Lately it seems I have been so busy with my hands that I haven't exercised my mind by indulging in one of favorite pastimes - reading. Yesterday I had my annual doctor's appointment and had the good sense to bring a few journals with me that contained articles I had on my reading list, including one that referenced the famous Stroop Test (at right, throughout this post).
I knew from previous experience that with only People magazine and the other brainless publications doctor's offices stock, that I would be trapped half-naked for a seemingly interminable amount of time if I didn't bring my own reading material.
Armed with journals in the Psychological Science family, I didn't even notice how long I had to wait. And, as it turns out, I was smart to bring more than one journal because later when I met Mr. Field Notes for lunch, I had to wait again while he worked the kinks out of the new pagination system he uses to get the pages out at the newspaper. By the end of the day, I had read several articles, all of them food for thought!
I believe I showed an admirable level of inhibitory restraint by not immediately reading the primate articles. Topics ranged from temperament and personality development, vision, oxytocin, and immunity. I learned some really cool things that would be fun to incorporate into lectures.
For now, I'll share just this one.
TEMPERAMENT & PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT
Every animal is born with a biologically based temperament that affects how it responds to the environment. In time, this temperament becomes its personality.
Attentiveness to stimuli and the ability to control inappropriate responses are two very important aspects of temperament. Among humans, these two facets of temperament affect empathy, conscience, and feelings of guilt. In other words, some fairly high-level emotional and cognitive processes.
A person who is attentive to the subtle emotional cues of others is prepared to be empathetic. To act appropriately in response to another's distress, people also have to control or inhibit the negative feelings that distress arouses. Not all people are equally biologically prepared to be attentive or to inhibit. Those who are less prepared are probably not going to empathetic or have the "conscience" necessary to help, for example.
The question the authors pose in the article is whether people can learn to be more attentive and to demonstrate greater control and inhibition of inappropriate reactions. In other words, can you take an individual who demonstrates little empathy, conscience, or guilt (hallmarks of psychopathy) and teach him or her to be a kind and decent human being?
From reading the article, I discovered there is an alternate Stroop task that can be used to test how well (illiterate) 3 year olds can control and inhibit responses. The stroop test presents words of colors in a color that sometimes matches the word and sometimes conflicts with it. So, "red" could appear in red or blue ink, just like "yellow" could appear in blue or yellow ink. The idea is to say as fast as possible the word, not the color. People have a difficult time controlling the urge to say the color. You can take a Stroop test by clicking here (you'll need shockwave) and following the directions. At the end you'll get to learn more about it by following the links.
The cognitive mechanism involved in the Stroop family of tests is called "directed attention." To perform well on the tests, you have to pay attention to subtle changes in stimuli and inhibit/stop one response in order to do another.
It's a little bit like paying attention to subtle changes in the muscles of a person's face in order to tell when they aren't so happy with something and then having to override your feelings of wanting to avoid getting sucked into their unhappiness so that you can then respond effectively. This matters in valuable caregiving relationships such as parent-child and romantic partners, but control is relevant for a wide variety of other emotions and social relationships.