Head-Scratching Paradoxical Findings: Aggregate versus Individual Data Can Tell Very Different Stories

One curiosity of recent psychological science is what I’ve called the “religious engagement paradox”: The association between religious engagement and human flourishing is negative across places and positive across individuals. For example, in the most religious U.S. states people die sooner, commit more crime, divorce more, smoke more, and report lower emotional well-being than in the least religious states. Yet more religiously engaged individuals live longer, commit less crime, divorce less, smoke less, and are happier. (Don’t believe it? See here.)

Princeton economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Arthur Stone (2013) share my puzzlement (here): “Why might there be this sharp contradiction between religious people being happy and healthy, and religious places being anything but?” (One possible answer, as Ed Diener, Louis Tay, and I suggested, lies in the more impoverished life circumstances of people in highly religious countries and states.)

As I noted earlier, there also is a parallel “wealth and politics paradox”: In the U.S., low income states and high income individuals more often vote Republican:

Now we have a report of yet another paradox: In Europe, “More liberal countries and more conservative individuals have higher levels of SWB [subjective well-being].”

And another: People in highly religious states do more Google searches for sexually explicit content such as “gay sex,” as I was able to replicate using Google archives. So I couldn’t resist asking the lead researcher, Cara MacInnis at the University of Toronto, if it might nevertheless also be true that more religious individuals do less online searching for sexual content. Stay tuned, but MacInnis tells me that her latest data (paper forthcoming) do, indeed, seem to fit the religious engagement paradox pattern.

The repeated lesson: how we ask the question (comparing aggregate or individual data) can sharply change the answer. So beware: partisans on both sides can pick their data to make their point.

Does Video Game-Playing Sharpen Mental Skills and Speed?

Despite concerns that video game-playing teaches social scripts for violence, recent research also suggests a cognitive benefit: sharpened visual attention, quickened reaction speed, and improved spatial abilities, such as eye-hand coordination. Experienced game players tend to be perceptually quick and astute.

But a just-released pair of studies, by University of Oregon researcher Nash Unsworth and five collaborators, casts doubt on claims that video game-playing enhances cognitive abilities. The new studies confirmed a cognitive benefit when comparing extreme video-game players with nonplayers. But across broader and larger samples of people, game-playing correlated near zero with various cognitive abilities. “Overall, the current results suggest weak to nonexistent relations between video-game experience—across a variety of different games—and fundamental cognitive abilities (working memory, fluid intelligence, attention control, and speed of processing).”

Two of the study’s co-authors, Zachary Hambrick and Randall Engle, have also published studies and research reviews that question the popular idea that brain-training games enhance older adults’ intelligence and memory. Despite the claims of companies marketing brain exercises, brain training appears to produce gains only on the trained tasks (without generalizing to other tasks). Moreover, though we might wish that thousands of hours of practice could transform us into superstar athletes or musicians, Hambrick’s other research shows that superstar achievers are distinguished at least as much by their extraordinary natural talent as by their self-disciplined daily routine.

The opposite of a truth is sometimes a complementary truth. Educational interventions that aim to enhance grit, or that promote a “growth mindset” (rather than fatalistically seeing intelligence as fixed), also boost achievement. And in yet another new study, British children who display self-control become, as adults, less vulnerable to unemployment.

So, video-game and brain training exercises appear to have limited cognitive benefits. Natural talent matters. Yet the disciplined ability to delay gratification and to sustain effort also matters. “If you want to look good in front of thousands,” goes a saying attributed to Damian Lillard, “you have to outwork thousands in front of nobody.”

Hero Images/Getty Images

Hero Images/Getty Images

An Extreme False Memory—of Committing A Crime

One of the striking discoveries of psychological science is the malleability of memory, as illustrated by the “misinformation effect.”  Experiments by Elizabeth Loftus and others exposed participants to false information. Afterwards, they misremembered a stop sign as a yield sign, a screw driver as a hammer, a peanut can as a Coke can, and a clean-shaven man as having a mustache.  

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How Your Brain Makes Reading Easy

Our brains are amazing. I am endlessly fascinated by how the brain works. In nearly every interview I do, the reporter asks, “What part of the brain lights up when that happens?”

Now reread the previous sentences. As you came upon each word, how did you read them? Did you look at each letter and arrange it into a word? Have you ever thought how we read? How can we skim so quickly through a passage and absorb its contents?

Our brains don’t look at letters. So says a new study. Instead of seeing a group of letters, our brain sees the entire word as an image. Neurons in our brain’s visual word form area remember how the whole word looks, using what one researcher called a “visual dictionary.”

Researchers tested their theories by teaching 25 adult participants a set of 150 nonsense words and investigating (using fMRI) how the brain reacted to the words before and after learning them. The results: The participants’ visual word form area changed after they learned the nonsense words.

Pretty cool stuff. But, it’s also useful. Knowing how our brains process words could help us design interventions to help people with reading disabilities. People who have trouble learning words phonetically might have more success by learning the whole word as a visual object. 

Pavlen/E+/Getty Images

Pavlen/E+/Getty Images

More Big News from Big Data

Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among others, are enabling psychologists to mine giant data sets that allow mega-scale naturalistic observations of human behavior. The recent Society of Personality and Social Psychology convention offered several such “big data” findings, including these (some also recently published)...

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Psychology’s Second Most Misunderstood Concept?

My nominee for psychology’s most misunderstood concept is negative reinforcement (which is not punishment, but actually a rewarding event—withdrawing or reducing something aversive, as when taking aspirin is followed by the alleviation of a headache). 

In second place on my list of oft-misunderstood concepts is heritability

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Dogs Know When We’re Happy or Sad, Even in Photos

From across the room, both dogs seem to suspect when we’re angry or happy. All they need is a peek at our body language and facial expressions. If you have a dog, you’ve likely noticed the same thing. But did you know that dogs also can tell the difference between happy and angry faces in photographs? 

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