Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do Sunny Days Make You Feel Good About Life?

I have a soft spot in my heart for the song “Sunny Side of the Street,” and that song has helped me get through some tough times in my life. The lyric “Life can be so sweet/On the sunny side of the street” captures our general belief that rainy days are sad, while sunny days are happy. 

Clearly, this belief is embedded in our culture.  Not only do we get songs like “Sunny Side of the Street,” but we also have classics like “Rainy Days and Mondays (Always Get Me Down). 

There are a few studies out there that also examine the relationship between weather and measures of well-being (including mood and overall life satisfaction).  An interesting paper in the May, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Richard Lucas and Nicole Lawless points out that there is a lot of inconsistency in the results of studies that have looked at the relationship between mood and well-being.

These researchers analyzed data from over 1 million people who rated their overall life satisfaction on a 4-point scale as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that is run by the US Centers for Disease Control.  This survey included information about where the survey was filled out, and so the responses could be compared against a variety of weather variables for that location.

The researchers examined the relationship between the rating of life satisfaction and temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity.  The researchers also explored a variety of different aspects of these variables.  For example, with cloud cover, they not only look at the cloud cover that day, but also how that cloud cover deviated from the norm at that time of year as well as the difference between the cloud cover on the day of the survey from the previous day’s cloudiness.  Similar analyses were done for all of the weather variables variables.  The researchers also looked for gender differences.

These analyses allowed the researchers to explore questions like whether people are happier when the weather is much sunnier than normal for that time of year, and whether a sunny day that follows a cloudy day makes people happier. 

What do you think they found?  Take a second and make your predictions.  Which of these aspects of the weather had the biggest effect on people’s judgments of their life satisfaction?

The answer is…none of them.  The fascinating thing about these careful analyses is that no aspects of the weather had any appreciable impact on judgments of life satisfaction.  There were a couple of statistically reliable results reported in the study, but they reflected differences of about 0.02 on the measure of life satisfaction.

So, if the weather does not affect our daily judgments of life satisfaction, why do we think that the weather matters?

There are several factors at work here.

First, looking at the data, there are some broad relationships between life satisfaction and the weather.  Overall, people who live in warmer climates are more satisfied with life than people who live in colder climates.  People who live in sunnier climates are more satisfied with life than those who live in cloudier climates.  So, the overall weather in a region does seem to be related to life satisfaction.  Of course, there are many possible reasons for that.  It is easier to exercise when it is warm and sunny than when it is cold and rainy, so perhaps people who live in warm climates get more physical activity than those who live in cold climates.

Second, we often assume that specific factors will have a greater influence on our overall well-being than they actually do.  Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson and their colleagues have explored how they would be affected by positive or negative life events.  People assumed that their life satisfaction would be changed for a long period of time by events like getting into a romantic relationship or being denied tenure.  In fact, although those factors did have a short-term influence on people’s well-being, they did not have a long-term influence on judgments of life satisfaction.  That is our overall level of life satisfaction is governed by many factors, and it is hard to predict how any factor will affect us.

Ultimately, we have to realize that the best predictor of how satisfied we are going to be with our lives tomorrow, six months from now, or next year is how satisfied we are with our lives today.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Your Ethical Mindset

People’s ethical behavior is complicated. 

On the one hand, we have situations in which we are strongly consistent.  For example, many vegans I know will not eat any animal products, they will avoid buying products with leather or animal ingredients, and they give time and money to causes to protect animals.

On the other hand, there are times when our ethical actions may balance each other out.  I know people who give money to environmental causes, but then buy gas-guzzling cars that they know are harming the environment.  They recognize the contradiction in behavior, but accept the contradiction. 

An interesting paper by Gert Cornelissen, Michael Bashshur, Julian Rode, and Marc Le Menestrel in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores the roots of these behaviors. 

As these researchers point out, there are two dominant modes of ethical reasoning.  Consequentialist reasoning focuses on outcomes.  When reasoning consequentially, you focus on whether the end result of an action is one that is acceptable.  Deontological reasoning focuses on principles or rules.  When reasoning deontologically, the key issue is whether a particular ethical principle was enforced. 

Consider the “trolley dilemma,” which has been used in many studies of ethical reasoning.  In this dilemma, a runaway trolley on a track is on a collision course that will kill five people.  You are standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley to another track that would cause only one person to be killed.  Do you pull the lever?  Consequential reasoning suggests that one dead person is better than five dead people, and so you should pull the lever.  Deontological reasoning suggests that killing anyone with an action is a bad thing, and so it is better to let the trolley run its course than to commit an action that would cause someone to die.

The researchers suggest that if you reason about outcomes, then you may be likely to balance outcomes across decisions, but if you reason about moral rules, then you may be likely to maintain consistency across your behavior.

In one study in this paper, participants were induced to think either consequentially or ontologically.  One group was asked to remember an ethical situation in their past.  The consequential group focused on doing something because it benefitted or hurt other people.  The other group was asked to remember an ethical situation in which they followed or failed to follow a principle or norm.

Within each of these groups, some people were asked to focus on a case in which they did something ethical (they helped people or followed a principle).  Others were asked to focus on a case in which they did something unethical (they hurt people or failed to follow a principle).

After recalling a situation, participants played the “dictator game.”  The dictator game emerged from research on behavioral economics.  In this task, two participants are introduced to each other.  Then, one participant is given money (in this case ten coins).  They are told that they can give as many coins as they want to their partner, and that they get to keep the rest.  The more coins they give to their partner, the more fairly they are acting toward someone else.  In this study, participants met their partner, then went into separate rooms where the dictator game was described.  Each participant was told that they were playing the role of the dictator, so data was actually collected from every participant.

When participants were asked to think about ethical situations that were focused on outcomes, they balanced their outcomes.  The people who thought about a situation in which they helped someone gave fewer coins to their partner than the ones who thought about a situation in which they hurt someone else.

When participants thought about ethical situations that were focused on principles, they maintained consistency.  Those who thought about following a principle gave more coins to their partner than those who thought about a situation in which they failed to follow a principle. 

Another study in this series obtained a similar finding, except that participants were given the opportunity to cheat.  Those who thought about consequences were more likely to cheat if they thought about an ethical action they took in the past than if they thought about an unethical action.  Those who thought about principles were more likely to cheat if they thought about an unethical action than if they thought about an ethical one.

You can use these mindsets to help you in ethical situations.  If you find yourself in a dilemma where you are tempted to do something unethical, focus on situations in your past in which you stood up for a principle that was important to you.  This focus will help you to do the ethical thing in the future. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Memory, Aging, and Distraction

The population in the United States is aging.  That has created a lot of anxiety about the cognitive effects of getting older.  Lots of research suggests that older adults are worse than younger adults on a variety of different thinking tasks.  They remember fewer words from lists they see.  They are slower to respond in many situations.  They have more trouble ignoring distracting information. 

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Renee Biss, Joan Ngo, Lynn Hasher, Karen Campbell, and Gillian Rowe suggests that—while these factors may look like they are all aspects of cognitive decline—there are times when these changes may actually be helpful.

In particular, there has been a long line of research in psychology showing that older adults have worse basic recall memory than younger adults.  The typical way to demonstrate this effect is to show participants a list of words and then have them recall the words from that list after a short delay.  College students remember a higher proportion of the words on the list than adults in their 60s and 70s.

The researchers in this study speculate, though, that in many situations there may be subtle reminders of what needs to be remembered in the world.  If older adults pay more attention than younger adults to information that may seem distracting, then that may actually help their memory.

To test this possibility, college students (with an average age of about 20) were compared to older adults (with an average age of about 68.  First, participants saw a list of 20 words that they were told to remember for later.  After a brief delay in which everyone counted backward by 3s starting with the number 74, participants were asked to remember as many words as possible from the list.

After that, participants did a 1-back test. In a 1-back test, a series of pictures are shown, and participants respond with one key when the current picture was identical to the previous picture and with a second key when the current picture was different from the previous picture.  The pictures in this test were all line drawings of objects that were not related to the words that were studied.

On each trial, though, there were words superimposed on the pictures in a different color than the line drawing.  Participants were told that the words were irrelevant to the task and that they should be ignored.  However, eight of those words were items that had actually been presented on the study list.  After doing this 1-back test, participants were asked to recall the list of words again. 

On the initial test, the older adults recalled significantly fewer of the words from the list than the younger adults.  After the 1-back test, older adults recalled more words that had been shown in the 1-back task than words that had not been shown.  In fact, they remembered just about as many of those repeated words as younger adults did.  The younger adults were not affected by the 1-back test.  They remembered words equally well regardless of whether they were repeated in the 1-back test.  In fact, the older adults remembered the repeated words just about as well as the younger adults did, allowing them to overcome the age difference in memory.  Overall, people recalled a little over 30% of the items from the list, so this is not a ceiling effect.

One other interesting finding in this study was that older adults responded slightly more slowly to the pictures when the accompanying word had appeared on the initial list than when it had not.  Younger adults showed no difference in speed to respond to these items.  This finding suggests that older adults were more distracted by items they had seen before than younger adults.  None of the participants included in the analyses explicitly recognized that words from the list had appeared in the 1-back test, so this distraction was happening without awareness.

This research replicates previous work showing that older adults remember less and are more distractible than younger adults.  However, this work also suggests that there is a silver lining to this combination.  If older adults need to remember a piece of information, they may be more likely than younger adults to notice information in the environment that helps them to remember it.  This combination may help them overcome some of their memory limitations.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Frustration and Violent Video Games

If you talk to people who enjoy violent video games, they give many reasons for playing.  Some just like the chance to do things that they would never do in real life.  Others enjoy the chance to get together with friends and play.  Still others see violent video games as a chance to escape the stresses of daily life and blow off a little steam.

Of course, one problem with asking people why they engage in a behavior is that they often don’t have real insight into the factors that influence their behavior.  As I often say, the reason that so many people need therapy and counseling in their lives is because they are not entirely sure why they do what they do.

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jodi Whitaker, Andre Melzer, Georges Steffgen, and Brad Bushman explored the role of taboo behaviors and frustration in men’s interest in violent video games.

Taboo behaviors are things like cheating and stealing that people know are wrong.  When people are tempted to do something wrong, it is arousing.  They engage in a battle between the strength of the temptation and their willpower.  And, as studies by Dan Ariely and his colleagues point out, we often fail in our efforts to do the right thing.

Presumably, though, if you give in to temptation, then the arousal that comes with the temptation subsides.  If you have the chance to steal a candy bar and you do it, then you no longer feel the temptation so strongly.  If you have the chance to steal that candy bar, and suddenly realize that you are being watched, then you can’t give in to the temptation, but you still may feel the strength of that temptation.  That may cause frustration.

Whitaker, Melzer, Steffgen, and Bushman suggest that this frustration may make violent video games seem more attractive to play than they would be otherwise. 

To test this proposal, college men were brought to the lab and asked to estimate the weight of two common objects using quarters.  They would take a stack of quarters out of a bowl and try to find a stack that was about equal in weight to the object.  (Men were run in this study because women are much less likely than men to be interested in playing violent video games.)

Some participants were given no chance to steal.  The door to the experiment room was kept open, and the experimenter stood watching the participant throughout the study.  A second group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study.  These participants had the opportunity to steal some quarters if they wanted.  A third group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study, but midway through the experiment, the experimenter came back in and said that actually the door had to be kept open.  This group had the temptation to steal made active, but were then blocked from stealing.

After estimating the weight of the objects, participants rated their current mood, which included a measure of their level of frustration.  Then, they completed a short survey about video games.  They listed the games they play frequently and also rated the attractiveness of eight games.  Half of these games were violent games, and the other half were not violent games. 

Participants who were in a closed room throughout the study did steal some quarters.  On average, participants took almost 75 cents.  Those who had only a limited chance to steal took about 35 cents on average.  Those participants who were in an open room for the whole experiment rarely stole.  As you might expect, the group that had a brief opportunity to steal were significantly more frustrated at the end of the study than those who either had a chance to steal or had no chance to steal at all.

Overall, participants rated the nonviolent video games more attractive than the violent games.  However, the group that briefly had the chance to steal found the violent games significantly more attractive than either of the other groups.  The group that had a chance to steal throughout the study found the violent video games more attractive than those who had no chance to steal.  Statistical analyses demonstrated that the degree of attractiveness of the violent video games for these groups could be explained by people’s level of frustration.

A second study obtained the same pattern of results using cheating on a quiz rather than stealing as the taboo behavior. 

This research suggests that people are attracted to violent video games when they are aroused by a temptation and frustrated in their pursuit of that temptation.  However, there is still an open question about why this happens.  One possibility is that people are attracted to violent video games when they are frustrated, because they hope that playing the game will relieve the frustration.  A second possibility is that this frustration creates arousal and that this arousal makes action attractive. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is That Extra Hour of Study Time Worth It?

It is no surprise that teens and young adults are a pretty sleep-deprived group.  Yesterday morning at 9am, for example, I taught a small class here at the University of Texas.  The students staggered into class looking like they could use a nap.  I also have three teenagers.  They generally stay up late and get up early during the week, hoping to catch up on weekends by sleeping all morning.

There are lots of distractions in the modern world that lead people to stay up late in the night.  For students, though, there is also homework.  On the night before a big exam or a major paper, many students put in a lot of extra study time in order to prepare. 

Does that extra study time help performance in school?

This question was explored in a studying the January, 2013 issue of Child Development by Cari Gillen-O’Neel, Virginia Huynh, and Andrew Fuligni.  They tracked a group of high school students in 9th, 10th, and 12th grade.  At each grade level, students filled out a daily diary for 2 weeks. 

Every evening during the study, the students rated the amount of sleep they got the day before, the amount of time they spent on homework, and they answered questions about any academic problems they had the previous day (like doing poorly on a test and having difficulty understanding new material).

Overall, there was a tendency for high school students to sleep less as they advanced in school.  So, the 9th-grade-students slept an average of 7.6 hours a night, while the 12th-graders slept only 6.9 hours per night.  Students experienced fewer academic problems as they advanced in school.  That means that students are actually learning better school skills over the years. 

The most important result, though, was that when students lost sleep because they spent extra time doing schoolwork, they had significantly more problems the next day than when they got their typical amount of sleep.  This negative effect of extra study time was strongest for 12th-grade-students and weaker for the 9th- and 10th-grade students.

What is going on here?

Sleep is important for many reasons.  It helps memory.  You consolidate memories during sleep.  Sleep also helps you focus and sustain attention.  Sleep also gives you energy to be active.  You are much more likely to be a passive learner when you are tired.  And you learn less when you are passive then when you actively engage with new material.

So, why are high-school Seniors hardest hit? 

The 12th-graders are sleeping least to begin with.  They are just at the edge of their ability to function properly.  When they disrupt their sleep schedule further with extra study, it has strong repercussions for the next school day.  The 9th- and 10th-grade students are a bit more resilient, because they are not as strongly sleep-deprived.

What does this mean?

First off, this study reinforces the general observation that teens and young adults are not sleeping enough.  Getting even an extra 30 minutes of sleep a night would be a huge benefit for this group.

Second, it means that students need to try to spread their work out over longer periods of time.  It is an age-old tradition to cram for exams and to finish papers at the last minute.  There are lots of good reasons to want to avoid cramming.  For example, cramming for an exam may help a student pass that particular exam, but information learned the night before the test is not remembered in the long-term as well as information that is studied over several nights.  If cramming for a test also reduces the amount of sleep a student is getting, then that just adds to the problem. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mood and persuasion

We live in a world of persuasion.  Advertisements try to convince us to buy products.  Stories on television and radio attempt to influence our opinion on a variety of topics.  Politicians seek to influence our beliefs about laws and society. 

When faced with an attempt at persuasion, we generally expect that stronger arguments for a position should have a bigger influence on our attitudes than weaker arguments.  Yet, when we look around the world, we see all kinds of strategies to persuade.  Many advertisements, for example, use celebrities to endorse the products.  It is a rather weak argument that we should eat a particular food or wear a specific watch just because a celebrity has been paid to appear in an ad, yet advertisers continue to use celebrities, which suggests that these ads must work (at least to some degree). 

Under some circumstances, almost any argument seems to be effective.  In a classic experiment by Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1978, participants were 50% more likely to let someone cut in line to use a copy machine to make a few copies if they said, “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies”” than if they just said “May I use the Xerox machine?”  This additional information is a weak argument in favor of letting someone cut in, but any reason seemed good enough.  

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Rene Ziegler explored an additional wrinkle on attitudes by examining the influence of moods on the evaluation of attitudes. 

There are many potential influences of attitudes on mood.  On the one hand, research by Alice Isen and her colleagues suggested that positive moods tend to lead to more careful and creative thinking than negative moods.  On the other hand, negative moods can influence people to be more vigilant, which may make people in negative moods more critical of arguments.

Ziegler’s research suggests that people pay the most attention to arguments that oppose the mood they are in.  In the studies in this paper, participants evaluated arguments about topics that were not particularly important to them (like whether a shopping mall should be build in a nearby city).

In one study, participants first expressed their attitude about a number of topics including whether a mall should be built.  Then, people’s mood was manipulated by having them write about a past life event that was either happy or sad.  This kind of manipulation has been used in many previous studies to influence people’s mood. 

Next, participants read an argument about whether the mall should be built.  Some people read an argument in favor of building the mall, while others read an argument opposed to it.  The argument was designed to be either strong (focusing on things like the economic impact of the mall) or weak (focusing on the aesthetic design of the mall).  After reading the argument, participants rated their attitude about building the mall.

When an argument is consistent with people’s prior beliefs, then it is also consistent with their current mood, because we generally feel good when we read about things that we agree with.  When the argument is contrary to people’s beliefs, then it is inconsistent with their current mood, because we generally feel negatively when confronting beliefs we disagree with.

Participants in this study who already thought the mall was a good idea evaluated the argument more carefully when it opposed their prior belief than when it was consistent with that belief.  The measure of care was the difference in attitude following the strong or the weak argument.  That is, participants in a positive mood felt equally strongly about the mall after reading an argument that was consistent with their prior belief regardless of whether the argument was strong or weak.  But, participants in a positive mood who read an argument inconsistent with their prior belief felt more strongly about it when the argument was strong than when it was weak.  That is, people in a positive mood saw the difference between the strong and the weak argument when that argument was inconsistent with their initial belief.

The opposite pattern was observed for people in a negative mood.  For them, they responded to the strong and weak arguments differently only when those arguments were consistent with their previous belief. 

A second study in this series actually manipulated people’s initial belief about the domain and observed a similar pattern.

This research suggests that there is a complicated relationship between mood and persuasion.  We are driven to pay attention to information that is inconsistent with our current mood.  In a positive mood, we pay careful attention to arguments that disagree with our beliefs.  In a negative mood, we pay careful attention to arguments that agree with our beliefs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Powerful people are happy.

There is a popular image that people who are in positions of power are really unfulfilled.  Perhaps they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Perhaps being able to choose to do what you want carries a psychological cost.  Or, perhaps this belief is just wishful thinking on the part of people who do not have power in their lives.  Maybe, those people who have the power to do what they want in life really are more satisfied than those who don’t.

This question was explored in a paper in the March, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Yona Kifer, Daniel Heller, Wei Qi Elaine Perunovic, and Adam Galinsky. 

These researchers suggested that having power provides people with the ability to do what they want to do in life.  That opportunity creates a feeling of authenticity in life.  That is, powerful people can act like themselves rather than having to act as others would like them to be.  This authenticity should make powerful people happy.

This proposal was tested in two ways.

First, the researchers gave a series of surveys to a few hundred Israeli adults.  These surveys measured people’s satisfaction with their work, romantic relationships, and friendships.  The surveys also explored how much power people felt they had in each of these situations.  In addition, a series of questions asked about whether people felt like they could act authentically in their work, romantic, and friendship lives.  The researchers also measured a number of variables that might also predict life satisfaction like extraversion, neuroticism, and overall well-being. 

In each of these roles, people were more satisfied with that aspect of their lives when they felt that they had power to control that aspect of their lives than when they did not.  So, people’s work life was better if they were in a position of power than if they were not.  People felt better about their romantic relationships when they felt like they had some control in the relationship.  People enjoyed their friendships more if they had some power within their group of friends. 

The best predictor of this relationship between power and satisfaction was authenticity.  That is, these surveys suggested that power increased people’s satisfaction with life because it enabled people to act they way they wanted to in those situations. 

The researchers then used a more experimental approach to address the same question.  In one study, participants were asked to think either about situations in which they had power or in which they had no power.  After this priming task, people rated how authentically they can act in life as well as their overall feelings of happiness.  People who thought about having power in their lives rated themselves as being able to live more authentically than people who thought about being powerless.  The people who thought about having power also gave higher ratings of overall happiness than those who thought about having no power.

One final study asked a group of people to think about situations in their lives in which they were able to be true to themselves (that is, to be authentic) or situations in which they had to be inauthentic.  In this study, people who thought about situations in which they were authentic rated themselves as happier than those who thought about situations in which they were inauthentic.

Putting all this together, then, these studies suggest that if you are in a position of power, then it enables you to live your life on your own terms.  And that authenticity creates a general sense of well-being.

So, power does make people happy.

There is one thing to watch out for in all of this, though.  While having power can make you happier, seeking power does not make you happier.  There is quite a bit of evidence that people who spend their lives seeking power do not focus on the intrinsic joy of life.  So, people who seek power are actually less happy than those who do not. 

Is there a way out of this paradox?  That is, can you have power without seeking it?

One way to become powerful is to try to focus on attaining power.  This kind of scheming may succeed, but it is likely to make you unhappy.

A second way to become powerful is to spend your life getting things done.  In a work setting, that means focusing on the contribution you can make to your organization (and making sure that people above you in the organization recognize your achievements).  In your social life that means doing things for the people around you.  When you are effective in the things you do, people often recognize that.  In addition, getting things done makes you happy. 

If you consistently do things in your life that help you and others achieve goals, then your journey is a happy one.  And over time, you will find that you rise to a position of power within your network.  And that makes you happy as well.