W. Q. E., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1040-1050.

Written by Martin Glanert

September 22, 2008 at 9:54 pm