Friday, October 10, 2014

Ancestor Effect, Part IV

We have been having a great discussion on The Ancestor Effect here on this blog, and recently over on Zap the Grandma Gap.  I have loved really studying this research and seeing the science back up these things I've known, experienced, and taught about for years.  There is something great about getting scientific validation for all the effort we genealogists put into the work we do.

Today I am going to talk about the final portion of the experiment study.  Study 4 decided to further define when and how The Ancestor Effect is in place by trying to determine if it only works with positive associations with ancestors, or if negative associations would diminish the effect.  These negative associations could be either through a direct negative experience or memory, or because their ancestors suffered from severe personal or societal problems (the whole "guilt by association" type of feelings).  The researchers then tested the individuals in an intelligence task taken, like the others, from the WIT (Kersting et al., 2008).

The set up for this portion of the study was both simple and slightly complicated.  Simple because there were two main groups, complicated because each group was then divided into two further groups.  So, in theory it was a 2x2 set up, but in practice it ended up being a 2x4 set up.  Let me explain.  To further determine that the improved performances were due to The Ancestor Effect, the control group for this particular part of the study was instructed to think about themselves and their attributes (self-salient) as opposed to their counterparts who thought of ancestors (ancestor salient).  The general idea behind this particular control group was that the researchers wanted to see if simply having positive self-affirmation (or negative) affected the participants performance in intellectual tasks in a similar way to the ancestor salient groups.  So, as a whole, there are two groups: ancestor salient and self-salient (control).  Each group was then divided into "positive affirmation" or "negative affirmation" sub-groups.  The researchers were looking for two things:
  1. Can being self-salient affect people the same way as being ancestor salient? 
  2. Do negative experiences have the same or similar effect as positive experiences when it comes to intellectual performance?
Are you with me so far?  Like I said, simple but complicated. :)

With the groups divided, the instructions were in similar fashion to the other studies: each person was given five minutes to think and write an essay about either their ancestors (ancestor salient group) or themselves (self-salient, control group).  This was then fully crossed with each group being divided in a way that half of the participants (of both groups) were instructed to write/think about negative aspects of either themselves or their ancestors and half were instructed to write/think about positive aspects of either themselves or their ancestors (all depending upon which original group they had been divided into).  Following this five minute portion of the study, each group was then given four minutes to complete 15 tasks that measured conclusive thinking by completing letter rows.  The researchers used the number of correctly completed items as their dependent variable.  The study also ended, like all the others, with the testing of perceived personal control.  The results were not reported in Part 3 or Part 4 (this portion) of the study because the researchers determined, across the board, that the ancestor salient groups always had a significantly higher sense of personal control.  It's a given fact, within the terms of this study as a whole.

At this point, do I even need to tell you the results of Study 4?  I'm going to, of course, but I know you all already know what I am going to say.  First and foremost, the ancestor salient group tested significantly higher in correctly completed items on the intelligence test.  They also (no surprise) attempted marginally more test items than that of the control group (self-salient).  Of course they did!  And what is so fascinating to me isn't the results at this point, but rather the researchers attitudes toward the expected results.  The researchers state in the study that they fully expected this result at this point in the study.  They knew, no matter what the control group set-up was, the ancestor salient group would dominate the intellectual test.  In addition to all of this, the researchers discovered that it didn't matter whether the participants in the ancestor salient group thought about positive or negative associations with their ancestors; the ancestor salient group all performed similarly to one another.  And that is the major bombshell of Study 4.  It does not matter if we have good or bad associations with our ancestors, we perform better when we think of them.  And the researchers specifically stated, in addition to this, that (and I quote this directly from the study) "...the ancestor effect is unlikely to be due to self-affirmation, since self-salience led to significantly lower intellectual performance than ancestor salience." (Fischer, et al., 2011)  Folks, that literally means that being wrapped up in ourselves (positive or negative) is absolutely less effective than being immersed in our ancestors (positive or negative).  Being connected to our ancestors is far more influential to us than anything we could do on our own.

This particular portion of the study is the absolute greatest argument one could have against self-absorption and complete emotional self-reliance in the history of ever.  Look, we all get handed a different bag in life.  Some of us have idyllic childhoods and some of us have straight up nightmares in place of a childhood.  Some of us have the reverse.  Great childhoods followed by really awful experiences that affect our lives negatively in the worst possible ways.  And thankfully many have awful childhoods followed by better adulthood because they made it that way.  And I will never, ever discount those who, by sheer will and determination, make better lives and situations for themselves.  But what I will say is that this study backs up what I have been saying for years and that is, we need to know about our ancestors.  The good, the bad, the ugly.  All of it has a direct effect on us, for the better.  I'm not saying that means we need to tolerate or place ourselves in abusive situations, but we do need to still keep ourselves tied to our family lines in some way.  If only because of what we can learn from them.  We need the people that came before us to become the person we are meant to be.  We need that just as much as our future posterity needs us to in order to become the people they are meant to be.

So in sum, Study 4 proved that thinking about our ancestors will always be more effective than thinking about ourselves.  It also showed that even remembering or thinking about negative associations with ancestors can still help us perform better in the here and now.  We could philosophize away the day about how or why that may be but the result will always be the same: we need an association with our ancestors.  We need to immerse ourselves in their lives and their experiences in order to better our own.  Scientifically and emotionally speaking, every ancestral relationship we have matters.  And honestly, isn't that the way it should be?

*Please refer to the other posts in this series: here, here, and here. 

*The study has been referenced and linked all over the web in various places with various commentary that you can find herehere, and here.  Or just Google search ancestor effect and you can see several of the top hits for the study.  But for my blog posts, I am using the direct source and I would encourage you to take a look at it yourself.  There is so much to gather from the published study that the various reference articles tend to gloss over.

*Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C. and Weisweiler, S. (2011), The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 41: 11–16. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.778

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