Monday, October 16, 2017

Are Teens Really Prone to Take Risks?


If you read the local news section of a newspaper, you are bound to come across the story of a tragic death or injury to a teen.  They might be texting, drinking and driving, or skateboarding in a precarious spot.  Reading these stories may reinforce a general belief that teens simply take too many risks.
So, are teens really bigger risk-takers than adults?
A fascinating paper by Erik de Water, Antonius Cillessen, and Anouk Scheres in the October, 2014 issue of Child Development examines this question.
A lot of the behaviors in teens that we think of as risky are really impulsive.  Being impulsive means doing something that feels good right now rather than waiting in order to do something even better in the future. 
There are two parts to impulsivity.
The first is risk.  When you are impulsive, you might choose to do riskier things now without thinking through the long-term consequences.
The second is value.  If you value things in the present more than things in the future, then you may choose to get things right now.  Everyone values the present more than the future to some degree.  I would rather get $10 right now than to get $10 in a week.  But, how much more would I need to get in a week in order to forego $10 right now.  I might still prefer $10 now to $10.01 in a week.  But, perhaps I would take $12 next week rather than $10 today. 
These researchers tested teens ranging in age from 12-17 and young adults ranging in age from 18-27.  All participants were given a test of risk and a test of value.  They were also given a test of fluid intelligence (the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test) and a test of how much they value different amounts of money right now. 
The test they used to measure risk was a simple gambling task.  Participants saw a pie cut into 6 pieces, where 4 pieces were in one color and 2 were in the other.  This pie represented a gamble in which there was a 2/3 chance of winning one prize and a 1/3 chance of winning the other.  The prizes were set up so that the prize with the higher probability was always half the size of the prize with the lower probability.  So, a gamble might offer a 2/3 chance of winning $4 and a 1/3 chance of winning $8.  The more often someone selects the low probability gamble, the more risk they are taking.
The test for value involved having people make a series of decisions about whether they would prefer a particular amount of money right now or a larger amount of money some time in the future.  The time period ranged from 2 days to a year. 
The results suggested that teens were not riskier than adults, but they did value the present more than the adults did.  That is, both adults and teens selected the riskier gamble at about the same rate.  However, compared to the adults, teens needed more money in the future to be willing to delay getting money now rather than money later.  Other measures in this study examined how much teens value particular amounts of money.  Teens definitely find small amounts of money to be more valuable than adults.  But, even taking that difference into account, teens still valued money in the present more than money in the future.
What does this mean?
We tend to think of teens as taking more risks than adults.  But, findings like this suggest that teens are more impulsive not because they are willing to take more risks, but because they value the present so highly.  The difficult thing for teens is to recognize that future experiences may be more valuable than their options in the moment. 
It is important to tease apart these factors, because it influences the kinds of information we want to give to teens to help them take a long-term perspective on life events.  If teens were big risk takers, then we might want to educate them better about the risks associated with behaviors.
But, because teens value the present so strongly, it is important to help them see the value of the future.  One reason for the viral success of the “It Gets Better” videos is that it aimed to help LGBT teens to see that the problems that they face now are not as big as they seem and that the future holds valuable things in store.  This strategy is one that can be generally effective in helping teens to delay impulsive behavior right now in favor of the long term.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sleep and False Memories


When you remember a past event, you are not just playing back a video or audio file of a previous encounter.  Instead, memories are reconstructed.  That means that many sources of information can be combined to influence what you remember about the past.
Most of the time, of course, that is a good thing.  When you are having a discussion about World War II, for example, it does not matter if the information about the war that you talk about came from a single lecture you attended or from years of classes and books you read.  What is important is just that the information is organized around the topic of discussion.
Of course, the specific events and the order of those events do matter a lot in eyewitness situations.  However, quite a bit of research demonstrates that eyewitness accounts are also reconstructed, and the means that information encountered after the initial event can influence later memory.
Does the amount of sleep you get affect how likely it is that you will mix together different sources of information when thinking about an eyewitness event?  This question was explored in a paper by Steven Frenda, Lawrence Patihis, Elizabeth Loftus, Holly Lewis, and Kimberly Fenn in the September, 2014 issue of Psychological Science.
They used a typical misinformation procedure in this study.  First, participants saw a sequence of photographs of two crimes (a car break-in and a thief stealing a woman’s wallet). At some point after seeing the photo sequences, participants read text stories that described the events in the photographs.  However, three of the facts in the story differed from what was shown in the photos.  For example, a photo might show the thief putting the stolen wallet in a jacket pocket, while the story might describe him putting it in his pants pocket.  About 20 minutes after reading the text, participants then got a test about the event.  The critical questions on this test focused on the misinformation parts of the event.  The key measure is whether participants recall what happened in the photograph or whether they use the information from the text of the story to answer the question.  For each question on the test, participants were also asked the reason for their response.  The strictest measure of a false memory is when participants choose the information they read in the story, but tell state that they saw it in the picture.
To explore the influence of sleep deprivation, some participants were kept awake for a full night, while others were allowed to sleep as much as they wanted.   Half the participants saw the pictures in the morning followed by the stories with the misinformation about 40 minutes later.  The other half the participants saw the pictures followed by the misinformation in the morning.
When participants see the pictures in the morning and then the misinformation soon after, sleep deprivation influences their tendency to have false memories.  The sleep deprived participants remember more of the misinformation than the rested participants.
When participants see the pictures the evening before seeing the misinformation, though, sleep deprivation has no reliable impact on false memories.  The likelihood of incorporating information from the stories in their recall is low for all participants who saw the photos the night before.
What is going on here?
Think about how people could respond accurately on this test.  When they encounter the initial event, they have to remember both what they saw as well as when they saw it.  That is, they have to keep track of the source of the memory.  That way, when they read about the event later, they can separate what they saw from what they read.
People who are sleep deprived seem to have more trouble than those who are rested keeping track of the source of the information they get.  They are able to remember facts about the events, but they are more likely to combine together different sources of information.
This result suggests that we might want to be careful about how much we trust the details of memories of events that happened when we were sleep deprived.  The lack of sleep may make it difficult for us to remember the source of the information we have encountered.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Thinking and Doing Mindsets Affect What You See


At any given moment, you can be focused on thinking about what is going on in the world around you, or you can be motivated to act in the world.  For example, you might contemplate taking an art class.  In the thinking mindset, you would consider the various pros and cons of taking this class.  In the doing mindset, you would generate and then execute a plan for registering and attending the class.  Psychologists have used different terms to describe these orientations, but I will call them the thinking mindset and the doing mindset. 
Most of the research on these mindsets has focused on the behaviors that are associated with them.  An interesting question, though, surrounds whether these motivational states affect what you see.  This issue was explored by Oliver Buttner, Frank Wieber, Anna Maria Schultz, Ute Bayer, Arnd Florack, and Peter Gollwitzer in a paper in the October, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
The idea is that when you are focused on thinking, you are open to lots of possibilities, and so you are willing to be expansive in the information you take in.  When you are focused on doing, then you narrow your attention to the information you think is most important. 
To test this possibility, the researchers first manipulated people’s mindset.  To put people in a thinking mindset, they asked people to spend some time reflecting on an unsolved personal problem.  To put people in a mindset, they asked people to create a plan to complete a personal project.  These tasks have been used in previous studies as well.
Then, participants were asked to look at a series of pictures on a computer monitor.  The pictures showed an object or animal against a background (such as a cow against a farm field).  Participants were told to look at the pictures and then rate how much they liked them.
While participants looked at the pictures, their eyes were being tracked.  Though you may not realize it, your eyes are constantly in motion.  You have only a small amount of very clear vision in each eye.  If you hold your arm out and stick up your thumb, the area of clear vision (which reflects the location of a densely packed group of cells in the back of your eye) is about the size of your thumbnail.  In order to build up a view of what you are looking at, you have to move your eyes around.  The information you point your eyes toward is a good indicator of what you are paying attention to. 
Participants who were put in a thinking mindset looked about equally at the central object in the picture and the background.  Those who were put in a doing mindset looked much more at the central object than at the background.  This result is consistent with the idea that the doing mindset narrows attention to what seems important, while the thinking mindset enables people to take in a lot of information.
One reason why this finding is important, is that our modern world promotes getting things done.  We feel as though we should always be doing something.  However, if we want to take a broad view of a situation, then we need to be willing to take a step back and to put ourselves in a mindset of thinking rather than doing.  These mindsets actually influence what we see in the world around us. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Narcissists Can Be Helped to Feel Empathy


Narcissists are people maintain their self-esteem by drawing on the energy of other people. They thrive on the accolades of others and like to broadcast their achievements.  They also have difficulty in their social interactions, because they do not really empathize with others.
Empathy is the ability to understand and experience someone else’s emotions.  Empathy is a crucial aspect of social relationships.  We are able to work effectively with other people, because we understand what they need.  We recognize what other people are experiencing, and that helps us to exhibit pro-social behaviors that benefit other people and to avoid antisocial behaviors that harm others.
Because empathy is so important for social interactions, it is valuable to know whether people with a tendency toward narcissism can be led to experience more empathy.  This issue was explored in a paper by Erica Hepper, Claire Hart, and Constantine Sedikides in the September, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
The first study they did demonstrated that narcissists really do tend to exhibit low levels of empathy.  Participants completed a personality inventory that measures narcissism.    Then, they read a story about a person who had just gone through a romantic breakup.  The person in the story was the same gender as the participant.  The breakup was either mild or devastating.  The person either saw it coming or did not.
After reading the vignette, participants filled out a scale about how much they empathized with the writer.  The expectation was that non-narcissists would empathize more with the writer when the breakup was severe than when it was mild.  The results bear this out and find that narcissists generally did not empathize with the writer, particularly when the breakup was severe.
Two other studies asked whether instructing people to really take someone else’s perspective would push narcissists to feel more empathy.  In one study, participants who had filled out a narcissism inventory watched a video about a victim of domestic violence.  Some participants were given specific instructions to imagine how the victim was feeling and to take her perspective.  Others were not given these instructions.  After watching the video, participants filled out a survey about how much they empathized with the victim.
Participants high in narcissism did not empathize much with the victim when they just watched the video.  When they were given specific instructions to take the victim’s perspective, though, they did show levels of empathy that were similar to the non-narcissists.
A final study used a similar method, but rather than using survey questions, the experimenters measured heart rate.  Previous research demonstrates hat increases in heart rate are a reliable signal that people are empathizing with others.  Essentially, when you feel someone else’s emotion, you get an increase in arousal, which increases heart rate.  Narcissists given no instructions before watching a video (in this case about a woman undergoing a breakup) did not show an increase in heart rate, but those who were told to take the other person’s perspective did show an increase in heart rate.
These results suggest that narcissists are capable of empathy, but most of the time, they do not put in the effort to take another person’s perspective.  If it is clearly important for narcissist to take another person’s perspective, then they can do it.  Most of the time, though, they do not. 
In order to help narcissists engage in more pro-social behavior, then, it is important to give them reasons to want to take other people’s point of view rather than just focusing on themselves.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Generosity When Paying For Others


It is no surprise that people tend to be frugal when making purchases for themselves.  They look for good deals and generally want to minimize the cost of the things that they buy. 
But what about when buying things for other people?
This question was explored in a fascinating paper in the September, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Minah Jung, Leif Nelson, Ayelet Gneezy and Uri Gneezy. 
First, in a series of field studies, they compared two conditions:  Pay What You Want and Pay It Forward.  In Pay What You Want, people get to decide how much they want to pay for something.  In Pay It Forward, people are told that someone else has paid for them, and they have the opportunity to pay what they want for the next person. 
Three studies looked at entry into a museum.  That museum (the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco) has a Pay What You Want day each week.  People attending the museum were randomly assigned to be told that they could pay what they wanted or that a previous person had paid for them and they had the option to pay what they wanted for another visitor.  In each of these studies, participants paid about 30% more when paying for someone else than when paying for themselves.  A fourth field study involved people buying coffee at a farmer’s market.  Participants paid about 20% more when making a purchase for someone else than when making a purchase for themselves.
Why does this happen?
The researchers performed a series of laboratory experiments to explore this possibility.  One study allowed some participants to meet the next participant before the study.  During the study, participants were given $10 for participating and then were given a coffee mug.  Some participants were told to pay what they wanted for the mug.  Others were told that their mug had been paid for and they could pay what they wanted for the next participant.  As in the field studies, participants paid more when they were paying for someone else (about $2.00) than when paying for themselves (about $1.50).  Meeting the other participant, though, had no impact on how much they were willing to pay.
In this study, participants were also asked how much they thought other people paid for the mug. Interestingly, participants estimated that other people paid more for the mug than they were willing to pay for it themselves. 
This finding suggests that people are overestimating how much other people pay for things, and that is influencing what they spend when paying for someone else.  To test this possibility, another study gave people information about how much other people paid for the mug.  Some people were told the previous participant paid 50 cents.  Others were told that the previous participant paid $2.50.  A control condition was given no information.
In this study, participants in the control condition showed the same effect as before.  They paid more when paying for someone else than when paying for themselves.  When given information about what other people paid, though, the difference in conditions disappeared.  People who were told that the previous participant paid a small amount were willing to pay less than those who were told that the previous participant paid a lot.  But, there was no longer a difference between paying for yourself and paying for someone else.
This work suggests that people adopt different ways of thinking about prices when paying for themselves and when paying for others.  When paying for themselves, people want to get a good deal. That means that they want to pay something, but generally less than what they think other people are paying.  When buying for someone else, though, people give more weight to their beliefs about what other people pay for things.  In order to be seen as generous, people want to feel like they are adhering to a norm. 
An interesting aspect of this work is that people do pay something when given the option to pay whatever they want.  People have the option in all of these studies (including the field studies) to take something for free.  And they do not do that.  There is an inherent sense of fairness that leads people to want to pay something for goods that they take, even though they want to feel like they get a good value for their money.
One reason why people want to pay something for what they get is that there is a broad social contract involved in transactions.  People assume that if they start taking things for free that eventually everyone will try to get something for nothing.  And that means that their own efforts will not be valued in the future.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Using Cognitive Science to Teach About Sex


Sex is a wonderful thing that has potentially life-altering consequences—particularly for teens.  Teen pregnancy can derail educational opportunities.  Sexually transmitted diseases from unprotected sex can have lifelong consequences. 
Because sex is so consequential, sex education is a routine part of teen education, though regions vary in the content of that education.  Some areas of the United States focus primarily on “abstinence only” education that asks teens to refrain from having sex at all.  Other regions have a broader base for their sex education that suggests that teens wait to have sex until they are older, but also provides information about contraception and ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections. 
The best possible outcome for sex education programs is for teens to have an appreciation for the desirability of sex and for them to be able to engage in healthy sexual behavior.  The longer that teens wait to initiate having sex and the more that they practice safe sex (like using condoms) the less likely that they will suffer from the potential negative consequences of having sex.
The most effective programs take a broad-based approach to sex education.  They provide facts about sexual function and healthy sexual practices.  They provide information about risks.  They also give teens practice having difficult conversations about saying no and using condoms.  In addition, they give homework to teens to speak to pharmacists about condoms in order to reduce their anxiety about buying them at the store.
A fascinating paper by Valerie Reyna and Britain Mills in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explored whether a sex education curriculum could be improved by using an understanding of differences between the way teens and adults learn about risks. 
Valerie Reyna and her colleagues have developed a comprehensive model of learning they call fuzzy trace theory.  One of the components of this model is that people store information in a number of different ways.  They learn about the surface of what they were told as well as the gist, which is a summary of the broad meaning of what they were told.
An interesting component of this theory is that adults tend to focus on the gist of what they learn, but that teens often focus on the surface details. 
In the case of sex education, this can be a problem, because many of the facts that teens learn about the consequences of unprotected sex are taught as probabilities.  For example, teens may be taught that the chances of getting pregnant after having unprotected sex are about 1 in 12.  That means that heterosexuals who repeatedly have unprotected sex are highly likely to create a pregnancy. 
Adults readily store this gist information, but teens tend to get focused on the details and remember the probability.  Consequently, they judge unprotected sex as less risky than they should.
In order to overcome this bias in teens, Reyna and Mills took an established sex education curriculum (called Reducing the Risk) and modified it to include more focus on gist level information and less focus on details that teens might remember in ways that would reduce their assessment of the severity of the risks of unsafe sex. 
In a randomized experiment, over 700 teens from three states were assigned either to the original Reducing the Risk curriculum, the modified curriculum that included more gist information, or a control condition that focused on communication skills. The classes in each condition involved a total of 16 hours of instructions with some homework.
The teens were given assessments of their sexual behavior and their attitudes and beliefs about sex before the classes and several times afterward with a final assessment a year after taking the class to which they were assigned.
A year after taking the class, teens who took either curriculum felt they were better equipped to say no if they did not want to have sex, were better prepared to use protection during sex, and had a better understanding of the risks unprotected sex than those in the control condition.
In addition, a year after the class, fewer people who took one of the two classes were deciding to become sexually active than those in the control condition.  Those students who took the course that focused on gist level information were least likely of all the groups to become sexually active.   For those students who were sexually active, those who took the course that focused on gist had fewer partners than those who took the standard curriculum or those in the control condition.  
In addition, the students who took the class that focused on gist also had a better understanding of social norms about safe sex than those who took the standard curriculum or those in the control condition.
That said, once students became sexually active, they engaged in about the same number of acts of unprotected sex and expressed about the same degree of intention to engage in safe sex regardless of whether they took one of the sex education classes or not.
Overall, these results suggest that a broad-based sex education curriculum does help reduce the amount of risky sexual behavior that teens engage in.  In particular, it can increase knowledge, decrease the likelihood of becoming sexually active, and potentially reduce the number of sexual partners that teens engage with.  Using an understanding of the way teens learn can improve the effectiveness of sex education, and it can help teens to develop more accurate knowledge about the risks associated with unprotected sex.
This is just another way that research in cognitive science can be used to improve the way people learn.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Saving Face by Using Ambiguous Language


When we use language, it seems so easy to understand what other people are saying that it is hard to appreciate the complexity of the act of carrying on a conversation.  Obviously, we miscommunicate at times, but most of the time, we do a good job of understanding what other people mean and making ourselves understood.
It is particularly striking that we are so good at communicating when we realize how often we do not say directly what we mean to other people. 
Even in everyday situations, we often speak indirectly.  For example, you might ask a colleague “Can you open the door?”  You are not literally asking this colleague whether she is capable of opening the door.  You are asking for her help. 
In addition to this indirect speech, we use a lot of terms whose meanings are ambiguous.  For example, in the previous sentence, I used the phrase “a lot.”  What does that mean.  It means more than a few and not as many as a ton but it does not refer to a specific number.
We use these ambiguous terms for many reasons.  One reason is that specific values may not be available (or all that relevant).  I don’t know exactly how many ambiguous terms there are in English, but a lot seems like a reasonable description of them, and so I use that term. 
An interesting paper by Thomas Holtgraves in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines the role people’s beliefs about saving face on the way we understand ambiguous words.
Whenever we communicate with someone else, we are presenting something about ourselves to others.  The public view of our selves is called our face.  We want to manage the impression we give to others and to present as positive a face as possible.  In addition, most of the time we don’t want to put our conversation partners in a situation in which they will lose face in our interaction.
For example, suppose a friend cooks you a meal.  At the end of the meal, you can say, “I liked it.”  The word “like” is ambiguous, and so you can use it for a range of attitudes toward the meal, but it allows your conversation partner to maintain a positive impression while you are talking.
If people are sensitive to this use of language, then they should assume that when people use ambiguous evaluations like this when talking with friends, their actual impression of the object is less good than when there is no reason to be worried the face of their conversation partner.
To test this possibility, the researcher had people read fictitious conversations between people.  Sometimes, the speaker was evaluating an item (like a home-cooked meal) that was made by the hearer.  They used ambiguous words such as “liked,” “loved,” “good,” and “excellent.”  Other times, the speaker was evaluating an item that was made by a third person, so that the face of the hearer was not involved.  For example, Sue might ask Jenny whether she liked the meal that Harry cooked, and Jenny might reply, “I liked it.”  Then, participants rated how much they thought the speaker actually liked the item.
Consistent with the idea that people are concerned about preserving face in conversations, participants rated that the speaker liked the object (such as the meal) less when they used an ambiguous word and were talking to the person who created the item than when they were talking to a person who did not make the item.  That is, people assume that the speaker is trying to help the hearer save face by not telling the hearer exactly what they thought of their product.
In other studies, Holtgraves demonstrated a similar effect with words that refer to frequencies and quantities like often or sometimes.  In this case, the speaker was telling the hearer that the hearer had a negative quality.  For example, Sue might tell Jenny “You sometimes have bad breath.”  Or, Sue and Jenny might be talking about Harry and Sue might say “he sometimes has bad breath.” 
In this case, participants thought the speaker meant that the ambiguous word to refer to a higher frequency when it was used to save face than when it wasn’t.  That is, telling Jenny she sometimes has bad breath means that she has it more often than telling Jenny that Harry sometimes has bad breath.
These studies demonstrate that a lot of the complexity of using language properly is not a result of the language itself, but rather a result of the way we use language to manage our social interactions.  Because we are sensitive to people’s need to preserve a positive public face, we use the ambiguity of language to help them do that.
Ambiguous words are helpful, because they do not require us to come out and criticize other people forcefully when we want to give them bad news.  Instead, we can soften the blow and make the conversation go more smoothly by giving the hearer some wiggle room in how they interpret what is said.