Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why Do People Engage in Extreme Rituals?

It is pledge season at fraternities and sororities all over the US.  New initiates into these groups spend a chunk of their first semester engaging in all kinds of activities from the mundane (wearing an article of clothing to distinguish them from other members of the group) to the extreme.  Occasionally, stories of hazing rituals make the news when a student is injured. 

Fraternities and Sororities are hardly the only groups in the world that engage in extreme rituals.  Anthropologists have documented all kind of practices from a variety of cultures that can be hard to understand for outside observers.

Clearly, these rituals have to serve some function.  The speculation is that the most extreme rituals create some kind of social bonding among the individuals who participate in them as well as those who observe them.  A fascinating paper by Dimitris Xygalatas and several co-authors in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science presents a field study that provides some data to back up this proposal.

This study was done in Mauritius.  The people there have a number of cultural identities including their religious identity as Hindu and their national identity of being Mauritian. 

The researchers studied two rituals surrounding the Hindu festival of Thaipusam.  One ritual involved a period of group singing and prayer.  The second ritual was more extreme.  In this ritual participants were given several piercings on their body, they had to carry heavy objects, drag a cart attached to their skin with hooks, and had to climb a mountain barefoot.  In this second ritual, some people perform the ritual, while others observe it and walk alongside the performers.

Participants were tested either right after the prayer ritual or right after the extreme ritual. All participants would ultimately participate in both rituals in some way, so the results do not reflect that different types of people do the prayer and extreme rituals.  The participants were given questions about their identity to determine whether they identified more as Hindu or more as Mauritian in that moment.  Those involved in the extreme ritual as performers rated their level of pain.  Those involved in the extreme ritual as observers rated the level of pain they perceived in others.

Finally, at the end of the study, participants were given an envelope with money (200 rupees, which is a lot of money for these participants).  They were allowed to keep that money, but were also given the opportunity to donate that money to the temple.  The donations were made in a private room where the participants were not being observed, but the experimenters had a way to track the amount of money given by each participant.

 The people who performed the extreme ritual identified most strongly as Mauritian rather than Hindu.  Those who were tested after the prayer ritual also identified as Mauritian, but much less strongly than those who performed the extreme ritual.  Those tested after observing the extreme ritual came out in between in their identity.

The participants who engaged in the extreme ritual as performers or as observers donated significantly more money to the temple than those who were tested after the prayer ritual.  The amount of money people gave following the extreme ritual was correlated with the level of pain they experienced or perceived in others.  The more pain, the more that they gave. 

This work suggests that extreme rituals have two important influences on communities.  First, they increase people’s identity with the group, particular at the time that those rituals are being performed.  Second, they make people more likely to sacrifice their own personal resources for the group.  Participants were paid a lot of money in this study, and yet those who had just performed the extreme ritual gave nearly all of it back to the temple.  These benefits are an important reason why cultures keep performing painful and potentially dangerous rituals. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Improve Your Success By Contrasting

A big problem in learning to achieve your goals is being selective in what you do.  As much as you might value keeping all of your options open, at some point you have to commit time and energy into particular goals in order to attain them. 

A key part of being selective is figuring out which goals to pursue and which ones to leave behind.  To make that decision, there are two criteria you can use.  One is to determine how important a particular goal is to you.  The second is to think about how achievable that goal is.  Ultimately, you want to put your effort into things that are important to you that you also believe you can achieve. 

In the past, I have written about the research of Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues.  Their research suggests that an important part of the process of selecting particular goals to achieve involves comparing the present to the future.  These comparisons highlight what has to be done in order to help you achieve your goals.  When people are forced to make these kinds of comparisons (rather than focusing selectively on the present or the future), they are more likely to commit to achievable goals and to take steps to reach them.

How common is it for people to make these comparisons?

Timur Sevincer and Gabriele Oettingen explore this question in an interesting paper in the September, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

First, they developed a scheme for analyzing what people write about their goals in order to tease out whether they were contrasting the present and the future.  To do that, they asked people to write about goals that were important to them.  Some people were asked to focus only on the present and how they were currently achieving the goal.  Some people were asked to focus only on the future.  A third group was asked to contrast the present with the future.  Looking at this writing, they were able to tease out the statements that referred to the present and the future.  People’s writing did indeed show evidence of these instructions.  Those who were asked to compare the present to the future wrote more about both the present and the future than those asked to focus selectively.  This initial study demonstrated that the researchers could identify who was contrasting the present to the future just from the way people write about their goals.

In a second study, over 300 participants in an internet study were asked to write about a goal that was important to them.  They were given no particular instructions on whether to focus on the present or the future or both.  People were later asked to rate whether they thought the goal was achievable.  Finally, a week later, people were asked a number of questions about how hard they worked that week to try to achieve the goal they wrote about.

In this study, 9% of people spontaneously contrasted the present and future.  The most common types of writing focused selectively on the present (36% of people) or the future (24%).  The remaining participants talked about their goals in a different way. 

Interestingly, the people who spontaneously contrasted the present with the future were most selective in their goal pursuit.  They were most likely to take actions to achieve their goals when they thought the goal was achievable and least likely to take actions when they thought the goal could not be achieved.  The people who wrote only about the present, only about the future, or used another strategy were less selective.  They put in about the same amount of effort on their goals regardless of how achievable they thought the goal to be. 

The researchers obtained a similar result using a laboratory study in which students first wrote about their goal to get into graduate school and then wrote sample personal statements for an application.  In this laboratory study, a somewhat higher percentage of people spontaneously contrasted present and future (27%).  The most common strategy in this study was to focus on the present (51%).  Only 3% of participants in this study focused selectively on the future.

What does this mean?

First, following previous work, it is clear that if you want to focus selectively on the goals that you believe you will be able to achieve, then you have to start by contrasting the present and the future.  Figure out what you are doing in the present.  Then, think about what you want the desired future to be and how you will feel if you achieve your goal.  Finally, determine what needs to be done to bring that desired future into being and elaborate on the obstacles that will get in the way of reaching your goal.  That strategy is the best path for success.

Second, despite the importance of this mental contrasting, it is not something that most people do spontaneously.  People are much more likely to focus selectively on what they are currently doing now or what they should be doing in the future rather than on comparing the present to the future.  Next time you are thinking about goal achievement, make an effort to contrast the present and the future to improve your chances of success.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Goal Conflict Helps You See Both Sides of an Issue

One of the most persistent findings in psychology is confirmation bias.  When we have a belief about something in the world, we tend to seek out information that will confirm that belief.  For example, if you meet a new person, and you believe that they are an extravert, you might focus on finding out information consistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy attending big parties and meeting new people) rather than information inconsistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy time alone or like to stick with the same close circle of friends). 

An interesting paper by Tali Kleiman and Ran Hassin in the September, 2013 issue of the Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology suggests that people might be more prone to consider two sides of an issue when they are experiencing a goal conflict. 

Goals drive our behavior. One thing that makes it difficult to achieve our goals, though, is that sometimes they conflict.  For example, a student might want to study in order to get a good grade on an upcoming exam, but might also want to go out with friends to have a good time.  When it is not possible to do both, the goals are in conflict. 

Kleiman and Hassin suggest that when goals conflict, it puts people in a mindset that forces them to consider two sides of issues, because resolving the goal conflict requires that people consider the strengths and weaknesses of the opportunities before them.  Interestingly, goals can conflict even when people are not consciously aware of the conflict.

To test this possibility, participants were brought to the lab to do what they were told were two unrelated studies.  First, they did a lexical decision task.  In this task, they see strings of letter and have to respond whether they form a word.  If they saw the letters BROGI, they would respond that it was not a word.  If they saw the letters PARTY, they would respond that it was a word.  One group saw words that referred to both an academic goal (like CLASS and STUDY) and a social goal (like PARTY and MOVIE).  This condition created an unconscious goal conflict.  A second group saw words that were not consistently related to any goals.

After doing this lexical decision task, participants were told that they could ask a series of questions to someone to find out whether he was an extravert.  They were given a list of 25 possible questions and were asked to pick 12. Ten of the questions would ask for information that would confirm that the person was an extravert.  Ten of the questions would ask for information that would suggest the person was an introvert.  The remaining questions were unrelated to extraversion. 

People in the control condition chose far more questions relating to extraversion than introversion.  The people who were given the goal conflict asked about the same number of extraversion and introversion questions.  This result suggests that people primed with a goal conflict were not influenced by confirmation bias as strongly as those given no goal conflict.

A second study primed people with words that were opposites rather than just goal conflict, and found that opposites still lead to a confirmation bias.  A third study found that when people were primed with two unrelated goals that do not conflict directly, they still exhibit confirmation bias.  Each of these studies also replicated the finding that goal conflict reduces confirmation bias.

Putting these results together, the motivational system influences both actions and thinking.  Clearly, having an active goal pushes you to act in ways that are consistent with the goal. An active goal also pushes people to think about information that is related to that goal.  But, when goals compete, it pushes people to think in ways that will help them to resolve conflicts.  Reducing confirmation bias is one way to help resolve those conflicts. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

You See What You Believe

The world can be chaotic.  Cars whiz by on the road. People walk past you.  There may be birds and planes flying overhead. Despite all of this potential confusion, you manage to make sense of most of what is happening around you.  The ability to comprehend the world reflects an interaction between the things you see around you and your beliefs about the world.

An interesting question is the degree to which your beliefs influence what you are seeing in the moment.  This question was explored by Christos Bechlivanidis and David Lagnado in a fascinating paper in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science. 

They created a simple computer-based environment in which basic shapes (like squares and rectangles) could move and influence each other.  By playing with the environment for a while, participants could learn how the various objects worked.  For example, when a green square collided with a barrier, it caused the red rectangle to become a star.  The blue square would only allow squares, but not other shapes to enter its borders.  So, in order to get the red rectangle inside the blue square, the green square had to collide with the barrier first. 

In one study, some participants were given a series of exercises in this computer environment so that they learned how the objects acted.  Eventually, they learned how to get the red rectangle inside the blue square.  A second group got no training.

Afterward, participants saw a video of the objects moving in the world.  In this video, the red rectangle entered the blue square about 100 milliseconds before the green square hit the platform.  The red rectangle turned into a star after the green square hit the platform.  All of this happened in the same spatial position, so that participants could see all of the objects without having to move their eyes.

The participants then described the order of events in the test video and gave information about why the events happened in that order.  Those who received no training generally saw the events happen in the order in which they happened in the video.  They recognized that the red rectangle turned into a square before the green square hit the platform and that the rectangle became a star after it entered the blue square.  When asked, they said that this was the order they saw the events.

The participants who received training were much more prone to describe the events in the order that fit with their training.  They reported that the green square hit the platform before the rectangle turned into a star, and that the rectangle turned into a star before it entered the blue square.  They were also likely to say that this ordering happened, because that reflects the way the environment works. 

At one level, it should not be surprising that we have to use a lot of conceptual knowledge to help us make sense of what happens in the world.  Causal relationships do not often change that quickly, and so it is valuable (most of the time) for our beliefs to influence our interpretation of what we see.

However, this influence of belief on behavior can be a problem in situations like eyewitness testimony.  It is well known that the reports of eyewitnesses are not that reliable.  If people perceive events in a way that is consistent with how they believe that the world works, then their reports of the order of events in a complex situation may be wrong.   Because groups of people are likely to share causal beliefs, even entire groups may see events in the wrong order, so having multiple witnesses who provide corroborating testimony about the order of events does not necessarily mean that the events happened in that order.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Anxiety and Moral Judgment

A fascinating aspect of humanity is that we hold ourselves to a high moral standard.  We impose rules on ourselves to protect society from the short-term temptations that might cause us to do things that would have a negative impact in the long-run.  For example, we might be tempted to harm a person who bothers us, but a society in which everyone gave in to the temptation to hurt those who made us angry would quickly devolve into chaos.
When we make these moral judgments, to what extent are people driven by their ability to reason about the consequences of their actions, or are they influenced by their emotions?   For the past 25 years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the role that emotions play in complex judgments like moral decisions.  For example, Antonio Damasio reviews evidence for the role of emotion in cognitive processing in his book Descartes’ Error. 
Once we accept that emotion plays some role in complex decisions, it is important to figure out which emotions are influencing different kinds of choices.  This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Adam Perkins and several colleagues in the August, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
These researchers were interested in moral decision making.  In particular, many psychologists have looked at how participants respond in vignettes in which their actions could potentially cause harm to others.  Quite a bit of research demonstrates that people don’t like to cause harm to others, but that they are particularly averse to causing harm when they have to perform an action that causes direct harm to a person.
For example, imagine a situation in which you are working in a hospital as a late-night guard. An accident happens next door, and deadly fumes are released that get into the hospital’s ventilation system.  These fumes will kill three patients, but if you flip a switch, you can redirect the fumes to another area of the hospital that will kill only one patient.  In cases like this, although there is clearly a dilemma, people often elect to flip the switch.
As a second example, imagine that you are taking a cruise, when the ship catches fire and you have to get on a lifeboat.  All of the lifeboats have too many people on them, and are in danger of sinking.  In your boat, there is an injured person who is going to die before you are rescued. If you throw that person overboard, the boat will not sink and everyone else will be saved.  In this situation, people are reluctant to throw the person overboard, because this action would directly cause the death of the person.
The researchers suggest that the emotion of anxiety is a key factor that keeps people from stating that they would be willing to cause someone’s death directly in these vignettes.  To test this possibility, participants were given vignettes like these as well as control stories in which people had to make decisions with no moral dimension like which of two raffle tickets to buy based on the prize available. 
To test the role of anxiety in these decisions, 40 participants were run in three sessions.  In two of those sessions, participants were given a low or a moderate dose of the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam.  In the other session, participants received a placebo. 
The drug had no reliable effect on people’s decisions for choices that had no moral element or for people’s choices when their actions would cause a person’s death indirectly.  However, participants were most likely to elect to directly cause a person’s death in these dilemmas on the highest dose of lorazepam, least likely to cause the death in the placebo condition with the low dose condition in-between.
These results have to be taken with some caution.  The effects are rather small.  Participants made decisions in six decisions of each type in each session.  In the placebo condition, participants chose to kill a person directly in 1.75 of these dilemmas on average.  That rate rose to 2.33 dilemmas on average for the highest dose of the drug.  So, the drug did have a reliable influence on performance, but not a huge influence. 
In addition, these studies involve only vignettes.  It is hard to know exactly how people’s responses to stories relate to what they would actually do in a real situation.
 However, the study does help to isolate the set of emotions that influence moral decisions.  Anti-anxiety drugs like lorazepam influence anxiety and people’s response to threat.  They do not have a broad-based effect on emotion overall.  So, this research does push forward our understanding of the role of emotion in complex decisions.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Psychology Commencement Address 2015 at the University of Texas

I had the honor of giving the commencement address to the Psychology students at the University of Texas in 2015.  Here are my remarks.

Graduates, family and friends, faculty, Dean Flores.  I am honored to be speaking at today’s commencement.  Before I get started, I want you to take a second to drink this moment in.  In the rush of events this weekend, you run the risk of having your memory for the graduation feel like a blur.  So, just enjoy this feeling.  Feel the pride of your family and friends.  Bask in the glow of your accomplishment.  

Today, you are graduates in Psychology at the University of Texas.  At this time of transition, you are leaving the familiarity of the routine of the university for the uncertainty of the next phase of your life.  You might be worried about how your work here has prepared you to join the broader world.  You may not realize it, but as a result of your education, you are uniquely qualified to make the world around you a better place for two reasons.  First, you now have more insight into the human condition than most people, who live in blissful ignorance of the reasons why they act the way they do.  Second, you are now a trained scientist who can ask and answer questions with data.

For the next few minutes, I want to focus on three questions you can use as a guide no matter where your life takes you from UT.  These questions are the ones that will help you to improve the lives of the people around you.  

The first question is “Why?”  


Because understanding the way the world works is a crucial part of solving new problems.  Without knowing why the world works as it does, all you can do is to carry out procedures and hope they succeed.  Chances are, when you have a problem with your computer, you just restart it.  You do that hoping it will fix the problem so that you don’t have to call tech support or stand on line at the Genius Bar and talk to someone who does know how your computer works 

As it turns out, most people understand the way the world works far less well than they believe they do.  That is, they suffer from an illusion of explanatory depth.  This illusion is a problem, because you can’t solve new problems in new ways unless you understand the way things work.  And you won’t bother learning the way things work if you think you already know.  So, an important ingredient for success is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know.

The question “Why?” is the cure to the illusion of explanatory depth. By constantly asking that question of yourself and others, you ensure that you maximize the quality of the knowledge you have so that it will be there when you need it.  You have spent your time at UT honing your skill to ask and answer the question “why?”  Now, you need to keep doing it after you leave.  As an added bonus, by asking “why” of the people around you, you also help to cure their illusions of explanatory depth.

The second question is “What would I have done in that situation?”  Another important thing you have learned as psychology students is that the actions people perform involve a complex interaction between who they are and the situation they find themselves in.  

When you see somebody do something that you think is a mistake (or flat out wrong), it is tempting to conclude that there is something wrong with their personality.  Personality reflects the factory settings of people’s motivational system—the brain mechanisms that drive people to act.  We all have a tendency to act in a particular way, and that reflects those factory settings.  For example, I like to be on stage in front of people giving talks.  Other people find even the thought of giving a speech enough to make them ill.  In part, that reflects personality differences.

Often, though, the situations that people are in are a much bigger influence on what they do than their personality.  Before you conclude that someone’s mistake reflects some problem with who they are, ask yourself what you would have done in the same situation.  As you begin to think carefully about how you would navigate the circumstances of someone else’s life, it can give you a greater appreciation for the outside factors driving their behavior.

This matters, because if you think there is truly something wrong with another person, it undermines your trust in them.  For a social species like ours, trust is critical.  However, if there aspects of a situation that you believe are affecting people’s behavior, then you may not lose trust in them.  Instead, you can work with them to help them deal better with that situation in the future or to make sure that situation never happens again.  

The third crucial question is, “What’s the evidence?”  As a psychology student, you have learned that people will go to great lengths to preserve their existing opinions.  People interpret the world in a way that is consistent with what they already believe.  Through confirmation bias, they seek new information that would provide further support for their current opinions.  And, in the modern era in which there are hundreds of channels and thousand of websites, they can curate their life experience to ensure that they rarely encounter opinions that differ from their own.

But, you were trained as a scientist.  Science is one of humanity’s great inventions.  It is a system for helping us to change our opinions by looking for the evidence that would support both what we currently believe to be true and—more importantly—what we currently don’t believe to be true.  At the point where the weight of evidence argues against our pet theories, we have to give them up in favor of something more consistent with the data.

As an example, let’s look at biology.  After Watson and Crick published their work on the structure of DNA, the next great biological quest was to crack the genetic code.  The sequences of base pairs in DNA code for amino acids.  Watson and Crick figured out that sequences of three base pairs were the basic unit of genes.  The next problem was to determine how the various combinations of base pairs coded for particular amino acids.  

Francis Crick was part of a team that also involved mathematicians and cryptographers that came up with an elegant mathematical solution to the problem.  One commentator later called their solution “the prettiest wrong idea of the 20th century.”  In fact, scientists cracked the genetic code by brute force—synthesizing the amino acids from the base pairs.  And the actual answer was not mathematically elegant, though it was chemically stable.  

The wonder of science is that no matter how elegant and beautiful an argument may be, if it runs counter to the data, you have to reject it.  In the modern world, we face a lot of problems.  Some of them—like climate change—involve science that may fall outside your area of expertise.  Others—like the value of high-stakes testing in public education—may hit closer to your training.  Whenever you encounter a question in which data would help to provide a good answer, you should look for that data.  Ask for evidence.  Ideology and oratory are persuasive, but there is nothing better than good data for most of the thorny problems in life.

Of course, you should also use data only when you’re addressing questions that ought to be answered scientifically.  There is no amount of scientific data that matters when you decide that a particular musical piece is magnificent or that a sunset you are watching is stunning.   

The degree you receive today from the University of Texas demonstrates that you have learned a process for making the world a better place.  Whether you choose a profession that ties directly to your studies here or not, the insight you have about people combined with your knowledge of scientific method have given you an excellent basis to ask crucial questions.  Wherever you go, and whatever you do, keep asking “Why?”  In the most frustrating times, ask “What would I have done in that situation?”  And give yourself a chance to test your assumptions by asking “What is the evidence?”

As you cross the stage today, remember that you are walking into a future in which you will use the skills you learned here every day.  Find your way to make the world a better place.  And—every once in a while—reach back out to us here at UT and let us know how you’re doing.  

Congratulations graduates, and enjoy this glorious day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Does rejection make you creative?

When you watch movies about high school, certain stereotypes repeat. The football players hang around in packs wearing their letter jackets with cheerleaders hanging off their arms. The science nerds sit quietly in the cafeteria eating lunch hoping nobody notices them. And the artists sit by themselves—at a distance from all of this social interaction—watching the world go by.

This scene reinforces a stereotype that there is a relationship between creativity and being rejected by society.  Of course, even if this relationship exists, it is hard to know the direction it goes. It is possible that people who are truly creative are rejected by others, because their ideas go against the norm. It is also possible tat something about social rejection fuels creativity.

This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Sharon Kim, Lynne Vincent, and Jack Goncalo in the August, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.  They suggest that social rejection can make some people more creative.

In particular, people differ in how strongly they prize independence. Some people really want to see themselves as unique and different from everyone else.  Other people get a lot of their energy from being part of a group.  The more independent people are, the more that social rejection can actually make them more creative.

In one study, the authors measured people’s need to feel unique using a questionnaire.  Then, participants were brought to the lab with five other people and were told that some would be selected for a group exercise, while others would work alone.  They filled out a description of themselves.  Some people were told that they were rejected from the group and would perform tasks alone.  Other people were told that they were accepted into the group and would join the group right after doing some tasks. 

In this first study, participants then did the remote associates test (RAT), which has been used as a measure of creativity.  In the RAT, people see three words (like SALT DEEP and FOAM) and they have to select a word that goes with all three of these words (in this case, SEA).  Doing well on this test requires people to think divergently. 

The authors found an interaction between social rejection and people’s need to feel unique.  For people with a low need to feel unique, rejection had no influence on their scores on the remote associates test.  For people with a high need to feel unique, though, they got more correct answers on the RAT following rejection than following acceptance into a group. 

In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s need to feel unique using a procedure that has been employed in other studies.  Participants read a passage and were asked to circle the pronouns.  For some people, the pronouns were first-person singular (I  and me).  For other people the pronouns were first-person plural (we and our). Participants who circle singular pronouns are more focused on being independent than those who circle plural pronouns.  After that, the rejection manipulation and RAT were done as before.   The people primed to be independent who were rejected scored best on the RAT of all the groups.  Once again, being independent and being socially rejected led to creativity.

A third study repeated the one I just described with the manipulations of independence and rejection, but used a different measure of creativity.  This group was asked to draw alien creatures from a planet not like Earth.  This task has been used by Tom Ward and his colleagues in the past as a measure of creativity.  The drawings were then judged for their creativity. The group that was primed for independence and was socially rejected also made the most creative drawings.

What is going on here?

When people are part of a group or want to be part of a group, then there is social pressure for people’s ideas to conform to those of the people around them.  This conformity makes people less creative, because it decreases the value they put on divergent thinking.  When people are motivated to be independent, though, then having unique ideas further reinforces that independence. The combination of a mindset to be independent and some social rejection is one way to spur this mindset.