Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Does Nostalgia Do?

When people get nostalgic, they are living in the past.  In those moments, the past seems rosy, and often as more positive than the present.  Nostalgia can be induced by thinking about past events, by going to places you have experienced before, or even by hearing a song that brings back memories of things that happened.  

Is nostalgia a good thing or a bad thing for people?  It clearly seems to make people feel better in the moment. Any time you focus on a positive memory, you tend to get a boost of positive feeling.  But, are there any other positive benefits of nostalgia?

This issue was explored in a paper in the November, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Wing-Yee Cheung, Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides, Erica Hepper, Jamie Arndt, and Ad Vingerhoets.  They suggested that nostalgia may actually make people more optimistic about the future.

In one study, the researchers simply had college students write a short essay about a past event that made them feel nostalgic or a past event that seemed ordinary.  Ratings suggested that making people write about a nostalgic event made people feel more nostalgic and also slightly more positive than writing about an ordinary event.  Using a program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software developed by my colleague Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues, the researchers analyzed the words used in the essays.  LIWC counts different kinds of words that appear in text including words relating to optimism.  People writing about nostalgic events contained more words relating to optimism than people writing about ordinary events.  

In another study, participants instructed to think about a past event that made them feel nostalgic rated themselves as feeling more optimistic than those instructed to think about an ordinary event.  Optimism increased above and beyond any influence that thinking about a nostalgic event had on people’s positive feelings in general.

The remaining studies in this paper examined why nostalgia makes people feel more optimistic.  These studies used internet surveys in order to have a broader age range of participants.  They induced nostalgia in some participants by having them listen to songs or read song lyrics that were associated with nostalgic feelings (for those participants).  

As in the other studies, participants who were induced to feel nostalgic also expressed more optimism of the future.  This optimism is related to two other factors.  First, nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.  That increase in self-esteem then increases feelings of optimism. 
This set of studies suggests that nostalgia can play a beneficial role in people’s lives.  When times are tough, it may seem as though things may never get better.  By focusing on positive times from the past, though, people may help themselves to be more connected to others, which can give them the resources to be more optimistic about the future.

A limitation of this study is that these effects were all statistically reliable, but they were rather small overall.  People got more optimistic, but not by a lot.  It remains to be seen how much of a practical impact nostalgia may have on people’s day-to-day behavior.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some Odd Numbers are Odder Than Others

The ability to classify objects is crucial to thinking. When you place an object into a category, you are able to predict things about it.  When you see a small furry four-legged animal in someone’s back yard, and you categorize it as a dog, then you can predict that it will probably bark and might want to chase a ball or gnaw on a stick.  In this way, your categories allow you to use your past knowledge to help you understand new situations.  

Often, an object is placed into a category because it is similar to other members of the same category.  So, you decide that the furry four-legged animal is a dog, because it looks like other dogs you have seen in the past.  You categorize the tall, woody plants in the yard near the dog as trees, because they are similar to other trees you have seen.

Sometimes, of course, an object belongs in a category because the category has a strict definition that determines who is and who is not a part of it.  In math, an odd number is any number whose final digit is not divisible by 2.  A triangle is any three-sided closed figure. 
An interesting observation over the years is that even when people are faced with categories that have strict definitions, they treat them in a similar way to categories whose membership seems more based on similarity.  In 1983, Sharon Armstrong, Lila Gleitman and Henry Gleitman found that people believed that some members of categories like even and odd numbers are better than others.  So, a number like 400 is judged to be a better example of an even number than a number like 798, even though—technically speaking—both are perfectly good even numbers.

A 2013 paper in the journal Cognition by Gary Lupyan looked at this effect more carefully.  In one study, he gave people one second to classify numbers as odd or even.  The numbers had between 1 and 4 digits.  He manipulated how many of the other digits in the number were of the same parity as the judgment to be made or of opposite parity.  That is, if a four-digit number to be classified was even (because its right-most digit was even), then on some trials all of the other digits were even, on some trials one, two, or three of the other digits were odd.

Unsurprisingly, people were highly accurate at this task.  However, the more of the digits of a number that were the opposite parity to the judgment to be made, the slower and less accurate people got.  In another study, participants were shown numbers and given as much time as they wanted to make judgments, and they made more errors when the numbers had some digits that were opposite to the parity of the correct response.  This effect was also observed when the numbers were spelled out (Three hundred and fifty two) rather than written as Arabic numerals (352).  

Other studies in this paper found a similar effect for triangles.  People got slower and less accurate to classify triangles as they differed more from a typical equilateral triangle.  A third set of studies demonstrated a similar effect for grandmothers.  A woman is a grandmother if her offspring has a child of his or her own.  Yet, the typical grandmother is also older and retired.  The less that particular women resembled a typical grandmother (despite being grandmothers), the less chance that participants judged they had to win a contest in which every grandmother entered had an equal chance to win.  

What does all of this mean?

The human mind is ill-suited to carry out rules.  We need to be able to recognize new items quickly and to figure out what they are likely to do in order to understand how to interact with them.  

It is rare in nature that there is a specific rule that defines a category that does not come along with lots of other features that help to identify the item.  A dog may be an animal that has dog DNA, but dogs also have lots of characteristic features that help us to understand what they are.  (Trees are another matter entirely, though, many things we classify as trees are less related to each other than they are to other plants that we could consider bushes or flowers.)

So, the human mind evolved to focus on classifying items based on their observable properties.  Humans have invented lots of rule-based categories like even numbers, triangles, and even bachelors and grandmothers.  But, we do not have mechanisms that allow us to simply use rules.

You might think that is a problem.  It would be great to adapt to rule-based categories so that we would not make mistakes classifying them.

However, even many categories that seem rule-based are not.  Consider what seems to be a simple concept like murder.  It should seem obvious that killing another person is a crime.  But, what about someone who kills another person in self-defense?  How about an elderly man assisting the suicide of his long-suffering wife to spare her additional years of pain?  It is hard to determine whether these examples are actually murder.  Our ability to use other factors besides rules to classify items allows us to figure out how rule-based categories apply in the real world. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Children Can Adopt a Sharing Mindset

We tend to think of children as selfish creatures.  Parents talk about the importance of teaching their kids to share and to play well with others.  Yet, the human species needs to be cooperative to survive. Individually, humans are rather weak creatures, but because of our collective ability to share our experiences and to teach each other, we have come to dominate the planet. 
So, is sharing and cooperation something that needs to be taught? 

This question has been explored by many researchers.  For example, Mike Tomasello and his colleagues demonstrate that even young children tend to share, to cooperate in pursuing shared goals, and to want to punish people who harm others.  

A fascinating paper by Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir in the October, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores a related question:  can children adopt a mindset to share with others?  They suggest that if children are given the choice to share with someone else, then that can create a more lasting state of mind that leads them to continue sharing.

In one study, 3- and 4-year-old children were introduced to a puppet dog and were told that the dog was sad.  One group was told to give the dog a sticker to make him feel better.  A second group was given a choice to either give the dog a sticker or to put the sticker in the trash.  For this group, the choice was not personally costly.  A third group made a costly choice. They could either give the sticker to the dog to make it happy or keep it for themselves.  Kids of this age love stickers, so giving up the sticker would come at a personal cost.  After making this choice, the children were introduced to a puppet elephant who was also sad and were given some more stickers.  They could either keep the stickers or give them to the elephant to make her happy.    The key question was whether children would keep the last set of stickers or give them away. 
In all conditions, there was a tendency for the children to give the sticker to the dog.  Even the children who had to make the costly choice between keeping the sticker or giving it to the dog tended to give the sticker away to make the dog happy.  

The children who had no choice and those who chose to give the sticker to the dog rather than throwing it away were not that generous to the elephant.  Only about 20% of these children tended to give the stickers to the sad elephant rather than keeping them.  In contrast, about 70% of the children who had to make the difficult choice in the first part of the study also gave the stickers away to the sad elephant.  This finding suggests that children adopted a mindset of sharing when they had to make a difficult choice.

A few other studies in this paper helped to clarify this effect.

In one study, children were either given the chance to play with a sticker immediately or to make the difficult choice to save the sticker until a later time.  Children find it hard to delay gratification, though most children in this study did put the sticker away to play with later.  Afterward, the children were given the chance to give stickers to a sad elephant or keep the stickers.  Most children in this condition chose to keep the stickers, suggesting that just making a difficult choice is not enough to create a sharing mindset.

One final study had two groups.  Each group had an opportunity to keep an item or give it to the puppet dog to make it happy.  One group had an easy choice.  They either kept or gave away a small scrap of paper.  The other group had a difficult choice, they either kept or gave away a toy frog.  Afterward, both groups had the chance to give stickers to a sad elephant.

Again, most children chose to make the dog happy by giving up the object.  The children who made the hard choice, though, were much more likely to give their stickers to the sad elephant than those who made the easy choice.

Putting all of this together, children do have a tendency to want to keep things for themselves rather than to give them away.  Most of the children in this study kept the stickers for themselves rather than giving them away to make a puppet happy.  However, getting children to make a hard choice promoted a sharing mindset.  When children actively chose to give something valuable to someone else, they continued that behavior later in the study.

This finding is consistent with work on adults suggesting that giving things away tends to make people happy.  For example, a study published in Science by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton suggests that when people give money to others, it increases their happiness.  One possibility is that by giving stickers away in this study, children are also learning that giving things to others has its own rewards.  Future work will have to explore what children learn from these difficult choices that promotes sharing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Social Competence and Anger

Life is full of frustrating people and situations.  Driving in a car, you may get cut off by a driver on a cell phone.  A colleague at work may fail to complete an important task that makes it harder for you to do your job.  A friend may leave you out of a social event, which makes you feel excluded.  

Your long-term relationships are affected by how you deal with these frustrations.  You may never see the bad driver again, but your driving habits after being cut off may affect the drivers around you.  Getting angry with a friend or colleague can cause tension in that relationship.  Talking with people who have let you down or hurt your feelings can help to repair the damage their actions caused.

An interesting paper in the October, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Michael Robinson, Adam Fetterman, Kay Hopkins, and Sukumarakurup Krishnakumar examined the role of social competence in dealing with these kinds of everyday frustrations. 

The idea behind social competence is that there are many ways to react to situations, and some of them are more constructive than others.  People who are better at identifying the most constructive ways to deal with situations may also do a better job of dealing with life’s frustrations.

As a measure of social competence, the authors identified many work-related scenarios that were dilemmas, but were not obviously frustrating.  For example, an executive at work may find out that one of her employees is struggling with an alcohol problem.  People are presented with four possible actions (such as forgiving the employee, asking about personal problems, and ignoring the situation) and are asked to rate the effectiveness of these responses.  Their ratings are compared against the ratings of experts.  Previous work suggested that this measure was a good predictor of behavior in a work environment.

In one study, the researchers compared people’s scores on this test of social competence to their score on a scale that measures how often they react aggressively when they get angry.  The higher the scores on the test of social competence, the lower was people’s tendency react aggressively when angry.  This relationship held, even after considering other core personality traits like agreeableness (which measures how much people want to get along with others) and emotional stability.

In another study, a group of people who had taken the test of social competence filled out a daily diary for 14 days.  In this diary, they noted any frustrating events that happened during the day and then rated whether they engaged in aggressive behaviors like insulting someone, criticizing them, or arguing.  They also noted any mental lapses like forgetting an appointment or having difficulty making a decision.  Previous work shows that when people get frustrated, they experience more cognitive problems during the day.

Overall, people with low scores on the test of social competence were more aggressive and had more mental lapses than those with high scores on the test of social competence.  This effect was particularly strong on days that had many frustrations in them in which people had interpersonal conflicts or did not get things that they wanted. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Why Do People Gamble Too Much?

I grew up in Central New Jersey.  When I was about 10, the state legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, making it the only place on the East Coast of the US at that time where people could gamble legally.  I have some relatives who live near Atlantic City.  There are lots of cheap buses to get there from all over the New York and New Jersey area, and so I would hop on with all of the gamblers to go visit family.  The ride down was always tense with anticipation, but the ride back had lots of tired and dejected gamblers.  I always felt like many of those people on the bus with me had real gambling problems.

What exactly is it that drives people to gamble too much? 

Intuitively, it seems like there are two possibilities.  One is that people with gambling problems are focused on the thrill of gambling.  When you walk through a casino, there are lights and bells and the sounds of people winning money.  There must be a real jolt when your number comes up on a roulette table, or the bars all align on a slot machine. 

Of course, another possibility is that gamblers are just focused on the money.  They want to win money and gambling seems like a way to do it.

An interesting paper by Cheryl Hahn, Tim Wilson, Kaichen McRae, and Dan Gilbert in the October, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored these two possibilities. 

As a measure of the vulnerability to problem gambling, they asked participants to fill out the Gambling Attitudes and Beliefs Survey, which has been used in past research.  This scale asks people to rate their agreement with statements like “I know when I’m on a streak” and “If I lose, it is important to stick with it until I get even.” 

In one study, participants were given the gambling survey.  Later, they were given a chance to play what seems like a strange gambling game.  Two decks of cards were placed in front of them.  One deck had 9 red cards and 1 black card.  The other deck had 5 red cards and 5 black cards.  At the start of each trial, the decks were shuffled and placed face-down on the desk.  Participants could choose which deck they wanted a card drawn from.  If the card was red, they would get 10 cents.  If the card was black, they would get nothing.  The game was repeated for 20 trials.  A second group was shown the experimental situation, but they just predicted how may cards they would want to take from each deck over the course of the study.

Economically, it seems clear that participants should always choose from the deck with 9 red cards, because they have the best chance of winning when they draw from that deck.  If they choose often from the deck with only 5 red cards, then they must value the suspense of whether they will win and the thrill of winning despite lower odds. 

People who scored highly on the gambling survey predicted that they would choose somewhat more cards from the risky deck (with 5 red cards) than people who scored low on the gambling survey.  In actuality, though, people who scored high on the gambling survey actually chose fewer cards from the risky deck on average than those who scored low on the survey. 

That is, these results suggest that people who scored highly on the gambling survey were more interested in the money than in the potential thrill of beating the odds.  The researchers obtained a similar result in a second study.

In one final study, participants who had filled out the gambling survey were given 3 minutes to do a series of math problems.  Some people were told that they would be paid 5 cents for each problem they got correct.  Others were given no monetary incentive.  The people who got a low score on the gambling survey answered about the same number of items correctly regardless of whether they were being paid.  Those who got a high score on the gambling survey answered more questions correctly on average when they were being paid than when they were not. 

Putting these results together, it suggests that people who are vulnerable to problem gambling are more strongly motivated by obtaining money than by the suspense of gambling or the thrill of winning.

Of course, this finding was obtained with college students, and there may have been few real problem gamblers in this sample.  As the researchers point out, the stakes in this situation were also low.  More work still needs to be done to see whether this focus on winnings over the thrill of gambling holds up in further studies.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Intelligence, Spatial Ability, and Creativity

One of the goals of intelligence testing has been to help to identify those people who are likely to be productive in life and to give them access to resources that will allow them to maximize their potential.   

The danger with these intelligence tests, though, is that they do not perfectly predict what will happen to people in the future.  In his fascinating book, Ungifted, Scott Barry Kaufman provides both a personal story as well as data about the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence testing.  On the personal side, he had difficulties in school early on, and performed poorly on tests of intelligence, but he has published significant scientific work in the field of intelligence.  So, the tests were not a good predictor of his future success.  He is not alone.  Intelligence tests predict only a small part of what makes people successful.

Perhaps what is missing is other intelligence tests.  This question was explored in a paper in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and James Steiger.  

They examined data from a longitudinal study of participants who were first given the SAT as 13-year-olds in the 1970s.  The participants all scored in the highest one-half of one percent on either the math or verbal SAT.  Later, they were given other tests, including two tests of spatial reasoning ability.  One of these tests, (the Mechanical Reasoning portion of the Differential Aptitude Test explores people’s ability to reason about configurations of devices like gears and pulleys.  Another (the Spatial Reasoning portion of the DAT) looks at people’s ability to construct boxes and shapes from segments. 

The researchers examined whether the 563 individuals in this sample had published papers in research journals and had gotten patents for inventions.  Overall, 160 individuals from this sample had published journal articles or had a patent.  

A key finding from this research was that the combination of math and verbal SAT score could be used to predict which people in the same were likely to publish in research journals.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who published in science and technology journals tended to have higher Math SAT scores as children than those who published in Arts, Humanities and Social Science Journals.  Those who published in journals tended to have higher verbal SAT scores as children than those who just had patents.  

Overall, this analysis predicted about 11% of the difference among people in their types of publications.  

Spatial ability added to this prediction.  Those people who published in the sciences and who held patents had higher scores on the tests of spatial reasoning as children than those who published in arts and humanities journals or in biology and medical journals.  The addition of the spatial ability scores added the ability to predict an additional 7% of the differences among people.

How should these results be interpreted?

On the one hand, it is clear that extraordinary intelligence scores obtained as children do have some influence on later performance.  Over 25% of the people in this sample ultimately published papers in research journals or had patents.  That is a higher percentage than you would expect in the population of the United States at large.

At the same time, that means that most of the people in this sample did not publish or have patents.  In addition, though SAT scores and spatial ability scores help to predict the fields people will enter to some degree, most of the differences among people involve factors beyond these tests of ability.

Ultimately, tests of intelligence or ability are a relatively small predictor of people’s success.  As I discuss in Smart Thinking, raw ability is useless on its own.  Success is built on a basis of hard work acquiring an area of expertise and honing that knowledge to use it to solve new and interesting problems.  Intelligence may make it a little easier to acquire that knowledge and to use it, but it does not substitute for years of hard work.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Does Cognition Get Worse With Age?

We all know that cognitive ability gets worse as we age.  Even healthy older adults think more slowly and remember less than healthy young adults.  The declines are slow and steady, though clearly not debilitating.  Many older adults continue to make important and productive contributions to their fields into their 70s and 80s and beyond.

An interesting question about the performance of older adults is whether the declines reflect that older adults are just worse than younger adults on a day-to-day basis or whether older adults are more variable.  That is, do older adults have more extreme good days and bad days than younger adults?

This issue was explored in a paper by Florian Schmiedek, Martin Lovden, and Ulman Lindenberger in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  They analyzed data from a long-term study of Germany younger adults (on average 25 years old) and older adults (on average 71 years old).  Each participant completed roughly 100 sessions of a battery of cognitive tasks measuring memory skills, perceptual ability, and working memory capacity.  (Working memory is the ability to hold onto information in the moment to use it during thinking.)  Overall, participants performed 9 tests in each session.

Participants did this battery of tests at least twice a day during the study period, so that it was possible to disentangle variability in performance that was just a result of different times of day and variability in performance that was due to having good days and bad days.

Overall, the older adults performed less well on the variety of cognitive tests than the younger adults.  Interestingly, the older adults were more consistent in their performance over time than the younger adults.  The older adults showed less variability across all of the different tasks both from one time of day to another and from one day to the next than the younger adults.
This finding helps to explain why declines in cognitive performance with age are not 
debilitating to older adults.  Even though older adults do get worse overall, their performance stays within a narrow range from day-to-day.  Generally speaking, older adults do not have rapid swings from really good days on which they perform exceptionally well to really bad days on which they fall apart.  This low level of variability helps older adults to maintain reasonable performance each day.

Indeed, one of the signs of significant declines in aging associated with senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is that there is a lot of daily variability in performance.  The rapid daily changes associated with these disorders cause real problems for patients.  They also serve as a warning sign for people who are on the lookout for cognitive problems in themselves or aging relatives.