Monday, February 8, 2016

The Attractiveness of Average and Familiar Faces

Over the years, many studies have examined what people find attractive in faces.  One important factor is symmetry.  If you draw a line down the middle of someone’s face, the more similar the right and left sides of the face, the more attractive it is seen to be.  Evolutionary psychologists have argued that we like symmetry in faces, because it is a sign of health.  

Symmetry is not the only factor that affects attractiveness, of course.  For example, Marilyn Monroe had a prominent mole on only one side of her face.  This mole may have helped to draw people’s attention to her face, which then increased her perceived beauty.

One demonstration that symmetry is important to judgments of facial attractiveness comes from morphing studies.  In these experiments, people rate the attractiveness of a series of faces along with one face that is the morphed average of the set of faces.  This morphed average is generally seen as more attractive than the mean rating of all of the faces from which it was generated.  A big reason for this advantage for the average face is that it is much more symmetric than the individual faces from which it was generated.  The morphing process eliminates the asymmetries in the individual faces.  

An interesting paper by Jamin Halberstadt, Diane Pecher, Rene Zeelenberg, Laurent Ip Wai, and Piotr Winkielman in the November, 2013 issue of Psychological Science demonstrates that the familiarity of a face may play an even bigger role in the attractiveness of the faces than symmetry.  

The authors started with 28 pictures of celebrities from the Netherlands and 28 pictures of celebrities from New Zealand.  They created morphs of pairs of faces to create 14 morphs.  Then, participants from the Netherlands and New Zealand rated the attractiveness of the morphs as well as the attractiveness of the individual faces.  All of the morphs were rated first.   
Participants were also asked whether they recognized the morphs and the individual faces. 

When participants rated faces of celebrities from another country, the typical averaging effect was observed.  The New Zealand participants found the morphs of two Dutch celebrities to be more attractive than the individual photos.  The Dutch participants found the morphs of two celebrities from New Zealand to be more attractive than the individual photos.

When people judged celebrities from their own country, though, familiarity took over.  On average, the ratings of the individual faces of celebrities from that culture were seen as more attractive than the morphs.  The more strongly that a person recognized the celebrity, the more strongly they preferred the individual faces to the morphs.

This study is a nice demonstration of the influence of familiarity on judgments.  We are wired to prefer familiar things to unfamiliar ones. For example, the mere exposure effect demonstrates that seeing something even once makes it more desirable than something that has never been seen before.  So, even though there may be general factors that can make something attractive or desirable, there is no substitute for making it familiar.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Can You Tell When Someone Is Lying?

I love movies about con artists.  David Mamet’s early film House of Games is a great example.  Throughout the film, it is hard to tell who is lying and who is telling the truth.   The success of movies like this is that it is often difficult to be certain that someone is lying to you.  
Over the years, many studies have demonstrated that people are not that good at determining when someone is lying to them.  Part of the problem is that there are no obvious cues that separate lying from truth telling.  Another part of the problem is that we often use the wrong cues.   So, people often focus on whether someone is moving their body in a nervous way or averting their gaze when speaking, but those characteristics are not good cues to whether someone is lying.

That does not mean that it is impossible to judge whether someone is lying.  A paper in the November, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Marc-Andre Reinhard, Rainer Greifeneder, and Martin Scharmach explored how different types of thought affect accuracy at lie detection.

Often, we solve problems and make judgments with conscious thought.  If I ask you whether a particular person is lying to you, you might spend some time thinking about your interaction and then make a judgment.  

Sometimes, though, you engage in unconscious thought.  You know you have a problem to solve or a judgment to make, but you walk away from the problem and work on other things.  Then, you come back to the problem.  In those cases, you find that you are now thinking about the problem in a different way.  

The researchers suggested that people might be more accurate at detecting liars after unconscious thought than after conscious thought.  The idea is that unconscious thought may be able to take more characteristics of an interaction into consideration than conscious thought does.  In addition, unconscious thought may capture aspects of an interaction that would be hard to isolate when thinking consciously.  

In one study, participants watched videos of people who either told truthful stories about an event that happened to them, or they lied.  One group made a judgment after each video about whether the person was telling the truth.  A second group watched the entire set of videos and then was asked to think about each video consciously for several minutes and then to judge whether that person was telling the truth.  A third group watched the entire set of videos and then was told they would be judging whether the individuals told the truth.  After that, they engage in a difficult distracting task for several minutes so that they could not consciously think about their judgments.  Then, they judged whether the speakers were telling the truth. 

The participants who made immediate judgments and those who had a chance to deliberate consciously had difficulty determining who was telling the truth and who was lying.  The participants who engaged in unconscious thought were much better at this task and were able to identify the truth tellers and liars about 65% of the time.  That is not perfect, of course, but it is better than random guessing.

In these studies, how can you tell whether the improvement comes from actual unconscious thought or whether it is just a result of being distracted for a while after hearing the people? 

For unconscious thought, the individual needs to be pursuing a goal (like determining whether the person is lying).  In one study, participants observed people who were either telling the truth or lying.  Some were told to deliberate consciously about whether the person was telling the truth.  Some were told that they were going to judge whether the people were telling the truth and then were given a distractor task until it was time to make the judgments.  A third group did the distractor task without being told anything about determining whether people were telling the truth.  Then, they made the judgments.  Only the group that was told they were going to make judgments and then were distracted were reasonably good at separating the liars from the truth-tellers.   So, it appears that unconscious thought rather than mere distraction is affecting people’s judgments.

In one final study, participants were exposed to a large number of videos of people telling the truth or lying.  These videos were carefully coded for a variety of cues like the number of details included in the stories, how much eye contact people made, and the amount of tension in the voice.  Analyses of these cues were done against whether the person was actually telling the truth.  Many of the cues (like eye gaze) were not at all correlated with whether the person was telling the truth.  Some (like facial pleasantness) were reliably associated with telling the truth.  Others (like vocal tension) were reliably associated with lying.

In this study, some participants judged whether the speakers were telling the truth immediately.  Some engaged in conscious deliberation.  Others engaged in an unconscious thought condition.  As before, those in the unconscious thought condition did a better job of separating the truth-tellers from the liars.  Statistical analyses were used to determine what cues the groups used to make their judgments.  Participants in the control and conscious thought conditions tended to pay attention to cues that are easy to detect like eye gaze that are not actually correlated with whether people were telling the truth.  Participants in the unconscious thought condition were much more likely to use cues like vocal tension and the length of pauses in speech that are actually associated with lying.

Putting this all together, it is clear that it is very hard to determine whether someone is lying to you.  If you are concerned about trying to make a judgment about lying, though, you should give yourself a little time away from the interaction before coming back to make the judgment.  That will improve your odds of figuring out whether you were being lied to.

Of course, if you are really worried you are being lied to, perhaps you need to spend time with a different group of people.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Danger of Indifference

One of the themes in this blog over the years is goal contagion, which is the idea that we often adopt the goals of the people around us.  See someone helping others, and you suddenly want to be helpful.  See someone being aggressive, and it makes you more likely to engage aggressively with others.

What about apathy?

If you see people being indifferent about a task, is that contagious as well?

That question was explored in a paper in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Pontus Leander, James Shah, and Stacey Sanders.  

They suggested that when people are wavering in their commitment to a goal, then being exposed to apathy decreases people’s motivation to pursue a task.

In one study, participants performed twelve GRE analogy problems.   Prior to solving these problems, participants did a task in which they responded to words presented in the center of the screen.  Prior to seeing the words, pictures were flashed quickly on the screen.  These pictures either showed students looking bored or students looking engaged.  A control group saw no pictures.  The pictures were flashed quickly enough that they could be perceived subliminally.  After solving the GRE problems, participants were asked for their undergraduate grade-point average, which is a broad measure of their commitment to academic work.

Participants with a high GPA were relatively unaffected by the prime.  Those with a low GPA solved fewer analogy problems when they were primed by apathetic students than when they were primed by energetic students or received no priming at all.  

This result suggests that exposure to apathy can decrease the motivation for people who are already unsure of their commitment to a goal.  Another study used primes for apathy and primes for anger.  Only primes for apathy led people to perform more poorly on a later test.  This finding suggests that apathy is not just creating negative emotion that influences performance.

Another study used a more sensitive measure of commitment to academic achievement.  Once again, participants were exposed to images of people being either apathetic or not.  For half the participants, the images showed academic situations, and for half the participants, the images were of nonacademic situations.  All participants then solved anagrams, which they were told were a measure of verbal fluency.  For example, they might see the letter ECTAR and would have to form the word CRATE.  

An interesting pattern of results was obtained.  The prime that was not in an academic context had very little influence on people’s behavior.  

The pictures in an academic context had an interesting influence on people’s behavior.  Participants who were not strongly committed to academic achievement spent less time on the anagrams and solved fewer anagrams when they saw pictures priming apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy.  Participants who were strongly committed to academic achievement actually spent more time on the anagrams and solved more of them when they saw pictures related to apathy than when they saw pictures unrelated to apathy.

This pattern suggests two conclusions.  First, the influence of apathy is situation specific.  Second, the influence of seeing apathy depends on a person’s commitment to the goal.  People who are not committed to the goal interpret apathy as a signal that they should also give up.  People who are strongly committed to the goal actually get even more committed by seeing apathy.

The researchers ran several other studies to rule out other interpretations of the study.  For example, one study demonstrated that just thinking about the goal does not lead to these effects.  The influence of apathy requires that people have either a low or high commitment to the goal.

What does all of this mean?

We interpret the actions of the people around us.  When we see people acting indifferently to a task, we know that they are expressing a lack of interest in that task.  That lack of interest is then related to people’s existing commitment to a goal.  When people are wavering in their commitment to a goal, then seeing others who are apathetic nudges them in the direction of giving up.  When people are highly committed to the goal, then seeing others who are apathetic actually increases their commitment to the goal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What Causes People to Donate After Disasters?

Technology has made it easy for people to give donations following natural disasters.  When reports of floods, typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes makes news, there are websites available for people to give money.  People can even use their phones to donate money by text message.  

What factors lead people to give money to a particular disaster?

In the news reports following a disaster, there are usually estimates of the number of people who were killed as well as the number of individuals who were affected.  The affected individuals have often lost their homes and are in urgent need of food, shelter, sanitation, and medical care.  Much of the money donated following a disaster goes to relief efforts to help the survivors.

A paper by Ioannis Evangelidis and Bram Van den Bergh in the November, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explored the influences on people’s donations following disasters.
First, they analyzed the actual donations given following natural disasters that occurred from 2000-2011 using publicly accessible databases.  They looked both at the likelihood that money would be given following a particular disaster as well as the amount of money given.  They found that the number of fatalities following the disaster was associated with a higher likelihood that money would be given and that the amount of money given increased with the number of fatalities.  The number of people affected was not a significant predictor of either the likelihood that money would be given or the amount given.  The researchers then obtained a similar pattern in laboratory studies that described disasters using both the number of fatalities and number of affected survivors.

The authors suggest that this pattern of giving is a problem, because money is urgently needed to help survivors.  An earthquake that kills only 100 people, but leaves a million people homeless and without food and water leaves a lot of people who need help, even though the earthquake did not kill many people.  So, the researchers explored two ways to get people to pay more attention to the number of survivors rather than to the number of individuals killed in the disaster.

In one study, they asked half of the participants to compare two disasters directly: one that killed 4,500 people and left 7,500 affected survivors and a second that killed 7,500 and left 4,500 affected survivors.  They had to rank them according to which should get more aid.  Afterward, they read about a single disaster and were asked how much money they thought should be donated.  The number of individuals killed and the number of affected survivors was manipulated so that different people saw different combinations of the number killed and affected.

For those people in the control condition (who did not compare the two disasters), their pattern of donations was similar to that in previous studies.  They suggested higher donations for disasters with a large number of fatalities than for those with a low number of fatalities.  The number of affected survivors did not influence their judgments.  

Those who compared pairs of disasters first showed a different pattern.  They gave higher donations to disasters with a large number of affected survivors, while the number of fatalities did not influence suggested donations.  That is, when people compared two disasters first, it helped them to realize that the number of affected survivors is more important than the number of fatalities when determining the amount of aid needed.

A final study explored the possibility that people are unsure what it means for a survivor to be “affected” by a disaster.  This term is often used, because it covers the many problems people may face after a disaster.  So, some participants read about a disaster in which the survivors were “affected” while others read about a disaster in which the survivors were “homeless.”  Once again, the descriptions varied in the number of people who were killed or affected/homeless.  

In this study, when people were described as “affected” the typical pattern emerged.  The number of fatalities predicted the amount of aid people wanted to see given to the disaster.  When people were described as “homeless,” the number of fatalities had only a small influence on judgments, and the number of survivors had a much larger impact, particularly for disasters in which few people were killed.

Putting this all together, people’s judgments about donations to disasters are often influenced by the number of people killed in the disaster, even though the money is needed to help the survivors.  If people can be induced to think about the importance of the survivors and to recognize why they need aid, then that can shift the pattern of donation.  It will be interesting to see whether aid organizations begin to use these data to change the way they appeal to potential donors.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Infants Need to Hear Adults Talk

By the time kids start school, there are already differences among them in their language abilities.  These early differences can have an enormous impact on their performance in school, because teachers do most of their instruction by talking to kids. 
Where do these early differences come from?
A growing body of evidence suggests that a huge influence on early language development is the number of words that children hear as infants and toddlers.  The more that parents speak to their infants and in front of their infants, the better infants get at understanding speech and learning words.
This issue has been explored in some previous work that has compared children who grow up in low socioeconomic status (SES) and high SES homes.  An interesting paper in the November, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Adriana Weisleder and Anne Fernald examined this question just within a sample of low SES Spanish speaking homes in the United States.
They had 19-month-old infants wear an audio recorder for at least one full day.  Many infants wore the recorder for several days, and the longest recording day was selected. 
Using software, the recordings were analyzed to identify all of the words spoken in the infants’ presence during that day.  In addition, the researchers classified the speech by whether it was directed at the infants or whether it was just speech that the infants overheard.
Both when the infants were 19-months-old and again when they were 24-months-old, the researchers measured their efficiency at understanding speech.  In these tests, the infants were seated in front of a screen.  They saw pairs of pictures displaying common objects (like a dog or a ball).  They heard the Spanish word for one of those pictures spoken and the researchers measured how much the infant looked at the picture corresponding to the spoken word as well as how quickly the infant looked at that picture after the word was spoken.  In addition, at 24 months, the parents used a checklist to estimate the size of their child’s vocabulary.
Within this sample, there was a huge difference in the number of words that the infants heard.  Some infants heard fewer than 2000 words in a day, while some heard over 15,000.  In addition, there were big differences in child-directed speech.  Some families spoke fewer than 1000 words to their children in a day, while others spoke over 10,000 words to their children.
The number of words spoken to children at 19 months was a significant predictor of the child’s vocabulary at 24 months.  In addition, the number of words spoken to children predicted how quickly and effectively children looked at the picture associated with a word they heard.  Statistical analysis demonstrated that the ease of identifying the words in speech was an important reason why infants who heard more words had a larger vocabulary at 24-months than infants who heard fewer words.
This early language experience compounds itself over time.  Not only do infants who hear lots of words understand language better than those who hear fewer words, they are also more likely to start vocalizing and speaking words earlier.  When children talk more, adults talk back to them more often.  So, the early advantage in language ability gets bigger over time.
This research demonstrates the importance of a rich environment for infants.  Infant brains are developing rapidly, and that brain development is strongly influenced by what is going on around them.  The more that these infants are embedded in a complex language environment, the more that their language abilities develop.  And that early development gives them a huge advantage as they start school.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Is It Good To Choose?

High School students often complain about the classes that they are taking.  Their course of study is largely laid out for them, and so they have few choices of the subjects they take.  The lack of choice can be demotivating.  When those students get to college, though, an interesting thing happens.  Suddenly, they have almost an infinite amount of choice.  They can select the courses they want.  At that point, the number of options can feel completely overwhelming.  

So, is it better for your motivation and performance if you are allowed to choose what you want to do or if the choice is made for you?

This question was explored in paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology paper published in 2013 by Erika Patall, Breana Sylvester, and Cheon-woo Han.  They suggest that the influence of choice on motivation and performance depends on people’s competence at the task.  When people have some expertise in a task, then they are more motivated when they can choose what they are doing than when the choice is made for them.  When people are not experts, then they are actually most motivated when the choice is made for them.

In one study, participants played a word game in which they had to form as many words as they could from a set of letters given to them.  Before playing the game, they were given a test of verbal ability and were randomly assigned to get feedback that they were either among the top or among the bottom scorers on this test.  The feedback was designed to manipulate how people felt about their competence at playing these games relative to their peers.

Some participants were given the choice between playing one of two games (which were labeled Text Twist and Boggle), a choice between having games of medium difficulty, or games of a range of easy, medium, and hard difficulty, and a choice between playing rounds for 2-minutes at a time or playing for a total of 20 minutes.  Other participants were assigned to a combination of these factors.      

Participants then reported whether they thought they would do well in these games and their motivation to succeed.  Afterwards, did the puzzles.  (The two formats and difficulty levels were actually identical, so participants ultimately did all of the same puzzles regardless of the combination they chose or to which they were assigned.)  After completing the games participants were asked how motivated they were to complete the puzzles and how much they enjoyed them.  

The manipulation of competence was successful.  People who were given feedback that they scored well on the test of verbal ability rated themselves as more competent at these puzzles than those who were told that they scored poorly.  

Participants who could choose for themselves were more motivated to do the puzzles and performed better when they rated themselves as good at these puzzles than when they saw themselves as bad at them.  People who had the choice made for them showed the opposite pattern.  They were more motivated and performed better when felt they were bad at puzzles than when they felt they were good at them.  

This pattern is actually reflected in people’s judgments of what they would do in real-life situations.  In another study, participants who performed a survey using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were asked whether they would prefer to choose a job or be assigned one in a work situation in which they knew they were good at the task or in which they knew they were not so good at it.  Participants had a stronger preference to choose their job when it was something they knew they were good at than when it was something they knew they were not good at.  

These findings are valuable for anyone who is managing a group.  In order to increase people’s enjoyment of what they are doing and their motivation to continue, it is important to match the freedom they have to choose to the expertise they believe they have.  People who see themselves as experts want choice, while those who see themselves as novices prefer to be given an assignment. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

How Does Disgust Affect Memory?

Emotional experiences clearly affect memory.  At the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy many people shared their memories of where they were when they heard the news that he had been shot.  This event was shocking, and many people reported having vivid memories of that day, even a half-century later.  People who lived through the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the events of September 11, 2001 also have significant emotional memories from these dates.  Although these memories may not be 100% accurate, it is clear that people are influenced by the emotional experience at the time.
It is hard to disentangle all of the factors that influence memory in these stressful situations.  They events are surprising.  They are arousing emotional experiences.  They are negative.  They involve a combination of anger, fear, and sadness. 
Because emotional experiences have an influence on memory, controlled laboratory studies have begun to tease apart the elements of emotion that affect what you remember later.
A fascinating set of studies in the November, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Hanah Chapman, Kristen Johannes, Jordan Poppenk, Morris Moscovitch, and Adam Anderson looked at the way fear and disgust affect memory. 
In one study, the researchers gathered a series of pictures that were disgusting, scary, or neutral.  Disgusting pictures showed things like a cockroach or a picture of a gruesome disease.  Scary pictures showed things like threatening animals or riots.  The neutral pictures were items like coat hangers or coffee makers.  Ratings obtained before the study found that the scary pictures were slightly more arousing overall than the disgusting pictures. 
Each picture was shown for 2 seconds.  When the picture was presented, a line appeared above it or below it.  Participants had to indicate where the line was relative to the picture by pressing a button.  Then, after a delay of either 10 minutes or 45 minutes, participants were asked to recall as many of the pictures as they could.  This memory test was a surprise.  They had not been told that they had to remember the pictures.
Overall, people remembered more of the arousing pictures (both scary and disgusting) than the neutral pictures.  So, pictures that created a negative emotion were more memorable than those that did not.  The disgusting pictures were better remembered than the scary ones.  This difference was particularly strong after a 45-minute delay.  Finally, participants took longer to respond to the location of the line when the pictures were disgusting than when they were scary or neutral.  This finding suggests that people’s attention was more strongly drawn to disgusting pictures than to scary or neutral ones.
Another study in this series found that this effect was also strong even when there was a one-week delay between the initial exposure to the pictures and the test.
Why does this happen? 
Memory for specific items and specific situations is often not important.  When you encounter a coat hanger, you need to know what it is for, so you need to recognize that it is a hanger.  However, it probably does not matter which hanger it is or when you may have seen that particular hanger before.  As a result, we do not really differentiate our experiences of common objects that do not engage our emotions.
When you experience a frightening situation, though, you probably do want to remember it, because you want to be able to avoid that situation in the future.  With disgusting items, there is even more reason to want to remember them. The things we find disgusting are often items that could make us sick.  So, if we encounter them again, we want to know to avoid them.  In this way, memory acts to help keep us safe.