Tuesday, April 24, 2018

How Children Use Information About Why Things Work


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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Speech at University of Texas staff awards ceremony

I had the chance to give a speech at the 2018 Staff Awards ceremony at the University of Texas.  Here is the text of my remarks.


           Thank you President Fenves.  Thanks to you, Debra Kress, and your staff for giving me the chance to speak to you today.  Congratulations to all of the award recipients and welcome to all those who have come to celebrate their accomplishments.
            The wonderful thing about awards ceremonies is that it gives us a chance to recognize people who have put in extra effort to make the University of Texas function so effectively.  One of the most important things that they do is to strengthen our community.
            Sociologists have spent a lot of time studying the kinds of relationships that people engage in.  It turns out that we can sort the people we encounter in the world into three groups:  Family, Neighbors, and Strangers.
            Most of the people in your life are Strangers.  You don’t know them, and they don’t know you.  You don’t have any kind of trust built up with them.  When you engage in transactions with Strangers, you have to settle up in the moment, because you don’t know if you will ever see them again.  If you are driving down Mopac and you get a flat tire and someone with a truck pulls over and helps you change your tire, it would not be embarrassing to pull out a twenty-dollar bill as a way of saying thanks.  The person might refuse saying they just stopped to help, but it wouldn’t be an inappropriate gesture.  Likewise, you can’t borrow eggs from HEB.  You are a Stranger to your grocery store, and so it is cash on the barrel for each purchase.
            At the extreme other end are Family.  You have lots of interactions with Family.  You engage in rituals with them.  You celebrate holidays and birthdays.  And—as a result—you have a highly trusted relationship with them.  So much so, that when you engage in transactions with family, you don’t really keep score.  Parents do and do and do (and do) for their children without ever sending them a bill (much as they might like to sometimes).  Children may take care of their aging parents without sending in a time sheet.  And every family has a ne’er-do-well uncle who has never made much of his life.  The Family takes care of him—even if he is the butt of the occasional family joke.  (I also tell people that if you can’t figure out who that uncle is, it might be you…). 
            In the middle, we have neighbors.  Neighbors are people we know reasonably well.  We have conversations and parties, and do favors.  We see them often.  We have developed some amount of trust.  You even have some rituals.  In my old neighborhood, at the end of October every year, we had Hallowine in which we put all of the candy from the block on one driveway while the adults drank wine and watched the costumes.  When we engage in transactions with neighbors, we don’t’ settle up in the moment.  But, we do keep score.  A neighbor who takes and never gives is eventually kicked out of the neighborhood. 
            If you wake up one morning and see that you have a flat tire, your neighbor might come out and help you fix it.  But, you wouldn’t thank him by offering a twenty-dollar bill.  That would be embarrassing.  Instead, you might bake a banana bread or drive his kids to school one day.  You don’t have to settle up that day, but you do in the long-run. 
             Most healthy organizations create neighborhoods.  Our co-workers are our neighbors.  UT is a big neighborhood. 
Each of us puts in effort at our jobs to help make the university a better place.  We get to know our colleagues.  We try to make sure that the people around us are able to achieve their goals.  Of course, we are keeping score.  Anyone who routinely takes things from others, but never gives back is eventually taken to task for it.  Other people will not band together to help solve a problem without payment when they do not trust that a particular person or group is part of the neighborhood.
We forget the importance of the UT neighborhood at our peril.  No important job can get done here unless everyone works together.  When one of our sports teams makes the playoffs, we all come together to ensure that an unexpected event is handled smoothly.  We bring together parking, facilities, UTPD and emergency services and more.  If we were all strangers, then each unexpected thing would have to be handled with a change order.  We would have contracts that specified the letter of what had to be accomplished. 
Neighbors don’t have contracts, they have covenants.  They agree on a set of principles that guide what they want to accomplish and then they work together to make it happen.  They know that some days their unit may have to bear the brunt of a new task, but that at other times, other members of the community will step up to do their share.
But, a neighborhood requires energy to keep up.  It does not happen on its own.
You who are here today—particularly those of you who are being honored at this ceremony—are the builders of the UT neighborhood.  You take it upon yourselves to welcome new employees into the neighborhood and to show them what it means to be a Longhorn.  You help to develop people’s careers and to let the people who work here know that UT wants them to succeed.  You lead by example, letting your commitment to the institution influence the attitudes and actions of the people around you.   You get to know your colleagues and develop a trusted network.
And we all must continue to tend our neighborhood.  Staff, faculty, and administrators must recognize how important—and how fragile—our neighborhood can be.  We must look to develop our future leaders and supervisors.  We must take care of each other when times are bad.  And give of our time, expertise, and wisdom when times are good.  We must all live up to the ideals of this great university.  And—most of all—we must continue to serve as an example to our students, to Texans, and the world beyond that what starts here changes the world only when we work together as neighbors.
Hook ‘em.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Successful People Have Conscientious Partners


Most of us have heard some version of the saying “Behind every successful man is a great woman.”  This quote highlights that people get accolades for their success in the workplace, but most people who achieve greatness in the workplace need people who support their personal lives.
So, is it true that successful people get significant help from their partners?  And is the form of this quote accurate?  Is it that successful men are helped by women, but not the other way around?
This question was explored in a paper in the December, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Brittany Solomon and Joshua Jackson. 
They analyzed data collected from over 4,000 people over a five-year period in Australia.  The participants in this survey were married heterosexual couples.  The survey collected the Big Five personality characteristics (Openness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) for both the members of a couple.  The survey got information about job satisfaction, income, and promotions.  It also got information about a variety of other aspects of the relationship such as how much members of a couple would handle basic household chores. 
People’s own personality characteristics influence their success at work.  For example, replicating a lot of previous work, people who are more agreeable, tend to make less money and to be less likely to get promoted than those who are less agreeable.  People who are highly agreeable tend to avoid asking for raises and promotions, and so they get passed over in favor of those who are willing to stand up for themselves.  In addition, People who are extraverted at work tend to have high levels of job satisfaction and also get promoted (because people notice their efforts). People who are high in conscientiousness also tend to enjoy their work more and to make more money than those who are low in conscientiousness.
When looking at a person’s partner, though, conscientiousness was the big factor that had an influence.  People who had conscientious partners tended to enjoy their work more, make more money, and be more likely to get promotions than people whose partners were low in conscientiousness.  This influence of a partner’s conscientiousness go above-and-beyond the influence of a person’s own personality characteristics. 
One interesting facet of these results is that they were true for both men and women.  So, these findings suggest that behind every successful person there is a conscientious partner, but men and women benefit equally from conscientious partners.
Why does this happen?
There seem to be a couple of factors at play here.  First, more conscientious partners tend to take on a bigger share of household duties.  So, a person who spends a lot of time on their work has someone who picks up the slack on household chores.  Second, people tend to feel good about their relationship when they have a conscientious partner.  Presumably, people with partners high in conscientiousness, do not argue as much about housework as those with partners low in conscientiousness.  This higher level of relationship satisfaction also improves people’s success at work.
When people think about their satisfaction and success in the workplace, they often focus on their own characteristics.  These findings suggest that the status of people’s relationship also has a significant affect on their workplace success.   
Finally, it would be useful to see this study repeated in other countries.  It is interesting that there were no gender differences in the influence of a partner’s conscientiousness in this sample from Australia.  I would be curious to know whether the same results would be observed in Europe, the United States, and Asia.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

If You Trust Your Workplace, You Assume It is Fair


Periodically, dissatisfied employees will stage a job action in which they will do the minimum amount of work necessary to keep their job.  For example, in early 2015, New York City police minimized the number of arrests they made, to protest comments made by the mayor.  Similarly, teachers who are upset with contract negotiations may arrive at work and leave exactly on time rather than coming early or staying late to help students.
For this reason, it is important for organizations to maintain a sense of fairness among employees in order to get them to put in their best effort.  What drives this sense of fairness?
This question was explored in a paper by Emily Bianchi, Joel Brockner, Kees van den Bos, Matthias Seifert, Henry Moon, Marius van Dijke, and David De Cremer in the January, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Their starting point is the observation from previous research that people in organizations are influenced by two sources of fairness:  outcome fairness and procedural fairness. 
Outcome fairness is focused on whether the things that happen seem fair.  For example, a raise may seem fair if the size of a raise is consistent with a person’s evaluations and people with similar evaluations got similar raises.  Obviously, if the outcomes are not just fair but favorable, that is even better. 
Procedural fairness refers to the way that decisions are made.  If raises are given out arbitrarily, that does not seem like a fair system.  But, if there is a reasonable procedure that people think is objective, then they believe the procedure is fair, even if they don’t get what they think they deserve.
Both of these sources of fairness may influence the way people feel about the workplace. 
To explore this possibility, one study looked at a sample of employees of a shipping company in the UK.  The participants had worked for their company for an average of 4 years.  Participants were asked how much trust they had in the bosses at work.  They were also asked whether they thought that the outcomes the experienced (for things like pay and work schedule) were fair, as well as whether the procedures used to make decisions were fair.  Finally, they were asked questions about their level of commitment to the organization.
When people had a low level of trust in the organization overall, then they had a low level of commitment, unless they experienced both fair outcomes and believed that the procedures were also fair.   
When people had a high level of trust in the organization, then they had a high level of commitment, unless they experienced both unfair outcomes and believed that the procedures were unfair.
A second study obtained a similar pattern of results from a sample of workers for a variety of companies in the United States. 
What does this mean?
When people trust the organization they work for, then they have a high level of commitment.  That is no surprise. 
Interestingly, though, they look for evidence consistent with their trust.  So, if they perceive that there are fair outcomes or fair procedures, they assume their trust is warranted, and they keep their high level of commitment.  Only when they get lots of evidence that their trust is misplaced do they decrease their commitment to the workplace.
When people have a low level of trust to start with, then their commitment to the organization is low unless they get lots of evidence that the workplace is actually fair.  That is, they need both high levels of fairness in outcomes and procedures to overcome their lack of trust.
Clearly, people’s prior beliefs about trust and fairness have a big influence on the way that people interpret what is happening at work.  It takes a lot of evidence to change people’s beliefs about the workplace.
One other piece of evidence consistent with this idea is that this pattern of results was strongest for people who had not worked long for their company and got weaker as people’s tenure with the company got longer.  That is, early on, people have a level of trust in the organization that can be affected by the combination of outcome and procedural fairness.  After a while, though, that level of trust in the organization (whether it is high or low) is not changed much by new information.
Ultimately, this is another great example of a halo effect.  People’s beliefs about the trustworthiness of an organization affect their interpretation of the evidence they get.  For this reason, it is important for people in organizations to work hard to gain people’s trust early so that their employees may overlook small violations of fairness.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Controversy and Conversation


Take a look at the comments section on your favorite news website.  Some topics generate a lot of discussion among participants.  Other topics may be widely read, but people don’t feel compelled to say anything.  What drives people’s desire to talk about a topic?
Obviously, the topic of the story matters a lot.  Some stories may be interesting, but people don’t care enough about them to want to register their opinion.  A story about an ongoing drought, for example, might get a lot of readers, but people might not feel compelled to express their views.  Other topics generate a lot of excitement, but there is little diversity of opinion.  When the local sports team wins a game, people might be thrilled, but everyone agrees the victory was wonderful, and so there is little to spur continued discussion. 
But, some topics generate controversy.  The topic generates passion, but people differ in their opinions.  In this case, there is ample room for continued conversation.  You might think that the more controversial the topic, the more discussion it generates. 
A paper in the October, 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Zoey Chen and Jonah Berger examines the way that controversial topics affect people’s willingness to talk about them.  As they point out, controversy has two effects.  On the one hand, the energy that a controversial topic creates spurs people to want to talk about it.  On the other hand, as a topic gets more controversial, it also leads to increasing discomfort in talking about it.  After all, when a topic is highly controversial, it can lead to difficult conversations. 
To demonstrate this dual impact of controversial topics, the researchers first examined all of the threads that were listed on the website Topix.com over a two-day period in 2011.  Independent raters looked at each topic and rated how controversial it was.  There was reasonable agreement between the raters.  Then, they counted the number of comments given to each article.  Articles that were not controversial at all had few comments.  Those that were moderately controversial had more comments on average than those with few comments.  Interestingly, the articles on the most controversial topics had fewer comments on average than those that were moderately controversial.  This observation is consistent with the idea that highly controversial topics create discomfort, which makes people less willing to talk about them.
Next, the researchers performed a series of laboratory experiments.  In one study, participants picked a topic and then listed three subtopics related to it that varied in their level of controversy.  They were asked to imagine that they had to have a conversation with someone on-line about this topic.  Some people were told that the hypothetical conversation would be anonymous, while other people were told that they would have to disclose their identity during the conversation.  They rated how likely they were to have a conversation on the topic and also how comfortable they would be to have the conversation.
When people thought that the conversation would be anonymous, they were most interested in engaging in conversations when the topic was moderately controversial than when it was either not very controversial or highly controversial.  When people were told that their conversation partner would know who they were, then they were most willing to talk about non-controversial topics, and less interested in talking about more controversial topics.  This pattern reflected people’s level of discomfort.  As the topic got more controversial, people rated themselves as being more uncomfortable talking about it. 
One final lab study examined how the relationship between the conversation partners affected the willingness to discuss the topic.  This study found that when people were going to talk about a topic with a close friend, then they were actually more willing to talk about highly controversial topics than less controversial topics.
Why does this matter?
Conversation on controversial topics really matters.  An important impact of conversation is that it actually makes conversation partners more similar to each other following the discussion.  This happens, because when you discuss a topic with someone, you have to understand and represent their point of view before you respond to it.  You have to synchronize your world view with the other person in order to talk to them.  Ultimately, these conversations help people who have different views to really comprehend how people could believe something that is different from their own perspective.  These conversations can actually help to moderate people’s most extreme opinions.
If people are not willing to have difficult conversations, then it can lead to increasing polarization of beliefs.  This is particularly true when people enter an echo chamber and only controversial topics with people that they agree with. 
If we want people to engage in conversations about controversial topics, then, it is important to find ways to reduce people’s discomfort with the topics.  Increasing social distance between people by keeping conversations anonymous is one way to do that.  Perhaps by promoting these conversations, we can start broader explorations of the topics that are most polarizing and create more understanding among people. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bad Leaders Hold Onto Power


There are two sides to leadership.  On the positive side, great leaders can make a big difference in the world.  They can inspire others to share a vision and to work together to achieve great things.  On the negative side, there are comforts that come with leadership roles including higher salaries, respect, and other perks.  So, when someone attains a leadership role, they are reluctant to give it up. 
Unfortunately, the behaviors that people may engage in to hold onto a leadership role once they have it can undermine the effectiveness of the group.  An interesting paper by Charleen Case and Jon Maner in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored some of these behaviors. 
In one study, undergraduates were told that they were going to be put into small groups with the chance to solve puzzles for payment.  Each participant was housed in a different room, so that every participant could be led to believe that he or she was being put in a leadership role.  The participants were told they were given their leadership role because they scored well on a pre-test for the game.  Leaders were allowed to determine how the prize payment from the game was allocated to the players.
In the first round of the game, the participant solved a series of puzzles and was told their fellow teammates were doing so as well.  The leader was then given feedback that one of the other players did better than the leader in this first round.  After that, some people were told that the group was going to have a chance to interact via chat and they could decide to elect a new leader.  Other people were told that the group was going to chat, but the leaders were told that their position was secure.  A third group was told that the group would converse, and no mention of leadership was made.  The leaders were allowed to tell each team member how many chat messages they were allowed to send.
Finally, after the study, each person was assessed for his or her leadership style.  Some people tend to be dominant leaders in which they want to dominate others in order to be the leader.  Other people lead in a prestige-motivated way in which they gain the admiration and respect of those they lead.
The results are a bit complicated, though they make sense.   When people had a leadership strategy focused on dominating others (rather than gathering their respect), they limited access to the chat for the skilled team member in the condition in which their leadership could be challenged.  So, leaders protected their position from the most threatening team member when they felt they could lose their position. 
Limiting communication among team members is generally a bad thing to do, because team members (and particularly skilled ones) could provide advice that would help others.
A second strategy used a similar method, except that leaders had the option of determining the location where team members would sit.  In this case, leaders with a dominating leadership style whose leadership was in jeopardy would isolate the most talented team member from everyone else.  Those with a respect-based leadership style or dominating leaders whose position was not in jeopardy selected seating strategies that integrated the talented group member with the other members of the team.
These studies suggest that people who are prone to want to protect their power by dominating others will engage in behaviors that promote their own interests over those of the team in cases where their power is in jeopardy.  A limitation of these studies is that the participants were all college students who probably do not have a lot of leadership experience.  That said, these tendencies are likely to influence even more experienced leaders, and so they provide a tendency that leaders need to overcome to ensure that they act in the best interests of their team. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Where am "I"?


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