Monday, August 29, 2011

Video games make a lousy gift.

Because it is back-to-school time, it is interesting to think a bit about another drain on kids’ time—video games.  What role video games have on kids’ performance in school? 

There is a lot of correlational evidence suggesting that video games are bad for schoolwork.  That is, kids who play lots of video games tend to do more poorly in school than kids who do not play that often.

Correlational studies are the most obvious studies to do to address this question, because it is straightforward to get information about school performance about a group of children and then find out from their parents how often they play video games at home.  Of course, the problem with correlational studies is that there are many factors that could be causing the results that go beyond what was measured.  Maybe the kids who play the most video games at home have the least parental supervision, and so they don’t do well in school.  Maybe the kids who are struggling most in school are the ones who seek out video games as a way to escape the frustration of homework.

A nice study in the April, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky tackles this issue head-on.  They found a sample of boys between the ages of 6 and 9 who did not yet own a video game system, but whose parents were planning to buy them one in the near future. 

They got information about reading, writing, and math performance in school about all the boys as well as information from parents and teachers about behavior at home and at school.  Two groups of boys were created.  The groups were set up so that their current level of school performance was about the same. 

One group of the boys was given a PS2 game system and three age-appropriate games.  The other group did not get a game system.  After four months, the researchers got information about current reading and math performance, behavior, and an assessment from the parents about how the kids were spending their time.

Reading and writing performance of the boys given the PS2 was significantly worse than that of the boys who did not get the game system.  There were no statistically reliable differences in math performance. 

Other statistical analysis found that the difference in reading performance could be explained by the amount of time that the boys spent playing video games each week.

Why was language performance hurt, but not math performance?  Between the ages of 6 and 9, there are many opportunities for kids to get extra practice with language.  Just having a conversation with parents can improve language use.  In addition, kids can sit at the dinner table and read a book.  Parents can spend some time reading to their children.  The video games cut into this unstructured reading time.  There aren’t as many opportunities to practice math outside of doing schoolwork directly, and so math performance was not hurt. 

What about behavior?  There was a tendency for the kids who got the video games to exhibit more behavior problems in school than those who did not get the games.  This difference was small, but it should be of some concern, because the boys in this study had only had the games for about 4 months when the follow-up measures were taken.  These initial differences could get larger over time.

What does this mean?

The problem here is probably not the video games themselves.  The problem is that video games are very enticing.  Kids can sit and play video games for many hours.  In that time, they engage in few real conversations with others, and so they end up with much less practice reading and using language. 

As a parent, I know how hard it is to resist buying a video game system for your kids.  Obviously, if there is no game system in the house, that will limit the amount of time that your kids play games.  If you do decide to buy a game system, then it is important to have strict limits on the amount of time that it gets played to leave enough time for the kinds of interactions that enhance learning.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why girls drop math III: Stereotype threat

In the previous two posts, I talked about two factors that lead girls to drop math:  their belief that math is a talent not a skill, and their desire to pursue careers that have lots of social interaction.  I mentioned data from Jacquelynne Eccles that looked at reasons why girls drop math.  Another factor that strongly affects girls is math anxiety.  The more math anxious girls get, the less likely they are to continue taking math.

One important part of math anxiety is a vicious circle.  Girls hear from parents, friends, and sometimes teachers that girls in general don’t do well in math.  So, there is a stereotype out there in the culture that girls are bad at math.  That stereotype then leads to anxiety when girls are confronted with tests that will demonstrate their math ability.  That anxiety causes girls to do worse on math tests than they would if they were not aware of the stereotype.  Their poor performance on tests convinces them that they are bad at math, and the stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This pattern was first demonstrated by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who called it stereotype threat.  They found that when people are in a situation in which they might confirm a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong (based on gender, race, or ethnicity, for example) they perform worse in that evaluation than they do when they are not aware of the stereotype.  This finding has been obtained in many settings since it was first reported in 1995.

What can be done?

Research from our lab by  Lisa Grimm, Todd Maddox, Grant Baldwin and I (published in a 2009 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) had college men and women take a hard math test (using questions from the GRE exam that is used for entrance to graduate school).  In one condition, people got points for each question they answered, but they got more points for correct answers than for incorrect answers.  In this case, we observed the typical stereotype threat effect.  The women got about 10% more of the questions wrong than the men did. 

In a second condition, though, people started off with a number of points, and they lost points for each question they answered.  They lost fewer points for correct answers than for incorrect answers, and so they were trying to minimize the number of points that they lost.  In this case, the women actually performed somewhat better than the men.  In fact, the women who were trying to minimize the number of points they lost did just as well as the men who were trying to maximize the number of points they gained.  That is, the stereotype threat effect disappeared.


We suggested that having a negative stereotype puts you in a defensive motivational mode.  You are prepared for negative outcomes in the environment.  If the environment actually has positive outcomes in it (like gaining points), then you act cautiously, and your performance in testing situation suffers.  If you are prepared for negative outcomes and the environment actually has negative outcomes in it (like you are losing points), then you are less cautious, because the environment is as you expect it to be.

There is still a long way to go to figure out how to use results like this to demonstrate to girls that they do not need to fear math.  But now, at least, we know that the effects that negative stereotypes on girls can be counteracted.  Hillary Clinton bashed the glass ceiling in politics.  Hopefully the ongoing research in Psychology will bash the glass ceiling in math and science as well.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why girls drop math II: Who wants to be alone?

We know that girls are less likely to go into math and “hard science” careers than boys.  There are lots of reactions people have to this news.  Some, like Lawrence Summers (who became the former president of Harvard in large part because this remark in 2005) suggested that women may not have the same innate abilities in math as men.  Others suggest that the school system is somehow failing girls in school.  Still others are concerned about social pressure that girls might feel to shy away from looking smart when there are boys around.

These last two ideas have some traction in popular and political culture.  There has been movement to create all-girls’ schools to give girls an environment to thrive.  Indeed, my home town of Austin Texas has a public all-girls school (named after former Texas governor Ann Richards).  I think there is much to like about the idea about an all-girls school for middle-schoolers.  One question we should ask, though, is whether the mass exodus of girls from math (and to some degree hard sciences) is being caused by a failure of the educational system.

Psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles has studied this question extensively.  One of her more surprising findings is that girls tend to attach less value to math than boys.  There are a few sources of the difference in value that boys and girls place on math.

For one, parents may give their children beliefs about how important math ought to be to them.  Eccles’ evidence suggests that girls are less likely to value math and to take advanced math courses when their parents do not believe that math is as important for girls as it is for boys.  So, girls are internalizing the beliefs of their parents.

For another, there is a pervasive stereotype that mathematicians lead a lonely existence.  When we think about mathematicians, we imagine the lone genius hunched over a desk writing incomprehensible formulas that have lots of Greek letters in them.  On occasion, these lonely figures may emerge from their cramped messy dens to shout Eureka and post the solution to a problem that five people in the world care about on a blackboard in a university hallway. 

Girls find this prospect much less appealing than boys.  Girls are much more likely than boys to state that want a career that has lots of social interaction as a part of it.  When girls start making decisions about the classes they are going to take, they are much more likely to gravitate toward sciences like biology and psychology than toward math, chemistry or physics.  Biology usually leads to pre-medical study in college, and the medical professions are seen as very social.  Likewise, psychology, social work, and other helping professions are seen as social. 

This research suggests that one big reason why girls are less likely to stick with math than boys is a difference in life goals. 

The big question, then, is whether the stereotype about math and the hard sciences is true.  In fact, much of modern science is highly collaborative.  Scientists must find ways to work together to solve difficult problems.  The myth of the lone scientist is just that—a myth.  And that means that science has a public relations job to do.  If we want more girls to go into math and science professions, we are going to need to do more work letting girls know what those careers will really involve. 

I do want to be clear about one thing, though.  There are lots of reasons to think that some girls will be more likely to succeed in a school environment without boys.  So, I am not suggesting that we close all-girl schools.  I am suggesting that the reason to open such schools is not because our current schools are failing to give a good math and science education to girls.  However, we might use venues like all-girl schools to start the process of teaching girls more about what careers are possible with a good math and science education.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why girls drop math I: Beliefs about Math

Here in Texas, it may be 105 degrees, but marching band practice started, and there have been orientations at my kids’ schools, so it must be time for them to go back.  That got me thinking about a big problem in math and science education.  In elementary school, boys and girls are about even in their performance in math and science.  By middle school, girls start to lag behind, and few women go on to pursue math in college.  What is going on?

There are lots of answers to this question, but I’ll explore a few over the next week.  Think of this as the back-to-school portion of the blog.

One factor that leads girls to drop math is that boys and girls seem to differ in their beliefs about math.  Psychologist Carol Dweck (author of the fantastic book Mindset) argues that people can have two different sets of beliefs (or mindsets) toward academic topics.  

Entity theorists treat academic topics as if they were talents.  You either have them or you don’t.  So, you could be good at math or bad at math.  If you’re good at math, then you’ll learn it.  If you’re bad at math, then at some point, you’ll reach a type of math that goes beyond your abilities.

Incremental theorists treat math as a skill to be acquired.  Stick with math, and eventually you’ll get even the really hard stuff.

Dweck and her colleagues find that people who treat math (or any other academic subject) as a skill will stick with it longer and try harder when it gets difficult than when they treat it as a talent. 

The way this affects boys and girls is that Dweck has collected evidence that boys and girls get different feedback about math from early on in their schooling.  Eventually, everyone hits a topic in math that they struggle with.  When talking to girls, teachers are likely to emphasize that math is hard.  Talking about math as being difficult makes it sound like something that either you can do or you can’t.

Boys tend to get feedback that treats math as a skill to be acquired.  When they hit a hard topic, they are told to try harder and they’ll eventually get it. 

Because girls are more likely than boys to get feedback that treats math as a talent, they are more likely to end up with an entity theory of math.  The truly hard stuff in math comes in middle school, when kids are first exposed to algebra and geometry and later trigonometry and calculus.  Eventually, one of these topics is going to derail everyone, at least for a while.  Because of their beliefs about math, then, girls are more likely than boys to conclude that they have reached the limits of their talent and give up.

That isn’t the whole story, of course, and I’ll pick up on this in my next post.

Monday, August 15, 2011

How do we decide whether you are to blame?

There are lots of situations in which we have to assign blame for an event to a particular person or group of individuals.  Much of the daily newspaper is devoted to deciding who caused events to occur.  Wars may be caused by the actions of a government.  A suspect may be the cause of a series of bank robberies.  A particular player may be given the blame for the loss of a football game.

Assigning blame is particularly important for the legal system.  In order for people to be found guilty of a crime, a jury has to believe that they are responsible for that crime.  And the worst of the crimes are those for which the suspect committed the crime and meant to do it.  For example, the most serious murder cases are those for which the killer meant to kill someone and then carried through the plan.  So, the thoughts of the suspect matter in people’s judgments of guilt.

The role of the perpetrator’s thoughts at the time they committed the crime in assigning blame was examined in paper by Jason Plaks, Nicole McNichols, and Jennifer Fortune in the December, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

They examined two kinds of intentions that someone might have to commit a crime that differ in how abstract or specific they are.  Distal intentions are abstract or general commitments to perform an action.  For example, a particular person, J.G. may stand to inherit money from his uncle.  So, he may want to kill his uncle.  That is a distal intention, because killing is a relatively abstract concept.  Proximal intentions are specific commitments to a particular plan.  For example, J.G. may want to run his uncle down with a car.  That is a specific method of trying to kill him.

These researchers were interested in how much a suspect’s thoughts while they committed a crime affected people’s judgments of blame.  They found that in normal situations, both distal intentions and proximal intentions affect people’s judgments of how much someone is to blame for a crime.  To test this idea, they created a series of scenarios and had people decide how strongly a person (J.G.) was to blame for the action.  In all of these scenarios, J.G. wanted to kill his uncle by running him down with his car. 

In the story with both distal and proximal intent, J.G. indeed did run his uncle down with the car and killed him.  In the story with only distal intent, J.G. was thinking about killing his uncle, when his uncle unexpected stepped out in front of the car while J.G. was driving and he killed him.  In the story with only proximal intent, J.G. was trying to keep himself calm by concentrating on the song on the radio, when suddenly he saw his uncle crossing the street and ran him down.  In the story with neither intent, J.G. was concentrating on his favorite song to keep himself calm, and then his uncle stepped unexpectedly into the street and J.G. hit him and killed him. 

People read only one of these four scenarios.  They thought J.G. was most to blame when he had both the distal and proximal and distal intent in mind.  He was least to blame when he had neither to blame when he hit is uncle.  When he had either distal or proximal intent in mind but not both, there was a middle level of blame.

Interestingly, factors that affect how abstractly people think about situations also affected how strongly they weighted proximal or distal intentions.  As one example, lots of research suggests that when we think about events that are far away in time, we tend to think about them more abstractly than when we think about events that are close in time. 

In a second study, people read scenarios like the J.G. story, but were either told that the event had taken place a few weeks before or 75 years before.  The researchers expected that people would think about the situation more abstractly when it took place 75 years ago than when it took place recently.  Consistent with this idea, when the event took place 75 years ago, people thought the distal intent was most important for assigning blame.  For them, the killer was nearly equally to blame when he had the distal intent in mind regardless of whether he also had the proximal intent in mind.  When the event took place a few weeks earlier, though, then the proximal intent mattered most.  The killer was nearly equally to blame when he had the proximal intent in mind regardless of whether he also had the distal intent in mind. 

There are a few interesting conclusions to draw from this work.  First (and not that surprisingly) we think that a person’s intentions matter when they perform an action such as committing a crime.  Second, general factors that affect the way people represent situations have a big effect on the way they assign blame.  In the second study here, increasing the distance in time between the event and the assignment of blame changed the factors people used to assign blame. 

This has interesting implications for the legal system.  A suspect in the United States is supposed to get a speedy trial, though court proceedings can sometimes drag on for years.  If a suspect is tried soon after a crime was committed, then the suspect’s proximal intent may have more influence than the suspect’s distal intent on a jury’s judgment of guilt.  On the other hand, if a suspect is tried a long time after the crime is committed, then the suspect’s distal intent may have more influence than the proximal intent on judgments of guilt. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Doing good requires hard work. So does feeling good about it.

There is a lot of psychology research suggesting that people prefer objects that are easy to think about than those that are hard to think about.  For example, the classic “mere exposure” effect shows that people generally prefer objects they have seen before to those that they have never seen before.  This preference arises, because it is easier for people to think about an object they have encountered before than an object that is new to them.

One explanation for the mere exposure effect is that ease of thinking causes high preference directly.  That is, there may be a biologically hard-wired connection between liking and ease of thinking. 

An article by Aparna Labroo and Sara Kim in the January, 2009 issue of Psychological Science suggests a different explanation.  Their work suggests that the ease of thinking about something is a piece of information that becomes part of the way an object is evaluated.  Under some circumstances, greater ease of thinking about an object may actually decrease people’s preference for that object.

In particular, when people are trying to satisfy an important goal, they have what Labroo and Kim call an instrumentality heuristic. People believe that a goal worth carrying out is worth working hard at.  Good things require effort.  In these situations, people actually seem to prefer objects that are hard to process.

In one clever experiment, participants were asked to evaluate whether they wanted to give a real donation to the charity Kids in Danger.  This charity promotes safety in children’s products, and was created by psychologist Boaz Keysar and his wife Linda Ginzel after one of their children was killed in a tragic accident involving a portable crib that had a design flaw.  People giving to this charity often feel that they are doing a good deed.

In this study, information about the charity was presented on a computer screen either in a font that was presented clearly on the screen or with a font that was hard to read.  In typical experiments on ease of thinking, products whose descriptions are easy to read are preferred to products whose descriptions are hard to read.  In this experiment, though, because the goal of doing good is associated with effort, people were actually more likely to give to the charity when the description was hard to read than when it was easy to read.  The difficulty of reading the description matched with people’s believes that pursuing an important goal requires effort.

More generally, this finding demonstrates that factors like the ease of thinking about an object can affect preferences for that object, but they do so by providing an additional piece of information about that object.  Whether ease of thinking increases or decreases people’s preferences depends on their goal in making a decision.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vice, virtue, and the box office.

It is summertime, and the movie studios trot out their summer blockbusters and comedies.  That’s what summer is all about.  In Texas, when it gets to be 102 outside, sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater is not such a bad thing.  But why are people flocking to movies that are clearly so awful.  The poster-child for awful movies this year is Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  The reviews of this movie are uniformly terrible, but the film has already done over $300 million in sales in the United States alone.  What gives?

We could assume that the critics are all just wrong.  But that doesn’t seem to be a complete explanation.  Everyone I know who saw this movie says it was a confused mass of metal.  So the hordes going to the movie must reflect something more basic about the way people make decisions.

The success of summer movies rests on what the behavioral economist George Loewenstein called vices  and virtues.  He’s not talking about the themes of movies here, but about the way people make their choice about the movie they want to see.  The vices in movies are all about the enjoyment.  The virtues are all about the value of the experience of seeing the movie.

Some of the vices in movies are thrills.  Car chases, explosions, and action heroes mowing down endless rows of evildoers are all vices.  Neatly-tied emotional experiences are vices as well.  The standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot of the standard romantic comedy is a vice.  We know by the closing credits the two beautiful stars will be locked in a kiss.  Familiarity is also a vice.  We are far more comfortable with remakes, sequels, and movies that come from familiar TV shows and toys than with things that are new.

Virtues are things that add value to the movie-going experience.  Learning something new is a virtue.  (Documentaries—even well-made documentaries—are chock-full of virtue.)  A complex emotional experience is a virtue.  Grappling with real-world issues is a virtue.  Movies with virtues are satisfying both in the theater and also long afterward.

Loewenstein suggests that people recognize the value of virtues, but when they are actually at the theater ready to buy a ticket, they invariably fall back on vices.  In one study, he gave people a coupon good for a free rental of a movie that they could pick up either that night or the next week.  They had to select the movie they wanted when they selected the coupon. They were given the choice of a virtue movie (Schindler’s List—a movie about the holocaust) or a vice movie (a low-brow comedy).  When people were choosing the movie they would watch next week, they tended to pick the virtue movie.  When they were choosing the movie they would watch that day, however, they would pick the vice movie.  In the moment of choice, people were worried that they would be bored, or sad, or generally not entertained.

Interestingly, movie delivery services like Netflix provide an interesting test of this explanation.  With Netflix, you set up a queue of movies and they get mailed to you.  So, you are choosing movies that you are going to watch some time in the future.  I find that I will put a documentary or a complex heavy “virtue” movie on my queue, and it will get mailed.  But then, it will sit at the house for a few weeks because the time never seems right to watch it.  Eventually we watch it, of course, and typically we really enjoy it and value the experience.  But in the moment of truth, it is hard to actually decide to watch it.

The same thing happens at the movie line over the summer.  In the end, we just want a pleasant experience at the movies.  So, even if the reviews are horrible, we end up valuing the potential thrills, comfort, and familiarity over the virtues of depth, complexity, and knowledge.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go! Synchrony and team-building.

How do you build a team?  In the army, new recruits learn to march in formation.  Camps often teach a camp song that campers sing together at the top of their lungs around campfires.  Religious groups have elaborate group rituals involving singing, chanting, and sometimes moving in unison.  Crowds at sporting events will often cheer together at key moments.  Is there something to this synchronized behavior that creates a sense of a team?

This question was explored by Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath in research reported in the January, 2009 issue of Psychological Science.  They had small groups of people perform activities together, and varied whether they performed those activities in unison.  Then, they had people play games in which people could choose to cooperate with each other or compete against each other.

They used a range of different activities.  In one study, small groups walked across a college campus together, but either walked in step with each other, or at their own pace.  In another study, a small group of participants sat in a room and listened to a song over headphones.  Some groups just listened.  Some groups sang the song aloud as it played over the headphones so that the entire group was singing together.  Some groups sang aloud, but the song was played at a different tempo for each person, so that they were all singing, but not together.    

The cooperation games that people played were made to look like they were part of an unrelated study.  Participants were given a few questions after doing the first set of activities, and then a second experimenter came in, and described the new study.  Nonetheless, people were systematically more likely to cooperate with each other in these games if they had moved or sung in unison with their teammates than if they had not.  People singing the song at different tempos acted just like the group that didn’t sing at all.  The synchronized movements also increased people’s sense that they belonged to a common group with the other people in the study.

This finding highlights the importance of our bodily experience in our social interactions.  It is well-known that when people are engaged in a conversation, they tend to match each other in many ways.  For example, people who are conversing tend to match the pitch of their voices, the speed they talk, and even the number of hand gestures they make while communicating.  So, participating in a cooperative task can synchronize people’s bodies. 

Apparently, it goes the other way as well.  Getting people to synchronize their body movements leads to cooperative behavior.  I wonder if I can get my kids to march in step around the house…