CogSci 2016 Day 1 Personal Highlights

I stepped out of the airport Wednesday night and my glasses fogged up. Ah, what a reminder of the world that awaits outside southern California, where I’m immersed in my PhD work. I had arrived in Philadelphia for CogSci 2016 to be bombarded by fascinating new work on the mind and behavior and the clever researchers responsible for it.

With 9 simultaneous talks at any time and over 150 posters on display during each poster session, I of course only got to learn about a fraction of all that was there. Nonetheless, here are some projects that are still on my mind after day 1:

  • Cognitive biases and social coordination in the emergence of temporal language (Tessa Verhoef, Esther Walker, Tyler Marghetis): Across languages, people use spatial language to talk about time (i.e., looking forward to a meeting, or reflecting back on the past). How does this practice come about? To investigate language evolution on a much faster time scale than occurs in the wild, this team had pairs of participants use a vertical tool (I believe the official term was bubble bar, see below). to create a communication system for time concepts like yesterday and next year. The pairs were in separate rooms, so this new communication system was their only way of communicating. Each successive pair inherited the previous pair’s system, allowing the researchers to observe the evolution of the bubble bar communication system for temporal concepts. Over the generations, participants became more accurate at guessing the term their partner was communicating (as the bubble bar language was honed), and systematic mappings between space and time emerged; that is, although each chain ended up with pretty different systems, within a single chain people tended to use the top part of the bar to indicate the same types of concepts (i.e., past or future), and used systematic motions (for example, small rapid oscillations for relatively close times like tomorrow and yesterday and larger, slower oscillations for more temporally distant concepts).

    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.27.45 AM
    The bubble bar
  • Deconstructing “tomorrow”: How children learn the semantics of time (Katharine Tillman, Tyler Marghetis, David Barner, Mahesh Srinivasan): This team had children of varying ages place time points (like yesterday and last week) on a timeline. They analyzed different features of the kids’ timelines to investigate at what age kids seem to understand three different concepts of time (or that they begin to understand these concepts in ways that adults do). The first was whether a time is in the past or future relative to now (did kids place it to the left or right of the now mark on the timeline?). The second aspect they looked at was whether kids understand sequences of different times – for example, that last week comes before (to the left on a timeline) yesterday (regardless of where those events were placed compared to now). Finally, they compared the way kids’ timelines showed remoteness – how temporally distant different events are from now – to how adults showed the same concept. Adults, for example, will place tomorrow quite close to the now mark and next year significantly farther away. They found that kids acquired an adult-like sense of remoteness much later than the first two – deictic (past vs. future) and sequence – concepts. While the latter two concepts reliably emerged in kids by 4 years old, but knowledge of remoteness wasn’t present until much later – after 7 years old. These data are an indication that while kids can pick up a lot of information about what different time words mean from the language they encounter, they may need formal education in order to really grasp that tomorrow is much closer to today than last year was.
  • Gesture reveals spatial analogies during complex relational reasoning (Kensy Cooperrider, Dedre Gentner, Susan Goldin-Meadow): After reading about positive feedback systems (i.e., an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to more increase in A…) and negative feedback systems (an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to a decrease in A), participants had to explain these complicated concepts. Even though the material that people read had almost no spatial language , spatial gestures were extremely common during their explanations (often occurring without any accompanying spatial language in speech). These gestures often built off each other, acting as a way to show relational information through space, and they suggest that people invoke spatial analogies in order to reason about complex relational concepts.

    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.49.08 AM.png
    Sample Gestures showing (from left to right) a factor reference, a change in a factor, a causal relation, and a whole system explanation.
  • Environmental orientation affects emotional expression identification (Stephen Flusberg, Derek Shapiro, Kevin Collister, Paul Thibodeau): Past work has shown us that we not only talk about emotions by using spatial metaphors (for example, I’m feeling down today, or your call lifted me up), but we also invoke these same aspects of space to think about emotions. In the first experiment, the researchers found that people were faster to say that a face was happy when it was oriented upwards and that it was sad when oriented downwards (both of which are considered congruent with the metaphor) than for the incongruent cases. Then, to differentiate between an egocentric (facing up or down with respect to the viewer’s body) and environmental (facing up or down with respect to the world) reference frames, people completed the same face classification task while lying on their sides. This time, they only showed the metaphor consistent effect (faster to say happy when faces were oriented up and to say sad when faces were oriented down) when the face was oriented with respect to the world – not when the orientation was with respect to the person’s own position. This talk won my surprising finding award for the day, since researchers often explain our association between emotion and vertical space as originating in our bodily experiences: we physically droop when we’re sad and we rise taller when we’re happy. That explanation isn’t consistent with what these researchers found, though, suggesting that people’s association between vertical space and emotions was critically an association involving vertical space with respect to their environment, and not their own bodies.
  • Context, but not proficiency, moderates the effects of metaphor framing: A case study in India (Paul Thibodeau, Daye Lee, Stephen Flusberg): People use metaphors they encounter to reason about complex issues. For example, when a crime problem is framed as a beast, they think that the town should take a more punitive approach to dealing with it than when that same problem is framed as a virus. What if you encounter this metaphor in English, but English isn’t your native language – does the metaphor frame influence your reasoning less than it would influence a native English speaker’s? People from India (all of whose native language was not English) read the metaphor frames embedded in contexts, and reasoned about the issues that were framed metaphorically. Overall, people reasoned in metaphor-consistent ways (i.e., saying that crime should be dealt with more punitively after it was framed as a beast than a virus). Their self-reported proficiency in English did not affect the degree to which people were influenced by the metaphor; people who were more fluent in English were not more swayed by the frames. However, the context in which they typically spoke English, did play a role: Those who reported using English mostly in informal contexts, such as with friends and family and through the media, were more influenced by the frames than those who reported using English more in formal contexts, like educational and professional settings. These experiments don’t explain why those who use English more in informal settings were more swayed by metaphorical frames than those who use the language more in formal settings, but it opens the door for some cool future research possibilities.

Check back for highlights from days 2 and 3!

Are we less emotional when speaking a foreign language?

We’d probably like to think that we’d make the same ethical decisions when speaking our native language as a foreign one, but a recent study by Costa and colleagues at the University of Chicago argues against that intuition. They argue that when we speak a foreign language, we experience emotional distancing, and therefore make decisions that are more utilitarian and less emotionally-based.

Their experiment relies on the trolley problem, a ubiquitous philosophical dilemma. In the “footbridge” version of the dilemma, respondents are asked to imagine standing on a footbridge above railroad tracks. They see a train heading toward five people on the tracks. If it hits them, they’ll die. There’s one way to avoid these five deaths, which is to push a fat man, standing nearby, down onto the tracks. Thus, one man will die, but five will be saved. Alternatively, the respondent can choose not to actively push the man off, and the five people will be hit.


In general, people are reluctant to push the man off the bridge. Even though that would be the more utilitarian option, losing one life and sparing five, the emotional distress of physically pushing the man off keeps us from choosing this option. However, when the researchers presented bilinguals (who spoke a variety of different languages) with the problem either in their native or foreign language, they found that regardless of what the native and foreign languages were, people tended to choose the utilitarian option significantly more when they responding in their foreign language. In fact, the rate at which they chose the utilitarian option went from 20% (when presented the problem in their native language) to 33% (when presented in their L2), and increase of more than half the original response rate. The authors suggest that a “reduced emotional resonance of a foreign language leads individuals to be less affected by an emotional aversion to pushing the man, allowing them to make more utilitarian decisions.”

However, there are a few alternative explanations, which the researchers explored with a follow-up experiment. The first is that when people are asked the trolley problem in their non-native language, processing the question increases their cognitive load and thus makes them more likely to respond at random. This could explain why the rate of choosing the utilitarian option was affected in the direction of becoming closer to chance (50%).

To test this, the authors used a second version of the trolley problem, the “switch” task. In this case, the respondent doesn’t have to push a man off a bridge in order to sacrifice his life for the five. Instead, he or she has the choice to pull a switch, which will redirect the train from the track it was on, heading toward the five people, to one in which there is only one man. Again, the respondent can choose to change the situation so that one life is lost instead of five, but people are more apt to choose the utilitarian choice in this case than in the footbridge case, as they feel less directly responsible for the sacrifice. Thus, if presenting the problem in a foreign language makes people more likely to choose randomly, there should be no effect of whether the question is framed in a person’s native or non-native language. That is exactly what the researchers found.

In the footbridge version of the trolley problem, people were much more likely to select the utilitarian option when responding in their L2. In the switch version, however, native-ness of language did not affect response patterns.
In the footbridge version of the trolley problem, people were much more likely to select the utilitarian option when responding in their L2. In the switch version, however, native-ness of language did not affect response patterns.

Another possibility for the original findings that was addressed in the follow-up is that speaking a language primes a person for the cultural norms associated with that language. The second experiment crossed language and nativeness by using a group of English/Spanish bilinguals and a group of Spanish/English bilinguals. Both groups showed differed response patterns in their native languages (whether it’s English or Spanish) than in their foreign languages, effectively ruling out the possibility that language is just a prime for associated cultural values.

Another cool finding was that the less proficient a person was in their second language, the more utilitarian their responses. Assuming that a foreign language induces people to emotionally distance themselves from the situation at hand, it seems logical that being less proficient in that language results in even greater emotional distancing.

In the switch version of the problem, neither the language used or the proficiency of the speaker affected responses. In the footbridge version, however, the less proficient a speaker was, the more likely he or she to choose the utilitarian option.
In the switch version of the problem, neither the language used or the proficiency of the speaker affected responses. In the footbridge version, however, the less proficient a speaker was, the more likely he or she to choose the utilitarian option.

Since millions of people speak a foreign language every day and are inevitably making ethical decisions while doing so, these results are pretty important. I wonder what the world would be like if we all spoke one language and therefore made all our decisions in our native language… more emotionally-based? And would that be a good thing?


Healing words

One of my favorite recurring themes is the power that language has over our cognition. Lots of research has been devoted to words’ healing powers, and today I’m thinking about that because I turned to writing, as I often do, as a way to cope with my own inner turmoil.

In empirical studies, participants who write about negative events tend to have fewer negative feelings after the event than those who don’t write or who write about something irrelevant. And when I think about the most stereotypical demographic of diary writers, I think about middle school girls, who are often bursting with angst and turn to writing as an outlet.

Even when I look back on my own journals, which I’ve been keeping since I learned to write (though the spelling in my first few may suggest that I hadn’t quite learned yet), it sort of seems like my life has been one drama-filled roller coaster ride. On the contrary, my life is quite steady. If it were a roller coaster, it would be one of those for kids ages 5 and under, whose hills and valleys are barely existent. But at the end of a fine day in which I went about my routine and nothing notable happened, I don’t have the desire to write. I’m drawn to my journal during times of stress, times in which I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in my world, ameliorate some situation, or put an event behind me. Subconsciously, it seems, journal-keepers must know the therapeutic power of their words.

A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.
A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.

Recently, one study reported that writing about traumatic events may also have a physically therapeutic effect. All participants gave small skin biopsies that left a wound on their arm, and their wounds were photographed every 3-5 days until they were healed, and all had a writing task that they completed daily. Seventy-six percent of the participants who wrote about traumatic events were completely healed after 11 days, while only 42% of the participants who wrote about their plans for the next day were healed. While it’s only one of many studies that shows a link between state of mind and physical health, the fact that writing can produce such a measurable healing effect is pretty neat.

This is also interesting in the context of another article that talks about the use of diaries in European ICUs. Many patients, especially in England, are given diaries to keep while in the hospital, and those who are unable to do so often have family members who keep it for them. Not only do these diaries help people piece together their often blurred hospital experiences after the fact, but they also seem to help reduce the emotional stress that might linger after an experience in the ICU.

Since so many studies focus writing’s potential to help purge negative emotions, I wonder what the possible effects of writing about positive events and feelings might be…