Author Archives: sandygautam

About sandygautam

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

Academic Excellence Due to Efforts or Intelligence: Curious? Read on

There has been a long standing debate in intellectual circles: what leads to superior performance? Is it due to talent or intelligence or is it due to efforts and hard work? Reams of books have been written on the subject including some of my favorites:  ‘Talent is overrated’, ‘Outliers’ etc.

Applied to the classroom the question becomes why did Tom get an A or aced the JEE/GRE , was it because he is smarter that Harry or was it because he studied more and better? Answers to questions like these have profound implications for how children learn and grow-  believing that effort matters more (a growth mindset) will likely make them more persistent in face of failures while having a intelligence is all that matter mindset (a fixed mindset) will perhaps make them more self-conscious and helpless in the face of challenges just beyond their current capabilities.

Long time readers of this blog will know I am more sympathetic to the effort/ hard work/ grit / conscientiousness camp and there are good reasons for that. Consider your middle school classroom: perhaps the smartest / most intelligent student does come first in the class, while the most hard working student comes say second.  Now when you go to say college, then people with a minimum threshold of intelligence / smartness would be the ones who would make it to the college say due to winnowing due to SAT/JEE. Now in college, we can say that most students are already of high intelligence and this would not differentiate between their academic achievements. However, not all will be equally hard working/ conscientious . Those who are both intelligent and conscientious will have an advantage in college and will get higher academic achievement. This is not speculation, there have been studies demonstrating exactly that.

Consider again, the 10,000 hour rule of Anders Ericsson et al. What they found was that if you want to excel in any field you need to put in a minimum of average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and to reach a genius level another 10,000 hours. Now what is clear is that for achieving well in any domain, say playing guitar, you do need to have some talent or ability in that area; but then you need to do riyaaaz or deliberate  practice to build your skills and if you really want to perform and be counted among the geniuses, perhaps at that level all will have the minimum talent required and you can differentiate yourself mostly by practicing hard and putting in superhuman efforts. Thus, effort is what will really differentiate you.

So is that all there is to superior performance: Talent x Deliberate Practice or more colloquially  Intelligence x Efforts.

When I teach grit and growth mindset to my students, I teach this equation by Angela that ‘effort counts twice’:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill x Efforts = Achievement

Today I think its time to modify the equation!!

Enter curiosity! This paper by Tomas Chamoro -Premuzic et al argues and makes a compelling case for adding a third element to the mix: curiosity measured as epistemic curiosity  or Typical Intellectual Engagement (TIE) or need for cognition or Openness to experience. They did a meta -analysis and found that

  1. Intelligence does predict Academic achievement; correlation as high as .35
  2. Efforts measured by Conscientiousness does predict academic achievement: correlation as high as 0.20
  3. Curiosity as measured by TIE does predict academic achievement: correlation as high as 0.20
  4. Intelligence , Curiosity and Efforts have independent effects on academic achievement; none of them mediates the other.
  5. TIE and Intelligence are correlated (remember Openness/ Intellect are aspects of a single trait)
  6. Conscientiousness and TIE are correlated ( general factor of personality?).
  7. Intelligence and Conscientiousness are uncorrelated.

Thus Curiosity is a welcome (and at equal footing)  addition to the (Academic) achievement equation.

I use VIA framework a lot so will try to reframe the equation using VIA strengths. I believe intelligence or talent is best reflected in Critical Thinking and  Creativity. Effort or hard work is best captured by Perseverance and  self control. Last but not the least comes Curiosity and Love of Learning.

Thus , combining the effort counts twice equations, my equation becomes:

(Creativity + Critical Thinking) x (Grit + Self-control) x (Curiosity + Love of Learning)  = Academic Achievement.

Yay! I love it. Hope more people focus on all the components that are needed for high achievement and Curiosity and love of learning to find their seat at the table. Scott Barry Kaufman has written so passionately about Curiosity and its underused role in schools here.

I was recently at the World Positive Education Accelerator (WPEA) AI summit and conference in Fort Wroth, US and a subgroup there had come up with a project requesting all participants to post about their equation. to thrive I hope you like my equation and it has some real impact on how students are guided towards higher achievement. I know that academic achievement is just one part of the equation for students to thrive- the bigger part of well-being and character strengths is also required for thriving/ flourishing, but yes given the current realities academic achievement *is* an important part of the equation!     #EquationToThrive

What Good (and Bad) are Positive Emotions?

There is a seminal article by Barbara Fredrickson titled ‘What good are positive emotions?’ which introduces the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. As per this theory, while negative emotions are associated with specific action tendencies, positive emotions broaden the thought-action repertoire available at that moment and help build physical, social and intellectual resources over the long run.

To take an example, joy is associated with creativity, and more loose associations, etc, all involving a move away from rigidity and fixedness to flexibility and fluency in thinking ;  joy is also associated with rough-and-tumble play in many species, including humans, and this play although apparently without any purpose, prepares the young ones for avoiding predators later on. Thus, being in a state of joy over time prepares/ enables one to take care of an important evolutionary problem – that of avoiding predators.

However, there is a downside to extreme continued state of joy or euphoria- Mania that is marked by energy (needed for play), paranoia (predator avoidance and suspiciousness kicking in) and other characteristics like racing thoughts and verbal diarrhea (creativity and loose associations gone haywire). Some of the features of this syndrome (like paranoia) can only be understood when one applies the evolutionary lens to the phenomena.

I have listed elsewhere the major adaptive problems faced by all humans in the EEA, and will like to use as an example the first two problems: Avoiding predators and finding food (by hunting/ gathering).

One may surmise that not being able to avoid predator and getting eaten partly or wholly is painful and distressing and that these emotions play a great part in ensuring survival in the short term.  In the long term however if one has to avoid predator one needs to rehearse in peace time to be prepared for the show when one encounters the predator next. Joy signals such a peaceful state where one can indulge in rough and tumble play and practice predator avoidance tactics and strategies.

Now how is the state of joy induced? Once the organism is not in a state of pain or in a state that can lead to more pain, it can focus on hunting/ gathering to get food and become string and heal. Eating such food leads to pleasure/joy and the cycle repeats.

….joy leads to play leads to predator avoidance leads to less or no pain leads to hunting/gathering leads to eating food leads to pleasure joy leads to ….

Thus the positive signal of Joy/pleasure moves the organism towards food (other consummatory rewards)  while the negative signal of pain/ distress makes the organism avoid predator and move away from such in danger states.

Normally, these work in perfect balance, but if pain/distress takes over one loses the drive to hint/ gather and may suffer from depression; if pleasure/ joy takes over one is too focused on avoiding (imaginary) predators that one may become manic (paranoid type).

The natural question arises, does this analysis apply to other emotions too? Below I try to list the cycles for each emotion (two emotions form a pair and work in conjunction)  along with the adaptive problems they solved in EEA.

  1. Predator Avoidance: failure of predator avoidance leads to pain/distress. When there is no pain/ distress (and one has healed) one hunts/ gathers.
  2. Hunting/ gathering food: eating food leads to pleasure/joy. Joy leads to rough and tumble play which preparers one to avoid predators in future.
  3. Nature’s fury (unpredictability/ novelty ) avoidance: failure of not being able to predict weather or encountering a new phenomenon etc lead to fear/ guilt. When there was no fear or guilt and conditions were stable one explored the world.
  4. Exploration of the world/ environment: Encountering novel phenomenon leads to interest in such phenomenon. Interests leads to learning maybe via nighttime dreams where one subconsciously elaborates the cognitive maps and explores the dark corners including nature’s fury and tries to understand them so as to avoid them in future. The main function involving fear/ interest here is learning about the good and the bad stimuli in the environment.  When fear takes over it manifests as phobias, when interest takes over it manifest as obsession and compulsion (rituals to avoid unpredictability?).
  5. Misunderstanding avoidance (theory of mind) : failure of this leads to misunderstanding among the dyad and leads to anger/ aggression etc. When there is no anger / aggression one indulges in communicating with the other and build bridges of understanding.
  6. Communicating with others: When one feels listened to and understood, one feels love and compassion for the other. Love leads to social play (say flirting) that ensures that you have a better grasp on what the other person is thinking. The love/ anger cycle is responsible for ensuring proper bonding and communication between con-specifics. When anger takes over you have antisocial/ conduct disorders; when love takes over you may have dependence/ addiction.
  7. Incest Avoidance: failure of incest avoidance led to disgust. When the ancestral human was disgust free he mastered the art of remembering faces so as to distinguish kin from non kin.
  8. Face recognition: When one recognizes a familiar face/ pattern, one is in awe or get elevated.  Being in Awe one experiments with morality and builds character which leads to incest avoidance.  this system of disgust/ Awe has been co-opted for morality. When disgust takes over you may have dissociation.
  9. Wrong mate avoidance (mate selection): Selecting the right mate is very important. Failure to do so leads to envy/jealousy. When one is free of envy/  jealousy one can take care of the marriage- by investing in kids and relatives.
  10. Helping children and kin (Parental investment):  When one is helping one’s children and kin, one feels the contentment of merely being able to serve them. Contentment leads to savoring where one enjoys the time together with the same mate; the actions you take cements the relation and leads to less chances of mate selection being bad.  This cycle is about family systems.
  11. Cheating avoiding (cheater detection): In altruistic and social beings, detecting cheaters is very important. Failure to detect them timely leads to feelings of dissatisfaction/ vengeance. When such feelings are lacking one can make new friends and alliance partners.
  12. Making new friend and alliances: When one makes new friends and alliance partners one feels gratitude towards them.  Gratitude leads to reciprocal plays like repeated prisoner’s dilemma, where you learn not to get waylaid by cheaters and can avoid them in future.

Although some of the above is speculative, I as usual am very much excited by the above framework- its makes a number of empirical predictions that can be easily tested. What disorders do you foresee from the excess of both positive and negative emotions? Do let me know via the comments!

The Neural Substrates of Personality

Personality is the study of individual differences, mostly in humans, though some work in animal personality too has happened. While evolution has designed for some universal adaptations, that lead to say human universals, evolution has also maintained some variations which leads to individual differences.

Personality traits are stable and consistent patterns of responding in terms of emotions, behavior, cognition and motivation across different situations. Various methods, both theoretical and empirical, have been used to arrive at the most parsimonious collection of traits; some of these methods include lexical studies to arrive at basic traits on which humans differ. Its important to remember that humans differ along degrees and on a continuum on these dimensions and the difference is not of  kind or categories.

The most well known and well established personality trait model is the Big Five or the FFM which posits that humans differ on the following five dimensions: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness/Intellect, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. The personality trait structure is hierarchical. There are meta traits of stability (Alpha) and plasticity (Beta) over the Big Five; there are aspects (two each) below the Big Five; and finally there are multiple facets composing each aspect.

If we want to explore the neural substrates of personality, we have to start at the description level and the Big Five is a good place to start. Next one needs to look at psychological functions behind each trait/ aspect and only then can one turn to what is known about brain structure/ function and neurochemical composition to figure out how those traits may be instantiated in the brain.

In explicating all this I will be hugely relying on Colin De Young and colleagues work and highly recommend listening to this podcast/ reading the mentioned papers (pdf, pdf). I will however be extending and building on that analysis.

First thing I would like to extend is that instead of the Big Five, I will be using the HEXACO model of personality which posits that there are six major traits of personality: Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, EXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness/Intellect. The major difference from Big Five is the addition of a new factor Honesty-Humility and also that A(greeablness) of Big Five is not the same as A of HEXACO.

Now, Colin De Young and colleagues have proposed, and found evidence, for two aspects each in the Big Five (which they measure using BFAS) ; extending the same to HEXACO I propose two aspects that make Honesty-Humility: Honesty and Humility! Phew, that was easy!! I also propose to use the same aspect names Colin De Young and colleagues use for Big Five in below analysis which is extrapolated to the HEXACO.

I would also list down the possible functions of each aspect/trait and the possible neurotransmitters / brain regions associated with that trait/ aspect based on theoretical as well as empirical grounds.

But first lets talk a little more about stability and plasticity.

Stability is made up of Neuroticism (reverse scored) , Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Stability involves sensitivity to unpredictability/ ambiguity.  Neuroticism (reverse scored ) refers to emotional stability; Agreeableness refers to social stability (social harmony) while conscientiousness refers to motivational stability.

Plasticity is made up of Extraversion and Openness/Intellect and I propose that Honesty-Humility will also load on this factor when two factor analysis of personality is done. Plasticity is associated with exploration of the unknown. Extarversion involves behavioral exploration; openness/ intellect involves cognitive exploration and I propose that Honesty-Humility involves moral exploration (vs moral exploitation of others that is associated with Dark Triad/ Dark Tetrad which is associated with the low pole of Honesty -Humility).  This is a testable prediction. Some work on creativity suggests that it is not associated with C/A/E but is positively associated with eXtraversion and Openness/ intellect and negatively associated with Honesty- humility. Thus H, X and O seem to go together in one way or the other!

Another important point to note is that stability is associated with serotonergic system while plasticity with dopaminergic system; this gives us the second prediction of the day: Honesty-humility which loads on plasticity should be associated with Dopamine in the brain.

So this brings us finally to the list of aspects along with their associated emotions (after all consistent emotional states leads to traits over time is one way to look at personality and I have been writing a series of posts regarding emotions and personality), and the neurotransmitters systems or associated brain systems/networks.

  1. eXtraversion : aspect Assertiveness. This is associated with emotion of courage/drive. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Behavioral Activation system (BAS as proposed by Gray ) . The value coding neurons of dopamine system will be associated with this.
  2. eXtraversion : aspect Enthusiasm. This is associated with emotion of Joy/Play. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Pleasure system (PS as proposed by me here ) . The endogenous opioid system will be associated with this, along with dopamine.
  3. Emotionality (Neuroticism) : aspect Withdrawal.  This is associated with emotion of sadness. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Behavioral Inhibition system (BIS as proposed by Gray ) . The neurons of serotonin system will be associated with this.
  4. Emotionality (Neuroticism) : aspect Volatility.  This is associated with emotion of fear. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Fight-flight-freeze system (FFFS as proposed by Gray and others) . The neurons of norepinephrine along with serotonin system will be associated with this.
  5. Openness/Intellect: aspect Openness. This is associated with emotion of awe/wonder. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Default Mode Network (DMN as proposed by many) . The neurons of salience coding dopamine system will be associated with this. Note that at times if you are very high on this trait, everything will seem salient and you may suffer from apophenia/ psychosis in extreme cases.
  6. Openness/Intellect: aspect Intellect. This is associated with emotion of Lust and sexual selection plays a big role in development of intelligence. The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Fronto Parietal Control Network (FPCN as proposed by many) . The neurons of dopamine system are likely to be associated with this.
  7. Agreeableness: aspect Compassion. This is associated with emotion of disgust (negative correlation). The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Empathy/ Mirror Neuron Network. The hormones of oxytocin have been associated with this. This is also associated with perception of Warmth when you first meet someone.
  8. Agreeableness: aspect Politeness. This is associated with emotion of Anger/Agression (negative correlation). The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Social Dominance/ Power network. The hormones of testosterone have been associated with this. This is also associated with perception of Competence when you first meet someone. The serotonin system is also likely associated with this, given its role in aggression/ anger.
  9. Honesty- Humility: aspect Honesty. This is associated with emotion of Pride . More research needs to happen about its neural substrates.
  10. Honesty- Humility: aspect Humility. This is associated with emotion of Gratitude/ Contentment . More research needs to happen about its neural substrates.
  11. Conscientiousness: aspect: Industriousness.  This is a uniquely human capacity (only other species where it may be present is chimpanzees).  This is associated with emotion of Apathy (negative correlation).  The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Salience Network or Ventral Attention Network ( SAL/VAN) . Much less is known about neurochemical aspect except that Serotonin should be implicated.
  12. Conscientiousness: aspect: Orderliness.  This is a uniquely human capacity (only other species where it may be present is chimpanzees).  This is associated with emotion of Shame (negative correlation).  The neural system underlying this aspect is proposed to be Dorasl Attention Network (DAN) .  This is very speculative. Much less is known about neurochemical aspect except that Serotonin should be implicated.

The above is partly based on Colin De Young and colleagues work and partly some speculations, based on sound theoretical basis, by me. Even of some of the neural systems may not align with traits as mentioned above, I am very positive that at least the structure and functionality of personality traits is pretty much accurate. As always I am excited to live in such exciting times!

The Pursuit of Happiness

Would we be more happy if we pursued happiness vigorously? Or would we be more happier if we let life flow as it happens and enjoy the journey rather than focusing on a destination where we would be happy? From an abundance of positive psychology research we know that instead of thinking about and planning for being happy in the future, say when we get that coveted promotion, its better to enjoy the process and journey and be present in the moment.

However, many positive psychologists, including myself, do place a high premium on doing things or making choices according to the principle of whether that will lead to more happiness or meaning in life. Tal Ben Shahar goes to the extent of saying that happiness is the ultimate currency and we should be evaluating all actions and rewards as per that currency. Michael Fordyce , who had given fourteen fundamental principles to be happy, included VALHAP or Valuing Happiness as one of the principles. There was a ratio in psychology proposed by Barabara Fredrickson as well as others like at Jon Gottman lab that proposed that one flourishes when one has say 6 positive interactions or emotions to each negative emotions or interactions; the idea being that one should try to increase positivity in ones life. There is an entire self help industry based on the premise that its better to be happier than otherwise and that there are strategies and tips and tricks one can and should use to become happier.

So does focusing intently on happiness lead to more happiness or does so intense a focus on pursuing happiness paradoxically leads to reduced happiness and well being? There is some research that suggests exactly that- too much focus on pursuing or prioritizing self happiness leads to paradoxically more loneliness, and becoming unhappy.

What could be happening here? A recent study has looked at one possible mechanism, basically concluding that a relentless focus on pursuing happiness might lead to feelings of time scarcity which in turn lead to feelings of disappointment and unhappiness. As per the authors, when you set happiness as an end goal, and believe that achieving happiness will require some time commitment, and if you haven’t already achieved your ideal happiness state, you are likely to feel burdened in the sense that you don’t have enough time to achieve that ideal state and that leads to feelings that time is slipping away. This feeling that you are not able to become happy and need to invest more time and that time is slipping away leads to subtraction from your current level of happiness.

The authors did some clever studies to arrive at this conclusion- and as the paper is freely available – so you should read it in full. The basic procedure was initially showing a correlation between people who are seeking happiness and those who feel time is scarce (the more you seek happiness, the scarcer time becomes for you).  In later studies they showed that when study participants were actively seeking happiness and that need was not fulfilled , they felt that time was less available as compared to those who were not seeking happiness or those whose need for happiness was fulfilled. In another experiment, they showed that if participants came to believe that happiness requires more time and efforts vis-a-vis that happiness requires little effort or time , then those who believed happiness required more time showed time scarcity and reduced happiness as compared to control subjects. Also it was found that laypeople typically believe that happiness requires a lot of time and is effort-full. They could also show using mediation analysis that time scarcity was indeed the mediating variable that lead to reduced happiness in those seeking happiness.

What does all this mean for people who want to be happy or spread happiness or enable others to become happier? One take away is that one needs to differentiate between valuing happiness and actively seeking or pursuing it.  While the former is good to have, the latter may be detrimental to well being. The second take away is that while encouraging people and self to value or prioritize happiness its important to emphasize that happiness can be found in simple things that require little time or effort, like remembering to smell the roses, and not necessarily by revamping one’s life or having one or more big happiness projects.

A word of caution here, personal striving or some big personal projects , may or may not lead to happiness, but if they are meaningful, even if they lead to difficult times, they provide a direction and guide for the life and are very important to have. After all happiness is not the be all and end all of life.

But the major takeaway is that don’t feel pressured to be happier all the time, value happiness but don’t get into a rat race for being the happiest person on the earth.  Negative emotions have their own utility and in either case madly running after happiness wont make you happier by itself- it may do more harm than good!

Worldwide Happiness: Causes and Correlates

The World Happiness Report 2018 has been published today (but no e-copy is available yet), so I will wait for the e-copy to became available. Meanwhile, as I was anticipating the report and was in an analytical mood, I reread the World Happiness Report 2017 and want to share some of my thoughts and observation based around that while we get ready for the new report to take the conversation forward.


GDP (PPP) Per Capita based on 2008 estimates h...

GDP (PPP) Per Capita based on 2008 estimates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The World Happiness reports are  based around measuring life satisfaction using a Cantril ladder and this is used as a proxy for happiness/ subjective well-being in most of the analysis. Sometimes, positive and negative affect, as experienced the day before, is also used as a measure of experiential happiness.


The world happiness report measures happiness of more than 150 countries, sampling about 1000 respondents in each country and uses data from Gallup World Poll. The Cantril ladder measures national happiness on a  scale form 0 to 10 and the top 10 happiest nations have an average national happiness level of about 7.4, while the most miserable, bottom 10 nations had an average national happiness of only about 3.4 , thus there being around 4 point gap of happiness that if bridged can make the world more happier.


The report measures six other correlates viz GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption, constructs that are theoretically and empirically linked to well-being. As expected GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, which are indications of material prosperity,  do have an impact on national happiness, but the rest of the four factors that make up the social fabric of the country have a much larger effect.


To illustrate, social support was measured by a yes/no answer to the question as to whether one could count on someone in times of need. If one could move 10 % more people (who reported no) towards yes, then the increase in national happiness is predicted to be of the same amount that would be achieved by doubling the per capita GDP. And of course doubling the per capita GDP is much more difficult than ensuring that 10 % more population have someone they can count to in times of stress.


Similar effect, though of lower magnitude, was present for the rest of the social indicators. Also, other parameters like Gini coefficient which measures income inequality , and well-being inequality itself, were found to be associated with lower national well-being.


The case that economic growth and GDP is not the be all and end all, is aptly illustrated by the case study of China. China raised its GDP five fold between 1990’s and 2015-16, but the Subjective well- being (SWB) actually declined. The SWB during this period was U shaped with a trough in 2000-05, while the GDP was actually increasing and inflation at an all time low. As per this economic trend, SWB should have increased or at least maintained it 1990’s levels.


However, the situation becomes crystal clear when one looks at graphs showing unemployment rate and social fabric/ safety net indices (pension/ health benefits) during the same time which clearly paint a different picture of China’s economy and social method of alleviating misery structure. The unemployment rates peaked in 2000-05 while the safety net showed a trough, and this causally explained the trough in SWB much better, than the GDP story. Further analysis showed that it is those who are at lower rungs of economic ladder who are most affected in such circumstances.


The story of America is similar: per capita GDP growth which has tripled since 1960 has not lead to corresponding gains in happiness; as a matter of fact SWB is declining while GDP is growing in recent years. This is attributed to breakdown in social fabric.


An interesting fact that was highlighted by data from African nations, was that happiness depends on good governance and this can be conceptualized as both the ability to deliver services as well as democratic institutions. It was found that ability to deliver services was much more important, at least in African context, and people of Africa were willing to trade democracy for access to services.


The report also had a section on how we can best alleviate misery and increase happiness for the maximum people; increasing income, increasing years of education, reducing unemployment, ensuring people stay married/ have a partner, preventing physical illness and preventing mental illness (depression and anxiety) were all considered important as each of this predicts happiness. However, it was found that the mots cost effective is by focusing on alleviating mental illness as that impact happiness levels more than anything, including physical illness.


Another analysis showed that emotional health at age 16 was better predictor of adult happiness than academic competence at that age. This makes a strong case for focusing on emotional and behavioral development of children and for positive education.


Another section of the report looked at work determinants of happiness and found that unemployment was again a big no-no, causing a lot of misery directly and indirectly even in those not unemployed. Of course blue collar workers had lower satisfaction levels than white collar workers and the usual factors that affect job and overall satisfaction, like autonomy at work were highlighted.


Overall, I think its a wake up call to policy makers, to focus more on social determinants of happiness and not get obsessed by economic indices like per capita GDP.  I’m hoping 2018 report builds on these earlier observation and makes a strong case for policy changes.

The ABCD’s of CB5T

Today’s post is about the Cybernetic Big Five Theory (CB5T) theory of personality structure [pdf and pdf] as proposed by Colin DeYoung et al.

Colin and colleagues have proposed a structure of personality that is hierarchical and is build around the popular Big Five traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness/Intellect, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

English: A diagram to illustrate the layout of...

English: A diagram to illustrate the layout of a hierarchical organisation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The top level of the hierarchy consists of metatraits of Stability and Plasticity also called Alpha and Beta. Stability is related to the shared variance between Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness while Plasticity consists of Extraversion and Openness/Intellect. Stability refers to the fact that one has consistency of goals, interpretations and strategies; someone with low Stability will easily abandon goals etc due to internal or external disturbances. Plasticity refers to the fact that any dynamical system needs to also explore its environment for new goals, interpretations and strategies. Someone rigid with low Plasticity would lose on opportunities that are present in the uncertain environment out there.

At the intermediate level of hierarchy lie the Big Five each consisting of exactly two aspects. The aspects may be further made up on n number of facets. We will mostly not go beyond the aspects and focus more on the five Big Five traits and the 10 aspects. I have previously too blogged about CB5T and readers may find it interesting to read that post to see how my thoughts have evolved.

Cybernetics thinks in terms of goal driven self-organizing systems and that is the framework that I will be using here. I have blogged previously about there being different types of goals:  approach goals, Avoidance goals, learning goals, performance goals and differences in conceptualizing a goal as either approach or avoidance, learning or performance has different implications that are well established.

I think in terms of underlying Psychological / brain based systems and believe that we can decompose the human systems into these subsystems:

  1.  The Avoidance System: Goals are conceptualized as avoidance goals i.e a reference state that is to be avoided is on top of the mind. This system is sensitive to cues of threats and punishments and uncertainty. Punishment is something that happens when avoidance is not successful and threat is any impending punishment. The variation in parameters of this system lead to variation in Neuroticism trait in humans. Serotonin system is typically found to be associated with his subsystem. Avoidance can be further be of two types:
    1. BIS (behavioral Inhibition System):   Passive avoidance whereby whenever there is a conflict between an avoidance goal and an approach goal, the approach goal/actions are inhibited. This aspect is also called Withdrawal and is associated with depression and Anxiety.
    2. FFFS (Flight-Fight-Freeze-Faint system) : Active avoidance or escape where one exhibits anger or rage or panic but is geared to do something about the situation. This aspect is also called Volatility and is associated with anger disorders.
  2. The Approach system: Goals are conceptualized as approach goals i.e a rewarding stimuli that has to be pursued and achieved.  This system is sensitive to cues of reward and associated with the dopamine system. This is further made up of:
    1. BAS (behavioral activation system) : This is the ‘wanting’ system as opposed to the ‘liking’ system, a difference that was first proposed by Berridge.  This is more directly related to dopamine and is also called Assertiveness aspect and composed of drive etc.
    2. Pleasure system : This pleasure system is related to opioid systems and is related to the ‘liking’ system or the hedonistic pleasure one feels when consummating a goal.  It is related to Enthusiasm aspect and marked by positive emotions, sociability etc.
  3. The Attend (Learning) system: Any dynamic system is sort of torn between whether to learn more about the system to increase it performance in future or to act in such a way as to maximize its performance in present. This system, which is marked by openness/ intellect, is a cognitive exploration system associated with the dopamine system. This is further made up of:
    1.  Imagination System: This is related to the openness aspect and related to apophenia or psychosis proneness. The key mechanisms here is finding patterns and correlations between sensory and perceptual inputs.
    2. Intelligence system: This is related to the Intellect aspect and related to things like working memory capacity. The key mechanisms here are finding causal and logical relations between semantic and abstract information.
  4. The Achievement (Performance) system: This system is focused around achieving long term goals by focusing in the here and now and following rule and procedures. This system, marked by Conscientiousness, is further made up of two parts:
    1. The grit system: This is related to Industriousness aspect whereby one overcomes distractions in the service of non-immediate goals. This is probably a top down process based around inhibiting distracting stimuli.
    2. The discipline system: This is related to Orderliness aspect whereby one wants to tend towards perfectionism and following routines and self made or other made rules to achive efficiency.
  5. The Attachment (Interpersonal) system:  This system is focused around increasing cooperation and ensuring altruism among man, the social animal. The dysfunctions of this system lead to the Dark Tetrad of personality. This system is marked by Agreeableness trait and is made of two parts:
    1. The caring system: This is related to the bottom up processes of compassion and caring built on the foundations of empathy. The Compassion aspect is relevant here with its opposite pole being callousness. The opposite pole would be characterized by sadism and psychopathy.
    2. The social system: This is related to the top down process of curbing anti-social impulses and tendencies etc by reigning in those baser instincts. The Politeness aspect and its opposite pole that of exploitativeness is relevant here.  The opposite pole would be characterized by  Machiavellianism and Narcissism.

Overall, this CB5T layout maps well to the ABCDS framework.

Neuroticism, or its opposite emotional stability is related to Affective stability.

Extraversion is related to Behavioral exploration.

Openness/Intellect is related to Cognitive exploration.

Conscientiousness is related to Motivational/ Dynamic stability.

Agreeableness is related to Social stability.

Together , the ABCD(S) model and the CB5T model make immense sense and provide a good way to characterize the personality structure.

Research Summaries: Role of test motivation in intelligence testing

IQ is used synonymous and interchangeably with intelligence; however in this paper [pdf] Angela Duckworth et al argue that non-cognitive factors like test motivation also affect the IQ scores and have differential predictive validity.

Raven's Progressive Matrices Example

Raven’s Progressive Matrices Example (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1.  Intelligence, which is the ability to flexibly adapt to complex situations, is usually measured using IQ scores on intelligence tests. IQ scores however do not measure juts the raw intelligence; they also measure how motivated someone is to take the test and  achieve a high score.
  2. Intelligence tests, that lead to IQ Scores, are supposed to measure the maximal intelligence ability that a person has and not the typical intelligence that he/she uses. In all intelligence testing it is assumed that the person will devote his entire attention and exert the maximum effort possible so as to achieve the highest score possible.
  3. While the assumption that IQ measures maximal intelligence may be true in high-stake testing situations, where the IQ results would be used for academic admissions, job placement or promotions; in normal measurement of IQ, say in a typical school setting, the stakes are quite low (there are no real/tangible repercussions of doing bad or well on the test) and hence IQ does not typically measure the maximal intelligence, but is confounded by test motivation.
  4. Test motivation refers to the fact that some people will be less motivated to take the test or continue with it and may display behaviors that indicate low motivation. While others may be highly motivated to take the IQ test. Thus, there would be individual differences at trait level on test motivation.
  5. Test motivation is also a state variable that can be manipulated by incentivizing getting high scores on the tests. When such incentives are in place, the IQ score should increase from the baseline level or when the test was given under non-incentivized conditions.
  6. Intelligence, as measured by IQ, has been associated with a number of good outcomes. Non cognitive factors as measured by test motivation are also theoretically linked to important life outcomes. For the purposes of this paper, two academic outcomes (years of education and academic achievement) and two non-academic outcomes (employment and criminal conviction) were measured and analyzed.
  7. The study 1 performed a meta-analysis of various independent samples where a comparison was made between the IQ scores received in standardized conditions vis-a-vis under incentivized conditions. For analysis the sample was divided in high IQ (those with IQ greater than 100) and low IQ (those with IQ less than 100). The main results were that incentives did result in higher IQ scores, the effect was stringer for low IQ group and there was dose-response effect with larger incentives leading to greater IQ points gains.
  8. Thus, for low IQ group, the lower IQ scores in standardized conditions could be due to lower intelligence or lower test motivation. If you increase the test motivation, you could bump up the IQ score of some of them. High IQ group, on the other hand had higher scores because they had both higher intelligence and higher test motivation.
  9. In study 2, a thin-slice video of children giving the intelligence test was behaviorally rated for signs of low test motivation. This was a longitudinal study and the IQ scores, test motivation and four types of outcomes were analyzed to find the differential impact of IQ/intelligence and test-motivation/ non-cognitive factors on life outcomes.
  10. The main finding was that test motivation had a significant impact, independent of IQ, on important life outcomes. This was specially pronounced for nonacademic outcomes like employment and criminal convictions. Intelligence as measured by IQ still had significant effect on all adult outcomes. They also found that test motivation predicted IQ scores, thus IQ score measures both intelligence and test motivation.

This is an important paper [pdf] that shows that IQ scores need to be interpreted with caution, and that both cognitive and non-cognitive factors are important for life outcomes.

Research Summaries: Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children

Today’s research summary builds on the work of Gabrielle Oettingen on WOOP/mental contrasting with implementation intentions. The paper [pdf] is co-authored by Angela Duckworth et al and successfully demonstrates the utility and incremental benefit of mental contrasting over mere positive thinking in achieving desired outcomes.

The Power of Positive Thinking (EP)

The Power of Positive Thinking (EP) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. When one wants to achieve goals, then the first step is to clearly articulate the desired goal. It has been shown that merely having a goal vs not having a clear goal is instrumental in goal achievement.   Another process that is usually implicated in successful goal achievement is positive thinking, where you clearly visualize the positive outcomes from having achieved the goal.
  2. The exercise ‘Best possible future selves’ is predicated on the same premise that visualizing a better future self leads to increase in hope and optimism and positive striving to achieve the goal.
  3. In popular parlance though, positive thinking is equated with not thinking about any negatives at all, including the possible obstacles that may lie in the path. This obsession with just the positive aspects of future, to the ignoring of the current reality, may have detrimental effects as one’s commitment to the goal may not change with mere positive future visualizing.
  4. Mental contrasting is a technique whereby a positive future outcome visualization is contrasted with current reality and the client encouraged to think about internal obstacles within them that may hamper the goal achievement.
  5. Goal commitment is hypothesized to be made of two components: Goal desirability( which apparently does not change with either mental contrasting or  positive future visualizing) and Goal feasibility (goal commitment increases in mental contrasting if the goal is considered of high feasibility as the current reality/obstacles become surmountable in one’s mind’s eyes;  on the other hand if goal feasibility is low then goal commitment becomes less as the obstacles seem insurmountable and the goal is disengaged from while doing mental contrasting)
  6. While the exact mechanism of how mental contrasting works in not known, it is believed to work by increasing efforts (towards overcoming surmountable obstacles) , by using better strategies ( for example to remain focused and not get distracted) or by seeking help from others.
  7. The current studies consisted of making the class 2, 3 or 5 grade students learn foreign language words, and this learning was incentivized by promises of candy bag or small monetary reward (5 $). The gap between learning and recall varied from 2 weeks to 4 days. There were two conditions:  in the positive future condition, the students filled out a section in which they listed the best possible outcomes from having mastered the foreign vocabulary words. In the mental contrasting condition, the students besides writing the best possible outcome, also reflected and wrote, what within them may prevent their achieving the goal of mastering the foreign language vocabulary.
  8. The foreign language vocabulary task was something that was within the capability of the students and was thus considered a task with high goal feasibility and thus should have led to greater goal commitment in the mental contrasting condition.
  9. Across two studies they found that indeed there was significant difference in recall of foreign language words between the two conditions, with mental contrasting leading to better learning/ recall.
  10. One big limitation of the study , which is acknowledged by authors in the limitations section, is that they did not include a neutral control condition in which  neither positive future visualization nor mental contrasting was used. It would have been interesting to know how big an impact positive visualization has and how big an impact mental contrasting has over and above that.
  11. This paper is of immense practical utility as it showed that mental contrasting can also be used in group settings and is effective with minimum instructions and for a common goal.  This enables tools like WOOP which build on this research to be extended to group settings. I myself use WOOP in my work with school children and have found it very useful.

Overall it is a pretty decent paper [pdf] that shows the benefits of mental contrasting over mere positive future visualization.

Research Summaries: The Effect of Self-Distancing on Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Self-Reflection in Children

Today’s research summary is based on a shortish paper [pdf] by Angela Duckworth et al (Walter Mischel of Marshmallow effect fame is a co-author!) which focuses on how viewing oneself from a distance, or from a third person perspective, a previous emotional experience, can lead to better and more adaptive outcomes.

Out of body experience

Out of body experience (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Bad stuff happens. And we make it worse by brooding about it. There is some research that shows that thinking or ruminating about negative experiences can lead to bad outcomes in the present like compromised health or impeded cardiovascular recovery following exercise etc. Ruminative thinking style is known as a precursor and risk factor for depression.
  2. On the other hand there is a rich tradition of expressive writing (for e.g. Pennebaker’s work) in which people write about their negative experiences and traumas and seem to benefit (boosts in long term mood and well-being) from such an expressive act.
  3. Different sort of mechanisms are hypothesized in both the above cases. In the first case, one may be reliving the negative experience or recounting it and thus get overwhelmed once more in the present by such a recollection. In the second case, one may be reinterpreting the situation and making fresh sense of the events or reconstruing the events. So reflecting in a negative experience per se may not be bad or good but may lead to a good outcome only when reconstruing happens more than recounting.
  4. Putting a distance between oneself or seeing events from a detached third person perspective have been shown to increase one’s self control and control one’s impulses and also helpful in alleviating depression by enabling better cognitions. It has been hypothesized that self-distancing or viewing things form a detached third person perspective will lead to better and more adaptive outcomes while self-reflecting, as one will not recount or relive the experiences but will be better able to reconstrue or make new sense of the experiences.
  5. The current study looked at ~ 100 fifth grade students and asked them to recollect a negative angry outburst/ interaction which was interpersonal in nature. They were then instructed either to feel the event as of it was happening in the present and they were at the center of the action, or that they were watching the event unfold from a distance and observing the distant self. After they had recalled the experience in both conditions, they filled a brief  survey measuring their emotional reactivity (how much power the vent still holds over them)  and avoidance behavior (do they avoid talking/ thinking  about that issue) . They were also asked to write an essay about their reflection and the essay was content analyzed for recounting thoughts, reconstruing thoughts and blame attributions.
  6. The results showed that when you put a distance between self while recollecting a negative experience, then the emotional reactivity is lesser than when you feel as if you are reliving the experience. Thus, if you want to make a negative experiences hold smaller on you recollect it while putting a distance from self. Thus it was clear that self-distancing was a more adaptive outcome.
  7. They also found that those students who had put a distance between their earlier self while reflecting on their angry interaction, had fewer recounting statements in their essays and more reconstruing statements. They also made fewer blame attributions.
  8. They also did a path analysis and found that self-distancing had its impact on more adaptive outcomes (less negative affect and emotional reactivity) via the mediating variables of more reconstruing statements than recounting statements, which in turn led to lesser blame attributions and thus a closure that led to lesser emotional reactivity.
  9. The take home message, children can benefit form self reflective exercises that make them reflect on negative experiences as long as they are supported in putting a distance between themselves and their past self, so that they don’t merely recount the experience but are able to reconstrue the experience.

Overall, a pretty decent paper [pdf] that stresses the importance of self-distancing while reflecting about past negative experiences.

Research Summaries: Personality Measurement and Assessment in Large Panel Surveys

Today’s research summary looks at another paper [pdf] by Angela Duckworth et al this time focusing on whether it makes sense to include personality variables in long national longitudinal surveys/studies like the MIDUS/ Dunedin/ HRS.

Nonconcordant traits

Nonconcordant traits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1.  Personality differences can be conceptualized to be either differences in ability (like cognitive ability), traits (stable patterns of thinking, feeling, acting) , motives or narratives and this paper focuses on traits to the exclusion of other measures of personality. Even in traits, the traits of concern are the Big Five traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness.
  2. Personality, in general, and these traits, in particular, are known to predict a range of outcomes like health, achievement, and relationships. The authors believe that large panel surveys should measure these traits to find the correlations with other outcomes being measured. They review research on how traits predict wealth and health and are predicted by underlying genetic polymorphisms or variations.
  3. For elaborating the association between traits and genes they look at candidate gene studies as well as GWAS. Extraversion is associated with polymorphisms in Dopamine subsystem related genes. Nueroticism is primarily associated with serotenergic genes. Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are both affected by polymorphsism in genes related to dopamine as well as serotonin. Openness to COMT variation. Read the paper to get additional nuances.
  4. When it comes to economic outcomes, more introverted and more emotionally stable (less in neuroticism)  individuals  were more likely to save over the lifetime and borrow less; reverse was found for those high in agreeableness. Emotional stability was the best predictor of earnings; extraversion had a complex relation but overall positively predicted earnings; while agreeableness had a very slight negative impact on earning.
  5. In terms of health, traits like Conscientiousness had a direct effect on health as well as indirect effects mediated by healthy behaviors and educational attainments. In general it is safe to conclude that personality traits do not affect health outcomes directly but by their impact on problematic or protective behaviors. Personality traits have also been linked to mortality.
  6. The authors recommend that personality traits should be measured in large panel studies, and measured as far as consistently, using say BFI, so that they can be used to predict important life outcomes. Moreover they recommend that as personality traits can change , they should be treated as dependent variables too and measured in each subsequent measurement time.
  7. One recommendation they have is to keep such trait measures short and relevant; also they recommend multiple measures using informant reports or cognitive tests like go-no go task. However I ‘m not sure if that may be practical in large surveys.
  8. They also highlight the concerns about ‘flush-right’ responding where some unmotivated participants who are juts going through the motions of filling the survey may keep choosing the extreme right option making the survey results suspect.  The instruments should have something inbuilt to detect such responding just like one detects social desirability.

Overall its a pretty decent paper to understand some of the  antecedents (genetics) as well as consequents (health and wealth) of Big Five traits and makes a strong case for incorporating big five measures in such large scale studies and surveys. Check the paper here [pdf] .