Monday, January 30, 2012

Confidence and trust in recommendations

Life is short, so we like to avoid as many bad experiences as we can.  I have seen quite a few movies that are basically two hours of my life that I cannot get back.  I have been to my share of bad restaurants.  So, of course, I’d prefer to avoid more of those experiences in the future.

In some situations, it is easy to find experts that you trust.  For example, for movies, I am a devoted reader of Roger Ebert’s reviews.  When he likes a movie, I generally like it as well, and when he doesn’t, I know that it is safe for me to skip it.  On the other hand, my agreement with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone is lower.  So, I don’t find him to be a reliable guide for movies I should see. 

But, what do people do in cases where they don’t have an expert that they already know they should trust?

A paper by Uma Karmarkar and Zakary Tormala in the April, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology takes up this question.  They were interested in how people decide whether they trust a recommendation based on the combination of the expertise of the judge and the confidence of the judge in his or her recommendation.

They had people read a restaurant review for a new restaurant.  The man making the recommendation was either described as a real expert (a nationally renowned critic published in major newspapers) or as a non-expert (a local administrator who has his own food blog).  The text of the review also mentioned something about the reviewer’s expertise.

In the review itself, the reviewer expressed either a high degree of confidence in his review or a low degree of confidence.  For example, the reviewer might say he had eaten at the restaurant several times and felt very certain about his recommendation, or he might say that he had only eaten there once and felt tentative about making a recommendation.

The researchers found that people were more likely to trust a reviewer when the combination of the level of expertise and the degree of confidence was surprising.  That is, they tended to trust the non-expert reviewer more when he was very confident than when he was not so confident.  In contrast, they tended to trust the expert reviewer more when he was tentative than when he was very confident.

An interesting aspect of this increased trust is that when people were surprised about the combination of expertise and confidence, they read the review more carefully and paid more attention to good arguments than to poor arguments in the recommendation.  

This work suggests that our reaction to recommendations may be strongly swayed by factors that might not be optimal for making good decisions.  That is, experts are often better able than non-experts to isolate factors that affect whether people will find an experience enjoyable.  A confident expert ought to be a good source of information.  But, because we expect experts to be confident, we seem to distrust these recommendations to some degree.  Non-experts may be less able than experts to really determine what makes an experience enjoyable, though it probably does make sense to pay more attention to a very confident non-expert than to one who is tentative.

In the end, it is worth trying to find out more about the people giving us recommendations.  After all, there is a cost to each bad movie and each uninspiring meal.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Moving on up: The goal of advancement

We have lots of goals in life.  Many of them involve some kind of advancement.  If you are in school, you set the goal to advance to the next grade or to the next level of your degree.  At work, you might aspire to a promotion or to a job with more responsibility.  When learning to play a musical instrument, you might dream of learning a more difficult piece of music or to play in a band.   Even video games often have a series of levels that you traverse to move through the game. These situations involve what are called hierarchical goals, because you have to move up the ladder to advance to the next goal.

What makes you want to step up to the next level?

This question was addressed in a paper by Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach in a July, 2010 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  These authors pointed out that there are two ways to think about your current level within a goal hierarchy.  You could spend your time thinking about what you have accomplished so far in your current position.  Alternatively, you could focus on the tasks that you have left to accomplish in that position. 

The general finding of the five studies in this paper is that you are more satisfied with your current position if you focus on the tasks you have accomplished than if you think about what you have left to achieve.  However, you are more interested and energized to advance to the next level if you focus your thoughts on what you have left to achieve than if you think about what you have accomplished.  The authors demonstrated this point both with experiments in which they created hierarchies of goals within tasks they created in the lab (such as reviewing snippets of music) as well as in studies in which people thought about their current jobs and prospects for advances.

At some level, these findings fit with intuitions about goals.  If you think about the future and the tasks that lie ahead of you, it makes sense that would also give you energy to move on to the level.  If you think about the past, then it also seems reasonable that would make you more satisfied with what you have already achieved, and should be less motivating for advancement.

To me, the interesting aspect of these findings is the relationship between satisfaction and motivation.  The results suggest that people are most motivated to advance to a new level of the goal hierarchy when they are least satisfied with their current position.  This finding suggests why it is so difficult both to enjoy the journey in life and also to achieve your broader aims.  When you are happy with what you have achieved, you are just not as interested in moving forward.  Our motivational system requires some dissatisfaction to help us to provide the energy to advance.

These experimental results also suggest a way out of this bind.  It is possible to shift your focus between what you have accomplished and what lies ahead of you.  When you are focused on your accomplishments, you can feel good about the journey, at least temporarily.  When you are focused on what is left to achieve, you can feel energized to move into the future.  By shifting your focus at different times, you provide yourself with the chance to have some contentment with your life’s journey and still have the energy to achieve bigger things.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sometimes self-control is belief-control

One of the hardest things for people to do is to resolve the tradeoff between short-term and long-term goals. For example, if you are trying to stick to a diet, it can be difficult to avoid a tempting piece of cake or a fresh gooey cookie straight from the oven.

A paper by Ying Zhang, Szu-Chi Huang and Susan Broniarczyk from the University of Texas in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research examines one way that people help themselves to overcome temptations.

A real temptation is one that has some aspect to it that conflicts directly with a long-term goal you want to satisfy.  If you are dieting, for example, the tempting food may be delicious, but it has a lot of calories in it.  If you are trying to maintain good grades, then a tempting party may be one that is going to be a lot of fun, but it is going to take time away from your studies. 

The authors find that when people are trying to pursue an important long-term goal, they change the way they think about temptations in ways that make the temptations seem more damaging to the long-term goal.

In one study, women were asked to evaluate a fresh chocolate-chip cookie.  Some women had the goal to diet, while others did not.  In addition, some women were told that they could choose to take the cookie with them after the study, while others were just told that they were evaluating the cookie.  The women who did not care about dieting said that the cookie had a moderate number of calories.  Their estimates were about the same as those of women who cared about dieting, but did not think they would be able to take a cookie with them.  Those who cared about dieting and were told they could take a cookie gave much higher estimates of the number of calories.  That is, these women saw the cookie as a much stronger temptation than the other people in the study. In a second study, the authors found that overestimating the calories in a tempting food led dieters to eat less of that food later, so this strategy was successful.

A third study demonstrated a similar finding with the goal of studying.  People who had an active goal of getting good grades estimated the length of a tempting party to be much longer than those who did not have this goal.

Chances are, this strategy is not a conscious one.  That is, people who are trying to diet are not telling themselves that cookies are tempting.  Instead, these findings are another example of the way our perception of the world is changed by our goals.  In previous blog entries, I have talked about how we see things that we want as physically closer to us than things that we do not want.  This research suggests that we also view temptations as more disruptive of our goals than they really are. 

The reason that this strategy is effective is that long-term goals are usually very abstract.  A single cookie or soft drink does not cause our diet to fail.  Instead, it is the accumulation of calories that disrupts a diet.  Overestimating the danger of each snack is one way to make the temptation feel real in the present, which eventually protects the long-term goal.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Talking about products and preference for products

I was thinking back recently on a trip that I took to Europe.  The trip went through Pescara, Italy and Sofia Bulgaria.  In Pescara, I had some really great meals.  After eating a particularly delicious ravioli, it might make sense to say, “Wow, the food in Italy is fantastic.”  But, if I had eaten a disappointing slice of pizza (which never happened), I might have said, “This slice of pizza is disappointing.”  On the other hand, the food in Bulgaria was passable at best, leading me to conclude that the food in Bulgaria is disappointing.  One of the lunches was quite good, though, and so I might be tempted to comment that this particular meal was enjoyable.

In these examples, when the quality of the food was consistent with my overall belief, then I used more abstract language (talking about the food overall), but when it was inconsistent with my belief, then I used more specific language (talking about just that meal). 

It is quite common to change how abstractly you speak based on the consistency of your experience with your attitudes.  Gun Semin and Klaus Fiedler noted that we tend to talk about people this way in a 1988 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  When someone you like gets angry, you are likely to describe what happened as yelling at someone.  When someone you don’t like gets angry, you label them as aggressive.

A paper in the August, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Gaby Schellekens, Peeter Verlegh, and Ale Smidts extended this observation to products.  They had people describe products.  For example, in one study, people try out either Bic pens (which people tend to think of as cheap and low quality) or Parker pens (which people tend to think of as expensive and high quality).  The pens were manipulated so that they did not work.   Then, they had to pick a statement that best described their feeling about the pen.  For the Bic pen, people selected abstract statements (like “This Bic pen is bad.”).  For the Parker pen, people selected more specific statements (like “This Parker pen would not write.”).  In other studies, the authors looked at the descriptions people gave spontaneously both for good aspects of products and bad ones.

The authors then extended this work in an interesting way.  These descriptions affected people who heard them as well.  People who heard an abstract positive description (“This pen is great.”) were more likely to say that they would buy one than people who heard a specific positive description (“This pen writes well.”).  People who heard an abstract negative description (“This pen is awful.”) were less likely to say that they would buy one than people who heard a specific negative description (“This pen writes badly.”).

This work is important, because the people who describe products choose the abstractness of what they say unconsciously.  That is, they are not specifically trying to be persuasive when they use this language.  Yet, these abstract statements are treated as more persuasive (either positively or negatively) than specific statements.  Furthermore, you are not likely to notice how abstractly things are being described to you.  So, the language that is used to describe things can have an impact on your attitudes without your awareness of where that attitude is coming from.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Agreeing to disagree: The difference between talking at and talking with someone else.

Public discourse is no longer about conversation.  That is a real shame.  We have gotten used to speeches and sound bites.  Even when individuals with opposing views appear on TV or the radio, they tend not to talk with each other.  They simply talk near each other.

This absence of conversation among people who disagree has pervaded our own lives as well.  Difficult topics like politics, race, and sexual orientation are broached carefully in public.  Often, people tentatively express views and only elaborate if they come to believe that the other people in the conversation agree with them.

Why does this matter?

Talking with people who disagree with you can be unpleasant in the moment.  It is not fun to have your assumptions challenged.  Many of the topics that are most difficult to discuss are ones that strike deep at our own core values. 

When someone disagrees with you about something that you hold dear, your first reaction is often strong, emotional, and negative.  You can feel yourself getting angry or upset.  But in polite conversation, you have to mask that anger and frustration and maintain a civil conversation.  That is hard. 

And so we resist it.

But having a real conversation with someone that we disagree with ultimately makes us think more similarly.  In order to be able to have a conversation with someone, you have to have some amount of common ground for the discussion to go forward.  You have to find ways to make sure that you are talking about the same concepts.  If you disagree about what basic concepts mean, you end up resolving those disagreements as part of the process of making yourself understood.  Ultimately, that makes your concepts similar to those of the person you were talking with.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  Suppose you go to work at a hardware store.  In the aisle with all of the fasteners, there are lots of long thin pieces of metal that are used to hold things together.  Some of them are nails, others are bolts, still others are screws (and among the screws, some are metal screws and some are wood screws).  Suppose a co-worker is standing in front of a box of bolts, and you ask her to bring you the screws.  The co-worker might respond by saying, “Oh, do you mean these bolts?”  The co-worker isn’t trying to teach you a set of categories, just to comply with your request to bring you something.  But in the process of understanding your request, you have refined your knowledge of fasteners.  That is, just trying to be understood affects the way you think about things in the world.

I did some research demonstrating this effect in a 1998 paper that I wrote with Valerie Makin that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General.  We had people build Lego models working in pairs.  One person had the instructions for building the model, but could not touch the pieces.  The other person could manipulate the pieces, but could not see the instructions.    Later, we asked people to sort the various Lego pieces used in the models they built into groups that went together.  People who conversed together sorted the pieces more similarly than people who conversed with others in the process of building the models.  That is, talking with someone made people think more similarly.

Lego is a far cry from politics, but I have done a few other unpublished studies in my lab using moral dilemmas.  People who discussed a moral dilemma with someone else thought about that dilemma more similarly after the interaction, even if they disagreed about how the dilemma should be resolved. 

It is important to recognize that the importance of conversation is not in changing attitudes.  Conversation is important, because it helps us all to agree on our basic concepts.  We settle on that agreement, because that is a necessary first step before we can even make an argument to someone else.  We resolve the differences in our concepts along the way to making ourselves understood.

In the end, disagreements are healthy.  In public discourse, there are difficult problems that do not have simple solutions.  It is ok to have a conversation and ultimately to agree to disagree with someone.  But, we cannot even begin to solve these problems unless we come to some agreement about what the argument is about.  And that agreement cannot happen without conversation.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

The upside and downside of testing.

Multiple-choice tests are everywhere.  Teachers use them, because they are easy to grade and there is an objectively correct answer.  Aptitude tests also use them for similar reasons.  The internet is full of trivia quizzes with odd questions followed by a series of potential answers.

When people are preparing to take a test, they often study by taking practice tests.  How do these practice tests affect performance on later tests?

This question was addressed by a paper in the June, 2010 issue of Memory and Cognition by Lisa Fazio, Pooja Agarwal, Elizabeth Marsh, and Roddy Roediger.  They find that taking practice tests has both positive and negative consequences for your performance on later tests.

In their experiment, they had people read passages about nonfiction topics. Then, people took a practice multiple choice test.  This test was taken either soon after reading the passages or a week later.  People also did two other tests.  One was a recall test where they had to remember the answers to questions rather than getting a set of possible answers.  Finally, everyone took a final multiple choice test at the end.  The tests asked questions both about information that was in the passages that people read as well as information taken from passages that they did not read.  This last set of questions was expected to be difficult, because people would only know this information if they had encountered it in some other place.

What happened?

Taking an initial multiple choice test as practice did improve people’s performance on tests.  They were much more likely to get the correct answer both in a recall test and also in a later multiple choice test if they studied by taking a multiple choice test.  For the cued recall test, this effect was strongest when the practice test was taken after a one-week delay rather than right away.  For the cued recall test, it didn’t matter as much whether the practice test was taken right away or later.

There was also a negative effect of testing.  In both the recall test and the final multiple choice test, there was a tendency for people to answer with one of the incorrect answers from the original multiple choice test. 

Why does that happen? 

There are two ways that people answer questions on tests.  Sometimes they know the correct answer.  For example, if I ask you the address of the White House, you may simply know that it is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  If you see that on an exam, you answer correctly, because you remember the correct answer.

Sometimes, though, a particular answer just feels familiar.  For example, if you are asked for Richard Nixon’s first Vice President, you might not remember his name specifically.  When you see the name Spiro Agnew, though, it might feel right, and you might give that as the answer.  (And you’d be right.)  Using familiarity to help you answer questions is most useful when there has been a long delay between when you first encountered the information and when you are being tested for it.

Prior multiple choice testing increases the familiarity of all of the alternatives that are part of the test.  It becomes harder to use familiarity as a strategy for answering questions when many answers begin to seem familiar.

Overall, the positives of studying by taking tests seem to outweigh the negatives.  The improvement on tests for items that were tested ranged between 5 and 20 points on the test.  You might lose a few points by getting wrong answers from the lures, but overall the effect of the lures is smaller.

Finally, the authors of this paper suggest that when you do study using a multiple choice test, you should try to get feedback on your answers immediately.  That immediate feedback allows you to focus primarily on the correct answer when you are studying and that will reduce the effect of the lures on later tests.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Say it loud: I’m creating a distinctive memory.

I’m around a lot of studying.  When I walk through the lobby of the Psychology building at Texas, I often see a few students on benches reading over their notes.  A trip to the library requires navigating a sea of students at tables and carrels deep in study.  Then, when I go home, I have three teens who are usually engaged in some kind of studying.

One thing you can say about studying.  It sure is quiet. 

Now, there are good practical reasons to want to be quiet while studying.  If you’re in a public place, it would be disruptive to the people around you to start talking.  Plus, if you are talking to yourself, that would look more than a little odd.  Even at home, you may begin to think you have lost your marbles if you start muttering to yourself while studying.

A paper by Colin MacLeod, Nigel Gopie, Kathleen Hourihan, Karen Neary, and Jason Ozubko in the May, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Learning, Memory, and Cognition, suggests that every once in a while, it might not be a bad idea if you talked a bit while studying. 

In this paper, these researchers document what they call the production effect.  They looked at people’s memory for items like a list of words.  They found that if people studied the list by reading half of the words silently and the other half by saying the words out loud, that he words spoken aloud were remembered much better than those that were read silently. 

Now, it isn’t that just reading things aloud helps, because people who read all of the items on the list aloud were no better at remembering the items than the people who read them all silently.  And both of these groups remembered the words more poorly than the words that were read aloud by the people who did half the list silently and the other half aloud.

So, what is going on here? 

One of the things that is known to help memory is distinctiveness.  We tend to remember oddballs pretty well.  An experimental example of this idea is the Von Restorff effect.  If you study a list of words where all but one are birds and the remaining item is a sport, you are much more likely to remember the oddball than to remember any particular one of the birds.  More commonly, when you meet up years later with friends from grade school, everyone remembers the names of the kids who were different from the crowd  in some way.  (If you discover that everyone from grade school remembers you, then you were probably the one who was different.)

The production effect works because it makes part of the list of items more distinctive.  The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them.  All of this information makes your memory for the spoken items more distinct from the rest of the items that were read silently.

This result suggests that if you are studying material, you might want to identify those bits of information that are most important to remember and to speak those bits aloud while studying.  Even a whisper will help to make those items more memorable.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What is the best way to give advice?

A lot of our daily conversations involve giving and getting advice.  You talk about new movies, and a friend recommends that you go see it.  Another friend wants to go to a Tex-Mex restaurant, and you recommend that they avoid one that just opened.  Later, you mention that you are thinking about joining a new gym, and a friend points out that a new gym nearby offers free personal trainers some afternoons.

Are these kinds of advice effective?  Do people use the advice they get?

A paper by Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio in a 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes looked at several different kinds of advice that people get and give to understand how likely people are to use them.  They distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommend to pick a particular option. 

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.

Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation.  (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews.  You aren’t recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision.  Some participants considered a choice of a job after graduate school.  Others selected among candidates for officers in a student group.  They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision. 

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree.  However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies.  That is, people found it most helpful when people told them about aspects of the options that they might not have known about already. 

There are a few reasons why information is more valuable to people than other kinds of advice.  For one thing, when someone makes a recommendation for or against a particular option, a decision maker may feel like they have lost a bit of their independence in making a choice.  Recommendations about how to go about making the choice may also make a decision maker feel a loss of independence.  When the advice comes in the form of information, though, the decision maker still feels like they have some autonomy.

Second, information helps people to make future decisions in the same domain.  New pieces of information often make people aware of dimensions of a decision that they had never considered before.  A recommendation for or against a particular option is useful for the specific decision that you are making at a given time, but that advice may not be as helpful in the future.

Finally, getting information makes people feel more confident in the decision they ultimately make.  The information provides reasons for or against a particular option.  There is a lot of evidence that people feel better about decisions when they are able to give a reason for making the choice.  Information provides a good justification for a choice.

So, if you want my advice, give people information when making a recommendation.