Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Conflicting Goals Can Make You A Better Decision Maker


We tend to think of conflict as the enemy of good decision making.  We dread situations that involve difficult choices.  Indeed, studies by Amos Tversky, Eldar Shafir, Ravi Dhar, Itamar Simonson and their colleagues suggests that people will actually avoid making decisions that are difficult.  When given a choice between selecting one of two options that require making a difficult tradeoff (for example, selecting apartments that differ in size and commute time), people prefer to put the decision off until later rather than addressing it right away.
An interesting paper by Jennifer Savary, Tali Kleiman, Ran Hassin, and Ravi Dhar in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that there may also be an upside to experiencing conflict. Specifically, they suggest that when people have two conflicting goals that they are grappling with, that makes them likely to think carefully about choices in order to resolve the conflict.
In order to induce conflicting goals, participants did a lexical decision task in which they saw a series of letters and had to press one button of those letters formed a word and a second button if they did not form a word.  In the conflict condition, some of the words referred to a particular goal (such as being healthy, with words like fitness and active), and others referred to a second goal that conflicts with the first (such as indulgence, with words like decadent and indulge).  The control condition did not have conflicting goals embedded in the words that were part of the lexical decision task.  Tasks like this have been used in many previous studies to activate goals and to create goal conflict.
After this lexical decision task, one study gave people difficult choices (like a choice between apartments that differ in size and commute time) and asked people to select one of the options or to defer the choice until later.  Participants who were induced to feel a conflict between goals were actually more likely to choose one of the options rather than deferring the choice than people in the control condition who were not given a goal conflict.
In a second study, participants were given these choices using a computer system that tracked the amount of time participants spent making the decision and the number of features of the options they explored.  Participants induced to experience a conflict looked at more features and spent more time making the choices than those who did not experience a conflict.  This study also demonstrated that people were not aware of the goal conflict that was induced. 
One other study tested the idea that conflicting goals increase how thoroughly people process information about choices in a slightly different way.  Again, goal conflict was induced using the lexical decision task.  This time, though. The decision task involves selecting from among three options (say three different apartments).  One was very good on one dimension (it was large), but very bad on the other (it was far from work).  A second was bad on that first dimension (it was small), but good on the other (it was close to work).  A third was a compromise (medium in size, a moderate commute to work). 
Previous research suggest that when people don’t want to work that hard making a choice, they tend to select the compromise option so that they don’t need to figure out which dimension is more important to them.  If people really think carefully about the choice, then, they will be more likely to pick one of the extreme options rather than the compromise. 
Consistent with the other two studies, participants induced to have a goal conflict were more likely to pick one of the extreme options than people in the control condition who had no goal conflict. 
An interesting aspect of these studies is that the goal conflict that was induced was not directly related to the choices people were making.  So, the increase in depth of thought about the choices was caused by the presence of active goals that conflict, and not based on the activity of goals that were relevant to evaluating the options.
This research suggests that we experience two kinds of conflicts when making choices.  One conflict is between options that are about equally attractive and require tradeoffs among the features to figure out which is best.  These conflicts make it hard for people to choose.  Often, people prefer to defer the choice until later or pick an easy compromise option rather than resolving tradeoffs.
The second kind of conflict is one between incompatible goals.  These goal conflicts arouse the motivational system.  This arousal leads people to consider options more carefully, think about them more deeply, and ultimately helps people to make the tradeoffs that can make decisions difficult.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sleep, Thinking, and Aging


I have written a few times about the influence of sleep on thinking.  High school students who stay up late perform more poorly in school the following day.  A lack of sleep may cause you to mix together different memories that did not occur together.  In young adults, sleep also affects the ability to learn new procedures. 
These benefits of sleep lead naturally to the speculation that sleep may help older adults avoid the cognitive declines that come along with aging.  One possibility is that older adults who suffer from sleep difficulties decline faster than those who don’t.  Another possibility is that regular sleep throughout life is associated with lower levels of problems.
A paper in the January, 2015 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science by Michael Scullin and Donald Bliwise tried to sort out what is going on with sleep and aging.  The performed a massive meta-analysis.  A meta-analysis looks across the many published studies in an area of research in order to explore what really seems to be happening in an area.
There are many ways to study sleep and its effects on thought and aging.  Some studies use self-reports of sleep quality and measurements of cognitive performance.  Some of these self-report studies look at people of different ages.  Others are actually longitudinal.  They examine the relationship between the quality of sleep people get at one point in time and their performance later in their life.
Other studies use other measures of sleep.  Some studies use a device called an actigraph, which measures whether the person is moving.  (The Fitbit is a kind of actigraph.)  Long periods without movement are good (though not perfect) signals that a person is sleeping.  Still other studies measure physiological aspects of individuals like brain waves so that it is possible to tell both that people are asleep as well as the stage of sleep they are in.  Finally, there are experimental manipulations of sleep including sleep deprivation studies as well as studies in which people are randomly assigned to conditions in which they do or do not nap.
There are a lot of interesting findings in this paper, and it is worth giving it a read yourself for a more complete look at effects of sleep on thinking.  But here are a few highlights.
First, the relationship between sleep and improved thinking is strongest earlier in life and gets weaker later.  A good night’s sleep helps young adults to learn better the next day.  Sleep also helps young adults to consolidate (or solidify) memories from the day before more than it helps older adults.  Middle-aged adults show smaller effects of sleep on learning, and older adults show almost no relationship between sleep and learning at all. 
Sleep deprivation studies tell the same story.  Sleep deprivation generally hurts thinking performance, but these effects are much stronger in younger adults and small or even non-existent in older adults.  (This may explain why I can play the sax in a blues band until 2am on Sunday nights and still function at work the next day.)
Of course, part of the difficulty with studying sleep in older adults is that older adults generally need less sleep than younger adults, and the older adults who get the most sleep tend to be those who are sick and whose bodies are fighting off illness.
These results do suggest, though, that the amount of sleep that older adults are getting at that phase of their lives is not a cause of cognitive decline.
A particularly interesting result is that the quality of sleep in middle age influences cognitive health in old age.  The longitudinal studies are particularly helpful for this work.  When adults in their 40s and 50s get regular sleep and allow themselves to get the roughly 8 hours of sleep they need, they show fewer signs of cognitive problems like senile dementia when they are older.  Indeed, one of the studies in this sample measured sleep quality of adults in their 40s and followed up with them 28 years later.
Putting all of this together, then, it seems that sleep is most important for current cognitive performance in younger people, and that sleep plays less of a role in thinking as we age.  Sleep in middle-aged adults is still important, though, because good sleep habits in middle-age are associated with better mental health in old-age.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

What Does Your Avatar Say About You?


A lot of websites give you the chance to represent yourself with an avatar rather than a picture of yourself.  Avatars are often cartoon-y pictures with facial features, clothing, and accessories that allow you to personalize your picture.  For example, this website allows you to create an avatar to use before entering a chat room.
The avatar you select can influence the way people interact with you.  It is interesting to know whether people generally try to select avatars that represent themselves accurately, or whether they aim to display themselves differently to the electronic world than they appear in real life.  It is also interesting to know the conclusions that viewers draw when seeing someone’s avatar.
This question was addressed in a study by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar published in the February, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
The researchers asked a group of about 100 people to choose avatars for themselves using the (now defunct) website weeworld.com.  Half of the participants were asked to create an avatar, and the other half were specifically asked to create an avatar that would represent their personality accurately.  There were no significant differences in the avatars created by these groups suggesting that most people naturally try to represent themselves accurately.  These participants filled out a personality inventory that measures the Big Five personality traits after creating their avatar.  (The Big Five traits are Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism.)
A second group of about 2,000 participants were shown a subset of the avatars and rated their perception of the personality characteristics of the individuals who created those avatars.  They also rated how much they would like to interact with the person who created that avatar. 
One question that the researchers asked up front was whether being able to categorize the participant by gender influenced judgments of personality.  The avatars were all either recognizably male or female.  Overall, people tended to think that the males were slightly less conscientious and open to new experiences than the females.  But, this categorization tended to decrease accuracy of judgments overall, because the sample of male participants was not actually lower in conscientiousness or openness than the sample of female participants.
The researchers compared people’s ratings of their own personality characteristics to those of other people who rated personality after seeing the avatars they constructed.  The ratings of the avatars showed that people could assess another person’s extraversion and agreeableness to some degree, and could not do a particularly good job of rating the other characteristics.
The researchers also examined the aspects of the avatars that were most correlated with people’s personality ratings.  For example, people high in agreeableness tended to select avatars with open eyes more often than those low in agreeableness.  One reason why raters were good at assessing an individual’s agreeableness from their avatar was that they generally rated people as higher in agreeableness (and extraversion) if the avatar had open eyes. 
In general, though, the aspects of avatars that raters thought were most important for judging a person’s personality were not that diagnostic of the personality characteristic.  For example, people tended to rate avatars with short hair as more conscientious than those with long hair.  In fact, this characteristic was more strongly associated with the neuroticism of the person who created the avatar than the conscientiousness of that individual.  People higher in neuroticism tended to have avatars with long hair. 
One final data point of interest, the characteristics of avatars did influence whether people were interested in befriending the person.  In particular, people were most interested in being friends with people who had avatars with open eyes, smiles, and an oval face and were least interested in being friends with people who had a facial expression that was not a smile.
So, what does all of this mean?
There has been a lot of work recently on what we can learn about the personality characteristics of others from the things they create including personal spaces, Facebook pages, and things they write.  Overall, when people create an avatar, it is hard to get to know much about them.  You can get a little information about extraversion and agreeableness, but the correlations are not large. 
One thing that is interesting, though, is that people do draw inferences about personality characteristics from avatars.  However, the aspects of the avatars that they use to make judgments about someone’s personality are not generally that highly correlated with that individual’s actual personality.  Thus, people may overestimate their ability to learn something about others from their avatars. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Why Do Movies Move?


If you spend time watching movies or TV, you have probably know that you see a moving image on the screen, but that the sense of motion is created by your brain from a series of static images.  Typical movies, for example, flash 24 frames per second.  Somehow, the brain takes the changes from one frame to the next and gives you the illusion of fluid movement. 
How does that happen?  Take a moment to try to explain it to yourself.
This question is just one of many that is explored in a great book that came out in 2015 called Flicker by cognitive neuroscientist Jeff Zacks.  The book itself explores a variety of topics ranging from low-level aspects of the way the visual system understands the images on the screen all the way to high-level topics like the reason why movies are so good at creating emotion.
So, why do movies move?
You might think that what is happening is that each image persists a little on the retina (the cells at the back of your eye that respond to light) and that changes in the image are detected there.  Or perhaps, when the image is first processed in the brain, it recognizes small discrepancies from one frame to the next.
Neither of those possibilities is quite right.
The images from the screen enter the eye and hit the retina.  From there, they are passed into the brain and ultimately make their way to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain where most visual processing is done.  Initially, the brain looks for simple visual features in the image like the presence of edges, because edges usually signal the boundaries of objects.
The interesting thing is, the brain divides up the task of understanding the image in multiple ways, with different brain areas searching for different features in the image.  The unified sense of vision we have arises because the brain ultimately puts all of those independent properties back together. 
Early in the processing of images a particular area of the brain called area MT (shown in the figure) looks for blobs that have changed position.  When MT sees a blob in a location that has changed it position a bit, it gives a signal suggesting that there was motion.  Sustained activity of MT indicating motion in a particular direction gives people the experience that an object moved.  This brain area doesn’t really care much about the blobs themselves.  The blobs could actually change shape or color from one frame to the next, it is just looking for motion.
So, the motion in movies comes from activity in the brain area MT.  As Zacks points out, though, this can sometimes cause problems.  In particular, when a movie is put together, it is usually constructed from a set of scenes that are spliced (or cut) together.  If the editor is not careful, when one scene is cut to the next, some of the objects may appear to jump from one location on the screen to another.  This jarring sense of movement is called a jump cut.  Filmmakers try not to create these jump cuts, and texts on film making give suggestions for how to avoid them. 
These jump cuts are caused by the same process that causes the sense of motion in scenes.  When one scene is cut to another, if area MT detects the motion of a blob, it will send a signal that an object in one location actually moved to another.  That can feel weird, because brain areas that calculate the size, color, and shape of the object may not see strong similarities in the objects from one scene to the next, so you can get a feeling of motion without have a clear sense of what moved.
One of the reasons why Flicker is an interesting read is that Zacks explores the ways that movies exploit the structure of the brain to give us an immersive experience.  If you can pull yourself away from the screen for a few hours, it is well-worth the time to check it out.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Effects of Synchrony on Conformity


Teams tend to do things together.  Soldiers march in step.  Athletic teams do stretches and simple drills together as a unit.  In public schools, all students repeat phrases together like the Pledge of Allegiance.  At stadiums, fans will chant together and make similar movements.
There is quite a bit of work that suggests that acting in synchrony like this can increase people’s sense of teamwork and conformity.  Why does that happen?  What happens to people watching others acting together?
This question was addressed in a paper by Ping Dong, Xianchi Dai, and Robert Wyer in the January, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 
In one study, they had a group of participants learn a set of four basic physical exercises.  Some groups performed the exercises all together as they counted off.  Other groups performed the exercises at their own pace, so that everyone was doing something different.  In addition to these actors, there were also observers.  Some participants watched the exercise being done.  They watched either a group moving in synchrony or a group in which there was no synchrony.  After observing, actors rated how free they felt, and observes rated how free the actors were. 
As a measure of conformity, after performing or observing the exercise, participants read reviews about products from a number of different categories (like sofas).  The reviews included information about how popular a particular brand was.  After reading descriptions of three products for each category, participants chose one.  The measure of conformity was the overall popularity of the products participants chose.  The more popular the brands, the more that these participants were conforming with others.  
In this initial study, participants who performed the exercises with others in synchrony tended to select more popular products than those who performed the exercises without synchronizing their movements with others.  Interestingly, the observers showed the opposite pattern.  They were more likely to select popular products when they observed groups who moved at their own pace rather than those who acted together in synchrony. 
Why did this happen?  The observers rated that the actors were significantly less free when they acted in synchrony with others than when they did what they wanted to.  Interestingly, the actors who performed the exercises did not differ in how free they felt regardless of whether they were instructed to act in synchrony or not. 
This suggests that actors feel a common bond with people when they act in synchrony.  The shared goal and the shared movement create a sense of wanting to agree with the actions of others.  In contrast, the observers focused on the individual freedom of the people.  When they watched people moving together, they were concerned about freedom, and so they resisted picking products that other people liked.
In several other studies, the researchers expanded on this point.  In one study, for example, the actors who were told to move in synchrony were told that they were part of a competition in which they would win a prize if their team moved together most effectively.  The group of actors that moved independently was not given these instructions.  The observers were told that they were judging the synchrony of the team they were watching for a competition.  Some of the observers were told that if their team won, they would share in the winnings, so that the observer became part of the common goal of the team.
Finally, at the end of the study, participants were given an opportunity to donate money to one of six charities.  Three of the charities were well-known and the rest were not well-known.  The amount of money given to well-known charities was the measure of conformity in this study.
Overall, actors who moved in synchrony tended to give more money to well-known charities than the observers who watched them.  However when the observer was also made to feel part of the team, the observer gave more money to well-known charities than to unpopular charities.  As in the previous study, actors who did not move in synchrony did not have a bias to conform: they gave about the same amount of money to popular and unpopular charities. 
Putting these findings together, when a group moves in synchrony, it increases their sense of belonging to a group and increases the willingness of members of that group to conform with others.  Observers have a different experience.  Watching others move in synchrony makes observers sensitive to the loss of freedom of those moving together.  Those observers are actually less wiling to conform as a result of watching the movements. 
In this way, synchronous movements are a double-edged sword.  They increase a sense of belonging in those who are made to feel part of the team, but they actually decrease that sense of belonging to those who see themselves as outsiders.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Danger of the Partial Confession


When you do something wrong, there are two typical reactions that pull in opposite directions.  On the one hand, you might want to hide what you have done.  If nobody finds out, then it may feel like you didn’t do it at all.  On the other hand, you might just want to confess what you have done wrong.  That gets the problem out into the open and helps people to move forward.
A middle ground between these possibilities is the partial confession.  In a partial confession, you admit to what you did wrong, but you don’t admit to the full extent of it.  The partial confession seems like a great compromise.  You get the benefit of admitting what you have done, but you can make your transgression seem less extreme than it was.  
A paper in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Eyal Peer, Alessandro Acquisti, and Shaul Shalvi suggests that partial confessions may actually be worse than either a full confession or not confessing at all.
First, one study looked at whether people have a tendency to make partial confessions.  Participants in an on-line study performed a variety of tasks.  In one task, they went to another website that allowed people to flip a virtual coin and predict how the coin would come out.  They were asked to flip the coin 10 times.  Then, they were told to report the number of guesses they got right.  They got paid ten cents for each correct guess. 
Although the participants didn’t know it, their actual predictions and coin flips were monitored, so the experimenters knew whether a particular participant told the truth or cheated.  Overall about 35% of the participants over-reported the number of flips they predicted correctly.  (Almost nobody under-reported the number of correct guesses, so this is cheating and not bad memory.)
Later in the study, participants were given a chance to confess whether they cheated.  They were told that they would be paid based on what they reported even if they now admitted they had cheated.  They were also told that there would be no negative consequences of admitting that they had cheated. 
Only about 18% of the participants who cheated confessed.  Of those who did confess, the ones who cheated most were also the ones most likely to give partial confessions.  That is people who over-reported by just a few guesses tended to give a full confession, while those who over-reported a lot tended to give a partial confession. 
Why do people give partial confessions?  Another study gave participants a hypothetical situation like the one I just described.  They were told that they had over-reported and then were asked to assume that they had confessed fully, had not confessed at all or gave a partial confession.  Each participant responded to only one of these possibilities.  They rated whether they thought their story would be credible and how they would feel after giving the confession. 
Participants who were told to imagine they had given a full confession rated themselves as being most credible.  Those told to imagine they had given no confession rated themselves as least credible.  Those who imagined a partial confession came out in between.  There was no difference between groups in their prediction of how they would feel. 
Another study looked at how participants actually feel after confessing.  They gave participants an opportunity to cheat as in the study I described earlier.  In this study, participants were asked to rate their mood at the end of the study.  Unsurprisingly, participants in who did not cheat at all had the lowest level of negative feeling at the end of the study.  Participants who gave a partial confession actually had the highest level of negative feeling, greater than that of either those who cheated and did not confess or those who cheated and gave a full confession.
Finally, another study in this series asked people to imagine they were hearing about people who might have cheated in a task like the coin flipping task.  Participants found out that the individual reported an unlikely event and then later heard a confession that was likely to be a full confession, a partial confession, or no confession.  This study found that participants found the full confession most credible, the absence of a confession least credible and the partial confession to be in between the two.
Putting this all together, then, it seems that partial confessions are not that valuable.  They are somewhat more credible to others than not confessing at all.  But, the partial confession actually makes the confessor feel worse than no confession at all.  One reason why partial confessions create negative feeling is that discrepancies among thoughts are often discomforting.  The partial confession forces confessors to think both about what they did and about what they said.  The partial confession actually focuses more attention on the thing people did wrong than no confession at all.
An interesting question for future research is whether confessions act a little like forgiveness. In an earlier blog entry, I described research suggesting that when people forgive others for a transgression, they are better able to forget the details of what happened to them than when they do not forgive.  Perhaps a full confession also helps transgressors to forget the details of what they did wrong and to move on with their lives.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

How Children Use Information About Why Things Work


When children are about 3-years-old, one of the big things they need to do is to learn about the huge variety of objects in the world around them.  Not only does this learning help them to make sense of the world, but is crucial for children to learn the labels we use for different objects so that they can talk about those objects again in the future.
Indeed, starting when children are about a year-and-a-half old, they start learning lots of labels for new objects.  That pattern continues for a few years after that.
A fascinating paper by Amy Booth in the January 2015 issue of Cognitive Development explored the role of causal information in learning words for new objects.  Causal information is knowledge about the way the world works. 
Previous research suggests that when children find out something about the way an object works, they learn about the object faster than when they learn about some other property about it like what it looks like.  The materials used in this study are shown in the picture attached to this blog entry.  This picture is Figure 1 from the article. 
The novel objects were described with a label that the children would not have heard before (like Kulloo or Gippit).  The causal information focused on the function of the object.  For example, the Gippit was described as being used to make circles on walls.  The non-causal information (which Booth called “causally weak” to be careful not to assume that children would not make any guesses about causal information) was that Gippits always have circles painted on the bottom.  
Children were shown each object and were told the causal or noncausal fact about it.  They were then told the label.  On each block of the study, children practiced the label several times.  They continued learning until they could correctly remember which label went with each object.  They were tested by hearing the label and pointing to the object it went with. 
The causal information made the label easier to learn.  Children learned to identify the label that went with the object in fewer trials when it was associated with information about the function of the object than when it was associated with a hidden feature of the object. 
By the end of this part of the study, though, the children had learned the labels equally well regardless of which information they heard.  It just took them longer to learn it when they got feature information than when they got causal information.
The key question, though, is why the causal information helps.  One possibility is that causal information is particularly interesting to 3-year-olds, and so it causes them to pay more attention to the object and the label, and so they learn the label faster.  A second possibility is that the causal information provides a deep set of connections to existing knowledge and so children actually remember the labels better when they were connected to causal information than when they were connected to features. 
To test this possibility the children were brought back to the lab 2 to 3 weeks after the first session.  They were tested on the labels again. 
If the causal information just causes children to pay more attention to the object and the label, then two weeks later, children should be equally good at remembering which label went with each object regardless of the other information they heard about the object, because they had learned the labels equally well by the end of the first part of the study.
However, if the causal information is enriching the connection between the object and the child’s other knowledge, then children should remember labels associated with causal features better than those associated with non-causal features.
In fact, the children remembered the labels equally well regardless of the kind of information they learned when they encountered the object for the first time.  This research suggests that children find causal knowledge interesting, and when they hear about functions of objects, they pay more attention than if they just hear about other features.  Once they learn the label for an object, though, they remember it later, even if they hadn’t learned about the function of the object.
This finding suggest that it is valuable to teach children about functions at the same time that we teach them about the names for objects.  This causal information helps children to understand a little more about the way the world works.  It also makes it easier for kids to learn the labels for objects, which makes it easier for the children to talk about those objects later.