By Mark Baldwin , September 3rd, 2019
Research from the Baldwin lab at McGill University (in collaboration with Stephane Dandeneau, now at UQAM) has contributed to a new approach to assisting people in training a positive identity and emotional attitude. The starting point is the observation that most social experiences have an element of ambiguity, which allows for selectivity and bias: When interacting with other people, for example, one’s emotions can be strongly influenced by the particular elements of the interaction that the brain anticipates, focuses on, interprets, and stores for recall later. It has been known for decades that people who have a somewhat positive orientation when thinking about their experiences tend to have higher general wellbeing, and fewer problems with low self-esteem or anxiety, than people with a negative bias. Building on this background, our research over the past decade has shown that it is possible for people to train their brain to have a positive rather than negative social orientation, and that this training can improve wellbeing – sometimes dramatically. In the scientific psychology literature, the past ten years has seen an exponential growth in research into the possibility of training cognitive responses to emotional stimuli (this research is often referred to as Cognitive Bias Modification).
Our research approach has been to explore the benefits of emotional brain training for people in general, rather than among specific clinical populations. We have found that people in general can practice a positive emotional attitude and this can help boost self-confidence and performance, and reduce stress. We have studied two games the most: In the attention-training game the person locates and clicks on a single smiling face in an array of scowling, rejecting faces – to train an attentional response away from social threats. In the acceptance-conditioning game, the person is repeatedly exposed to a pairing between information about the self (e.g., the person’s own name) and smiling, accepting faces – to train a link such that thoughts about self eventually come to trigger warm feelings and expectations of being accepted. These two training games have shown cognitive effects (i.e., in the way people automatically deal with social information, as measured with sophisticated techniques that assess reaction times to recognize acceptance and rejection information) as well as emotional effects (e.g., in their response to socially stressful situations or stimuli, such as a difficult test or their self-reported feelings in anticipation of a social interaction).
- In several studies we first showed that playing our attention-training game – even for just 5 minutes – does temporarily erase the split-second tendency many of us have to focus our attention toward negative social feedback (e.g., rejection from others). This change in automatic information processing is accompanied by increases in self-esteem (compared to a control group that played a different game without the feature of focusing on smiling faces) (Dandeneau & Baldwin, 2004; Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 2a and b).
- We have done several studies to examine whether attention-training can influence students’ self-confidence and help them deal with stress. For example, university students felt less stressed about their final exam, and less anxious during the exam, if they had played one of our training games during breaks while studying for the previous week (Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 3a). In another study, adult remedial education students who played the game felt higher self-esteem and less concern about rejection after they worked on a difficult intellectual task (Dandeneau and Baldwin, 2009).
- In one study of workplace stress among 23 telemarketers, those who were randomly assigned to play the attention-training game for 5 minutes each morning before their shift felt less stress during their workday (as measured with standardized stress questionnaires). They had higher self-esteem, were more confident with customers, and even made significantly more sales, compared to a control group. By the end of the week they had 17% lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels in their body. (Dandeneau et al., 2007, Study 3b).
- Emotional training can change the way people deal with social stress: In two studies we found that playing the acceptance-conditioning game led adolescents to later feel less aggressive in response to insult and rejection (Baccus et al., 2004; Baldwin et al., 2010).
We are gratified that other researchers have also validated our approach; some among clinical populations:
- Schnabel & Asendorpf (2015) found that the game reduced people’s implicit (i.e, automatic and unconscious) expectancies of rejection. 224 (160 women) participants with a mean age of 34.47 played the game (or else a control game) for 8 consecutive days. At the end, those who had played the game showed less of a tendency to automatically associate “public situations” with thoughts of “rejection”.
- Waters et al (2013) had anxious children play the game (or a neutral game involving locating a bird among flowers, in a control group) four times a week for three weeks. At the end of this time their attention was more likely to focus automatically on smiles rather than frowns, and they were less likely (than in the control group) to be assessed as still being clinically anxious.
- DeVoogd et al (2014) showed that among a group of adolescents, those playing the attention-training game showed positive changes in their automatic attention and also reduced social phobia scores on a standard questionnaire.
My collaborators and I are extremely excited about the potential for this kind of cognitive training, to help people maintain a positive focus and feel more self-accepting and less anxious.
Mark Baldwin is a professor in the Psychology department at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.
If you wish to read the publication, see Baldwin, M. W., & Sinclair, L. (1996). Self-Esteem and “If…Then” Contingencies of Interpersonal Acceptance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 1130-1141,