Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Your Beliefs About Change Affect Whether You Take Responsibility

In any relationship, there are times that you don’t do the right thing.  You brush off a colleague.  You snap at a romantic partner.  You do things that are selfish. In order to repair the relationship, though, you need to take some responsibility.  By taking responsibility, you can work to change yourself to improve the relationship in the future.
If taking responsibility is done to help you change, then your beliefs about change should influence your tendency to take responsibility for actions.  This question was examined by Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck in a paper in the December, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In one study, the researchers did a study of people who were in a long-term relationship in which they were living with their partner.  The researchers measured people’s beliefs about whether personality can change.  They also asked people to do a daily diary for a week.  For any conflict participants experienced, they were asked whether they apologized as well as whether they took responsibility for their actions.  Beliefs about whether personality can change did not affect whether people apologized for their actions.  But, the more strongly that people believe that they can change, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their mistakes.
In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s beliefs about change by having them read a scientific article that either supported the idea that personality remains relatively fixed or that it changes.  After that, participants read a number of scenarios in which they imagined that they had done something wrong to someone else.  After those scenarios, participants answered a number of questions including whether they would take responsibility for their actions. 
Participants who read that personality can change were more likely to say that they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those who read that personality remains relatively fixed.  This study suggests that people’s beliefs about whether they can change can be manipulated and that manipulating these beliefs influences their tendency to take responsibility for their actions.
A third study used a similar methodology.  Again, people’s beliefs about change were manipulated.  Again, participants read a scenario in which they had to imagine doing something wrong to another person and were asked whether they would take responsibility for their actions.  After that, participants were asked to fill in word fragments.  For example, they might see the fragment THREA___.  The fragments can be filled in either with a word related to stress (like THREAT) or with a word unrelated to stress (like THREAD).  The more stress that people are feeling, the more likely they are to fill in the fragments with words related to stress.
As before, participants induced to think that they can change were more likely to say they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those induced to think that they cannot change.  Interestingly, participants induced to think they cannot change filled in more of the words in a way that related to stress or threat than participants who were induced to think that they cannot change. 
Putting this all together, then, it suggests another powerful influence of beliefs about change.  When you believe that your behavior can change, you are more likely to be willing to admit responsibility.  A big reason why you are able to admit fault is that you recognize that once you admit what you have done wrong, you can work to make it better, and so you are not threatened by admitting mistakes.  People who do not believe that they can change are stressed by admitting their mistakes, because they believe that those mistakes say something fundamental about who they are as a person.
Ultimately, people can change their behavior, even if that change requires some effort.  A key part of the process of change is recognizing what you have done wrong and learning from your mistakes.  Believing that you can change gives you the best opportunity to fix your behavior and repair your relationships.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Do Brands Interfere with Religiosity?

There are many ways to express identity.  If you walk down the street, you will see people wearing t-shirts with brands of products on them.  They carry coffee mugs with the names of coffee companies.  They carry bags that are branded with the logos of companies. 
People also express their identity through religion.  Religious beliefs can influence the actions people take.  In addition, people may wear religious symbols on shirts or jewelry.  They may put religious symbols on their cars.
In may ways, of course, religion and products seem fundamentally incompatible.  Religion focuses on the sacred and the spiritual.  Brands focus on the earthly and material.
A fascinating paper by Keisha Cutright, Tulin Erdem, Gavan Fitzsimons, and Ron Shachar in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined whether commitment to brands interferes with commitment to religion. 
In one preliminary study, participants were asked to choose between a pair of coffee mugs and a pair of t-shirts.  For half the participants, the items had a brand name on them (Starbucks on the mug, Adidas on the t-shirts).  For the other half, the products were unbranded.  Later in the study, participants filled out scales to rate the strength of their commitment to religion and how often they attend religious services.  Participants who made choices of branded products exhibited a lower commitment to religion and commitment to attend religious services than those who made choices of products without brand names.
A second study asked participants to think and write about one of two types of brands.  Some participants were asked to write about a brand that really said something about their personality.  Other participants were asked to write about a brand that they thought was functional but did not say anything about their personality.  Later, they completed the scales of religious commitment.  In this study, participants rated their religious commitment as lower if they wrote about brands that relate to their identity than if they wrote about brands that were purely functional.
In another study, participants selected a t-shirt for themselves, for another person, or for both themselves and another person.  For some participants, the t-shirts had a company brand on them, but for other participants the t-shirts had no brand.  Later, they rated their religious commitment, but also were given an opportunity to donate up to one dollar to either a group of faith-based charities or to a group of non faith-based charities.  Compared to the other groups, participants who chose a branded t-shirt for themselves exhibited lower religious commitment and also donated less money to faith-based charities than those who chose non-branded t-shirts or chose for another person.
Control conditions in these experiments demonstrated that commitment to brands influenced religious commitment, but not commitment to other ways of expressing identity like commitment to sports teams, art, music, or engaging in social interactions. 
What does all of this mean?
There is a tendency for people to try to maintain some consistency in their beliefs at any given moment (even though people may be quite inconsistent over time).  So, when thinking about material goods, that will strengthen people’s thoughts about their material self, and weaken aspects of their self-concept that are inconsistent with that material self (including aspects of self-concept related to religion).
It is important to recognize that the effects observed in studies like this are short-term effects.  That is, outside of the overt presence of brands, people’s beliefs about their religiosity will return to whatever their long-term state is.
However, these patterns of thought can become habitual.  To the extent that we live in a world surrounded by brands that influence our self-concept, that can make it harder to build up and maintain a more spiritual or religious self-concept as well. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories About Yourself Affect Judgments About Others

When you look at the people around you, there is a tendency to assume that they will act like you do.  That makes sense.  One of the easiest ways to try to understand the behavior of other people is to think about what you would do in the same situation.  And there is a tendency to do this most when you think that the person you are judging is like you in some way.
There are many aspects of memory, and they can all influence our judgments of others.  For example, not only are we able to recall information about ourselves, but we also get a feeling for how easy it was to recall that information.  That feeling can also influence our later judgments. 
This issue was explored in a paper in the April 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Karl-Andrew Woltin, Olivier Cornielle, and Vincent Yzerbyt. 
Their studies took advantage of an interesting way of decoupling what people remember from the experience of how easy it was to remember information that has been used in many previous studies.  In one study, they were interested in judgments of assertiveness.  They began by asking people to remember situations in which they themselves had been assertive in the past.
Some people were asked to recall only 4 situations. This group was able to remember these situations easily, and so they had the experience that it was easy for them to think about being assertive.  A second group was asked to remember 10 situations.  This group had trouble remembering 10 things and often recalled about 6 events.  The interesting thing here is that this group recalled more events than the one asked to remember only 4 events.  But, it was hard to remember the events, so people were left with the impression that it was hard for them to recall situations in which they were assertive. 
After recalling assertive behaviors, participants saw a picture of someone of the same sex and were told that person went to the same university.  They were asked to make a number of judgments about their traits.  Some of those judgments focused on assertiveness, while others focused on other characteristics.
In this study (and the others reported in this paper), the ease of recalling events did not affect judgments of unrelated traits.  However, when people found it easy to recall events in which they were assertive, they judged the other person as more assertive overall than when they found it hard to recall events in which they were assertive.
A second study demonstrated a similar effect using creativity rather than assertiveness.  Once again, participants who found it easy to recall events in which they were creative judged the new person to be more creative than those who found it hard to recall events in which they had been creative.
This study also had a second group of participants who were told that the design of the questionnaire influenced their belief about how easy it was to recall events about their life.  This group had a reason to feel like it was either easy or hard to think about instances in which they had been creative.  For this group, their judgments of the other person were not influenced by how difficult it was to recall situations in which they were creative. 
Another study in this series found that this effect occurred only when the person they were judging was similar to themselves in some way.  So, when the new person was of the same sex and attended the same university, then their judgments about the other person were affected by whether it was easy to recall events from their own life.  But, when the new person was of the opposite gender and went to a different university, then ease of remembering had no influence on judgments about the other person.
What does all of this mean?
Often, when we think about memory, we focus primarily on the content of what we remember.  However, there is also a lot of information that comes in the form of feelings about our memory.  One dimension of those feelings is the ease with which things come to mind.  Even though that ease can have many sources, we tend to use that ease as a signal of how commonly a particular event occurs in the world.  That use of ease is related to the availability heuristic first described by Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.
Even though experimental psychologists can do clever things to trick you into using these feelings in the wrong way, they are generally a very good indicator of how commonly you have encountered something in the world. 
In the case of judging what other people will do, it is also useful to knowledge about yourself to make judgments about others.  Human behavior is complex, and it can be hard to reason about all of the factors that affect what other people will do.  Using your feelings about what you would do in that same situation is a great first guess about what others will do.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Joy of Connecting With Others

I fly a lot.  I have a typical routine on the plane.  I pull out something to read or perhaps an iPad to watch a movie.  I do my work.  I don’t generally engage in much conversation with the person sitting next to me on the plane, though sometimes I end up in a long conversation. Invariably, those conversations are great fun.
An interesting question is whether my travel would be more enjoyable if I engaged in more conversations with people I meet on the plane?  This issue was addressed in a fascinating paper by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
In two field experiments, they demonstrate that people generally avoid having conversations with strangers when commuting.  One study used train commuters, and a second used bus commuters.  During their commute, some participants were asked to imagine that they were told to have a conversation with another commuter they didn’t know before.  A second participant was asked to imagine that they were told to commute without talking to anyone.  A third group got no instructions. Participants rated whether how much they thought they would enjoy their commute as well as how productive they thought they would be.
In this study, participants imagining they had to talk to another person thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence.  Those imagining they had to have a conversation also assumed they would be less productive on the trip than those who imagined sitting in silence.  The control group came out in between on both measures.
A second set of field studies actually had commuters on the train and bus engage in conversations or not.  A third group was given no instructions.  Afterward, participants rated how much they enjoyed the commute as well as how productive they were.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory.
Strikingly, participants who were asked to have a conversation with someone else on the train or bus really did have conversations.  These participants enjoyed their ride much more than those who were instructed not to engage with other people as well as those in the control condition (who also tended not to engage in conversations).  Interestingly, participants in all conditions rated themselves as about equally productive. 
If conversations like this are actually so enjoyable, why do people engage in them so rarely? 
One other study asked commuters a variety of questions and found that they underestimate how willing other people would be to talk to them.  So, commuters feel that they are much more interested having people choose to talk to them than other people are in being talked to.  As a result, people avoid striking up conversations for fear of bothering another person.
In addition, one study found that some people are able to predict their enjoyment of engaging in these random conversations.  This study looked at people taking taxis leaving from an airport.  Some participants were actually asked to engage in a conversation with the driver or to enjoy the solitude.  As with the other studies, those who had a conversation with the driver enjoyed the ride more than those who did not.  
 In a second study, participants predicted their enjoyment.   Those who routinely engage in conversations with the driver recognized that they enjoy the ride more when they talk than when they don’t.  People who rarely converse with the driver did not recognize that they would enjoy their ride more if they talked with the driver.
A final study examined another possibility.  Perhaps the people who initiate conversations enjoy them, but those who do not initiate the conversations enjoy them less.  That is, maybe the conversation is only positive for the initiator.  This study was done in a psychology lab.  Participants were waiting for the study to start.  Some participants were instructed either to engage in a conversation with a second participant in the waiting room or to avoid having a conversation.  Afterward, both participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the wait.  Both the participant who initiated the conversation and the non-initiator enjoyed the wait more when they had a conversation. 
Putting this all together, then, it seems like most of us are missing out on a bit opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more.  Many of us travel on trains, plains, busses, and taxis.  In those settings, we elect to protect ourselves from interactions with other people.  Yet, these data suggest that most of us would enjoy ourselves more if we had conversations with the strangers who sit near us rather than walling ourselves off.
These findings are particularly interesting, because technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers.  Almost everywhere you go, people are engaged with smart phones and tablets.  Because of those devices, we avoid connecting with real live people who are next to us.  And it seems that we are missing out by doing so. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Maybe Video Games Don’t Help Perceptual Skills

Over the past several years, I have written about a number of studies relating to video games.  It looks like playing video games can distract students from school, which can lead to poorer grades.  Video games can also promote risk taking, which can lead to riskier behavior in life as well.  Although video games may promote somewhat more aggressive behavior in laboratory settings, it has been hard to find any evidence that they lead to more aggressive behavior outside of the lab.
On the positive side, playing prosocial video games can lead to more helping behavior in the lab.  There has been a flurry of studies exploring whether playing video games also helps with thinking skills.
One way that video games might influence thinking is by affecting the way people process their visual world.  A person playing a first-person shooter, for example needs to identify friends and enemies quickly and then make fast decisions based on what they see.
The prospect that playing action video games could improve perception was explored in a paper in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Don van Ravnzwaaij, Wouter Boekel, Birte Forstmann, Roger Ratcliff, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers.
In one study, they had three groups of participants.  One group played 20 hours of the action video game Unreal Tournament.  A second group played a non-action game (The Sims).  A third group played no game at all.  The 20 hours of play were spread over six experimental sessions over the course of a week. 
In each session, participants also did a difficult perceptual task in which they had to detect the motion of dots on a screen.  Some proportion of the dots were moving in a consistent direction, while the rest moved randomly.  Participants had to detect the coherent motion of the majority of the dots.  The proportion of dots moving in the same direction was determined at the beginning of the study in order for participants to start the study at about a 75% accuracy level.
Over the course of the study, participants in all groups got faster (and slightly less accurate) at making the judgments of motion.  However, all of the groups improved at the same rate regardless of whether they played a video game or what type of game they played.
In this study and a second one replicating this finding, the authors found no evidence that playing an action video game improves a basic perceptual skill like the ability to detect motion in a particular direction.
One reason that I like this study is that this research group is well-known for careful experimentation and detailed data analysis.  When exploring complex phenomena like the influence of video games on learning, it is valuable to have experimenters who are careful in their research.
Of course, the results from this one paper do not argue that video games cannot improve more complex skills.  But, this finding is valuable in suggesting that whatever improvements video games may provide, they do not reach all the way down to the most basic aspects of visual perception.  More research will be needed to explore the kinds of thinking abilities that video game play may improve.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Morality and the Focus on Outcomes

In many public situations, we make judgments about people’s commitment to carry through on their stated views.  Politicians express commitments to issues ranging from immigration to gay marriage.  Corporate leaders give their views on fair labor practices and innovation. 
After hearing these views expressed, we have to make judgments about how likely these people are to follow through on their commitments.  These expectations influence our support of politicians and companies.  They also help us to predict what will happen in the future.
When making statements about difficult issues, there are often two different types of justifications people may give for their beliefs.  One type of justification is consequential.  It focuses on the outcomes related to a position.  For example, a business leader might be opposed to child labor, because it harms children.  A second significant type of justification is deontological—it focuses on broad rights and responsibilities.  A second business leader might be opposed to child labor because forcing children to work long hours is unjust.
A fascinating paper by Tamar Kreps and Benoit Monin in the November, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined how these views influence people’s perception of the moral commitment of the speaker. 
In one study, participants read actual statements from State of the Union addresses given by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Participants did not know which president spoke these words, only that they came from presidential speeches.  The statements took positions and then defended them either because of the positive outcome associated with the position (a consequentialist defense) or because of the rights or justice associated with it (a deontological defense).  A control group of statements had no justification for the position.  After reading each statement, participants rated whether the issue was a moral issue for the speaker.
Participants felt that statements justified by rights and justice were more strongly based in morality than those statements justified by their outcomes.  Indeed, statements justified by their outcomes were judged as less strongly based in morality than those with no justification at all.
This result suggests that positions that are based on beneficial outcomes are seen as pragmatic positions rather than moral ones. 
Another study in this paper explored this phenomenon further.  In this study, participants read statements that were said to have been made by a manager at a company.  In addition to rating whether the speaker had a moral basis for the position, they also rated the speaker’s authenticity in holding that position, their commitment to the position, and how generally they support that issue.
As before, when the speaker gave a justification based on rights and justice, that had a stronger moral basis than when the speaker gave a justification based on outcomes.  In addition, participants felt that positions based on rights and justice were more authentic, more strongly held, and reflected a more general commitment than those based on outcomes.
Why does this happen?
When people focus on the benefit of the outcome of a position, then it suggests that if someone were able to avoid the bad outcome, then the person’s judgment would be flipped.  For example, it seems reasonable that a business leader who opposes child labor because it is bad for children’s long-term education might be convinced to support child labor if accommodations were made that gave the children more education.  The consequentialist view suggests that the leader does not have a broad moral argument against the practice, but rather a narrow pragmatic one. 
These findings also have implications for people who are trying to express a position.  If you want other people to believe that your support for an issue is ironclad, then you should justify it based on broad principles of justice and rights.  If you want to signal that you might be willing to compromise on an issue, then you should frame your justification based on outcomes.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Free Will and Gratitude

There are lots of psychological benefits to gratitude.  Feeling grateful to others can lift your mood.  It enhances your feeling of connection to other people.  Gratitude can also motivate you to do work for others.
When you feel gratitude toward another person, you are feeling appreciation that the person has done something for you that required some effort on their part and that was ultimately designed to be helpful to you.  When there was no effort or cost to someone’s actions, then you may feel fortunate that there was a positive outcome, but you are not necessarily grateful to them for engaging in that action.
For example, suppose an electric cable comes loose on your car while you’re driving, and the car stops by the side of the road.  A driver stops and looks under the hood and reconnects the wire allowing you to get home.  You are grateful that the driver sacrificed the time to help you.  If the driver of the car sped by, but that caused a vibration in the road that cause the cable to reconnect, you would feel lucky that happened, but not grateful to the driver. 
This analysis of gratitude suggests that we need to make some assessment of whether the action of another person came at a cost to them in order to feel grateful.  A paper in the November, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Michael MacKenzie, Kathleen Vohs, and Roy Baumeister, suggests that people’s beliefs in free will may influence the perception of cost, which may in turn affect the feeling of gratitude.
The idea is that if you believe that people have free will, then you believe that the actions they are taking were intentional.  Those intentions reflect that they have explicitly done things to help you.  That increases your sense of gratitude toward them.
In one set of studies, the researchers simply measured people’s beliefs in free will and also their tendency to be grateful.  As you would expect if beliefs in free will affect gratitude, these measures were positively correlated.  The more that people believed in free will, the more that they tended to experience gratitude in their lives.
Of course, it is hard to draw strong conclusions from correlational studies like this.  In another experiment, the researchers manipulated beliefs in free will by having people reflect on sentences that suggested that there is free will or that there is not.  This induced a temporary difference between groups in the strength of their belief in free will.  Then, participants thought about events of their lives in which someone did something for them.  Participants were more grateful for these events if they were induced to believe in free will than if they were induced to believe that free will does not exist.  A control group who did not think about free will before the task behaved similarly to those induced to believe in free will, suggesting that most participants from this population of undergraduates tend to believe in free will.
A third experiment also induced differences in the belief in free will by using passages that argued that free will does or does not exist.  After that, participants were led to believe that they were going to do a rather boring experiment for another experimenter.  After walking to another room, that experimenter told them that the study could be completed without their help and they did not have to do the boring task.  Participants returned to the first room, where they were asked a few questions about the first experimenter, including questions about whether they were grateful to the experimenter for letting them go and whether the experimenter was sincere about the motivations for letting them out of the experiment.
Participants induced to believe in free will were more grateful to the experimenter than those induced to believe that free will does not exist.  In addition, participants induced to believe in free will felt that the experimenter was more sincere than those who were induced to believe that free will does not exist.  The belief that the experimenter was sincere was able to statistically explain the relationship between belief in free will and gratitude.
Putting all of this together, then, in order to feel gratitude, you have to believe that the person who has done something for you actually wants to help you.  One factor that affects the sense that someone wants to help is whether they have free will.  After all, without free will, you are destined to act the way you do. 
This research also has implications for companies who are performing customer service.  If companies want people to feel grateful for the service they get, it is useful for customer service agents to let customers know they have some autonomy in the actions they take.  This way, customers will believe that agents have chosen to help them, rather than believing that something about company policy forced them to be helpful.