Can you blag a blagger?

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22 February 2021

Interview with 

Helen Keyes, ARU; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University


Brain schematic


This month, cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle from Cambridge University looked at a study from the Journal of Neuroscience which asked "do the brain areas that are involved in voluntary emotional regulation also regulate social pain - like the pain felt when feeling left out?"

Duncan - One popular view is that structures towards the front of the brain within prefrontal cortex might be able to regulate other brain areas, like the amygdala. So the idea is that maybe areas like the amygdala are involved in the processing of the emotional responses, but their activity can be regulated by other parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. And that may be how it is that we go about regulating our emotional responses. So these authors were trying to ask whether there is a causal role for the prefrontal cortex in regulating our emotions.

They recruited 90 participants and these 90 people were given three sets of emotional images. And within each set, they were told to rate for each image how emotional they found it. And these images would be things like people being bullied, people being socially excluded. And in one set of images, they were told to just view them. In another block, they were told to try and reappraise them whilst viewing them. For example, "imagine how you might fail if this turned out differently?" And then in another block, they were told to watch the images, but to try and distract themselves  -produce unrelated, neutral thoughts.

And what they found overall is that people are actually pretty good at regulating their emotional responses. So what you find is that people rate the pictures as significantly less negative when they're either reappraising them or when they're distracting themselves. So this behavioural manipulation, the no regulation vs. reappraisal vs. distraction has a really big impact on how negatively people feel the images are making them feel.

But the question is, what about this whole role of the prefrontal cortex? So what I haven't told you is that these 90 participants were divided randomly into three groups. And in one group, part of their prefrontal cortex was stimulated with TMS, which stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation. Coils essentially wrapped in wires and it's plugged into a very large power supply. And when you turn it on, it creates an electromagnet. And if you place it on the outside of the skull, it can stimulate cortex underneath the location that you're applying it to. So you can use it to stimulate parts of people's brains. And for one group, this transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS was applied to their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. So part of their prefrontal cortex. A second group had a different part of their prefrontal cortex stimulated for the TMS, called the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. So that's ever so slightly lower than the first location. And a third group were a control group. And they receive what's called sham TMS, so a TMS wand which is placed on the top of their head, which we think won't have any impact on the prefrontal cortex.

Katie - What's the hypothesis? Is it that increasing activity in these brain areas will stimulate the brain and therefore you'll see an increased effect of this emotional regulation?

It's a very good question. If you read the TMS literature, you find that you get some studies where doing the TMS seems to make things worse. It seems to disrupt the activity of that area. But other types of TMS seem to improve things. So in this study they used what's called repetitive TMS. So before each block of images, for eight minutes, they would stimulate the respective part of the brain, at a 10 Hertz rhythm. So 10 blasts a second, essentially. So very, very rapid. And the idea behind that kind of TMS is that it might well provide a kind of facilitatory effect on brain activity.

Katie - And is that what they actually found?

Duncan - So they found out that those who had received the real deal TMS - so not the sham, the real TMS - to the prefrontal cortex rated pictures as significantly less negative than the control group. And interestingly, there was some differentiation between where the TMS coils were placed. So those with ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, that's the kind of slightly lower down the head stimulation, they showed the biggest drop in negative feelings during the reappraisal block. Whereas those whose stimulation had been delivered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, so a little bit higher, their stimulation showed the biggest drop in negative feelings during the distraction block.

Katie - What does that actually mean?

Duncan - So I think it means that stimulating prefrontal cortex in general will boost your ability to regulate emotional responses. And that there's some functional specialisation. So depending upon the strategy you're using to regulate your emotional responses, you're probably using slightly different parts of that brain network. If you're reappraising something, you're probably using the kind of ventral lateral area, if you're just distracting yourself, you're probably using the dorsolateral area, the area just above it.

Katie - How would you view the significance of this paper? Is this saying it's useful to know which bits of the brain are involved when people are, for example, reappraising a situation, or is this actually a suitable potential therapy for people who are really struggling with social pain?

Duncan - Well, it's certainly the first of those two options. It tells us some important information about the brain network involved in regulation of emotions. So everyone will be familiar with seeing in the press sort of pictures of brains with kind of colorful blobs in them. It's one thing to show that activity in a certain part of the brain is correlated with us doing something. That's really different from showing that it's causally involved in our ability to do it. And the really nice thing about this study is that it shows that these brain areas are causally involved in our ability to regulate our emotions. So that's really nice from a science perspective.

Now, the second thing is, is it useful from a therapy perspective? And you can imagine that there are conditions where people, for example, who have chronically low mood where that has been linked to the way that they appraise social encounters, that you could imagine that this could form part of some kind of therapy, but there's going to be some big hurdles to get over. Firstly, there's probably quite a lot of variability as to how effective the TMS is going to be across people. Secondly, it doesn't last for long. So the current setup is that you use the TMS for about eight minutes and then in the subsequent 10 minutes or so you do a block of pictures. So you're talking about quite short-lived effects potentially. So you need to find ways of making sure it lasts longer. And thirdly, I guess we'd want to see that it has a real effect in the real world, not just when someone's sat in a room, looking at pictures.

Katie - Who did they use for the study? And were these people any more or less sensitive than the general public to feeling social pain?

Duncan -They're not selected on the basis that these people have particular difficulties with the emotional pain.

Katie - I understand there's precedent for using TMS and that it's used in some cases of depression, right? Do you think it's a technique that would be suitable for everyone?

Duncan - Yeah. I suspect that it isn't for everybody. Having said that,  we know that current treatments are only really effective for probably about half the people who have major depressive disorder. So it's important that we do explore alternative possibilities of ways that we can try and help those for whom current gold standard treatments are not being particularly effective.

Perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes has been looking at a British Journal of Social Psychology study about blagging. Does being someone who frequently blags make you more or less likely to be taken in by others’ blagging?

Helen - People who report that they frequently engage in lying behaviour also report that they themselves are very difficult to deceive. That is, they think they are better than average at detecting lies. But the evidence on this remains quite mixed. But blagging, particularly persuasive blagging where you're trying to persuade or impress someone, is a little bit different than outright lying. And there is some suggestion that this type of persuasive blagging is negatively related to cognitive ability and analytic thinking. Similarly, you might not be surprised to hear that our tendency to fall for blagging or for false information - particularly our tendency to write pseudo-profound made up buzzwords as actually profound - is also negatively related to cognitive ability and critical thinking. And because of this, the authors of this paper wanted to establish if those people doing the blagging are actually more receptive to blagging themselves, challenging the notion that you can't blag a blagger!

Katie - How did they try and find out what the relationship was?

Helen - So across a few studies, they looked at quite a large number of participants, anywhere between 200 and 400 participants per study. They looked at blagging frequency using a BS frequency scale - so self-report on how often you engaged in blagging behaviour. And they also looked at how receptive people were to blagging statements. Pseudo-profound statements which sound profound, but are entirely made up. An example of this would be, "we are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself". So entirely made up! But profound-sounding sentences. And they also used fake news headlines and looked at people's susceptibility to believe those headlines.

They found that the extent to which somebody engages in persuasive blagging in their own everyday lives was positively related to their susceptibility to blagging. In other words, frequent blaggers are more likely to fall for blagging themselves. However, this wasn't true for people who engaged in what we call evasive blagging. So the other type of blagging you might do that's not just designed to impress or persuade people, but evasive blagging, you might engage in it when you're essentially trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings or skirt around an issue. And they found that that type of evasive lagging wasn't at all linked to you being more susceptible to blagging. So those who engage in evasive blagging weren't more likely to fall for blagging themselves.

Katie - I've got to ask - are the authors confident that people have told the truth on these self-report measures?

Helen - That's very good question! It's only a self-report measure and it's really difficult to follow people around and see how much they are actually engaging in blagging in their everyday lives. And of course, people who tend to engage in evasive blagging may also maybe rate themselves as "of course I don't engage in this bravado or this persuasive blagging!". So we don't quite know,

So a second study that the authors did looked at whether frequent blagging and the susceptibility to fall for blagging was linked with people's cognitive ability. And they found that how much you engage in this persuasive impressing bravado blagging was negatively related to both cognitive ability and analytic thinking. And interestingly, again, this wasn't the case for evasive blagging. And it links really nicely into wider research that shows that people who are really good at lying, that's usually linked with higher intelligence. So this links back in with your ability to kind of create a lie or be evasive, is linked with higher intellectual ability. However, your ability to believe in profound statements and to come up with, you know, pseudo-random jargonistic statements was linked with lower cognitive ability.

In this study, the authors measured how frequently people engaged in blagging behaviour, but it's likely actually that bigger blaggers may not be better blaggers. In other words, people who are very good in general at lying or have high intellectual capacity, they mightn't be the people who engage most frequently in blagging behavior. So what this study measured was how frequently people blagged and that is what's linked with lower cognitive ability. So it may well be that people with lower cognitive ability are often in situations where they need to act up and impress and persuade using persuasive blagging. So that would be a really nice mechanism to explain these findings.

And another study they did found that if you're someone who engages a lot in this persuasive blagging, so trying to make yourself sound really impressive, you really struggled in particular to tell the difference between pseudo-profound statements and really profound statements.

Katie - Are you able to sum up the findings in general?

Helen - So essentially, those who engage quite frequently in persuasive blagging, are very much themselves more susceptible to blagging. So you can indeed blag a blagger. This however is not true for those who engage in evasive blagging. In a perfect world, you would have other people's ratings of the blaggers themselves. Or indeed you could even follow someone around for a week and record their behaviour. That will be so research intensive that it's unlikely for that to have happened.

Katie - Okay. So we are relying on self-reporting. And finally, how significant do you think this is?

Helen - I think it's nice because it shows that in a way we have a blagging blind spot. So we may think that we ourselves are hugely profound and persuasive without taking time to reflect that we may be the very people who are falling for this pseudo-profound language all around us. So it helps us to be a bit more reflective about what we are taking in.

The other thing I would like to add is that blagging is really dangerous because even though the initial blag or the initial BS might be intentional, the spread of it is often not. So people who are very receptive to blagging and BS may very well believe what it is that they're spreading and be taken in and therefore spread that information much further. So I think this susceptibility to blagging is really quite interesting and would be good to follow up on and look further into what personality traits, what cognitive traits in people make them quite susceptible to blagging. And what it is that can be done to particularly tap into that population and to help them understand the facts of the matter a bit better.






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