Thursday, March 8, 2018

Where am "I"?

Human beings have a remarkable capacity to project themselves into space.  Think about playing a video game.  Even though you and your physical body are sitting in a chair some distance from the screen, you can put yourself into the place of the avatar you have on the screen. 
In first-person games, that is pretty easy to do, because the view you get on the screen is the view from your eyes.  But, in third-person games, you are watching your character move in an environment.  Yet, you can quickly adapt your perspective to be focused on the location of your character on the screen.
Indeed, a study I did in collaboration with Miguel Brendl that was published in Psychological Science in 2005 showed how easy it is for people to take this kind of outside perspective. 
Previous research suggests that people like to pull positive things toward themselves and to push negative things away.  The question in this study is where the ‘self’ is located.
Participants sat at a computer screen and saw a corridor receding in depth.  Their name was placed in the middle of that corridor.  Participants were holding a lever that they could pull toward themselves or push away from themselves. 
Names of objects would appear on the screen.  Some of the objects were things most people think are positive (like flowers), while others were objects most people think of as negative (like spider).   On some blocks of trials, participants were told to move positive objects toward their name and on other blocks, they were told to move positive objects away from their name.
When the objects are far away in the corridor beyond where the participant’s name is, then the movements relative to the name and to the body are the same.  That is, pulling the object toward the name also pulls it toward the body and pushing it away from the name also pushes it away from the body.  In this case, it should be no surprise that people were faster to pull the lever when the word was positive and faster to push the lever when the word was negative.
The important condition was when the object was near to the participant in the corridor.  In this case, the object was in between the person’s physical body and their representation on the screen.  Now, if they pushed the lever, they were moving the object toward their name (which was their representation on the screen), but away from their physical body.  Likewise, if they pulled the lever, they were moving the object away from their name, but toward their physical body.
In this case, participants were faster to push positive objects toward their name (but away from their body), but faster to pull negative objects away from their name (but toward their physical body). 
This set of findings suggests that people are good at locating themselves at a point in space that is outside of their physical body.
But, an interesting study in the November, 2015 issue of Psychological Science by Elisa Ferre, Christophe Lopez, and Patrick Haggard suggests that the self is anchored into the body by the vestibular system.  The vestibular system is a mechanism in the inner ear that helps people maintain balance by recognizing where the body is relative to gravity.  The vestibular system is the one that you disrupt when you spin around in a circle several times.
The idea is that activating the vestibular system reminds the brain of where the body is located physically in space and causes representations of what is happening in the world to be interpreted based on the location of the body.
To explore this possibility, researchers used electrodes to gently activate the vestibular system.  When electrodes are placed near the ear, it is possible to deliver an electrical pulse that engages this system.  As a control condition, some other blocks in the study were done with the electrodes placed lower down on the neck where they do not engage the vestibular system.
The participant sat in a chair with their eyes closed and an experimenter sat in front of them.  While the stimulation was going on, the experimenter traced a letter on the participant’s forehead with a Q-tip.  The experimenter wrote the letter b, d, p, or q, and the participant had to say which letter they felt.
Notice, these letters are ambiguous.  Suppose the experimenter wrote the letter b.  If the participant is able to take the experimenter’s perspective, then the participant should respond that they felt a letter b being written.  But, if the participant takes their own perspective, then they should say that they felt a letter d being written.
When the vestibular system was being activated by the electrodes, participants were much more likely to take their own perspective on the letter than the experimenter’s perspective compared to the control stimulation on their neck. 
This finding suggests that engaging the vestibular system brings people’s perspective back into their physical body rather than allowing them to take someone else’s perspective.
This is interesting, but does it really matter? 
There are many situations in which it is valuable for us to be able to take an outside perspective on what is happening in the world.  Clearly, we do this with video games.  But, we make predictions about what people and objects in the world are going to do all the time.   This ability also helps us to give other people directions when they are trying to get somewhere. 
These results suggest that the more aware we are of our own physical bodies, the harder it is to take this outside perspective.  So, if we are going to be engaging in an activity where we need to take another person’s point-of-view, it would be useful to minimize the factors that remind us of our own physical body. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Adolescents Get Fixated On Rewarding Things

It is common to talk about how the teenage years are a time of risky behavior.  And, when we talk about why teens engage in risky behavior, there is a tendency to focus on the development of the frontal lobes.  We know that there are mechanisms that involve the frontal lobes of the brain that stop behavior that has been engaged.  In Smart Change, I call these mechanisms the Stop System.  The frontal lobes do not mature fully until early adulthood, and so that is part of the reason why teens do risky things.
If it was just that the Stop System hasn’t matured yet, then even young children should engage in lots of risky behavior.  Instead, there is another component.  Adolescents also engage lots of behaviors that they perceive to be rewarding.  I call the mechanisms that drive people toward behaviors the Go System. 
This view suggests that adolescents have a perfect storm of a Go System that is driven to pursue rewards despite potential risks and a Stop System that is not capable of stopping a behavior that is risky.
An interesting paper in the November, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Zachary Roper, Shaun Vecera, and Jatin Vaidya provides some evidence for this view of adolescent risky behavior.
These researchers suggest that if adolescents are drawn toward rewards, then they should persist in paying attention to rewarding items in the environment, even when they are no longer rewarding. 
To test this possibility, 40 teens (ranging in age from 13-16) and 40 adults (with an average age of 27) were run in a study.  In the first part of the study, participants saw a number of colored circles on a computer screen.  Inside of each circle was a line.  There was always one red or green circle on the screen, and the rest were other colors.  Participants had to press one of two buttons to indicate whether the line inside the target circle was horizontal or vertical.  When they responded correctly, they were rewarded.  For each participant, one color was generally associated with a larger reward (10 cents) than the other (2 cents).  So, for a particular participant, the red circle might generally lead to a 10 cent reward and the green circle might lead to a 2 cent reward.
After doing 240 trials like this, the task was changed.  Now, participants did another 240 trials in which they had to find a blue diamond and report the orientation of the line inside that shape.  The rest of the objects on the screen during these test trials (which are called distractor items) were colored circles.  On some trials, one of those distractor circles was a red or green, which had been associated with a reward in the first part of the study. 
The key question was whether the amount of time it took participants to respond correctly on the test trials was affected by the presence of circles that had been rewarded in the first part of the study.  If it takes longer for participants to respond in the presence of a distractor that had been rewarded in the past, it suggests that distractor is attracting attention from the real goal of the task.
Adults are not strongly affected by the initial training.  In the first group of test trials, they are a little slower at responding when one of the distractors had been rewarded in the first group of trials.  After about 60 trials, though, adults are no longer affected by what had been rewarded before.  That is, the Go System no longer drives adults toward old rewards.
The teens act quite differently.  They are much slower to respond when one of the distracting circles had been rewarded in the past.   They are slowest when the distractor was color that got the large reward.  They are fastest when none of the distractors had been rewarded.  The circle that got the small reward came out in between.  This effect persisted over the entire set of 240 test trials.
Finally, the effect was strongest in the 13- and 14-year-olds who were tested.  They were most captivated by the circles that had been rewarded before.  The 15- and 16-year olds were also a bit slower when faced with a circle that had been rewarded before, but not as much as the younger teens.
This suggests that the risky behavior we see in teens has two sources.  First, the Go System of teens gets directed toward things that have been rewarded in the past.  It is hard for teens to dampen this activity of the Go System.  Then, on top of that, the Stop System has trouble overcoming the direction of the Go System, so that teens continue to act on the impulse to do what had been rewarded on the past. 
Ultimately, this validates the importance of using the environment to help teens protect themselves.  It is just hard for teens to overcome strong temptations.  Perhaps the best way to help teens to avoid risky behavior is to remove the most significant risks from the environment.  While teens have to learn to say no to activities they should not perform, there is no reason for them to have to overcome the full strength of their Go Systems.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Your Beliefs About Change Affect Whether You Take Responsibility

In any relationship, there are times that you don’t do the right thing.  You brush off a colleague.  You snap at a romantic partner.  You do things that are selfish. In order to repair the relationship, though, you need to take some responsibility.  By taking responsibility, you can work to change yourself to improve the relationship in the future.
If taking responsibility is done to help you change, then your beliefs about change should influence your tendency to take responsibility for actions.  This question was examined by Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck in a paper in the December, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In one study, the researchers did a study of people who were in a long-term relationship in which they were living with their partner.  The researchers measured people’s beliefs about whether personality can change.  They also asked people to do a daily diary for a week.  For any conflict participants experienced, they were asked whether they apologized as well as whether they took responsibility for their actions.  Beliefs about whether personality can change did not affect whether people apologized for their actions.  But, the more strongly that people believe that they can change, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their mistakes.
In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s beliefs about change by having them read a scientific article that either supported the idea that personality remains relatively fixed or that it changes.  After that, participants read a number of scenarios in which they imagined that they had done something wrong to someone else.  After those scenarios, participants answered a number of questions including whether they would take responsibility for their actions. 
Participants who read that personality can change were more likely to say that they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those who read that personality remains relatively fixed.  This study suggests that people’s beliefs about whether they can change can be manipulated and that manipulating these beliefs influences their tendency to take responsibility for their actions.
A third study used a similar methodology.  Again, people’s beliefs about change were manipulated.  Again, participants read a scenario in which they had to imagine doing something wrong to another person and were asked whether they would take responsibility for their actions.  After that, participants were asked to fill in word fragments.  For example, they might see the fragment THREA___.  The fragments can be filled in either with a word related to stress (like THREAT) or with a word unrelated to stress (like THREAD).  The more stress that people are feeling, the more likely they are to fill in the fragments with words related to stress.
As before, participants induced to think that they can change were more likely to say they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those induced to think that they cannot change.  Interestingly, participants induced to think they cannot change filled in more of the words in a way that related to stress or threat than participants who were induced to think that they cannot change. 
Putting this all together, then, it suggests another powerful influence of beliefs about change.  When you believe that your behavior can change, you are more likely to be willing to admit responsibility.  A big reason why you are able to admit fault is that you recognize that once you admit what you have done wrong, you can work to make it better, and so you are not threatened by admitting mistakes.  People who do not believe that they can change are stressed by admitting their mistakes, because they believe that those mistakes say something fundamental about who they are as a person.
Ultimately, people can change their behavior, even if that change requires some effort.  A key part of the process of change is recognizing what you have done wrong and learning from your mistakes.  Believing that you can change gives you the best opportunity to fix your behavior and repair your relationships.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Do Brands Interfere with Religiosity?

There are many ways to express identity.  If you walk down the street, you will see people wearing t-shirts with brands of products on them.  They carry coffee mugs with the names of coffee companies.  They carry bags that are branded with the logos of companies. 
People also express their identity through religion.  Religious beliefs can influence the actions people take.  In addition, people may wear religious symbols on shirts or jewelry.  They may put religious symbols on their cars.
In may ways, of course, religion and products seem fundamentally incompatible.  Religion focuses on the sacred and the spiritual.  Brands focus on the earthly and material.
A fascinating paper by Keisha Cutright, Tulin Erdem, Gavan Fitzsimons, and Ron Shachar in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined whether commitment to brands interferes with commitment to religion. 
In one preliminary study, participants were asked to choose between a pair of coffee mugs and a pair of t-shirts.  For half the participants, the items had a brand name on them (Starbucks on the mug, Adidas on the t-shirts).  For the other half, the products were unbranded.  Later in the study, participants filled out scales to rate the strength of their commitment to religion and how often they attend religious services.  Participants who made choices of branded products exhibited a lower commitment to religion and commitment to attend religious services than those who made choices of products without brand names.
A second study asked participants to think and write about one of two types of brands.  Some participants were asked to write about a brand that really said something about their personality.  Other participants were asked to write about a brand that they thought was functional but did not say anything about their personality.  Later, they completed the scales of religious commitment.  In this study, participants rated their religious commitment as lower if they wrote about brands that relate to their identity than if they wrote about brands that were purely functional.
In another study, participants selected a t-shirt for themselves, for another person, or for both themselves and another person.  For some participants, the t-shirts had a company brand on them, but for other participants the t-shirts had no brand.  Later, they rated their religious commitment, but also were given an opportunity to donate up to one dollar to either a group of faith-based charities or to a group of non faith-based charities.  Compared to the other groups, participants who chose a branded t-shirt for themselves exhibited lower religious commitment and also donated less money to faith-based charities than those who chose non-branded t-shirts or chose for another person.
Control conditions in these experiments demonstrated that commitment to brands influenced religious commitment, but not commitment to other ways of expressing identity like commitment to sports teams, art, music, or engaging in social interactions. 
What does all of this mean?
There is a tendency for people to try to maintain some consistency in their beliefs at any given moment (even though people may be quite inconsistent over time).  So, when thinking about material goods, that will strengthen people’s thoughts about their material self, and weaken aspects of their self-concept that are inconsistent with that material self (including aspects of self-concept related to religion).
It is important to recognize that the effects observed in studies like this are short-term effects.  That is, outside of the overt presence of brands, people’s beliefs about their religiosity will return to whatever their long-term state is.
However, these patterns of thought can become habitual.  To the extent that we live in a world surrounded by brands that influence our self-concept, that can make it harder to build up and maintain a more spiritual or religious self-concept as well. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories About Yourself Affect Judgments About Others

When you look at the people around you, there is a tendency to assume that they will act like you do.  That makes sense.  One of the easiest ways to try to understand the behavior of other people is to think about what you would do in the same situation.  And there is a tendency to do this most when you think that the person you are judging is like you in some way.
There are many aspects of memory, and they can all influence our judgments of others.  For example, not only are we able to recall information about ourselves, but we also get a feeling for how easy it was to recall that information.  That feeling can also influence our later judgments. 
This issue was explored in a paper in the April 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Karl-Andrew Woltin, Olivier Cornielle, and Vincent Yzerbyt. 
Their studies took advantage of an interesting way of decoupling what people remember from the experience of how easy it was to remember information that has been used in many previous studies.  In one study, they were interested in judgments of assertiveness.  They began by asking people to remember situations in which they themselves had been assertive in the past.
Some people were asked to recall only 4 situations. This group was able to remember these situations easily, and so they had the experience that it was easy for them to think about being assertive.  A second group was asked to remember 10 situations.  This group had trouble remembering 10 things and often recalled about 6 events.  The interesting thing here is that this group recalled more events than the one asked to remember only 4 events.  But, it was hard to remember the events, so people were left with the impression that it was hard for them to recall situations in which they were assertive. 
After recalling assertive behaviors, participants saw a picture of someone of the same sex and were told that person went to the same university.  They were asked to make a number of judgments about their traits.  Some of those judgments focused on assertiveness, while others focused on other characteristics.
In this study (and the others reported in this paper), the ease of recalling events did not affect judgments of unrelated traits.  However, when people found it easy to recall events in which they were assertive, they judged the other person as more assertive overall than when they found it hard to recall events in which they were assertive.
A second study demonstrated a similar effect using creativity rather than assertiveness.  Once again, participants who found it easy to recall events in which they were creative judged the new person to be more creative than those who found it hard to recall events in which they had been creative.
This study also had a second group of participants who were told that the design of the questionnaire influenced their belief about how easy it was to recall events about their life.  This group had a reason to feel like it was either easy or hard to think about instances in which they had been creative.  For this group, their judgments of the other person were not influenced by how difficult it was to recall situations in which they were creative. 
Another study in this series found that this effect occurred only when the person they were judging was similar to themselves in some way.  So, when the new person was of the same sex and attended the same university, then their judgments about the other person were affected by whether it was easy to recall events from their own life.  But, when the new person was of the opposite gender and went to a different university, then ease of remembering had no influence on judgments about the other person.
What does all of this mean?
Often, when we think about memory, we focus primarily on the content of what we remember.  However, there is also a lot of information that comes in the form of feelings about our memory.  One dimension of those feelings is the ease with which things come to mind.  Even though that ease can have many sources, we tend to use that ease as a signal of how commonly a particular event occurs in the world.  That use of ease is related to the availability heuristic first described by Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.
Even though experimental psychologists can do clever things to trick you into using these feelings in the wrong way, they are generally a very good indicator of how commonly you have encountered something in the world. 
In the case of judging what other people will do, it is also useful to knowledge about yourself to make judgments about others.  Human behavior is complex, and it can be hard to reason about all of the factors that affect what other people will do.  Using your feelings about what you would do in that same situation is a great first guess about what others will do.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Joy of Connecting With Others

I fly a lot.  I have a typical routine on the plane.  I pull out something to read or perhaps an iPad to watch a movie.  I do my work.  I don’t generally engage in much conversation with the person sitting next to me on the plane, though sometimes I end up in a long conversation. Invariably, those conversations are great fun.
An interesting question is whether my travel would be more enjoyable if I engaged in more conversations with people I meet on the plane?  This issue was addressed in a fascinating paper by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
In two field experiments, they demonstrate that people generally avoid having conversations with strangers when commuting.  One study used train commuters, and a second used bus commuters.  During their commute, some participants were asked to imagine that they were told to have a conversation with another commuter they didn’t know before.  A second participant was asked to imagine that they were told to commute without talking to anyone.  A third group got no instructions. Participants rated whether how much they thought they would enjoy their commute as well as how productive they thought they would be.
In this study, participants imagining they had to talk to another person thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence.  Those imagining they had to have a conversation also assumed they would be less productive on the trip than those who imagined sitting in silence.  The control group came out in between on both measures.
A second set of field studies actually had commuters on the train and bus engage in conversations or not.  A third group was given no instructions.  Afterward, participants rated how much they enjoyed the commute as well as how productive they were.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory.
Strikingly, participants who were asked to have a conversation with someone else on the train or bus really did have conversations.  These participants enjoyed their ride much more than those who were instructed not to engage with other people as well as those in the control condition (who also tended not to engage in conversations).  Interestingly, participants in all conditions rated themselves as about equally productive. 
If conversations like this are actually so enjoyable, why do people engage in them so rarely? 
One other study asked commuters a variety of questions and found that they underestimate how willing other people would be to talk to them.  So, commuters feel that they are much more interested having people choose to talk to them than other people are in being talked to.  As a result, people avoid striking up conversations for fear of bothering another person.
In addition, one study found that some people are able to predict their enjoyment of engaging in these random conversations.  This study looked at people taking taxis leaving from an airport.  Some participants were actually asked to engage in a conversation with the driver or to enjoy the solitude.  As with the other studies, those who had a conversation with the driver enjoyed the ride more than those who did not.  
 In a second study, participants predicted their enjoyment.   Those who routinely engage in conversations with the driver recognized that they enjoy the ride more when they talk than when they don’t.  People who rarely converse with the driver did not recognize that they would enjoy their ride more if they talked with the driver.
A final study examined another possibility.  Perhaps the people who initiate conversations enjoy them, but those who do not initiate the conversations enjoy them less.  That is, maybe the conversation is only positive for the initiator.  This study was done in a psychology lab.  Participants were waiting for the study to start.  Some participants were instructed either to engage in a conversation with a second participant in the waiting room or to avoid having a conversation.  Afterward, both participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the wait.  Both the participant who initiated the conversation and the non-initiator enjoyed the wait more when they had a conversation. 
Putting this all together, then, it seems like most of us are missing out on a bit opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more.  Many of us travel on trains, plains, busses, and taxis.  In those settings, we elect to protect ourselves from interactions with other people.  Yet, these data suggest that most of us would enjoy ourselves more if we had conversations with the strangers who sit near us rather than walling ourselves off.
These findings are particularly interesting, because technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers.  Almost everywhere you go, people are engaged with smart phones and tablets.  Because of those devices, we avoid connecting with real live people who are next to us.  And it seems that we are missing out by doing so. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Maybe Video Games Don’t Help Perceptual Skills

Over the past several years, I have written about a number of studies relating to video games.  It looks like playing video games can distract students from school, which can lead to poorer grades.  Video games can also promote risk taking, which can lead to riskier behavior in life as well.  Although video games may promote somewhat more aggressive behavior in laboratory settings, it has been hard to find any evidence that they lead to more aggressive behavior outside of the lab.
On the positive side, playing prosocial video games can lead to more helping behavior in the lab.  There has been a flurry of studies exploring whether playing video games also helps with thinking skills.
One way that video games might influence thinking is by affecting the way people process their visual world.  A person playing a first-person shooter, for example needs to identify friends and enemies quickly and then make fast decisions based on what they see.
The prospect that playing action video games could improve perception was explored in a paper in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Don van Ravnzwaaij, Wouter Boekel, Birte Forstmann, Roger Ratcliff, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers.
In one study, they had three groups of participants.  One group played 20 hours of the action video game Unreal Tournament.  A second group played a non-action game (The Sims).  A third group played no game at all.  The 20 hours of play were spread over six experimental sessions over the course of a week. 
In each session, participants also did a difficult perceptual task in which they had to detect the motion of dots on a screen.  Some proportion of the dots were moving in a consistent direction, while the rest moved randomly.  Participants had to detect the coherent motion of the majority of the dots.  The proportion of dots moving in the same direction was determined at the beginning of the study in order for participants to start the study at about a 75% accuracy level.
Over the course of the study, participants in all groups got faster (and slightly less accurate) at making the judgments of motion.  However, all of the groups improved at the same rate regardless of whether they played a video game or what type of game they played.
In this study and a second one replicating this finding, the authors found no evidence that playing an action video game improves a basic perceptual skill like the ability to detect motion in a particular direction.
One reason that I like this study is that this research group is well-known for careful experimentation and detailed data analysis.  When exploring complex phenomena like the influence of video games on learning, it is valuable to have experimenters who are careful in their research.
Of course, the results from this one paper do not argue that video games cannot improve more complex skills.  But, this finding is valuable in suggesting that whatever improvements video games may provide, they do not reach all the way down to the most basic aspects of visual perception.  More research will be needed to explore the kinds of thinking abilities that video game play may improve.