Friday, March 4, 2011

Cognitive Modification

This is interesting and scary:

Cognitive-bias modification (CBM) is based on the idea that many psychological problems are caused by automatic, unconscious biases in thinking. People suffering from anxiety, for instance, may have what is known as an attentional bias towards threats: they are drawn irresistibly to things they perceive to be dangerous. Similar biases may affect memory and the interpretation of events. For example, if an acquaintance walks past without saying hello, it might mean either that he has ignored you or that he has not seen you. The anxious, according to the theory behind CBM, have a bias towards assuming the former and reacting accordingly.
The goal of CBM is to alter such biases, and doing so has proved surprisingly easy. A common way of debiasing attention is to show someone two words or pictures—one neutral and the other threatening—on a computer screen. In the case of social anxiety these might be a neutral face and a disgusted face. Presented with this choice, an anxious person instinctively focuses on the disgusted visage. The program, however, prods him to complete tasks involving the neutral picture, such as identifying letters that appear in its place on the screen. Repeating the procedure around a thousand times, over a total of two hours, changes the user's tendency to focus on the anxious face. That change is then carried into the wider world.

This is all very speculative, and it will be a while before they get it useful, if they ever do.  But would be great news if this technique works to help people.

The scary part is that this research shows how easy it is to alter people's thinking.  For example, consider a video game where you have to shoot zombies while avoiding shooting civilians.  Anyone who plays the game will learn to focus on the zombies, looking for them while ignoring the unthreatening people.  This is the exact opposite of the treatment presented in the article: it trains people to subconsciously pay more attention to anything that looks or acts threatening.  It will, according to this research, make them more anxious people.

Of course, if we have good research showing that video games have no such effects, then that makes us doubt the effectiveness of the therapy.  As far as I know, all of the research comparing video games to life outcomes shows that they have almost no effect on anything.  But that research does not look at exactly what type of game people are playing.  It may be that some games have good effects and some have bad effects.  Maybe games cause a mix of behavioral changes, some good and some bad.  Perhaps they make people more anxious but increase the ability to focus and solve problems.

What we would need in order to do proper research is a large-scale data collection project that looks at the actual titles of games people buy and play, and then tests them in various ways.  Of course, there is no reason to single out games.  You should look at the movies and TV shows they watch too.

If we ever do get a good, secure, electronic medical records system, then it should be merged with other kinds of data like this.  Grocery stores keep extensive records on the food that people buy, and it would be fairly easy to link that to medical records.  Your Netflix viewing history could be easily merged, as could the records of what you spend with your credit cards.  Then public health researchers could start crunching numbers.  Maybe they would find that people who play a certain video game are more likely to be anxious, or that people who watch certain movies are more likely to suffer from depression, or that one particular food is especially harmful.  The benefits to people from this kind of knowledge would be massive.

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