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.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Learning to Converse Is Learning to Interact

It is hard to study how children really start to use language.  Part of the problem is that we treat language itself as a thing to be studied independent of how it is used.  So, we focus on the words kids learn or the way they structure those words into simple and (eventually) more complex sentences.
Another problem, though, is that when language is really being used, the whole situation is messy.  Early on, a parent or caretaker is interacting with the child.  They are trying to do some activity together.  Originally, the parent may use some words, which the child may or may not understand.  There is also some pointing and holding of objects.  Eventually, language comes to play more of a role in this process.
That means that really studying the development of the use of language requires looking not just at the words kids are using, but also the developing complexity of the interactions between children and the people around them.
An interesting paper in the June, 2014 issue of Child Development by Lauren Adamson, Roger Bakeman, Deborah Deckner, and Brooke Nelson looked at a group of children over several years to begin to map out how these interactions change over time. 
They observed children interacting with their mothers starting at a year and a half old and continuing until they were about five and a half.  It is worth recognizing up front that this kind of research is hard to do.  Most researchers focus on tasks that can be done in one session that take an hour or less.  For a group to follow up with the same children over a period of four years is a tremendous amount of work.
At each visit, the mother and child played a game together in which the experimenter played the role of the director of a play.  The mother was supposed to be a supporting cast member, and the child was the “star” of the play.  Then, the experimenter set up several scenes for the child to play, in which the parent had to help the child achieve some goal.  Over time, the actions got more complicated as the child’s abilities grew.
For example, in one scene, the experimenter brought several objects into the room, put them in a cabinet, and left the room.  The mother was then supposed to get her child to hide the objects in a different spot and then talk to the child about where the experimenter would think the objects would be when she got back to the room.
The researchers looked at video of these interactions to examine how the the nature of the interaction changed over time, as well as how language use entered into the interactions. 
Some of the results are fairly obvious.  For example, at a year and a half, the parent and child interact with each other a lot, but there is very little language being used.  Mostly, the parent is directing the child’s actions and occasionally using some words.  By the time the child is 3, though, language is deeply embedded in the interactions.  Almost every action taken by either the parent or child is accompanied by words.
An interesting change over time is that at younger ages, the mothers are really directing the interaction.  They are setting up a structure for how the task should be accomplished by moving objects around and asking leading questions.  By the time the child is five, the interaction is much more balanced.  The parent still leads, but the child is also injecting more suggestions and making more recommendations.
Another change over time is the type of things that language is being used to describe.  At three, much of the language is focused on single objects and observable elements in the world.  By the age of five, there is also a lot more discussion about relationships among objects and not just about the objects themselves.
One surprising aspect of the data is that at the age of 2 and a half, there is lot of variability between kids in how much language they are using when interacting with their mothers.  Some children use language in nearly every interaction, while others look like the 18-month-olds, where very little language is being used.  But, by the age of 3 and a half, just about every child is using language in all of their interactions with their mother.
That means that as soon as children learn to speak reasonably well, their interactions shift immediately to the use of language, because it is such an important tool for communicating. 
A study like this is largely descriptive.  It focuses on what happens at different points in a child’s life as they start to converse with other people.  What is nice about this work is that it focuses both on the use of words and sentences, but also on the kinds of interactions that children are having with others.  Ultimately, an understanding of how language develops is going to require connecting the use of language to the situations in which language is used.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Value of Believing that People Can Change

We label people by the characteristics they show all the time.  We think of a particular person as being a bully, a nerd, a musician, or an athlete.  The label may be a reasonable reflection of who they are right now, but it also carries a belief that the behavior reflects a person’s essence.
When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others.  I have a cartoon on my office door of two prisoners sitting in a cell.  One says to the other, “You’re not a murderer, you’re just a person who happened to murder someone.”   This cartoon works, because being called a murderer feels like it carries something essential about the individual.
If you use terms to describe people and you believe that they cannot change, then life can be stressful.  Every time that someone treats you badly, you take that as evidence that they are a bad person and not just that they did a bad thing.  So, if you are able to think about people’s personalities in a less fixed way, perhaps that would decrease your overall stress.
This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Yeager, Rebecca Johnson, Brian Spitzer, Kali Trzesniewski, Joseph Powers, and Carol Dweck. 
One paper looked at simple correlations between beliefs and stress in high school students over the course of a school year.  At the start of the school year, ninth graders were given a brief questionnaire about whether they thought people’s personality could change.  They were also given a test of their reaction to social exclusion.  This test is called Cyberball.  In this game, participants sit at a computer and think they are passing a ball along with two classmates playing at other computers.  After the ball is initially passed to everyone, the participant is excluded for several minutes as they other players pass the ball only back and forth to each other.  After this exclusion, participants rated how stressful they found the game to be.  Finally, at the end of the school year, the students provided information about their stress level and their physical health.  The researcher also looked at the students’ grades at the end of the year.
The more participants believed that personality can change, the less affected they were by being excluded while playing Cyberball.  In addition, the more that people believe that others can change, the lower their stress, the better their health, and the higher their grades at the end of the year.
This result raises the possibility that if people were trained to think that personality characteristics can change, then they might do better in school.  In two additional studies, the researchers used an intervention of this type.  One study was done in a fairly wealthy school district, while the other was done in a very poor district.  In each study, participants were ninth-grade students who were at risk for failing out of school.
At the start of the school year, participants in an experimental intervention condition read an article about how personality can change.  They also read stories that were supposed to have come from upperclassmen talking about how this knowledge helped them.  Then, students wrote their own stories that they were told would be used by future students.  Students in the control condition read about how athletic ability can be changed.  As in the study just described, all participants then played the Cyberball game.  In addition, their stress, health, and grades at the end of the year were measured.
Even though, this intervention was brief, it had a significant and lasting impact on participants.  Compared to students in the control condition, those who got the intervention reacted less strongly to the Cyberball game.  At the end of the year, they experienced less stress, had fewer health problems, and had higher grades than those in the control condition.  This effect was strongest for those students who did not already believe that personality could change over time.
Why does this intervention work?  Statistical analyses suggest that believing that personality can change leads to a smaller reaction to social exclusion (as measured by the Cyberball game).  Reacting less strongly to social exclusion has a cascade effect over time, and lowers stress levels while also having a positive impact on performance in school.
These studies fit with a growing body of evidence by Carol Dweck and her colleagues demonstrating that the belief that people can change has many benefits.  Students who believe their own behavior and performance can change work harder in school to overcome academic difficulty.  People who believe that others can change are more likely to work with them to regain trust after they have a bad experience. 
Ultimately, it is important to realize that you should not completely define the people in your life by their current behavior.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Distracted Driving Teaches Us About Attention

The message is finally getting out there that smart phones cause real problems while driving.  Texting while on the road is extremely dangerous, because it requires the driver to look away from the road and also soaks up precious mental resources.  Even talking on the cell phone can be dangerous.
But, if cell phones are so obviously dangerous, then why do we continue to talk on the phone and drive?  Why do so many people think that they are actually pretty good at multitasking while they drive?
This question was addressed in an interesting study by Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Joel Cooper, and David Strayer in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
As they point out, recent theories of attention suggest that when we perform complex tasks, we use two circuits of behavior.  One circuit focuses on task performance, while the other focuses on the strategy for the task we are performing.  When driving, the lower-level circuit (called the inner loop of attention) is involved in aspects of driving like keeping the car in the proper lane.  The higher-level circuit (called the outer loop of attention) is involved in aspects of driving like dealing with unpredictable elements of the environment (cars, wind, and pedestrians).  In tasks like typing at the computer, the inner loop controls the typing of letters on the keyboard, while the outer loop controls the selection of words in a sentence.
To explore these aspects of attention, the researchers had participants drive in a simulator.  Participants were driving down a straight highway.  The difficulty of the task was manipulated by changing the wind.  The more unpredictable the wind, the harder it was to keep the car in the lane.
The researchers also manipulated the complexity of a second task that participants had to perform.  The secondary task interferes with the outer loop.  The more complex the second task, the more that the outer loop is focused on that task rather than on driving.
Sometimes, participants did no secondary task.  Sometimes, they performed a 0-back test in which they heard digits between zero and nine, and had to repeat back the digit they just heard.  This task is fairly easy to do.  Sometimes, they did a 2-back test.  In a 2-back test, participants hear digits and they have to repeat the one they heard 2 digits ago.  In order to keep doing the task, then, participants have to remember each new digit and then say back the one they heard two digits before.  This task is hard to do.
Participants drove down the highway in each combination of wind while doing either no second task, the 0-back task, or the 2-back task.  The researchers measured how well people were able to stay in their lane as they drove.
When participants were not doing any secondary task at all, they were equally good at staying in their lane regardless of the level of the wind.  When the wind was highly unpredictable, then participants got much worse as the secondary task got harder.  That is the typical finding in multitasking.
Interestingly, when the wind was only moderately unpredictable, people were not strongly affected by the secondary task.  They were reasonably good at staying in their lane regardless of how difficult the secondary task got.  And when the wind was highly predictable, participants actually got better as the secondary task got harder.
What is going on here? 
When the driving task is very easy, then the inner loop guides driving, but the outer loop does not have much to do.  So, it tends to monitor how the inner loop is doing.  Unfortunately, paying attention to a skilled task can actually make performance of that task worse.  That is one reason why skilled golfers and tennis players have trouble with their swings when they pay attention to the mechanics of their swing.  In this case, the complex secondary task occupies the outer loop, and lets the inner loop do its job.
When the driving task is vary hard, though, the inner loop guides driving, while the outer loop handles the disruptions caused by the wind.  These two systems function well together.  When the outer loop is kept busy by the difficult secondary task, then it cannot monitor the unpredictable wind as carefully, and driving suffers.
What does this mean for driving?
Most of the time, driving is fairly easy.  There are few unpredictable events.  As a result, most people actually drive reasonably well while they are talking on the cell phone.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to know when unpredictable events will happen (by definition), and so when performance suffers while driving, it can be disastrous.  That is why it is important to avoid distracted driving.
Just because participants in this study actually improved when they were distracted is not a good excuse to multitask when you are driving.  Remember that the easy driving task in this study just required staying in a straight lane with no other cars, pedestrians, or wind.  Real driving has many more potentially unpredictable aspects than that.  As a result, your outer loop has plenty to do most of the time when you are driving.