The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Cohen’

Want To Lose Weight?: Consider the Situational Values of Values

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 3, 2012

The outstanding Wray Herbert has a terrific piece on The Huffington Post about research done by Situationist Contributor, Geoffrey Cohen.

Dieting and weight control are really pretty simple. We gain weight and have trouble losing it because we eat too much and move too little. If we can switch that around, most of us should be able to maintain a sensible weight without resorting to unhealthy gimmicks.

But that’s just the biology of weight control. What about the psychology? Why do we habitually take in too many calories, even when we know those calories are a ticket to obesity and all sorts of chronic diseases?

There are two major reasons for unhealthy weight, according to experts. One is a simple lack of self-control. We live in a society where every day we confront an abundance of high-calorie foods. Not overeating in this environment requires extraordinary discipline. The second is an inability to cope with stress. Struggling with ordinary but constant life stresses can drain the cognitive energy needed for discipline, weakening our resolve. Stress-related eating packs on unhealthy calories, contributing to weight gain — and over time to obesity.

What if there were a simple psychological intervention that addressed both of these issues at once — bolstering self-control and buffering against everyday stress?

I know. It sounds like one more gimmick, too good to be true. Perhaps, but in a new study, two psychological scientists propose just such an intervention — along with some preliminary evidence to back it up. Christine Logel of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University describe a brief and simple way to give people the tools for resisting temptation and coping with life’s pressures.

It’s called “values affirmation,” and it’s done with a simple writing exercise. The theory is that focusing on one’s core values triggers a cascade of psychological processes: It bolsters a sense of self-worth and personal integrity. It underscores our higher values rather than our impulses, and by reminding us what’s really important in life, it buffers against mundane stresses. Since stress saps our limited cognitive resources, such an affirmation frees up these resources for willpower and self-discipline.

At least that’s the theory, which Logel and Cohen tested in a simple experiment. They recruited a group of young women (apparently, women are more prone to stress-related overeating), recording their baseline weight and body mass index, or BMI. The women were representative of North American women in general. That is, nearly 60 percent were overweight or obese, the rest normal. Notably, all were dissatisfied with their current weight.

Then half of the women wrote an essay about their most cherished values — religious beliefs, relationships, whatever they considered most important to them. The remainder, the controls, wrote about something they did not prize particularly, and why it might be important to someone else. Importantly, none of the values in the exercise had to do with weight or health.

That’s it. That’s the entire intervention. Then the scientists waited for about 2.5 months, at which point they called all the volunteers back into the lab. They again measured their weight and BMI, and also their waistlines. They also gave the volunteers a test of working memory, which is one of the cognitive processes crucial to self-control. Reducing stress should theoretically boost working memory capacity, and consequently discipline.

The results, reported online in the journal Psychological Science, were clear and quite dramatic. The control subjects gained 2.76 pounds on average, and this gain boosted average BMI as well. Anyone who has ever struggled with weight knows that this is a huge weight gain in just 2.5 months. It’s the equivalent of more than 13 pounds in a year — for no particular reason. By contrast, those who had completed the values affirmation lost an average of 3.4 pounds — also huge — and trimmed their BMI in the process. Women in the values intervention also had smaller waistlines, independent of BMI. And these women also had better working memory, suggesting that it was indeed their enhanced cognitive function that bolstered their self control. Even the most seriously overweight women experienced these dramatic results after the brief writing exercise.

Losing even a few pounds and keeping them off can be maddeningly difficult. So how could one brief intervention like this have such long-term results? The scientists believe that people can get stuck in repeating cycles, in which failure to lose weight impairs psychological functioning, which in turn increases the risk of more failure. Even a quick and simple intervention has the power to disrupt this destructive cycle.

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Geoffrey Cohen on “Identity, Belief, and Bias”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2009

Situationist Contributor, Geoffrey Cohen spoke at the Second Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) Conference (in March of 2008).  His talk, titled “Identity, Belief, and Bias” summarized research exploring the way in which motivations to protect long-held beliefs and identities contribute to bias, resistance to probative information, and ideological intransigence.  You can watch Cohen’s outstanding presentation in the following videos (each roughly 9 minutes in length).

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” “The Project’s Second Conference – ‘Ideology, Psychology & Law’,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” and “The Implicit Value of Explicit Values.”

Posted in Ideology, Life, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of the Achievement Gap

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 20, 2009

ClassroomSituationist Contributor Geoffrey Cohen has received a lot of attention in the media over the last week because of fascinating research he and his collaborators are doing and reently desribed in Science regarding one way to help reduce the achievement gap in education.

Here are excerpts from one such story, this one, titled “Study: Writing About Values Boosts Grades, Shrinks Achievement Gap,”  by Lea Winerman for Online NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

* * *

A short self-affirming writing exercise that took only about an hour of class time boosted struggling black junior high school students’ grade point average by nearly half a point over two years, according to a new study.  The surprising result, published this week in the journal Science, suggests a new way to combat the persistent achievement gap in grades, test scores and graduation rates between black and white students, according to the researchers. “The intervention is relatively brief, but it’s powerful in a lot of ways,” says [Situationist Contributor] Geoffrey Cohen, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado. Cohen and his colleagues followed more than 400 seventh-grade students at a suburban public school in Connecticut.

The school’s population was about half black and half white. In a series of 15-minute writing assignments, the researchers asked half of the students to complete a self-affirming exercise: to choose from a list of values — such as relationships with friends and family, athletic ability and smarts — and write about the value most important to them. A control group was asked to write about why the values they ranked as unimportant might matter to someone else. In early results published in 2006, the researchers found that the exercise reduced the achievement gap between black and white students by 40 percent over one term. Researchers said the exercises benefitted low-achieving black students the most, while they appeared to have little impact on white students or already high-achieving black students.

In the new study, Cohen and his colleagues tracked the students until the end of eighth grade. They found that the benefits for low-achieving black students continued for the entire two years — students who completed the self-affirmation exercise raised their GPA by four-tenths of a point compared to the control group. They were also less likely to need remedial work or to repeat a grade — 5 percent as compared to 18 percent of the control group. The intervention continued to have no effect on white students and high-achieving black students.

That such a small intervention could have such big effects “surprises most people to the point that some people I know didn’t believe the initial finding,” says psychologist Richard Nisbett, an expert on achievement and intelligence at the University of Michigan. “But what makes it believable to me is that, as a social psychologist, I’ve learned that ‘dinky’ things sometimes have big effects.”

The exercise is based on a tenet of psychological research called stereotype threat. Previous studies have found that when people are reminded of negative stereotypes about their racial, gender or other group, the stress of worrying about confirming those stereotypes can negatively affect their performance. The self-affirmation exercise, by reminding students about what is really important to them, could help reduce that stress, the researchers suggest. And by timing the intervention to occur at a crucial period such as the beginning of middle school, Cohen says, the benefits could compound.

“Performance is recursive,” he says. “If you start off at something and you’re stressed and do badly, then that makes you do worse the next time. And that seems to happen a lot in middle school, where you see this downward spiral [...] By just tweaking [the students] a bit you could set them on a totally different trajectory.”

But Cohen added the intervention is not a panacea to solve all students’ educational woes. “We have no illusions that this is a silver bullet,” he says, “our philosophy is that the more positive forces in a child’s life, the better. That includes good teachers, good homes [...] and then also psychological interventions.”

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationsist posts, see “Stereotype Lift – The Obama Effect,” “Sexism: The Worst Part Is Not Knowing,” “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” Race Attributions and Georgetown University Baseketball” “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers,’ “The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

Posted in Education, Implicit Associations, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 854 other followers

%d bloggers like this: