Monday, September 29, 2014

Why are Experiences Often Better Purchases than Things?


I have written a few blog entries in the past on the observation from research by Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven as well as by Elizabeth Dunn, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson that people get more happiness out of purchases when those purchases are experiences than when they are material things.  So, a ski trip creates more happiness than a new stereo that cost about the same amount of money.

Even in the original research, though, the researchers realized that this distinction is not as clean-cut as it appears.  For example, if you buy an expensive car, that could serve as a physical possession. However, that car might also create a variety of driving experiences that lead to happiness.  

A paper in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Peter Caprariello and Harry Reis examines the role of sociality on the difference between experiences and things.  When you purchase an experience, chances are you are going to share that experience with at least one other person (and perhaps many others).  When you purchase a thing, there is a greater chance that the object is something you are going to use alone.  These researchers suggest that items you use in a social setting are preferred to those used alone.

As an example, in one study participants were asked to think back to a purchase they made some time in the past.  Some people were asked to think about the purchase of an experience (like a movie ticket or trip to an art museum).  Other people were asked to think about the purchase of a material possession (like clothes or a stereo sound system).  Some people were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use alone.  Others were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use with other people. 

After thinking about these items, they rated how happy they were with the purchase now, how happy they remember being with that purchase when they made it and whether they thought the purchase was money well-spent.

In this study, the things and experiences that people remembered purchasing did not differ significantly on average in price or length of time since the purchase. 

Overall, people were happier with their purchase (both at the time of purchase and at the time of the study) when the item was bought to use socially than when it was bought to use alone.  People also rated themselves as happier at the time of purchase when they bought an experience than when they bought a material possession. Surprisingly, they rated the money as better-spent on material goods than on experiences.

What does all this mean?

First, an important part of the difference in happiness that people get from a purchase comes from using that purchase for social interactions.  There is still some tendency for purchases of experiences to make people happier than purchases of things above-and-beyond the social aspect (at least at the time of purchase). 

People rate money as better-spent on material goods, because once an experiential purchase has been used, it is gone, except as a memory.  Material goods stay around longer.  Thus, a year after a purchase, you can still use a shirt or a stereo you bought.  At best, though, you can only remind yourself of a great trip. 

I find it interesting that people think the money is better-spent on material goods, even for possessions that will be used alone that create low-levels of happiness.  This finding suggests that people focus their judgments of how they spend their money on the value the purchase rather than on the happiness they get from that purchase.

Ultimately, this work suggests that when you have some discretionary money, it is a good idea to find ways to use it to bring you together with other people.  In the long-run, those purchases will help you to buy some happiness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Schedule that Interview Early in the Day


Suppose you had the job to interview students for a university.  Over the course of an admissions season, you might interview 25 students a week for six months.  That would translate to over 500 interviews.  Some of those students are probably strong candidates for your school, while others are not.  And over the years, you probably get good at separating the good candidates from the bad ones.

Ideally, you would evaluate each new student relative to the entire set you have interviewed in the past.  After working for 10 years, that would give you a base of well over 5000 students that you can use to judge each new applicant. 

It shouldn’t matter, then, who else you have interviewed that day.

A fascinating study by Uri Simonsohn and Francesca Gino in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that—contrary to this analysis—expert interviewers are heavily influenced by the other interviews they have already done that day.

These researchers examined the ratings given to candidates who interviewed for an MBA program.  They had access to the overall rating given to the candidates, scores on subcomponents of the interview like the assessment of the candidate’s willingness to work in a team and interest in the school, as well as the number of interviews already done that day.  They also had information about performance (like GMAT scores), qualifications for the program (like the evaluation of the student’s admission essay) and information about the interviewers (like the average score they typically give to interviews). 

The researchers did analyses to look at the factors that predict the overall interview score.  Even after controlling for lots of other factors (like the candidate’s GMAT score, essay quality, and characteristics of the individual interviewer), there was also a negative correlation between the previous scores given to candidates that day and the score given to the current interviewee.

That is, if all of the previous candidates had gotten high scores, the interviewer gave someone later in the day a lower score. 

What is going on here? 

It seems that interviewers like to have each day’s ratings balance out.  When an interviewer sees 3 or 4 good candidates in a row, they become concerned that they are giving too many high ratings.  So, if another good candidate comes walking through the door, they get a lower rating just so that the ratings for the day are not uniformly high.  By chance, of course, there should be lots of days in which there are several good candidates in a row.  So, interviewers probably should not take the other people interviewed that day into account, but they do.

The researchers tested a number of alternate explanations for the finding.  For example, it is possible that being interviewed in the day just magnifies differences among candidates.  So, a candidate seen late in the day who is slightly worse than the previous candidates may be rated much worse than that same candidate seen early in the day, because of the contrast with the better candidates.  However, an examination of the specific interview characteristics (like willingness to work as a team) did not show the same negative correlation with the previous interview scores.  That is, the interviewers were able to give a reasonably objective evaluation of the candidate’s characteristics, but then used the previous interviews for the day to balance out the overall ratings.

If you are being interviewed for a position, this finding suggests that you might want to schedule your interview early in the day to minimize the interference of previous interviews on your evaluation. 

If you are doing interviews, then you should be aware that you may try to balance out your evaluations over the course of a single day.  Instead, you should do your best to compare each candidate to the overall ideal candidate for the position.  Don’t worry that you have also seen other good candidates that day.  Remember, that things will balance out in the long-run even if they don’t balance out in the short-term.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rejection and Discrimination Have Different Effects


If you decide to start blogging, you have to develop a thick skin.  Not everyone is going to like what you have to say, and the internet comments people give you are not always phrased in the nicest way.  Still, the negative comments can sting.  And that leads to an immediate sense of rejection.

Not all forms of rejection are the same, though.  It is one thing to have someone attack the ideas you have put forward.  It is another thing entirely to think that you are being rejected based on some personal characteristic like race, gender, or religion.  In that case, the rejection slips into a feeling of discrimination.

Do people treat rejection and discrimination in the same way?

This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jeremy Jamieson, Katrina Koslov, Matthew Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. 

In their study, participants were either black males or white females.  At the start of the study, participants selected an avatar to represent themselves in a chat room.  The avatar was the same race and gender as the participant.  Next, they were told that they were going to give a brief speech via webcam, and that the other participants were going to judge that speech.  They would be able to see the comments of the other participants as they spoke.

In reality, the comments of the other participants were typed by the experimenter from a list.  All of the comments were negative and were designed to be relevant to what the participant said.  For example, if a participant made a comment about themselves, the comment might say, “Oh someone is feeling good about themselves today.” 

For all participants, the evaluators were shown by avatars of the same gender.  However, half the participants were critiqued by avatars of the same race, while others were critiqued by avatars of a different race. 

The experimenters took physiological measurements during the study. They measured things like blood pressure and cardiac output.  They also took cortisol measures.  Cortisol is a hormone that is released in stress situations and can be measured through a saliva sample.  The cortisol measures were taken before and after the speech.  The experimenters also watched the video of the speeches later and looked for signs of anger and shame. 

In addition, there were three behavioral measures.  The experimenters measured participants’ ability to recall a story told at the beginning of the study.  They also used an emotional Stroop task.  In this task, participants see words related to positive and negative emotions printed in a font of a particular color.  Participants have to identify the color of the font as quickly as possible.  The longer it takes participants to identify the color, the more that they are paying attention to the emotion described by the word.

Finally, the experimenters used a measure of risk taking called the Columbia Card Task.  In this measure, participants see a set of cards face-down and are told that they can turn over cards to try to gain as many points as possible.  Some of the cards allow participants to gain points, while others cause them to lose points.  Across trials, the decks vary in the number of negative cards that they are told are present as well as the size of the gains for the positive cards and the size of the losses for the negative cards.  Some decks have high rewards, while others have low rewards.  Some decks have small losses, while others have large losses.  This task is used to measure risk taking.

The results of this study demonstrate that people treat rejection by a member of the same race differently from discrimination (defined as rejection by a member of a different race).

Physiologically, when people are rejected by a member of the same race, they show an increase in blood pressure.  When people are rejected by a member of the opposite race, they show an increase in cardiac output (which is a response to a threat).  Participants rejected by a member of the same race show higher levels of cortisol than participants rejected by a member of the opposite race.  Participants rejected by members of the opposite race exhibit more anger than those rejected by members of the same race.

Rejection and discrimination also have different behavioral effects.  There is a tendency for participants rejected by people of the same race to have worse memory for the story than those rejected by members of the opposite race.  This finding is consistent with research showing that stress and cortisol levels influence memory.

Participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are slower to identify the font color for negative emotion words in the Stroop task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, discrimination makes people pay more attention to negative emotions.

Finally, participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are riskier in the card selection task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, they select more cards from the decks, particularly when there is the possibility of getting large rewards.  This result suggests that discrimination increases people’s tendency to take risks more than rejection.

This study does not have a neutral control condition, so it is hard to know whether the behavioral measures reflect increases in risk over a baseline or just a difference between rejection and discrimination. 

What I find most interesting about these studies, though, is that the reaction to social rejection depends on whether it is interpreted as rejection or as discrimination.  Rejection creates stress.  Discrimination creates vigilance, and perhaps a tendency to be willing to take risks to get high rewards.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Can waiting for something make you more patient?


My dog is not very patient.  If she senses that I might feed her a treat, she comes bounding over and sits begging.  Once she is convinced that there is food for her, it is hard to get her to wait to eat something.  But, people have a remarkable capacity to wait for good outcomes.  College students spend years studying in order to improve their prospects for jobs later in life.  We skip afternoon snacks in order to save our appetite for a great evening dinner.

Of course, we are not completely patient. There are many times where we do pick something good for us in the short-term rather than waiting for something better in the future.  Losing weight is hard, because it is more pleasant to eat good food now than to be in good shape in the future.

A 2013 paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Xianchi Dai and Ayelet Fishbach explores the possibility that waiting to make a choice may actually help us to be more patient.

The idea is that when you have to wait to make a choice, that increases the value of that choice to you.  The more valuable the choice is, the more that you want to make sure you get the best option.  So, you may be more willing to wait even longer for the best option if you had to wait to make the choice in the first place.

In one study, participants were contacted by email and asked to make a choice.  They were choosing between getting $50 on some date and getting $55 20 days later.  So, the choice was basically about whether people would wait 20 days to get an extra $5. Participants were told that 2 of them would actually receive what they chose, so it was important to choose carefully.

Two groups were told about the decision and were asked to make their choice immediately.  The Near Future group chose between getting $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days.  In this condition, about 30% of participants chose the larger reward.  The Distant Future group chose between getting $50 in 30 days or $55 in 50 days.  This increased time frame made people a little more patient.  About 55% of the participants in this condition chose the larger reward. 

The Waiting Period group received an email telling them about the options and then telling them they would receive another email 27 days later when they could make the choice.  This group was choosing between $50 in 3 days and $55 in 23 days.  So, this group had the same options as the Near Future group, though their actual delay was the same length as the Distant Future group.  For these participants, about 85% chose the larger reward.

Other studies in this paper used choices for other kinds of products like iPods and chocolate.  These studies looked at measures of the value people gave to the choice and found that people who had to wait to make the choice felt that the options were more valuable to them.  This greater value made them more interested in getting the better item. 

So, does waiting always make you more patient?

The researchers also explored a slightly different choice.  Sometimes, you make a selection and then have the option to pay extra money to receive your item more quickly.  For example, on-line retailers like Amazon will give you the option to pay extra to have something shipped overnight for a larger fee.

The researchers speculated that if waiting makes the item feel more valuable, then you might be more willing to pay to receive that item quickly.  In one study, participants were offered the chance to get a box of Godiva chocolates in 48 days or to pay $3 to get that same box of chocolates in 6 days.  The researchers manipulated how long the wait felt by either asking them how long it had been since they last had a Godiva chocolate or just asking them to make the choice immediately.  (This manipulation made people selecting between a smaller box of chocolates sooner or a larger box of chocolates later more likely to take the larger box of chocolates later.) 

In this case, participants were more likely to pay $3 to get the chocolates quickly if they felt like they had waited a long time than if they felt like they were choosing immediately.  That is, the waiting period can make a single option feel more valuable and can actually make people more impatient.

What does this mean for you?

If you are trying to be patient, you need to think about the situation you are in.  If you are choosing from among a set of options, waiting to make a choice can help you to focus on the overall value of the options rather than on the time period until you will get them.  If you are choosing when to receive an item, though, then the waiting period may focus you on the time period itself, which can decrease your patience.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pain and Your Brain


Everyone is familiar with placebo effects.  Just taking a pill can reduce pain you are feeling, even if that pill has no active ingredients in it.  Indeed, placebo effects help even when you are taking an active ingredient.  I know that when I have a headache, taking some ibuprofen starts helping the pain fairly quickly, even though it can take up to 30 minutes for the medication to have an effect. 

It is hard to study pain and placebo effects, because pain is subjective.  That is, you can’t know whether people are experiencing pain unless you ask them.  If people want sympathy, they might exaggerate their report of pain.  If they want to avoid worrying their friends and relatives, they might minimize their report of pain. 

In addition, there may be many different psychological systems involved in pain, and different treatments might influence these systems in different ways.  But, people are only aware of the experience of pain.  So, just focusing on the pain people are feeling does not help researchers to tease apart the various ways that pain might be reduced.

An interesting paper by Tor Wager and Lauren Atlas in the January, 2013 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science reviews evidence from brain imaging to tease apart the influences of placebos on pain.

In order to study placebo effects, it is important to know the regions of the brain that are involved in the sensation of pain.  Wager and Atlas first review studies in which participants were exposed to low-intensity and high-intensity heat in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study.  The fMRI technique measures blood flow in the brain and gives researchers information about areas of the brain that are active in different situations. 

If you are interested in the specific brain areas associated with pain, check out original paper.   For now, what is important is that these brain areas provide a way for researchers to explore different effects of placebos. 

Researchers have suggested that placebo effects might reduce pain by activating opioid receptors in the brain.  Opioid receptors are the ones that opiate drugs (like morphine and codeine) activate.  The brain has natural chemicals that activate these receptors, and that helps minimize the experience of pain.  For example, research has shown that placebo effects are reduced by giving a person a chemical that blocks the activity of the opioid receptors.

One observation from these fMRI studies is that a region of the midbrain (see the figure for a sense of where the midbrain is located) is influenced by opioid receptors.  This area of the brain is affected by placebos.  In addition, areas of the frontal cortex of the brain (located in the brain above your eyes) is also related the strength of placebo effects. 

Here is where it gets interesting.  There are other areas of the frontal cortex that are involved in your ability to control your thinking.  Those areas of the brain are not involved in placebo effects. However, researchers also know that if you distract yourself, that can minimize the experience of pain.  Presumably, distraction involves these brain areas that are associated with thought control.

Based on these observations, other studies using brain imaging show that distraction does reduce pain, but it uses different brain regions than the areas involved in placebo effects.  As a result, these two techniques can be added together for a more powerful effect.  That is, a combination of a placebo and distraction is better than either one alone.

Finally, the pain-reducing opiate drugs involve some of the same brain mechanisms of placebo effects and distraction, but they involve some different ones as well.  Which means that in cases of the worst pain, a combination of all three effects can be more powerful than any one alone.

You might wonder how you get a placebo effect when you have taken a real drug.  Remember, though, that just the knowledge that you have been given a drug engages some pain relief.  That happens regardless of whether that drug is a real painkiller or something inert.  So, telling someone they are getting a pain drug and then giving them that pain drug creates both a placebo effect and the relief from the drug itself.

This work is interesting in two ways.  First, it provides some new insight into how placebo effects work.  Second, it shows how the maturing science of brain imaging can help science tease apart complex mechanisms that would be hard to study without insight into what the brain is doing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Positive fantasies can reduce future effort


It is important to visualize what is going to happen in the future.  When you are making plans to accomplish a goal, it is valuable to think through all of the things that can go wrong.  That simulation of the future can help you to figure out what you are going to do to overcome the obstacles that may keep you from achieving your aims.

Sometimes when we think about the future, we focus on our eventual success as well.  We may think about how good it will feel to succeed and what rewards we might get from completing a difficult task.  What role do these positive fantasies play?

Research by Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues has shown that thinking about the benefits of success can actually make you less likely to achieve your goals.  They can reduce the amount of effort that you want to put into achieving your aims.

A nice demonstration of this effect comes from a paper by Heather Kappes, Eesha Sharma and Gabriele Oettingen published in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

In one study, participants read about a charity that was addressing a health crisis in Sierra Leone.  Many people in that country do not have access to pain medications that they need.  College students read an article about this crisis and then were told about a charity that was helping to bring pain medications to this country.  Some participants were asked to form a positive fantasy by thinking about the most positive thing that would happen if that crisis was resolved.  Other participants were asked to give a factual description of the crisis after it was resolved.

Afterward, participants were asked to donate money to the charity.  They were either asked to give a small donation ($1) or a large donation ($25, which is a lot of money for the typical undergraduate). 

Participants who were asked to give $1 were quite likely to donate regardless of the condition they were in, and those who were encouraged to think positively were actually somewhat more likely to give than those who were not.  Participants who were asked to give $25 were much less likely to give overall.  In this case, though, participants who thought positively almost never donated, while about 25% of those who gave a factual description were willing to donate. 

Another study found a similar effect with participants who were asked to volunteer their time to a cause rather than donating money.  In this study, participants who engaged in a positive fantasy were unlikely to give their time when they were asked for a lot of effort compared to those who were asked to think factually about a charity. 

A third study demonstrated that this effect was a result of thinking positively and not an effect of the factual description in the control group.  In this study, the control group did a boring task for a few minutes rather than giving a factual description.  Once again, people asked to volunteer a lot of time were unwilling to do it if they had created a positive fantasy, but if they did a boring task for a few minutes, they were more willing to volunteer a lot of time to help a charity.

These studies are a nice demonstration of the potential danger of positive fantasies.  If we spend a lot of time envisioning our success, we may begin to feel some of the satisfaction that comes with actually achieving a goal.  It is hard to motivate yourself to work hard to succeed when you are already feeling some of the rewards of that success.

Ultimately, it is better to focus on the difficulties that lie ahead when faced with a difficult task.  It may not be pleasant to think about the problems you will face, but it will make you more likely to get past those barriers.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The pain of positive stereotypes


When we think of the problems that stereotypes cause, we typically focus on negative characteristics associated with groups.  Over the years, I have been part of conversations where someone uses the term “Jew” to refer to someone who is being cheap.  I leave those interactions frustrated and angry.

Presumably, though, there are positive stereotypes as well.  In the United States, there are cultural stereotypes that Asians are good at math and that Women are nurturing.  If hearing a negative stereotype about your group gets you upset, does hearing a positive stereotype have the opposite effect?

This question was explored in a series of studies by John Oliver Siy and Sapna Cheryan in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

In one study, Asian Americans were brought to the lab where they engaged in a task along with a White participant (who was actually one of the experimenters posing as a participant).  In the experiment, each participant was going to fill out a packet.  One packet had math problems in it, while the other had verbal problems in it.  After a rigged coin flip to make the selection process appear random, the White participant was chosen to select who would fill out each packet.

In the control condition, the White participant handed the math packet to the Asian participant and said, “How about you take this packet, and I’ll work on this one.”  In the positive stereotype condition, the White participant said, “I know all Asians are good at math, how about you take the math packet.  I’ll work on this one.”

After completing the packets, participants rated how much they liked their partner and they filled out some other scales including a measure of how much they felt like their partner depersonalized them by reducing them to a member of their racial group. 

Positive stereotypes did not make people feel good.  When the White participant used a positive stereotype, the Asian participant liked them less and felt more depersonalized.  The positive stereotype also made the participants angry.  Statistically, the amount of depersonalization they felt explained the amount of dislike they felt for their partner.

Other studies in this series demonstrated a similar effect with women who were told that they were nurturing or cooperative because of their gender.  These studies also ruled out some other explanations like the possibility that Asian Americans react negatively to the positive stereotype because it does not acknowledge that they are both Asians and Americans.

Across all of the studies done in this paper, a positive stereotype made people feel less like an individual.  Under some circumstances, though, this did not cause people to dislike the person who used the stereotype.  In one study, Asian American participants were primed to think of themselves either in independent or interdependent terms.  The independent prime asked people to think about ways that they were different from family and friends.  The interdependent prime asked people to think about ways that they were similar to family and friends. 

After this priming, participants were exposed either to a positive stereotype (in this case that Asians are hard working) or to no stereotype. Participants rated how much they liked the speaker as well as whether they felt depersonalized.  As in the other studies, hearing a positive stereotype led to greater feelings of being depersonalized for everyone in the study.  However, only the people with primed to think of themselves in independent terms strongly disliked the speaker.  Those primed to think of themselves in interdependent terms did not dislike the speaker significantly more after hearing a positive stereotype compared to no stereotype.

What is going on here?

Stereotypes of all kinds lump an individual into a group.  When you find a stereotype applied to you, it removes some of your individuality.  That happens whether the stereotype used was positive or negative.  It is frustrating to realize that someone views you just as a member of a group and not as an individual.  And in many situations, that leads you to dislike the person who made the comment.

It is fascinating, though, that when you feel more interconnected with others (as you do when you are primed to think of yourself in interdependent terms), the depersonalization caused by hearing a stereotype aimed at you does not lead to the same dislike of the speaker. 

Finally, I suspect there is an additional factor at play in these studies.  When someone uses a positive stereotype to judge you, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a matter of time until they apply negative stereotypes as well.  That is, you are making a judgment that the person you are talking to uses stereotypes to make judgments.

The studies in this series did find that depersonalization explained the negative effects of positive stereotypes above-and-beyond the judgment that the speaker was racist.  But, the judgment that the speaker was racist (and used stereotypes to judge people) also contributed to the effects.