Monday, March 2, 2015

People Who Lack Self-Control Value Others Who Have It


Willpower is a notoriously fickle thing.  Some days, you can withstand even the fiercest temptation.  On other days, you can be distracted from your goals by almost anything.  There are clear differences between people as well.  Some people maintain a single-minded focus on their goals, while others give in to the slightest enticement.

What can you do in those situations in which your willpower is going to let you down?  At those times, it can be helpful to cling to the people around you who are good at resisting temptation.  You can draw strength from other people. 

An article by Catherine Shea, Erin Davisson, and Grainne Fitzsimons in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that people with low self-control naturally value the self-control in other people. 

In one study, the researchers manipulated people’s self-control resources using an ego depletion task.  Some participants had to perform a moderately difficult self-control task.  They watched a video and had to evaluate a character on the video.  During the video, words flashed on the task.  The ego-depletion group was told to ignore the words, while the control group watched the video with no instructions.  This task is known to wear down people’s self-control abilities, which can cause self-control failures in later situations.

After watching the video, participants read a vignette about an office manager.  The story either suggested that the manager had a high, moderate, or low level of self-control. They were asked to rate how good a leader the manager was likely to be. Participants who had just done an ego depletion task and had a low level of self-control resources gave higher ratings when reading the story about the manager with a high level of self-control than when reading the story about the manager with a low level of self-control.  Ratings of the manager with a moderate level of self-control came out in between. 

The participants who did the control task did not give significantly different ratings to the three managers.  They were less influenced by differences in other people’s self-control.

A second study demonstrated a similar effect, but looked at individual differences in participants’ self-control.  Differences in self-control were measured using the Stroop task.  In the Stroop task, people identify the color of the font of words.  The words are names of colors.  When the word names the same color as the font, people are faster to name the color than when the word names a different color from the font.  The difference between the speed of the consistent and inconsistent responses is a measure of self-control.  People with a high level of self-control show less of a difference than those with a low level of self-control. 

The people with a low level of self-control (as measured by the Stroop task) gave a similar pattern of ratings as those in the ego-depletion condition of the previous study.  Their ratings differed substantially based on the level of self-control of the manager.  The people with a high level of self-control did not differ much in their ratings of the manager. 

A third study examined the relationship between the degree of self-control of the members of a romantic couple and their level of dependence on each other.  A partner with a low level of self-control relied much more on their significant other when that person had a high level of self control than when that person had a low level of self-control.  A partner with a high level of self-control relied on their significant other equally strongly regardless of that person’s level of self-control.  

These studies suggest that people naturally recognize the role that other people can play to enhance their self-control.  When a person has a low-level of self control as a trait or when their willpower is tapped, they are much more prone to value the willpower of other people than when their self-control resources are high. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Do Parks Make People Happier?


I have been lucky enough to live in Austin, Texas for the past 15 years.  One of the things that strikes people who visit here for the first time is how green it is.  For one thing, many people have the stereotype that all of Texas is desert and tumbleweeds, so when they see lots of trees, it does not fit their image.  (There is plenty of desert in West Texas, so the stereotype is not completely without merit.)

But, the city of Austin, itself is quite green.  There are lots of small parks, greenbelts, and hills with woods.  In the center of town, Ladybird Lake is ringed with a trail that is always full of walkers, runners, and bikers.

If you live in a place with lots of parks like this, does it affect your life satisfaction?

This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Mathew White, Ian Alcock, Benedict Wheeler, and Michael Depledge.  They did a longitudinal analysis of data in Great Britain collected over a period of 18 years.

The study involved over 10,000 people from urban areas and asked general health questions (including questions about their mental health) and questions about well-being.  The data also permitted the researchers to determine how much green space was located in their neighborhood.  Green space included parks and gardens.  The survey also had questions about other factors that affect well-being like education, marital status, age, and employment.

The researchers entered these variables into a statistical analysis to determine the factors that predicted mental distress and overall ratings of well-being.

As you might expect, being married was associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of well-being.  Likewise, being employed (rather than unemployed) was associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of well-being.  These effects are rather large overall.

After taking all of these factors into account, living near parks did affect people’s mental health.  People experienced lower levels of mental distress and higher-levels of well-being when they lived near green space in their urban area.

On the one hand, these effects are reliable, but small.  The influence of living near parks was about one third the size of the influence of being married and about one tenth the size of the influence of being employed.  As the authors point out, though, marriage and employment affect only individual families, while parks can influence whole neighborhoods, so the collective influence of parks on well-being can be enormous.

What does this mean?

Demographic trends suggest that people are moving back to cities.  Living in urban areas has many benefits such as low commuting costs and access to many interesting cultural activities.  Living near parks, though, has a number of benefits.  Parks allow people a chance to get away (even briefly) from the stress and noise of the city.  Parks also provide places for exercise and movement.

This research also suggests that governments should support the construction and maintenance of green areas in their cities.  Around the world, this is a time of austerity. Governments are cutting back on the services they provide.  But, mental well-being translates into physical well-being.  People who feel good about life take better care of themselves than those who do not.  This work suggests that a relatively small investment in urban green spaces can save governments a lot of money down the line in health-care costs.

Finally, this work suggests that if you are moving to a city, you should look for a neighborhood that is near to parks and gardens.  Being close to these green spaces will help you to engage in activities that will keep you healthier and happier.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Can You Make Teens Less Aggressive?


Over the past several years, I got to experience high school again through the eyes of my kids.  Though I have enjoyed going to band concerts and choir concerts and plays, I am glad that I am beyond my high school years.  There is a lot of aggression in high school.  Kids can be flat-out mean to each other.  Some of it is just good-natured fun, as kids test out their ability to hurl verbal insults.  But, some of it is nasty. 

There are always a few kids who find themselves to be the object of a lot of teasing and bullying.  Those kids can suffer through their time in high school.  They experience symptoms of depression.  They can also lash out at the people who torment them, acting aggressively toward them.

Is there any way to break this cycle of aggression?

A fascinating paper by David Yeager, Kali Trzewniewski, and Carol Dweck in the May/June, 2013 issue of Child Development explored this question. 

I have written about Carol Dweck’s research in this blog before.  She and her colleagues argue that people tend to think about psychological traits in one of two ways. Sometimes they adopt an entity mindset, in which they believe that the trait is a permanent fixture of someone’s psychology.  Sometimes they adopt an incremental mindset, in which they believe that traits change over time. 

Most psychological traits can change, and so an incremental mindset is probably closer to the truth.  Yet, many children and adults adopt an entity mindset for all kinds of traits including intelligence, trustworthiness, and aggression.

To make kids less aggressive, you might think that the best strategy is to teach them skills for coping with disappointments and conflicts with other kids.  Perhaps they could use those skills to think differently about their behavior. 

If you have spent any time recently with teenagers, though, you know that they resist almost any attempt to tell them what to do.  So, it may not be that effective to just give teens strategies to deal with conflicts.  Instead, if you give them information about how personality traits like being aggressive can change over time, you may help them to deal more effectively with other people.

In their study, about 250 students from a city high school participated in this study.  Some students were in a control condition whose behavior was measured without any intervention.  Other students participated in a 3-week program teaching them coping skills.  They learned about things like hot to deal with social rejection and how to focus on positive aspects of their life.  A third group participated in a 3-week program teaching them about the incremental mindset.  They learned that personality traits can change over time, because people’s brains are always changing.  They also learned about the many factors that affect people’s behavior and how changes in motivations can change their behavior. 

Several weeks after the intervention, participants were given the chance to display aggressive and pro-social behavior.  They played a computer game called “Cyberball.”  In this game, three players seated in different rooms play a game in which they pass a ball around.  The other players are actually controlled by the computer.  After the first few passes, the two other players pass the ball only to each other.  This game has been shown to make people feel excluded.

After playing this game, participants did a taste testing activity in which they prepared food for one of the people they were supposed to have played Cyberball with.  The participant was given information about the other person including the fact that the person does not like spicy food.  The participant was given the chance to put hot sauce on the food, and they could put on as much hot sauce as they wanted.  The idea is that the more hot sauce they put on, the more aggressive they are being toward this person who had just excluded them from a game. 

Before the food was “delivered” to the other person, the participant also had a chance to write a note to accompany the food.  This note allowed participants to give either prosocial messages (“I didn’t add much hot sauce, because I know you don’t like it”) or antisocial messages (“I put a lot of hot sauce on, because you were mean to me.”)

Finally, a few months after the intervention, teachers were given the chance to identify students whose behavior had changed positively over the last few months of the year.  These students were also less likely to be absent or tardy from school in the months after the intervention. 

Overall, participants given the incremental theory training put less hot sauce on the food after the game of Cyberball (so they were less aggressive toward others) than those who got the coping skills training or those in the control group.  The participants given the incremental theory training also wrote more positive messages in their note than those in the other groups.  At the follow-up later, the participants in the incremental theory group were also more likely to be identified by teachers as improving their behavior than those in the other groups.

However, this training had a specific benefit.  The students who were most likely to show improvements in their behavior were the ones who were often the victims of aggression, teasing, and bullying by other students.  This training was particularly effective at helping victims of bullying to realize that the people around them can change, and so they did not need to lash out at these people.

This study adds to the benefits of thinking about psychological traits as being malleable rather than fixed.  The more that you believe that your own behavior and other people’s behavior can change, the more willing you are to deal positively with interpersonal problems and to work harder to improve yourself. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Both Good and Bad Habits are Boosted in Times of Stress


The effects of stress on willpower are a staple of romantic comedies.  A character goes through a difficult romantic breakup, and in the next scene, she is sitting on the couch smeared in ice cream with empty wrappers strewn on the couch. 

All of us have experienced this kind of failure of self-control.  There is some bad habit we are trying to avoid, and we succeed until life gets hectic.  Suddenly, it is business-as-usual. Because these breakdowns of willpower are so clear when they happen, you might think that stressful situations bring out your worst behavior. 

A fascinating paper in the June, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Neal, Wendy Wood, and Aimee Drolet suggests a different possibility.  They argue that in times of stress, we fall back on our habits generally.  When those habits are bad, then we experience what we see as a failure of self-control.  But, we also fall back on our good habits.  We don’t notice those as readily, because those behaviors are helpful.

In a naturalistic study to support this view, the researchers explored the behavior of a sample of college students.  First, they looked at the strength of a number of habits relating to eating breakfast and reading the newspaper.  Some of these behaviors were good (like eating hot cereal for breakfast), while others were bad (eating a pastry for breakfast).  For each person, some behaviors were a strong part of their routine, while others were not.  A particular individual might generally eat hot cereal, but rarely eat pastry.  That person might also tend to read the Op-Ed section of the newspaper, but rarely read the comics.

Over the next four weeks, the researchers continued to track the students’ behavior.  In two of those weeks, the students had an intense series of exams, while in the other two of those weeks, there were no major exams.  The researchers expected that the students would be undergoing more stress in the exam weeks, and so their willpower would be compromised.

When a particular behavior was a strong habit for that person, then they were more likely to engage in that behavior during the stressful exam weeks than during the less stressful non-exam weeks.  This reliance on habits was evident both for the good behaviors and the bad ones.  So, the lack of willpower drove people to rely on their habits, regardless of whether they were good or bad.

In several other studies, the researchers manipulated stress level for participants.  In one study, the researchers tracked the behavior of participants over a series of days.  On a few of those days, participants were asked to perform their daily activities with their nondominant hand.  So, if they routinely used their left hand while talking on the cell phone, they should now use their right hand.  This manipulation is known to cause stress to the willpower system by requiring a lot of effortful self-control. 

On the days when participants had to use their non-dominant hand, they were much more likely to perform both good and bad habits than they were on days when they were allowed to use their dominant hand. 

Other studies in this paper demonstrated that people fall back on their habits, because they are acting without thinking.  They are not explicitly choosing to act based on their habits when their willpower is depleted. 

This study adds to a growing literature demonstrating the power of habits in daily action.  When the going gets tough, the natural response is to fall back on the behaviors that have carried you through so many other situations in the past.

That is why it is crucial to work on developing good habits.  It is hard to rise to the occasion in times of stress.  When you have lots of exams, a big project at work, or are going through a stressful period in a relationship, you simply do not have the mental energy to rise to the occasion.  Instead, you just want to get through the day.  In those cases, your habits will drive a lot of your behavior.  The more that your habits push you toward behaviors that support your goals, the better you will do in stressful situations.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Distance Increases the Use of Statistics in Decisions


There is a real tension in decision making between using a broad sample of information and focusing on a compelling individual case.  Recruiters will get a lot of information about job candidates before scheduling an interview, but then will give a lot of weight to the interview itself in making a final decision.  Politicians may have a lot of statistics to support a particular policy, but they are often driven to act by a specific event.

Presumably, a decision based on a lot of evidence is better than one that is based only on a specific case.  An interesting paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Erin Burgoon, Marlone Henderson, and Cheryl Wakslak examined how we evaluate other people’s decisions that are based either on statistics or specific cases.

These researchers argued that the distance between you and the decision maker would influence your preference for the kind of decision that person has made.  Research on construal level theory by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues suggests that people think about situations more specifically when they are mentally close to that situation than when they are mentally far from it.  Thinking about a decision specifically can lead to a preference for using information about a particular case over using general statistical information.  So, if you hear about a person who has made a decision using specific case information, you are probably happier with that decision if that person is close by than if they are far away.

One study in this paper was run two weeks after the shooting in Arizona that injured US Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Participants read that their representative in Congress was supporting legislation to limit the size of the ammunition magazines in automatic weapons.  They read an interview that supported this legislation.  The interview focused either on statistics about gun violence or specifically on the shooting in Arizona.  Some participants were told that the interview took place nearby in that representative’s local office, while others were told that the interview was given in far-away Washington, DC.  After reading the interview, participants expressed their level of support for their member of Congress.

Participants who read that the interview was held nearby showed equal levels of support regardless of whether the legislation was being supported based on statistics or based on the specific shooting.  Those who read that the interview was held in Washington DC expressed a higher level of support for the Representative when the interview focused on statistics than when it focused on the specific case. 

This finding demonstrates that distance from the decision maker affects people’s beliefs about how that person should make a decision.  Another study in this series related this finding more specifically to construal level theory.

Research on construal level theory finds that you can induce a mindset to think about situations specifically or abstractly.  For example, if you ask people to talk about how to accomplish a goal, they think more specifically afterward than if you ask them to talk about why they should accomplish that goal.  Talking about how to do something focuses people on more specific details than talking about why to do something, and that influence carries over to other tasks people are performing.

In one study, participants were first asked to give feedback to the superintendant of a local school district.  They picked an issue of their choice and talked either about how or why the superintendant should make a change. 

Then, they read that the superintendant was going to make a change to a school lunch program.  They were told that 85% of parents who were surveyed supported the change, but that one irate parent left a long voicemail message opposing the program.  (Another group of participants read the opposite that 85% of parents opposed the program and one vocal parent supported it.)  Some people read that the superintendant made a decision based on the consensus of the parents, while others read that the superintendant made a decision based on the argument made by the vocal parent.  Then, people expressed their support for the superintendant.

Overall, participants felt that the superintendent made a better decision when the decision was based on the consensus of the parents than when it was based on a specific individual. However, if the participants had previously focused on “how” to accomplish a goal, they were more supportive when the superintendant decided based on the specific individual than if the participants had previously focused on “why” to accomplish a goal.  So, a mindset that gets people to think specifically increases their appreciation for choices made based on specific information. 

All things being equal, it is better to take a lot of data into account when making a choice than to focus on a particular representative case.  To help yourself appreciate decisions based on data, try to give yourself some mental distance from the choice being made.  That distance will help you to focus on a broader context in which a decision is being made.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Culture Affects Attention to Goals and Processes


When you want to guide your behavior, you have to pay attention to two different things—the goal and the process.  The goal is the outcome you want to have happen, while the process is the set of steps that will allow you to achieve that goal. If you want to speak to a friend, you might adopt the goal to make a phone call.  As a part of the plan to do that, you need to engage in the process of dialing your friend’s number.

In the United States, people tend to focus on the goal they want to accomplish when thinking about actions.  Is that a universal human tendency?

This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Yuri Miyamoto, Christopher Knoepfler, Keiko Ishii, and Li-Jun Ji.  They suggested that there are differences across cultures in how consistent people perceive themselves to be across situations, and that consistency might affect how people think about the actions they perform.

Self-consistency reflects the similarity in your actions across situations.  For example, you might feel that you are more outgoing when spending time with friends than when going to an event with family.  If so, you are not being highly self-consistent.  If you think you act similarly when spending time with different groups, then you are being highly self-consistent.  These researchers point to work suggesting that Americans and Hong Kong Chinese see themselves as more self-consistent than Japanese do. 

The key question was whether this difference in self-consistency would be related to the way people view their actions.  People who are highly self-consistent may focus on the overall goal they want to achieve, because they want to maintain the same goals across situations.  People who are lower in self-consistency may focus on the actions they take, because those actions may differ across situations.

To test this possibility, participants in the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong were given two different questionnaires.  One measured people’s beliefs about the consistency of their behavior in different situations.  The second gave people a set of situations and asked them whether they see that situation as involving a goal or an action.  For example, if you are greeting someone, do you think it is better to identify that action as showing friendliness or saying hello?  When you are taking a test are you showing your knowledge or answering questions?  

The results were interesting.  As expected based on the previous research, Americans and Hong Kong Chinese saw their actions as being more consistent across situations than the Japanese.  Americans and Hong Kong Chinese also tended to identify their actions with the goal rather than the action, while the Japanese tended to identify their actions with the action rather than the goal.  Statistical tests found that the degree to which people identified their actions with the goal was related to the degree to which they saw themselves as consistent across situations. 

Why does this matter?

First, cross-cultural research gives us a view of the variation in human behavior.  If we do a study in the United States that explores the way people think and act, we often conclude that the results of this study reflect the way people think and act in general.  These cross-cultural studies are important for helping us to tease apart the aspects of behavior that are universal parts of human nature from those that are a result of years of cultural training. 

Second, the focus on goals and actions may affect behavior.  When trying to change behavior, for example, people (at least in the United States) focus on the goal they want to achieve.  For example, when going on a diet, people set a goal to lose 25 pounds.  The problem with this focus on the goal is that when you achieve the goal, it is not clear what you should do next.  That is one reason why people who succeed at losing weight often regain it later.  If you focus instead on the process (what you eat, how you prepare your food), then you may end up losing weight, but you have generated a set of behaviors that you can maintain even after you reach your desired weight.  So, shifting your focus from goals to processes can be a benefit when trying to develop new habits.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Improving Concentration Improves Performance


There are times when it is just hard to get work done.  You want to read a book, but you can’t stop thinking about a comment a friend made earlier in the day.  You need to get something written, but there is a little voice in the back of your head trying to get you to check your email.  Think of how productive you could be if you could just focus on what you are doing rather than having your mind wander all over.

If you were trained to focus, would that actually make you more effective at thinking?

This question was explored in a paper in the May, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Michael Mrazek, Michael Franklin, Dawa Phillips, Benjamin Baird, and Jonathan Schooler.  These researchers explored the influence of mindfulness training on performance in a few thinking tasks.

Mindfulness training uses elements of meditation to help people become more aware of their thought patterns.  By doing exercises like concentrating on a taste or a smell, people learn to recognize the way that other thoughts can intrude on their current experience.  Along the way, this training helps people to learn to avoid actively suppressing thoughts, which can actually make people more likely to have the undesired thoughts. 

In this study, a sample of college students was randomly assigned either to a 2-week mindfulness training class or to a 2-week class on nutrition (which focused on healthy eating).  All participants were given a pre-test and a post-test.  They did a test of reading comprehension taken from the GRE.  They also did a test of working memory.  Working memory is the amount of information you can use in the moment to think.  The more that your mind wanders, the less working memory you have to focus on the task at hand.  During the tests, participants were also asked questions about their mind wandering.  At various points during the test, they were stopped and were asked whether they were concentrating fully on the test or whether they were having other thoughts unrelated to what they were supposed to work on. 

The participants given the nutrition class showed no reliable difference in their performance on either test from the beginning to the end of the study.  The number of mind-wandering thoughts did not change either.

The participants who were given the 2-week mindfulness training class improved on both the reading comprehension and working memory tests.  Their mind-wandering also decreased.  Statistical tests demonstrated that the improvement in test scores was related to the decrease in mind-wandering.

This research suggests that when it comes to smart thinking, you may be your own worst enemy.  The difficulties you have concentrating can have a huge impact on your ability to learn information and to solve new problems.  Your ability to focus is affected by many factors.  Your busy information environment (with repeated interruptions from cell phones, instant messages, and email) can draw your attention from what you are trying to accomplish. In addition, your own mind-wandering affects your thinking.

Mindfulness training like the class used in this study is one ingredient in a program to make you smarter.  This training helps you to learn more about your own thinking patterns, which ultimately helps you to sustain attention.  In addition, spend more time controlling your environment.  When you have hard work to do, shut off your email program and put your smart phone out of arm’s reach.  Start removing the mental distractions from your environment.

The less your mind wanders, the more effectively you will be able to think in the moment.