Monday, February 20, 2017

What Happens When You Are Waiting For News?

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Distractions Make You Lose Your Place

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Happiness Is Interacting With Others

It is no surprise that social interactions can be a great source of happiness.  A wonderful holiday spent with close friends and family is not only enjoyable in the moment, it is also a source of wonderful memories for years to come.  Being in a great romantic relationship is uplifting. 
But, what about the large number of other interactions you have each day?  The cashier at the supermarket who smiles and tells you to have a great day.  The colleague you pass in the hall who nods as you walk by.  The friend of a friend you chat with for a minute about a recent TV show.  Do those interactions also make you happier?
In the 1970’s, sociologist Mark Granovetter has looked at the structure of people’s social networks.  This work suggests that you can loosely characterize people’s contacts into strong ties and weak ties.  Strong ties are the bonds among family, friends, and close work colleagues.  Weak ties are involve the people you see on occasion.  You do not have particularly deep or regular contact with your weak ties.
Research in business suggests that weak ties are extremely important for passing information across groups.  For example, a company may have lots of pockets of people who work closely together.  The members of this group share information extensively.  That information can only flow from one group to another through weak ties where one member of the group shares it with someone who is primarily connected to a different group within the company.
What about happiness?  Can weak ties contribute to your happiness?
This question was explored in a paper by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn in the July, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
In one study, 53 adults over the age of 25 were given two clickers.  On 6 different days, participants counted the number of people they interacted with that day using the clickers.  They used one clicker for people with whom they had a close relationship (strong ties) and the other for people with whom they had a more distant relationship (weak ties).  On each day, participants also rated their well-being and their sense of belonging to a community.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory, because basic personality characteristics are also related to people’s well-being.  All of the analyses were done ensuring that the results could not just be predicted from the basic personality characteristics. 
On average, people interacted with 6.7 strong ties and 11.4 weak ties in a day.  One way you might think to analyze these data is to see whether the number of interactions predicts happiness overall.  Interestingly, differences in happiness between people are not that strongly predicted by the overall number of interactions they have.
However, the number of interactions people have does predict day-to-day differences in sense of belonging and happiness.  Strong ties are particularly important.  On days when people interact many times their strong ties, they report that they are happier and feel more like they belong to the community than when they interact fewer times with their strong ties.  In this sample, interactions with weak ties predicted people’s sense of belongingness, but only weakly predicted happiness.  That is, more interactions with acquaintances increased people’s sense that they belonged to a community, but had only a weak relationship to their overall happiness.
A second study with the same method examined 58 first-year college students.  They also kept track of their interactions using clickers.  You might expect the results with this group to be stronger, because first-year college students are just starting to form a new set of relationships.
In this study, the number of interactions with both strong and weak ties was related to the students’ sense of belongingness overall.  So, those students who interacted with a lot of people were happier and felt a greater sense that they belonged to the college community than those who interacted with only few people.
In addition, on days when people interacted with both their close friends and their acquaintances, they were happier than on days when they interacted less often with their close friends and their acquaintances. 
What does all of this mean?
The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life.  Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community.  Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community.  When we are first introduced to that community, those interactions and that feeling of belonging also increase our happiness.
So, smile at people when you walk down the street.  You just might be helping to make someone’s day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When You’re Sure of Your Beliefs, You Want to Convince Others

When people disagree on a topic, there are several ways they might deal with that disagreement.  They might avoid it altogether, either by pushing off a discussion or just agreeing with the other person in order to end the conversation.  On the other hand, people can also be active in resolving disagreements. 
In that case, people have the choice between being competitive or cooperative.  Competitive resolution means that people are trying to convince the other person to change their belief.  Cooperative resolution means that people are seeking some kind of middle ground.
There are many factors that can lead people to take a cooperative or a competitive stance when trying to deal with a disagreement.  For example, the personality characteristic of openness reflects how willing people are to consider new ideas.  People high in openness are more likely to be cooperative than those low in openness.  The characteristic of agreeableness reflects how much people want to get along with others.  Agreeable people are also more likely to seek a compromise than disagreeable people.
An interesting paper by Kimberly Rios, Kenneth DeMarree, and Johnathan Statzer in the July 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the way people’s certainty about their beliefs affects their tendency to be cooperative or competitive. 
People’s certainty about their beliefs can be broken down into two components:  clarity and correctness.  Clarity refers to whether people are sure about what they believe.  Each of us has some beliefs that we hold deeply and other issues on which we are not that clear about exactly what we believe.  Correctness focuses on whether we think our belief is “correct” in some broader cultural or moral context. 
The authors suggest that the more strongly people believe their attitude is correct, the more competitive they will be in discussions.  In contrast, the authors did not assume that clarity would be strongly related to competitiveness.
In one study, participants read about a proposed tax on junk foods that would be used to defray expenses for medical care for people who eat unhealthy foods.  Participants read about the issue, and then used a scale to rate both how clear they were about their own attitude as well as whether they believed that their attitude was the ‘right’ one to have. 
After that, participants were led to believe that they would be engaging in a discussion with another person who had the opposing view.  They were given the opportunity to select messages that would be sent to the other person before the discussion.  Some of these sentences suggested competition (“I plan on winning this debate.”).  Some suggested cooperation (“I hope that you will also want to find some common ground on this issue.”).  Still others reflected a desire to learn about the conversation partner’s beliefs (“I’m curious to learn about your position in this debate.”) 
In this study, the more strongly that people believed that their attitude was correct, the more likely they were to select competitive sentences to introduce themselves to their partner.  Being clear about the attitude did not have a strong influence on people’s sentence selections.  
Other studies in this paper manipulated correctness and clarity experimentally.  To manipulate correctness, people were shown a story suggesting that most other people agree with their attitude (leading to high correctness) or that most other people disagree (leading to low correctness).  To increase clarity, people were given opportunities to repeat their belief, which makes it easier for people to state what they believe.
In these studies, manipulations of correctness made people more likely to adopt a competitive stance in discussions.  Manipulations of clarity did not have a strong influence on the way people approached discussions. 
Putting this together, then, being certain of your attitude can affect whether you try to convince other people that you are right.  In particular, the more strongly you believe that your attitude is the right attitude to have, the more that you will focus on convincing others. 
That also means that if you find yourself in conflict with others on a regular basis, you might want to see whether you generally assume that your attitudes are the correct ones.  If so, you might consider taking other people’s perspectives in order to see whether there is validity to opposing points of view.  That may reduce your tendency to treat discussions as invitations for coercion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lower Your Stress By Thinking About the Distant Future

Stress is one of the biggest complaints people have about their lives.  People worry about money, work, and family.  They are also dragged down by events that have happened in the recent past.  A bad test grade can throw a student into a funk.  A fight with a partner in the morning can affect the rest of the day.  A missed sale at work can ruin a weekend.
How can people become more resilient to these negative events in life?
This question was explore in a paper in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk. 
They focused on people’s ability to travel mentally through time.  They suggest that thinking about the distant future can help people get beyond recent events that are causing stress.  In particular, this longer time-perspective helps people to recognize that most events in life are not that important. As a result, while they may be stressful in the short-term, they will not have long-term consequences.  Recognizing that events have their impact mostly in the short-term can make even their short-term impact less severe.
In one study, participants were all people who had a significant event in the previous two weeks that they found to be very stressful.  Some participants were told to think about their life the following week and to focus either on their feelings or the implications of the stressful event.  Other participants were told to think about their life the next year and to focus on the implications of the event.  A control group got no instructions.  Afterward, participants filled out a questionnaire about their current mood as well as questionnaires that assessed their feelings about the permanence of the event they experienced.
Participants who focused on their life a year after the event experienced less stress and negative feeling than those who focused on their life the next week or those in the control group.  Focusing on the distant future also led people to think that the event would have a less permanent impact on their lives than thinking about the near future.
The researchers ruled out a number of possible counterexplanations for this result  For example, they did a version of the study in which all participants were told that thinking the future (either the near or distant future depending on the condition they were in) has been shown to make people feel better about stressful events.  Even with these instructions, participants who thought about the distant future felt better and felt that the event was less permanent than those people who thought about the near future. 
Some of the studies looked at students who had just taken a midterm exam.  Students who did poorly on the exam felt better if they thought about the distant future than if they thought about the near future.  But, students who did well on the exam felt equally good regardless of whether they thought about the near future or the distant future. 
In this study, the researchers also looked at the students’ final exam grades.  You might think that reducing students’ stress by having them focus on the distant future might make them feel better in the short term, but not learn from their mistakes.  So, they might actually do more poorly on the final exam if they thought about the distant future.  In fact, students who did poorly on the midterm did equally well on the final exam regardless of the instructions they were given in the study, suggesting that thinking about the future reduced stress, but did not influence motivation to do well in the class.
Ultimately, these results suggest that thinking about the future helps to give you perspective on the negative events in your life.  When something goes wrong, it is tempting to obsess over the details of what went wrong.  High levels of stress are not helpful for getting work done in the future, though.  So, it can be valuable to recognize that most of the events of your life—even ones that seem incredibly important at the time—do not have a life-changing impact. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

If You Want to Focus on the Long Term, Be Grateful

A common observation about human behavior is that people are biased toward what is best in the short-term.  That does not meant that people always pursue short-term pleasures over long-term gains.  It just means that the value of the long-term option has to be much larger than what people will get right now in order for them to choose to delay the benefit.
Economists call this idea temporal discounting.  To use a money example, imagine that I was willing to give you $100 next month, or a smaller amount of money right now.  If I offered you $10 right now, you would probably wait a month to get the $100.  If I offered you $90 right now, you would probably take that rather than waiting.  But, where is your dividing line?  What is the smallest amount of money that you would take to wait a month to get $100?
The smaller the amount of money you would take now, the less you value future experience compared to present experience.  If you would be willing to take $45 now as opposed to $100 in a month, then you are saying that $100 in a month is only worth $45 in today’s dollars.
In many situations, we want people to value the future more than they do now, so that they are willing to engage in activities that create future value.  A paper in the June, 2014 issue of PsychologicalScience by David DeSteno, Ye Li, Leah Dickens, and Jenifer Lerner suggests that when people experience gratitude, they give more value to future events compared to present ones.
In this study, participants ultimately evaluated lots of situations like the prospect of getting $20 now or $50 in a week.  These problems were given in order for the researchers to make an estimate of how much people were valuing future events compared to present events.  Participants were told that some of them would actually get an amount of money based on one of their choices, so they should choose carefully.
The participants were divided into three groups.  A control group was just asked to recall the events of a typical day.  A second group was asked to recall situations that made them happy.  A third group recalled situations that made them feel grateful.   The idea behind the last two groups was to help distinguish between gratitude and more general positive feeling.
The group that thought about gratitude valued the future more than those who thought about either happy events or a normal day.  This finding suggests that there is something about gratitude (above and beyond being positive) that leads people to be more focused on the long-term rather than the short-term. 
It is not completely clear why gratitude should have this effect.  One possibility is that gratitude makes people feel more connected to those around them.  Social connection influences people’s sense that they are part of something larger and more permanent than themselves.  That may make it feel less difficult to wait for a future reward.
Another possibility is that engaging in acts of kindness (which creates gratitude) often requires some degree of altruism on the part of the performer.  So, thinking about these altruistic acts may make people feel like they can give up something in the present in order to get a future reward.
Clearly, though, more work needs to be done to understand why gratitude has the influence on the way people value the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

If You Are Going to Take Notes, Do It By Hand

I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at universities.  There have been several changes in the way students approach their classes in that time.  The most noticeable is that when I started teaching, students took notes in notebooks, but now almost every desk has a laptop on it when I give a lecture. 
There seem to be a lot of obvious benefits to taking notes on a computer.  For one, it is easy to save the notes in a place where you can find them later.  For another, you will be able to read your notes later.  My own handwriting is terrible, so it is nice to have a tool that will allow me to read my notes later.
Before we go out and encourage every student to bring a laptop to class, though, it is worth checking out a study by Pam Mueller and Danny Oppenheimer in the June, 2014 issue of Psychological Science. 
They compared college students’ performance on tests following exposure to material.  The students were assigned either to take notes longhand or using a laptop.  In these studies, the laptops were set up so that students could only take notes on them.  Of course, in the real world laptops can provide a variety of distractions.
In the first study, students watched a TED talk.  (For those of you who have been living under a rock, TED talks are lectures on a variety of topics that last about 15 minutes.)  They took notes during the talk.  Then, they engaged in other activities for about 30 minutes.  Finally, they were given a quiz about the lecture.  The quiz contained both factual questions and conceptual questions that required some understanding of the subject matter.
Students did about equally well on the factual questions regardless of how they took notes.  However, the students did much better on the conceptual questions when they took notes longhand than when they took them using the laptop.
The experimenters compared the content of people’s notes to the transcript of the lecture the student heard.  When people typed their notes on a laptop, they were much more likely to copy what people said directly rather than writing their impressions of it.  That is, people writing out their notes had to think more deeply about the content of what they heard than those people who were just typing.
The experimenters expanded on this finding in two other studies.  In one study, they instructed people using the laptops to take good notes rather than just transcribing what they heard.  Even when people were given these instructions, they still had a greater tendency to type what they heard than people who were taking notes longhand.  As before, the people who used the laptops did more poorly on a test of conceptual knowledge than those who took notes by hand.
In a third study, students were tested one week after hearing the initial lecture.  In this study, students had a chance to read over their notes before taking the test.  The idea was that if students took really detailed notes on the laptop, then perhaps those notes would be more valuable a week after the lecture than they were immediately afterward. 
In this study, participants who reviewed their notes still did better if they took notes longhand than if they took notes on the laptop.  Interestingly, in this study, the students did equally poorly regardless of the type of notes they took if they were not able to study their notes before taking the test.
Putting all of this together, it suggests that there is real value in having to think about the material in the process of taking notes.  It is because handwriting is slow and effortful that people have to think more clearly about what they want to write down rather than copying down what is being said by rote.  In addition, there is real value to studying later.  Just taking good notes is not enough to be able to remember the information later.  It is also important to go back over your notes and make sure that you think about the information again after being exposed to it the first time.