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Understanding Your Mind Is Mission Critical

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Guest Blog by Jamil Zaki*

cutaway of head revealing brain

Courtesy of Digital Shotgun via Flickr.

Earlier this year, Senator Tom Coburn published a report called “Under the Microscope,” in which he criticized the funding of any research he couldn’t immediately understand as important. Of particularly dubious value, in Coburn’s opinion, are the behavioral and social sciences—including my own field, psychology. Following his report, Coburn proposed eliminating the National Science Foundation’s funding for these “human” sciences, writing: “…do any of these social studies represent obvious national priorities that deserve a cut of the same pie as astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth science, physics and oceanography?” Mo Brooks, the chair of a congressional panel considering such cuts, echoed this opinion. Brooks explicitly claimed that the human sciences have yet to prove their worth.

Given that people’s thoughts and choices, by definition, play the single most powerful role in shaping our society, why does studying the human mind seem like such a dispensable endeavor? One reason may be that people often feel as though they understand their minds already, and that the study of people and cultures can’t tell them anything new. Topics such as social networks, emotion, memory, and race relations sound less scientific than the study of cellular structure, protein folding, or electromagnetic force. These latter topics seem as though they will uncover insights inaccessible to our intuitions, whereas the human sciences might not. This couldn’t be further from the truth: examinations of the human mind often dredge up huge surprises.  In fact, a broad message emerging from the last 50 years of psychological research is that forces outside of our awareness drive many of our most critical mental operations—our moral judgments, preferences and the like. Acknowledging these forces and putting them to work has the potential to change—and even save—lives. Here are four ways the human sciences can help us on a broad scale, and reasons we cannot live without the rigorous investigation of our own minds.

youth voting

Youth voting campaigns often encourage young people to step out from the crowd--and vote. But a better approach would be to cast voting as something everybody is doing. Courtesy of youthdecidegriffith via Flickr.

1. Insights from psychology can reform social programs: Oftentimes, social programs are based on misguided notions about the psychological sources of healthy behavior.  Consider conformity, which has gotten a bad rap for over a century. The party line is that conformists are weak, and that their combined lack of backbone leads to everything from witch-hunts to financial bubbles to teenage smoking. Groups such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the long-running lesson program led by police officers, emphasizes that resisting peer pressure is critical to living drug- and violence-free lives. Youth voting campaigns have also appropriated this intuition, and encourage their audiences to buck the sorry trends set by their peers. These strategies frame healthy behavior as an individualistic step away from the crowd—and they rarely work. Instead, research by social psychologist Robert Cialdini (an emeritus professor at Arizona State University), Yale University political scientist Alan Gerber and others shows that a more efficient strategy is to frame positive behaviors such as voting and responsible use of energy as something that others are doing, and harness the power of conformity to encourage such behaviors. This insight suggests critical changes to several large-scale programs. D.A.R.E., for example, receives huge amounts of government funding, and—more importantly—has reached tens of millions of children in the U.S. alone, despite no evidence that it does any good, and some evidence that it does some harm. Simple changes inspired by the human sciences could vastly improve the efficacy of such programs.

First grade boy doing homework with intense expression

Praising kids for effort motivates them to learn; other sorts of praise may be harmful, however. Courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

2. Behavioral research can improve education. Motivating children is among educators’ most important jobs. Our culture approaches this job through the intuition that behavior is best motivated through reinforcement. We pay people for work, give children prizes for high test scores, and honor charitable donors on the assumption that these external validations will make people try harder and enjoy their work more. Although most of us wouldn’t want to stop being paid, my colleagues Mark Lepper and Carol Dweck at Stanford describe ways in which particular forms of praise can backfire. Lepper showed that praise in the form of rewards can “overjustify” otherwise enjoyable activities: if I like math and you pay me for doing it, I will eventually conclude (perhaps implicitly) that I am only doing it for external rewards, and as a result will enjoy it less. Dweck showed that certain forms of praise induce a problematic “fixed mindset:” the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth rather than something that can be developed. If you tell me that I am good at math, I may start to believe that aptitude at math is a stable trait, and that my innate ability means that math will always come easily to me. When I face new challenges—say, moving from arithmetic to algebra–I might read my initial difficulties as a threatening sign about my innate abilities. Instead of piquing my interests, more difficult work may cause me to decide that I am no longer a “math person,” and give up on the subject. Dweck has developed simple methods for encouraging people to adopt healthier ways of thinking, for example by praising children for effort, rather than skill or ability. (For more on Dweck’s tips and science see, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” by Carol S. Dweck, Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008.) These methods produce clear benefits in children’s’ long term motivation to learn, but they must be understood to be effectively put to use.

3. Research can vastly improve the lives of people suffering from illness. Mental illness exerts an enormous public health burden, in addition to deeply damaging the lives of patients and their families, yet most psychiatric disorders remain partially or poorly understood. The last few decades have produced enormous research-based changes in the way we understand these disorders. In many cases, we have shifted our focus away from engrained notions about separate psychiatric illnesses as non-overlapping, and towards the commonalities between them. For example, although depression, self-injury, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder seem vastly different at the surface, they may not be the diagnostic islands we once imagined them to be. Instead, research indicates that they share key transdiagnostic phenomena (a kind of clinical “active ingredient”), such as difficulties in regulating emotional responses. Psychologists are increasingly focusing on the cognitive and neural bases of these phenomena, and on novel treatments aimed not only at the symptoms characterizing a particular illness, but also on the hidden cognitive ingredients that underlie these symptoms. This approach opens the door to potentially transformative forms of individualized medicine: treatments that are based on a profile of each patient’s cognitive quirks, as opposed to relatively rigid (and often stigmatized) diagnostic labels.

Pile of money

People think that money makes them happier than it actually does. Hint for happiness: Share the wealth. Courtesy of jollyUK via Flickr.

4. Evidence can guide us towards better lives. Most of us do not suffer from a psychiatric disorder. Yet empirical research can help us, too, by telling us how to maximize our well-being. A growing cadre of researchers in the human sciences has cataloged the effects that all sorts of behaviors have on our happiness. Some of their results may be patently un-shocking (if interesting): people are happier when they exercise, when their minds are focused on the present as opposed to wandering, and when they spend money on other people as opposed to themselves. What is surprising is how bad people’s intuitions about happiness seem to be. We systematically fail to correctly predict what will make us happy: for example, believing that wealth predicts psychological well-being more than it actually does, and that spending money on ourselves will make us happier than sharing it. In many cases, these flawed intuitions can drive weeks, months, or even years of striving towards goals that, in the end, provide disappointing returns. By rigorously studying happiness, researchers can provide new and powerful evidence that can guide individuals towards more fulfilling pursuits. On a larger scale, such data can enter community, and even national, conversations about how to improve psychological well-being as opposed to just material wealth, on a large scale.

One of the most exciting aspects of human sciences research is that its results are often of immediate use to laypeople—teachers, parents, policy makers, spouses—requiring no fancy equipment to implement. What is required: understanding the data. People do not need to believe in propulsion physics for NASA to launch shuttles; people do not need to understand drug action mechanisms for their medicine to be effective. But in the human sciences, ordinary people—and especially policy makers—need to internalize lessons learned from our fields to implement them. So my colleagues and I are in the unique position of needing to explain what we’ve done not only for the purposes of getting future work funded, but also so our work can be as useful as possible. To improve health and society, the spoils of psychology and its sister fields must reach a wide audience and overturn the misguided notion—embodied by people like Tom Coburn—that the human sciences have nothing useful to say. Here’s hoping this helped.

*Jamil Zaki is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science. Beginning in July 2012, he will be a professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. darioringach 5:01 pm 11/8/2011

    I think you are right. The reason is simply that lay people, including some of our representatives, think they are experts at understanding how the mind works. After all, we each have one of those…

    It is the scientists’ job to parse out exactly what is the relevance of our work to the public, as you do here.

    Good job!

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  2. 2. gs_chandy 11:47 am 11/9/2011

    Professor Jamil Zaki’s well-considered arguments on the need and utility of the behavioral sciences should certainly help to sweep views like Senator Tom Coburn’s to where they should go – the garbage bin.

    I fear, however, that a sizable number of people will still find it difficult to put such rubbish away. Witness, for instance, the number of people who still believe in ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ despite all the evidence that has accumulated in favor of evolution.

    Effective education, starting from early school (and at home) is probably the key. But will common sense and reason be able to prevail – in time for us to develop as healthy, rational individuals and progressive societies (withstanding all the forces that push us into societal ill-health?)

    Post-WW-I Germany went to the Nazis who then launched the holocaust. Despite all the evidence that GW Bush was leading his nation to disaster, US citizens still voted him into power again in 2004 notwithstanding all the evidence he had provided that he was unfit to lead. Now, US citizens seem to be primed to vote Barack Obama out of power in 2012. This seems likely to happen, though it is clear that most of the economic woes being suffered by US citizens took their root in the Bush profligacy in spending 3 to 5 trillion dollars in his needless and wasteful wars.


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  3. 3. lesizz 3:37 pm 11/10/2011

    Of course “certain” politicians will want to de-fund sciences of the mind. So riddled are they by repressed anger and fear from their upbringing that any suggestion of looking into the mind scares them. Their “logic” is strongly influenced by subconscious processes that they strive to stay unaware of.

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  4. 4. DieterHH 9:15 pm 11/10/2011

    Don’t blame our politicians – they merely reflect voter behaviour, their ignorance and fruit fly attention spans. As for “psychology” as such – I remain sceptical. At a fundamental level we have no idea how the human mind works, how it is formed and/or preconditioned by experience, genetics and evolution. Regrettably findings are all too often misconstrued by a credulous public according to the latest fad guru, more often than not becoming a mere excuse for our behavioural foibles. While I do find such research interesting and valid I put the outcomes on a shelf for further study and confirmation.

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  5. 5. R Sparrow 6:10 am 11/18/2011

    You are right on. I am a psychologist as well, and for nearly two decades have struggled with the negative perception lay people have of psychological research. They “turn their noses up” at anything involving statistics, asserting in a pejorative tone, “Oh, you can make anything come out the way you want if you use statistics.” Statistics should be a required course in high school for all students, as well as decision-making. Psychology courses should move away from “abnormal” psych, and focus on social psychology issues such as happiness which are pertinent, as well as social norms, which the author discussed in terms of what positive behaviors people are engaging in. I implemented this at the university where I worked 20 years ago re: binge drinking. We created programs which emphasized how many students WERE NOT binging, and the activities they found stimulating and fun, instead of getting wasted & puking their guts out every Tues. & Thurs. nights. I utilized the concept of “Flow” by Czeiskmahailya (spelling is wrong, I know) which is similar to an athlete’s being in “the zone,” when the perception of time is halted, one feels completely absorbed & engaged with the activity at hand (just a cursory description).
    Without a doubt we need MORE research funding, not less. And we need to lobby for this, as well as educate parents and teachers, doctors,and any professional who interacts with the general public about the dearth of funding for so critical a matter.

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  6. 6. the_son_of_rage_and_love 7:07 pm 11/30/2011

    I am nowhere near being an expert in this field (nor in any other scientific field, for that matter) but I do agree that Sen. Coburn indeed does not have a broader grasp of the boundless impact the human sciences have in modern society, and the almost infinite body of knowledge just waiting to be discovered and applied for us to cultivate our existence with.
    I have been indoctrinating myself in the concepts and practices of mindful meditation, and I must say, it’s really gratifying to be able to digest the workings of the human mind, and have even just a layman’s sense of what our brains have always been capable of all this time, if only harnessed properly.
    Not only is this field, in its entirety, a good path towards self-improvement, it also serves to inspire self discovery and foster individual growth, spiritually, and more so, collectively, as sentient beings.

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  7. 7. heman800 9:16 pm 12/20/2011

    The mind can be consider as something abstract, I think the mind works with the Spirit and Soul, the will to take decissions. The brain on the other hand contains the concept of the mind. Our brain is not a computer or memorizing machine, the brain gives meaning, it can fail as Carl Sagan wrote, it has experiences and emotions in the Amygdala that is why concepts and feelings should be linked or related. The concept of “objectivity” is relative that is we are never 100% Accuarte in our appreciations of the world, it always has some feelings, prejudices or emotions involved. Science is not sure what is first the emotion or the thought. One of the greatest mistakes of some Scientists is to try to separate the brain from the mind or the organic brain from the psychological aspects rather than unifiying concepts.

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