Category Archives: psychology

Social science as rhetorical exercise: An example from research on narrative identity processing

Green, Ha, & Bullock (2010) critique mediation analyses in social science research:

Given the strong requirements in terms of model specification and measurement, the enterprise of “opening the black box” or “exploring causal pathways” using endogenous mediators is largely a rhetorical exercise.

But what is social science anyway? To what extent can we find the “truth” about complex social systems that involve agents with free will and myriad complex, interlinked influences on them?

Perhaps social science is just rhetoric of an advanced sort, carefully constructed arguments based on theory, prior research, data analysis and hunches that describe how the world might work. Over time, some of these arguments are shown to be false, so (ideally) we fix the story up and make it better fit what we’ve observed and what we can deduce from the build-up of evidence and argument so far.

An example from the psychology of narrative identity processing

Pals’ (2006) study of narrative identity processing and adult development is an example of mediation analysis as advanced rhetoric. Here’s the abstract:

Difficult life experiences in adulthood constitute a challenge to the narrative construction of identity. Individual differences in how adults respond to this challenge were conceptualized in terms of two dimensions of narrative identity processing: exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution. These dimensions, coded from narratives of difficult experiences reported by the women of the Mills Longitudinal Study (Helson, 1967) at age 52, were expected to be related to personality traits and to have implications for pathways of personality development and physical health. First, the exploratory narrative processing of difficult experiences mediated the relationship between the trait of coping openness in young adulthood (age 21) and the outcome of maturity in late midlife (age 61). Second, coherent positive resolution predicted increasing ego-resiliency between young adulthood and midlife (age 52), and this pattern of increasing ego-resiliency, in turn, mediated the relationship between coherent positive resolution and life satisfaction in late midlife. Finally, the integration of exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution predicted positive self-transformation within narratives of difficult experiences. In turn, positive self-transformation uniquely predicted optimal development (composite of maturity and life satisfaction) and physical health.

This study was correlational, so that’s the first reason that strict causalists would dispose of it. It also studied mediation, so even if it were some sort of randomized experiment, there would be questions about its suggestions of causality. But the researcher doesn’t just run the mediational analysis and then declare that she’s shown what she wanted to show. She places the correlational findings in the context of theory and makes an overall argument for her hypothesis while noting the limitations of the approach:

A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact, ideally through studies that closely examine the connection between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes. In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives. Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al., 2005).

Is this research useful even if causality and mediation has not been proven? I think it is. We don’t know for sure which way causality runs among the various traits and behaviors studied (it probably runs in multiple directions) but Pals makes a good argument that someone with coping openness may engage in exploratory narrative processing of difficult life events and this, in turn, may drive a maturing process. In the second mediational hypothesis, she argues that developing coherent positive resolutions in that narrative processing of life events might lead to increased ego-resiliency. Are these analyses and arguments of practical use? I think yes.

The remembering self creates stories and needs those stories to make sense of experience. Research like Pals (2006) gives insight into what sort of stories might be most useful in leading towards maturity and psychological resiliency:

  • Development of the stories should use an open and exploratory style rather than closed and defensive.
  • The ending of the story should reflect some sort of positive resolution.

So mediation analysis, even of the non-experimental sort, can be useful. Okay so maybe it’s not like the scientific finding that lack of Vitamin C causes scurvy, but that doesn’t make it useless or unscientific.

Philosophers of science would have something more sophisticated to say about this. My point is that science doesn’t happen exactly according to the “scientific method” you learned in high school. In many ways it is just advanced rhetoric that’s (ideally) grounded in careful analysis, thoughtful theorizing, and an understanding of prior research.

References

Green, D. P., Ha, S. E. and Bullock, J.G. (2009) Enough Already About “Black Box” Experiments: Studying Mediation is More Difficult than Most Scholars Suppose. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 628, 200-08. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1544416

Pals, J.L. (2006). Narrative identity processing of difficult life experiences: Pathways of personality development and positive self-transformation in adulthood. Journal of Personality 74(4).

A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses
reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping
openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent
positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational
design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive
statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings
1102 Pals
were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not
prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research
on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact,
ideally through studies that closely examine the connection
between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes.
In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote
about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase
in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas
those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern
of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding
supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative
processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of
themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will
make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives.
Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the
narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative
identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide
development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al.,
2005).A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings 1102 Pals were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact, ideally through studies that closely examine the connection between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes. In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives. Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al., 2005).

Adjusting for response styles in cross-cultural research

I’m working on a cross-country study of math achievement scores related to liking-for-math and ran into some problems with the measure I’m using for liking-for-math. Some countries show extremely skewed distributions on the liking-for-math index I constructed.

Given the obvious differences in patterns of responses across countries, can I really make cross-country comparisons? I tried, and got statistically significant but weak results. But if my measure isn’t any good, I can’t trust those results.

Turns out this problem of “extreme response styles” is well-known in cross-cultural psychology. And there’s a related literature covering measurement invariance, asking the question whether you can compare psychometric results across cultures or other diverse groups of people.

I did a tiny bit of research this morning to see if there’s anything I can do to adjust for differences in response styles across students and countries on TIMSS math background items. I had already tried weeding out the countries that show extremely skewed response styles but then I didn’t have enough data to run the analysis. And anyway, throwing out a bunch of data isn’t a good solution.

Buckley (2006) suggests a Bayesian approach that estimates a posterior distribution for each student characterized by a location shift and a scale adjustment that represent how a student’s responses relate to his or her actual attitude. For example, a large positive location shift and a reduced scale would typify extreme acquiescence, as the student picked mostly “strongly agree” type items. Buckley also provides a quick-and-dirty linear regression tactic for estimating a student’s latent true score on the measure taking into account extreme or random response styles. I may give that a shot this morning — the class project is due next week so I have some time — and then later explore a Bayesian solution.

It’s so cool to see my two interests — cross-country psychological studies and Bayesian stats — colliding. Seems like a potential dissertation topic.

Reference

Buckley, J. (2006). Cross-national response styles in international educational assessments: Evidence from PISA 2006. Retrieved from https://edsurveys.rti.org/PISA/documents/Buckley_PISAresponsestyle.pdf

Telling stories to the remembering self

I’ve been thinking about Kahneman’s remembering self, and how that part of the self needs memories woven into meaningful stories. Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure offers a structure for telling stories to the remembering self. No matter how bad a particular experience is, you can probably make it into a story of struggle and growth, of confronting temptations and trials, of finding support where you thought you had none, of being in the wilderness then finally finding yourself again.

Here is Joseph Campbell on the temptations that a hero (or heroine) faces:

The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else.

I do find it difficult that the actual experience of life is often so different than how it seems it should be. Telling stories about the bad experiences makes them make sense, turns the difficulty into something desirable, something that leads to learning and growth rather than something to be avoided or denied.

Kahneman on the experiencing self vs. the remembering self

In this TED video, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses three problems with current discussions of happiness:

1. The concept of happiness is more complex than we assume.

2. We confuse the experiencing self and the remembering self.

3. The focusing illusion makes us distort the importance of any circumstance that influences happiness.


The two selves

The experiencing self lives in the moment. She doesn’t care about money, so long as she has a baseline amount (which seems to be about $60,000 a year in income). She is happiest when she spends time with people she cares about and pursues goals.

The remembering self keeps the story of our lives. She cares about changes, significant moments, and endings. A rotten ending can destroy the memory of a whole experience, even if it was otherwise okay. The remembering self does care about how much money she has — the more, the better.

Do depressed people make better mathematicians?

With major depression, you can’t sleep, don’t eat, and might not even get out of bed. In the worst case, it leads to suicide. It hardly seems like a recipe for thriving and reproducing. So why does it persist in the human population?

Jonah Lehrer (author of  How We Decide) writes in the New York Times on the “analytical rumination hypothesis” (ARH) that says depression allows people to solve difficult problems through sustained contemplation.

The article offered competing evolutionary explanations for depression: “plea for help” where depression encourages loved ones to assist the depressed person; “signal of defeat,” in which depression reduces potential for social conflict; and “depressive realism,” which says that people with depressed outlooks have a more accurate understanding of what’s really going on. The ARH doesn’t seem as plausible as these other theories.

I want to dig into a second, related claim reported by Lehrer, that depressed affect (not major depression, but merely a negative, ruminative mindset) is associated with more analytical (hence better?) cognitive functioning:

It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.

But is that closeness effective? Does the despondency help us solve anything? Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores. “The results were clear,” Andrews says. “Depressed affect made people think better.”

You mean when I’m obsessing over something I’m better able to do math? Sounds great. But I’m skeptical.

What does the research really say?

The paper reporting these findings (Andrews & Thomson, 2009) identifies competing threads in the research literature. One thread suggests that “depressed affect is associated with and causes performance decrements in a variety of cognitive domains, including memory, intelligence, and executive functioning.” The other suggests that “depressed affect promotes an analytical processing style that enhances accuracy on complex tasks.”

In my quick reading of the paper, I didn’t see any cited research showing that depressed people do better at math. They cited studies showing that  depressed people may be better at judgment of control (perceiving correctly how little or much control they had over lighting a light bulb, for example), mindreading (when it requires some level of analysis), and making rational decisions (e.g., around monetary decisions).

Here’s related research reported in the New Scientist saying much the same thing: grumpy people think better. Yes, there is probably a U-shaped curve. You can’t do math when you’re hypomanic because the birds are singing! the sun is shining! who cares about math! On the other hand, you can’t do it when you’re clinically depressed either, because you’re either asleep in bed (at one in the afternoon) or awake in bed (at one in the morning). There’s some optimum — is it at some subclinically depressed, slightly obsessed state? I doubt it.

The relationship between depression and intellectual focus

Obsessing over a math problem and obsessing over a person may use similar mental circuitry, I will grant you that. But a person caught up in working through a broken heart doesn’t have the mental resources to concentrate on a set of mathematical equations. There may be some correlation in a person’s ability to focus on math and their likelihood to get caught in negative rumination. This does not mean we should encourage negative rumination. Instead, we should help people stuck in it break free so they can use that mental focus in more productive ways.

There may well be a correlation between depressed affect and ability to focus on complex, analytical problems. This doesn’t mean, however, that the depressed affect is necessary for the focus. It is likely a hindrance.

Andrews said, “Depressed affect made people think better” but only once they were distracted from their pain. You would see this same result if people who naturally “think better” (i.e., more analytically and obsessively which may not always be better) also are more likely to have depressed affect. Those two things may go together, but not in the causal relationship depression –> intellectual focus.

In fact, they probably do go together. Autistic spectrum disorders, unusual intellectual achievement, and major affective disorder  are often found in the same families. Autism manifests as an extreme ability to focus, to the exclusion of normal socializing or other behaviors. Depression is more likely to occur in people who ruminate obsessively. Intellectual achievement requires its own kind of obsessive rumination.

Depression itself may have some sort of evolutionary upside — but any enhanced mental functioning is not due to depression but perhaps to an unusual ability to focus. I might rather call it a “necessity to focus” because it’s not always under a person’s control.

Reference

Andrews, P., & Thomson, J. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116 (3), 620-654

ResearchBlogging.org
Andrews, P., & Thomson, J. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116 (3), 620-654 DOI: 10.1037/a0016242

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One Response to “what’s adaptive about depression?”

  1. Cole Bitting Says:
    February 27th, 2010 at 6:26 am RE: rumination. You write:

    it seems more parsimonious to see depressive rumination as a non-adaptive by-product of a more general and (potentially) adaptive disposition to experience negative affect.

    I believe that ‘biologically fit’ is a more parsimonious assumption than superfluous. It is quiet possible that however long humans have had awareness of distress, we have ruminated.

    Depression itself is positively correlated with posttraumatic growth (Dolbier et al. 2009). Watkins (2008) suggests rumination predicts reduced levels of depression. Nolan-Hoeksama (2008) also accepts that rumination can have positive effects on depression. The literature about rumination has shifted a fair amount in the past two years.

    You write:

    the very purpose of rumination might be to keep depressed people in a depressed state

    Struggling with the consequences of trauma can be considered the main source of posttraumatic growth (Tedeshi & Calhoun 2004). Trauma is often regarded as a violation of basic assumptions and believe. So recovery from trauma would, in part, involve the abandonment of old beliefs and the creation of new ones. The emotion sadness helps break down attachments and identifications, so in that sense, depression would have value. Constructive rumination, on the other hand, would be part of building new beliefs.

    Rumination is the consequence of trauma and distress. If you ruminate about “your co-workers hate you,” you are rumination of the very primal concern about the availability and sustainability of social-bonds and meaningful attachments. A trivial representation does not mean the source of the distress is trivial.

    You site the losses which occur from depression. Those losses occur from trauma, and depression is one of its consequences. Depression itself can be a condition which supports recovery from the debilitating distress of the trauma.

    One point, CBT is shifting in favor of a “mindfulness” component, and rumination is no longer regarded as something to be “broken out of” or suppressed. The idea is to be aware but not reactive. Trauma literature often discusses the concept of “window of tolerance,” and this CBT+mindful approach would have the quality of trying to help expand the window of tolerance and maintain the ruminations within it.

    Can I be skeptical of your skepticism?

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Because I’m bored: A post about novelty seeking

Do you know anyone who is easily bored? Always looking for the novel, the exciting, the stimulating? You might see this trait manifest in different ways: the heli-skiier, the intellectual omnivore, the golf-sensation/sex-addict, even the heroin abuser likely have in common a drive to avoid boredom and a twin drive to experience excitement in whatever form works best for them.

Some psychologists call this novelty seeking, sensation seeking, or stimulation seeking.* Here’s one definition of sensation seeking:

a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences. (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000)

I took the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personal Questionnaire sensation seeking scale and scored 84%, High bordering on Very High. I’m easily bored. I’m always looking for the next excitement, usually intellectual but could be something else. My need for novelty makes it hard to ever reach equilibrium because I inevitably get distracted by sparkly objects passing by.

It’s a good thing

That definition makes sensation seeking sound like a mostly negative thing (all those risks!) but in my experience, it’s not. Because I’m easily bored, I’ve had a pretty exciting life, I think. In Penelope Trunk’s framing, I’ve prioritized having an interesting life over a happy one. In the past, I have sacrificed comfort and stability for the new and different, whether it was a new job or a new career or a new house or a new state.

But now I find myself leaning more towards trying to have a happy, stable life rather than an interesting and exciting one. Sensation seeking declines with age, and I think I might have reached a pretty optimal level for where I am in my life. I’m totally willing to take intellectual leaps and risks, where some people in their early 40s might be stuck with tired ideas. I wouldn’t rule out moving our family yet again if the right opportunity arose. I take risks like blogging about random stuff that enters my bored brain. And yet I’m settled and stable in many ways I couldn’t have imagined in my 20s: I am satisfied with my husband, my neighborhood, my house, my career path, my colleagues.

It’s in the genes

There’s evidence of a genetic basis for novelty seeking, and also evidence that novelty seeking may be a risk factor for drug dependence.

And, novelty seekers may be more intelligent on average. From a 2002 paper in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology:

The prediction that high stimulation seeking 3-yr-olds would have higher IQs by 11 yrs old was tested in 1,795 children on whom behavioral measures of stimulation seeking were taken at 3 yrs, together with cognitive ability at 11 yrs. High 3-yr-old stimulation seekers scored 12 points higher on total IQ at age 11 compared with low stimulation seekers and also had superior scholastic and reading ability. Results replicated across independent samples and were found for all gender and ethnic groups. Effect sizes for the relationship between age 3 stimulation seeking and age 11 IQ ranged from 0.52 to 0.87. Findings appear to be the first to show a prospective link between stimulation seeking and intelligence. It is hypothesized that young stimulation seekers create for themselves an enriched environment that stimulates cognitive development. [emphasis added]

I think adult stimulation/sensation/novelty seekers can do the same thing.

Notes

*Are novelty-seeking and sensation-seeking the same thing? Maybe.