Student Perspectives: Arianna Lashley

Don’t think about the white polar bear.

And now that you’re trying not to think about the polar bear, please proceed to read the rest of this article. You may find yourself not wanting to finish the article, perhaps due to something known as ego depletion.

“We think of self-control as a muscle,” says Arianna Lashley, senior behavioral sciences major. “In the short term, it can be depleted, but in the long-term, it can be strengthened. Ego depletion suggests that after completing one task, we deplete our finite resources of self-control enough so that mustering the self-control to complete a second task is much harder.”

Arianna’s research draws on the principles of ego depletion, and “my own twist was how religion can affect restoration of self-control.” Working under a faculty research grant for Karl Bailey, she used a multiple objects tracking task (MOTT ) and selections of theologian Jonathan Edwards’ writing to measure ego restoration after positive and negative religious associations.

Her first study tried to produce the effect of ego depletion by using the white bear task like you experienced above. (You’re thinking about the white bear again, aren’t you?) But the results didn’t come out quite as expected. “The white bear task should have worked—all the literature said it should have—but it didn’t. We changed a lot of variables, but kept getting the same results. This may have been caused by the population we were testing—college students in a religion of self-control.”

Arianna then wondered if religion was actually motivating and restoring self-control. After asking her subjects to rate their emotions, she had them read one of two passages: one from Jonathan Edwards’ fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and a more hopeful one from Edwards’ “Resolutions.” Then she had them re-rate their emotions and respond to the passage they read, and do several MOTT tasks to measure their self-control score.

Surprisingly, the group that read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—a negative passage expected to deplete self-control-- had higher visual attention scores. The “Angry God” group may have done better “perhaps because of emotional factors, but more likely because they felt increased autonomy.” In their responses, that group rejected the character of God depicted in the passage and wrote about their own beliefs. “Since the perception of greater autonomy generally produces more self-control we think they may have performed better because they actively substituted their own ideas about God, instead of simply agreeing with the ones presented.”

On May 3, 2012 she presented her research at the Michigan Psychological Association Convention. Arianna’s research has garnered her two presentations; one at the MPA conference and the other her Senior Honors Thesis. “Although my research didn’t work at first—I actually got the opposite effect than the literature suggested—I’m learning how to do research,” she says. “When I took the surveys in my research methods classes, my efficacy was low.” Going through the research methods classes “really helped my anxiety. I realized that research wasn’t easy, and it was time consuming, but it was definitely doable. And I discovered that I really enjoy doing research.”

After a year in Korea as an English teacher, Arianna plans to attend a doctoral program in school psychology, which she prefers because of its greater emphasis on research.

Photo: Arianna Lashley is pictured on the right

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