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Sandeep Gautam is a psychology and cognitive neuroscience enthusiast, whose basic grounding is in computer science.

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Research Summaries: Can Adolescents Learn Self-control? Delay of Gratification in the Development of Control over Risk Taking


Today’s research summary is based on a paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, and examines the nature of self-control as assessed by risk-taking, sensation-seeking, future time perspective and delay of gratification in US adolescents.

  1. Adolescents are known to indulge in risk taking activities like recreational drug use and various theories abound as to why adolescence is a particularly sensitive time.
  2. As per one theory, there is a dopamine surge in reward centers of the brain during adolescence which leads to impulsive sensation seeking behavior. Traditionally, it is believed that the prefrontal cortex , which can override such impulsive behavior, does not mature in teenage and continues to mature till late thirties, and thus unable to self-regulate behavior in the teenage adequately.
  3. The above view posits that there is not much one can do about impulsive and risk taking behavior as the brain will take its own sweet time to mature; another view suggests that there are two independent processes involved in risk taking behavior- an underlying propensity to indulge in impulsive sensation seeking behavior (which can be considered as the accelerator moving one towards risk taking behavior)  and an ability to delay gratification in service of long term goals (which can be considered as the brakes which moves one away from risk taking behaviors).
  4. Literature review suggests that sensation seeking is uncorrelated with delay of gratification and both may independently impact risk taking behavior. It was unclear from prior research if delay of gratification can be an effective brake even in adolescents who were very high on sensation seeking. Also future time perspective, or the tendency to think about future more than present, is related to reduced risk taking, but the effect may be mediated by ability to delay gratification (because that ability directly depends on an ability to visualize the future) .
  5. 900 US adolescents were administered a delay discounting task (choice between larger reward later and a smaller reward now)  to ascertain their ability to delay gratification. Their sensation seeking and future time perspective was measured using self-report measures.  Risk taking was again measured using self report about three risky behaviors viz cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and binge drinking.Structural equation modeling was used to determine the relation between all variables.
  6. As expected, sensation seeking in teens and delay of gratification were uncorrelated; delay of gratification predicted less risk taking behavior, future time perspective also predicted less risk taking behavior , but not over and beyond its impact on delay of gratification.  Sensation seeking peaked around age 18 and then started decreasing;  future time perspective kept increasing with age; and temporal discounting showed an upward trend with age.
  7. For teens that were high in sensation seeking, their temporal discounting increased with age more sharply.  The authors explained this due to the fact that teens who were high in sensation seeking would indulge in more risky behavior and on getting negative feedback from environment on these behaviors will learn to self-regulate and increase delay of gratification.
  8. From this research it seems there are at least two routes to increase your temporal discounting muscle and hence reduce your risk taking behavior. The first approach is to become explicitly future focused and have a stronger future time perspective; the second approach is to explore, experiment and learn from your mistakes as your risk taking backfires. If done in a conducive environment, like graded driving tests, then this can lead to good outcomes.

I found the paper pretty interesting as it clearly dissociates the tow mechanisms that lead to risky behavior. If you found the above interesting, check out the paper here.

Book Review: The Grit Guide for Teens


Every once in a while you stumble across a book that is very much relevant to your present circumstances and as if written with you in mind; The Grit Guide for Teens happens to be such a book that is proving really valuable to me in my current endeavor of championing positive education.

Some of you might know, that I am currently executing a long term positive education intervention in a school in Pune, which is structured around VIA character strengths. One of the strengths we are focusing on is Grit, the target audience is teenagers and this book has been God-send!

Along side Angela Duckowrth’s book, which I reviewed earlier, this book has been instrumental in designing activities and introspection exercises to which the teens can relate and embody in their daily lives.

The book is in the form of a workbook and is very well structured; each chapter contains multiple activities that draw the reader in and at the same time help build their grit muscles with a relentless focus on clarifying complex concepts without using any jargon.

Caren Baruch-Feldman, makes very novel and innovative contributions, while writing the workbook; she extends the concept of grit to emotional, social and wellness domains apart from the usual suspects of academic and extracurricular domains. When the teens think of being gritty, they usually think about achieving a goal that is either in academic domain (get better at math – I know this is not a SMART goal) or in extracurricular domain (become a good guitarist / get better at cricket) ; however Caren reminds us that grit can be shown in emotional domain (be good a controlling my anger), social domain ( overcome shyness to initiate and sustain connections) or in wellness domain (stick to an exercise regimen to become fit and healthy); these are all my examples, Caren embeds the different domains based references throughout the book, so that one has an idea of how grit can be accomplished and plays out in all five domains.

She is also a clinical psychologist with tons of experience with CBT/REBT and uses that to add additional nuance, when it comes to developing the right mindset for grit- growth mindset , the power of yet and optimistic mindset is conjoined with a focus on thinking traps and figuring out if the thought is real, useful, or something you will tell a friend if he or she was in the same situation? These are powerful tools, one is providing to the kids, and which will help them in good stead in the future.

Caren also makes it clear that if you really want to exhibit grit you have to develop the right mindset and then go forth and execute stuff (like do deliberate practice to hone your craft). There is also adequate coverage of strategies for remaining focused on your goal, by using things like Advantage cards and overcoming temptation by using strategies like situation selection, situation modification etc. She draws upon proven techniques from allied fields in psychology like self-control and habit-formation etc apart from a focus on increasing grit per se. That makes for a holistic package when it comes to ensuring success by the teen.

While I read it mostly from the point of developing activities and using the material with my school students, I could readily see how relate able it would be for the teens themselves and how they will be so much richer for having gone thorough the book and completed all the activities. If you have a teen and his or her school does not promote positive education, yet, then you ought to buy this for your teen; it will be money well spent.

The only lament I have, why don’t we have many more such books, directed towards teens, for each of the VIA strength!! Hope the publishers develop a series around VIA strengths- we do need such workbooks for teens! Here is wishing so much success to the book, that others get inspired and write about all the other strengths and tools that the teens also need desperately!

Emotions as a Result of Approach and Avoidance


There is a powerful theory in psychology, proposed by Carver and Scheier, about how emotions arise as an indication of how we are progressing towards our goals. Today’s post will be elaborating and extending on that model.

Basically this cybernetic theory of emotions, is based on that fact that most of our actions are goal directed, we are either trying to archive a desired end state / goal; or we are trying to avoid an undesirable end-state or anti-goal. The same action or overt behavior may be motivated by different goal related orientation. For e.g., a student studying for a test may be driven to achieve the highest possible marks so that he can top in the class; or he may be motivated to study hard to avoid failing in the test.

The former motivation where one is driven to achieve some goal is categorized as an approach behavior and the corresponding system the approach system.  The latter drive, where one is more focused on moving as far away from a negative outcome as possible is known as the avoidance system.

Foraging for food, maybe an approach system action, while avoiding being eaten by a predator may be an avoidance system action.

Progress in both the systems , i.e moving towards the goal in approach system and moving away from the anti-goal in the avoidance system leads to positive outcomes or end results. The failure to achieve the goal or avoid the anti-goal leads to negative outcomes. So far so good.

At this point Carver and Scheier introduce the feedback control concept. We will take the example of Approach system. Lets say we are moving towards a goal at rate ‘r’ (how fast we are moving from our current sate to the desired state); they suggest that each of us has an internal criteria of how fast that movement should be. In situations which are familiar to us, this is more or less stable value, say ‘a’; but in situations where we have little experience there is a lot of room for flexibility in what this criterion rate ‘a’ should be.

What they suggest is that if the actual rate at which we are moving towards the goal ‘r’ is less than the criterion rate ‘a’, then we feel negative emotions like sadness/ frustration/ anger that are an indication to us to increase our efforts towards the goal (as we are falling behind); on the other hand if the actual rate ‘r’ is greater than the criterion rate ‘a’ then we feel positive emotions like joy, love, care etc, which is a signal to us that we can coast or reduce efforts allotted to this particular goal and maybe move to some other task (because this task is already faring well).

The same applies to avoidance system;   if r<a then we would feel negative emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt and if r>a then we will feel positive emotions like calmness, relief etc.

They also relate the emotion felt, with re-prioritization of the task that evokes the emotion. As they rightly discover, anger/frustration and sadness have opposite effects on effort as well as task prioritization, though both are an indication that we are not progressing towards the goal at desired rate. Frustration/ anger makes one redouble efforts and also leads to increases in the priority of task, Sadness however, that is associated when the goal has become unreachable or lost, makes one reduce efforts and decrease the importance or priority of the goal thus making it easy to give up the goal. They explain it as non-linear impact of progress towards goal.

IMHO, they go some distance, but do not go far enough. Below is what I believe makes sense:

  1. In the Approach system, when r<a, then one feels frustration or anger (if goal is interpersonal) , which indicates that goal requires efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to frustration/ anger and more focus on the task
  2. In the Approach system,  when r << a , that is rate of progress is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to failure, then one feels sadness or depression, which indicates that goal is no longer tenable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things are out of hand, it leads to sadness/ depression and reduced efforts and focus.
  3. In the Approach system, when r>a, then one feels passion or commitment (love if goal is interpersonal), and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards the goal and increase in priority of the goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the passionate/ commitment/ care zone.
  4. In the Approach system, when r>>a , that is rate of progress is so high that one is almost guaranteed to succeed, then one ends up feeling joy, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other opportunities, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of achieving goal, it leads to happiness/ joy and coasting.
  5. In the Avoidance system, when r<a, then one feels fear or anxiety, which indicates that avoiding goal requires more efforts, which leads to more effort spending and increase in priority of the task.  Thus, when things are not going well, but are manageable it leads to fear/ aanxiety and more focus on the task.
  6. In the Avoidance system,  when r << a , that is rate of avoidance is much, much less than the criteria, or one is very close to reaching the anti-goal, then one feels guilt or disgust, which indicates that anti-goal is no longer avoidable, which leads to less effort spending and decrease in priority of the task. Thus, when things have gone out of hand, it leads to disgust/  and uncomfortable acceptance of the situation (the feeling you get when you already failed the test)
  7. In the Avoidance system, when r>a, then one feels interest or courage, and contrary to what Carver and Schieier suggest, leads to more efforts towards avoiding the anti-goal and increase in priority of the anti-goal. Thus, when things are going well, but are barely manageable, one redoubles ones efforts and is generally in the interested/ courageous/ calm zone.
  8. In the Avoidance system, when r>>a , that is rate of avoidance is so high that one is almost guaranteed to escape, then one ends up feeling wonder/ gratitude, and starts coasting and reducing efforts, starting looking for other dangers, and thus decrease in priority of current task. Thus, when things are going strongly in your favor of your avoiding the anti-goal, it leads to wonder/gratitude/ relief and vigilance.

The beauty of Carver and Shcheier model is their differentiation between an Approach system and an Avoidance system and how success or frustration in these systems have different emotional consequences. These are also conceptually related to promotion and prevention focus of Higgins et al.

I am excited by the above model as it aligns well with the eight basic emotions model and I hope this new extension of Carver and Scheier model will lead to much more empirical work in the field.

Research Summaries: Domain-specific temporal discounting and temptation

Today’s paper co-authored by Angela Duckworth again straddles the two worlds of psychology and economics.

English: A comparison of the discount factor o...

English: A comparison of the discount factor of hyperbolic discounting with that of exponential discounting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Temporal discounting or time preference is the preference people show towards immediate short-term rewards over higher but later long-term gains. People are willing to accept much lower sums (of say money) now, than they would, for sure, receive at some time in the future. This preference is for sure sums and is distinct and different form uncertainty/risk avoidance.
  2. Different people have different temporal discounting rates; some discount future gains much more steeply than others – these people will prefer immediate rewards much more strongly than those who have a less steep discount function.
  3. Typical rewards considered in temporal discounting studies are monetary rewards; however a case can be made that other non-equivalent types of rewards exist like edible items, vacation experiences, health outcomes etc. Previous research has shown that contrary to classical economics models, people have different discount rates for different types of rewards; this is called domain-specificity of temporal discounting.
  4. Different people desire and like different types of rewards to different degrees; for e.g., someone may desire to be healthy and prioritize over monetary rewards.  Although, as per research done by Berridge et al, liking and desire are different functions, they are treated together in this paper and operationalized as temptation for the reward.
  5. There is evidence that there are two systems involved in decision-making – the system I or ‘hot’ and system II or ‘cold’ popularized by Kahneman et al.  The beta-delta preference model formalizes this by positing that there are two factors influencing choice- a beta factor making a sharp distinction in present and future and a constant delta discount factor.
  6. If you like and desire a reward very much, your emotional/ ‘hot’ system will get activated and will override the ‘cold’ system to the extent that you will discount this reward very steeply (prefer strongly the immediate reward) . If however, you are not too excited by the reward and are indifferent to it, the ‘cold’ system will be much more dominant and discounting will not be as steep.
  7. The experiment conducted of three reward conditions- eating candy, eating chips, drinking beer and temptation was measured using self-report for these rewards.
  8. Temporal discounting was measured using a choice task in which choices were presented for different quantities of all three rewards (plus dollars) and the delay contrasted with now, versus a delayed reward at time ranges form one week to 3 years.
  9. What they found were that were indeed subgroups of people like chip lovers (those who were tempted more strongly by chips than say beer)  who also discounted chips more strongly; similarly their discount rates was steeper for chips only and not so for beer.
  10. Thus, they conclude that discount rate depends on how tempting you find that reward and there is no one domain independent discount rate. In other words, temporal discounting is domain specific.  What is discounted steeply by a chip lover (guess, guess, its chips!)  is not discounted that steeply by beer lover and vice versa.
  11. This is important imho as it shows that if you want to counter a particular temptation or distraction, you have to  be cognizant of that domain and work within that domain.

If you find papers like these, that are at intersection of economics and psychology interesting do check out the full version that is present online.

Research Summaries: Self-controlled children stay leaner in the transition to adolescence

This research summary is similar to the earlier one where self-control predicted overweight status; Angela and team have co-authored a similar paper, though based on a different data set and controlling for more confounds.

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) wit...

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, side view.Self Made Picture of an Obese Teenager (Myself) (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, Front View. Feel Free to use. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Self-control is a variable of concern as ” In this obesogenic context, self control, the capacity to regulate behavior, attention, and emotion in the service of personal standards and goals, is required to forego immediate gratification and choose instead options that protect against weight gain.”
  2. Weight control may be important for teens, not only for its long term health associations, but also because of its impact on physical attractiveness.
  3.  This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at over 100 children in a school setting, and measured their self control and BMI while in grade 5 (mean age 10.5) and correlated it with their BMI when in grade 8.
  4. Self-control was measured using a variety of methods. Students filled 2 self-report measures of self-control: The Impulsivity subscale of the Eysenck I6 Junior Questionnaire and The Brief Self-Control Scale. Parents as well as teachers also filled the informant version of Brief self-control scale. Apart from this Kirby Delay-Discounting Rate Monetary Choice Questionnaire was used to present hypothetical choices between small reward now and large reward later, meant to judge the delay of gratification. Also an actual behavioral delay of gratification task was used to ascertain self-control. A composite measure was created from these measures.
  5. Potential confounds like demographics (SES), Happiness (measured by SSLS and PANAS-C) and Intelligence (Otis- Lennon School Ability Test—Seventh Edition Level F) were measured and controlled for in the analysis.
  6. The authors replicated their earlier result that low self-control in childhood, indeed leads to weight gain in transition to adolescence. High self-control, on the other hand, protects children form weight gain.

Overall, this is a nice addition and replication of the earlier paper that we have already summarized. If you want to check out the paper its available online here.

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