It’s not your fault—Your brain is self-centered

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It’s not your fault—Your brain is self-centered

You’re in the middle of a conversation and suddenly turn away because you heard your name. Don’t worry, you aren’t rude.

Our minds automatically pull attention to our names in a crowded room and to our faces in photographs.

While this “cocktail party effect” of turning our attention toward self-related stimulation is well-known, scientists don’t know if something similar happens inside our heads. If an idea is associated with our selves, do we think about it faster than other thoughts? By testing for this “self-referential bias“ in working memory, researchers are starting to understand how our brains make us naturally self-centered.

Their work appears in the March 1 edition of Psychological Science.

What the researchers say: “People prioritize themselves in their minds,” said the senior author. “The question is, how automatic is that prioritization? Is this something that you can’t help? If so, that could really bias how you make decisions.”

Working memory, sometimes called short-term memory, is “our interface with the world,” said the researchers. In order to read this sentence, for example, your working memory holds each word in temporary storage for a few seconds until you reach the period. “We use working memory to make complex decisions where we have to weigh different pieces of information and keep them in mind,” they said. “If you always put self-related information first, then this bias could drive your decisions by weighting that information more strongly and outcompeting other things in your short-term memory when you evaluate different options.”

To test for self-referential bias in working memory, the international research team created a computer program and tested it on 102 study participants.

First, participants learned to associate the colors blue, green and purple to labels of “friend,” “stranger” or “self” in a simple game. Then, two different-colored dots, like green and purple, would briefly flash on the screen. After a five-second pause, during which participants had to remember the locations and colors of the previous dots, a black dot would appear on screen. Participants then indicated if the black dot flashed in the same place as one of the colored dots, and if so, which label fit.

Participants correctly identified the “self”-labeled dots significantly faster than the “friend” or “stranger” dots. That meant their working memory focused on the dots labeled with the “self” color.

“Imagine you keep two things in mind,” the lead author said. “If you’re being tested for either one of those, and you reliably answer one faster than the other, then you’re prioritizing it.”

“Even though it’s an arbitrary association of colors and locations that has nothing to do with you, and there’s no point in you prioritizing one over the other for doing well at the task, we reliably show across four experiments that you’re always faster to respond to the ‘self’-reference cue.”

In a variation of the experiment, the researchers made the “self”-labeled color appear half as often as the “stranger” or “friend” colors, to see if participants would still prioritize “self” even if it made them worse at the task.

“In spite of the fact that it would be much smarter for them to prioritize the other two, they are still faster with the ‘self’ color,” the researchers said. “That really suggests that there’s automaticity there: we can’t help but prioritize the stimulus that’s associated with ourselves.”

So, what? As a behavioral neurogeneticist I don’t find this very strange. We are programmed to promote our own survival above all else—often even the survival of our own tribe. When Alicia and I were running our Uplift Program—a very successful intense 2-day program for depression which we developed with the University of South Florida (our best-selling book “Creating Optimism“ is based on it) we always asked the attendees at the end: “Who’s the most important person in your life.” Those who could honestly say “I am!” were much more likely to report that they had fewer depressive symptoms than before in follow-up surveys carried out up to a few years after.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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