Video Games and Behavioral Modification: New Technological Methods Help Foster Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

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 from 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. …