Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Psychology Articles of Interest - Language, Emotions, and Self-Esteem

Three interesting studies have hit the news of late, as well as a couple of new books worth a look.

First up, psychologists at the University of Liverpool have discovered that children develop certain language skills much earlier than originally thought. The study looked at whether or not kids aged six to nine could identify grammatically correct, but made-up, past tense verbs forms. The results showed that they possessed the same skill in this task as linguistic students in a previous experiment.

Both Science Daily and Medical News Today picked up the article.
In a study conducted by the University's Child Language Study Centre, children aged between six and nine were given sentences containing made-up verbs such as 'the duck likes to spling' and were asked to judge the acceptability of possible past tense forms. The study focused on the process the children used to come to their conclusions rather than whether their answers were right or wrong.

They found that the children's judgements followed a virtually identical pattern to those of linguistics students who took part in a similar study at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the US.

University of Liverpool psychologist, Ben Ambridge, said: "Previous studies have concentrated on getting children to produce past tense forms for made-up words. This study is unique in that the children were asked to judge the acceptability of different forms that we gave them.

"One of the main questions raised when looking at children's ability to pick up their native language is whether abstract symbolic rules or the use of memory and comparison affect how a child attributes past tenses to words.

"The study was designed to investigate whether we coin novel past-tense forms like 'emailed' by applying the default rule of adding 'ed' to the present-tense form or by making an analogy with similar-sounding words stored in the memory, for example in the way we know to form 'sailed' from 'sail' by linking it to like-sounding words such as 'tail' or 'fail'. The study found evidence for the latter, supporting the view that we solve problems by making analogies with similar events stored in our memory rather than by applying abstract mental rules."

He added: Grammaticality judgements are generally used by adult linguists so it's impressive that children have been able to make them. They can't tell you how they do it, but even six-year-olds know when a made-up word just doesn't sound right."

* * * * *

In a study sure to excite the marketing and advertising industries (who probably have already intuited this information), it was found the emotions can be manipulated by unconscious and/or subliminal stimuli.

Again, Science Daily and Medical News Today picked up the study.
The scientists hypothesized that, since humans have evolved to respond quickly and unconsciously to stimuli, they should be able to react to an emotional event without full awareness: “You are likely to live longer if you immediately stop moving at the sight of a growling grizzly bear and do not need full awareness for such a response to be instigated,” explained Ruys and Stapel.

The researchers measured people’s thoughts, feelings and behavior to determine whether specific emotions were induced without awareness of their cause -- a study based on the theory implying that, due to natural selection, humans should be able to detect specific emotion-evoking information automatically. Participants were separated into three groups and were told that very short flashes would appear on a computer screen. They were then instructed to press the ‘R’ key if it appeared on the right side of the screen or the ‘L’ key if it appeared on the left.

In actuality, the ‘flashes’ were subliminal images selected to elicit fear, disgust or no emotion at all. The images flashed at varying speeds making it impossible for the participants to be fully conscious of their presence. In other words, the participants were unaware that they were viewing images of growling dogs and dirty toilets or even neutral images, such as horses or chairs.

The participants then underwent three tests to measure the effect of the images on their cognition, feelings and behavior. For the cognitive measure, they completed word fragments with a variety of words including those that expressed disgust, fear, anger, generally negative, generally positive and neutral feelings. Next, participants rated the overall positivity or negativity of their mood and the extent to which they felt fearful, disgusted, satisfied, relieved, proud, angry, shameful and joyful on 7-point scales.

During the behavioral measure, participants were asked to take part in either a ‘strange food test’ or a ‘scary movie test,’ assuming that, for example, those who were exposed to the disgusting images would want to avoid the possibility of eating something unpleasant. At the end of the study, the researchers asked gradually more specific questions about the subliminal images to gauge the participants’ awareness of the study’s purpose and intent.

The intriguing results, which appear in the April issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, strongly support the psychologists’ theory. Those participants who viewed only the disgust-inducing subliminal images were more likely to use disgust words in the word-completion task, to describe their feelings with the disgust words and to choose to take the ‘scary movie test.’ The same held true for those who viewed only the fear-inducing images -- they also were more likely to use words related to fear and to take the ‘strange food test.’

The psychologists also found that after quick (120ms) speed exposures to emotional stimuli, a general, negative mood developed accompanied by a specific emotion, such as fear after seeing fearful pictures. After the super-quick (40ms) speed exposure, only a general negative mood was induced without a specific emotion involved. These empirical findings are the first to demonstrate that specific emotions can be evoked without awareness of the cause and that a person’s global mood can develop into a specific emotion.

And while the study did not investigate how an individual eventually becomes conscious of their emotions, the scientists did pose an additional hypothesis: “When emotions are full-blown, people become aware of their emotions by perceiving their own actions and bodily reactions; likewise, when emotions are weak, people fail to notice their weakly-related actions and bodily reactions.”

This is further evidence for the idea that we make a lot of decisions prior to material entering into awareness. But then, emotions are body-centered, so it makes some sense that our bodies know things before our minds become of aware of them (after passing through various filters).

* * * * *
Self-esteem has been a hot topic in recent years -- maybe because so few people have a healthy version of it. This study shows that high self-esteem is not the same as healthy self-esteem. I smell narcissism someplace in the background of these findings.

Live Science and Medical News Today covered the story, which was also picked up by mainstream news outlets.

The recent study, detailed in the June issue of the Journal of Personality, adds to a mound of navel-gazing research that is painting a more complex picture of self-esteem.

"There are many kinds of high self-esteem, and in this study we found that for those in which it is fragile and shallow it's no better than having low self-esteem," said Michael Kernis of the University of Georgia. "People with fragile high self-esteem compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth."

Kernis says the results are not meant to knock down high self-esteem, which has been stamped as one of the keys to happiness and to moving up the popularity or professional ladder. The study only adds another layer to this psychological phenomenon.

Self value

In general, individuals with so-called secure high self-esteem tend to present an authentic self to the world; they are genuinely happy with themselves and accept their weaknesses. A fragile self-esteem is unstable, and can fluctuate from day to day or within one day. Without constant validation, this person's self-worth will take a dive.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Kernis and his colleagues got the self-value goods on 100 undergraduates, about 90 of whom were female. Questionnaires measured different types of self-esteem, life satisfaction and overall psychological well-being. Then, researchers measured verbal defensiveness by having each participant describe several challenging life experiences, including:

  • A time when you have felt less sexually desirable than a friend
  • A time when you've broken the rules
  • A time when somebody has come to you for help and you didn't want to help them

Individuals with stable high self-esteem were the least verbally defensive while the unstable participants were the most verbally defensive. In addition, the researchers found that greater verbal defensiveness was associated with less life satisfaction and lower psychological well-being.

I'm better than you

One student, whose responses scored high on the defensiveness scale, described not helping another student in his geometry class, saying "... I didn't feel like there was any gain for me. Even if that sounds selfish, it was really justified, because I was a better student and he was not a good student ... I felt good about not wanting to help him."

Another "defensive" participant described a time when she broke the rules, saying, "I have honestly never done anything bad. Like the worst thing I do is burn CDs ... I've honestly never drank anything. The only time I have drank anything was in Mexico and I was 18 at the time so that was legal ... I've never like broken any rules."

Basically, the "defensive" students took the questions as threats to their perhaps artificially elevated self-esteem. "Potential threats are in fact more threatening to people with low or fragile high self-esteem than those with secure high self-esteem," Kernis said, "and so they work harder to counteract them."

Individuals with secure high self-esteem accept themselves "warts and all," and so they are less threatened by the outside world, Kernis said.

As far as I can tell, what they identify as "fragile" self-esteem is actually a narcissistic self sense. The reality is actually low self-esteem that is defended against with an inflated sense of self. But that inflation is a mask, it is easily deflated, thus fragile.

Here is how a narcissistic personality is defined (and please note this is the personality disorder known as narcissism, which is more extreme than a run-of-the-mill narcissist).

To the extent that people are pathologically narcissistic, they can be controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of others' needs and of the effects of their behavior on others, and insistent that others see them as they wish to be seen [3].

* * *

People who are overly narcissistic commonly feel rejected, humiliated and threatened when criticised. To protect themselves from these dangers, they often react with disdain, rage, and/or defiance to any slight criticism, real or imagined [7]. To avoid such situations, some narcissistic people withdraw socially and may feign modesty or humility.

Though individuals with NPD are often ambitious and capable, the inability to tolerate setbacks, disagreements or criticism, along with lack of empathy, make it difficult for such individuals to work cooperatively with others or to maintain long-term professional achievements [8]. With narcissistic personality disorder, the person's perceived fantastic grandiosity, often coupled with a hypomanic mood, is typically not commensurate with his or her real accomplishments.

Sounds like a more extreme version of "fragile" high self-esteem to me.

* * * * *

Finally, two new books reviewed as Metapsychology Online Reviews.

The first one looks as emotional regulation.
Review - Emotion Regulation
Conceptual and Clinical Issues
by Ad Vingerhoets, Ivan Nyklíček and Johan Denollet (Editors)
Springer, 2008
Review by Marion Ledwig, Ph.D.
Apr 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 18)

The editors of this state of the art volume on emotion regulation with its fifteen excellent chapters are Associate Professor Ad Vingerhoets, Professor Johan Denollet, and Assistant Professor Ivan Nyklíček. All three of them work in the Department of Medical Psychology at Tilburg University. This book represents the key contributions of a conference on emotions, emotion regulation and health research held at Tilburg University in 2003. It is divided into two parts -- part I dealing with conceptual and neurobiological issues comprising chapters one to seven and part II covering clinical perspectives and interventions in chapters eight to fifteen. The book itself is not aimed at students or at newcomers to the field, but it is mainly directed at researchers, clinicians, and graduate students coming from such diverse fields as psychiatry, psychosomatics, behavioral medicine, health psychology, clinical psychology, and medical psychology, who have already considerable insight into the subject matter. Yet, it is written in such a way that it is understandable by everyone.

The book covers such diverse areas as coping, crying, emotional intelligence, depression, anxiety disorders, trauma-related affect dysregulation, the connection between emotions and eating disorders, emotional competence and health in children, the connection between expressive writing and emotional health, and alexithymia. Alexithymia can be characterized by a "reduced ability to differentiate between emotional feelings", a "reduced ability to fantasize", a "reduced ability to verbalize emotional experiences", "a reduced ability to experience emotional feelings", and "a reduced tendency to reflect upon emotions", this volume p. 27). Although so many different areas are covered, the contributions to this volume go considerably into depth and detail, so that one gains considerable knowledge and is not left with the feeling that one hasn't got a thorough overview with regard to these cutting edge research topics.
Read the whole review.

The other review looks at a collection of essays that attempt to propose a way beyond cognitivism, and to define what that word actually means. [Hint: cognitivism reduces mind to neurons, dendrites, and neurotransmitters.]
Review - The Mind, the Body and the World
Psychology After Cognitivism?
by Brendan Wallace
Imprint Academic, 2007
Review by Richard G T Gipps, Ph.D.
Apr 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 18)

This collection of essays has been put together with the aim of considering cognitivism (p. 1): 'what it is (was?), how it originated, and whether or not it is now desirable to look for ways to go beyond it'. The authors are philosophers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists and they write within these genres. Their contributions are divided into three sections on theory, language, and practice respectively, sections framed by an introduction and conclusion from the editors.

The result is something of a curate's egg. Whilst some authors write with style, address well-defined issues, introduce their technical vocabulary with clear definitions, and remain pertinent to the critical investigation of cognitivism, others do not. Different meanings of key terms, and radically different valuations of key concepts - 'representation', 'information processing', 'cognition', 'cognitivism' – are presented throughout the desultory text. The editors miss the opportunity to hold the authors to common standards or meaning, to request that they address one another's work, or to map out the upshot of their diverse contributions in the conclusion (which instead simply recapitulates the preface). Further, some of the contributors also made frequent use of irritating rhetorical devices akin to what a friend of mine called Hume's 'tis obvious' indicator: using a phrase like ''tis obvious' or 'of course' or 'as X noted' when 'tis obvious that what is really wanted is not an observation but an argument for something that is, well, not at all obvious.
Read the whole review.

I suspect there is some good stuff in this book, but also a lot of useless articles as well. Sounds like one to get used.

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