Are we hardwired to despise uncertainty?-Psychology in the Media.

Why we’re hardwired to hate uncertainty — An analysis of the Media’s skewed representation of Psychology.

Image Credits: Rob Sheridan.

Original Article:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/04/uncertainty-stressful-research-neuroscience

The Media report draws attentions to the findings of the research that uncertainty can affect stress levels. The article mainly focuses on the ability of the dopamine system to drive addiction, for example gambling. Since uncertainty is an important part of gambling, the article highlights that when odds verge on 50%, stress levels peak; causing people to be driven to make decisions. The reason why this is of significance is because of its relation to acceptability, the media article uses an excellent example to simplify the study’s findings.

“Action is most needed when consequences are least predictable. In soccer, players try hardest when they have a chance of scoring, not when it’s an easy shot and not when it’s an almost impossible shot. The energy directed to uncertain positive consequences makes football exciting and fun. But it’s hell on gamblers.”

“ If traffic is going well and you’re likely to get to your meeting on time, there’s no need to fret, rush and worry. If you’re in a bumper-to-bumper jam, highly likely to be late, you might as well relax and think about making your excuses. But if it’s really touch and go, if your odds of making it on time approach 50%, that’s when you’ll try your hardest.”

Both, the media report and scientific research, highlight that it is easier to accept a situation when the odds aren’t balanced. In relation to education, for example, most students tend to work harder for an exam if the results will affect their course grade significantly. The media report aims to mostly bring attention to addiction behaviour and its relation to gambling, but furthermore goes on to briefly explain the evolutionary basis to support the scientific research. It mentions that the striatum has effectively evolved to estimate when odds of a situation might reach 50%, thus its relationship to stress levels helps human react to a situation more intuitively.

The media report did not mention the fact that the experiment in the scientific article measured salivary cortisol levels as a confirmation of stress induction. Salivary cortisol is a clear physiological indicator of stress levels, which is the dependent variable of the experiment. This means that the evidence suggested by this experiment is derived from, and based around the results of this physiological reaction. The media report only mentioned the other two physiological reactions recorded in the experiment which were skin conductance and pupil dilation. The media report aims to explain the results found and their implications rather than detailing the experiment as the scientific article aims to. This means the writer probably felt it unnecessary to mention all the different measurements used to determine the dependent variable (stress levels) as it wouldn’t add more to the story. The media report does not need to as accurately describe the scientific method and procedure as a peer reviewed scientific article needs to so missing some extra details in order to make the article more digestible for a common reader is necessary to broaden the accessibility of psychological research.

In order to ascertain whether or not the increase in cortisol concentrations (one measure of the dependent variable), as measured from participants’ saliva, weren’t because of anticipatory stress due to baseline elevation the experimenters took samples on separate days on which the participants were aware that they were not going to receive shocks. The other variable they wished to rule out as a reason for increase in the dependent variable was a natural response to the experimental context in which they come aware that they will receive a shock. This would increase the stress levels of the participants and could possibly lead to a false positive of stress responses that were not actually due to the uncertainty the experimenters were testing for. By testing the cortisol concentrations on days they were aware that they were not going to receive an electrical shock they could be sure that the increase in salivary cortisol was due to the stress of the uncertain shock they were or were not about to receive rather than just due to the context of the experiment in which they knew they might be shocked in.

This article is very relevant to both the scientific article and the media report based on the effect of stress levels from uncertainty. This scientific article measures cortisol levels as a measure of stress, which is the same dependent variable as the original article as well as being the same measurement used. Although it is based around economic uncertainty which is different to the original article, it is relevant as it shows a real life cause and effect of uncertainty and stress without experimental manipulation. This broadens the scope and depth of the research into the effects of uncertainty and stress levels in people.

Afifi, T., Davis, S., Merrill, A., Coveleski, S., Denes, A., & Afifi, W. (2014). In the Wake of the Great Recession: Economic Uncertainty, Communication, and Biological Stress Responses in Families. Human Communication Research, 41(2), 268–302. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12048

de Berker, A., Rutledge, R., Mathys, C., Marshall, L., Cross, G., Dolan, R., & Bestmann, S. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications, 7, 10996. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10996

I failed to learn the piano, so I decided I’d play the keyboard instead. //All aboard the Crazytrain.

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