Saturday, October 31, 2015

Performance under pressure

Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person...number two was death...this means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy

Jerry Seinfeld

There are various methods of inducing acute stress in order to look at its effects on psychology. Indeed, some people use psychological tests themselves as a stressor (e.g. an attention task that requires multitasking under time pressure). However, a method that's been of interest to my colleagues and me over the last few years is the Trier Social Stress Test (or TSST for short), a method that capitalises on most people's fear of public speaking.

Picture the scene: you are requested to take part in a study assessing the effects of stress. On appearing at the laboratory, you are then informed that the study will involve you giving a 5-minute presentation on why you are the ideal candidate for a job of your choice. You are led into a room with two evaluators who have been trained not to give any encouraging feedback (including non-verbal signs such as nodding or smiling), where you must make your presentation.  

This is a relatively real-world-style stressor (most people will have to make a presentation like this at some point in their lives, although hopefully to a more encouraging audience). Not surprisingly, most people find it fairly aversive. The TSST has been shown to increase reported stress, anxiety, and broader measures of negative mood in general, as well as heart rate, the stress hormone cortisol and immune system activation.

The TSST has been used to look at the effects of stress on cognition. There is some conflicting evidence on its effects on memory, with some findings indicating that higher cortisol spikes led to better word recall, but other findings indicated the opposite relationship. It is possible that the effect of stress on word recall may be moderated by the emotional valence of the words used, with more emotional and particularly more negative words being easier to recall. Context-dependent memory strikes again!

More complex cognitive tasks have also been put to the stress test. A particularly interesting paper has indicated that a modified version of the Trier with a greater social rejection component led to improved creative performance. This effect was more pronounced in those with high levels of the hormone DHEA-S, which the authors point out has been linked to depression. This could have some interesting implications for the whole creativity and depression archetype, although that's a whole debate in itself...

What is unfortunate (but understandable) in the area of research using the TSST is the lack of research using performance on the speech task itself as a measured performance outcome. It's unfortunate as this is cognitive performance that is occurring when the stressor is present, or at least at its most pressing. It's understandable as performance on a task such as giving an interview speech is harder to score objectively than a dry recall test. This would be the case even if everyone were applying for the same job, although in practice, as research participants generally choose the job they would want most as an individual, you end up with 30 people saying why they would be best for any number of different career types. Nonetheless, one could imagine a method like the consensual assessment technique being used in collaboration with someone from a recruitment agency (who could score talks for characteristics that are generally desirable in interviews across a variety of occupations).

Allen, A. P., Kennedy, P. J., Cryan, J. F., Dinan, T. G., & Clarke, G. (2014). Biological and psychological markers of stress in humans: Focus on the Trier Social Stress Test. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews38, 94-124.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

But is it creative?

If you write an article, draw a picture, or simply daydream of an interesting plot for a film, what makes your idea creative (or not)?

Typically, there are two aspects to definitions of creativity-one is that of novelty, the other is value/usefulness. Robert Weisberg (who has written one of the most interesting books on the psychology of creativity that I have read) begs to differ. In the book "Creativity" and more recently in an article in Creativity Research Journal he suggests that we define a creative product simply as being something novel that is produced deliberately-without the need for value.

As Weisberg points out, tastes in evaluating creative outputs change over time. Van Gogh would never have won the X-factor if there were an equivalent for the visual art of his time. Music that might have sounded chaotic and devoid of musicality to an earlier audience might be a rocking tune to (some) modern ears. A technical invention that does one thing when it is invented might be useful in other ways when combined with newer technology that gets made decades later, thereby increasing its value. However, if we want to take a psychological approach to studying creativity, is there not something absurd about implying that the same cognitive processes go from creative to uncreative, based on the fact that the critical appraisal or technical needs of the outside world change over time?

A focus on novelty over value could perhaps move the field in a more objective direction. If you look at methods used within creativity research, the consensual assessment technique involves judges appraising the value or quality of a creative work-it would be very difficult (and perhaps contradictory) for these judges to set aside their ideas on the value of a creative work. Not that appraising originality is always easy, but it should be easier for two people with the same information in front of them to judge whether the latest contribution to the field overlaps with something that has gone before. As Weisberg points out, there are different levels at which we can judge novelty-coming something that's new for everyone is a high bar, but coming up with something that new to you requires a certain creativity, even if you could have relied on rote memory had you known it before.

Although these are valid points, I feel that focusing purely on novelty would lose some of the nuance of studying creative output. Certain psychometric tests of creativity look at the level of elaboration of an idea. A particularly complex new idea, even if it does not meet certain other criteria for "high value" within its field, may nonetheless draw on different cognitive processes than a more minimalist idea (notwithstanding the deliberation that can go into ideas that are very simple on the surface-hence it's good to look at the process and not just the product). Thus, even though two ideas may both be completely (and thus equally) new, they may differ in other relevant characteristics. However, I will admit that elaboration is more an interesting aspect of creative work rather than a defining feature.

Frankly I'm undecided on whether this would be a good move. At a first blush, there seems to be something liberating about not having to worry about whether a song is going to push a genre of music in new directions. However, when creativity is a driving force behind (sustainable?) economic development, and improved lifestyles, I can understand why some people are happy to live with the contradictory idea of someone becoming creative after death.  

Weisberg, R.W. (2015). On the usefulness of "value" in the definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 27(2), 111-124.

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