Thursday, December 20, 2012

The right kinds of 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.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why do you close your eyes to remember?

Ask somebody a difficult question, and chances are they will either look up at the sky or close their eyes.  What is going on there? 

Quite a bit of the brain is taken up with understanding what is going on in our sensory world.  For example, if you clasp your hands behind your head, most of the area taken up by your hands reflects the amount of the brain that is devoted to making sense of the information coming in through your eyes.

Those same areas of the brain are also involved in visual recollections of things that you have seen in the past.  It makes sense that the brain would re-use areas devoted to vision to help in memory for visual information.

When your eyes are open, those areas of the brain that are involved in vision are getting input from the eyes, and this input keeps those areas busy.  Consequently, when you have to answer a difficult question or think about some visual memory from the past you either close your eyes or look upward to help you disengage from the world.  (Looking up helps, because the ceiling of the room or the sky are often much less visually interesting than what is happening at eye level and below.)

As an example exploring the influence of looking at the world on memory, there was a nice paper in the October, 2011 issue of Memory & Cognition by Annelies Vredeveldt, Graham Hitch, and Alan Baddeley.

In this study, people watched an 8-minute clip of a television show in which a character got shot, stitched up, and then engaged in a fight.  After a 5-minute delay, participants were then asked a number of questions about what they saw and heard in the clip. 

There were four groups of people in this study.  One group answered questions while looking at a blank computer screen that had been shut off.  A second group answered questions with their eyes closed.  A third group watched a computer screen as nonsense images were shown on it.  A fourth group stared at a blank screen, but heard words from an unfamiliar language being spoken as a distraction.

The group that stared at a blank screen and the one in which people closed their eyes answered more of the questions correctly overall than the ones that saw visual distractions or heard words in an unfamiliar language.  That finding suggests that people close their eyes in order to avoid any interesting visual input that would interfere with their ability to remember.

A particularly interesting finding of this study was that the group that saw the images had most difficulty answering questions about the show that asked about visual details.  The group that heard the foreign words had most difficulty answering questions about auditory details of the show. 

In the end, sensory distraction has both a general and a specific component.  Any kind of a distraction makes it harder for you to remember things to some degree.  In addition, having a visual distraction makes it particularly hard to remember visual details.  Having an auditory distraction makes it particularly hard to remember details of things that you heard.

So, the next time you are trying to remember something important, look up, close your eyes, and minimize distraction.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The upside and downside of envy

There are many unpleasant emotions.  We may feel anxious in stressful situations, sad when we do not achieve our goals, and envy when others have something that we want.  These negative emotions are often physically unpleasant.  It is really uncomfortable to be stressed, and it feels almost physically painful to be sad. 

It is important to remember that there have to be some benefits to having negative emotions.  In the short-term stress can create energy and focus to overcome a problem, though long-term stress is dangerous.  Sadness about failing to achieve goals often leads to rumination.  Thinking about what went wrong in a situation is often useful (at least for a little while) to help you succeed in the future.

What about envy?

An interesting paper in the October, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Sarah Hill, Danielle DelPriore, and Phillip Vaughan explored both positive and negative consequences of envy.

On the positive side, envy seems to create attention to people in the world who are the targets of envy.  In one study, participants either wrote about situations in which they experienced envy or they wrote about everyday situations that were unrelated to envy.  Later, they read newspaper articles about other college students.  The people who were primed with envy by writing about it spent more time reading the articles about other students and remembered more about the students than the people who were not primed with envy. 

Another study found that this increased attention and memory for people happens most for those people who provoke envy.  A third study ruled out the possibility that this result was based on other emotions like admiration for the person. 

So, the upside of envy is that it helps you to pay attention to people who have things that you want. 

What is the downside?

When you are experiencing envy, it seems to get in the way of doing other thinking.  There is quite a bit of research suggesting that stressful emotions can get in the way of thinking.  Envy is like stress in that it is a negative emotion.  Consistent with the research on stress, people who were experiencing envy spent less time than people who were not envious working to do a difficult task in which they had to unscramble letters to form words.

Putting this all together, then, envy is an emotion that may help you to get what you want in life by allowing you to focus on people who have things that you desire and to learn about those people.  The cost of this focus, though, is that it makes you worse at focusing on other types of thinking.  Finally, like anything else, too much envy is clearly a problem.  If you spend all of your time focusing on what other people have that you do not, you will not spend enough time doing what is necessary to get what you want out of life.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Infants and imitation

There is a pendulum that swings back and forth in the study of child development.  The work of Piaget generally assumed that infants have very little knowledge and react to the sights and sounds of the world as their movement abilities improve.  Gradually, children learn more complex concepts, and in the end adults have an impressive capacity to reason.
Starting in the 1980s, there was a challenge to this view.  Studies of young infants suggested that they have a much greater understanding of the world than Piaget proposed.  For example, studies by Renee Baillargeon and her colleagues suggested that infants as young as 5-months-old understood that objects that were hidden by a screen were still there.  These studies led to a flurry of research exploring infants’ abilities.
More recently, the pendulum has started to swing back.  The difficulty with doing studies with infants is that you can’t ask them specific questions, because their language abilities are just developing.  Instead, you have to find indirect ways to explore what they are thinking. Then, you have to interpret what infants’ must have been thinking in order to have acted that way.  It is easy to fall into the trap of rich interpretation, which you (as an adult) think about what would have made you act that way.  That can lead you to overestimate what infants know.
This pendulum can be seen in research on imitation in infants. 
Anyone who has been around an infant for any length of time can see their imitation skills in action.  I have a great picture of my brother holding one of my kids who was about 5-months old.  Both of them are sticking their tongue out at the camera.  This picture was the result of an hour in which my brother stuck his tongue out, and then my son stuck his tongue out in response. 
How does this imitation happen?
One theory, which falls in the “infants don’t know that much” camp, assumes that imitation is based mostly on the way that infants represent movements.  This theory suggests that the way that people understand the movements of other people is based in part on using the parts of the brain that are associated with making movements.  In essence, when we watch someone else performing an action, our own movement system is engaged in simulating what the other person is doing.  Infants imitate, because this activity of the movement system prepares them to make the same movements they just observed.
A second theory, which is more in the “infants know a lot” camp, assumes that infants are trying to figure out what the person they are imitating was trying to do.  This view suggests that infants are constantly reasoning about why people do what they do, and then they imitate what someone intended rather than what they actually did. 
The view that infants are imitating the goals of someone else got support from a 2002 study in the journal Nature by Gyorgy Gergely, Harold Bekkering, and Ildiko Kiraly.  They had an adult sit in front of a box with a light on the top.  The light could be turned on by pressing on it.  The adult sat across from a 14-month-old infant (who was sitting on a parent’s lap).  In one condition, the adult had her hands on the table, and then bent over and pressed the light with her forehead to turn it on.  In the other condition, the adult was wrapped in a blanket so that her hands were not available to use, and she bent over and pressed the light with her forehead.  After watching the experimenter, the infant was allowed to play with the lamp.

The idea here was that if infants just imitate actions, then they should press the light with their forehead in both conditions of the study.  However, if infants are reasoning about what the adult is trying to do, then when the adult’s hands were under the blanket, infants should realize that the adult just wanted to turn the light on and used her head because her hands were not free to use.  Consistent with the idea that children were reasoning about goals, the infants were much more likely to touch their head to the light when the adult had her hands on the table (so that she clearly chose to use her head) than when the adult had her hands under the blanket.

A study in the July 2011 issue of the journal Child Development by Markus Paulus, Sabine Hunnius, Marlies Vissers, and Harold Bekkering suggests that children might not have been reasoning about the goal of the adult after all.

These researchers note that for infants to use their head to turn on the lamp, they have to put their hands on the table to steady themselves, because their stomach muscles are not strong enough to hold them up when leaning over without support.  That action is quite similar to the one the experimenter makes when putting her hands visibly on the table in the original study. 

To see whether children are focusing on actions they are able to perform, these researchers added three
more conditions to the study I just described (in addition to the conditions in which the adult had her hands on the table and the one where her hands were trapped under a blanket). 

In one condition, the adult had her hands under a blanket, but the blanket had an obvious button that was holding it closed so that the adult could easily use her hands if she wanted to.  If the infants are just reasoning about the adults’ goal, then they should use their heads to press the button, because the adult clearly chose to use her head.  However, if it was important that the adult had her hands on the table, then the infants would not use their head in this case.  In fact, infants rarely used their head to turn on the light when the adult had her hands under the blanket with the button holding it closed.

In another condition, the adult had her hands in the air and then bent over and pressed the button with her head.  Again, children reasoning about the adult’s goals should use their heads, because the adult clearly chose to use her head rather than her hands.  However, children can’t lean over with their hands in the air, so if they just wanted to imitate an action, they wouldn’t use their head in this case (because they would fall over).  Once again, infants rarely used their heads.

In the third condition, the adult started the task by playing with two foam balls.  Then, she held one ball in each hand and put her hands on the table while holding the balls and bent over and touched the light with her head.  Children reasoning about goals should not use their heads in this case, because they should see that the adult’s hands were occupied holding the balls and so she used her forehead out of convenience.  Children who are imitating an action they can perform should use their heads, though, because the adult had her hands on the table, and if the infants put their hand on the table, they could support themselves as they bent over.  In this condition, the infants often pressed he light with their head.

Putting all of this together, then, it looks like the pendulum has swung back toward a focus on the influence of movement ability on imitation.  Early on, infants are trying to imitate actions they can perform themselves.  These findings are quite consistent with a lot of research about the way that adults think about actions.  Generally speaking, even adults understand actions by thinking about how we could perform them ourselves.  It is just a short step from that understanding to doing the same thing.    In that way, infants may not be that different from adults.  Perhaps we’re guilty of rich interpretation of adult performance as well.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Choice and power are both means of controlling our lives

Control is an important aspect of our psychological well-being.  Many of the most frustrating situations in life involve cases where events are happening around you, and you have no say in how they turn out.  Patients suffering from significant illnesses must come to grips with the lack of control they have over their disease.  Low-level employees in a business may be frustrated by their inability to control their work day. 

An interesting paper in the August, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Ena Inesi, Simona Botti, David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky examines two sources of control in our lives:  choice and power.  They suggest that the motive for control is so important in our lives that choice and power can substitute for each other.

Their logic is straightforward.  If the goal that is important to people is control, then in situations in which people do not have power, they should seek situations that give them more choices.  In situations in which people have limited choices, they should seek power.

The authors test this possibility in a series of studies.

In one study, participants read about being the boss or being an employee and had to imagine how they would feel and what they would do in this role.  This task creates a reliable difference between people in how much power they perceive that they have.

Then, participants were told about two stores selling eyeglasses.  One store was close by, and had a choice of 3 pairs of glasses.  The other store was further away, and had a choice of 15 pairs of glasses.  When people were asked how much further they would be willing to drive to get the larger assortment, people who were made to feel that they had low power were willing to drive 10 miles on average to get to the store.  People who were made to feel that they had high power were willing to drive only about 6 miles. 

Another study demonstrated the opposite effect.  In this case, people first read a scenario in which they had to make a choice about a consumer product.  The choice involved either 3 options or 15 options.  In this case, the smaller set made people feel like they had less control over their choice than the larger set.

Next people evaluated the features of jobs they might take on. Some characteristics were those associated with being the boss.  Others were associated with job enjoyment, but were not related to power.  People’s ratings of the features related to job enjoyment were not affected by which choice set they encountered.  But, people rated the features associated with being the boss as more attractive after making a choice from a small set than after making a choice from a large set.

Finally, a third set of studies manipulated both people’s feeling of the degree of choice they had as well as the amount of power they had.  Of importance, people acted similarly when they had either high power or lots of choice as they did when they had both high power and lots of choice.  As long as people felt that they had control in some way, that was enough.

Putting all of this together, we all want some kind of control in our lives.  When our control in one area is restricted, we look for another outlet.  That means that it is worth spending some time thinking about the areas of your life in which you can exert some control.  Perhaps you have a creative outlet in which you feel that you have mastery.  One reason why these kinds of creative outlets are therapeutic is that they provide you with an arena in which you have control that you can use as a refuge when other elements of your life feel out of your control.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Infants don’t see fast changes

Most of what I write about in this blog focuses on motivation, action, and choice in adults.  Every once in a while, though, I come across a study that I just think is cool, and I write about that.  This is one of those times.

A paper by Faraz Farzin, Susan Rivera, and David Whitney in the August, 2011 issue of Psychological Science addresses a question I would never have thought to ask.  How quickly can infants notice changes in the world?

We live in a world in which we often need to notice the way things are changing.  If you are driving down the street and a squirrel suddenly runs into the road, you need to see it in time to apply the brakes.  If you are playing a sport, you need to be able to see where other players have moved, find the ball, or observe a play develop.

Studies with adults show that most people can detect differences that occur in about a tenth of a second.  One way to study this is to have adults look at a screen with four squares on it.  The squares are set to flicker between black and white.  Three of the squares are in phase.  That is, they change from black to white and back at the same time.  The fourth is out of phase.  When the others are black it is white and when the others are white it is black.  Over the course of an experiment, the squares are set to flicker at different rates, and the question is when can adults detect which square is not in phase with the others.  When the rate of change is less than 10 Hertz (one change every 10th of a second) adults can do this reliably.  When the squares flicker faster than that, adults can’t figure out which square is changing differently from the others.

The authors of this paper used the same technique with infants ranging in age from 6 months to 15 months.  With infants, of course, you can’t ask them what is changing.  However, infants have a tendency to look at things that are different in a display.  So, you can focus on what infants are looking at to see if they reliably start to look at the square that is changing out of phase with the others.

Infants are terrible at this task at the speeds where adults do well.  In fact, up to about 2 Hertz (two changes a second) infants up to 15-month-olds don’t seem to distinguish between the squares that are in phase and the one that is out of phase.  At 1 Hertz (one change per second), though, the older infants do well.  At one change ever 2 seconds, infants as young as 6-months look longer at the square that is out of phase compared to the ones that change together.

A control study suggests that kids are able to see flickers at high speeds just as adults do.  So, the problem isn’t that infants are not able to see that something is flickering between black and white. So, the infants are able to see that something is changing, but not able to detect what is changing and exactly when that change is occurring.

There isn’t really a valuable life lesson here.  Infants live in a world in which the changes they can pay attention to are the ones that happen more slowly.  That is probably useful for infants who are just learning about how the world works.  Many of the most important things that infants need to learn about are the ones that are a constant presence in their world.  People and objects that are always present are the ones that infants have to focus on to learn how language works and what kinds of activities other people perform.

Infants only need to be able to detect really fast changes in the world at the time that they are moving around on their own well enough to have to deal with rapidly changing situations.  It seems that the infant visual system is set up to give infants the kinds of information that is likely to be useful for them to develop.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are ADHD drugs Smart Pills?

It is scary to contemplate, but I am in the middle of my 22nd year teaching at a university.  Students use lots of techniques to try to get an advantage in their studies.  Obviously, some students resort to real cheating by trying to steal exams or to copy successful papers from past semesters.  Others try more subtle means.  There are students who come to office hours after each exam trying to get back points they lost by arguing about why their answer is really correct.  Starting about 10 years ago, there was an uptick in rumors about students who were buying medications normally used to treat ADHD to use to help them study.

Two of the most prominently used prescribed medications for ADHD are the stimulants methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) and amphetamine (Aderall).  Do these drugs make you smarter?

This question was addressed in a fascinating set of papers in the September, 2011 issue of Psychological Bulletin.  The issue begins with a broad review by Elizabeth Smith and Martha Farah and continues with a commentary by James Swanson, Timothy Wigal, and Nora Volkow and a second commentary by Glen Elliott and Mark Elliott.

Before starting this discussion, it is important to make a point made by all of the articles (and particularly the commentaries by Swanson Wigal and Volkow and by Elliott and Elliott).  These ADHD medications are Schedule II drugs.  It is illegal to take them without a prescription.  An important part of the reason why it is illegal to take them is that they are potentially addictive.  The haphazard way that people who try these drugs to improve their cognitive performance may actually increase the likelihood of addiction compared to the regular schedule of use by ADHD patients. 

Do ADHD stimulants make you smarter?  Smith and Farah looked at 45 published papers examining different kinds of cognitive tasks. 

You might think that these medications would help people with executive control.  Most people think of ADHD as a difficulty with controlling thought, and so perhaps ADHD medications help with control.  In fact, over half of the studies they found that examined aspects of control showed no effect of the medications at all compared to a placebo.  For example, people often have difficulty giving up a small reward now in order to get a larger reward in the future.  ADHD medications do not make people more likely to forgo the smaller reward in order to take the larger reward.  

So, where do ADHD medications have an effect?  The evidence that Smith and Farah review suggests that when people are given rote learning tasks, their performance is improved by ADHD stimulants.  A rote learning task is one in which people have to memorize the items on a list.  These effects are strongest when people learn the items on the list and have to remember them at least a day after learning.  This effect does seem to come from learning, because the participants do not need to be on a medication during the test in order to see the effect.

It is important to be clear that few studies have looked at memory for complex kinds of information that require real deep understanding of the material.  So, it is impossible to know whether ADHD stimulants are just helping with learning the sorts of random items that typically appear on memory tests or whether they would also help with the kinds of complex knowledge that must often be learned in high school and college classes. 

The other place where ADHD stimulants seem to have some effect is with what is called working memory.  Working memory is the amount of information that people can hold in mind at the same time.  About half of the studies Smith and Farah reviewed suggest that these medications have no effect on working memory, while the other half show small effects in which the medications improve performance.  This improvement is often seen most strongly in those people whose normal working memory capacity is the smallest. 

What does all this mean?

Any pill is a blunt instrument.  It has pervasive effects across the brain and body.  Being smart, though, is a more subtle interaction among regions of the brain.  So, it is hard to truly make yourself smarter with a pill.

In addition, understanding the effects that an ADHD stimulant may have depends on other characteristics of the person.  For example, Smith and Farah point to new studies being done that look at a specific gene that is responsible for breaking down the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.  These chemicals are neurotransmitters that affect the way neurons in the brain operate.  The effects of ADHD stimulants appear to be different depending on which version of this gene a person has. 

Remember, ADHD stimulants are strong medicines that have the potential to lead to addiction.  So, there are serious costs that come with the modest benefits that the pills might provide.

Finally, it is not clear that the benefits of ADHD medications truly are benefits.  The strongest effect of ADHD medications is that they seem to enhance learning of items from a list.  There are times, of course, where it is important to learn arbitrary kinds of information.  I remember taking a neuroscience exam in college for which I had to know the names and locations of many brain regions.  But, there are also lots of times where it is more important to know why something occurs rather than what happened.  It simply is not clear from the studies that have been done so far whether ADHD stimulants help with that kind of learning.  In some learning situations, it might be better to forget some of the specific details in order to remember the gist of what you have encountered.

In the end, it is important to be armed with facts when considering any kind of medication.  If you are seriously thinking about taking any kind of medication hoping that it will act as a smart pill, read the research yourself and make an informed decision.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Should you look back on the past with rose-colored glasses?

An old song says, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”  The advice in this song is simple.  Focus on the positive elements of your life.  Don’t dwell on negative things that have happened.  Is that the key to your future happiness?

A fascinating paper in the September, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Erin O’Mara, James McNulty, and Benjamin Karney suggests that it isn’t as simple as that.  They explore two key factors that affect whether you should think positively about negative experiences in the past.

The first factor is controllability.  Some negative things that happen to you are uncontrollable.  A car accident, serious illness, or loss of a loved one is generally uncontrollable.  There was nothing you could do about the event that happened, and you have little control whether something like that is likely to happen in the future.

Other negative things are more controllable.  If you have a friend who is mean to you, you can choose not to spend time with that friend again.  If your job causes you stress, you can choose to do things differently at work, or even to change jobs.

The second factor is the severity of the negative event.  Some events are very negative.  Losing a loved one or being abused by a romantic partner are highly negative events.  Other events are not that awful.  A flat tire on your car, or a miscommunication with your partner are negative, but not tragic.

The authors of the paper first review evidence on uncontrollable events, and suggest that there is good reason to think that having a positive attitude toward uncontrollable events in the past is a good thing.  Classic research by Shelley Taylor, for example, suggests that a patient with breast cancer will adjust better and suffer fewer symptoms of depression by being optimistic rather than by being pessimistic about her disease.

The studies in this paper were particularly interested in controllable events.  To explore this issue, the studies followed newlyweds for several years.  They started by interviewing new husbands and wives about negative experiences they were experiencing.  They also counted the number of symptoms of depression that the members of the couple experienced.

For each negative experience (which could range from a miscommunication to emotional abuse), the individual rated how serious they thought it was.  The interviewer also rated the seriousness of each event.  That allowed the researchers to calculate the difference between how severe a person considered an event to be and the severity as rated by a more objective rater.  That difference was a measure of how strongly the person was wearing rose-colored glasses for a past event.

The researchers then followed couples for several years.  In one study, they also interviewed the couples a second time 2 years after the initial interview to find out what kinds of negative events they were experiencing.

So, what happened?

People who thought positively about negative events that were not that severe generally showed a decrease in symptoms of depression over time.  So, people who did not get that upset about the small things in life (like miscommunications) tended to feel good about life over time.

People who thought positively about severe negative events, though, actually showed an increase in symptoms of depression over time.  The reason for this increase is that these negative events were controllable.  By minimizing the importance of things like emotional abuse, people opened themselves up to experience more of it in the future.  The continued presence of severe negative events in a person’s life led to more symptoms of depression.

What does this mean?

It is important to be realistic about the controllable but negative events in life.  You cannot find ways to eliminate the negative in life if you always accentuate the positive.  If you are experiencing stress or abuse at home or at work, then the first step to changing the situation is being realistic about how bad it is.  Then, you can work toward making your life better.

On the other hand, life has lots of little stresses.  It is easy to get caught up in the details of who is doing the most housework or the latest nasty thing said by your teenage child.  For those situations, put on your rose-colored glasses and smile your way through them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Test yourself to learn better

The school year is in full swing.  For students, school means learning and testing.  Most students believe that learning is the real reason that students are in school, and then they are tested to make sure that they learned what they were supposed to have learned. 

Because students believe that learning and testing are separate things, they often study inefficiently.  A favorite mode of studying is to sit down with a textbook and notes and to read over the chapter and class notes.  Once the material looks familiar, students assume they are done studying.

Growing evidence from a variety of researchers including Robert Bjork at UCLA and H.L. (Roddy) Roediger at Washington University suggests that one of the most effective ways to learn new material is to test yourself on it. 

Ideally, you start with some learning experience.  Perhaps you go to a lecture or read an article.  Then, rather than just looking over the material again some time later, actually give yourself a test.  Ask yourself questions about the material you are learning and try to formulate your own answer.  When you are tested on that material again later, your performance will be better than if you just looked the material over again and thought about it.

A paper by Vered Halamish and Robert Bjork in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition describes a number of the advantages of studying by testing yourself over traditional methods of studying.

The authors point out two key benefits of studying by testing.  First, the longer the delay between studying and testing, the bigger the advantage for studying by testing rather than traditional studying.  When the test happens immediately, then there is no big difference between the two types of studying.  When the test happens days or weeks later, though, there is a big difference between these conditions.

In addition, the harder the test, the bigger the advantage of studying by testing over studying in the traditional way.  If the test questions can be answered just by recognizing the correct answer, then there is less of a difference between the types of studying than if the test questions require the student to construct an answer.  That is, studying by testing has a bigger advantage over traditional testing for essay questions than for multiple choice tests. 

In order for studying by testing to be effective, though, it is important that you actually remember the information that you’re studying.  When you test yourself, you are asking yourself questions about the material.  (Many books even have sample questions you can use.)  The testing effect works because you successfully get to the information in memory, and that makes the memories stronger and easier to retrieve later.  

Another reason why studying by testing is effective is that it is always best to study in the way that you are going to be tested.  That is, the more that the study situation resembles the testing situation, the more likely you are to remember the information during the test. 

Putting this all together, then, when you have to learn something new, you must be active about it.  Don’t read new material passively or just listen to someone give a lecture.  Instead, after you are exposed to something, test yourself on it.  It takes some effort to succeed at a test you give yourself, but that effort will be rewarded down the line.

Finally, this works even if you’re not in school.  Whenever you are in a position where you have to learn something new, don’t just study it.  Test yourself. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gender, anxiety, and purchases

Some kinds of purchases provoke anxiety.  Many men hate to shop for clothes.  In general, men do not keep up on the latest fashions and don’t really have a sense of what will look good.  Even men who do know about fashion may be concerned about buying clothes, just because they know there is a stereotype out there that men are fashion-challenged.  Similarly, there is a stereotype that women don’t know much about cars.  As a result, women often experience a similar kind of anxiety when car shopping.

A paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Kyoungmi Lee, Hakkyun Kim, and Kathleen Vohs explored this kind of stereotype-induced anxiety.

Their studies focused on women.  They reasoned that women might often feel anxiety when faced with choices involving science and math because of the widespread (if false) stereotype that women are worse at science and math than men.  They suggested that in cases in which women had to make choices of products involving math or science, they might minimize their anxiety by trying to work with a female salesperson.  Working with a female salesperson would minimize the importance of gender in the interaction and thus would reduce the overall anxiety.

To test this possibility, one study asked men and women to choose whether they would want to do business with a financial planning company.  Everyone saw an ad for a company.  Some people saw an ad with mathematical formulas in it, while others saw an ad with no formulas.  The formulas were expected to increase the importance of math for the decision, which was expected to increase anxiety about the choice for the women in the study.  Finally, the financial advisors depicted in the ad were either men or women.

Men in this study were equally likely to be interested in doing business with this company regardless of whether there was math in the ad or whether men or women were shown as financial advisors.  The women did not care about the gender of the advisors when there was no math in the ad, but were much more likely to want to do business with females than with males when there was math in the ad.  The women also expressed more anxiety when shown the ad with the math in it than when shown the ad with no math.

If it really is anxiety that is affecting women’s decisions, then it ought to be possible to get rid of women’s preferences for a female salesperson by reducing their anxiety in some way.  In another study, women participants were asked to imagine that they were visiting a car dealer.  In the scenario, they were greeted either by a male or female salesperson.  They were asked to rate how likely they would be to buy from that car dealer.  Consistent with the previous study, women who just read this scenario indicated that they were more likely to purchase from this dealer if they had a female salesperson than if they had a male salesperson.

As a clever way of trying to decrease anxiety, half of the participants were presented with these scenarios in a packet of papers that had been covered in a vanilla scent.  Previous research suggests that the scent of vanilla is effective at helping to reduce anxiety.  The women who read the scenarios while smelling vanilla liked the car dealers equally well regardless of whether they had a male or female salesperson.

When shopping gets stressful, it is clear that you will try to find a way to make it less stressful. It is important to be mindful of what kinds of shopping situations are stressful for you, though, because the ways that you reduce stress may not be the ones that allow you to make the best choices.  Often, you might be tempted to make stressful choices as quickly as possible, even though spending a bit more time might allow you to make a better choice.  In those cases, a pleasant scent or some deep breaths might help to reduce the anxiety that goes with some choices.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Your view of the future is shaped by the past

It seems easy to think about what you will be doing next week.  In general, your life next week feels like it will be a lot like your life is this week.  You will have the same friends, the same job, the same home.  Your distant future is a bit murkier.  It is hard to picture where you’ll be living, what you’ll be doing, and who you will be spending time with.
How do you envision your future?  This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of Memory and Cognition by Kathleen Arnold, Kathleen McDermott, and Karl Szpunar.
They start by pointing out that your ability to envision the future is strongly influenced by your memory for the past.  That is, you tend to use memories of past experiences to predict what your life will be life in the future.
It is easier to use your memories when the future you are predicting is close in time.  Chances are you have experienced many specific locations and events that are like the ones you will encounter next week.  As a result, you can do a good job of simulating what your life will be like next week.  It is harder to guess what memories from your past will be relevant for understanding your life in the distant future, and so it is harder to make specific predictions.
Indeed, in one study, people were asked to envision an event that was going to happen next week or in five years.  After thinking about this future event, people were asked whether it was set in a familiar location.  People were far more likely to set a predicted future event in a familiar location if they were thinking about the near future than if they were thinking about the distant future.
Another study demonstrated that it is possible to make more specific predictions for the future by imagining that future in a familiar place rather than an unfamiliar place.  For example, college students asked to envision an event happening five years from now in their current dorm room were able to make much more specific predictions about that event than those asked to envision an event happening at the Egyptian pyramids.
Why does this matter?
We use our ability to envision the future to help us make plans.  Our beliefs about what might happen in the future help us to plan for obstacles that will confront us.  A lot of good research on planning suggests that those people who prepare for failure are the ones best equipped to handle problems when they come up.
By setting your predictions for the future in a familiar landscape, you allow yourself to use your memories of the past to help you predict what might go wrong in the future.  If you are only able to think abstractly about the future, then you are much less likely to find specific problems that may arise.
Clearly, the future has ways of surprising us, and nobody can be completely prepared for what the future will bring.  But, it is important to recognize that the only way you can plan for the future is by drawing on your memories of the past. Envisioning your future in a specific location gives you the best chance of helping yourself succeed. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why do we like people who like the music we do?

When you’re at a party and you meet new people, you’d like to have some way to get to know about them quickly.  You can try to talk about sports with people, but not everyone follows sports.  You can try to talk about politics, but those conversations can get heated quickly.

Instead, people often ask others about music.  Finding out the music that someone else likes seems to give you a lot of information about them quickly.  A study by Peter Rentfrow, and Sam Gosling published in Psychological Science in 2006 found that college students getting to know each other over the internet are more likely to ask about music preferences than about all other categories of conversation topics combined.  This research also found that knowing someone’s music preferences allowed students to do a reasonable job of predicting some of the new person’s personality characteristics and values.  Personality characteristics are the basic dimensions of behavior along which people differ.  Values are beliefs and goals that influence how people approach the world.

On top of that, when we find out that someone shares our musical interests, that increases how much we like them.  This idea was explored in a paper by Diana Boer, Ronald Fischer, Micha Strack, Michael Bond, Eva Lo, and Jason Lam in the September, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

In one study, they asked fans of metal or hip-hop music to evaluate descriptions of people who either shared their musical taste, had a different music preference, or had no stated music preference.  The participants were asked how much they thought they would like this person.  They also rated how similar they thought this person was to them along a variety of personality characteristics and values.    

Unsurprisingly, people expressed that they liked a new person better when finding that they shared the same musical taste than when they did not.  The amount that someone felt that they would like the new person was based strongly on how much they thought the new person would share similar values rather than similar personality characteristics. 

This effect was also observed in a study of college roommates in Hong Kong.  In this study, college students who had been rooming together for a few months were asked about music preference, how much they liked each other, and a variety of questions about similarities in values.  Music preferences predicted similarities in values, which in turn predicted how much the roommates liked each other.

This research suggests that we often ask people about their musical preferences, because musical taste serves as an easy indicator of whether we are likely to be similar to new people in ways that will influence how much we like them. 

In the end, of course, we can’t know from this research whether music influences values or values influence the music people like (or both).  That is, people may generally spend time with others who share their values.  In these social settings, music is often shared, and the music you hear affects what music you like.  So, sharing values could cause music preference. 

But, the opposite could also be true.  Music expresses values.  Lyrics have social messages.  In this way, listening to particular musical styles could affect people’s values.  But, that is a topic for future research.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Group membership and commitment to goals

One of the local high schools has an interesting fundraising tradition for their marching band.  Each instrument section goes out as a group and “infests” someone’s yard with pink plastic flamingoes.  Then, they request a donation to clear up the infestation.  The kids get to bond while collecting funds for the band, and the sections engage in a friendly competition to see who can collect the most money.
 How does this kind of group identity influence people’s commitment to a goal like raising funds?
 This question was explored in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Ayelet Fishbach, Marlone Henderson, and Minjung Koo.  They suggest that people’s commitment to a group affects commitment to a goal differently depending on how the goal is framed.   
 When people do not feel strongly that they are members of a group, then just being part of the group does not give them a sense that the goal is important.  Instead, they try to estimate how important the goal is to the other individuals.  The best way to do that is to see how much progress the group members have already made on the goal.  The more progress that has been made, the more strongly these people will commit to the goal.
 Those people who feel more strongly attached to the group have a commitment to the goal just because they are part of the group.  For them, they are interested in helping the group succeed, and so they are more motivated by seeing how far there is to go to reach the goal than by seeing how much progress has been made so far.
 In one study, college students were told that they were going to be assigned to a group that had to generate ideas for a project.  They were shown the group members who had already been selected and those members were either all from the same school as the participant, or they came from different schools.  Having students who came from the same school gave the participants a greater sense of belonging to the group. 
 Participants were told that the goal for the group was to generate at least 50 ideas for a marketing campaign.  Half of the participants were told that the group members who had gone so far had generated 24 ideas total.  The other half of the participants were told that after the initial group members had gone there were still 26 ideas left to be generated.  Then, they were asked to come up with ideas for the group.
 Consistent with the proposed influence of group membership on motivation, when the group consisted of students from many different schools, participants generated more ideas when the progress was framed in terms of the number of ideas already generated rather than the number of ideas yet to be generated.  When the group consisted of students from the same school, then participants generated more ideas when they were focused on the number of ideas yet to be generated rather than on the number of ideas generated so far.
 As another example, participants from a university in the Midwest read about wildfires in California.  The description either focused on California as being distant from the Midwest (saying Californians and referring to the victims using the pronouns “they” and “them”) or they focused on the group identity of Californians and Midwesterners as Americans (and using pronouns like “we”). 
 People who read the description using the pronouns “they” and “them” were more interested in giving money to help the victims of the wildfires if they were told how much money had been collected so far than if they were told how much remained in the goal to raise $10,000.  Those people who read the description using pronouns like “we” and focusing on common group membership were more interested in giving money if they were told about the amount that remained to be collected rather than the amount collected so far.
 These results demonstrate why it can be so difficult to figure out how to motivate group members.  The level of motivation that group members have for a goal depends both on how strongly each person identifies with the group and how people think about progress toward the goal.
 For the high school band, of course, everyone seems strongly committed to being a part of the group.  For them, then, it is probably best to focus on how much remains to be done to achieve their goal.

Monday, October 29, 2012

We are more likely to bribe than I am

There is a variant of the golden rule that says “Whoever has the gold, rules.”  This power of money comes from its ability to grease the wheels in government and business.  Some of these uses of money are legally sanctioned (like the rampant lobbying in Washington, DC) and some are not (like outright bribery).  But there is a long history of people using money to get access to power.

On the other side, though, there is a moral argument against buying influence and power.  In her book, The Purchase of Intimacy, sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out that there are many kinds of relationships that we feel reluctant to trade against currency.  Societies make it taboo to trade money for sex, because we do not want there to be a strict monetary value for close relationships.  Likewise, there is a moral value against purchasing access to power.  People who are governing are supposed to be focused on the good of the people.  At the point where there is a monetary value on governing, leadership becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Because there is a moral dimension to bribery, someone willing to offer a bribe has to overcome the fear and guilt that come with overstepping a moral norm.  Psychologically, this involves some kind of moral disengagement. That is, a person willing to offer a bribe has to find a way not to see bribery as a strong moral violation.

Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal explored a cultural factor that can create this moral disengagement in a paper in the July, 2011 issue of Psychological Science. 

Anthropologists and cultural psychologists have explored dimensions along which cultures differ.  One of the important dimensions is individualism vs. collectivism.  Western cultures (like the United States) tend to be quite individualist.  They focus on individual responsibility.  In contrast, East Asian cultures tend to be collectivist.  They focus on the good of the group and the relationships between people rather than on the individual.

These authors suggest that members of collectivist cultures may find it easier to offer bribes, because they are more likely to be focused on relationships between people rather than individual responsibility.

First, they did a simple correlational study.  They related the data from the Bribe Payers Index collected by Transparency International (which rates how likely it is that companies from different countries offer bribes) to measures of the collectivism of those cultures and to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the countries.

As you might expect, companies from wealthier countries are less likely to offer bribes than companies from poorer countries.  This reflects that companies from poorer countries are more desperate to do business than those from richer countries.  After controlling for wealth, though, companies from countries with a collectivist culture are far more likely to offer bribes than companies from countries with an individualist culture.

To test the psychological mechanisms involved in this effect, the authors examined this issue experimentally.  In one study, half the participants were induced to think about themselves as individuals (by searching for the pronouns I and me in paragraphs), while others were induced to think of themselves as members of a group (by searching for the pronouns we and our in paragraphs). 

After this participants read a scenario in which they were a salesman at a company trying to close a big deal with a client.  They were asked whether they would offer a bribe to the client.  Among other questions, they were also asked how much individual responsibility they would feel for their actions. 

In this study, 58% of people primed to think collectively were willing to offer bribes, while only 40% of those primed to think individually were willing to offer bribes.  This difference between groups reflected that people primed to think collectively felt less individual responsibility for their actions than those primed to think individually. 

Of course, there is plenty of bribery even in individualist cultures.  In this study, 40% of people who were primed to think individually still offered a bribe.  And bribery scandals in the US are common.  In the end, there are many forms of moral disengagement.  Collectivist thinking provides just one way to avoid individual responsibility.