Author Archives: hmckeen

Is Your Knowledge Really Yours?

We all have a “know-it-all” in our lives. Whether due to age, immaturity, personality traits, or some combination of all three, most of us can call to mind someone who thinks they know far more information about far more topics than they really do. We have probably all been there ourselves through our insufferable teenage years. While these individuals can be quite irritating, is it possible that our modern world is contributing to the development of these so called “know-it-alls?” An National Public Radio (NPR) article I read recently discusses research that found that most people’s quick and easy access to Google and other search engines that provide answers to just about any question you can think of within a matter of milliseconds may be contributing to people’s feelings that they know far more than they actually do.

Why and how does this happen? As we have learned this semester, humans are subject to limited cognitive resources that we often seek creative ways to overcome such as the use of heuristics we discussed in class recently. The mind can increase its efficiency and available cognitive resources by using outside resources to supplement one’s own cognition. For example, when we are trying to recall an event from our childhood, we might ask a parent to describe the event or look at pictures in an old photo album to refresh our memory. This reliance on the memory and cognitive resources of another individual to supplement our own limited cognition is known as a transactive memory system. While these transactive memory systems can be beneficial in numerous ways and were likely used by our ancestors to aid in survival, they are subject to a variety of cognitive biases. When we treat the immediately accessed and numerous “cognitive resources” of search engines such as Google as an all-knowing partner in our transactive memory system, we begin to have difficulty differentiating between the information we actually know and the information continuously at our fingertips without ever realizing it (Fisher et al., 2015). This can lead to an inflated sense of one’s own abilities and that all too familiar “know-it-all” mentality.

Research conducted by Fisher et al. (2015) asked participants to rate their self-reported intelligence on a variety of different topics and unrelated questions under several different conditions. For example, in one trial of the study, researchers asked participants a question such as “Why are there leap years?” and allowed half of the participants to search the internet for an answer to the question and asked the other half to use only their own knowledge. Next they asked that same group of participants to rate how well they felt they could answer another unrelated question such as “How do zippers work?” using only their own knowledge. The participants who had been allowed to use the internet to answer the first question tended to rate their ability to answer the second unrelated question higher than the participants who answered the first question using their own knowledge. This inaccurate inflation of knowledge was found time after time under a variety of different conditions. Participants who were allowed to search the internet rated their cognitive abilities as higher than those who hadn’t been provided that opportunity, even if the non-internet group was provided with the same information a different way (Fisher et al., 2015).

These “shared” cognitive resources and heavy reliance on the internet as our trusty transactive memory system partner has a variety of implications for our efficient navigation through the world. If we cannot reliably rate our own knowledge and recognize our own cognitive shortcomings, what’s to say our ability to make decisions or perform any number of cognitive tasks is reliable either? While I tracked down and read the original article from the study, the NPR source did an adequate job highlighting key findings from the study, although it was somewhat lacking in background information to help readers understand the foundational concepts. The takeaway message? Consider where your knowledge is coming from before you assume confident ownership of it.


Fisher, M., Goddu, M. K., & Keil, F. C. (2015). Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 674–687.

Is Panic Spreading Faster Than Coronavirus Itself?

Over the last several weeks, our world has been in the thick of a global pandemic for the first time since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. As scary as the novel coronavirus has been and continues to be for individuals across the world facing threats to their health, the loss of employment, and difficulty feeding their families and paying their bills, this pandemic has provided an interesting opportunity to learn about human behavior in its most primitive form. Over the last few weeks as I have gone out to purchase groceries for my family, I have observed the empty grocery store shelves that cannot possibly keep up with the panic-buying Americans are engaging in, as well as individuals behaving in ways that would likely be totally out of character for them under better circumstances. Why are people fighting over the last gallon of milk and hoarding toilet paper like the world is coming to a swift and certain end? Fear. Fear of illness, fear of loss of their livelihood, and most critically fear of the unknown.

I came across an interesting article published by National Geographic that attempts to explain the science behind why coronavirus is spreading panic possibly faster than the virus itself. The article states that extreme responses from people such as the panic-buying I mentioned above are a common way for humans to cope with uncertainty, because stocking up on supplies gives people a sense of control when they are facing such a rapidly changing and frightening situation. Fear and anxiety are, evolutionarily speaking, adaptive characteristics that helped our ancestors survive in the wild. A healthy amount of fear keeps us safe. We have to anticipate and plan for possibly dangerous scenarios and situations if we want to stay alive. However, that fear and anxiety can in some cases become pathological and lead to anxiety disorders and other cognitive distortions. Biologically speaking, the frontal cortex allows us to perform some of the higher order cognitive functions we have discussed in class so far such as decision making and planning. The amygdala helps to regulate our emotions related to the situation at hand. Panic occurs when fear, an emotional response, makes it impossible for us to make rational higher order decisions using our frontal cortex. Hence the supply hoarding in the case of panic-buying. The article mentions too that panic is a nonsocial behavior that doesn’t help much in situations that present long-term threats, such as the spread of coronavirus. Taking precautions against coronavirus requires performing an accurate risk assessment and effective planning as a result of that assessment. Our frontal cortex is rendered unable to perform these higher order functions when our sense of fear is so overwhelming that our minds are forced into fight or flight mode. I found this interesting because while panic won’t help us cope with our current uncertain situation, millions of people are turning to this rationally out of proportion response.

Additionally, a particular cognitive bias comes into play in situations like this. The availability bias is our tendency to think that examples or events that we can call to mind easily due to frequent exposure have a greater likelihood of occurrence than they actually do. In terms of coronavirus, if you’re like me, you’re checking in with major news channels several times a day to stay up to date on the latest statistics, governmental actions and precautions, and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. While it is certainly good to keep yourself informed so that you can take precautions to protect your health and safety and that of your community, inundating ourselves with national news headlines at a time like this perhaps fuels the widespread fear and anxiety and leaves us with a sense of hopelessness and empty grocery store shelves. Fear is an adaptive response but over the long term can become problematic in and of itself. Let us all remind ourselves to take a step back and rationally consider our next steps despite the frightening situation we have all been stuck in. Everyone is experiencing many similar fears and anxieties and acting out of these emotions instead of stopping to make rational decisions. These behaviors may inadvertently harm members of our communities and leave healthcare workers scrambling to find supplies so that they may continue their life saving work. This National Geographic article did a good job explaining the psychological principles discussed in the article and provided readers with an opportunity to take a break from the scary news to learn something interesting about how the human mind functions.


Can Hearing Aids Slow Cognitive Decline?

Many of us may have had some first-hand experience with grandparents or other older loved ones who vehemently deny their need for hearing aids, even after family members become frustrated having to yell just to be heard. In the final years of my grandparent’s lives, both my grandmother and grandfather, who lived to be in their 90s, desperately needed hearing aids due to normal age-related decline in their hearing abilities. However, as is common among older adults in this situation, they both refused to admit that their hearing wasn’t what it once was. Even after we were able to convince both of them to get fitted for a hearing aid, the times they actually wore them were few and far between.While this experience can be frustrating for the loved ones of those affected by hearing loss, many wouldn’t expect hearing loss to be directly related to other facets of one’s health and wellbeing. A National Public Radio (NPR) article I read recently shows that this is actually incorrect.

This article discusses research that found that untreated hearing loss can expedite age-related cognitive decline. As part of a longitudinal eighteen year study of 2,000 older adults in the United States, researchers with The University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found that the use of hearing aids in adults suffering hearing loss can slow the age-related decline of cognitive abilities by as much as 75 percent (Maharani et al., 2018). In this study, cognitive abilities were assessed every two years with simple memory tasks such as recalling a list of ten words under a variety of different conditions. I found these significant findings to be quite surprising, but once you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. In this course thus far this semester we have talked about how our sensory systems take stimuli from the environment and translate those stimuli into neural signals and information our brain can process and use to do things like make decisions. While we have focused in large part on the visual system so far in our cognitive psychology course, we know that all five of our senses accomplish similar goals. Therefore, a gradual decline in hearing capabilities over time translates to a gradual decline in sensory input and neural activity in the corresponding areas of the brain. In addition, hearing loss can in some cases lead to a decrease in social opportunities and stimulation (Maharani et al., 2018). This lack of social stimulation may also decrease neural activity in the brain and further expedite cognitive decline.

These same researchers also conducted a recent study on the relationship between age-related vision loss and cognitive decline. Similar to hearing, vision plays a critical role in gathering input and information from our environment that our visual system converts into neural signals for processing in the brain. A common ailment in the visual system among older adults is cataracts. Cataracts obstruct the visual field sometimes to the point of partial blindness. For reasons similar to those discussed above in the context of hearing, a decline in visual input translates to a decline in neural activity in the brain. Researchers found that restoring good vision through cataract surgery can slow the rate of cognitive decline by as much as 50 percent (Maharani et al., 2018).

The NPR source did a good job summarizing key findings in both of the two related articles it discussed. The source connected the findings from the articles in a way that made sense and was easy to follow for the average reader. I think cognitive decline during aging is such an interesting and important area of study. With all of the ever-advancing medical technology that exists today, people are living longer than they ever have at any point throughout history. It is important that we spend time learning how to keep our minds healthy through all of these extra years. Perhaps the next time you hear a loved one deny their hearing loss or need for hearing aids stating, “you all just need to listen better,” you should present this research to them to provide some extra convincing!

Maharani, A., Dawes, P., Nazroo, J., Tampubolon, G., & Pendleton, N. (2018). Cataract surgery and age-related cognitive decline: A 13-year follow-up of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. PLOS One, 13(11).

Maharani, A., Dawes, P., Nazroo, J., Tampubolon, G., & Pendleton, N. (2018). Longitudinal relationship between hearing aid use and cognitive function in older Americans. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 66(6), 1130-1136.

Are Toddlers Really Smarter Than Five-Year-Olds?

An interesting National Public Radio (NPR) article I happened across recently made a bold claim in its title “Yes, Your Toddler Really Is Smarter Than a Five-Year-Old.” I happen to have a toddler myself, so articles such as this that relate psychology to various facets of parenting and child development are quick to grab my attention. This article goes on to discuss a study conducted at the University of California, Berkley studying cognitive development where children between the ages of 18 and 30 months were able to recognize the relationship two identical blocks had in causing a toy to play music. This demonstrates an important cognitive ability to determine casual relationships and use that information to guide actions, which is crucial for successful interaction with the world and demonstrates a propensity for higher-order thinking (Walker & Gopnik, 2014).

The original research conducted by Walker and Gopnik (2014) details the steps involved in carrying out this study, which I will briefly summarize here. In the training trial of this study, researchers introduced a new toy and three pairs of blocks to children ranging from ages 21 to 24 months. They demonstrated to the toddlers that each identical pair of blocks caused the toy to play music, but any one individual block did not. Researchers demonstrated this three times with each pair of blocks. In the next phase, the researcher placed a new block on top of the toy and presented the child with three additional blocks to select from to activate the toy: a new block that was the same as the one placed on the toy, a new block that was not the same as the one placed on the toy, and a familiar block from the training portion of the experiment. This process was repeated in two separate trials. Researchers found that children chose the correct matching block significantly more often than the other two blocks that were presented to them. Researchers also conducted a similar experiment with a broader age range (18 to 30 months) and found similar results.

How can psychology, specifically cognitive development, explain the eye-catching title of this article? Toddlers from about the age of 18 months onward can reason abstractly and detect patterns and relationships between objects in part because they lack the knowledge and experience necessary to focus on the more concrete details. On the other hand, older children have a tendency to focus on the characteristics and details of the objects themselves rather than the relationships between them (Walker & Gopnik, 2014). In this way, toddlers truly are smarter than five-year-olds, at least until children achieve a level of cognitive maturity that allows them to simultaneously detect patterns and relationships between objects as well as the characteristics and details of the objects themselves. As children mature and develop, they lose some of their ability to think abstractly, at least for a short period of time. Children in this study demonstrated an ability to engage in causal learning, which goes above associative learning to make inferences in completely new situations and interactions.

While I was able to track down and read the original journal article, the NPR source did a good job explaining the key findings and takeaways of the research in a way that was concise and easy to understand for those without training in cognitive psychology. I have always been interested in focusing on the child development aspect of psychology, both cognitively and behaviorally, in a future career. Being a parent has provided me the opportunity to observe so many of these psychological principles and milestones happening firsthand, which I find to be truly fascinating. Young children, even those who are for the most part too young to communicate verbally, are so much more intelligent and astute than we realize or give them credit for. This research study is the perfect example of that.

Walker, C.M., & Gopnik, A. (2014). Toddlers infer higher-order relational principles in causal learning. Psychological Science25(1), 161-169.