Anyone who’s ever been snapped at by someone having a bad day knows that feelings of insecurity lead people to behave in ways that might be deemed aggressive. Psychologist Mark Baldwin of McGill University says that insecurity, bullying behavior, and so on are emotional reactions that happen “automatically – extremely quickly, and without you wanting them or being able to control them.” He and his students have come up with a surprising answer to help people develop “more positive automatic patterns of thought,” namely video games.
Through what he’s calling the Self- Esteem Initiative, Baldwin and his students have created a series of video games that aim to trick the human brain into forming more positive mental images and encouraging a healthier emotional state. The research hinges on neuroscience and fMRI brain scanning breakthroughs that show the effects of isolation, rejection, and despair on the physical brain.
“Some researchers are beginning to use fMRI to examine the neural correlates of social events,” he says. “One study, for example, found that the pain of social rejection seems to activate the same area of the brain as does physical pain. … Other researchers have developed a laboratory paradigm to measure aggressiveness. The participant is insulted by a confederate of the experimenter, and later is given the chance to blast the confederate with a loud noise, supposedly during a learning task. The question to measure aggressiveness is, How loud and how long would you like to make the noise blast? In our study, we simply asked participants to imagine being in this kind of situation, and to then answer the same question about how noxious a blast of noise they would like to administer to the person who had insulted and rejected them.”
So, if rejection and insecurity stemming f rom common experiences – being treated rudely in a waiting room, being denied entry into art school, or being called short – can cause a person to blast a loud noise at someone or wage a land war in Europe, what can science do to fix this? Aren’t rejection and insecurity unavoidable aspects of life?
Baldwin acknowledges that no one can avoid bad feelings or social rejection forever, but people can lessen the effects that these experiences have on the brain through systematic self-reprogramming. He calls this “psychological practice” and says that the idea came to him one day while he was playing Tetris.
Tetris famously calls on the player to assemble falling shapes into solid blocks before too many of them stack up. Baldwin is something of an avid player but says he was terrible at first. Before long, the game came to feel automatic, so much so that, even after he put the game down, his mind would see the world in terms of rotating shapes he had to piece together. He started looking at parking spaces differently. He reorganized his closets. He realized that, if a video game could program his brain to be more spatially aware, other people might be able to use video games to meliorate feelings of rejection, isolation, or insecurity.
So far, the Self-Esteem Initiative is offering three games on its Web site: Grow Your Chi!, EyeSpy: The Matrix, and WHAM! Self-Esteem Conditioning. All of them “lead players to practice specific mental operations over and over. These operations are designed to foster positive mental habits to give an automatic sense of security,” Baldwin explains. “Pairing any two experiences together over and over can – as with Pavlov’s dog – create an association between them so that thinking about one tends to activate thoughts about the other.”
For instance, in WHAM! the player clicks on words that appear in different parts of the computer screen. Sometimes the word is the player’s own name. Whenever the player clicks on his or her name, a smiling, accepting face appears for a half a second. “Theoretically, this should create an automatic association between ‘myself ‘ and ‘acceptance,’ leading to a mental habit whereby thinking of oneself automatically brings to mind images of warm social acceptance,” Baldwin says.
Does it work? Baldwin’s research has found a measurable improvement in self-esteem among subjects who played the game for about five minutes. “We also asked them to imagine a situation in which someone insulted and rejected them, and then to say how much they would want to hurt that person: Those participants who had played the selfacceptance conditioning game were less aggressive, compared to a control condition.”
– Patrick Tucker