Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dream Global, Act Local

When you want to motivate someone to do something, you tell them to Dream Big, and to Reach for the Stars.  That is, of course, important advice.  It is hard to achieve greatness without ever dreaming of greatness.  An important question, though, is how you should go about achieving that greatness after you have dreamed it?

An interesting study in the November, 2008 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Linda Houser-Marko and Kennon Sheldon sheds some light on that question.  They point out that there is lots of previous research (much of it by Dan Wegner and Robin Vallacher) that points out that people are able to identify the actions they are carrying out at a variety of different levels of generality. For example, imagine that you are talking on the phone in order to ask your friend whether you can borrow her car.  If someone stopped you in the middle of the conversation and asked you what you were doing, you could say “begging for a car,” or perhaps “asking a question” or even “speaking into the phone.”  The first of these is a very general statement of what you are doing.  The last of these is a very specific action that is part of the more general action of begging for a car. 

When you dream big, you are usually thinking about a grand and general action.  You might want to become a great musician, get a good grade in a class, or perhaps get a rewarding job, or even make the world a safer place.  To carry out any of these big goals, you also need to carry out a series of smaller steps.  For example, getting an A in a class might require studying a certain number of hours each week, or practicing skills from the class, or spending an amount of time writing.

When you are in the process of trying to achieve a big goal, how should you think about your actions?

Houser-Marko and Sheldon’s data suggest that you should focus on the specific actions that are part of the broader goal.  The reason why you should focus on actions, is that you may sometimes fail along the way toward trying to achieve the broader goal.  For example, if you want to get an A in the class, you might set the goal of studying at least 10 hours a week for the class.  Imagine you have a difficult week, or perhaps a strong temptation comes up.  You might study only 6 hours for the class in one week.  If you focus on the general goal of getting an A, then you will feel worse about this failure than if you focus just on the local goal of studying for 10 hours.  The idea is that small failures along the way are more likely to be seen as chipping away at the possibility that you will achieve the broader goal when you focus only on that general goal than if you focus on the specific actions.  If you start to feel bad about your prospects for success at the larger goal, you may give up altogether. 

So, these findings suggest that when you dream, you should dream globally.  Set your sights on high achievement.  But when it comes time to actually achieve your goal, act locally.  Find specific actions that will bring you toward your goal. Even if you stumble on the way to the goal, if you focus on the specific actions, you will not see your failure as a sign that you will not succeed at your dreams.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What is your pain and suffering worth?

The civil courts are one of the most humane systems society has invented.  We take property damage, pain, suffering, and lost wages that have been caused by the negligence or even the willful actions of others and translate them into a dollar amount.  This system allows people to settle their disputes peacefully.  But it does rely on our ability to translate things like pain and suffering into a monetary value.

What factors influence the way we judge the value of intangible elements like pain and suffering?

There was an  interesting paper exploring this issue in the August, 2008 issue of Psychological Science by Eugene Caruso, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson.  They looked at the value that people give to things in the past and in the future.  Consider, for example, an auto accident.  A woman in her car is struck head-on by another car driven by a man who didn’t pay attention to a stop-sign.  The man is clearly at fault.  The woman is injured and it will take 6 months for her to heal.  How much should she be awarded by the insurance company for her pain and suffering?  The researchers asked this question in two ways.  In one situation, the accident was 6 months ago, and the woman is now completely healed.  In the other, the accident just happened, and she is beginning her recovery period.  They found that people were willing to award the woman twice as much when the pain and suffering was yet to happen than when it was now over.  So, future pain and suffering was more valuable than past pain and suffering. 

One interesting side-note, people do not believe that they ought to value the present and future differently.  The researchers did some studies in which they asked both the past and future questions to the same people.  In this case, people gave the same value to past and future events.  However, if they saw the past question first, then the values they gave to both events was lower than if they saw the future question first. 

It is also worth pointing out that this effect was not limited to negative events.  In another study, people were asked how much they would want to be paid for 10 days worth of boring work.  People asked for more money if they were asking for work they had yet to do than if they were being asked for payment for work they had already completed.

So, what does this mean?  I guess that depends on whether you are the insurance company or the person who has suffered damage…Insurance companies ought to wait to place any value on pain and suffering until they are over.  They will seem less valuable when they are finished than while they are ongoing.  On the other hand, if you have suffered damage, your pain and suffering will have the most value while you are going through it.   

Thursday, June 23, 2011

If you’re not in a group, you better have a plan.

Much of your life is spent doing routine things.  On weekdays, you have a set of actions you take out of habit to wake up, get ready to leave your house, go to work or school and so on through the day.  You also have some strategies for helping you to remember things that vary from day to day.  You may have a to-do list or an agenda.  You might place little post-it notes around your home or office to remind you to do things.

But how do you make sure that you do things that are really rare?  By definition, you have no routines for those.

A study by David Nickerson and Todd Rogers in the February, 2010 issue of Psychological Science examined this question by looking at voting behavior.

There is research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues that it can often be helpful to envision a specific plan (which he calls an implementation intention) when you need to perform an action that is out of the ordinary.  Voting can be a pain, for example.  If election day is during the week (as it often is), you have to arrange your day to get to a polling station at a time when you can afford to wait if there is a line.  That requires thinking carefully about your schedule for that day and choosing a time of day that makes sense to go. 

Do these plans actually help you?

Nickerson and Rogers built a study into calls made to nearly 300,000 voters in the Democratic Presidential Primary election in Pennsylvania 2008.  They selected only registered voters who rarely vote in the primary elections.  Some voters were just called and reminded to vote.  A standard “Get out the vote” call.  Some were called and asked to predict whether they thought they would vote in the upcoming primary.  A third group was asked to think specifically about how they would get to the polls on election day in order to vote.  That is, they had to form an implementation intention.  Later, the voting records were checked to determine the proportion of people receiving each type of call who actually voted.

The results were interesting.

People who lived in a family with 2 or more registered voters in the house were completely unaffected by the type of call they received.  They were just as likely to vote whether they got a call or not and the type of call they received did not matter.

The results were quite different for people who were the only registered voter in their home.  These people were much more likely to vote if they were asked to form a specific plan than if they were just reminded to vote or asked to predict whether they would vote. 

What does this mean?  Obviously, performing actions that go beyond the ordinary is difficult.  In this primary election, only about 45% of registered Democrats actually voted, so most people either were not interested or could not find a way to get to the polls. 

If you live with a group, then it is easier for everyone in the group to talk about their plans.  It is also easier get support from others to help you satisfy your goals.  For example, all of you might go to the polls together.

When you are the only one responsible for an action, though, you don’t have other people to discuss your plans with.  You also don’t have social support for carrying out an action.  So, being forced to think through the details of a plan is particularly important when you are acting alone.

There are two important conclusions to draw from this research.

First, if you know you are going to have to do something out of the ordinary (like voting or perhaps starting a new exercise program), you should try to enlist a few others to help you out.  It is easier to generate intentions and stick to them when you are in a group.

Second, if you can’t enlist a group, then make sure you really think through the details of a plan to carry out an action.  That detailed plan will help you to overcome the variety of obstacles that often keep you from succeeding when you have to go beyond the ordinary actions of the day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What’s the harm in asking?

As the parent of high school kids, I see the number of surveys that go to kids trying to determine their risky behavior.  They are frequently asked about drug use and sex.  On the one hand, it seems like a good idea to have a sense of what high school students are doing as a group.  On the other hand, there can be a real downside to asking questions.  For example, a 2008 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research had a nice research dialogue on the influence of asking questions on a person’s future behavior.

The target article was written by Gavan Fitzsimons and Sarah Moore.  Gavan, along with his colleague Vicky Morwitz have done quite a bit of research over the past few years on the paradoxical effect that asking people questions about future behavior may actually influence the behavior itself.  To take a simple example, there is a classic study by Jim Sherman demonstrating that asking people whether they will volunteer for a good cause leads them to overestimate how likely they will be to volunteer relative to people who are not asked to predict whether they will volunteer.  However, this over-prediction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because this group ends up volunteering more often than a control group that is not asked to predict their future volunteer behavior.

The question of interest in the target article by Fitzsimons and Moore is whether asking teens about risky behaviors like sex and drug use will actually increase the likelihood that these kids will engage in the risky behavior.  There is a growing body of data suggesting that this question-behavior effect does occur.  (There is a commentary on the Fitzsimons and Moore article by Jim Sherman who argues that a lot more research is required to really demonstrate how pervasive this effect is, but there is certainly enough data around to be concerned.)

To be clear, the issue here is that asking kids about whether they plan to use drugs in the near future might make them more likely to use drugs in the near future.  Asking kids whether they plan to have unprotected sex in the near future might make them more likely to have unprotected sex.  Furthermore, there are number of large-scale studies that are being conducted in which these kinds of questions are asked of teens, so this is not an idle concern.

Happily, there are some ways to guard against the question-behavior effect.  Most importantly, there is evidence that if people are told about the question-behavior effect in advance, they don’t seem to be affected by the questions they are asked.  One reason why knowing about the effect may reduce the question-behavior effect is that if you respond to a question about a risky behavior, it will bring to mind both the knowledge that the behavior is risky as well as knowledge about the attractive aspects of the behavior.  The positive feeling about the risky behavior may hang around even after the memory of the survey has faded, leaving you with a positive feeling about a potentially dangerous behavior and no clear source of where that positive feeling came from.  If the opportunity to engage in that risky behavior then arises, this residual positive feeling may lead you to engage in the behavior, because you mistakenly think this positive feeling indicates you want to engage in that behavior.  Knowing about the question-behavior effect in advance gives you an explanation for the positive feelings about the risky behavior, making it less likely that you will believe that these feelings indicate that you want to engage in the behavior.

As a parent, that means that if you find out that your kids are going to participate in a survey or if you find out that they are going to get any kind of sex or drug education in school, you should talk to them beforehand about the fact that being asked a question about a risky behavior can affect future behavior, but primarily when you don’t know that being asked a question can affect that behavior. 

In addition, as a parent, you should talk to your kids about the survey or education program after it is over.  We all hate to talk to our kids about sex and drugs.  It is easier to hope or assume that they are not having sex and taking drugs.  However, just asking about the survey or education program is much easier than having to talk to your kid about why they are taking drugs or having sex (protected or unprotected).  So intervene with your kids before and after a survey to eliminate the impact of questions on future behavior.

And by the way, kids are not the only ones who are susceptible to the question-behavior effect.  In one study, adults who were asked how likely they would be to buy a car in the next six months were significantly more likely to buy a car in that period than a control group that was not asked that question.  So, before you participate in any kind of questionnaire, remind yourself that being asked questions about your future behavior can affect that future behavior.

And finally, even though you now know about the question-behavior effect, if you are given the chance to volunteer your time, do it. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why is it so hard to quit smoking?

If you take even a quick look at the newspaper, you can see that there are massive public policy efforts aimed to curb smoking.  States are raising their cigarette taxes.  Cities around the world are banning smoking in restaurants.  Even Holland (where it seems like almost every vice is legal) no longer allows cigarette smoking in restaurants and public places.  What makes it so hard to quit smoking?

That would, of course, be a topic for a whole book, and not just one blog entry.  It does provide a good excuse for me to talk a bit about some research that I have done with Miguel Brendl, Claude Messner, and Kyungil Kim.  The question of interest to us is how a goal or a need affects what you like.  For now, let’s think about smoking.

The need to smoke is affected by many factors.  Some of them involve a physiological addiction to nicotine.  However, the situation also affects the need to smoke.  Smoking is often associated with drinking coffee, for example, so a cup of coffee will often trigger the need to smoke in a smoker.  So, the strength of a goal will grow and shrink.  Sometimes, the need will seem desperate, but at other times (say right after having a cigarette), it won’t seem so strong at all.

When the need to smoke is triggered, it affects what you like and dislike at that moment.  The idea that likes and dislikes can change over short periods of time shouldn’t be surprising.  After all, you may grab a CD to listen to in the car in the morning, only to find that you no longer feel like listening to it in the evening.  Foods that were quite appealing on one day may be much less appealing on another day.

One factor that changes your preferences is the goals that are engaged at any given moment. Most of us have the intuition that if you have any strong goal, then your preference for things that would help you satisfy that goal will increase.  If you really need to smoke, then suddenly, cigarettes will look really good to you.  We call this effect of goals valuation.  That is, having an active goal makes things related to that goal more valuable.  There is some experimental evidence for this kind of valuation.

What is potentially more interesting, though, is that in a 2003 paper in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, and a 2007 paper in Emotion, we find strong evidence for devaluation.  That is, having an active goal will decrease your liking for things that are unrelated to that goal.  So, a smoker with a high need to smoke is less interested in things like DVD players, french fries, and camping tents than that same person is when the need to smoke is low. 

We found evidence for this in many ways.  In one study with smokers, we had smokers participate in a study after sitting in a long lecture class.  They could not smoke during class.  One group was asked to stay in a classroom and was given a cup of coffee (to stimulate the need to smoke).  This group really had a high need to smoke.  The other group went outside the classroom. They were also given a cup of coffee, but the experimenter lit up a cigarette, and all of the participants did too.  For this group, the coffee was a way to help us make sure enough time went by that the nicotine would help dull the need to smoke.

Before getting on to what they thought the study was really about, the participants were asked if they were interested in buying raffle tickets.  For half of the people, the prize was three cartons of cigarettes that would be given out in a drawing a week later.  For the other half of the people, the prize was an amount of money equivalent to what you’d pay for three cartons of cigarettes.  So what happened?

People who were offered the raffle to win cigarettes were somewhat more likely to buy tickets if they had a high need to smoke than if they had a low need to smoke.  That is, there was some evidence for this idea of valuation. 

People who were offered the raffle to win cash bought tickets if they had a low need to smoke.  The group in the classroom (who had a high need to smoke) bought almost no tickets at all.  That is, when people had a high need to smoke, they were really uninterested in cash. 

There are two important things to take away from this.  First, even though people know abstractly that cash can be used to purchase cigarettes, their goals have a very concrete effect on their preferences.  So, things that are not obviously related to smoking are devaluated.  Second, the people who are inside the classroom and need a cigarette probably walked out of the classroom after the study and smoked a cigarette.  Presumably, if we had offered this raffle to them after having their cigarette instead, they would have been more interested in buying tickets to win cash.  So, cigarettes can change people’s preferences pretty rapidly.

This means that a smoker trying to quit smoking can talk quite a bit about how they are going to resist the urge to smoke.  But when that need gets strong, the goal system is going to make cigarettes more and more attractive and is going to make everything else less and less attractive to help make the smoker satisfy their need to smoke.  This operation of the motivational system is usually a good thing.  It operates for all sorts of beneficial goals that people have.  But for habitual smokers, it creates a lot of problems. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Death and other anxieties

Psychological research on motivation has proposed a lot of strange theories.  Perhaps the strangest (to my mind) is Terror Management Theory.  I realize that this sounds like a psychological theory that ought to be part of the Department of Homeland Security, but actually, it proposes that people have specific motivational mechanisms that permit them to deal with the fact that they can contemplate their own mortality. 

The idea that death is a source of anxiety isn’t new.  Indeed, Woody Allen would have had much less material without this fact.  However, research suggests that there are interesting consequences of being reminded about your own mortality.  This evidence was first put forward in a paper by Rosenblatt and colleagues in a 1989 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and research in this area is still growing strong. 

The work suggests that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they tend to be more likely to stick to the norms or rules that their society puts forward as part of ideal behavior.  So, for example, a recent paper by Matthew Gailliot and his colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin finds that people reminded that they will die some day are more likely to want to treat ethnic minorities with respect and are more likely to engage in helping behaviors than are people who are not reminded that they will die some day, but only if these societal beliefs are reinforced as part of the experimental procedure.

Anxiety about death also makes people more likely to punish others for violating social norms.  In one early study, judges were asked to give sentences for prostitution, which is a crime that has a strong moral component to it.  Those judges who were made aware of the possibility of their own death gave harsher sentences to prostitutes than those who did not, suggesting that they were reacting to the moral wrong. 

Before going on, it is worth pointing out that studies have developed some ingenious ways of reminding people that they are mortal.  Some are really overt, like making people imagine what it would be like to die (as compared to a control condition in which people imagine dental pain).  Others are more a bit more subtle. One study in the Gailliot paper mentioned earlier either conducted the study on a sidewalk in front of a cemetery or on a sidewalk nearby that was not near a cemetery.

According to Terror Management Theory, people are more likely to stick with the societal rules when they face their own mortality, because society provides the best protection that anyone has against death.  Society doesn’t prevent death, but acting as a group and affiliating with others does make death less likely at any given moment. 

I must admit, I have always been a bit skeptical of Terror Management Theory, though I believe the data that have been collected.  That is, I do think that when people are reminded of their own mortality, their level of anxiety goes up, and this results in changes in behavior.  Often, behavior changes by making people more helpful and more likely to treat others with respect.  Think back, for example, to the days after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, when there was a general spirit of good will toward others.

The question I have is whether the root cause of this change in behavior is specific to fears about one’s own mortality.  As one good case for comparison, let’s consider Fear of Isolation.  If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember Fear of Isolation, which is the anxiety someone might feel because of social or physical isolation from others.  I talked about Fear of Isolation in the context of cultural differences in thinking, because members of East Asian cultures tend to have a higher Fear of Isolation than members of Western cultures. 

Now, Fear of Isolation also tends to make people affiliate with others.  There have not been extensive experimental tests comparing Fear of Isolation and Mortality Salience (which is the technical term that has been used for being reminded of your own mortality).  However, I suspect that deep down they are quite similar. 

If Mortality Salience and Fear of Isolation are indeed similar, then it opens the door to the possibility that there are a number of different social factors that lead to types of anxiety that cause people to become more attuned to social norms.  That doesn’t change the core fact that social anxiety tends to make people more likely to bond with other people in positive ways.  It only means that the cause of this bonding may be more general than Terror Management Theory predicts.    

What happens when you think about death?

Monday, June 6, 2011

What do you regret?

When my grandfather was in his 90s, I used to visit him at his assisted living facility.  There were lots of residents sitting around, as well as lots of visitors of all ages.  It reminded me of the research that Tom Gilovich and Victoria Medvec and their colleagues have done on regret. 

Regret is the emotion experienced when someone is sad because of an option that was or was not taken some time in the past.  It is possible to regret an action (I should never have jumped into that cactus.) or an inaction (I regret that I never learned to salsa dance.)

Psychologists have been quite interested in regret.  One reason for this interest is because people often make choices based on their expectations of what they will regret in the future.  Typically, this research demonstrates that people will decide not to take an action, when they think they are likely to regret that action in the future.

What is interesting, though, is that what people regret about their past depends on the time frame being considered and also the person’s age. 

First, the time frame.  When people are thinking about the recent past, or thinking about an upcoming situation, they regret actions they might take and inactions about equally.  That is, people are concerned both about the negative consequences of taking an action, and also the negative consequences of forgoing an action.  When they think about the distant past, however, they almost exclusively regret actions not taken. 

To give an example, if you are in college and are thinking about asking someone out on a date, you may think about both regretting asking if you are turned down as well as regretting not ask.  However, in the distant future, however, you are much more likely to regret not asking someone out than asking them out.  So, in the present, you are likely to over-weight the importance of the regret of the action taken. 

Age is the factor that led me to be reminded of this research while I was visiting my grandfather. In a 1994 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Gilovich and Medvec asked people at a range of different ages to name things that they regret.  The younger individuals in their study (undergraduates) regretted both actions and inactions.  In contrast, the older individuals (retirees) almost exclusively regretted inactions. 

One possible reason for this finding is that college students are still at an age where everything seems to be laid out in front of them.  Failing to take up a musical instrument or painting by age 20 does not preclude you from taking it up some time in the future.  So, the consequences of inaction are not so dire.  Instead, the many silly things you have done (putting a dent in your father’s car while rushing home to watch a football game) loom larger than the things you have not yet done.  By retirement age, however, there are fewer options open.  One may still be able to take up a musical instrument, but running a marathon may no longer be a possibility.  From the perch of advanced age, the dent in the car seems inconsequential. 

Why does this matter?  As I mentioned, the earliest research on regret demonstrated that people tend to avoid actions that they think might cause them regret later.  If the action is one that has severe negative consequences and little upside, then such a choice is probably a good one.  However, people may also overvalue the regret they will experience about an action in the future.  After all, by retirement age, you are unlikely to still be stung by a romantic rejection in college, but you may forever rue the possibility that you walked away from your true love. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Relax, NBA Players Choke Too

The NBA Finals are in high gear.  After a seemingly endless season, the players are finally getting down to business.  You would think that NBA players who have spent their lives playing in front of crowds and who claim to live for the thrill of the playoffs would be immune to pressure.  But are they?

My colleagues Darrell Worthy, Todd Maddox and I have been interested in choking under pressure, so we decided to figure out whether NBA players show any signs of choking. The results of our analyses were published in the April, 2009 issue of The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving.  The easiest way to look for signs of choking under pressure is to look at free throw shooting.  For those of you who aren’t basketball fans, a free throw is an unobstructed shot a player is given from a line 15 feet from the backboard.  Because every free throw is taken from the same distance, it is a useful way to look at choking under pressure. 

We found game transcripts for every NBA game played in the 2003-4, 2004-5 and 2005-6 seasons (including the playoffs).  We looked at every free throw taken in the last minute of a game when the teams were within 5 points.  So, we only considered close games. 

The difficulty with looking at free throws shot in different situations, is that it is possible that different players will take the free throws depending on the situation.  For example, if a team is ahead by 2, the opposing team may try hard to foul the worst free-throw shooter to increase their chances that the player will miss.  So, we compared the percentage of free throws made for each point difference between teams to the average percentage of the free throws made by those players across the whole season.  If the shooters are below their season average, then they are choking under pressure.  If the shooters are above their season average, then they are excelling under pressure.

So, what happened?  The highest pressure situation is probably when a player’s team is down by one point, because making the free throw will tie the game.  In this situation, players made around 69% of their free throw.  Overall, these players made about 76% of their free throws during the season, so they shot much worse when their team was down by 1 than they did overall.  This difference was statistically reliable. 

Now, just seeing this number, there are lots of possible explanations.  Perhaps players are just tired at the end of the game, and so they tend to shoot worse.  A good comparison case is what happens when the teams are tied.  This situation is much less pressure-packed, because even if the player misses the free throw, the game is still tied.  The player has the chance to be a hero, but without the risk of failure.  In this case, the players made about 78% of their free throws.  These players also tended to make about 76% of their free throws overall, so they were actually slightly above their season average for this shot (though the difference was not statistically significant). 

Looking more broadly at the data, players were statistically worse than their season average when their team was down by 2 points (72% made compared to a season average of about 77%), and when their team was up by 1 point (also 72% compared to a season average of a about 77%).    When the teams were separated by 3 or more points in any direction, the players shot free throws at about their season average.

So, it looks like NBA players also choke under pressure, and that this effect is strongest when the player has the chance to tie the game in the last minute.  In some ways, this kind of result should be a relief to all of us.  One added stress of being in a pressure situation is the belief that we will perform badly, even though others would not be that strongly affected by pressure.  But even elite athletes at the top of their game suffer the effects of performance pressure.  So, relax, the worst thing that can happen to you when you’re under pressure is that you’ll be just like everybody else.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A few words on subliminal advertising

Summer movie season is here, and the chances are good that you will spend some time in the theater watching at least one of the blockbusters.  Along the way, you might even stop by the snack counter for some popcorn, candy, or a drink. 

Thinking about the movies and snacks often gets people thinking about subliminal advertising as well.  In the 1950’s, an advertiser suggested they had spliced images of brand names into movies at speeds too fast to be noticed and had influenced people’s purchases.  While this story turned out to be a hoax, many people believe that these kinds of brief presentations can really affect what you buy.

So, what is really going on?

Let’s take this in pieces.  First, it really is possible to present items to people that affect their behavior without awareness.  The word subliminal means “below the threshold,” and refers to items that are presented too fast to be noticed consciously.

If you flash something for one frame of a movie, it is presented for about 1/60th of a second.  Because there is an image shown before and after it, you will notice the image consciously, but it will be processed by your visual system, and some information will get through.

The information that gets into the cognitive system makes it easier to think about the concept that was flashed.  Lots of work has shown that subliminal presentations of words will make you faster to respond to other related words.

So, how will this affect choices?

A nice study in the April, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Thijs Verwijmeren, Johan Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe, and Daniel Wigboldus lays out the main factors.  They were interested in choices for drinks.  They measured participants’ level of thirst.  They also determined how much people typically buy two different brands of drinks (one was an ice tea and the other was a bottled water). 

After making these judgments, people were asked to do a simple task in which they saw a row of capital Bs (BBBBBBBB), but on some trials there was also a lower-case b in the row (BBBbBBBB).  They had to count the number of trials where there was a lower-case b.  Before each of the rows of Bs were presented, half the participants saw the brand name of the ice tea flashed on the screen subliminally.

At the end of the study, participants were allowed to select either the ice tea or the water to drink.

The pattern of data is a bit complicated, though it ultimately makes a lot of sense.

When you are not thirsty, the subliminal message has very little effect on your choices.  You tend to pick the drink you generally like.

If you are thirsty, and you have a strong preference for the brand that was shown subliminally, it has no real effect on your choices.

If you are thirsty and you have no real preference for either drink, then you tend to pick the brand that was shown subliminally.

If you are thirsty and your less-preferred drink was shown subliminally, you tend to pick the brand that was shown subliminally (which goes against your habit).

Putting all this together, then, subliminal advertising can have some effects on your choices, though it will not turn you into a robot.  First, subliminal ads only have an effect if you are already motivated to pursue a goal.  So, the subliminal ad will not make you do something you don’t want to do.  Second, subliminal ads have their strongest effect when they make it easier for you to think about something that is not normally your habit.  That is, the subliminal ads tend to favor the underdog.

So go to the movies <follow me on Twitter>, and don’t worry <follow me on Twitter> about ads affecting your trips to the snack bar.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Three ways to beat impulse shopping

One thing you have come to expect when shopping is that you’ll come home with most of the things you intended to get on your trip as well as a few things that you did not leave the house expecting to buy.  I used to go to the hardware store to get light bulbs or air conditioner filters and come home with a new tool or extra plants for the garden.  Somehow, it felt like those other items just leapt into the cart. 

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you pick up a few extra items at the store.  But, those impulse purchases can get you into trouble.  For one thing, if you are trying to keep to a budget, buying things on impulse may break the bank.  Also, there are times when the things you buy on impulse are not so good for you.  Those extra cupcakes at the supermarket probably look better on the shelf than on your waistline.  Finally, some of those things you buy never get used.  I still have a few tools on the shelf that seemed much more crucial to own when I bought them than they ever have since.

What can you do to protect yourself from this sudden desire to buy?

In one clever study published in a paper in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2002, Dan Gilbert, Michael Gill, and Tim Wilson stopped people before the entered a grocery store.  Only those who did not bring a list to the store were allowed to participate.  Everyone began by listing what they intended to buy at the store that day and giving that list to the experimenter.  Before entering the store, half the people were given a muffin to eat, and the other half were not.  So, half the people were definitely not hungry, while the others were at least a little hungry.  Those people who ate the muffin bought many fewer things that they did not intend to buy than those people who were hungry.  So, going to the store hungry tends to make you purchase things you did not intend to buy.

What can you do to protect yourself?  There were two other groups in this study.  These groups were given their list of intended purchases before going into the store.  Again, one group ate a muffin and one did not.  The group that had the list and was hungry did not buy more items than they intended to buy than those who at the muffin and had a list.  So, having a shopping list is your first protection against impulse buying. 

The next thing you can do to protect yourself from impulse purchases is to pay with cash rather than credit cards.  Manoj Thomas, Kalpesh Kaushik Desai and Satheeshkumar Seenivasan published research in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research examining purchases by 1000 households at a grocery store.  The purchases were tracked with the data that comes from using a loyalty card at the store.  All households regardless of the method of payment tended to buy the same amount of healthy food.  But, those households who paid with credit or debit cards tended to buy more junk food than those who paid with cash.  This study (along with some other experiments described in that research paper) demonstrates that paying with cash decreases the number of impulse purchases you make.

The third suggestion for avoiding impulse purchases is to bring a friend to the store.  There is a lot of good evidence that your social network has a big influence on your behavior.  A 2007 paper by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who have many friends that are obese are far more likely to be obese themselves than people who have few friends that are obese.  Part of the reason for this effect of networks is that friends and family members help each other avoid temptations. 

If you are concerned about your impulse purchases, bring a friend shopping with you.  Shop together with a friend at the grocery store.  When you go out to buy clothes or a big-ticket item like a car or jewelry, take someone along who is not going to benefit from your purchase.

The reason that having a friend along is helpful is that as you get more engaged with a purchase, you start to get more positive feelings.  Those positive feelings make everything in the store look better to you.  A friend who is just along for the ride is not going to be as strongly affected by this purchase as you.  That friend can serve as your external conscience.  When you pull out another outfit that you do not really need, that friend can stop you. 

Of course, to make this plan work, you have to agree to let your external conscience be your guide.

So remember, if you want to rein in impulse purchases:  (1) Bring a list to the store, (2) Shop with cash, and (3) Bring a friend