cognitive ability

Smart drugs not so smart after all

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stick_figure_sitting_on_pills_1600_wht_13337There’s been much discussion over the years about smart drugs, adults taking medication intended for treating ADHD to keep them more alert, and students using them to stay awake as they prepare for exams.

New research however suggests you might be better off actually having a sleep. Or a cup of coffee – or both if you want to power nap (caffeine takes about 20 minutes to affect you so a quick coffee followed by a 20 minute power nap and when you wake up the caffeine has kicked in). Or a run in the park.

But back to the medication. The two commonest smart drugs used are methylphenidate (or Ritalin) and modafinil and the latest evidence suggests that they are over-rated when it comes to enhancing overall cognitive performance.

Researchers at Oxford University compared the results of experiments examining the effectiveness of smart drugs, coffee, and non-pharmaceutical interventions such as sleeping and exercise.

Ritalin was found to improve memory consolidation but not necessarily retrieval. It had no affect on improving attention and in the highest performers actually impaired their cognitive function. (Imagine what it’s doing to kids given this stuff).

Modafinil is used to treat narcolepsy and sleep problems and is said to be used by business people travelling across time zones so they are alert when they arrive at their destination. It was found to improve attention but not memory.

Caffeine helped to sustain attention but only on simple tasks.

Sleep however had a positive effect with even short spells of 6 minutes improving some brain functions.

Bouts of exercise helped speed of learning, episodic memory and long-term memory with the effects lasting up to two days.

So what’s your preference? Self-medicating on drugs designed for other purposes or taking more exercise and getting a good night’s sleep

See earlier post on this topic

 

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Keep busy to keep smart if you’re over 50

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brain_with_questions_1600_wht_9219Older people with busy lifestyles do better on cognitive tests than younger people according to scientists at the University of Texas who studied 330 people aged 50-89 years of age..

Everyday conversation frequently touches upon the busyness of daily schedules. People discuss their packed to-do lists and make inferences about the impact of their busy lifestyle on their health and mental function.”

Some research suggests that a hectic life could be good for you. “Busyness could be related to increased effortless engagement at work home and in leisure activities, which can have advantageous consequences on neural health and cognition

Other research implies the opposite. “Busyness could be related to increased levels of stress which can have negative consequences on the brain and cognitive function“.

Stress has been shown to narrow attention, impair working memory, interfere with knowledge acquisition,and degrade perceptual-motor performance. High stress even increased the risk of death.

The researchers asked people how busy they were, whether they were so busy that they went to bed later than planned etc. They also carried out cognitive tests and found that those with busy lives had significantly better mental abilities, particularly episodic memory.

So is it being busy that is keeping people mentally fit? James Flynn‘s latest research suggests that stimulating environments can improve your IQ and we know that learning new things is good for you.

If you want to get brighter, only mix with the brightest, or suffer the consequences

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head_gear_500_wht_2011That’s according to Professor James Flynn, who was once considered controversial because of his research which suggested that people were getting more intelligent each generation – the Flynn Effect.

In his new book “Does your family make you smarter” he proposes that intelligence, rather than plateauing at 18 years of age, can increase throughout adulthood, providing you have a stimulating lifestyle.

Households where people talk, challenge, joke  and share cultural pastimes can boost the IQ of family members by several points.

And workplaces that impose intellectual challenges on staff can over time raise their individual intelligence.

The opposite is also true. People who share a home or workplace with dullards for any length of time risk seeing their IQ enter a sharp decline because of lack of stimulation.

Flynn says “Intelligence has always been thought to be static … the new evidence shows that this is wrong. The brain seems to be rather like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets. That means you can upgrade your intelligence during your lifetime“.

He suggests the best way to improve your IQ is to marry someone smarter than you, find an intellectually stimulating job, and hang out with bright friends.

Up to now we’ve believed that intelligence is controlled by genes influenced by our nutrition and environment up to age 18 when it stabilises.

Flynn’s research took 65 years of IQ tests from the US and correlating the  results with the age of the people creating IQ age tables. From these he draws two conclusions. The cognitive quality of a family alters the IQ of all members but especially children i.e. it can lift them or hold them back.

For example a bright child of 10 with siblings of average intelligence will suffer on average a 5-10 point IQ disadvantage compared to a similar child with equally bright brothers and sisters.  A child with a lower IQ can gain 6-8 points by having brighter siblings and educational support.

The effects are more clear in the early years with arithmetic skills strongly controlled by the home environment up to age 12 and verbal skills affected up to teenage years.

He also believes, based on this research, that although genetics and early life experience determine about 80% of intelligence the rest is strongly linked to our lifestyle as adults.

As you leave childhood behind the legacy of your family diminishes but the game is not over. A large proportion of your cognitive quality is now in your own hands. You can change it yourself and your IQ can vary through life according to your own efforts” says Flynn

“Going through life feeling your childhood is holding you back is misunderstanding how much power you have to improve yourself”.

I don’t know if his book (out next month) makes any reference to the use of technology and social media and its impact of family interaction because that would have some impact.

This is certainly a game-changing idea and will undoubtedly be challenged although there has been other research which suggests there is something more to IQ than commonly believed.

In 2011 researchers at the University of Pennsylvania said that they found that high IQ scores are a result of high intelligence plus motivation whereas low IQ scores could be because of the lack of either intelligence or motivation (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

They also said that students offered incentives improved their IQ scores and suggested that people with high IQs may be not only more intelligent but also more competitive

There is also research that shows you can improve the collective IQ of a group by adding more women.

Research in Scotland found that people with mentally stimulating jobs suffered less cognitive decline as they got older.

And recently researchers at the University of Texas found that busy over-50s had higher cognitive scores than younger people.

Experts in emotional intelligence have long held that EI, unlike IQ, continues to develop into adulthood. Now it seems we have the capacity to develop both our cognitive and socio-emotional skills.

Three-day week perfect for over 40s

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ThumbsUp-maleIt helps them keep sharp. Well long weekends are something I’ve espoused for years so it’s nice to see some scientific evidence.

Economic researchers in Japan (where there is a culture of long hours and karoshi  – death by overwork) analysed the employment habits and cognitive test results of 3,000 men and 3,500 women above the age of 40 in Australia, including retired and unemployed people.

They found that a part-time job is the best balance between keeping the brain stimulated and becoming completely exhausted through stress.

People who worked about 25 hours a week tended to get the best scores. Those who didn’t work at all scored about 20% lower on the series of tests (reading, numbers and patterns).

Working 40 hours a week was linked to a slightly smaller cognitive deficit but working 55 hours or more was worse than being retired or unemployed.

Working over 50-55 hours is known to cause heart problems in men in particular and an increase in error rates and accidents. The Whitehall study of 10,000 civil servants also found that people who worked working 55 hours a week did worse on cognitive tests than those who kept to 40 hours. Despite this body of knowledge the UK government still opted out of the European Working Time Directive.

Many countries have extended or scrapped the state retirement age and many people face the prospect of working into their 70s. Finnish experts have already warned that people may not be physically or mentally capable of sustaining the effort required to continue in their jobs.

Some companies , like BMW, have invested in modifying the workplace to cater for older employees but they are probably an exception.

Marianna Virtanen, a Finnish Occupational Health expert (they are hot on OH in Finland) who led the Whitehall studies in the mid-80s said that the new research seemed to show tat “Middle-aged and older people should limit their working hours to keep their cognitive capacity fit“.

She did wonder whether a long working week caused a drop in cognitive ability or whether a drop in cognitive ability led to people working longer hours to compensate. She conceded however that “In certain jobs where there is a lot of intense focus and concentration is needed, working long hours may be more exhausting to cognition“.

Feedback & its impact on Women in Teams

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P1000161Receiving feedback on how individuals in a group are performing on can reduce your cognitive ability.

That’s according to researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute who used MRI technology to study how the brain was processing information about the group processes and how it effected cognitive capacity.

Researchers ranked performances on tasks and then shared that information with the group. After the feedback some people’s problem-solving ability declined significantly and that was particularly true for women.

The researchers think that subtle social signals in group settings affect cognitive functioning or, as the Daily Mail put it: “being in a group lowers your intelligence especially if you’re a women“.

This is interesting because not long ago I posted on how adding women to your group raised its collective IQ. This was attributed to women having better social skills, or more social sensitivity (similar to emotional intelligence). Teams displaying social sensitivity would be more open to feedback and constructive criticism.

I wonder if in this experiment the sharing of feedback introduced an element of competition rather than cooperation and raised stress levels which impact on problem-solving ability.

Other research has found that men are more competitive than women on the whole and this gender competition gap could explain why in this experiment giving feedback was not an advantage for women and of course for the team as a whole.

Originally posted on SGANDA

Rudeness and the bottom line

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SGA_diagram_7-bad-graphWe seem to becoming less polite to each other at work. 15 years ago 1 in 4 employees said they were treated rudely at least once a week.

Ten years ago that number had doubled. 4 years ago 1 in 4 employees reported seeing workplace rudeness on a daily basis.

And it isn’t just rudeness between co-workers. 25% of customers reported rude behaviour from service providers. Half said they saw colleagues being rude to each other, half said they saw customers being treated rudely, and 40% said they experienced rudeness on a monthly basis.

Of course it goes both ways and customers and the public can be just as rude to service providers’ front-line staff.

Research shows that rudeness has detrimental effects on a business. People on the receiving end report losing focus and even having time off or thinking of leaving. They also begin to avoid the perpetrators.

Rather than rely on subjective self-reports (after all one person’s rudeness is another person’s bluntness) researchers Christine Porath and Amir Erez designed a series of experiments to study the effect of rudeness – both indirect viz being rude about the participants’ reference group, and direct by being rude to participants personally.

They found that people treated rudely only once, and in an indirect and impersonal manner, were less able to perform simple cognitive tasks. And the same applied to those who were only asked to visualise such a situation. Both groups lost focus and their task performance worsened.

For those subject to direct personal rudeness the effects were much worse. They were less creative on a “uses for a brick” test and their ideas were less diverse and more routine eg build a house.

Creativity, which requires the juggling of ideas old and new and the integration of possibilities, was impaired and so was helpfulness.

People treated uncivilly are less inclined to help others. In one experiment helpful behaviour occurred between 75% and 90% of the time but when the experimenter was rude about the group as a whole helpful assistance dropped to 35% and when insulted personally by a stranger it dropped to 24%.

Overall they found that even mild forms of rudeness, whether delivered by an authority figure or a stranger, whether direct or indirect or just imagined, had an impact on performance, creativity and helpfulness.

The researchers don’t think this effect was because of the desire to retaliate or strike back but perhaps because the targets of rude behaviour either shut down or use their cognitive assets to make sense of the behaviour rather than using them to learn and complete the tasks.

They also found that just witnessing rude behaviour was enough to make people perform tasks less effectively and less creatively as well as making them less likely to be helpful. It could also provoke them into acting more aggressively.

And rudeness in organisations can mean a range of behaviours from taking credit for others’ work, ignoring messages, not asking politely or saying “thank you”, to having temper tantrums.

Unfortunately in organisations it’s been found that rude, arrogant, managers are often perceived as powerful and effective decision-makers. However the truth is that rudeness not only impacts on employee engagement but on the bottom line.

Porath and her colleagues estimated it cost the US economy $300 billion in lost productivity when they were researching their book “The Cost of Bad Behaviour: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It”.

Originally posted on SGANDA

Rude, Arrogant, and Powerful

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S1032849Being conscientious is a good predictor of performance in a job.

It doesn’t mean however that you will be seen as powerful.

The evidence suggests that it is the rude and arrogant person who is perceived as being a powerful decision-maker.

A paper published in Social Psychological & Personality Science (2011); “Breaking Rules to Rise to Power...” found that people rated rule-breakers as being more in control and leaderlike than conscientious types.

Researchers in Amsterdam wanted to see if the reverse were true. If you break the rules are you seen as more powerful? And the answer appears to be yes.

People in positions of power have more freedom to act and can ignore the rules. Research has shown that powerful people often ignore the social norms of he workplace for example by taking more than their share of the biscuits from the plate, eating with their mouths open and spreading crumbs.

In the Dutch experiments participants were given scenarios in which people violated the rules at work by stealing coffee and ignoring financial anomalies. A control group was given similar scenarios without the norm violations. Participants recognised the norm violations but also rated the culprits as more powerful.

Then, in a real-life experiment in a waiting room, one of the confederates who arrived late and threw his bag on the table was perceived as the more powerful. In another video experiment they tested the hypothesis that powerful people react with anger rather than sadness to negative events, in this case treating a waiter brusquely and dropping cigarette ash on the floor.

The authors say; “as individuals gain power they experience increased freedom to violate prevailing norms. Paradoxically these norm violations may not undermine the actor’s power but instead augment it, thus fuelling a self-perpetuating cycle of power and immorality“.

Rudeness is a cross we have to bear in the workplace. Surveys show that the percentage of employees experiencing rudeness at work more than once a week doubled between 1998 and 2005 from 25% to 50%. In fact in 2005 25% of employees experienced rudeness every day.

This has a negative effect on the organisation as people lose focus, try to avoid the rude person, are less productive and think more about leaving. And you don’t have to be the object of the rudeness. According to American researchers, just witnessing it effects your cognitive ability in problem solving, flexibility, creativity, and helpfulness. Like stress the rude encounter makes us more stupid.

And it seems more than 9 out of 10 people get even with the rude person or the organisation in some way eg through vendettas. And rudeness seems to be contagious making us ruder and more aggressive than we would be normally. So not good for the organisation let alone customers and employees.

On the other hand research at the University of Michigan shows that virtuous behaviour has the opposite effect. The more people experience helpfulness, forgiveness, generosity, courage, and support – or even just witness it – the more they are likely to do the same.

So virtuous behaviours encourage flexibility, creativity and good team work and makes employees feel good at work, thus enhancing employee engagement.

But what of the rude and arrogant people themselves? A report in the Psychologist this year described the work of Russell Johnson and colleagues at Michigan State University who developed a Workplace Arrogance Scale (WARS) to use in their research. This measured behaviours such as “shoots down other people’s ideas in public“.

First they defined arrogance as “behaviours that exaggerate your importance and disparages others“. So first cousin to narcissism except that narcissism includes thoughts and attitudes that don’t effect others such as self-admiration.

Their research showed that arrogant individuals report fewer examples of organisational citizenship behaviours such as helping people and going the extra mile. So confirmation of other research in this field.

They then looked at how good arrogant employees were at their jobs. They used the WARS, measures of overall task performance and performance in specific areas such as customers, relationships, and development. Individuals rated themselves and were rated by nominated individuals in their organisation – a selective 360 degree survey.

They found that arrogant workers were rated as being weaker in almost every way by their raters. Some people who rated their managers as arrogant also rated them as poor across the board so there was possibly a horns (negative halo) effect or just some of the payback other researchers have found.

Perhaps surprisingly arrogant employees also rated themselves weaker at relationships and overall performance with both their supervisors and direct reports in agreement. In another study the arrogant individuals reported lower self-esteem and more job-related strain. They also seem to fixate on minimising mistakes rather than focussing on success.

As the research didn’t include objective measures such as sales figures, it might be that arrogant employees realise they are ostracised and because of their low self-esteem join with their critics and discount themselves about their perceived performance.

My most read posts in 2014

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Screen Shot 2012-10-05 at 22.49.07My output on this blog was pretty paltry last year as I was busy writing elsewhere and tweeting (probably too much!)

However the number of countries in which my lists were read more than doubled to 85 countries, mainly the USA, the UK, and Brazil but also in Suriname, Belize, Lebanon, Qatar, Algeria, Sri Lanka, the Faroe Islands and China. So thank you for such an international interest.

For what it’s worth the most read posts on this blog in 2014 were:

  1. Thinking outside the box – literally
  2. MBTI typies – for the believers
  3. Empathetic introverts make the best carers
  4. Learning to become an optimist
  5. Using social media impacts on academic performance
  6. Mentally challenging jobs are good for you
  7. Can scientists really change your memories
  8. Were the Victorians really smarter than us?
  9. Your partner’s personality adds value
  10. End of the road for Positive Psychology at work? jointly with Gender differences in responding to stress

Mentally challenging jobs are good for you

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head_gear_500_wht_2011If you think you’ve got a difficult, complex, job stop whingeing now.

Researchers have found that working on complex tasks which require a lot of brainpower protects your thinking skills in later life.

Teaching, managing people, dealing with complicated data and similar work  helps the brain to remain sharp after the age of 70.

Over a 1,000 people from the Lothian birth cohort of 1936 who had been tested in the Scottish Mental Health Survey of 1947 were tested  for memory, mental processing speed and general thinking ability by researchers at universities in Edinburgh.

They then assessed the complexity of their jobs using the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, They found that those who had worked in difficult jobs had an advantage.

Professor James Goodwin, head of research at Age UK said “The relationship between work we do during our lives and our health in later life is a complex one so this finding is a welcome step forward ….. the more we can find out what influences cognitive ageing, the better advice we can give”.

The study was published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

 

Trainee Teachers to be tested for “emotional resilience”

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Kindadukish's Blog - I am not a number, I am a free man (The Prisoner)

Future teachers will be subjected to new “personality tests” from September to make sure they can communicate with pupils in the classroom.

The tests are designed to ensure that new staff have the organisational skills necessary for lesson planning and the “emotional resilience” to cope with the pressures of badly-behaved children. They are part of a wider shake-up of the teacher training system planned by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

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Other key measures include tougher literacy and numeracy tests – with a restriction on the number of times trainees can retake them. In addition, those with only third-class degree passes will be banned from accessing grants for training, while those with first-class honours will be eligible for generous incentives.

The tests are designed to show the “non-cognitive” ability of applicants, who will be expected to fill out a computer-based questionnaire gauging their response to a series of situations. Academics…

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EI good – Impulsivity bad? Not always

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Most people will think that being emotionally intelligent is a good thing and being impulsive is not.

A study reported last year from Illinois State University found almost the opposite.

Impulsivity was linked to more  examples of organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), discretionary acts that promote the organisation, across a range of industries. Impulsive colleagues are more likely to help out colleagues even at the expense of their own work assignments than more cautious diligent employees.

This reflected what the researchers called a “can do” attitude. In this study they didn’t find any evidence that impulsivity led to more deviant behaviours. Other studies have shown that impulsivity but also optimism and cognitive ability can predict deviant behaviours so recruiters beware!

A far as emotional intelligence (EI) is concerned they didn’t find it linked to OCBs but more linked to deviant behaviours. People with high EI can easily figure out how to influence others and get away with self-interested behaviour such as fiddling receipts (does this remind you of the dark side?).

Other recent research at the University of Leuven in Belgium found that self-serving leaders could still be effective even if they weren’t emotionally intelligent? (It was assume that the more narcissistic self-serving leaders would have lower levels of EI).

It seems it depends on the level of distributive justice (e.g. are employees getting what they deserve?)

When distributive justice was perceived as low, then self-serving leaders were seen in a negative light. But when these  leaders keep their staff happy e.g. by promotions and other rewards, the staff saw them in a more favourable light (perhaps unsurprisingly).

If anything this kind of research shows that we need to be careful not to make broad assumptions about the positive value of these personal attributes. Don’t forget narcissists and psychopaths can be charming (and manipulative).

Apples and pears – the bottom line!

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Apples and pears – what fruit is my bum? It’s no longer just a question of “Does my bum look big in this?” but “what fruit is my bum?” Apparently pear-shaped women, such as Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez, are more at risk of developing dementia than apple-shaped women, such as Catherine Zeta Jones. Obesity is known to be bad for your health but it’s not just whether or not you have put on weight but where it goes. Pear-shaped women tend to put weight on their hips whereas apple-shaped women … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission