Thursday, March 29, 2012

When “I saw that” becomes “I did that.”

One of the strangest conversations I have witnessed happened when I was at a party at a friend’s house several years ago.  He was regaling me with a story about making breakfast in high school and covering the dog with pancake mix.  He got through the end of the story (which was funnier than you might think) when his brother piped in.  “Great story,” he said, “but that was me, not you.  You were on the sofa watching.”  The next 20 minutes devolved into an argument over whose life it really was. 

I had forgotten about that story until I read a paper in the September, 2010 issue of Psychological Science Isabel Lindner, Gerald Echterhoff, Patrick Davidson, and Matthias Brand.  They were interested in how observing actions influences your memory for those actions.

Previous research has shown that if people imagine performing an action, they can later believe that they did it.  I know I have had this happen to me.  I have thought about bringing the garbage can to the street on the day when garbage is collected.  Later, I am surprised that it isn’t out on the street, because I have mis-remembered thinking about taking out the garbage as actually taking it out.

These authors were interested in whether observing an action can lead you to think later that you actually performed it.  To test this possibility, they first had people read about a variety of simple actions like shaking a bottle or tapping with a pencil for 15 seconds.  Some of the actions they only read about, while others they read about and also performed. 

After a short break, people saw videos of other people carrying out some actions they actually performed, some they just read about, and some that were not a part of the first phase of the experiment at all.

Two weeks later, the participants were shown a list of actions and were asked whether they had performed them in the first session of the study. 

Across three studies, people were consistently more likely to believe that they had performed actions that they had only seen someone else perform than actions they had not seen someone else perform.  That is, watching someone else perform an action led people to believe later that they themselves had performed the action.  This finding held up even when participants were told at the beginning of the study to pay careful attention to the actions they performed. 

In a particularly interesting condition, this finding was observed even when participants were warned that people often mis-remember actions they see other people perform as things they did themselves.  Knowing about this effect does not make it go away.

Why does this happen? 

As I have written about previously in this blog, when you see someone perform an action, you often adopt the goals of the people you are watching.  This phenomenon is called goal contagion.  Goal contagion is useful in social groups, because it can lead an entire group to want to work together.  A side effect of this goal contagion, though, is that you may later think you were more involved in an action than you actually were.  The most extreme version of this effect is a false memory that you performed an action that you actually did not.

Findings like this reinforce the point that our memories are not designed to provide a truthful readout of the events of our lives.  Memory is designed to help us act in the future.  Seeing an action performed gives you some confidence that you understand how to perform the action yourself.  Your memory is really trying to tell you that you understand how to perform an action.  

For example, when I first bought a house, a wasp built a nest in ceiling of my back porch.  I went to the local hardware store and bought a can of spray to take down the nest.  I was really worried about getting stung.  The sales guy at the hardware store took me outside with a bottle and sprayed it to show me how it was done.  After that, I went home and did it myself.  Just seeing someone else do it helped me to understand how to do it myself.

It is only because our culture cares a lot about exactly who performed particular actions that this facet of memory is seen as an error rather than a benefit.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Worn out and tired are two different things

I am sure that you have all had this happen before.  You have a particularly hard day.  Maybe your boss said a few things you disagree with and you had to bite your tongue rather than respond.  Or perhaps a friend insulted you, and you had to control yourself in a public place.  After all that work controlling yourself, a driver has the nerve to cut you off as you’re trying to make a turn.  Suddenly, you are in a honking, yelling, bird-flipping rage.
Research by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and their colleagues suggests that this loss of control is caused by ego depletion.  Basically, when you have to spend a lot of time controlling yourself (as you might have to do when you don’t want to confront your boss), that draws on a store of mental resources that you use for self-control.  If you drain those resources enough, then eventually they may run out, and you will have trouble controlling yourself further.
The research on ego depletion suggests that it is partly related to energy use in the brain.  You can actually measure a drop in blood sugar when people are put in a situation where they have to control themselves.  The brain is using extra energy for this self-control.  The more energy that people used at one time for self-control, the less likely that those people were to be able to control themselves later.
There is a temptation to say that this self-control causes fatigue.  That is, you may literally get tired from having to keep yourself under control.  Is this ego depletion the same thing as being tired?
A study I did with Kathleen Vohs, Todd Maddox, and Brian Glass that was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2011 set out to explore this question.  This experiment was run as part of a larger study looking at the effects of sleeplessness on performance.  As a part of this study, participants were kept awake for 36 hours.  They underwent a number of tests in this period.
In this study, we manipulated whether people had to do a difficult task of self-control.  We asked people to watch a couple of videos that were disgusting and/or  funny.  One disgusting video was a scene from the movie Trainspotting in which the main character has to dig through a dirty toilet to find drugs that had been dropped in it.  The video that was disgusting and funny was the scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life where a morbidly obese character finishes a huge meal and then vomits everywhere. 
The group that had to do difficult self-control watched the scenes and had to keep a straight face through the whole thing so that someone observing them would not know what kind of scene they were watching.   The other group just watched the scenes.  Some people did this experiment when they had only been awake for 12 hours (so they were pretty fresh).  Others did it when they had been up for over 24 hours (so they were pretty tired).
After watching the movie clips, people played a “noise blast” game that is often used in psychology studies as a test of aggression.  Basically, you play against a partner.  The winner of each round of the game gets to punish the other player by blasting them with noise.  The louder the noise you choose to blast your partner with, the more aggressive you are being in the game.
We found that people who had to keep a straight face while watching the film clips were more aggressive than the people who just watched the film clips.  So, a difficult self-control task made it difficult to exhibit self-control later.  But, the amount of sleep you had didn’t matter.  That is, people who were fresh were no more or less aggressive than people who were sleepless.  These results suggest that being worn out from having to do a lot of self-control is not the same thing as being tired from lack of sleep.
So, what can you do when you have had a hard day?
One thing that is helpful is to do things that will give you energy.  Eat some food, or drink some juice.  Take a walk in the sunshine or do some exercise.  When you have had a tough day, don’t make the bad day worse by rushing from one stressful situation into another. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Structure your world for success by thinking abstractly

A recurring theme in this blog is that self-control is hard.  Tempting short-term goals often get in our way when we want to achieve long-term goals.  If you are trying to lose weight, then it is not easy to pass up some fries to go with that lunch or a rich piece of cake to reward yourself for a hard day.  If you need to study for an exam in order to keep up your grades, it is tempting to take a break to watch a great movie on TV or to join your friends at a party.

One way to help you to control yourself is to set up your environment in advance to make those temptations less tempting.  If you don’t keep tempting foods at home, then you are less likely to break down and eat something that will break your diet.  If you bring your books to the library, you make it harder to give in to the call of the television. 

When you work to create an environment that supports your long-term goals, you are engaging in prospective self-control.  This kind of planning for the future helps you to achieve your goals by minimizing the number of temptations that cross your path and by helping you to prepare in advance for those that do emerge. 

A paper by Kentaro Fujita and Joseph Roberts in the November, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examines one factor that may make people more likely to engage in this advance planning. 

These authors suggest that when people think about a situation more abstractly, they may be more willing to structure their world in ways that help them to satisfy long-term goals than when they think about a situation concretely. 

Take the example of dieting to lose weight.  If you think about eating specifically, then it gets easy to think about the wonderful tastes and sensations you may have to give up by dieting successfully.  If you think abstractly, though, then the temptations of specific foods are not so tempting.  That may enable you to put structures in place to help you remove those temptations in the future. 

In one study, the authors used a technique to get people thinking abstractly or concretely.  In this particular study, they started by having people think about why they might perform a number of activities (which tends to focus people on abstract reasons) or how they might perform the activity (which tends to focus people on specific means for achieving goals).  Then, people were asked if they would participate in a future study that would take place over three sessions.  At each session, they would be given a snack as part of their compensation for being in the study.  Some of the snacks were healthy (like fruit) and some were unhealthy (like cake).  People were also told that they could opt to select all three snacks in advance or they could simply choose the snack they wanted in each session.

Lots of research suggests that when you make a series of choices for yourself in advance, it is easier to maintain self-control.  For one thing, making the choice in advance makes the possible temptations feel less tempting.  For another, making a whole set of choices at once helps you to see how each of the individual selections might get in the way of your success at the long-term goal. 

In this study, people who were led to think abstractly were more likely to opt to make all three choices at once than were the people who were led to think concretely.  So, those who thought abstractly did more planning for the future than the ones who thought concretely. 

The authors did a second study that obtained a similar result.  In this study, they used a different technique to get people to think abstractly (thinking about common uses for a set of items or uses that were specific to each item in a set), and a different means of self-control (the size of a punishment for failing to show up for an experiment).  People who were led to think abstractly wanted to give themselves larger punishments in the future than those who were led to think concretely.

Putting this all together, this study adds something nice to work on how people satisfy goals.  Often, we worry about how we might handle temptations when they arise.  This work suggests that if we think abstractly when prepare ourselves to achieve our long-term goals, we may adopt strategies that maximize our chances to succeed.

Think abstractly and maximize your chances to see the latest blog entries as they get put up. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I shouldn’t make you eat healthy food

Healthy foods have a serious image problem.  There are lots of foods that we know are good for us, but it is hard to get people to eat them.  Putting labels on foods like “low fat” or “good for you” immediately makes people want to run the other way. 
And now, there is even evidence that if you force people to eat healthy food it may backfire.
Stacey Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach explored how eating healthy foods affects other eating behavior in a paper in the October, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  They were interested in whether requiring people to eat healthy foods might actually make them hungrier and thus interested in eating more food.
The key aspect of this work was the idea that someone might be required to eat a healthy food.  That is, if someone chooses freely to eat a healthy food, then they are acting in a way that is consistent with the goals of the way that they want to eat.  But, if someone is required to eat a healthy food, then their goal to eat is still active, and so they will remain hungry.
The authors tested this possibility in a few ways.  In one simple study, they approached students who were sitting in a public area at a university and offered them the opportunity to do a taste test on a chocolate-raspberry protein bar.  For some people, the bar was described as healthy (having lots of protein, fiber, and no artificial sweeteners).  For other people, the bar was described as tasty (a chocolate bar with a tasty chocolate-raspberry core).  After sampling the bar, people made a number of ratings including a rating of how hungry they are.  People who tasted the bar labeled as “healthy” rated themselves as much hungrier than people who tasted the same bar labeled as “tasty.”
Another study extended this experiment in two ways.  First, it demonstrated that people who ate something labeled as “healthy” actually ate more pretzels in a later part of the experiment than people who ate something labeled as “tasty.”  In addition, they demonstrated that this effect was strongest for people who had a low concern for watching their weight.  That is, people who already had the goal to eat healthy did not feel like they were forced to eat something healthy.  People who did not have the goal to eat healthy, felt like this goal was imposed on them, and so they ate more.
This study helps to make clear that eating food is more than just consuming calories.  At times, people want to have a particular taste experience, or to indulge in a snack, or to eat something rich.  And, yes, some people even have the goal to eat healthy foods or to feel good about themselves.  But, those eating goals end up having a big influence on eating behavior.
If the particular foods you eat satisfy the need of your body to get calories, but they don’t satisfy the other goals that you have related to eating, then the meal will not be satisfying.  As a result, you may continue feeling hungry and even eating, because you have not yet fulfilled your goals. 
If you are going to change your eating habits, then, you need to change your eating goals.  You cannot maintain goals like eating rich desserts and fatty foods if you want to diet successfully.  Even if you manage to get yourself to eat some healthy foods, those goals will remain unsatisfied.  They will nag at you and make you feel hungry until you do something about them.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Communicating and miscommunicating with products

A while back, I was out of town.  On my way back from the restaurant where I had dinner to my hotel, I had to cross a busy street.  There was a button on the corner to press to get the “Walk” sign to light up when it was safe to cross.  I pressed the button.  It flashed when I pressed it, then went out.  I pressed it again.  It did the same thing.  After the third press and flash, I just waited and a minute later the Walk sign came on.

Why did I press the button three times?

To answer this question, we need to think about human communication for a moment.  The psychologist Herb Clark has a fantastic 1996 book called Using Language.  In it, he starts by describing the best form of communication for people.  We communicate best when there are a small number of people talking face-to-face in real time.  Conversations are like a coordinated dance.  Even when you are not speaking, you are giving feedback to the speaker by looking at her or nodding or smiling.  This kind of feedback helps the speaker know she is being understood.  And if you don’t understand something, you can immediately cut in and ask for clarification.

Herb Clark goes on to say that the chances for miscommunication go up as you get further and further away from this ideal situation.  So, talking on the phone is harder than being there in person, because you can’t see the person you are talking to.  A lecture is harder than a conversation, because it is hard to stop the speaker in mid-sentence if you don’t understand something.  Reading something (like a blog entry) is harder than a conversation, because the text was written a long time before you are even reading it. 

One reason why emails can cause so much trouble, is because it is easy for people to misinterpret the tone in an email and take seriously something that was meant as a joke.  In a normal conversation, it is easy to look at a speaker and get a sense of whether they meant a comment to be taken seriously, but in an email or text that information just isn’t available.

What does this have to do with crossing the street?

We also communicate with the products and devices around us.  We expect them to behave like good communicators.  When I pressed the button to cross the street, the button flashed.  That was the button’s way of saying, “I hear you.”  You see this when people are pressing elevator buttons when a light has blown out.  If you press the “up” or “down” button on an elevator and it does not light, then you end up pressing it again a few times, because you are not sure that the elevator heard you.

When I was trying to cross the busy street, the light only flashed, it did not stay on.  So, it felt as though the button was telling me, “I heard you, but I’m ignoring your request.”  And so, I pressed the button again, as if I was insisting that my plea for a “Walk” light should be heard.

When you get frustrated with using a product, chances are it is not communicating with you properly.  You expect a product to answer you when you ask something.  If you press a button on a device or a website, you are asking for information.  You want an immediate response that you were heard and that your request is being taken care of.  You generally like to get some kind of communication about how long the request is going to take.  The progress bars on websites are good at that.

In the end, the designers of websites, products, and devices need to pay attention to the way that people communicate to make sure that they communicate effectively.  These designers need to think about that ideal form of communication that involves a small number of people communicating together at the same time and to use that to put together an effective interface that tells users what they need to know.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Even young kids figure out what you like from what you choose

We figure out a lot about the people around us from what they do rather than what they say.  The actions people take say a lot about what they truly want, while the statements people make may not reflect what they truly believe.  That is why we prefer people who ‘walk the walk’ over those who ‘talk the talk,’ and we push people to ‘put their money where their mouth is.’

What allows us to figure out what people really like from their actions?  When do we learn to do that?

This question was taken up in a paper by Tamar Kushnir, Fei Xu, and Henry Wellman in an August, 2010 paper in Psychological Science. 

They start with a simple example.  You can figure out whether people’s actions tell you what they like when there is a clear choice in the world and people do something systematic in that case.  Imagine you go to a candy store and all they have is chocolate.  You bring your friend to the store and tell her to buy something.  She buys chocolate.  It is hard to say from this choice that she really likes chocolate.  All there was in the whole store was chocolate.  Maybe she prefers Gummi Worms, but they weren’t available.

But, what if you take your friend to a store that has chocolate on every aisle, but then there is also one display case with Gummi Worms.  Now, if she buys Gummi Worms, you can safely assume she really likes them.  After all, if she just grabbed something in the store by chance, she probably would have gotten chocolate.  The fact that she picked something rare in the store means that she must really like it.

Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, but Kushnir, Xu, and Wellman looked at whether 3- and 4-year-olds could reason in the same way.  They had children in the study look at a box of toys.  Some boxes only had one kind of toy in them (like soft baseballs).  Another box had two toys in it (like soft baseballs and soft basketballs).  A third box also had two types of toys, but there were mostly toys of one type and a few of the other (a lot of soft basketballs and just a few soft baseballs).

Now, the children watched as a puppet took five toys out of the box.  In each case, the puppet took five of one type of toy out of the box (say, soft baseballs).  Then, the puppet went away.  The child was shown three toys, the two from the boxes and a third that they had never seen before (like a green golf ball).  The puppet came back, and the child was asked to give the puppet the toy it liked best.

The children were quite smart about this.  When the box only had toys of one type, then the children gave the puppet each of the three toys about equally often.  That is, they seemed to realize that the puppet had no choice but to pick one type of toy, and so that didn’t tell them much about what the puppet really liked. 

When the box had two types of toys and there were many more of one type than the other and the puppet consistently picked the rare toy, then the children almost always gave the puppet the toy it had picked. 

When the box had the same amount of each kind of toy, then the children also gave the puppet the toy it had picked, but they did so a bit less consistently than when the toy was really rare.

This result (as well as the results of a follow-up study with 20-month-old infants in the same paper), suggest that humans are very good at figuring out what other people want just from what they do.

It is important that we have this ability from fairly early in life.  The psychologist Mike Tomasello has argued that humans are very good at passing along culture, because children are able to figure out why people are doing what they do from watching what people are doing.  As a result, children learn quickly how to perform actions that will allow them to achieve desirable goals. 

In addition, in order to figure out how to succeed in our social groups, we have to be able to predict what people will do in the future.  By using people’s actions as a guide to their thoughts and preferences, young children help to fit themselves into their network of caregivers and friends.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Are there supertaskers? Please don’t try this at home

When I’m driving and someone is doing something strange on the road, it is virtually guaranteed that they are talking on the cell phone.  I have seen people driving far too slowly on the highway, weaving across lanes, and braking quickly to avoid hitting a car in front of them.  Earlier this summer, I had to lean on my horn as someone talking on the phone blissfully drove within a few feet of my car exiting a parking lot while talking animatedly to a friend.

It shouldn’t be surprising that talking on the cell phone (even with a hands-free device) impairs your driving ability.  Driving is a moderately difficult thing to do.  You have to watch out for other drivers, for bicycles, for pedestrians, and you have to keep control of a large and heavy vehicle.  You need to anticipate what is going to happen, because your car will not stop or change direction immediately. 

Having a conversation also requires some effort.  You have to listen to what someone else is saying.  You have to think about what you are going to say next.  You have to keep in mind what you want to say when your conversation partner is finishing up. 

Psychologists have spent years demonstrating that performing two tasks at once almost always makes you worse at both tasks than you would be if you did the two tasks alone.  In particular, doing effortful things like driving are made worse by doing something else at the same time.

A paper by Jason Watson and David Strayer in the August, 2010 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review suggests that some people may not be affected by doing two tasks at once.  They had 200 people perform a realistic driving simulation in a lab.  They had to drive on a simulated highway behind a car that would sometimes step on the brakes.  They had to follow the car at an appropriate distance and brake when necessary.  Sometimes, people did the driving alone.  At other times, they did it while performing a complicated task while talking on a hands-free cell phone device.  This second complex task is called the OSPAN, and it involves remembering words and doing math problems.  People also did the OSPAN without driving.

Almost everyone in the experiment was worse at both driving and the OSPAN when they did them together compared to when they did them alone.  However, they found 5 people whose performance on the two tasks was completely unimpaired when they did them together.  That is, these people did just as well when driving and doing the OSPAN as when they were just driving.  These people were all ones who had done quite well in the driving task alone, so it wasn’t just that they were distracted by something else when they were driving, and then were distracted again when they had to do the OSPAN.

Watson and Strayer called these people supertaskers, and they did some statistical analyses to show that there were more than you would expect just by chance.

Before you go trying this at home, though, there are a few reasons to want to treat these results with some care.

First, let’s assume that about 2.5% of the population really can do two things at once without suffering on either task.  That still means that there is a 97.5% chance that you are not one of them.  So, you should still assume that talking on the cell phone makes you worse at driving.

Second, you are the worst judge of your own performance.  Most people recognize that other people’s driving is made worse by talking on the cell phone, but still believe that their own performance is not.  There are a few reasons for that.  For one, the difficulties you have doing two things at once also make it less likely that you will notice your own driving errors.  For another, most of the errors you make when driving are (thankfully) not catastrophic.  So, you may not notice that you were a little to close to the car in front of you or that you braked a little too later.  It is only when a series of things go wrong that you end up in an accident, and at that point it is too late.

Third, there is some reason to treat the results of this study with some caution.  In this experiment, people were tested in one session.  That means that 2.5% of the people in this study demonstrated “supertasking.”  That is, these people did well on both tasks.  But, without bringing these people back a few times, we don’t know where they are “supertaskers.”  So, we don’t know whether they will always be good at both tasks.  Maybe there are circumstances that lead people to perform well, but they affect different people at different times.  If we brought all 200 people from this study to the lab a few times, it is possible that about 2.5% of people will perform well when given two tasks to do at once, but it would be a different 2.5% of the people each time. 

Ultimately, it is worth cutting back on the amount of time you spend on the cell phone while driving.  Even if there are supertaskers and you happen to be one, you set a better example for everyone else by paying attention to the road.