Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When losing control can be useful.

Apfelbaum and Sommers do a simple experiment that suggests that diminished executive control can facilitate positive outcomes in contentious intergroup interactions. Here is their abstract, followed by a description of how the subject's sense of executive control was manipulated:
Across numerous domains, research has consistently linked decreased capacity for executive control to negative outcomes. Under some conditions, however, this deficit may translate into gains: When individuals' regulatory strategies are maladaptive, depletion of the resource fueling such strategies may facilitate positive outcomes, both intra- and interpersonally. We tested this prediction in the context of contentious intergroup interaction, a domain characterized by regulatory practices of questionable utility. White participants discussed approaches to campus diversity with a White or Black partner immediately after performing a depleting or control computer task. In intergroup encounters, depleted participants enjoyed the interaction more, exhibited less inhibited behavior, and seemed less prejudiced to Black observers than did control participants—converging evidence of beneficial effects. Although executive capacity typically sustains optimal functioning, these results indicate that, in some cases, it also can obstruct positive outcomes, not to mention the potential for open dialogue regarding divisive social issues.
Now, the following dinking with executive control to generate 'depleted' participants sort of makes sense to me, but I'm not sure I really get it...
The Attention Network Test is a computer-based measure of attention. We modified the ANT component typically used to gauge executive control into a manipulation of executive capacity. Across multiple trials, participants were presented with a string of five arrows and instructed to quickly and accurately indicate the direction of the center arrow (i.e., whether the arrow was pointing left or right). The center arrow was either congruent (i.e., ←←←←←, →→→→→) or incongruent (i.e., →→←→→, ←←→←←) with its flankers; correct responses to incongruent trials thus required executive control to override the natural tendency to follow the flankers. Participants in the depletion condition were presented with congruent and incongruent stimuli, whereas participants in the control condition viewed congruent stimuli only.


  1. John Ralston Saul, a social thinker from Canada, writes a book that you might find interesting both in this and your over all context. In his book, 'On Equilibrium", Saul makes a case that human intelligence is distorted by making our ability to be rational the "dictator" in the hierarchy of our other abilities which he arbitrarily but thoughtfully lists as, Imagination, Ethic, Memory, Common sense, Intuition and Reason. Instead of subsuming the five into the one- Reason- we are better served if we let reason do its job of thinking and arguing, and then let Imagination do its thing when the situation calls for it-etc. Each ability relates on the same level of status in equilibrium; each plying its trade when the situation calls. One thing I see in this experiment, is that with a tired "dictator", the subjects other abilities such as Ethic and Imagination- even Intuition could play their roles.

  2. Interesting ideas. Here is another recent bit in a similar vein:

    Homo Heuristicus: Why Biased Minds Make Better Inferences

  3. Deric, thanks for your direction to the reference but I couldn't get the url to work. It might be due to some digits being cut off by the page format. Would you mind reprinting it? I'm curious to look it up. Thanks, Mike.

  4. The link in the post is working for me. Here it is:

  5. Opps, sorry, this is the link to article I mentioned in my comment, again it is working for me. Be sure you don't have an line returns when you paste it in the browser.

  6. Thanks! using my email for your reply did the trick.