Author Archives: mshifflett4

Effect of the Availability Heuristic on the Ebola Panic

A recent post by psychologist, Nate Kornell, called into question the Ebola virus and what actually led to the mass panic about the virus spreading throughout the world. Kornell blames the media and the human mind for most of the problems. He focuses his attention primarily on the availability heuristic as the major factor behind the fear and worry.

His research showed that the dangerous disease originated in West Africa, and leads to internal bleeding among other things that ultimately end in death. In September 2014, the virus surfaced in the United States for the first time. After the news spread about the first case, the talk and panic about the ebola virus spread like wildfire throughout the country. As one could expect, the media came running at the news of a rare, deadly disease entering US soil. Word of the disease in their home country caused hysteria among the American people. Article after article surfaced with the tiniest developments in the American cases, and sources providing the information even started popping up on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The media had gotten the public to believe that this scary, emergent virus was going to take over the world.

However, only 4 confirmed cases of Ebola have been found in the US. The reported cases have either been found in people just re-entering the country from places where the disease is very common, or are seen in medical providers who came in close contact with infected patients during the most severe stages of the disease. With this small of a percentage of people actually being affected by the disease, the chance of contracting it is extremely unlikely. The American people being so petrified of this disease spreading is actually a little ridiculous. It is not spreading in our nation, so what has led people to believe otherwise?

According to Kornell, the answer lies within the human brain. Ongoing news articles and reports about the virus lead to invoking a strategy called the availability heuristic. This cognitive, decision-making theory states that—the probability of an event is sometimes judged based on how easy it is to recall examples of the event. In this case, the more people see news about Ebola spreading in the US and how it is going to affect them, the more they continue to worry about becoming infected.

Personally, I was worried for a while that I would contract the virus just based on what I had heard through the news and from social media. I was constantly hearing news stories and reports about the outbreak of the virus and how it was spreading. Therefore, I assumed that the virus would eventually reach myself or someone in my family. I was scared for my life for a while because the media, along with the availability heuristic, led me to believe something that wasn’t necessarily true.

This is just like our in class example when we talked about the availability heuristic leading us to believe that more words start with the letter K, than words that have K as the third letter. This is another example of our minds, using things we see and how we organize them, to trick us into believing things that are false. In both the class example as well as the online article, the availability heuristic worked to alter our thoughts and opinions on things. In the Ebola scare, the American population was trying to decide whether the virus was a problem for them or not. Instead of people knowing the facts about the disease, all they knew was that they heard about the virus very frequently. They could quickly and easily come up with relevant examples of people being affected by the virus because it was on the news and in the media so often. The moral of this story is that the American people based their judgement primarily on availability when it came to the Ebola virus. They had no shortage of coming up with relevant examples, and the media made sure of that. References:

Does our Upbringing Affect Cognitive Skills?

A new study by Wiley calls into question how our raising and the way we’re brought up can affect our cognitive functions later in life. The study indicates that early experiences of environmental harshness (things like violence and abuse) and also the child’s temperament, can influence later problem-solving abilities. I chose this study simply because I have the chance to work with children in my future career and learning more about them is beneficial and interesting to me.

In the study, children with early exposure to harsh environments exhibited heightened levels of aggressiveness, boldness, activity and approach. Ultimately, these children were first studied at age two and by the time they were four, there were already signs of slower and less developed problem-solving skills. Furthermore, the children also displayed worse performance on standardized visual problem-solving tests.

I think I would say that I agree with and support this study, just based on personal experiences and the time I’ve spent with kids. Over the past two years, I mentored in a first-grade classroom every other day. While there, I got to observe and also help with giving tests and doing stations with the kids. A lot of the visual tests given resembled the cognitive tests we talk about in class. Some were memory based, and an example is where the kids would have to remember a certain pattern or even a word on a flashcard and then recite it after a couple seconds. On these tests, the theory that repetition improves memory was definitely visible. As the year went on, the kids steadily improved on the memory tests as well as the number of times that they answered with the right pattern/word.

With a majority of the kids in my class, I knew their story and their backgrounds. This allowed me to see that the kids that didn’t have a great home setting or even those who had been exposed to violence and harshness at a young age, struggled more with the cognitive tasks and just the school setting in general. These kids also struggled more on multiple choice tests and quizzes, so is this to say that these kids also have issues with the recognition tests? Even explicit memory with the conscious and direct memory testing, could correlate in the same way. Overall, it is clear that for the most part, kids with troubling years in the beginning of their lives are more likely to struggle in school (both socially and academically) and on problem-solving skills based on this study.

On the contrary, this is not the case in every child’s life. There are cases where children, despite their home life and the way they’re raised, go on to do great things and be successful. This study just hints at the majority of school-aged children and how their upbringing can negatively impact them.

Where Do Our Memories Live?

A recent article by Ira Hyman, discussed our long term memories and how returning to certain places where we have established memories will trigger these “forgotten” things and cause them to return to our brains. Whether that be a former house, an old school or even a trail that you hiked as as child. Re-experiencing these places and all they offer may cause our brains to retrieve old memories we had at the place, no matter how much time has passed.

In Hyman’s experience, he talks about the trip he recently made to his family home for a funeral and how as soon as he saw the old farmhouse, memories came flooding in of his childhood and all the fun times he had at the place. However, the memories don’t always have to be happy. They could also be sad or upsetting, and seeing a certain thing could bring the bad memories back up.

He talks about how sometimes it feels like the memories live in the location. You don’t necessarily think about things or experiences until something comes up to remind you or trigger something in your brain’s memory bank. You could even go months or years without thinking of something that’s happened o you, but then suddenly it’s brought back up.

Recently, I had a similar experience. We drove to Christopher Newport University for a basketball game. Background story- years ago, I broke my arm playing in a basketball tournament there and ultimately ended up sitting out part of my freshman season during high school. I hadn’t thought about this injury or the traumatic experience since. But as soon as we walked into the gym, it all came flooding back. This is exactly as Hyman said it would in his theory that memories live in certain places. It was very weird because as soon as we walked in, I could picture the exact spot where I broke my arm, even replay the event happening in my head. I also saw the bleachers that my mom came over from to check on me and take me to the hospital, as well as the training room where they first told me it was most likely broken and needed to go get x-rays. To go along with these memories of the actual event occurring, I also had flashbacks that included the hospital, the bumpy ride home with my arm in a sling and the morphine talking when I was all loopy singing in the backseat. All of these memories came back once I had seen the school and the gym where the injury originally occurred. If I hadn’t seen some of these places, I most likely wouldn’t have been able to recall some of these details of the event from so long ago.

This just goes to prove what the article said about memory retrieval, and also that our brain chunks certain things together so that when one memory is triggered, so are several more to go along with it. In general, this is referred to by many as the encoding specificity principle. This simply states that memory is improved when information available at retrieval is also available during encoding (ex. seeing a place or hearing a song). This relates to the memory process we talked about in class; really focusing on the encoding (initial learning of information) and retrieval (being able to access information when you need it) stages. In my case, the encoding step occurred when I broke my arm and the injury happened. The retrieval was more recent, when I re-visited the place where it happened.

Just like in the article when the farmhouse served as the place where those childhood memories lived, mine was Christopher Newport’s gym. Even after all the time spent not thinking about my injury or all the pain and trouble it caused, when I came face to face with the location, all the memories from the past flooded in. Not only did they come back in bits and pieces, but I was actually able to point out and remember specific details. Whether it be the location of a family death or even a happy place that you’re returning to, have you ever experienced a similar situation?

Concussions and their Impact.

In two recent studies presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting, concerns were raised about concussions and the impact they have on cognitive abilities. These researches believe that concussions have a negative impact on the athletes and individuals who suffer from this injury, especially in their mental functioning. They worry that the concussions may have long term and widespread effects on their mental health.

Study Number One: Visual Working Memory

In the first study, the researchers found that concussions have an effect on a person’s visual working memory. This refers to the ability to remember specific things you have seen. Scientists always knew the working memory was impacted by the injury, however, in this new study the evidence suggested that the impact lasts much longer than they originally believed.

To test this theory, two groups of people were given a visual memory test. The first group consisted of people ranging in age from 18 to 80, and the second a group consisted of college students averaging around age 21. Each group was made up of both people who had suffered from concussions and also people who had not. The participants in the study were shown a picture and then seconds later another image was shown and they were asked if it was the same image as before. Overall, the people who had never experienced a concussion answered the questions more accurately (for the most part) than those who had history with a concussion. The results showed that regardless of how old these people were or when their concussions occurred, those who had a concussion previously in their life did worse on the memory test.

Visual working memory is a well-known and well-discussed topic in psychology. In class when we talked about working memory, we related it to tests like the digit span which is used to determine the holding capacity of working memory. This is similar to the study that was used in the experiment which tested visual working memory. Both tests were forms of looking at working memory in different ways to compare how our brains work when compared with other’s.

Study Number Two: Attention Defects

The second study looked at individuals and their ability to pay attention. Researches found that people with concussions in their medical history had a general lack of awareness in social situations compared to those who hadn’t. The participants in the study were given an MMN test. This test involved showing a person a flashing letter M on the screen and then switching it to an N to measure if the brain activity spiked when the letter switched. This would indicate that the person was indeed paying attention to the activity. The results showed that people who had concussions in their lifetime did not have the same spike that those who had not did. This meant that the concussions in their history affected their attention abilities. Again, concussions had a negative impact on the individual’s mental health.

In cognitive psychology some of the topics we focus on include attention, memory, problem-solving and thinking. It is clear that both of these studies look at how people process information and their ability to perform certain tasks based on whether they have experienced a concussion before compared to if they had never had that type of brain injury. Scientists that conducted this study plan to do additional testing on how concussions affect people’s thinking abilities. However, until then, it is pretty clear that based on the evidence in these two studies, it can be said that concussions have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and their ability to use working memory or pay attention to their surroundings.

As an athlete, I found this study to be interesting and also a little bit alarming based on the evidence shown. It’s crazy to think a game I play today could affect my mental skills when I’m older and more developed in life. The results that these scientists found indicate that people (like myself) who play sports and put themselves at a higher risk for brain injuries like concussions to occur have a greater chance of developing mental functioning problems later on in life. That is the scary reality that all athletes put themselves at risk for their own entertainment, but also in some cases for money or popularity. Hopefully in the future better research can be done to help prevent so many concussions from occurring in today’s world.