In search of clarity and creativity

Editor Jon Sutton reports from day two of the American Psychological Association conference in Denver.

I'm not going to lie, I quite enjoyed the challenge of a caffeine-fuelled late shift to bring you an instant report from day one of the American Psychological Association conference. Sure, it literally made my eyes bleed, but if even one person appreciated my attempt to weave a thread through what I had seen… Well, then that’s not a great return actually.

Undeterred, I decided to try the same again today. But after yesterday’s diet of conflict and intolerance, I needed a palate cleanser. Could I uncover a clear mind, beauty and aesthetics, a creative way of thinking?

The 8am session had promise. Dr Rita Bush works in the US Government Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ‘bringing the best minds to bear on our problems’. Could her ‘Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity’ use gaming to train analysts to recognise and mitigate their cognitive biases? On her appointment, the need was pressing: referring to the commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction following the Iraq War, Bush (not that one) noted that the report ‘never used the word cognitive bias or groupthink, but it’s all through it’.

Why games? They provide experiential learning, freedom to fail, and repetition. New intelligence analysts are likely to have grown up playing video games. Bush’s team began a competitive process that one successful bidder, Matthew Rhodes, later called a ‘virtually impossible project -  to create effective, durable training in a short amount of time, on the very resistant problem of cognitive biases, that outperforms an alternative technique (training videos) that was working pretty well, assessed using unknown materials by a team we don’t know and can’t have contact with’. Rhodes and his multi-disciplinary team rose to the challenge, developing a game – CYCLES – where a ‘teach-play-test’ format proved effective in not only teaching analysts about common cognitive biases such as the representativeness bias – our lack of sensitivity to statistical properties of the world – but also reducing them.

Jeanette Cleveland (Colorado State University) then considered cognitive biases in performance appraisal at work. Anyone who has conducted such appraisals knows it can be a challenge, recalling and integrating a substantial amount of information over a long period of time, and in a ‘noisy’ environment with a lot of competing demands. According to Cleveland, a cognitive lens on performance appraisal has led to more nuanced training to give, for example, more emphasis on information gathering rather than on recall (using a diary to collect specific information as it occurs); and training methods to help raters develop a common understanding of the task and the judgement they must make.

By 9am, violence had reared its ugly head again, with Joshua Correll giving a fascinating and unfortunately topical overview of his research into race and police armed response (see the links at the bottom of Peter Squire's piece). In his comparison of trained officers and novices, using what he freely admits is a ‘very crappy video game’, Correll has demonstrated the impact of racial stereotypes on decisions whether to shoot in an ambiguous situation. In this lab scenario, there’s what Correll calls a more ‘trigger happy’ orientation for black targets, as stereotypes such as ‘athletic’ and ‘dangerous’ are activated (as opposed to ‘smart’ and ‘boring’ for white targets). Expertise does not eliminate stereotypes, but it minimises their impact via effortful processing. But under an ‘effortful load’ design, where people carry out a concurrent task, the biases come back. And what could be more effortful than the current situation on the streets of the States? ‘People are walking out there terrified’, Correll said. ‘If these biases can be brought back with a simple number-based task in the lab… I’ve been studying this for 16 years and I still don’t think we have much idea of what is going on out there.’

In search of clear thinking in the consulting room, Scott Lilienfeld argued that in psychotherapy, the conditions for ‘intuitive expertise’ are rarely met. Feedback about client improvement tends to be of questionable validity, often ambiguous and extremely delayed. This may explain Walfish’s finding that the average therapist rates themselves at the 80th percentile of all therapists in terms of effectiveness and skills, with none rate themselves below average. ‘Smart, thoughtful people can be fooled by naïve realism’, Lilienfeld warned. ‘Regression to the mean’ is probably the main bias affecting them, he said: clients tend to come in when their treatment is at its worst, and therapists often fail to recognise that life itself can be a very powerful therapist. As a first step, Lilienfeld says we should be making practitioners aware of biases, and that they don’t just affect other people.  

So much for a clear mind, what about beauty? I discovered that people in a museum spend roughly the same time looking at a piece of art as they did 15 years ago (Lisa Smith, University of Otago), but now (depressingly) they take a selfie with every one. Then Jennifer Drake (University of New York) demonstrated how we value the process behind the work, by labelling art as ‘made by hand’ or ‘made on computer’ labels. People prefer computer images with no labels; when labelled correctly there’s no real difference in judgements of preference or quality, but when the labels are switched people will prefer the incorrectly labelled ‘made by hand’. Finally in this symposium, Pablo Tinio (Montclair State Uni) considered the photographic composition technique of ‘leading lines’ (which I have made a poor attempt at demonstrating above) – an environmental aspect converging on a focal point. Tinio found that people’s eyes darted over ‘leading lines’ images more, but didn’t actually prefer them (although he admitted this could have been an artefact of his image manipulation).

Later in the day, Thalia Goldstein (Pace University) gave her perspective on another creative medium, acting and theatre. Acting is uniquely human and, Goldstein said, ‘a strange phenomenon that we all take for granted’. There is little understanding of the psychological skills that make acting possible, and actors themselves aren’t much help, often simply describing their trade as ‘talking loudly and clearly while avoiding bumping into the furniture’. Goldstein explained that acting classes and exercises (in particular with children) can increase vocabulary, emotional control, and empathy. ‘Acting may not be the only way to try to take on the perspectives of other people’, she admitted, ‘but it may be one of the better methods we have in an age when empathic concern has declined in American college students. Acting classes are a safe place which is widely available, where you can try to walk in the shoes of others and you can leave when it’s over.’

Could considering creativity on a neural level give us a shortcut to it, boosting it as a state rather than a trait? Adam Green looked at the formation of analogies, such as ‘infancy is to lifetime as sunrise is to day’, in relation to activity in the left frontopolar cortex (which he creatively described as having ‘a lot of sticky out parts, good for connecting things’). He found that simply cuing people to think more creatively improved performance on this task, but when people were cued and ‘zapped’ using tDCS, they were more creative still.  

Moving beyond individual brain regions, Harvard’s Roger Beaty assessed whether people high in the ‘Openness to experience’ personality construct are ‘wired’ for creative thought. The brain is comprised of networks that interact ‘at rest’ and during cognitive tasks, and divergent thinking and artistic performance involve interactions among regions of the default and frontoparietal control networks. Beaty assessed whole-brain networks and dynamic connectivity patterns in order to identify five clusters or ‘brain states’ in the scanner, and found that people high in Openness did indeed ‘dwell’ in the predicted state for longer. It was the only significant predictor, in large samples in the US and China; other personality variables were not significantly related.

Perhaps the most clear, creative and refreshing thinking on day two, though, was to be found in James Pennebaker’s talk on receiving the Distinguished Scientific Award for Applications of Psychology. Kate Sweeny’s account of Pennebaker advising a student ‘go study real things’ was the perfect introduction, as was admission ‘I believe so deeply in psychology, and in particular the melding of theory and its application.’

Raised by a hypochondriac mother, Pennebaker says he was ‘a little bit like that myself’. He became interested in physical symptoms and where they come from, and decided to investigate by ‘asking people things nobody else had asked them’. Back in 1979, to ask about previous traumatic sexual encounters was ‘really antithetical to my trade… It was ridiculous, and that’s what made it so appealing.’ Making that leap was a creative choice that helped to define the rest of Pennebaker’s career, leading him to theorise that inhibition, keeping secrets, was the key to later physical symptoms. ‘It’s a beautiful theory’, he said. ‘Turns out it’s not true.’ What was more compelling to Pennebaker was the beneficial effect of writing about such experiences, although he admits that all these later there’s still no single answer to why writing brings about change in health. ‘If you ever stumble across a phenomenon that is big and compelling, make sure there is nothing that can explain it’, he advised wryly.

People tell Pennebaker that the effect size of expressive writing is quite small, but he points out that it compares favourably to some pretty well established medical treatments such as the effect of chemo on survival from cancer. In any case, he says, when you go outside the doors of your lab, effect sizes are by definition very small. ‘It brings me great joy that the world seems almost random; there’s so much yet to learn.’

Creative thinking has characterised Pennebaker’s career: while everybody else ignored the ‘junk words’ that make up 70 per cent of the words we say – words like ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘a’ – he picked them up and found that they do a great job in predicting all sorts of things. For example, you might think people who use ‘I’ a lot are confident narcissists – it turns out they are more likely to be self-effacing, depression prone, hyper-sensitive. Those who are suicidal use ‘I’ even more. ‘We can start using language to get a sense of who people are and how they are connecting with others’, Pennebaker enthused.

He now spends time trying to rethink what makes good science, and good education. Pennebaker’s approach is multi-disciplinary, multi-method, multi-measurement. It is always grounded in reality. Take self-reports. They are just self-theories, Pennebaker says disparagingly. ‘Always at the back of my mind I’m thinking “what are the behaviours that can be measured so that I don’t even need to bother with self-reports?” Don’t ask students “have you become more cognitively flexible?” Ask whether they go to museums more, did they get a better paid job?’ With echoes of Lilienfeld’s talk, Pennebaker then encouraged the audience to ‘be scientists at whatever we do. Test it out on yourself. Being a true believer undermines your ability to see things with accuracy.’

As the afternoon drew to a close, I listened to Anjan Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania quote Rudolf Arnheim’s warning that ‘Art may seem to be in danger of being drowned by talk’. Thalia Goldstein had just outlined how acting classes can increase narrative coherence, and I pondered whether talk and narrative was actually the thread holding this second day together. Words, talk, narrative, they sparkle throughout Pennebaker’s glittering career. He now pays tribute to them and the power of social support by exhorting a new generation to ‘go to lunch with someone who thinks differently from you’. That way lies clear, creative thinking, and isn’t that what a conference is all about?

- Report by Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist. Jon interviewed both James Pennebaker and Jon Haidt today for future editions, and there will be more from both days in the October edition of The Psychologist. Jon realises he has made a bit of a rod for his own back in writing these narrative reports at the end of each day, and he wonders whether there is enough coffee in Denver to fuel similar efforts on days three and four. He may need Saturday and Sunday evening off… Certainly, talking about himself in the third person is not a good sign. But if you give your feedback on Twitter @psychmag, he’ll have a think about it.

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