When attention is a deficit: How the brain switches strategies to find better solutions (Neuron)

By Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

2015_03_26_JW_Schuck_NYC3Sometimes being too focused on a task is not a good thing.

During tasks that require our attention, we might become so engrossed in what we are doing that we fail to notice there is a better way to get the job done.

For example, let’s say you are coming out of a New York City subway one late afternoon and you want to find out which way is west. You might begin to scan street signs and then suddenly realize that you could just look for the setting sun.

A new study explored the question of how the brain switches from an ongoing strategy to a new and perhaps more efficient one. The study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University, Humboldt University of Berlin, the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, and the University of Milan-Bicocca, found that activity in a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex was involved in monitoring what is happening outside one’s current focus of attention and shifting focus from a successful strategy to one that is even better. They published the finding in the journal Neuron.

“The human brain at any moment in time has to process quite a wealth of information,” said Nicolas Schuck, a postdoctoral research associate in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and first author on the study. “The brain has evolved mechanisms that filter that information in a way that is useful for the task that you are doing. But the filter has a disadvantage: you might miss out on important information that is outside your current focus.”

Schuck and his colleagues wanted to study what happens at the moment when people realize there is a different and potentially better way of doing things. They asked volunteers to play a game while their brains were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The volunteers were instructed to press one of two buttons depending on the location of colored squares on a screen. However, the game contained a hidden pattern that the researchers did not tell the participants about, namely, that if the squares were green, they always appeared in one part of the screen and if the squares were red, they always appeared in another part. The researchers refrained from telling players that they could improve their performance by paying attention to the color instead of the location of the squares.

Volunteers played a game where they had to press one button or another depending on the location of squares on a screen. Participants that switched to a strategy based on the color of the square were able to improve their performance on the game. (Image source: Schuck, et al.)

Volunteers played a game where they had to press one button or another depending on the location of squares on a screen. Participants that switched to a strategy based on the color of the squares were able to improve their performance on the game. (Image source: Schuck, et al.)

Not all of the players figured out that there was a more efficient way to play the game. However, among those that did, their brain images revealed specific signals in the medial prefrontal cortex that corresponded to the color of the squares. These signals arose minutes before the participants switched their strategies. This signal was so reliable that the researchers could use it to predict spontaneous strategy shifts ahead of time, Schuck said.

“These findings are important to better understand the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in the cascade of processes leading to the final behavioral change, and more generally, to understand the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in human cognition,” said Carlo Reverberi, a researcher at the University of Milan-Bicocca and senior author on the study. “Our findings suggest that the medial prefrontal cortex is ‘simulating’ in the background an alternative strategy, while the overt behavior is still shaped by the old strategy.”

The study design – specifically, not telling the participants that there was a more effective strategy – enabled the researchers to show that the brain can monitor background information while focused on a task, and choose to act on that background information.

“What was quite special about the study was that the behavior was completely without instruction,” Schuck said. “When the behavior changed, this reflected a spontaneous internal process.”

Before this study, he said, most researchers had focused on the question of switching strategies because you made a mistake or you realized that your current approach isn’t working. “But what we were able to explore,” he said, “is what happens when people switch to a new way of doing things based on information from their surroundings.” In this way, the study sheds light on how learning and attention can interact, he said.

The study has relevance for the question of how the brain balances the need to maintain attention with the need to incorporate new information about the environment, and may eventually help our understanding of disorders that involve attention deficits.

Schuck designed and conducted the experiments while a graduate student at Humboldt University and the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE) together with the other authors, and conducted the analysis at Princeton University in the laboratory of Yael Niv, assistant professor of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in close collaboration with Reverberi.

The research was supported through a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the International Max Planck Research School LIFE, the Italian Ministry of University, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the German Research Foundation.

Read the abstract.

Nicolas W. Schuck, Robert Gaschler, Dorit Wenke, Jakob Heinzle, Peter A. Frensch, John-Dylan Haynes, and Carlo Reverberi. Medial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Internally Driven Strategy Shifts, Neuron (2015) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.03.015.



Feeling pleasure at the misfortune of those you envy is biological (The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences)

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Abstract image courtesy of Shutterstock. By measuring the electrical activity of cheek muscles and associated neural responses, Princeton University researchers show that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.”

By B. Rose Huber, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

A new study by Princeton University researchers shows that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.”

Ph.D student Mina Cikara took up the topic of Schadenfreude after she wore a Boston Red Sox hat to a New York Yankees baseball game. Nicknames and vulgarities were among the souvenirs she took home. And, after hearing about the name-calling and heckling her then-PhD student endured, Princeton professor Susan Fiske was compelled to join her in pursuing the phenomenon further, exploring why people fail to empathize with others based on stereotypes.

Through a series of four experiments – one involving the aforementioned sports rivalry – the researchers found that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.” By measuring the electrical activity of cheek muscles, the researchers show that people smile more when someone they envy experiences misfortune or discomfort. While these findings hold significance for interpersonal relationships, the researchers also cite associated policy implications, such as how other countries view and stereotype the United States especially given that many countries envy the U.S., Fiske said. Their findings were reported in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

“Jealousy and envy are highly correlated,” said Fiske, coauthor of the study and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. “When we ask people on surveys who is envied in American society, they report the same groups: objects of jealousy. This is all very much based on stereotypes. And so, in this study, we sought to better understand who is among these envied groups and whether that envy and jealousy elicits a harmful response.”

“We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another’s expense,” said lead author Cikara, now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?”

In the first experiment, the researchers examined participants’ physical responses by monitoring their cheek movements with an electromyogram (EMG), which captures the electrical activity of facial movements when an individual smiles. Participants were shown photographs of individuals associated with different stereotypes: the elderly (pity), students or Americans (pride), drug addicts (disgust) and rich professionals (envy). These images were then paired with everyday events such as: “Won five dollars” (positive) or “Got soaked by a taxi” (negative) or “Went to the bathroom” (neutral). Participants were asked how this would make them feel, and their facial movements were recorded.

“Because people don’t like to report envy of Schadenfreude, this was the best method for gathering such responses. And, in this experiment, we were able to viscerally capture malicious glee,” Fiske said. “We found that people did smile more in response to negative than positive events, but only for groups they envied.”

In their second experiment, the researchers used self-reporting and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which measures blood flow changes associated with brain activity – to determine whether participants were willing to harm certain groups. Participants viewed the same photographs and events as the first study and were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of one to nine (from extremely bad to extremely good). Similar results emerged: Participants felt the worst about positive events and the best about negative events in regards to the rich professionals. Two weeks later, the researchers followed up with an online survey in which the participants were presented a scenario-based game that involved the option to hurt another person, such as through electric shocks in order to spare several others.

“People were willing to hurt an envy target, saying, ‘Yes, let’s shock her,'” Cikara said. “We found that surprising because we weren’t certain participants would self report that. While it’s true that people are generally averse to harming others, the bottom line is that people don’t feel this way all the time.”

Manipulating stereotypes was the goal of the third experiment. Using various scenarios regarding an investment banker as an example, the researchers threw counter-stereotypic information at participants. In one article, the banker was himself, employed and status quo. In another, he was advising clients pro-bono (eliciting pride). In the next, he was using his work bonuses to buy drugs (disgust) and, finally, he was unemployed but still dressing to go to work (pity). Again, the findings matched earlier experiments – participants rated the articles associated with disgust and envy with less warmth than the pride or pity scenarios.

“This experiment shows that the dimensions predicting envy are high status and competition, and, when you move those around, the envy goes away. This is consistent with the story about who gets envied and why. A lot of it is tied into money because that’s an easy thing to look at,” said Fiske.

In the final experiment, the researchers used Cikara’s experience – a game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Both groups of fans were prescreened for “intense fandom.” Participants were again monitored through fMRI and self-reports after watching a series of plays in which opponents struck out, scored runs or made fantastic plays. As predicted, participants reported experiencing more pleasure during positive outcomes for their team.

When a third neutral team – the Baltimore Orioles – was thrown into the mix, the fans reported little to no reaction to positive or negative events and did not wish to cause Orioles fans harm. But they were happy when their rival team lost to the Orioles, showing pure Schadenfreude, said Fiske. An online survey completed by participants two weeks later showed that both groups of fans were more likely to heckle, insult, threaten or hit a rival fan while watching the plays.

“We used a sporting event because it’s something you can bottle,” said Fiske. “Rabid fans are passionate about it, and we were looking for an intergroup phenomenon that reaches people where they live. This is certainly it. But it’s important to remember that this study isn’t just about sports teams. It’s about intergroup rivals of more consequence.”

Fiske thinks of the study as a simulation or model of group envy or harm.

“In our larger model of stereotypes, we find that when things go smoothly, people go along to get along with these envied groups. It’s when the chips are down that these groups become real targets of Schadenfreude.”

In terms of policy implications, Fiske and Cikara agree there are many.

“Around the world, the American government is seen as high status and competent but not necessarily as a group sharing other people’s or countries’ goals. So, as far as other people are concerned, we’re the world’s bullies, and we have data that show that,” said Fiske. “And so, if we want to work with another country, it’s not the respect we’re lacking; it’s the trust. We need to remember that these stereotypes really affect how we enter other settings.”

“A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It’s a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does,” Cikara said. “We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: Is competition the best way to get your employees to produce? It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that’s not what an organization wants.”

Funding for the work was provided by the Russell Sage Foundation, the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Princeton’s Center for Human Values, WWS’s Joint Degree Program in Social Policy and the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Fellowship (awarded to Cikara by Princeton University).

Read the abstract.

Mina Cikara and Susan T. Fiske. Their pain, our pleasure: stereotype content and schadenfreude. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2013. Vol. 1299 Sociability, Responsibility, and Criminality: From Lab to Law. Pages v–x, 1–100. Article first published online: 24 SEP 2013. DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12179

Downplaying positive impressions: Warmth versus competence (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)

By Michael Hotchkiss, Office of Communications

When people want to appear warm, they tend to agree, compliment, perform favors and encourage others to talk. When they want to appear competent, they emphasize their accomplishments, exude confidence and control the conversation. But people trying to manage how others see them also take advantage of a negative relationship between warmth and competence, according to Princeton University researchers Deborah Son Holoien, a graduate student in psychology, and Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology. Four studies detailed in this article found that people will act less competent to appear warm and act less warm to appear competent.

Holoien, Deborah Son and Susan Fiske. 2013 Downplaying positive impressions: Compensation between warmth and competence in impression management. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49: 33–41.

Read the abstract

This work was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.