Psychologists Identify A Cognitive Ability That Can Soften The Impact Of Insults And Criticism


An over-reaction to criticism?: image via reactionstory.comAn over-reaction to criticism?: image via You've heard the expression 'hot under the collar.'  It generally describes a person who overreacts to criticism.  In fact, psychologists call the area of psychology that deals with emotions 'hot' psychology, while its opposite, 'cold' psychology, is concerned with cognitive concepts. In this study, researchers find a key cognitive ability that serves to mitigate the effects of emotional reactions.

It's called 'working memory capacity, WMC, and it was identified by researchers during three experiments since 2008, led by Heath A. Demaree, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University.  Working memory capacity, as Demaree describes it, is the "ability to process a stream of information while engaging in a separate task or while being distracted."

As an example, WMC would have to be utilized to effectively take notes during a lecture, remembering what was said in the past as one writes in the present. WMC would also come into effect when a person can continue a cognitive task during an interruption.  Call it cognitive multi-tasking.

In this study, published in the journal Emotion, Demaree and his colleagues required participants to solve math problems and remember a list of words at the same time. Those who scored highest in WMC had the most correct answers to the math problems and remembered words.

A test was then administered to the participants, after which they received negative feedback about their results or no feedback at all.  After receiving that feedback, participants were immediately asked to identify a list of 72 real items and 18 fake items.  The fake items were included to see if the participants would claim knowledge of them.

Over-claiming is seen as a way in which people behave to feel better about themselves and those with the highest levels of WMC over-claimed the most. Though it is a defensive tactic, psychologists see this behavior as a positive way to remain controlled while facing criticism or a personal attack.

Demaree believes that over-claiming and various other techniques to reduce negative emotional responses can be taught to people based on their WMC abilities or other abilities that may lead to reduction of stress in persons with different cognitive traits.