I’ve received a very encouraging email from an academic psychologist who is kind enough to have patience with my unusual thread of research, confirming that the distinct signature that has emerged in the embedded figures test results is also found in other tests of cognitive flexibility, which fulfills the strong requirement described in my previous posting Embedded Figures Test - Distinct Signature Emerges. Following the etiquette of personal correspondence I’ll just quote the meat of it:

That’s really interesting! We are actually resubmitting a paper finding the exact same best performers/worst performers dichotomy with stress in a set of college students. Our studies have focused on young volunteers, generally. Also, I like the spatial aspect of your task. Whenever we tried spatial tasks, I suspected our lack of findings are due to power issues. Your evidence supports this. The one obvious weakness is, as you point out, the lack of control of testing conditions, but so long as these do not differ systematically in some way, then you can overcome it with statistical power.


That’s very encouraging! I don’t suppose there’s a preprint on arXiv or similar is there?…

Not yet- but remind me and I’ll be glad to send one once I know I have a final version!

I shall certainly be looking out for the preprint, and will post details as soon as possible!

So not only does the EFT track other tests of cognitive flexibility as modulated by stress, so long as it is applied to big enough groups it also reproduces the different responses seen in different levels of performance. It also predicts a similar signature where the subjects’ age modulates the score but amongst the worst performing third, while stress affects the best performing third. It looks like I’m actually ahead of the game on this one!

A useful exercise now will be to go and do some stats on the raw data and try to make a statement about how big is big enough. How many people need to be in a work group before we can apply the EFT, take the best performing third, and predict that they are under occupational stress if their mean score is > 2.5s?

At this point it would be worth saying something about why I selected the EFT as a potential test of cognitive flexibility that would be repeatable per individual and automatable. This will put some of the important ideas I’m keen to convey in this blog into a concrete form.

The test is normally thought of as measuring a quality called field (in)dependence. The idea is that some people tend to see the parts and so can easily spot the one part they are looking for, while others see the whole and so find it hard to spot a specific figure. This idea then extends by some sort of loose analogy to poor scorers being “sociable” because they are somehow more conscious of the group of humans around them, better scorers being “misfits” - and furthermore to better scorers being more able at natural sciences because they are natural reductionists. In the semi-scientific world of recruitment psychological testing, better scores are supposed to identify misfits who paradoxically have good leadership potential.

I first encountered the test in the recruitment context, and it seemed to me that when I did it, I looked at the whole and allowed the part I wanted to pop out at me. It was a test of my visual/spacial parallel processing capacity, which is strongly related to the capacity for juxtaposition of complex elements which I emphasise as important in complex design work, and hence cognitive flexibility. As to all the literature discussing field (in)dependence, I didn’t believe a word of it, and the proof is now available. If the quality of field (in)dependence was a personal trait as believed, then scores would be constant per individual, and not modulated by occupational stress as I have shown they are.

So why are poorer scorers thought of (and indeed observed to be) more social, and better scorers observed to be better at natural sciences? I believe the answer lies in the background psychosocial stress maintained in most cultures, which has a neurochemically addictive component. Many people are (without realizing it) hooked on performing low level stressful social exchanges, monitoring each others’ compliance to arbitrary social mores, worrying about it, and so maintaining a “stress economy”. People who participate in this are seen to be more social because non-participants are unconsciously resented for not exchanging “stress hits” with others. Unfortunately participation in the stress economy renders them less able to do complex work, and in extreme cases can lead to perverse group behaviour. Groups suffering from this effect are not aware of it, because the changes to brain chemistry are similar to those found in (for example) cocaine addiction - which is known to produce unawareness of problems and unjustified feelings of complacency. Perhaps the poorest performing third who are not made any worse by occupational stress are already weakened in terms of cognitive flexibility because the stress they don’t get at work, they find somewhere else! When it comes to natural sciences, the belief that reductionism is all is mainly found amongst people who don’t do them! In reality nature is doing everything at once, and the skill which psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls systematizing involves seeing the key relationships in multiple phenomena occurring in juxtaposition.

The important idea then, to take away from all of this, is that being good at complex work is neither reductionistic nor a property fixed at birth. It’s something anyone can get better at, by learning how to reduce their psychosocial stress to the point where they can use the full faculties they were born with. When it comes to groups, the amount of stress (bad) and the quality of debate (good) within a group is amplified by re-reflection within the group. Initiatives to reduce background psychosocial stress such as I describe in the Introduction can bring runaway benefits to a groups even as they make only incremental benefits to each member of the group. Beware though of The Dreaded Jungian Backlash - the buildup of unconscious resentment directed against whole groups who drop out of the stress economy. The best counter to this effect is to make everyone involved - particularly the senior management of work organizations - explicitly conscious of the effect. The Backlash only presents a danger when people do not understand the unconscious origins of such resentment directed against teams enjoying improved performance, and which (as I have described) can involve clerical and janitorial workers who are in no way competing with the improving team.