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

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Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fascination with Carol Dweck and her entity versus incremental theory of intelligence/ability that I have blogged about extensively in the past. To recap, people (children usually in her studies) can have a fixed entity view of intelligence that it is a stable trait whihc can/does not change with time; or they can have an incremental view of intelligence that focuses more on motivational states, goals, desires as determinant of success/intelligence exhibited and view it as a malleable and not a fixed trait.

A major paradigm she uses is documenting the behavior of those with chronic or induced entity vs incremental view of intelligence after receiving negative feedback/actual setbacks.  She has found that while entity theorists relate their failures to global traits like lack of intelligence and display subsequent helpless behavior;   the incremental self theorists display mastery oriented behavior, use new strategies and in general persist.  The big question then becomes why do they persists? and the surprising answer may be what Neo answered – ‘because I choose to’.

I recently came across this book  ‘Are we free’  about free will debate and in it was surprised to find a chapter by Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden titled “self-theories in the construction of free-will’  that builds on works of Carol et al to argue that those iwth fixed views of intelligence/morality basically are determinisms believing in a kind of genetic determinism, while the incremental theorists are sort of libertarians who believe that one can exercise choice over one’s behavior.  They also show that belief in free-will/incremental theories has a better life outcome.

I will now quote extensively form that lovely artcile:

Modern psychological research suggests that, at least within Western societies, belief in the power of the individual over the constraints of the environment predicts better psychological adjustment and greater personal success. As a rule, people appear to fare better with an internal versus external locus of control (Rotter, 1966), feelings of self-determination versus external constraints (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and use of primary control (direct, agentic action) over secondary control (adjusting to the environment or event without trying to affect it; Heckhausen & Shultz, 1995; Lazarus, 1991).

They then mention how even after having an inetrnal attribution, one may still differ in whether one attributes to fixed traits or malleable states.

We have investigated this issue by focusing on people’s beliefs about whether basic personal attributes (such as intelligence or personality) are fixed and static traits or, instead, more dynamic qualities that can be cultivated (Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). The former belief is termed an entity theory, because here the assumption is that human attributes are fixed entities that are not subject to personal development. The latter belief is termed an incremental theory, because here the assumption is that human attributes can be developed or changed incrementally through one’s efforts.
Research comparing entity and incremental theorists has uncovered marked differences, ones that have important implications for perceptions of free will (for reviews see Levy, Plaks, & Dweck, 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Not only do entity theorists by definition believe in fixed traits, but they also believe that these traits directly cause behavior in a highly predictable way (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Hong, 1994). In contrast, not only do incremental theorists by definition believe in more dynamic, malleable traits, but they also believe that people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations—which they view as controllable— play the major role in causing their actions (Hong, 1994).4 Thus, both theories give the major causal role to factors inside the person, but those internal factors for entity theorists are not amenable to personal control, whereas those internal factors for incremental theorists are far more susceptible to it.

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that different beliefs about the nature of people’s traits and abilities may profoundly alter people’s potential for perceptions of free will in choices and actions. Entity theorists’ greater emphasis on the deterministic influence of fixed internal traits could serve to give them a sense of a stable and predictable world, but at the same time, constrain perceived opportunities for choice and agency. In contrast, incremental theorists’ greater focus on people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations as causes of action—factors they believe can be controlled—could serve to enhance perceived opportunities for self-determination.

Thus, entity theorists tend to respond to difficulty by relinquishing agency, whereas incremental theorists tend to react by reasserting their agency. Do these different reactions make a difference for important life outcomes? In a longitudinal study by Blackwell et al. (2007), students’ math achievement was monitored during their transition from relatively simple elementary school mathematics to more challenging junior high school mathematics. Although entity and incremental theorists did not differ in their math achievement when they entered junior high, incremental theorists soon began to earn higher grades than entity theorists and this disparity continued to increase over the next 2 years. The discrepancy in performance was found to result in large part from incremental theorists’ belief in the efficacy of renewed effort and their choice to persist in the face of setbacks (see also Hong et al., 1999). Furthermore, several studies have now taught students an incremental theory and shown substantial increases in their motivation and grades or achievement test scores in the face of challenging curricula both in junior high school and in college (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell et al, 2007; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003).

Further support for these findings comes from recent research by Baer, Grant, and Dweck (2005).5 They showed, first, that entity theorists experience greater symptoms of distress and depression in their daily lives and that this is tied to their greater tendency to engage in self-critical rumination about their fixed traits and abilities following negative events. Baer et al. also showed that the more distress entity theorists felt, the less they engaged in active problem solving. The opposite was true for incremental theorists. Overall, then, entity theorists’ belief in deterministic traits leads them to perceive fewer choices for action following failure, and they do indeed appear to suffer from this lack of choice and reduced agency.

They then go on to discuss the self-theories in relation to moral responsibility and social judgement building on their previous work that showed that people having entity views tend to be more retributive, while those with incremental views moire rehabilitative when judging others.

In short, even though entity theorists believe that traits constrain the extent to which people could have acted otherwise, they still believe that people should be held accountable for these constrained actions. Moreover, even though incremental theorists believe that people are more free to alter and develop their basic character (i.e., they have ultimate responsibility for their actions; see Kane, 1996), they are less severe in their moral judgments and punishment. Perhaps it is their understanding of the complex psychology that lies behind decisions to act that makes them more understanding of errant behavior. Further, because in their eyes wrongdoers can change, they tend to advocate rehabilitation instead of retribution. To our knowledge, discussion of the link between conceptions of free will and the type of punishment people should receive has been less prominent in philosophical discussions and may be a fruitful direction for further analysis (see, for example, Smart, 1961).
To summarize thus far, research on self-theories has yielded a picture of two psychological worlds. In one, traits are fixed and deterministic and there is little room for agency when those traits prove deficient. It is also a world of retributive justice. In the other world, traits are malleable, and so are the causes of behavior, leaving more room for choice and agency even after setbacks. In this world of enhanced self-determination, education and rehabilitation are emphasized so that wrongdoers might be guided to make better choices in the future.

They finally conclude with implications of their research for the free-will debate, which I think need to be mulled over.

The first point from our research is that personality is, in many ways, a highly dynamic system in which (changeable) beliefs can create a network of motivation and action (Cervone, 2004; Dweck & Legget, 1988; Molden & Dweck, 2006; cf.; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). For example, personal theories of intelligence create different goals, beliefs about effort, task choices, and reactions to setbacks. Although these beliefs can be instilled or activated without people’s awareness, they can also be self-chosen.
We do not deny the important effects of inborn temperament and early experience and we do not view the child as a blank slate on which anything can be written. Yet our view of personality is very different from a view of personality as just a set of deep-seated personal qualities that inevitably incline people toward particular choices and actions. Indeed, even some of the most ardent students of temperament’s role in personality grant that as children develop they cognitively construct their worlds, and that these cognitive constructions (such as self-theories) become an important part of their personality (Block, 1993; Rothbart & Ahadi, 1994).9 Thus our first point is that people’s belief systems are part of their personality, and we see in this more dynamic view of personality greater possibility for self-formation.
Our second point is that beliefs, such as self-theories, can alter what are often taken to be deep-seated traits. Such traits might include resilience, extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, risk taking, and nurturance (Block, 1993; McCrae & Costa, 1999).

To me, it is important to persist. Persist in convincing skeptics of the utility of free will. And I choose to!

Dweck, C., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A Word From Two Perspectives Psychological Inquiry, 6 (4), 267-285 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1
Carol, Dweck S; Daniel, Molden C (2008). Self-Theories: The Construction of Free Will Are We free, 44-65

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Why belief in free will is important: its pro-social and moral implications

I recently stumbled upon the Psychology Today blog of Roy F Baumeiester and went through some lively blog posts that were exchanged between him and other PT bloggers especially John Bargh on the issue of free will. Thoise exchanges are worth reading by themselves and are highly recommeneded.

This post meanwhile is not about whether free will exists or not , but it is about whether belief in free will is detrimental or has a beneficial effect. The opposite of free will, is traditionally conceived to be determinism and Baumeister recently and Vohs  et al earlier have demonstrated in laboratory that belief in determinism leads to 1) more cheating 2) less pro-social helping behavior nd intentions and 3) more unwarranted aggressive  behavior towards con-specifics.

First I will let Baumeister define the folk concpet of free will, as knowing fisrt hand that we are dealing with folk psychological concept of free will, rather than philosophical nuances helps. In his 2008 article titled Free Will in Scientific Psychology he provides following definition of free will:

Another approach to understanding what people mean by free will is to have participants rate how free a stimulus person’s actions are. Stillman, Sparks, Baumeister, and Tice (2006) had participants rate scenarios that varied systematically along several dimensions. Participants rated people’s actions as freest when their choices were made after conscious deliberation, when their actions went against external pressure rather than going along with it, and when people acted against their shortterm self-interest. Thus conscious, rational choice and selfcontrol seem to be integral parts of what people perceive as free. When people wrote autobiographical accounts of their own acts that felt free or unfree, pursuing long-term personal goals was central to the feeling of freedom. The difference suggests that people see free will in others as useful for restraining their socially undesirable impulses, but in themselves they see free will in the sustained pursuit of (enlightened) self-interest. As Dennett (1984, 2003) has argued, free will is hardly worth having unless it helps you get something you want.
Let me focus briefly on two of the most important phenomena that are associated with the concept of free will: self-control and rational intelligent choice. The cultural-animal argument has the following assumptions. First, self-control and smart choice are much more highly developed in humans than in other animals and thus are among the most distinctively human traits. Second, these traits are highly conducive for living in a cultural society. Third, these traits are probably interrelated in the sense of sharing some inner processes and mechanisms, which suggests that one evolved first and the other piggy-backed on the first one’s system.
Put another way, self-control gives the capacity to alter your behavior to conform to the group’s rules, and rationality enables you to work out your own rules and then behave accordingly.

Now that we know what we are talking about lets look at the two studies. In the first study by Vohs et al, the participants read text from ‘The Astonishing hypothesis ‘ by Crick and the manipulation was designed to induce deterministic thoughts in them. Afterwards they were given an opportunity to cheat. It was found that those who were manipulated to believe in determinism were more likely to cheat. In the second study in the same paper,  deterministic belief was again induced using a different paradigm and agian was found correlated with cheating behavior. the two experiments were conducted to rule out intermediate effcets of mood valence etc or other explanations for the effect.

ABSTRACT—Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

The second article by Baumeister et al carried over from where Vohs et al left. In the first experiment they manipulated state deterministic beliefs using a paradigm similar to Vohs et al second experiment and found that deterministic manipulations lead to less helping intentions. In the second experiment they looked at trait deterministic beliefs as opposed to state deterministic beliefs in the first study, and found that actual helping behavior as opposed to helping intentions in first study were also reduced in the deterministic condition. In the third and final experiment, they used the ‘serve hot sauce to someone you are aggressing against’ paradigm to demonstrate that deterministic manipulations led to more aggressive tendencies. Taken together these and vohs et al findings demonstrate the importance of belief in free will for pro-social and moral behavior.

Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

The free will debate will not be settled any time soon, but that should not blind us to these experimental findings that show what harm is done by blindly propagating deterministic beliefs that my eventually turn out to be false when applied to the agentic human and animal domain. I would like to end by referencing a post by Baumeister that provides ample food for thought. In it Baumeister proposes that just like physical reality we grant significance to the symbolic and meaning driven alternate reality of agents and actors and shared meanings etc. although he doesn’t go so far, I would label it as Mythos as opposed to Logos. As long as we think that mythos is all in the head (where undoubtedly it is) and does not merit any other handling and laws than those that apply to the physical world, we would surely be missing the point.

&rftBaumeister, R., Masicampo, E., & DeWall, C. (2009). Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (2), 260-268 DOI: 10.1177/0146167208327217
Vohs, K., & Schooler, J. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating Psychological Science, 19 (1), 49-54 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02045.x

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Perceived age as a bio-marker of ageing
Do you look younger than your age? If so you have reasons to cheer! According to a new study as per Kaare et al, the perceived age is directly related to the actual ageing and inversely related to your telomere length.


It is well established that telomere length is a good indicator of ageing and also plays a crucial role in diseases like cancer, and when it becomes too small hastens cell apostasies.   in this study, what Kaare et al found that of the twins, the one who had more perceived age also had a shorter telomere length on average and thus was more aged.

They also found a long -term effect of perceived age on mortality and thus more corroborating proof about this association. They used a cohort study of twins to reach their conclusions. I’ll quote from their abstract and discussion:

Results: For all three groups of assessors, perceived age was significantly associated with survival, even after adjustment for chronological age, sex, and rearing environment. Perceived age was still significantly associated with survival after further adjustment for physical and cognitive functioning. The likelihood that the older looking twin of the pair died first increased with increasing discordance in perceived age within the twin pair—that is, the bigger the difference in perceived age within the pair, the more likely that the older looking twin died first. Twin analyses suggested that common genetic factors influence both perceived age and survival. Perceived age, controlled for chronological age and sex, also correlated significantly with physical and cognitive functioning as well as with leucocyte telomere length.

Conclusion: Perceived age—which is widely used by clinicians as a general indication of a patient’s health—is a robust biomarker of ageing that predicts survival among those aged 70 and correlates with important functional and molecular ageing phenotypes.

Perceived age predicts survival among people aged 70, even after adjustment for chronological age, sex, and other readily measurable biomarkers of ageing. Perceived age also correlates with age related phenotypes such as physical and cognitive functioning and leucocyte telomere length. Clinicians use perceived age as part of their assessment of patients, but research on the validity of the approach has been sparse.1 13 14 We have shown that perceived age based on facial photographs is a robust biomarker of ageing that does not depend on the sex, age, and professional background of the assessors.
In our analysis, the comparison within pairs of dizygotic twins controlled for rearing environment and, on average, half the genetic factor variants present in a population, while the comparison within pairs of monozygotic twins controlled for all genetic factors and rearing environment. We found indication of common genetic factors influencing both perceived age and survival because controlling for genetic factors (the comparison within monozygotic pairs) removed the association between perceived age and survival (fig 3). This was in contrast with the results for the overall twin sample and for the dizygotic twins, where comparison within pairs showed a clear “dose response” association between perceived age and survival (fig 2). Hence, the comparison within pairs suggests that there are genetic factors influencing both survival and perceived age (for example, genetic factors that influence the condition of cardiovascular tissue could affect the risk of myocardial infarction as well as the appearance of skin). Full details of this study design can be found elsewhere.

it is important to note that they found the association only in dizygotic twins and not in monozygotic twins, so apparently genetic factors determine both perceived age and actual mortality/ageing. If the effect had been also found in monozygotic twins perhaps epigenetic /non-shared environmental factors would be the deciding factor, but in their absence it is wise to conclude that genes are the third factor that has led to perceived age and ageing correlation and neither is causative of the other. Alternately , underlying tissue ageing might directly affect perceived age and might be evolutionary coded for m, especially in females, so that males could determine the youth and fecundity accurately. In that way the direction would be causal but in the other direction.

What it means is that if you have young looks as per your age, there is reason to rejoice; if not you can not do much by looking young even if you indulge all your money in face lifts etc. Of course there are other benefits of looking young artificially, but increased actual age might not be one of them.

Christensen, K., Thinggaard, M., McGue, M., Rexbye, H., Hjelmborg, J., Aviv, A., Gunn, D., van der Ouderaa, F., & Vaupel, J. (2009). Perceived age as clinically useful biomarker of ageing: cohort study BMJ, 339 (dec11 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b5262

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Encephalon #79: the year-end edition!


Answer this honestly:

1. Do you feel preoccupied with the encephalon (think about previous editions or anticipate next edition)?

2. Do you feel the need to read the encephalon with increasing number of contributions in order to achieve satisfaction?

3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop reading encephalon?

4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop reading encephalon?

5. Do you end up reading encephalon longer than originally intended?

6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant blog posts, twitter conversations , web surfing opportunity because of the encephalon?

7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the encephalon?

8. Do you use the enecpahlon as a way of escaping from research or of relieving a writers block (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression (over not being able to write/contribute)?

Answering “yes” to five or more questions may mean you suffer from encephalon addiction over a six month period and when not better accounted for by a manic episode or internet addiction. Contact Sandeep Gautam to get institutionalized:-) The formal diagnostic guidelines coming soon to a DSM-V near you!

internet addiction

The stage for the year end edition is set by this post from the Neurcortic that asks and concludes in the negative that whether internet addiction shrinks the brain? The writeup nicely sums up the divergent views on internet addiction from those of Kimberly Young at one end to Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks fame at the other. No points for guessing where my or Neurocritic’s sympathy lies:-)

Now that you have read my ill-styled post till here, I am sure you love to inflict pain on yourself- else why bother continue reading. Perhaps you are masochistic; or perhaps you are not- you are just a borderline who doesn’t feel any pain-whether real or imagined.  the second contribution from Neurocritic looks at recent research that found low activation in pain perception and assessment regions of the brain for borderline subjects, who typically self-injure, while they were imaging themselves under self-injury condition.

Do you like reading encepahlon (a light and sweet candy to your eyes I am sure) or the regular mouse trap posts (some spinach that is hard to eat and takes longer to digest) . Does you decision as to whether to prefer candy in childhood, affect your life outcomes like how violent you may turn out in adulthood?  this is the question BrainBlogger grapples with in this post that looks at why sugar and spice is not always nice and children eating a lot of candy can become violent later on. One reason could be lack of ability to make wise delayed gratification decisions just like in the marshmallow study.


Ok. now for some cool experimentation.stop and take a deep breath.  Some of you Imagine  reading the encephalon. Others go ahead and read it.   now look at encephalon logo. some of you look at  it twice. some thrice. now tell me, and the answer from all of you should be in the affirmative,- as to whether you read the encephalon or just imagined reading it. In a study very similar to this, but spread over weeks, it was found that when imagining an activity and subsequently(after a week or so)  being presented with pictures showing the completion of the activity, the subjects were more likely to confound , at a later date, that they had actually indulged in the activity and not just imagined it. such is the power of words and this is amply highlighted by NeuroNarrative coverage of the same in which he also extends this to everyday settings including eye-witness testimonies.

Just like images are so important, words too are- they can literally break your heart.  The second contribution from NeuroNarrative looks at how a predominance of emotional words as opposed to cognitive words in a couples’ arguments can signify heart risks, risks of diabetes etc. via the stress hormones mechanism.  That reminds me,  that to unbreak your heart (a la Toni Braxton), perhaps we also need a study of how compassionate and empathetic words used in conversations can literally heal the heart and raise immunity etc.

Talking about enhancing cognitive fitness, how can one but miss the leaders in the field – the SharpBrains. This time SharpBrains lists other leaders and 10 innovations ranging from computerized CBT to ‘cognitive shops’ that are defining the field and raising hopes for the ageing population.I am sure reading encephaoln on a regular basis is another sufficiently demanding and cognitive fitness enhancing innovation that Mo had originally come up with, that I have mentioned Neurophilosophy in this encephalon (despite no submissions) by the founding father.

Does the idea of a tongue -in cheek encephalon resonate with you? Does it set your brain neurons and circuits and systems all in synchrony, resonating with each other- if so you may also like this post by Modern Dragons, that argues that neural resonance and neuroacoustics may be the one holy grail principle of neuroscience that people may have overlooked and that might explain everything.

Talking about grand unifying theories, I cannot but help self plug my post on the recent Crespi et al findings that vindicated my grand theory of Autism and Psychosis as opposites on a continuum. The post itself is a shameless chest thumping and self-congratulating piece of basking in reflected glory. If you are still not convinced that I eat , breathe and drink the autism-psychosis theory, watch this devidutt patnaik TED talk (my second contribution) and see how craftily I can relate almost anything to my pet theory:-)

That is it folks. 2009 is gone and we will see a brand new, non-addictive version of encepahlon in 2010 soon. Till then keep reading and reading this edition -its not just sweet and good for your ageing brains, its nicely worded , has good pictures and is the perfect place for contemplating grand unifying theories, even if they cause you discomfort- I know all of you are borderlines and either love or are insensitive to this self inflicted pain!

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Encephalon-79: Call for submissions

encaphalonThe Mouse Trap will be hosting Encephalon, the premier brain and mind carnival for all things related to psychology/neuosceince on 7th December i.e. upcoming Monday. Do send in your submissions to encephalon[DOT]host[AT]gmail[DOT]com or directly to me using contact form/mail to editor[AT]the-mouse-trap[DOT]com.

Looking forward to your rocking submissions to make a memorable 2009 year-end encephalon carnival that takes a retrospective look at the year gone by!

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