Monday, April 21, 2014

Is willpower energy or motivation?


Anyone who has tried to break a bad habit has experienced the trouble with willpower.  You want to stick to your diet, but you find yourself standing at a buffet filled with tempting desserts.  You want to avoid the desserts, but before you know it, there is a beautiful piece of cake on your plate.  And at least for that night, the diet is blown.
Psychologists have been quite interested in understanding why willpower works so poorly.  Essentially, your action system has two components:  a Go System and a Stop System.  The Go System is the one that supports action.  It helps you engage in lots of activities that allow you to achieve your goals.  It also supports the many habits that allow you to get through your day effectively without having to think about the many actions you take on a daily basis. 
The Stop System (what we call willpower) applies the brakes to actions that are begun by the Go System, but conflict with some other newer goal.  Dieting is a great example.  You have built up lots of eating habits over the years.  When you decide to go on a diet, you are adding a new goal that conflicts with many of those eating habits.  You need your Stop System to prevent you from eating foots that would get in the way of your diet.
Unfortunately, the Stop System is not as efficient as the Go System.  Lots of things can interfere with it.  When you are stressed, the Stop System does not work so well.  Drugs and alcohol can prevent the Stop System from working.  In addition, lots of research on ego depletion suggests that when you use the Stop System a lot, it begins to work less effectively.  So, a long day of having to control yourself at work can get in the way of your diet is likely to be in peril.
There is an ongoing debate in the research community about why these ego depletion effects happen.  An intriguing set of studies by Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister in a 2007 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review suggested that ego depletion may reflect actual energy levels within your body.  There were two kinds of data that led them to this conclusion.  First, they found that having to use the Stop System repeatedly led to decreases in blood glucose (sugar) levels (as measured with the kinds of glucometers that diabetics use regularly).  Second, they found that after making people use their Stop System, a high-glucose drink kicked the Stop System back into gear.
A number of other researchers questioned these findings, however.  A new set of studies by Daniel Molden, Chin Ming-Hui, Abigail Scholer, Brian Meier, Eric Noreen, Paul D’Agostino, and Valerie Martin in the October, 2012 issue of Psychological Science strongly suggests that failures of willpower reflect aspects of the motivational system, and not low levels of energy.
First, they repeated the physiological studies of blood glucose levels with more sensitive measuring equipment.  They taxed the Stop System using a task that has been used in previous studies.  They asked participants to look at a passage of text and cross out every letter e.  This is not hard to do.  Some participants then did the same task with a second passage.  Another group had to cross out every e that was not next to another vowel.  This latter task is harder and requires a lot of use of the Stop System.  They measured people’s blood glucose before and after doing this task.  Finally, they gave people a seven-letter word and asked them to generate as many smaller words as they could from the letters. 
Consistent with lots of previous work, people who just did the more difficult letter-crossing task spent less time generating words than people who did the easier task.  That is the typical ego depletion effect.  However, the measure of blood glucose levels showed no difference between the groups in their glucose levels.  That is, the more difficult self-control task did not consume more glucose than the easier task.
Next, the researchers explored the effect of drinking a high-sugar drink.  They pointed out that drinking a sugary drink could have many effects on a person.  Obviously, one is that it raises the level of glucose in the blood.  However, the taste of the glucose is pleasant, and that might make people happy.  Most importantly, the presence of glucose in the mouth might activate reward centers in the brain that could influence people’s motivation to perform a task. 
They explored this possibility in several other studies.  In one study, they had people do the same letter-crossing task I just described.  Then, people swished a sweet drink in their mouth and spit it out.  For some people, that sweet drink had an artificial sweetener in it (which does not activate reward centers in the brain), while for others the drink had glucose in it.  After that, people were asked to squeeze a hand grip for as long as they could.  Squeezing a hand grip has been used as a measure of persistence in other studies. 
The group that swished the drink with artificial sweetener showed the usual ego depletion effect.  Those who did the hard letter-crossing task held the grip for less time than those who did the easy letter-crossing task.  The group that swished the glucose drink in their mouth showed no ego-depletion effect.  They were able to hold the hand grip for about the same amount of time regardless of which letter-crossing task they did.  The researchers did a few other studies showing similar effects of glucose on more cognitive tasks. 
So, what does all this mean? 
Failures of willpower reflect the operation of the motivational system and not just a lack of energy.  How will this help you engage your Stop System?  If you find yourself in a difficult spot, try to find a way to give yourself a little reward.  When you stand in front of that buffet table filled with desserts, seek out a friend and have a fun conversation.  That rewarding conversation will help revive the Stop System and keep you on your diet.
This set of studies also shows how the scientific process works.  The initial studies had some intriguing results.  Whenever scientists find something new, others come along to explore the topic more fully.  Even though the initial explanation (that the Stop System requires energy) does not seem to be right, we have learned a lot about motivation from this initial set of studies.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When potential performance beats actual performance


We evaluate how people will act in the future all the time.  Hiring someone to do a job involves determining how well they will carry out that task.  Colleges make decisions about who they should admit based on their beliefs about how well the prospective student will perform in the future.  Couples who are dating decide whether to engage in a long-term partnership based on their beliefs about how they will interact in the distant future as a couple. 
What kind of information do we use to make the decision about future performance?
There are two sources of information you might use to judge the future.  One source of information is a person’s past performance.  Someone who has already demonstrated their ability to perform a task may be a good candidate to continue to perform well.  A second source of information is a person’s potential for the future.  That is, the person may not have achieved greatness yet, but may show signs of being on the cusp of greatness.
Which of these factors plays a greater role in judgments about the future?  You might think that current performance would play a greater role than potential.  After all, if someone has already demonstrated her ability to do something, that should be a good indication of future performance as well. 
An interesting paper in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Zakary Tormala, Jayson Jia, and Michael Norton suggests that in many situations people may give more weight to information about potential performance in the future than to actual performance in the past.
In one study, the authors took out a Facebook ad to promote the fan page of a comedian.  They created different versions of the ad.  Some versions focused on actual performance (“Critics say he has become the next big thing.”)  Other ads focused on potential performance (“Critics say he could become the next big thing.”)  People were more likely to click on ads that focused on potential performance than on actual performance.  They were also more likely to become Facebook fans of the comedian when the ad focused on potential performance than on actual performance.
A variety of laboratory studies demonstrated a similar effect with judgments about job candidates, athletes, and artwork.
Why does this happen?  The researchers suggest that statements about potential performance create more feelings about uncertainty than statements about actual performance.  This uncertainty leads people to think more about the options, and that gets them more involved with the option.
One way that the authors demonstrate this increased involvement is through studies that manipulate whether the information decision makers get is about potential or actual performance and also whether the information strongly or weakly supports the performance of the person being evaluated. 
In one study, participants read a letter of recommendation for a prospective graduate student.  The student was described either as having great potential for success or having already had great success in their academic ventures.  After this statement about actual or potential success, the letter describes what the prospective student has done.  The description is either very impressive (completed several projects, published a paper in a major scientific journal) or not so impressive after all (completed a project, published a paper in a campus journal). 
When the described performance was truly excellent, then the student described as having great potential was rated as a somewhat better candidate than the student described as having achieved great things.  However, when the described performance was mediocre, then the student described as having achieved great things was rated as a better candidate than the student who was described as having great potential.
That is, when the student was described as having great potential, people paid more attention to the actual accomplishments than when the student was described as having achieved great things already. 
What can you do with this information?
When you have to evaluate someone in the future, recognize that information about potential will lead you to be more involved in the evaluation than information about actual performance.  Try to counteract this tendency by exploring what people have already done.  In many situations, a person’s past accomplishments are an excellent predictor of what they will do in the future. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

What do (linguistic) hedges do?


The next time you find yourself in a waiting room, train station, or airport, find a comfortable seat and listen to people speak.  There are a lot of interesting things going on in the language people use.  One of them is the use of hedges.
A hedge is a marker of uncertainty in language.  Imagine the following situation:  A parent questions a teenage child on a Sunday morning.  He says, “What time did you come home last night?”  The teenager might respond in a number of ways.
 “I got home at midnight.” 
 “I got home at around midnight.” 
 “I got home at midnight, I think.” 
 “I got home at, like, midnight.” 
The first answer has no hedge in it.  The next two sentences use the hedges ‘around’ and ‘I think.’  Both of these hedges are a way of saying that the answer is approximate and that it may not be exactly correct.  The last answer uses the word ‘like.’  It is less clear what the word ‘like’ is doing in this sentence.  It might be a hedge as well, though it might just be a way of emphasizing what is being said.
Do these hedges matter?
This question was explored by Kris Liu and Jean E. Fox Tree in a paper in the October, 2012 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.  These researchers suggested that hedges might call attention to the information that they mark, and so that information might be well-remembered by listeners. At the same time, hedges might mark information as unreliable, and so the information might not be retold by listeners later.
In one study, Liu and Fox Tree looked at whether information would be retold by listeners.  In this study, two participants came to the lab.  At the start of the study, one participant was asked to tell a story (for example, a story about a large purchase they had made recently).  After telling this story, both the teller and the listener were brought into separate rooms and were asked to retell the story.  Then, the pair did this again, only now the listener from the first part of the study told a story.
The researchers were particularly interested in people’s memories for numbers that were used in the original story.  Would these quantities be put in the story when it was retold?
When people used a quantity in the story without a hedge (“The shirt cost $15.”) it was quite likely to be used in a retelling of the story both by the original speaker and by the listener.  Quantities with a ‘like’ (“The shirt cost, like, $15.”) were also used in retellings.  Quantities that were hedged (“The shirt cost around $15.”) were not included in retellings of the story.
So far, that makes sense.  When you use a hedge, it marks the information as unreliable, so you would expect that it would not be included as a detail when retelling a story.
In a second study, one of the stories told by a participant in the first study was played for a new group of participants.  The story had many quantities in it.  Some of them involved hedges and some involved ‘likes.’  In some versions of the story, the hedges were removed from the recording.  In other versions the ‘likes’ were removed.  After people heard the story, they were asked specific questions about the story that involved the quantities (“How much did the shirt cost?”)
When the quantity had a “like” with it, it was equally well remembered, regardless of whether the “like” was present in the recording.  Interestingly, when the quantity had a hedge with it, it was actually better remembered when the hedge was there than when it was not.  That means that the hedge caused the information to be better remembered, even though that information was not used later in a retelling of the story.
Why would this happen?
Hedges cause people to think more about the information that is hedged.  In order to understand what the hedge is doing, you have to work a little harder to figure out why the speaker would want to qualify what they are saying.  The more work you put into something, the more likely you are to remember it later.
However, once you understand the hedge, you realize that it is telling you that the quantity is just approximate.  So, you may remember that quantity better, but you also realize that you do not need to treat it as an exact number.  As a result, you may not pass it along to other people.
Finally, the word ‘like’ does not seem to work the same way as other hedges.  One reason for that is that ‘like’ has become a crutch that many people use when they are speaking.  They fill lots of space in their speech with the word ‘like.’  As a result, it may not have any specific meaning for listeners. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Multicultural experiences decrease prejudice


Prejudice is a constant presence in the news.  Many of the trouble spots around the world are plagued by sectarian violence in which one group preys on another.  In the United States, race is a simmering issue behind the scenes in political discussions.  

Because prejudice is so pervasive, there has been a lot of interest in understanding factors that might reduce it.  A fascinating paper by Carmit Tadmor, Ying-yi Hong, Melody Chao, Fon Wiruchnipawan, and Wei Wang in the November, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that having a multicultural experience can decrease prejudice.

For example, in one study, Caucasian-American college students participated in a study in which they were going to have to evaluate resumes of six job applicants.  The resumes were constructed so that two of the resumes were much higher quality than the other four.  The names on the resumes were manipulated, so that half of them had stereotypically White names and half had stereotypically Black names.  The names were randomly assigned to the resumes in different ways for different participants, so any difference in evaluation of the resumes from people with Black and White names has to result from the name and not the quality of the resume.

Prior to evaluating the resumes, some participants watched a video that contained images of both American and Chinese culture.  Much previous research shows that watching these videos gives people a greater appreciation of the similarities and differences between American and Chinese culture.  Two other groups of participants watched either a video with only images from American culture or with images only from Chinese culture.

Participants who saw videos with images from only one culture recognized that some of the resumes were stronger than others, but they generally felt that the strong resume from the person with the White name was better than the strong resume from the person with the Black name.  Those who saw the video with images from both American and Chinese culture evaluated the strong resumes equally, regardless of the name on them.  So, having a multicultural experience decreased prejudice.

Other studies in this series found that people given a multicultural experience were also less likely to endorse negative stereotypes about groups.

Why does this happen?

The researchers suggest that having a multicultural experience decreases peoples Need for Closure. Need for Closure is the extent to which people need to be finished thinking about something.  The higher your Need for Closure, the more that you use secondary sources of information to make judgments.  So, when you are high in Need for Closure, you might focus more on a person’s race rather than the quality of his or her resume when making a hiring decision.

To demonstrate this possibility, the researchers found that people given a multicultural experience (like watching a video with both American and Chinese images) decreased their ratings on a scale designed to measure Need for Closure relative to those who saw images from only one culture.  Furthermore, these measured differences in Need for Closure were a good statistical explanation for the differences in prejudice found between groups.

This set of studies is yet another demonstration of the positive effects of having multicultural experience.  The more that you bear in mind the variety of cultures that exist in this world, the better able you are to focus on factors that really matter when making a decision, rather than using secondary characteristics like a person’s race.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Choices you make today can affect you for years to come


People are often creatures of habit in the choices they make.  A brand of toothpaste that you start to buy as a college student can easily become the brand you purchase most often for the rest of your adult life. 
There are lots of reasons why you might stick with a particular brand for a long time.  For one thing, your early experience with a product might help you decide that you really like it, which can lead you to keep buying it in the future.  For another, in many situations, the actual differences in performance between brands are small, and so it probably does not matter a lot what you choose.  In that case, you may as well minimize the amount of effort you spend making a choice, and so buy what you bought last time.
There is also some evidence that the act of making a choice can influence your preferences.  Studies suggest that when you choose one item over another, the act of making a choice enhances your preference for the thing you choose and causes you to devalue the thing you reject.
Of course, most studies that have explored this question have looked only at short-term changes in people’s preferences.  Most psychology studies take about an hour, and so the studies usually look just at changes in what people like over the course of that hour-long period.
An interesting study by Tali Sharot, Stephen Fleming, Xiaoyu Yu, Raphael Koster, and Raymond Dolan in the October, 2012 issue of Psychological Science looked at the effect of making a choice on people’s preferences 3-years later.
In their study, participants came to the lab and rated how interested they were in going to a variety of vacation destinations.  Those ratings provided a baseline.   One group of participants then made choices among pairs of vacation destinations.  The choices were set up so that some were easy choices where one vacation spot was already strongly preferred to the other.  The rest of the choices were set up to be difficult—the two destinations were equally preferred at the start of the study.  A second group saw similar pairs of vacation destinations, but the computer chose vacation spots for them.  Next, participants rated how much they liked each vacation destination again as a short-term measure of how choices affected preferences. 
Some of the participants were contacted about three years later and were shown the same set of vacation destinations.  Once again, they rated their preferences.
What happened? 
The strongest finding in these studies came from the condition in which people made hard choices between destinations they liked equally.  Soon after making this choice, they gave a higher preference rating to the destination they chose compared to the destination they rejected.  Three years later, people’s preferences for destinations they chose persisted.  They still preferred the destination they chose to the one they rejected.  People who had the computer select a destination for them showed no reliable change in preference either immediately or after a three-year delay.
When the choice was easy for people to make, a different pattern emerged.  When people made easy choices, it had no effect on their preferences right away.  Three years later, people’s preference for items they chose actually went down compared to the items they rejected. 
What is going on here?
A choice is difficult when you have to select from among a set of options that you like about equally well.  These difficult choices require attention and effort.  You may also feel a little uncomfortable making these choices.   After you make the choice, the same mechanisms that are involved in cognitive dissonance will work to make your choice feel consistent with your beliefs.  So, when you make a difficult choice, you will bump up your preference for the thing you selected and you will push down your preference for the thing you rejected. 
The fascinating thing about this effect, though, is that it can still be seen years later.  That means that choices you make today may be with you for years to come.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Staving off boredom by focusing on it.


You probably have a complex relationship with new things.  For example, the first time you hear a new song, it is unfamiliar, and you are not sure whether you like it.  After that first listen, the song begins to grow on you.  For a while, it may seem like you can’t get enough of the song, and you may play it repeatedly.  Eventually, though, you get bored with it, and another song captures your attention.

This same pattern comes up across many different aspects of your life, including foods, TV shows, and even friends.

The reasons for this boredom are straightforward.  Initially, you focus on the positive characteristics of the new thing.  In order to continue to experience the positive feelings that come along with that thing, you spend more time with it.  Eventually, though, your experience begins to feel repetitive.  You can predict what is going to happen.  And so, you start to feel some negative feelings in addition to the positive ones.  When those negative feelings outweigh the positive feelings, you go in search of something new.

Psychologists call this phenomenon satiation.

Can you slow down the rate of satiation?

An interesting paper by Morgan Poor, Adam Duhacheck, and Shaker Krishnam in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this topic.

They suggested an interesting prospect.  If you focus both on the positive experience of the object as well as the negative experience, you might actually be able to slow down the rate of satiation.  The idea is that if you acknowledge the negative feelings that occur as you start to get bored, you may engage strategies to think about the object in different ways in order to continue having a positive experience with it.  They tested this proposal in several studies.

In one experiment, participants either listened to a short snippet of music or to a longer and more repetitive part of the same piece.  Pretests showed that people who listened to the shorter piece liked it better and experienced less boredom than those who listened to the longer piece.  The participants in this study read one of two articles before listening to the music.  One group read about how important it is to distinguish among all of the emotions you are experiencing.  A second group read about how difficult it is to distinguish among emotions.  Finally, the participants listened to the long piece of music.  Every 30 seconds, they rated their overall enjoyment of the song.  Consistent with the researchers’ proposal, people who read about the importance of distinguishing among emotions enjoyed the piece throughout the listening period.  Those who read about the difficulty of distinguishing among emotions quickly got bored, and after three minutes, they were no longer enjoying the music.

Another study in this series showed a similar effect with looking at a beautiful photograph.  In this study, participants also described any strategies they used to help manage their emotions.  Participants who were encouraged to distinguish among all of the emotions they experienced often talked about trying to manage their emotions by focusing on the positive characteristics of the photo and looking for new subtleties in the picture over time.  Those who were not encouraged to distinguish among their emotions were much more likely to try to avoid the photo in order to avoid the negative experience.

Putting this together, these results suggest a novel approach to satiation.  A good way to fight boredom is to start by acknowledging that you are getting bored.  By allowing yourself to experience both the positive and the negative emotions, you can engage strategies to help you accentuate the positive characteristics of the experience to allow them to continue to outweigh the negative ones.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Shooter bias and stereotypes


Police called to the scene of a crime often face a difficult situation.  There may be one or more potential perpetrators.  There is yelling and screaming.  People are running around.  One or more people may be armed.  In this situation, the police are asked to make split-second decisions about how to proceed.  Failing to shoot an armed suspect could lead a police officer to get shot.  Shooting an unarmed or potentially innocent person can lead to tragedy.

Despite all of their training, mistakes do happen.  And when they happen, they often end up as front-page news.  The news coverage gets particularly heated when White police officers shoot an unarmed African American suspect or an innocent bystander.

Research suggests that there is a bias for White people to shoot unarmed Black suspects more often than unarmed White suspects.  These findings in laboratory studies have been obtained both with trained police officers as well as with college students role-playing as police officers.  This is called the shooter bias.

An interesting set of studies by Saul Miller, Kate Zielaskowski and Ashby Plant in the October, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored why this happens.

One possibility is that there is a pervasive stereotype in the United States that Black men are more dangerous than White men.  One possibility is that this stereotype causes people to be more likely to make the snap decision to shoot a Black man than to shoot a White man.  A second possibility is that people are prone to shoot anyone who belongs to a different social group than they do, and that specific stereotypes about Whites and Blacks are not the primary cause of the shooter bias. 

To explore this issue, college students participated in a simulated shooting task in which they saw faces of men.  The faces were either paired with a gun or with a neutral object.  They had to press a button within 630 milliseconds of the appearance of the face to decide whether to shoot.  The task was to shoot when there was a gun and not to shoot when there was no gun.

In these studies, all participants filled out a questionnaire assessing their belief about whether the world is a dangerous place.  This questionnaire has items like “There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all.”  The more that someone believes that the world is a dangerous place, the more likely they may be to have a shooter bias.

In the first study, all of the faces were White males.  Participants were given a personality quiz at the start of the experiment and on the basis of that quiz were told that they had either a “Red” or a “Green” personality.  In actuality, the color was randomly assigned to them.  They were given a sticker of their color to wear.  The faces they saw during the study appeared either on a red or a green background, and participants were told that this color reflected the personality of the individual shown. 

In this study, participants who were moderate or low in their belief that the world is dangerous showed no shooter bias.  But, people who were high in their belief that the world is dangerous were more likely to shoot an unarmed person if that individual’s personality color was different from their own than if it was the same.

This result suggests that the shooter bias can happen, even in the absence of a cultural stereotype that a person is dangerous.

In a second study, White college students saw White, Black, and Asian faces.  For this group of students, the cultural stereotype that Black men are dangerous was strong, but there was no cultural stereotype that Asian males are dangerous.  In this study, there was a broad tendency for all participants (regardless of their belief that the world is dangerous) to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black men more often than to shoot either Asian or White men.  For participants whose belief that the world is dangerous, though, they were also more likely to mistakenly shoot Asian men than to shoot White men.

What does all of this mean? 

There seem to be two sources of shooter bias.  First, there are cultural stereotypes (like the stereotype that Black men are dangerous) that influence people’s snap judgments.  On top of that, for people who are already concerned that the world is dangerous, there is a bias against anyone who is in a different group. 

This work suggests that the belief that the world is dangerous is an important factor.  People with a low level of belief that the world is dangerous are much less likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed person. 

One reason that this finding is important is that many advocates of concealed weapon laws justify the importance of these laws on the premise that the world is a dangerous place.  The idea is that if more people were carrying weapons, then that would make the world safer.  Unfortunately, promoting the belief that the world is dangerous may also promote a mindset that increases the likelihood that innocent people will get shot.  More research should explore this issue.  In addition, future studies should explore whether teaching people that the world is not as dangerous as they think it is can reduce the shooter bias.