Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Creating Shared Memories


When we think about memory, we often focus on situations in which we encounter some information and then recall it later.  In many situations, though, after we encounter the information, we talk about it with other people.  That creates a shared recollection.  This can happen both socially and in education situations.
Much less is known about shared recollection than about individual recall.  Cognitive psychologists tend to focus mostly on what individual people do rather than groups of people, and so most memory studies involve individuals who study information and then remember it later.
A fascinating paper by Adam Congleton and Suparna Rajaram in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at factors relating to shared memory. 
One observation from previous research on creating shared memories is that when groups work together to recall information, they remember less information overall than the individuals in the group would have remembered if they had worked alone.  The idea is that the group discussion focuses the group members on a subset of the information they were exposed to, and that subset is smaller than what the individual group members would have thought about if they had not been part of a group.
In this study, participants in a room were exposed to 120 words on a projection screen.  The words were chosen from 8 categories of objects, so that there would be some way for remembering one word to remind people of other words on the list.  After a brief delay, all participants were asked to remember as many of the words as they could.  Then, participants performed three more recall tests in that session and one additional test a week later. 
Some participants worked alone in all of the remaining recall tests.  The rest of the participants were put in groups of three.  In one condition, the group did the second recall task together.  In a second condition, the group did the third recall test together.  In a fourth condition, the group did both the second and third recall tests together.  The last recall test of the first day and the test a week later were all done individually.  There were some subtle differences across these three group conditions, but I will gloss over those for now.
When the group did recall, they talked about the words they remembered, and one member of the group wrote down each word that the group remembered. 
What happened?
Looking at the last recall session on the first day, groups of three individuals selected at random from the individual condition remembered more overall than the groups that recalled a list together.  That is consistent with the previous findings that I mentioned.
Recalling in a group increased the similarity of what people from that group were able to remember.  People in groups that worked together recalled more of the same items than people who recalled alone.  In addition, they tended to remember the words in the same order.  These findings suggest that working together as a group made everyone’s memory of the words more similar.
A particularly interesting result was that the groups that showed the most similarity at the end of the study (as measured both by the amount of overlap in what they remembered and the similarity of the order or recall) was related to the difficulty that groups have recalling information overall compared to individuals.  Groups that remembered less when they worked together were more similar later than groups that remembered more when they worked together. 
The idea is that when a group really works together, they influence each other’s memory.  The idiosyncrasies of what they would remember drop away, and they end up with a shared memory of the set of words.  So, everyone loses some details about the list, but they end up with a strong shared memory.
A similar pattern of results was observed after a one-week delay suggesting that working with the group influenced the long-term memory of the list.
The researchers in this study used lists of words, because that is a convenient way of comparing memories across people.  But, this work tells us something about memories in general.  When we discuss an event with the people around us, it affects what all of us are able to remember later.  Over time, the group’s memory for an event gets more similar, so that eventually all of the group members remember the same details about the event.  Even though they may have experienced the event differently, recalling it with others makes everyone’s memory more similar.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Personal Goals and Relationship Goals Trade Off


A quick walk through the checkout line at most grocery stores takes you past an array of magazines that the store hopes you will grab on your way out.  The headlines from those magazines scream out solutions to the problems people struggle with.  And to judge from their content, three of the biggest problems center around weight loss, sex, and relationships.
Why are relationships such a source of anxiety? 
A paper by Laura VanderDrift and Christopher Agnew in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that personal goals that people have trade off against relationship goals in ways that can hurt relationships.
The broad idea is one that is related to research that I did several years ago with Miguel Brendl and Claude Messner.  We found that when people were strongly motivated to pursue a goal, it made people appreciate (or value) goal related objects more and to devalue goal unrelated objects.
Similarly, these researchers suggest that when people are highly motivated to pursue a personal goal, they devalue their relationship.
In their studies, people were either asked to consider a personal goal relevant to them (Should I learn to play the saxophone or not?) or to actually think about the steps required to carry out that goal (What are five steps I would need to take to learn to play the saxophone?).  Previous research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues suggests that thinking about the steps required to carry out a goal increases the strength of that goal more than just thinking about the goal in general.
Across five studies in this paper, participants were much less willing to engage in behaviors that would have a positive impact on their relationship if they had an active personal goal than if they did not. 
In one study, participants who were in a relationship were less willing to forgive their partner for a transgression when they had an active personal goal than when they did not.  This was particularly true for transgressions that would get in the way of their personal goal. 
In another study, participants were given the opportunity to get information improving their relationship or improving their ability to achieve personal goals.  People who had an active personal goal were much less interested in getting information about how to improve their relationship than those who did not have an active personal goal.  However, the more strongly that people felt that their romantic partner helps them to achieve personal goals, the more interested they were in information that would help them improve their relationship.  So, even their interest in relationship information was related to whether that would help them achieve their personal goal.
A final study reversed this effect.  In this study, some participants were induced to have a strong relationship goal by having them list steps they would take to improve their relationship.  This group was much less interested in getting information to improve personal goals than a group that did not have an active relationship goal. 
This set of findings reflects an important aspect of our motivational system.  We are very efficient at achieving the goals that the motivational system engages.  As a result, we focus on information that is useful for achieving our goals and we devalue information that is not related to achieving that goal. So, when we have an important personal goal, our relationships take a back seat.  When we have an important relationship goals, our personal goals take a back seat.
So, if you find yourself wandering through the supermarket checkout aisle, and you resonate to the headlines about relationship problems, it might be time to think about specific steps you could take to improve your relationship as a way of engaging that goal.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Seeing unexpected things makes some people more creative


Most days don’t require a lot of creativity.  You get up and go through your normal routine.  Your school or work day involves a lot of repetition of tasks like those you have done before.  The day may be interesting, but it didn’t require you to really stretch out beyond your comfort zone.
Sometimes, though, you really need a novel solution to a difficult problem.  At those times, it would be great to have a way to jump-start the creative process.
Descriptions of the creative process often focus on two phases of creativity.  In the divergent phase, many different potential ideas need to be generated. In the convergent phase, those ideas need to be evaluated to select the ones that are most promising.  The divergent phase is particularly difficult, because it requires going beyond existing ideas in some way.
Research by Malgorzata Goclowska, Matthijs Baas, Richard Crisp, and Carsten De Dreu described in the August, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that thinking about inconsistent concepts jump-starts divergent thinking for some people. 
These researchers focus on an individual difference called Need for Structure.  The idea is that some people really like their world to be predictable and to follow rules.  Other people are less bothered when things do not go according to plan.  They suggest that divergent thinking by people who are low in Need for Structure (so that they are not bothered by surprises) is helped by thinking about surprising juxtapositions of concepts.  People high in Need for Structure are hurt by thinking about these surprising items.
In one study, participants were asked to study a series of pictures for a later memory test.  One group saw pictures of people in situations consistent with their costume.  They might see an astronaut in space or an Eskimo on the snow.  A second group saw pictures of people in situations that were inconsistent with their costume (an astronaut in the snow or an Eskimo in space). 
Then, the participants were asked to generate as many names as they could think of for a new type of pasta.  The instructions gave five examples of pasta names that all ended in an ‘i.’  The researchers were interested in whether participants would generate pasta names that ended in different letters and how often they would switch the last letter, which would suggest that they were trying different methods for generating names. 
The inconsistent pictures had an interesting influence on participants.  Participants who were low in need for structure tended to generate many more pasta names that did not end in ‘i’ and to generate names ending in many different letters compared to those people who were high in need for structure.  Seeing consistent pictures did not have much influence on participants’ performance regardless of their need for structure.
A second study demonstrated a similar finding using the Remote Associates Test, in which participants are shown three words (MAGIC PLUSH FLOOR) and are asked to find another word that could go with each of them (in this case, CARPET).  In this case, participants generated the attributes of either a schema-consistent person (a male mechanic) or a schema-inconsistent person (a female mechanic).  Participants who thought about the schema-inconsistent person generated more correct answers on the Remote Associates Test if they were low in Need for Structure than if they were High in Need for Structure.
These results suggest that if you are trying to jump-start your creativity, you need to know a bit more about yourself.  If you are willing to accept uncertain situations, then exposing yourself to inconsistent juxtapositions of concepts may get you thinking divergently.  If you are less willing to accept uncertainty, though, then this strategy won’t work for you.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Some Conformity Effects Are Short-Lived


There is often strong social pressure for people’s judgments and beliefs to conform to those of people around them.  It can be hard to be the only person in a group to express a divergent opinion.  At times, people will actually express an opinion closer to that of others while with a group in order to fit in.
What is the long-term impact of this conformity?
It is difficult to study this question, because it is hard to set up situations in which people disagree.  In addition, it is hard to get enough observations for each person to be able to make a strong statistical claim about the effect of conformity.
An paper by Hi Huang, Keith Kendrick, and Rongjun Yu in the July, 2014 issue of Psychological Science explored this question using judgments of facial attractiveness.  Although the study is not entirely satisfying, it has some intriguing effects. 
In this study, participants rated the attractiveness of 280 faces on a scale from 1 (not very attractive) to 8 (very attractive).   After making their rating, participants saw a rating that they were told reflected the average rating from 200 other people who had seen the same picture.  The rating they saw was either the same as the one they gave, or was between 1 and 3 points higher or lower.
Across studies, participants then returned to the lab 1, 3, or 7 days later, or 3 months later.  Then, they rated the attractiveness of the same set of faces. 
It is actually difficult to examine the second set of ratings statistically.  The group rating can only be substantially higher than the participant’s rating for faces that the participant rated as relatively unattractive.  The group rating can only be substantially lower than the participant’s rating for those that the participant rated as relatively attractive.  So, changes in the rating from one session to the next might just reflect a tendency to move more extreme ratings toward the middle of the scale.
The researchers used a statistical technique to control for this tendency for high ratings to get lower and for low ratings to get higher.  With this statistical control, they found that faces that they rated as attractive in the first session were seen as less attractive in a subsequent session when the group rating was lower than the participant’s rating.  However, this effect occurred only when the section session was 1 or 3 days after the first session.  By 7 days later (and also 3-months later), there was no significant effect of the group rating on the participant’s later rating.
This result suggests that when people hear an opinion that deviates from their own, there is a small tendency to revise their opinion in the direction of the group.  However, these effects are small and short-lived.  After about 3 days, the group influence seems to be gone.
On the one hand, this is an intriguing finding.  It suggests that just being exposed to the opinions of other people once does not necessarily have a long-term influence on a person’s beliefs.
That said, there is a lot more work that needs to be done on this issue.  People see many faces each day, and so it is not clear why group judgments about attractiveness ought to have a long-term impact on people’s beliefs.  In contrast, political beliefs or social beliefs might be more susceptible to the impact of other people.  In addition, people made a total of 280 judgments in each session of the study.  It is hard to believe that participants could really remember the judgments of others.  Indeed, it is surprising that there was any effect of the group judgment at all in this study. 
In the end, this study provides an interesting demonstration of how hard it can be to test what seems like a straightforward question.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Forgiving Allows Forgetting


We have all heard the adage Forgive and Forget.  The advice itself makes sense.  When someone has done something wrong to us in the past, bearing a grudge will make all interactions later difficult.  If you are always remembering the details of what someone has done wrong to you, then you are forced to relive those details in ways that bring those past events vividly into the present.
So, when you have forgiven someone, it is valuable to also forget the details of what they have done.
But, does that actually work?  Does forgiveness allow you to forget those details of a past transgression?
This question was explored in an interesting paper in the July 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Saima Noreen, Raynette Biermann, and Malcolm MacLeod. 
In an initial session, participants read a variety of scenarios in which they imagined that someone had done something wrong to them.  Each scenario described the person, the event, and the person did afterward.  Participants asked whether they would forgive the person for what they had done.  The scenarios involved a variety of transgressions including lying, infidelity, and theft. 
From people’s responses, the experimenters selected twelve items that people were willing to forgive and twelve that they were not willing to forgive. 
In the second session, the experimenters explored people’s ability to forget the details of the scenarios.
First, participants read 24 scenarios that were paired with words that could be used to remind people of the scenario.  Half the scenarios were ones that participant was willing to forgive and half were ones that participant was not willing to forgive.  Participants practiced associating the words with the scenario until they could recall the scenarios after hearing the word with better than 50% accuracy.
Then, for half of the items they learned, participants saw the word gain and were given a new set of instructions.  Those in the Think condition were given one of the words and were told to think about the scenario associated with the word and to state how the transgressor made amends for their mistake.  Those in the No Think condition were told to avoid thinking about about the scenario associated with the word.  The other half of the items that were not part of the Think or No Think conditions were used as a baseline.
Last, participants were asked to recall all of the scenarios given the cue words they had learned.
Overall, participants were equally good at learning to associate scenarios with words regardless of whether they were willing to forgive the transgressor or not. 
However, the recall data following the Think or No Think conditions was interesting.  For scenarios in which the participant was not willing to forgive the transgressor, these conditions did not have any influence on later recall.  For scenarios in which the participant was willing to forgive the transgressor, participants in the No Think condition recalled fewer scenarios (and fewer details of those scenarios) than participants in the Think condition.  The baseline items came out in between the two conditions.
What is going on here?
Previous research suggests that the instructions used in the No Think condition can make it harder for people to recall details of things they learned or experienced in the past.  These results suggest that the No Think instructions work for transgressions that people are willing to forgive, but not those they are not willing to forgive.
This result suggests that forgiveness may actually give people permission to forget.  That is, when people are willing to forgive, then they are willing to give up the details an episode.  But, when they are unwilling to forgive, they keep those details around.  Presumably, they will also re-experience those details negatively when they remember them in the future.
There are a number of interesting studies that remain to be done to understand this result better.  For one, this study used all hypothetical scenarios.  It would be interesting to look at the relationship between forgiving and forgetting with situations people actually experienced.  For another, this study focused on the relationship between forgiving and forgetting.  It would also be interesting to know whether inducing people to forget details of an event would influence their tendency to forgive.

Monday, February 20, 2017

What Happens When You Are Waiting For News?


I still remember the wait to find out whether I had gotten into the college of my choice.  I applied early and was told that letters would be mailed out on December 15.  That period was filled with occasional bouts of stress and a lot of thoughts about whether I would get in.  The last few days were particularly difficult as I waited for the mail to come.  On the day that the letter finally arrived, I put it down on the kitchen table and did a few chores around the house before finally sitting down and opening it. 
That kind of waiting experience is common.  Admissions decisions, medical test results, job applications.  All of these have some period of time where you have to wait to get news, but there is little or nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the decision.
An interesting paper by Kate Sweeny and Sara Andrews in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines how these kinds of waiting periods unfold.
They studied 50 people who took the California Bar exam.  There is a 4-month waiting period between taking the exam and getting the test score.  Succeeding on this exam is crucial for people who want to practice law.
Participants took a series of personality measures prior to taking the exam.  Then, the researchers took measures of anxiety and various strategies people use to deal with anxiety at four points in the process:  a day after taking the exam, 6 weeks after taking it, 12 weeks after taking it, and within a day of getting the score.
As you might expect, people were very anxious a day after taking the exam.  That anxiety went down a bit at the 6-week mark and then began to creep back up.  People were quite anxious a day before getting the scores.  One of the behaviors that went along with anxiety was rumination, which is the tendency to think repeatedly about the source of the anxiety and to worry about the outcome.  The more anxiety people experienced, the more they tended to ruminate.
A set of personality characteristics was associated with lower levels of anxiety.  People who have a general tolerance for uncertainty were less anxious (particularly early on) than those with an intolerance for uncertainty.  Though, as the date for getting the test score approached, everyone got nervous.  This tolerance for uncertainty is related to another characteristic called Need for Closure, which reflects how much people like to be done with things.  The higher people’s need for closure, the more they were anxious about waiting (particularly early in the waiting period).
Two other personality characteristics were also important:  defensive pessimism and dispositional optimism.  Defensive pessimism is a person’s tendency to assume the worst outcome when waiting.  Dispositional optimism is a person’s tendency to assume things will work out well in the end.  When people are highly optimistic and low in defensive pessimism, they tend to ruminate much less than when they are low in optimism and high in defensive pessimism. 
The researchers created a composite of these four characteristics, because they tended to be similar within a person.  That is, people who were tolerant of uncertainty were also generally low in need for closure, high in optimism and low in defensive pessimism. 
A high value on this composite was generally related to healthier approaches to waiting than a low value on this composite.  For example, people with a high composite personality score spent less time bracing themselves for bad news than people with a low composite.  They also spent more time trying to be optimistic and had high levels of hope that the outcome would go well.  People tried to distance themselves from the outcome as well.  This worked for some people early on, but as the actual date of getting the test score got closer, it got harder for people to distance themselves.
What does all of this mean?
First of all, it is worth getting to know yourself a bit to understand how you deal with waiting for news.  The more tolerant you are of uncertainty, the lower your need for closure (that is, the less you need things to be complete), the more optimistic and less pessimistic your outlook, the better you cope with waiting for news.
If you happen to be someone who finds waiting particularly difficult, then, what can you do? 
Purely from the standpoint of dealing with anxiety, it is useful to help yourself stop ruminating about the outcome and to avoid spending time preparing yourself for the worst.  Those behaviors are associated with a high level of anxiety.
If you find it hard to stop thinking about the outcome, then it is helpful to find ways to think about other things.  After all, you can’t affect the outcome while you are waiting, so you should not spend too much time worrying about it.  Instead, think about other things.  Focus on other aspects of your life.  Exercise, play a musical instrument, go out with friends.  Do things that are unrelated to the news you are waiting for.
All that said, when the time for getting the news is very close, it is hard to avoid thinking about it.  At that point, you might want to spend at least a little time planning for what you will do if things do not go your way.  It can be helpful to have at least the outline of a plan for what will happen if you get bad news.  But, there is no point in starting that planning process too early.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Distractions Make You Lose Your Place


We live in a world of distraction.  When you sit at your computer trying to write or work, there is a real danger that you will get interrupted by an email, instant message, text message, or phone call.  Even if you do your best to skip past the distractions, there still may be a moment where you have to decide whether to answer the phone or check your email.
What influence do those small interruptions have on your ability to perform complex tasks?
This question was addressed in a clever set of studies by Erik Altmann, Greg Trafton, and David Hambrick in a paper in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
To explore this question, the researchers had to develop a complex task that would allow them to observe errors.  In this task, participants saw a computer screen with a box in the center.  On each trial, there was a number and a letter.  One of the characters was inside the box, and one was outside.  One character was either in italics or had an underline.  One character was either red or yellow.  The character outside the box was either above it or below it. 
The task required participants to perform a sequence of different judgments in a sequence.  To help participants remember the sequence, the order of the tasks could be remembered by using the word UNRAVEL.  For example, the first task (U) asked whether a character was underlined or in italics.  On the next trial, participants did the N task (is the letter near or far from the front of the alphabet).  Following that, they did the R task (is the colored character red or yellow).  Then A (is the character above or below the box), V (is the letter a vowel or a consonant), E (is the digit even or odd) and then L (is the digit more or less than 5).  After doing the L task, the sequence returned to U.
To respond to a particular task, participants typed the first letter of the response on a computer keyboard.  So, in the U task, they typed a U for underlined or an I for italics. 
There are two interesting aspects to this task.  First, the sequence is complicated.  Second, the individual tasks differ in how hard they are to perform.  Deciding whether a character is above or below the box is easier than figuring out whether the letter is near or far from the start of the alphabet.
To look at interruptions, there was a second task that happened periodically.  A box would appear on the screen with a code on it.  The code was a few letters or numbers.  They had to type the letters or numbers into the box to continue the task.  Some participants got 4-character codes, while others got 2-character codes.  That means that the interruptions were either about 4-seconds long or about 2-seconds long.  These interruptions happened randomly about every 6 trials.
How did the interruptions affect performance of the task?
These brief interruptions influenced people’s ability to remember where they were in the sequence.  People who got long interruptions (having to type 4 characters) were about three times more likely to make an error on the trial following the interruption than on trials with no interruption.  People who got short interruptions (having to type 2 characters) were about twice as likely to make an error on the trial following the interruption than on trials with no interruption.
The errors caused by the disruptions were sequence errors.  Basically, the interruptions caused people to lose their place in the sequence.  Most often, they mistakenly did the task they had just did or did the one following the one they were supposed to do in the sequence. 
The results related to the difficulty of the tasks were also interesting.  As I mentioned, some of the tasks were easier than others.  This ease was reflected in the likelihood people would make an error on that task.  For example, people made more errors on the near vs. far from the start of the alphabet task than on the underlined vs. italics task.  But, the effect of interruptions was the same for easy and hard tasks. 
Putting this all together, then, even very short interruptions are particularly bad when people are performing tasks that require a sequence of steps.  The interruption disrupts people’s ability to remember where they are in the sequence, and so they are likely to carry out the wrong step following an interruption. 
Just one more reason to try to keep your work environment free of even tiny distractions.