Purdue Psychological Sciences researcher explores prospective memory during problem solving, ostracism

Sebastien Helie

Sebastien HeliePhoto by Tim Brouk

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Vanilla Ice once stated, “If there’s a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.”

That’s great, Ice, but before your DJ revolves it, can you remember the steps you took to solve the problem, especially if you were being ostracized?

Recent research published by Sébastien Hélie, professor in the Purdue University Department of Psychological Sciences, examined how male and female participants recalled the steps it took to solve a digital version of the Tower of London problem-solving task. The Tower of London is a common exercise in memory research, which calls for a participant to move at least three different-colored balls in a particular configuration from one peg to a different peg but in a new, specific order. This must be executed in the fewest steps possible.

In the study, which consisted of 320 Purdue undergraduate students, half of the participants experienced ostracism when playing a game of Cyberball, which has the participant “playing catch” with computer characters. Ostracized participants did not receive the ball after the initial toss. Hélie found interesting differences and similarities between ostracized participants and the half of participants that had a nice game of Cyberball catch with the video characters.

“In the ostracized group, you get the ball once, and then everyone ignores you, and they just throw the ball to each other,” said Hélie, noting Cyberball is a creation of Purdue Psychological Sciences professor emeritus Kip Williams and is used nationwide for ostracism studies. “That actually has been validated and used a lot to simulate ostracism, which is known to generate stress. Indirectly, it was a way to stress people.”

Overall, there was little difference between ostracized students and students who were not ostracized in terms of recalling steps. When broken down by sex, included male participants executed the Tower of London test in fewer steps than female participants. However, excluded male and female groups performed equally well, which suggested ostracism may have an equalizing role between the sexes because the male performance decreased when ostracized.

Why did you choose this topic to research?

My lab has a lot of interest in problem solving in general. I’m interested in individual differences in problem solving. For the same problem, why is it that some people find this particular problem harder and some people don’t find it as hard? We actually found people use very different strategies. Some people actually tend to plan more. When you present them with a problem, they look at it and start thinking before they start manipulating the object. Whereas others just jump in and start doing things without much planning.

We’re trying to find factors that would incentivize people to do more planning and think more about the problem so they can learn more useful skills. From our previous research, when you do the planning, it makes it harder for you in the short term, but you will do better later.

Why did you use the Tower of London problem during this research?

This is a common problem that is used to evaluate frontal lobe damage when people are aging or have damage to the frontal part of their brain. It’s a good measure of planning ability.

Why focus on ostracism?

We were expecting ostracism would impact planning and make people not as good at the planning stage and not be able to recall their planning as well. What we ended up finding is the ostracism manipulation interacted strongly with the participants’ sex. Essentially what we found is that the ostracism manipulation did not have an effect for female participants whereas it decreased performance for male participants.

What are your overall thoughts on the results of this work?

We think some of these results are due to the Tower of London being a spatial problem, and on average, males tend to have better spatial ability than females. But the fact that the females were not affected by the ostracism was very interesting. We know from previous research outside of my lab that females tend to be more affected by ostracism, but we also know that they’re better at regulating their emotions. So, it could just be that they were better at dealing with being excluded from the Cyberball game.

Your overall work uses “neuroeconomics.” What does this concept entail, and how do you utilize it in your research?

The idea is that your brain essentially always calculates how much work it needs to do something and how much reward it will gather from doing the thing. It then makes economical “decisions.” It doesn’t mean you’re consciously thinking and pondering, though; you’re acting. Sometimes it could just be reflex, but your brain still has to do it.

The field of neuroeconomics is interested in how the brain calculates these values. It uses methods from behavioral economics, which usually has the reward as money. In neuroeconomics, that reward can be food, sugar or money, for example. There are all kinds of rewards. So, one of the hot topics is measuring the values and developing a common currency for decision making. You can essentially interpret people’s decisions based on a neuroeconomic framework.

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