Thursday, April 16, 2015

Having a Hot Hand Increases Confidence, But Not Success


One of the great things about doing research is that you can actually test the beliefs that people take for granted.  And sometimes, those beliefs are shown to be false.  A classic example of this approach comes in the belief in a hot hand in basketball.  When you watch a basketball game, a player will make a couple of shots, and the announcers will decide that player is “on fire” and that he ought to take the team’s next shot.

Back in 1985, though, Tom Gilovich, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky actually analyzed data from the Philadelphia 76ers.  They found no evidence for a hot hand.  The hot hand would say that if a player makes one shot, then they should be more likely to make a second.  Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky found that the probability that a player would make a second shot was independent of whether they made the first one, suggesting that there is no hot hand.

An interesting question, though, is whether the belief in the hot hand influences the behavior of the players themselves. That question was explored in analyses by Yigal Attali reported in the July, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  He analyzed all of the data from every game in the 2010-2011 National Basketball Association season.  Modern transcripts for games include lots of information including who took each shot, whether it was made, and the distance of the shot. 

Attali found evidence that the belief in a hot hand did affect the behavior of players.  When a player made one shot, it affected whether they would take the team’s next shot.  When the shot was from a short distance (a dunk or layup), then players took about 20% of their team’s next shots regardless of whether they made or missed the shot.  However, when they made a shot that was longer than 4 feet, they were much more likely to take the team’s next shot than if they missed that shot.

That’s not all.  When players made a shot, the next shot they took was generally further from the basket than when players missed their last shot.  Because longer shots probably reflect that a player has more confidence in his ability, this suggests that making a shot increases a player’s confidence. 

Paradoxically, though, this confidence has a cost.  Longer shots are more likely to be missed than shorter shots, so when a player takes two shots in a row, he is much more likely to miss the second shot than to make it, because the second shot is probably taken from further away following a hit than following a miss.  (Indeed, Attali re-analyzed the data from the Philadelphia 76ers that Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky used, and found a similar effect that when a player makes one shot, they are actually less likely to make the second shot than when they missed the previous shot.)

Finally, Attali explored the effect of making a shot on the behavior of coaches.  He found that players were much less likely to be taken out of a game following a made shot than following a missed shot.  So, coaches are also acting as though they believe in a hot hand.

What does all of this mean?

In lots of domains (including basketball), we have theories about the way the world works.  Those theories influence our actions.  However, it is important to know whether our theories about the way the world works are actually true.  Sometimes, as in the case of the hot hand in basketball, not only is the theory false, but acting based on the theory also makes people’s performance worse than it would be if they did not believe in the theory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rituals Make the World Taste Better


In the United States, we have a strange relationship with food.  Most of us eat on the go.  We drive through at fast food restaurants and then stuff our faces as we get where we’re going.  We eat at our desks while working.  We grab dinner in between other tasks, sometimes standing at a counter in the kitchen.
Food is fuel, of course, so perhaps this approach makes sense.  We don’t make an elaborate ceremony of putting gas in the car, so why should mealtime be any different?
Yet, cultures have often created rituals around food.  In many countries, mealtime is an oasis from the troubles of the day.  Everyone sits down around a well-set table.  Dishes are placed in the center.  People may say a prayer before eating.  And then the meal and the conversation commences. 
What exactly do we get out of creating ceremonies around eating?
An interesting paper by Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science examines whether rituals affect the taste of food. 
In one study, participants ate carrots three times over the course of an experimental session.  Carrots are an interesting food choice, because they taste good, but they are not high on most people’s lists of desirable foods (compared, say, to ice cream or chocolate).  One group was given a ritual to perform before eating each carrot.  They would bang their knuckles on the table, close their eyes, and take a deep breath.  A second group was given a different sequence of actions before each carrot.  So, they performed an action, but it was not a ritual, because the actions were always different. 
Before eating the last carrot, participants rated how much they thought they would enjoy it, and after eating it, they rated their enjoyment of the carrot.  Finally, some participants were able to eat the third carrot immediately after performing the ritual, but others had a delay before eating the carrot.  The participants with the delay performed an unrelated study before eating the carrot.
Overall, participants who performed the ritual anticipated enjoying the carrot more than those who performed random actions, and their ratings of actual enjoyment were also higher.  The delay actually enhanced the influence of the ritual.  When people knew there would be a delay, they believed they would enjoy the carrot more and they actually did enjoy it more.
Another study (this one involving lemonade) found that you have to perform the ritual yourself to get the benefit of it.  Participants who watched the experimenter perform the ritual enjoyed the lemonade less than those who performed the ritual themselves. 
One last study (this one involving chocolate) found that participants who performed a ritual were more interested in the food than those who did not perform a ritual.  So, the ritual seems to have affected people’s intrinsic interest in the activity of eating.
Rituals are a pervasive cultural invention.  Every culture asks people to perform actions that have no obvious value in and of themselves.  I have written before about studies demonstrating that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to a community.  These studies expand this influence to show that rituals can increase people’s sense of closeness to food as well.
If you find that you are not enjoying the food you eat and that you tend to treat your food as fuel, then consider creating some rituals around the way you eat.  Set your table.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Close your eyes for a moment and prepare to eat.  And then…enjoy.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Self-Compassion and Health


A few times in this blog, I have written about self-compassion.  Self-compassion is the degree to which you treat yourself with kindness.  It differs from related concepts like self-esteem, which is how good you feel about yourself.  Self-compassion determines how well you come back from adversity.  If you get down on yourself when things go wrong, then it is hard to bounce back from a problem.  If you treat yourself with kindness, then it is easier to recover from a bad experience.

An interesting paper in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Meredith Terry, Mark Leary, Sneha Mehta, and Kelly Henderson examined the relationship between self-compassion and health behaviors. 

A key question in health-care is what factors lead people to seek help for medical problems.  Every year, some number of people avoid going to the doctor, even when they think they might be sick.  This avoidance can be dangerous if the delay leads a treatable condition to get worse.

In a series of studies, the authors examined the relationship between a measure of self-compassion and a variety of health-related behaviors.  To measure self-compassion, the authors used a scale that described a series of bad things that could happen in someone’s life like making a stupid mistake or having a hard time doing something that other people find easy.  They asked people to evaluate whether they would be likely to do self-compassionate things like cheering themselves up or uncompassionate things like judging themselves harshly.

One study found that people with health problems who have a high level of self-compassion are less depressed about those problems than people with a low level of self-compassion.  Another study found that people with a high-level of self-compassion said they would see a doctor more quickly for health problems than people with a low-level of self-compassion.  The authors found this relationship even after controlling for factors like how good people are at planning for the future.

A final study looked at why self-compassion influences health-related behaviors.  This study found that people with a high level of self-compassion also treat themselves kindly.  That is, they do not get down on themselves for having an illness.  They also frequently remind themselves that many people have health problems and that they do not deserve to be sick.  The combination of self-kindness and positive self-talk help to explain the influence of self-compassion on health behaviors.

This study adds to a growing body of work demonstrating the powerful effects of self-compassion.  Everyone is going to experience negative events in their lives. People try a new venture and fail.  They get sick or injured.  They get in relationships that ultimately break up.  They have loved-ones who get sick or die.  Nobody can escape the bad things that happen in life.

The key is to find ways to deal with those negative events in a positive way.  It is fine to experience the pain of a negative event.  But, after acknowledging the pain, it is also important to get up and try again—to remember that failures and illnesses and bad relationships are not a verdict on your worth as a person, but just another hurdle to be overcome.  Ultimately, you need to learn to treat yourself with the same kindness you would show to others in the same situation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Self-control and success


Most of us believe that a certain amount of self-control is crucial for success.  In order to succeed in the modern world, you need expertise in some area.  Gaining that expertise requires work and practice.  The discipline to work or practice at something means that you have to give up things that might be fun right now in order to engage in actions that will be rewarding in the future. 

Research by Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and their colleagues supports this link.  They looked at the relationship between the delay of gratification task developed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s and later performance. 

In the delay of gratification task, young kids (often preschoolers) are put in a room where they are seated in front of a desirable food (like a marshmallow or cookie).  They are told that the experimenter is going to leave the room for a while and that if they have not eaten the treat while the experimenter is gone, they will get two treats instead.  The experimenter then leaves the room for a period of time (often about 10 minutes) and then returns.  The amount of time that a child is willing to wait in order to get the extra treat is a measure of self-control.  Mischel, Shoda, and their colleagues find that the amount of time that children will wait as preschoolers is related to many positive outcomes in adolescence such as higher grades, greater social competence, and a better ability to deal with stress.

What is going on with this delay of gratification task? 

On its face, it clearly measures some kind of self-control ability.  However, it may also measure other factors like intelligence that could ultimately lead to differences years later.  An interesting paper by Angela Duckworth, Eli Tsukayama, and Teri Kirby in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the delay of gratification task in more detail. 

They examined the data from 966 children who were given the delay of gratification test as preschoolers as part of a longitudinal study.  In addition to this test, there was information from parents and caregivers about ability to focus attention, impulsivity, temperament, and intelligence.  In 9th grade, these same students were assessed for their grade-point average, achievement test scores, their body mass index, and their tendency to engage in risky behavior.  A variety of other demographic characteristics were also measured including parental education level, SES, gender, and race/ethnicity.

In this study, performance on the delay of gratification task was related to both parent/caregiver ratings of self-control as well as measures of intelligence.  A statistical analysis was then used to look at how these measurements in preschool related to outcomes in ninth grade.  The delay of gratification task did not predict anything on its own.  Instead, higher self-control at age 4 predicts higher standardized test scores, higher GPA and lower body mass index in ninth grade.  Higher intelligence at age 4 strongly predicts higher standardized test scores in ninth grade.  There is a weak relationship in which higher intelligence at age 4 also predicts slightly higher body mass index in ninth grade.

What does all of this mean?

Grade-point average in school is a better predictor of future success than just standardized test scores, because GPA reflects a combination of overall ability level and willingness to work hard in school.  Self-control is related to people’s ability to work hard to achieve their long-term goals.  This self-control is also reflected in a lower body mass index, suggesting that people with a high level of self-control at a young age do more things to take care of themselves as they get older.

If you were lucky enough to be born with a high level of self-control as a child, then that bodes well for you in the future.  But, what if you are a “one-marshmallow” person, prone to give into short-term temptations?

In that case, you have to find ways to protect yourself from yourself.  One important thing you can do is to remove temptations from your environment.  You cannot give in to playing video games rather than studying if you don’t have any video games in the house.  You cannot eat too many potato chips if you don’t buy them. 

A second thing you can do is to engage with people around you to help you achieve your long-term goals.  Find a study partner and work with them on classwork.  Get an exercise buddy and let that person nag you to go to the gym.  Spend more time with people who have achieved the kind of success you hope for.  Their goals and habits will start to affect the way you act.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Kinds of People Start Businesses?


I live in Austin, Texas, which prides itself as a center for entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs are people who start their own businesses.  In Austin, we have many different kinds of new businesses ranging from high-tech companies that want to be the next Dell or Facebook to food-truck restaurants where someone just wants to follow their dream of cooking for others.

Starting your own business is difficult.  You have to put in long hours.  You have to be prepared to fail.  A high percentage of new ventures do not succeed.  You have to be willing to change course if things are not working out as expected.

Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.  For decades, psychologists and business researchers have explored whether there is a collection of personality traits that is associated with starting a business.

A fascinating paper by Martin Obschonka, Eva Schmitt-Rodermund, Rainer Silbereisen, Sam Gosling, and Jeff Potter in the July, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored two related questions.  First, is it reasonable to characterize an entrepreneurial personality?  Second, are there clusters of people with that personality profile within a country?

Based on a lot of previous research, these authors suggested that there is a personality profile for entrepreneurs which is based on the Big Five personality dimensions.  The Big Five dimensions, which reflect the largest differences in behavior across people are Openness to Experience (your willingness to consider new ideas), Extraversion (your desire to be the center of attention), Conscientiousness (your willingness to work hard and follow rules), Agreeableness (your desire to be liked by others), and Neuroticism (your lack of emotional stability).  They suggest that the ideal entrepreneurial profile is someone who is high in openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness and low in agreeableness and neuroticism. 

(As an aside, you might wonder why a good entrepreneur is low in agreeableness.  While it is important to be liked by people who might want to do business with you, it is more important to be critical and demanding when starting a business.  Highly agreeable people do not like to give other people bad news, and so they often temper their criticisms in ways that could hurt a business.)

In the first study in this paper, the researchers analyzed a data set in which over 600,000 people from all over the United States took a 44-question Big Five scale.  The questionnaire also had information about where people lived.  The researchers measured how well each person in the sample compared to the ideal profile for an entrepreneur.

The first interesting result is that the personality profiles were not evenly distributed throughout the US.  There were more people fitting this profile in the western US than in the eastern US, though Georgia and Florida also had a high concentration of people with this profile. 

There are many possible reasons why this personality profile might cluster in particular regions.  For example, people with an entrepreneurial personality profile might move to areas where they think they will meet like-minded folks.  In regions with many people who have this profile, they may act in ways to heighten these behaviors in other people as well.   

The researchers then looked at the relationship between the entrepreneurial profile of people in a region and entrepreneurial activity in that region.  In these analyses, the researchers controlled for many other factors such as the ethnic makeup of those regions, the overall economic climate of the regions, and the age and gender profiles of the regions.  In these analyses, regions with more people who had the entrepreneurial personality profile also had more startups and other entrepreneurial activity.

To follow up on these studies, the researchers did the same analyses in Germany and the United Kingdom using large-scale data sets from those countries.  The same pattern was observed in these studies. People with an entrepreneurial profile were found in clusters in each country.  The regions that had the most people with that entrepreneurial profile also had the most entrepreneurial activity.

This kind of large-scale analysis of the social structure of personality profiles is fascinating, and opens up a number of new avenues for research. Ultimately, it would be interesting to know what factors cause this entrepreneurial personality profile to become clustered in regions. 

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.