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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What kinds of people take care of themselves?

A recent walk that I took through the streets of Austin was a lesson in the diversity of orientations that people take toward the future.  Passing by Lady Bird Lake downtown, there were a number of joggers, bikers, and walkers on the trail getting in their exercise.  On top of the Congress Avenue bridge, a few smokers were enjoying a cigarette and the view of the lake.  Nearby, a heavyset couple prepared to dig in to a large meal while seated in the outdoor patio of a steakhouse. 

Just on this brief walk, there was a clear cross-section of people who took different approaches to their long-term health.  The people exercising on the trail around the lake were engaged in activities that would benefit their long-term health. In contrast, the smokers and people have a large meal were doing something that felt good in the short-term, even if it had potential negative consequences in the long-run.

All else being equal, people typically prefer things that are enjoyable in the short-term to things that are beneficial in the long-term, but are less pleasant in the short-term.  That is why people continue to overeat and drink to excess even though it can be harmful in the long-run.  It is also why people may opt against healthy foods in the short-term and may opt out of regular exercise. 

The large number of people who were exercising around the lake does suggest that a number of people are willing to engage in healthy behaviors.  One thing that needs to be explained is why some people are willing to do what is best for them in the long-run while others are not.

Personality psychologists have found that there is a stable tendency for some people to be more concerned with the future consequences of their actions than others.  Indeed, there are two kinds of questions that you can ask people to assess their concern for the future.  One focuses on how much people care about what is going to happen to them in the future.  The other is the degree to which they are focused on the benefit they will get from an action right now. 

Of course, the fact that these questions predict how likely it is that someone will exercise or eat healthy food does not explain much by itself.  It just says that people who are generally concerned about the consequences of their actions for the future seem to share that concern across many aspects of their life.

A paper in the October, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Jeff Joireman, Monte Shaffer, Daniel Balliet, and Alan Strathman explored why this concern for the future influences people’s actions. 

They found that questions about people’s concern for the future predict people’s motivational outlook.  Specifically, Tory Higgins and his colleagues have distinguished between two broad motivational orientations.  A promotion focus leads people to concentrate on potential positive things in the world and on the person they would ideally like to be.  A prevention focus leads people to concentrate on potential negative things in the world and on their responsibilities. 

The researchers suggested that a focus on who people would like to be ideally might allow those people to think about their future selves more effectively than a focus on their responsibilities.  Thus, they proposed that people who express a concern for the future consequences of their actions might have a stronger promotion focus than those who tend not to be concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  These researchers also suggested that the degree to which people are focused on the present benefits of their actions should have no reliable relationship to people’s overall motivational orientation.

In two studies, groups of people filled out a scale designed to assess their concern for the future consequences of their actions.  They also measured the strength of people’s promotion and prevention focus.  Finally, they examined their attitude toward and intention to perform a healthy behavior.  In one study, that behavior was eating healthy foods, while in the other study it was exercising.

In both studies, the more that people were concerned with the consequences of their future actions, the more they tended to have a promotion focus.  This promotion focus then predicted their positive attitude toward the healthy behavior, which in turn predicted their intention to perform that behavior.  It would have been valuable to have some measure of whether people actually performed the healthy behavior, but that issue was not addressed in these studies.

Overall, these results suggest that there are people who tend to take care of themselves.  Those people are concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  That concern influences their motivational state.

There are still a number of factors that need to be explored, though, before it is clear how this research can help us take care of ourselves.  First, we need to know the true relationship between motivational state and concern for the future.  Does concern for the future cause people to take a promotion focus, or does it work the other way around?  Does viewing the world in terms of potential gains make you more concerned about the future?  Second, if you manipulate someone’s motivational state, will that really change how much they pursue activities with long-term rewards?  There are many ways to affect whether someone adopts a promotion mindset.  Would all of these methods get people to take better care of themselves?

Right now, these are tantalizing research results, but more work clearly needs to be done.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Can you be unconsciously creative?

In the movies, creativity often involves moments of insight.  A character struggles with an idea.  There is a montage of pained faces and crumpled sheets of paper.  Then, suddenly, the light comes on.  A choir sings.  A new creative moment has happened.

When you see this movie scene, or you hear about a moment of creative insight, there is an interesting question that comes up.  Where, exactly, did this new idea come from?  After all, it is pretty clear that there was a lot of hard thinking going on.  Yet, suddenly, the new idea appears from out of nowhere.

A recent set of studies has focused on the difference between conscious and unconscious thought.  Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have pointed out that it is possible to be thinking a problem, even when you are distracted.  In this case, what seems to be happening is that the problem you are solving is having a chance to find other knowledge that relates to it and to bring that knowledge to mind.

One way to think about this is that researchers who study creativity often distinguish between two phases of creative idea generation—divergence and convergence.  In the divergent phase, you generate a lot of potential solutions to a problem.  In the convergent phase, you evaluate those ideas and focus on those that seem most promising.

The work on unconscious thought suggests that it may be most effective for the divergent phase of creative thought.

A paper by Haiyang Yang, Amitava Chattopadhyay, Kuangjie Zhang, and Darren Dahl in the 2012 volume of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this process in more detail.

In one study, they had people generate as many uses as possible for a paper clip.  This task has been used often as a way of getting people to think creatively.  The experimenters varied both the amount of time people spent thinking about their answers as well as whether they used conscious or unconscious thought.  Groups spent either 1, 3, or 5 minutes thinking about the uses for a paper clip.  The conscious thought group was simply told to think about the problem.  The unconscious thought group was told to think about uses for a paper clip, but then was asked to count backward by 3s.  This task made it hard for people to do any controlled thinking about the task.  After the thinking period, participants had 2 minutes to write down their answers.

For the groups that spent one minute or five minutes on the task, the conscious thought group came up with more ideas (and more novel ideas) than the unconscious thought group.  For the groups that spend 3 minutes on the task, though, the unconscious thought group came up with more ideas and more novel ideas than the conscious thought group.  A second study replicated this finding with a different creativity task and found that while unconscious thought at a medium duration could lead to more novel ideas, those ideas were not necessarily more appropriate for solving the problem.

What is going on here?

Deliberate conscious thought involves both divergent and convergent processes.  You are reminded of things you know about that might help you to solve the problem, and then you evaluate those ideas and focus on the ones you like.  In addition, as you think about the problem consciously, you are able to generate new descriptions of the problem that may help you to take a different perspective on it.  These conscious processes get better over time, so the longer you spend thinking, the more you come up with.

Unconscious thought has just the divergent component.  The description of the problem races through your memory activating things that might be useful.  At short durations, there isn’t enough time to activate much.  At longer durations, some of the initial activation of an idea dies down and it is lost.  At medium durations, though, the largest number of different ideas are active.

How can you use this to help you? 

In cases where you are stuck on a difficult problem, it can be valuable to walk away from that problem and to engage in another activity.  Take a walk.  Play a mindless video game for a few minutes.  Go to the gym.  The other activity you do should not lead you to think a lot about something new and difficult, it just occupy your conscious train of thought.  After some time away from the problem, come back to it and see what you come up with.