Monday, November 28, 2011

Why is it so hard to shop for others?

There are lots of stresses during the holiday season.  You may have to prepare to spend time with lots of family.  You may have to get your home ready for an invasion of guests.  On top of everything else, you are expected to go out and buy lots of gifts.  And despite all of the jokes about regifting, none of us wants to know that our gift was the one that got passed on down the line.

There wouldn’t be all of those jokes about regifting if it were easy to shop for others.  Why is it so hard?  What can you do about it?

There are lots of reasons why it is hard to shop for others, but here are a few big ones.

First, remember that it is often hard to know what you want for yourself until you are actually in the situation in which you are faced with making a purchase or trying out something new.  Since the 1970s, psychologists have pointed out that there is an inconsistency between people’s attitudes—what they say that they will do—and their behavior—what they actually do.  A big part of this difference between attitudes and behavior is that it is just hard to predict what you are going to want in the future.  So, even if you ask people what they would like as a gift, when they actually get it, they may be disappointed.

Second, there is a tendency for people to act as though others have similar taste to themselves.  This is not an explicit belief.  If asked, you’d probably admit that your taste is different from other people’s taste.  However, when you’re actually in a store looking at gifts, you tend to decide what you think looks fun or pretty or attractive or tasty based on your own biases.  You make these judgments implicitly, without realizing the degree to which your own tastes are affecting your judgment.  That’s why you might nail the fact that your best friend needs a new sweater and still buy one that will never get worn.

What can you do about this?  Here are a few suggestions.

Try to base your judgments of what to get for someone on what they do rather than what they say.  For people you know well, think about their activities.  How do they spend their time?  Get gifts that support those activities.  For people you don’t know that well, guide conversations with them or with others (like their parents if they are younger children) toward what they do rather than what they want.  When you ask people what they want, they will often draw a blank.  Even if they have ideas, they may not think about all of the activities they do during the year.  But if you ask about what people like to do, they will give you a list of hobbies and leisure activities that may guide the selection of gifts.

One reason to focus on people’s activities is that otherwise you tend to look for rather generic gifts that you feel might appeal to anyone.  Often, the things that catch your eye in the store are gifts that you understand immediately when you see them.  The problem with many of those gifts is that if you understand them immediately, there may not be much more to them than what is on the surface.  As a result, you may tire of them quickly as well.  Many novelty gifts are like this, such as the trophy fish that sings a song when anyone gets near it, or the hat that allows you to attach a drink can and straw to it.  As much fun as gifts like this might look on display in the store, they quickly find themselves in the back of the closet gathering dust.

Finally, stay away from gifts that require you to make taste judgments.  Unless you have great confidence in your taste and are repeatedly complimented by others for your judgments, stick with gifts that you can evaluate based on their features rather than on their beauty.  It is just too hard to overcome your own biases to really see gifts through someone else’s eyes.   

Friday, November 25, 2011

Some holiday shopping tips

The worldwide economy is still shaky, and retailers are hoping that the holiday shopping season will help to improve their revenues.  The stores are working hard with sales and other promotions to encourage you to buy more.  If you are planning to do some holiday shopping for your family and friends (and yourself), how can you take advantage of holiday deals without breaking your budget?

To think about shopping smart, we have to start by remembering that there are two main modes of thinking that we engage when we are making decisions.  The “cool” mode is the one in which we are able to plan, to think about the features of products, and to weigh options.  The “hot” mode is the one in which our emotions and motivations drive the decision. 

Now, here are some ways to help you stay on budget.

1)  First, make sure that you actually set up a budget for holiday shopping.  It is amazing how often people enter into the holiday shopping period without thinking specifically about how much they want to spend for the year.

It makes sense that we don’t want to think about our budget.  If money is tight, then thinking about how much (or perhaps how little) there is to spend on gifts is unpleasant.  And who wants to think about unhappy things as we enter the holiday season. 

But if you don’t set a budget, you are courting a disaster in the long-term. Better think responsibly and set an amount that you plan to spend.  If you think that you’re likely to go over budget, then set your initial budget a little low.

When you set your budget, decide both how much money you want to spend and also how you want to distribute that money.  That is, make sure that you have thought through all of the people on your gift list.  Nothing can pinch your budget more than realizing at the last moment that you have forgotten gifts for key relatives or friends.

2)  Your hot mode of thought is not going to help you stay on budget.  The hot mode works by driving you to fulfill a goal that you have.  So, when you see something exciting in the store, the hot mode becomes active and seeks a way for you to get what you want.  One way that the hot system does that is by causing you to devalue your budget.  That is, keeping to your budget will seem less important while you are in the throes of desire for that great new flat-screen TV than it seemed before you got to the store.

When you find yourself tempted to break your budget by a very desirable item, the first thing you should do is to walk away.  The TV (or whatever it is) will still be there when you get back later.  And the stores need your business.  The prices will still be good tomorrow or next week. 

By walking away, you allow the hot mode to lose some of its energy and you give your cold system more chance to take over and influence the decision.  If the TV still seems like a good idea when you have had a chance to think about it, then you can decide to change your budget. 

3)  If you find that you have trouble with impulse purchases, consider making all of your purchases in cash.  That is, one way to get around the hot mode of thinking is to structure your world in a way that will help you to keep to your budget.  Bring only the amount of cash to the store that you plan to spend.  Once you run out of cash, you’re done.

4)  Finally, remember that while it is great to give and receive gifts at the holidays, in the end it is just stuff.  Stuff is fun to get.  But it will not change the lives of the people you’re buying for, and it won’t make you or anyone else that much happier in the long-run.  In fact, all of the research on happiness suggests that the best predictor of how happy you will be in 6 months is how happy you are right now.  The little pleasures in life (like gifts) might lift someone’s mood temporarily, but not for long.  Even really big positive events (like winning the lottery or falling in love) don’t affect people’s overall happiness that much in the long-run.

So, buy gifts, but do it within your budget.  Enjoy your family at the holidays. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Contrast makes you ideal in other people’s eyes

When you think about members of a group, you often evaluate how good a member of that group they are.  And that evaluation matters.

For example, when people go to the shelter to adopt a puppy, they are trying to decide whether there is a dog there they want to take home with them.  Some people go hoping to find a particular kind of dog, but many end up evaluating dogs based on whether they seem like good examples of the dog category.  What kind of information goes into this evaluation?

Lots of research on categorization going back 50 years suggests that there are two different ways that people might determine how good something is as a member of a category.

Sometimes, people form a prototype of a category.   A prototype is an average member of the category.  For example, for a category like birds, you may have a prototype.  The prototypical bird is small, has feathers, sings, and flies south in the winter.  A good example of a bird is one that is similar to this prototype like a robin or a sparrow.  Birds that are very different from this average member like ostriches, penguins, and emus, are bad examples of birds.

Other times, people form ideals.  An ideal is a particularly good category member.  For example, for a category like diet foods, you might evaluate examples based on how good they are compared to the ideal diet food, which tastes great and has very few calories.  Interestingly, you may never have seen this ideal diet food, but you still use it to evaluate category members.

A paper by Tyler Davis and Brad Love from the University of Texas published in the February, 2010 issue of Psychological Science the circumstances that lead people to form prototypes or ideals. 

They find that a crucial factor in the formation of categories is whether you are contrasting the category to others while you are creating it. 

Sometimes, you learn categories by just focusing on the category itself.  For example, when you see birds flying in the sky or sitting in a tree in your yard, you are looking at the bird and watching its behavior.  You are probably not that interested in trying to contrast birds with squirrels or dogs.  Because you are learning about birds without contrasting them with other categories, you will tend to form a prototype for that category.

When you learn a category by contrasting it with some other category, then you tend to create an ideal to make it easiest to form the contrast.  For example, diet foods are contrasted with normal foods, so you tend to identify diet foods based on a particular ideal, which has very few calories. 

These authors go further to say that you form an ideal only for those aspects of the category that you are trying to contrast with some other category.  For all other aspects of that category, you have a prototype.  Because you are contrasting diet foods with non-diet foods, you think of them as having very few calories.  However, diet foods are not really distinguished from other foods based on the style of food (say Italian food or Mexican food), so for dimensions of food like style or spiciness you still have a prototype. 

So, what happens to people who go to the shelter to adopt a dog?  You tend to learn about dogs the same way you learn about birds.  That is, you probably don’t learn about dogs by contrasting them with other animals.  So, you probably have a prototype representation of dogs.  As a result, the dogs you think of as particularly good dogs are ones that are close to the average dog (like a lab or a golden retriever). 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Money and stuff create different beliefs about fairness

Fairness matters a lot to us.  From a young age, children complain about inequalities with the chant, “That’s not fair.”  Debates about public services by the government focus on whether particular programs are treating taxpayers and citizens fairly.  People’s happiness at their jobs is influenced by whether they feel like they are being treated fairly at work.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is based on the perception that wealth is not distributed fairly in the United States.

Part of what complicates the ability to treat others fairly is that what people may consider to be fair may change with circumstance.

For example, people generally have (at least) two different beliefs about fairness.  One prominent belief about fairness is equity.  That is, we often like to distribute things to people evenly, so that everyone gets the same amount. 

However, a second strong belief is fair reward.  That is, we believe that people should be compensated for an outcome based on how much they contributed to that outcome.  That is why we allow people to be paid different amounts at a job.  We think it is fair that people who are more successful on the job are paid more money, even though that means that there are inequalities in how much people are being paid. 

A study by Sanford DeVoe and Sheena Iyengar in the February, 2010 issue of Psychological Science examined these beliefs in fairness.  They found that the standard people used to judge fairness was based on the object used to reward people.

They had participants in a study evaluate the fairness of a reward.  They were told that a company was planning to reward its sales staff after a very good year.  Some people were told that the reward was money (the sales staff was going to get a bonus).  Some were told that the staff was going to get rewarded with credit card reward points that could be exchanged for goods.  A third group was told that the sales staff was going to get vacation days as a reward.  A fourth group was told that the staff was going to get boxes of chocolate.

Participants were then told that the reward was going to be divided equally among the sales people.  That is, the sales staff would each get the same reward, even though not every sales person sold the same amount that year.  Participants rated the fairness of this reward scheme.

There was a strong effect of the type of reward on the beliefs about fairness.  People thought that rewarding people equally was fairer when the reward was chocolate or vacation days than if it was money or credit card points. 

This result suggests that we associate different types of items with different concepts of fairness. 

We tend to distribute things equally to people.  For example, when we are giving candy to a group of children, we tend to distribute it equally to all of the children.  So, when people see things distributed to groups, they tend to use this kind of scheme to evaluate fairness.

On the other hand, we tend to distribute money unequally.  People make more money when they are more successful.  So, we tend to judge the fairness of transactions with money (and with things that are like money such as credit card points) based on a scheme in which reward is related to success.

These findings make clear that if we want to predict whether people will think we are judging them fairly, we have to take into account both the beliefs people have about what is fair as well as the relationship between those beliefs and the specific objects that are involved in the situation.   

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Video games can teach positive lessons, too.

Periodically in this blog, I have written about positive and negative effects of video games.  It is clear that video games can have both positive and negative influences on behavior.  On the negative side, violent video games can lead to more aggressive behavior in general.  On the positive side, playing action video games can make people faster and more accurate in other settings that require complex actions.

Here’s another positive effect of video games.

A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Tobias Greitemeyer and Silvia Osswald looked at whether video games with positive messages can lead to more positive behaviors.

Not every video game involves violence.  It is possible to create games that have action, but in which the object is to help characters accomplish goals.  For example, in one study, participants came to a lab and played one of two video games.  The positive video game was City Crisis, which requires the player to fly a helicopter through a city to rescue people from buildings and to chase criminals.  The game was exciting without promoting wanton violence.  The neutral game used for comparison was Tetris, in which players have to fit geometric blocks into a well.

The participants in the study played these games while a female experimenter looked on.  After a while, a male confederate entered the room and played the role of an ex-boyfriend of the experimenter.  He started harassing the women, saying that the woman had been ignoring him and that now she would have to talk to him.  He talked loudly and kicked a trash can.  If the participant made no move to help (such as saying something to the man or looking for another experimenter), the man left after 2 minutes.  The measure of interest was whether the video game player helped the woman.

When people were playing the video game that involved helping other characters, over 55% of them chose to help the woman.  When people were playing the neutral game, fewer than 25% helped the woman.  The authors report four studies overall in this paper that suggest that people are more likely to be helpful when playing video games that promote positive behaviors than when playing either games that are neutral or violent. 

To examine why people might be more helpful when playing positive video games, one study asked people to list all the thoughts they had while playing the games.  People playing the positive video game wrote more thoughts related to helping than people who played neutral games.  In addition, the number of these helpful thoughts predicted how likely people were to help later in the study.

So, this research suggests that playing video games that involve being helpful can promote helpful behaviors beyond the video games.

Of course, in the end the difficulty is getting people to play video games with these positive messages.  But at least there is research to suggest that if people do play these games, it does have a positive effect on their behavior later.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Overconfidence and effort: Go boldly where no one has ever gone before

There is a lot of evidence that people are overconfident in many judgments about themselves.  If you ask a group of people how talented they are at some skill relative to the population as a whole (or even relative to a specific group that they are a part of), the average response is above average.  This finding has sometimes been called the “Lake Wobegon” effect after the town in Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion where “all of the children are above average.”  Of course, everyone can’t really be above average, and so some people are overly optimistic about  their abilities.

What value does this optimism have?

A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Ying Zhang and Ayelet Fishbach suggests that being optimistic about your ability to perform some task may enhance your overall performance.  However, this optimism is most useful when the task you expect the task you are about to perform is going to be difficult.

In one study, people were told that they were going to have to solve anagrams in which they had to rearrange the letters of a word to form other words.  For example, the word “items” can be rearranged to form the words “times,” “mites,” and “emits.”  They were led to believe that this task was going to be easy or difficult to do.

Before starting to solve the anagrams, half the people were asked to rate how well they would do on the task relative to everyone else doing it (knowing that the other participants would also be university students).  Of interest, when people thought they were going to get a hard task, they felt that they would do better than 66% of the other participants, but when they thought they were going to get an easy task, they felt they would do better than only 54% of the participants.  The other half of the people in the study did not rate how well they would do in the task relative to others.

The experimenters then measured how long people spent solving the anagrams.  People who did not rate how well they would do compared to others spent about the same amount of time on the task whether they were led to believe that it was going to be easy or hard (with a slight tendency for those who thought it was going to be easy to spend more time than those who thought it was going to be hard.

Those people who rated how well they would do on the task showed a much different pattern.  Those people who thought the task was going to be hard spent much more time on the task overall than those who thought the task would be easy.  The optimism of the people who thought the task would be hard translated into effort on the task.

It isn’t that people are incapable of making accurate assessments of their performance.   In another study, people made their judgments about how well they were going to do on the task under one of two different conditions.  One group was told that their reward for doing the task would be based on their overall performance.  A second group was told that their reward for doing the task would be based on whether their judgment of how well they would do relative to others was accurate.

The people who were rewarded for the accuracy of their judgment judged that they would be more likely to do well in the easy task than in the hard task, and they ended up spending more time at the easy task than the hard one.  Those who were rewarded for their performance on the task, though, judged that they would do better on the hard task than the easy task.  These people spent more time on the hard task than the easy one as well. 

These results suggest that it can be valuable to be overly optimistic about your performance.  In particular, when you are about to go where no one has ever gone before, you are better off going boldly where no one has ever gone before.  The optimism in the face of difficult tasks will help you to put more effort into performing well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Psychology: It isn't rocket science

When you sign on to be a Psychologist, you have taken on the study of a topic that is both extraordinarily complex and underappreciated.  Many people have an interesting attitude toward Psychology.  On the one hand, they  are interested enough to want to read news stories and blog entries, but on the other hand they often get the sense that Psychology isn’t doing the heavy lifting of “hard” sciences like chemistry and physics.  Even within the scientific community, Psychology is often the Rodney Dangerfield of sciences.  There are plenty of Nobel laureates like Roger Penrose and Francis Crick who decide that after winning their prize, they will turn their attention to a simpler science and clean it up--only to discover that Psychology is harder than it looks.

There is some evidence that this attitude toward Psychology starts early.

A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Frank Keil, Kristi Lockhart and Esther Schlegel studied attitudes toward a variety of sciences from Kindergarten through adulthood.  They found that as early as second grade, kids see Psychology as explaining things that are easier to understand than the natural sciences (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) or even Economics.  (In their sample, these differences went away in the group of adults, but their adult sample consisted largely of college students, many of whom were getting course credit in psychology classes for their participation.)

Why does this happen?

There are a few things that seem to be related to people’s attitude that Psychology is easier than other sciences.  For one, children think it would be easier to learn about aspects of Psychology than to learn about the natural sciences.  They are also more sure that adults would know how things work in Psychology than in the natural sciences. 

The authors did rule out one explanation.  They found that children and adults were no better at distinguishing between facts that are true and false in psychology and in other sciences.  That is, people don’t believe that Psychology is easier because they actually know more about it.  They believe that Psychology is an easier science than the natural sciences because it feels easier.

A key aspect of thinking about Psychology is that we all have minds.  We all have conscious experiences of what it is like to think.  Those experiences give us intuitions about the way our thought processes work.  Even though those intuitions are often misleading, it feels like a good scientific explanation for those thought processes are just beyond our grasp. 

The authors point out that this facet of Psychology has some important practical consequences.  For example, judges in legal trials are often much less likely to allow Psychologists to give expert testimony on the workings of the mind than they are to allow other scientists to give expert testimony.  The judges see the relevant Psychology as part of a juror’s common sense.

I realize that a blog entry like this may be preaching to the choir, but it is important that we find ways to get beyond this sense that Psychology is just studying things that are already obvious.  People struggle with addictions.  They go into counseling to seek help with navigating their daily lives.  Companies seek help making employees happier, more productive, and better innovators.  The answers to these questions come from the science of Psychology.  It really is time for Psychology to sit proudly and unapologetically at the scientific table.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We just met, but I feel like I know you. Do I?

The old saying goes that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Why would that be?  Surely, getting to know someone ought to give you more valuable information about who they are than just a brief encounter.  And clearly first impressions can be mistaken.  A favorite storyline in the featured wedding in the Sunday New York Times is that the couple didn’t like each other when they first met even though their friends were all convinced that they were right for each other.

What is going on with these snap judgments?

A lot of recent research has begun top play up the accuracy of judgments that get made quickly based on a sliver of information.  This work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink suggests that there are many cases in which these snap judgments are accurate.

A paper by Daniel Ames, Lara Kammrath, Alexandra Suppes, and Niall Bolger in the February, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked at people’s confidence and accuracy when making judgments about personality characteristics of others.

In these studies, participants got to see photographs or short videos of real people.  The authors had also done personality assessments of these people to find out their values on the Big Five personality attributes (openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and emotional stability).  For each of the people that a participant judged, they saw a picture or video, and filled out a brief personality questionnaire for them.  Then, they judged how confident they were in their judgments. 

The results suggest that people are moderately accurate at predicting a few personality dimensions based on small amounts of information.  For example, when seeing a brief video, participants showed some accuracy predicting a target person’s agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability, but not their extraversion or openness. 

Although they were able to predict these dimensions to some degree, there was quite a bit of disagreement between people.  That is, the judgments were very variable.  In addition, a person’s confidence in their judgment about someone else had almost no relationship at all to their accuracy.  There was a slight tendency for people to be correct that they felt that they had no good basis for making a prediction, but when people were confident that they could make a good prediction, that did not signal that they actually could make a good prediction. 

In addition, people who generally have high confidence in their intuitions were more confident in their judgments than those who like to think a lot about making judgments.  But this trust in intuition did not lead to more accurate judgments.

So, what does this mean?

When getting to know other people, we ought to treat our first impressions with caution.  It really does take a while to get to know people, and those first impressions are often flawed. 

Worse yet, they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Those initial impressions can affect how you treat people you have just met.  And your treatment of them will affect the way they react to you in return. 

Finally, remember that your confidence in your beliefs about people you just met doesn’t really reflect how accurately you have gotten to know them. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How do predictions affect completion time?

At any given moment, I have a lot of different things going on.  I’m often working with a number of different colleagues and students on research projects and papers.  I try to write entries for this blog regularly.  I edit a journal, and I have to read papers and write letters of acceptance or rejection. 

When I’m working with other people, it is often important for me to make predictions about when I will be finished with a part of the task that I have taken on.  These estimates allow my colleagues to make plans about when to expect my work and when they should plan to do their share of the project. 

Like most people, though, my predictions are often too optimistic.  That is, I’m sure that I’ll get things finished before I actually do.

An important question about these predictions, though is whether they affect how quickly you actually get things done.  That is, your prediction about when you will complete something may be rosy, but perhaps that rosy prediction actually  helps you get things done faster. 

This question was addressed in an interesting paper by Roger Buehler, Johanna Peetz, and Dale Griffin in the January, 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 

They found that whether a prediction affects when you will complete a task depends on whether that task is “closed” or “open.”  A closed task is one that is generally completed in a single setting.  An open task is one that requires a number of steps that generally can’t be done at once.  Often open tasks are more complex than closed ones, but they don’t have to be.  For example, framing a photo you took on your digital camera is fairly easy.  First you print the picture, then you buy a frame that fits it, then you put the picture in the frame.  All told, it may take an hour of your time to complete the task.  Chances are, though, you will print the picture at one time, buy the picture frame at another time, and put it in the frame at yet a third time.

The results of their studies demonstrated that people’s predictions about deadlines affected when they started on the first of the tasks they had to perform.  People would begin the task earlier when they made an earlier prediction of when they would finish than when they made a later prediction.  So, for closed tasks that required just one sitting to complete, they would also finish them faster.  For open tasks, they would start the task faster if they made an earlier prediction than if they made a later prediction, but because the task involved multiple steps, they would not actually complete the task faster.

Let me step through one of the studies, because the methods they used were interesting.  In one study, they asked people to write three short stories from their home and then send it to the experimenters.  In the closed version of the task, the stories could be typed on a word processor and then emailed.  In the open version of the task, the stories had to be typed, printed out, and then mailed.   The open version of the task required putting the stories in an envelope, buying a stamp and mailing them, so it would probably involve at least two different steps.

To manipulate people’s predictions, they were given a time line starting with today and ending with the due date for the stories two weeks in the future.  To get people to make early predictions, they were asked to start at today and look forward on the time line and mark on the line when they would complete the assignment.  To get people to make late predictions, they were asked to start at the deadline and work backward and mark when they would complete the assignment.  This technique got the “early” people to make a significantly earlier prediction than the “late” people.

Consistent with the authors’ predictions, when people just had to email the stories, those who made early predictions sent in the stories earlier than those who made late predictions.  When people had to send the stories by mail, though, the effect went away.  The stories were sent in at about the same time regardless of the prediction.   

These studies suggest that there may be some value in making rosy predictions.  Being optimistic about when you will finish a task does help you to start it earlier.  But if a task is open-ended, you still need to be vigilant about completing all of the steps of that task.