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Can thinking that you can get up the hill actually get you up the hill?
It just might, according to a new study.
People did better on a task relying on their working memory when they underwent cognitive training and learned it would help with their performance, according to the study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This study was the first to demonstrate that participants’ expectations of how their cognitive performance ‘should’ change as a result of cognitive training can influence the actual outcomes that they show,” said Jocelyn Parong, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research associate department of psychology’s Learning and Transfer Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, via email.
“That is, those who had the expectation that their cognition should improve did indeed improve more after 20 sessions of training than those who had the expectation that they would not improve, regardless of whether they completed a true working memory training intervention or a control training intervention.”
The study divided 193 people into two groups. One group was told cognitive training would help them perform better, and the other was not, according to the study. Then half of each group did the cognitive training, while the rest played a simple trivia game.
All participants given training beforehand did better on the task that tested their working memory, which is the small amount of information that can be held in your brain to execute tasks at hand, according to the study. But the ones who did the best had the training and were told it would be helpful; therefore, they had more positive expectations, the study found.
“For more than a decade there has been a running scientific controversy over the question of whether computerized cognitive training, such as ‘working memory training’ can be used to generally enhance intellectual (cognitive) functioning,” said Jason Chein, a professor in psychology and neuroscience at Temple University, via email. Chein was not involved with the study.
Studies have pointed to such training’s efficacy, but some critics argue that the benefits might just come from a placebo effect.
This study took that question head-on by comparing results of people who had the training with those who didn’t as well as those whose expectations were set high with those who didn’t expect much, he added.
“The strongest outcomes might come from combining cognitive training strategies along with encouragements to participants about the likely benefits of investing in the training,” Chein said.
Positivity pays off
What can we learn from a study about working memory? For one thing, positivity pays off.
“It may not hurt to have positive attitudes or expectations about cognitive training interventions (or behavioral interventions in general) if you want to maximize your outcomes,” Parong said.
Chein added that “having the expectation that there can be change and benefit from one’s endeavors can itself be a powerful motivator of that change.”
It is no surprise that a good attitude can make a difference. Plenty of studies back up that point.
A 2008 study by University of California, Riverside researchers showed that happy people are more satisfied with their jobs and report having greater autonomy in their duties.
Additionally, they perform better than their less happy peers and receive more support from coworkers.
Being happy and optimistic can prolong your life, help manage stress, lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and even help protect you from the common cold, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There is some hope that studies such as these will lead toward more tools for cognitive training that can be applied to strengthen cognition and help us perform challenging tasks, Chein said.
This study had a strong methodology, Chein said, but added there were still limits to its scope, such as researchers not knowing the belief systems or expectations with which participants came in.
“Readers should always be skeptical of oversold claims about enhancement of memory, attention, creativity, and the like,” he said.
Parong noted that her findings need to be replicated and that she has some questions left to answer “about when and how the expectation effect occurs.”
In her study, the expectation effect lasted as long as the participants were unaware that the research team’s decisions had affected their expectations.