Monday, December 26, 2011

People reestablish trust only when they believe in change

Trust is crucial in any close relationship.  When you make plans with a friend, you have to trust that he will show up at the appointed place at the appointed time.  When you make a business deal with someone, you have to trust that she will follow through with her end of the bargain.  Not everyone lives up to their end of every bargain, though.  What factors determine whether you will trust someone again?

This question was explored by Michael Haselhugn, Maurice Schweitzer, and Alison Wood in a paper published in the May, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  These authors examined how people’s beliefs about trustworthiness affect whether they will trust someone again.

Some people hold the belief that being trustworthy is a trait.  (The authors called this belief an entity belief.)  When you believe that it is a trait, then you think that it is someone that people have or they do not.  If you have this trait belief, then when someone violates your trust, you will assume that they are not trustworthy in general, and will have a hard time trusting them again.

Other people hold the belief that people can become trustworthy depending on their desire and their circumstance.  (The authors call this belief an incremental belief.)  When you believe that circumstances affect trust, then you may find it easier to trust someone again even if they have violated your trust in the past. 

To examine this possibility, the authors had people read one of two essays.  One essay was designed to lead people to believe that behaviors reflect deep unchangeable traits.  The other essay was designed to reinforce the idea that behaviors are changeable. 

Then, people played a game involving trust with a partner.  They were told that the partner was another experiment participant in the next room, though actually the partner was a computer program.  In this game, people were given $6 and were asked whether they would give that $6 to their partner.  If they gave the money to their partner, then the money was tripled, so that the partner had $18.  The partner then had the option to give half the money back to the participant (so that each would end up with $9) or to keep all of the money.  In every round, the participant was told what their partner had selected that they would have done with the money if it was given to them.

People played 3 rounds of the game at first.  In those rounds, the partner never elected to return the money.  So, the partner was untrustworthy. 

After the third round, the participant got a ‘message’ from the participant apologizing for being untrustworthy and promising to be fairer in the rest of the game.  In the next three rounds, the partner always returned half the money.  Finally, participants were informed that they would play one last round of the game.  This last round was the one that was the main measurement in this study. 

Participants who read the paragraph suggesting that trustworthiness is a trait were much less likely to give money to their partner in the last round than participants who read that trustworthiness can be influenced by circumstance. 

This study highlights two important aspects of trust.  First, your beliefs about whether being trustworthy is a trait can be influenced by factors like an essay talking about behavior.  Second, that belief about traits affects whether you will trust someone who has violated your trust in the past.  

Ultimately, it is important to remember that circumstances often affect people’s behavior.  So you ought to take those circumstances into account when deciding whether to trust someone. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Darkness makes the heart grow more selfish

The blues artist Robert Cray once sang, “I know the difference between wrong and right.  Don’t make no difference in the middle of the night.”  A prominent feature of the night is that it is dark.  Does that have any affect on people’s behavior?

A paper in the March, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Chen-Bo Zhong, Vanessa Bohns, and Francesca Gino suggests that people are much more prone to cheat and to be selfish when it is dark than when it is light. 

In one study, participants entered a room as a group and took a test consisting of 20 difficult problems.  When they entered the room, they were also given an envelope with an answer key to the test and money for a bonus.  Participants were asked to score their performance on the test and to pay themselves 50 cents for each correct answer.  They were to write the number of answers they got correct on the answer key and take the amount of money they were owed for their performance.

Half of the participants in this study did the study in a well-lit room and the other half did the study in a poorly lit room. 

The people in the dim room cheated more than those in the well-lit room.  They took more money than they deserved and they over-reported how many items they got correct.

A second study showed that people were also more selfish in the dark.  In this study, people were given either dark sunglasses to wear (in a well-lit room) or they were given clear glasses to wear.  As a part of this study, people played the “dictator game” in which they were given $6 and were asked to split that money with an anonymous partner.  They were told that they could keep as much of the $6 as they want and they could give away as much as they wanted.  People gave away over $1 less when they were wearing sunglasses than when they were wearing clear glasses.

Why does this happen?

In these studies, people could still be identified.  The dimly lit room was dim, but not totally dark (otherwise, people could not have taken the test).  Those wearing sunglasses were sitting in a well-lit room, so the room only looked dark to them.

Yet, being in the dark (or at least perceiving darkness) made people feel more anonymous.  In the study with the glasses, participants rated how anonymous they felt.  Those ratings were higher for those wearing sunglasses than for those wearing clear glasses.  In addition, statistical analyses that looked at the relationship between the feeling of anonymity and the offers made in the dictator game showed that people offered less money (and therefore acted more selfishly) the more anonymous they felt.  This feeling of anonymity explained the difference between those wearing sunglasses and those wearing clear glasses.

So, darkness not only covers your tracks, but it makes you feel as though you can’t be identified.  Of interest, this sense of anonymity can make people more likely to act in their own self-interest.  

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my father when I was young.  We passed by a house that had a large glass window on its front door.  The door also had a prominent lock on it.  I wanted to know why anyone would put a lock on a big glass door, when you could just break the window and open the door from the inside.  He replied that anyone intent on getting into your house would find a way to break in no matter how well it was locked up.  The lock was there to keep the honest people honest.

And the light also helps to keep the honest people honest.

Monday, December 19, 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, December 15, 2011

Who is to blame when groups succeed or fail?

In the modern world, assigning blame to groups is difficult.  In schools, we want to teach children to collaborate with others on work, but at the same time each individual student ultimately needs a grade.  In work settings, most projects are too big for individuals to do by themselves, but in the end, every person gets an individual paycheck.  We assume that raises and bonuses at work should be based on effectiveness.

In order for this to work, though, people have to be good at judging the importance of other people’s contribution to group efforts. 

Tobias Gerstenberg and David Lagnado looked at this issue in a 2010 paper in the journal Cognition.  They asked people to play a game with a group.  In this game, each person was led to believe that they were playing with a team of other players linked by computer.  Each player was shown a screen with triangles and they had to count all of them in a short period of time.  The game is tricky, because combinations of smaller triangles can create larger triangles. 

Different groups had different rules that would allow them to win the game. 

In the tug-of-war group, the errors made by each person were added together, and if that error was less than a particular value, the team won that round, otherwise they lost.  This game is like tug-of-war, because each player contributes something to the final outcome.

In the weakest link game, every player had to be within 2 triangles of the correct value on that round in order to win.

In the superstar game, at least one player had to get the correct answer on that round in order to win. 

The participant got to see the responses by each of their teammates and how much those responses missed the actual value.  Then, for each player, they had to assign how much credit the player should get for a win or how much blame they should get for a loss.

People in this study were pretty good at assigning blame appropriately.  For example, in the superstar game, any player who got the correct answer got a lot of credit for a win, and none of the people who got the wrong answer were given credit.  When the team lost in this game, everyone shared equally in the blame.

In the weakest link game, people got the most credit for a win when they were within one triangle of the correct answer and the most blame when their answers were more distant from the correct one.

In the tug-of-war game, credit and blame were assigned based on how close people were to the correct answer.

These results should be heartening to any of us who have to be judged in group settings.  The findings suggest that when people know the contribution of each individual in a group, then they do a reasonable job of assigning credit and blame for the group outcome.

Of course, part of the problem with group settings is that it is often difficult to assess the contribution of individuals.  Psychologists use the term social loafing to refer to people to ride on the labor of others in a group setting and do not pull their own weight.  When a group project is complex, it can be difficult to figure out whether some people are loafing.  Even if everyone works hard, it is not always obvious which people contributed most to the success of the group.  Because of the importance of group work, though, it is important for psychologists to spend more time studying this issue.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Billing your time makes you less likely to volunteer your time

There are lots of ways that people can improve their community.  Two of the most common are volunteering and giving donations.  The National Public Radio station in Austin frequently airs public service announcements from organizations that are recruiting people to volunteer their time for a good cause.  In addition, a few times yearly, that same NPR station holds fund-raising drives to raise money for its operations. 

For organizations that rely on people’s time and money, it is important to understand the factors that affect whether people will be willing to give of their time or their resources.

An interesting set of studies in the April, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer looked at an influence of people’s work life on whether they will volunteer their time.  These researchers were interested in whether having to fill out time sheets to bill your time to clients would affect whether you would then be willing to give your time as a volunteer.  The paper reported both observational and experimental studies that addressed this question.

In an observational study, the researchers contacted recent law school graduates right after graduation.  Lawyers are a good test population, because they typically have to bill their time to clients in 6-minute increments.  In this study, the respondents filled out surveys both right after graduation and also 5-months later after they had been working.  About 2/3 of the respondents were in jobs where they had to bill their time.  In both surveys, participants rated how willing they would be to volunteer their time.  In addition, in the second survey participants rated whether they would prefer to paint some rooms in their own house or to pay someone else to do it and whether they would prefer to give their time or their money to a favorite charity. 

In this study, there was no difference in respondents’ ratings of willingness to volunteer time at the start of the study, regardless of whether they went off to jobs where they did or did not have to bill their time.  After 5 months, though, those who had to bill their time rated themselves as less likely to volunteer their time and more likely to give money than time to charities than those people who did not have to bill their time.  It could be that billing your time just makes you less willing to use your time for everything.  That does not seem to be the case, though, because respondents who billed their time were actually slightly less likely than those who do not bill their time to want to pay someone to paint rooms of their house rather than do it themselves. 

In four additional experiments, the researchers looked at this effect in a laboratory setting.  The studies started by having participants play the role of consultants and had them make a number of business personnel decisions.  In this task, the personnel decisions were being made for different groups within a fictitious company, and some participants were asked to fill out a time sheet to bill their time to these various groups.  The other participants did not bill their time.

After doing this task, people were given a volunteer opportunity.  Across studies, participants had the chance to help a campus group stuff envelopes for a mailing, write letters to sick children, or answer questions on a website that would ultimately donate funds to feed the hungry.  People who had to bill their time in the task were much less likely to volunteer than were those who did not have to bill their time.  Measures taken in these studies suggested that it was not that people did not find the volunteer task rewarding, they simply chose not to participate in it.  Obviously, the effects of tracking your time in a laboratory experiment are likely to be short-lived, but for people (like lawyers) who have to do this regularly for years, thinking about time as money may become a habit.

These studies demonstrate the unintended ways that one aspect of your life can influence another.   Businesses do not make their employees fill out detailed time sheets because they want them to treat all of their time as a commodity.  Yet, it seems as though people get trapped into this mode of thinking.

An interesting question for the future is whether becoming aware of the relationship between billing your time and volunteering can affect your behavior.  That is, we could inform lawyers who bill their time that they have probably become less likely to volunteer their time just because of the way they keep track of their time for clients.  Would that information make those lawyers more likely to volunteer in the future?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Another shopping tip: Consider opportunity costs

As we approach the holidays many of us are doing a lot of shopping.  We buy gifts for family and friends, and we also pick up a few things for ourselves, taking advantage of holiday sales. 

It ought to seem obvious that every dollar we spend on one purchase is a dollar that we can’t spend on another purchase.  Economists would say that each purchase has an opportunity cost.  Once we have made that purchase, that money cannot be spent on something else in the future.  To what extent do these opportunity costs affect the purchases we make?

A paper by Shane Frederick, Nathan Novemsky, Jing Wang, Ravi Dhar, and Stephen Nowlis in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people often ignore opportunity costs for a purchase. 

They start their paper with a compelling story.  One of the authors of their paper was trying to decide between two stereo systems, one of which cost $1000 and had somewhat better speakers than a second system that cost $700.  After agonizing over the choice, the salesman asked whether he would rather have the better system or the cheaper system and $300 worth of CDs.  Immediately, he selected the cheaper stereo.  That is, even after putting in a lot of effort to think about this choice, the shopper had not considered the prospect that money not spent on the stereo would be available for other purchases that might enhance the quality of the stereo.

In a series of studies in this paper, the authors set up a number of situations in which people had to make choices.  In some cases, they chose between purchasing an item (say a DVD) and not purchasing it.  In other cases, they chose between a more expensive option and a less expensive option.  In each case, people were far more likely to purchase the cheaper option (or not purchase at all) if they were reminded of the opportunity cost of making the purchase.  These results suggest that people generally ignore opportunity costs when making choices.

People tend to ignore these opportunity costs in a variety of settings beyond just shopping at the holidays.  For example, the University of Texas is working hard to help students graduate from college in 4 years.  An increasing number of students are staying in college for a fifth year.  Often, the students reason that tuition for that fifth year is not so expensive.  However, the students who make this choice are typically not factoring in the opportunity cost of the extra year in school.  There is salary that they are not making for that year, as well as other ways that they may have chosen to spend their time.  Some students may elect to stay in school for an extra year even after considering these opportunity costs, but many students have never considered them at all when making this decision.

So as you do your shopping in this holiday season—and as you make important decisions in the years to come—spend some time thinking about how opportunities in the future may be affected by the choices you are making now.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The best New Year's resolutions are positive resolutions

As we approach a new year, it is common for us to take stock of our lives and think about things that we’d like to do differently in the coming year.  Often, the resolutions we think about are negative resolutions.  That is, we have some behavior that we currently perform that we’d like to stop.  It might be quitting smoking, or eating less junk food, stopping drinking or drugs, or even cutting back on bad language.

Unfortunately, if we are thinking about these kinds of resolutions, it is probably not for the first time.  Mark Twain is supposed to have said that quitting smoking is one of the easiest things he ever did, he has done it thousands of times. 

There are many reasons why stopping these behaviors are difficult, and I have written about some of these difficulties in past entries.  Here, I want to focus on the form of the resolution itself.

I called these resolutions “negative resolutions” because they focus on a behavior to be stopped.  Often, this behavior is already a habit, and so it is strongly driven by the environment.  That is, parts of your environment already suggest the behavior to you.  Just drinking a cup of coffee may promote the desire to smoke.  Walking through the kitchen may increase the urge to eat.

In order to try to stop a behavior, you have to think about that behavior consciously.  That is, if you want to cut down on your eating, you must exert effort to think about what you are doing.  To watch yourself to make sure that you don’t eat too much.

Research by Peter Herman, Janet Polivy and their colleagues suggests that people who are actively trying to diet become “restrained eaters.”  Restrained eaters are people who are thinking about their diet and about restricting the amount of food they eat.  The problem with being a restrained eater is that it creates a paradox.  You want to stop eating, so you have to think about your eating behavior.  The more you think about eating, the more that concepts related to food and eating stay active.  As I have discussed in previous posts, when a concept is active, it is easier for people to perform actions relating to that concept. 

So, focusing on reducing your eating can actually make it harder for you to eat less.  The same is true for any negative resolution.  Thinking about not smoking or drinking or cursing will activate related concepts, which will make it easier to smoke, drink, or curse. 

In the end, the problem lies with the resolution itself.  You cannot replace something with nothing.  The habit system will still have connections between the environment and your behavior, and so it will continue to suggest the behavior you are trying to stop.  As a result, you will have to continue thinking about stopping the behavior. 

So, rather than making negative resolutions, make positive ones.  Do not resolve to stop smoking, resolve to start exercising.  If you really start an exercise program, your smoking will get in the way, and you will have a reason to stop.  Do not resolve to eat less, resolve to eat differently.  Cut red meat out of your diet, and start eating other foods.  With the number of really good meat substitutes on the market now, it is easy to replace high-fat foods with low-fat foods without sacrificing taste.

If you focus your energies on positive resolutions, then you will not suffer the paradox of negative resolutions.  If you start exercising, you will not be consciously thinking about smoking.  You will have removed one source of failure in your resolutions.

So in the coming year, think positive!    

Friday, December 2, 2011

How do you decide whether you did well on a test?

As a parent, it is sometimes frustrating to talk to your kids about exams.  There are times when they will come home convinced that they did really well on a test only to be disappointed when the results come in.  Other times, they feel like they did quite poorly on the test and are pleasantly surprised that they scored better than they expected.  

How do people judge how well they did on a test after taking it?

This question was explored in a paper by Yana Weinstein and Roddy Roediger in the April, 2010 issue of Memory & Cognition.  They had students take tests of general knowledge questions.  Some of the questions on these tests were easy (What is the name of Tarzan’s girlfriend?).  Some of the questions were more difficult (The general named Hannibal was from what city?)  There were 50 questions on the test.

This study examined a number of different factors that might affect people’s judgments about how easy a test was including whether people could choose how many questions they wanted to answer or were forced to answer all of them, and the way that the question about test accuracy was asked.  Most of these factors had little or no consistent influence on people’s judgments of how well they did on the test.

The one factor that had a consistent effect was the ordering of the questions on the test.  When the test had the easiest questions at the beginning and the harder ones at the end, people felt like they did better on the test than when the questions were randomly ordered.  When the test had the hard questions first and then the easy ones, people actually felt like they did worse than when the questions were randomly ordered. 

Of particular interest in these results is that when the easy questions were first, people actually judged that they got more questions right than they actually did.  So the easy-to-hard ordering made people overconfident in their performance.

Why does this happen?  The authors suggest two reasons for the observed results.  First, the effect appears most strongly when people are looking back on their performance rather than when they make judgments as they are performing the test.  Research on memory finds that items that are seen early in a list are remembered better than those seen late in the list.  So, if you look back on a test, you are most likely to remember items from early in the test.  If those items are easy, then that will give you the impression that you did well overall.

Second, people often enter a test with a rough sense of how well they are going to do.  For example, if you have not prepared well for a test, you may think you are going to do poorly.  If the test starts with a number of easy questions, you may be pleasantly surprised at your performance and adjust your belief upward.  If the test starts with a number of hard questions, you may adjust your belief downward.

So, why does this matter? 

Perhaps the most important issue is one of motivation.  If your performance on an exam is worse than you thought it would be after taking the test, it can be demoralizing.  It is important to remember that your actual performance on a test is only one factor that helps you figure out how well you did.  As this work shows, the ordering of the questions matters as well.  It is no fun getting a poor grade on a test, of course, but don’t compound the disappointment by being upset that you thought you had done better.