Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is it good to think hard?

We’re in the doldrums of the school year right now.  Winter break is behind us, and the school year still has a few months to go.  It is the time of years when there is still a lot of good learning to go before classes start to focus on reviewing for end-of-year tests.

Invariably, when a student is faced with new topics, some of them are fairly easy while others are a challenge.  A particular concept in math may click, and a student breezes right through a worksheet.  That same day, a science assignment may require some real effort.  How does the amount of effort required to complete something influence whether kids (or adults for that matter) think they understand the material when they finish?

This question was examined in a paper by David Miele and Dan Molden in the August, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General.

They begin by rooting their work in a theory by Carol Dweck that I have discussed before in this blog.  Dweck has pointed out that for many psychological characteristics, people may hold one of two mindsets.  They may believe that a particular characteristic is fixed and unchangeable or they may believe that a particular characteristic can be changed with experience and practice.

In this case, Miele and Molden focus on people’s beliefs about intelligence.  Some people believe that intelligence is fairly fixed and cannot be changed.  Others believe that intelligence is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

In these studies, the authors did a variety of manipulations of text passages that made them feel harder to read.  In some cases, the easy text was well written, while the hard text used bad sentence structure to make the same points.  In other cases, the text for each version was identical, but the font used for the text was made easy or hard to read. 

In each study, the authors looked at how well people believed they understood the material.  Of interest, the people who believe that intelligence is a skill tended to think they understood the material reasonably well regardless of whether the text was easy or effortful to read.  In fact, in some of the studies in this paper, people who believe that intelligence is a skill actually felt as though they understood a text better when it required effort to read than when it was easy to read.

The people who believe that intelligence is fixed showed a different pattern.  They judged that they understood the passages better when they were easy to read than when they were hard to read.  That is, for this group, putting in effort to read something was a sign that they did not understand the passage well.

Of interest, the judgments of how well people understood a passage were not explained by actual comprehension (as measured by tests of understanding).   Passages that were hard to read, were often comprehended more poorly than passages that were easy to read for all groups.  So, people’s beliefs about how well they understood a passage were not always accurate.

Why does this matter?

Effort in school determines performance in school.  Eventually, everyone runs into a task in school that is hard.  For years, a child may find assignments in language arts and English classes to be easy, and then suddenly she may find that the assignments are difficult. 

If that child assumes that intelligence is fixed, then when she reaches the difficult assignment, she will assume she did not understand what she read.  Effort is taken as a sign that she has reached her limits.  Eventually, this effort saps motivation, and leads to poor performance in school, and worse yet slowed new learning.

If that child assumes that intelligence is a skill, then when she reaches the difficult assignment, she will assume that she has to work harder to complete this assignment.  In this case, effort signals that it is time to learn something new.  This effort can lead to good performance in school and lots of new learning.

Happily, there is also evidence that people’s attitudes toward psychological factors like intelligence can be changed.  Many studies (including this one) have conditions in which they manipulate people’s beliefs about intelligence by giving them articles to read.  In one experiment in this paper, people acted as though they believed that intelligence was relatively fixed if they had just read a paper suggesting that intelligence is fixed and they acted as though they believed that intelligence was a skill if they just read a paper suggesting that intelligence is a skill.

The success of these manipulations suggests that we can help children to recognize that intelligence is a skill by reinforcing that belief in the classroom.  In that way, we can help students to realize that effort has real value in the classroom.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Well, that wasn’t worth it: Effort discounting in the brain

Most of us have a complicated relationship with the effort required to get things done.  On the one hand, we generally prefer to do things in the easiest possible way.  On the other hand, there are times when the effort we put in to accomplish a goal becomes part of the reward itself.

From a biological standpoint, though, for most situations we are probably best off finding the least effortful way to achieve a goal.  That is, an animal that routinely puts in a lot of effort to get some reward (say, food) will be at a disadvantage relative to some other animal that puts in less effort to get the same reward.  So, we might expect that humans would have mechanisms that allow the amount of effort we expend to achieve a reward to affect the value we give to that reward.  

This question was examined in a 2009 paper in Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience by Matthew Botvinick, Stacy Huffstetler, and Joseph McGuire.  They explored a phenomenon called effort discounting, which is just a fancy way of saying that the more effort that you put into something, the less valuable the reward associated with the effort. 

They had people do two simple tasks in an fMRI scanner.  On each trial, they saw a numeral (0 and 5 were never shown).  If the numeral was yellow, they judged whether the numeral was odd or even.  If it was blue, they judged whether it was greater or less than 5.  Sometimes, the study required low effort.  In low effort blocks, people did a series of trials on only one of the tasks.  Sometimes, the study required high effort.  In high effort blocks, the two trials were randomly mixed together.  It is hard for people to switch back and forth between judgments, and so these blocks were much more difficult than the blocks that all involved the same judgment. 

After each block of trials, people were told whether they received a one dollar reward.  They were told that the computer would decide randomly whether they got the reward and that the reward was not based on their speed or accuracy in doing the task.  They were also told that the level of difficulty of the task would not affect whether they got the reward. 

The authors measured blood flow in the brain (which is related to brain activity).  They were particularly interested in a brain structure called the Nucleus Accumbens.  This structure is deep in the brain in an area called the basal ganglia.  This brain area is known to be involved when people are evaluating rewards.

The authors found that this area responded much less to a cash reward when people just did a high effort set of trials than when they did a low effort set of trials.  Another brain area, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex was related to the amount of effort people put in.  And the more this area was active (signaling that people perceived higher effort), the less that the reward was valued.

There are a few important things to say about this finding.

First, the Nucleus Accumbens is a deep and evolutionarily old portion of the brain.  This means that the tendency to see rewards as less valuable when they required more effort is a central part of our psychological makeup.

Second, in general it really is a good idea for us to accomplish our goals in the simplest way.  If we always found elaborate ways to satisfy goals that could be satisfied more simply, we would spend a lot of time wasting effort and energy.

Third, in those situations where we value the effort, the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.  For example, if you remodel your own home, then you probably put in a lot more effort than you would have put in if you hired someone else to do it.  In this case, though, the process of doing the remodeling is also rewarding.  In addition, whenever you look at the final product, you will remember that effort.  Those memories can also lead to feelings of pride in your accomplishment. 

So don’t shy away from putting in effort, but remember that effort is best spent when it will lead to a great reward or when the effort itself is part of what is rewarding in the first place.

Monday, February 20, 2012

You only confront prejudice when you believe people can change.

One of the more embarrassing social situations you can be in happens when someone you are in a conversation with someone you do not know well and they make a racist or sexist comment or joke.  In that moment, there is a whole calculus you end up going through.  On the one hand, if you do not say anything, you are implicitly endorsing the comment.  On the other hand, if you step up and say something, you can create an awkward social situation.

Obviously, there are many aspects of a situation that will affect whether you choose to confront prejudice.  For example, if the person making the remark has power over you (like a boss or a customer), then it can be difficult to say something.  It can also be more difficult to say something if you are in a group and feel that you are the only one who objects to the comment.

A paper in the July, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Aneeta Rattan and Carol Dweck suggests that people are also more likely to confront a prejudiced remark when they believe that people can learn to change their behavior.  Dweck and her colleagues have done quite a bit of work demonstrating that there are different mindsets that people have about psychological qualities like intelligence and personality.  Some people have an entity mindset, in which case they believe that the quality is one that people are born with and that they cannot change.  Some people have an incremental mindset, in which they believe that qualities like intelligence or personality can change and adapt. 

In one study, Rattan and Dweck measured people’s beliefs about personality and classified them as believing that personality is relatively fixed (an entity mindset) or that it is relatively changeable (an incremental mindset).  The participants in this study were all members of racial or ethnic minority groups.  Later in the study, people interacted in a chat room with someone else who identified himself as a white male (it was actually the experimenter.  The discussion in the chat room was supposed to focus on diversity in college admissions.  Early on in the conversation, the white male made a comment displaying prejudice.  The experimenters were interested in whether the participant would say anything to confront the prejudice.  They found that participants were four times more likely to say something about the remark if they believed that personality is changeable than if they believed that it is fixed.

In another study in this paper, the experimenters had participants read an article made to look like it came from Psychology Today that either suggested that personality is relatively fixed or that it is relatively changeable.  They read this article as part of a study designed to determine whether the paper would be of interest to high school students.  Then, they participated in a second study that they were told was unrelated to the first.  In this study, they were asked a number of questions about what they would do if they were in a situation in which someone made a remark displaying prejudice.  They rated how likely they would be to confront the individual, to avoid them, and to withdraw from future interactions with them.

The people who read an article saying that personality is changeable rated themselves as more likely to confront the prejudice and less likely to withdraw from future interactions with the individual than people who read an article saying that personality is relatively fixed.

I want to highlight two interesting aspects of these studies.

First, the simple belief about whether psychological characteristics can change has a huge influence on people’s behavior.  After all, if you do not think that people can change the way they behave, what point is there in confronting their bad behaviors, particularly if that confrontation would come at some personal cost to you?  Thus, it is worth recognizing that people frequently change their behaviors when they learn new things.

Second, people’s theories about psychological characteristics like personality and intelligence can change.  In the last study I described, people read a single article, and that had an effect on their behavior (at least for the duration of the experiment).  This result suggests that with some continued support, many people can come to believe that most of their psychological characteristics can be changed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How your personality shines through

Personality is a set of characteristics that tends to influence a person’s behavior.  If you have a friend who you think is aggressive, then you expect them to be confrontational or argumentative.  Of course, he won’t be argumentative in every situation.  He may be rather passive when being given by a lecture by his boss, even though he is prone to argue with the umpire at a softball game. 
This observation that people’s behavior depends both on their personality characteristics and the situation they are in has created a tension within research on personality.  Are your actions determined mostly by your personality?  Are situations more important? 
This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Ryne Sherman, Christopher Nave, and David Funder in the August, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  There has been a lot of work examining how personality affects behavior, and also how situations influence the way people act.  The authors of this paper, though, had people provide information about four different situations they encountered and had them describe the situation and their actions within that situation.
The basic results were probably not that surprising given all of the previous research.  The situations that people encounter influence their behavior, but personality characteristics also matter.  That is, an aggressive person will tend to act aggressively, but he will be most likely to display this aggression in situations where it is appropriate to be aggressive.
Perhaps the most interesting finding in the study, though, comes from the interaction between personality and situations.  People with particular personality characteristics seem to seek out situations in which they can display core aspects of their personality.  That is, your aggressive friend will tend to put himself in situations in which he can be aggressive.  A friend who is very open to experiences will tend to find new situations in which she can explore new things.  
How did the authors reach this conclusion?
The participants in the study were given particular days in which they had to describe their activities at a specific time of day.  So, the participants were not free to choose which situation they described.  Nonetheless, there was a high degree of similarity in the types of situations that a given person would be in across days and times of day.  Different people participated in different situations, though, so it wasn’t just that everyone had a similar set of experiences.  Furthermore, the situations that people encountered tended to be ones that were compatible with their personality characteristics.
These results suggest that people generally seek out situations that fit within a comfort zone that is defined by their personality characteristics.  So, even though your aggressive friend knows that there are situations in which he can’t display aggression, he will find those situations in which he can be aggressive.
Finally, this study also demonstrated that not everyone is consistent in the way they display their personality.  That is, we all know some people whose behavior is very consistent from day-to-day and situation-to-situation.  We know others where we wonder which version of that person will show up on any given day.  The data from this study suggest that, people who are low in emotional stability tend to exhibit a variety of behaviors that are not all consistent with what measures of personality would predict.  In contrast, people who favor conservative values tend to be more consistent in their behavior across situations. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The value of being a multicultural warrior

I had a ham radio license as a kid.  I would spend hours with a pair of headphones on listening for weak signals from around the world.  It was exciting to have the chance to have a brief conversation with someone in Europe or Asia or the Middle East.  Picking out the faint signals from among the static made the world feel like a big and mysterious place.
The world seems smaller now.
The internet allows you to email, chat, and converse face-to-face with people all over the world with little more than a computer and some free software.  Cheap air travel makes it easy to fly almost anywhere in the world. 
At first, chatting with someone from another country is just an interesting experience.  Even beyond language barriers, there are huge cultural differences that are immediately evident.  If you have to do more than just have a brief conversation with someone, then these cultural differences can be very difficult to overcome.  This is a particular problem for people who have to do business with people all over the world.
A paper by Lynn Imai and Michele Gelfand in the May, 2010 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes examines the skills people need to succeed in negotiations with people from other cultures. 
They explore the concept of cultural intelligence.  Over the past 20 years, it has become clear that people have lots of different types of skills.  There is no single general intelligence.  There is fluid intelligence that seems related to people’s ability to succeed in school.  There is emotional intelligence, which relates to people’s ability to discern and understand other people’s emotional state.
Cultural intelligence involves a few key factors.  One important factor is people’s motivation to want to acknowledge the differences between people from other cultures.  Some people want others to adapt to them, while other people really want to understand how people from other cultures think differently than they do.  Another key element is the set of behavioral skills that people have that allow them to interact with people from other cultures effectively.
The authors do two interesting things in this paper.  First, they use a variety of personality measures to demonstrate that cultural intelligence is distinct from other things like emotional intelligence or the basic personality of openness (which measures how strongly people are open to new experiences). 
Second, they demonstrate that this cultural intelligence matters.  In particular, cultural intelligence can influence people’s effectiveness when negotiating with people from another culture.
They paired up Americans and East Asians to participate in a negotiation task.  In this setting, the participants played the role of individuals trying to set up a business venture that combined two stores into one location.  Performing this negotiation successfully meant that the pair needed to find some compromises and also to find some outcomes that would be to the mutual benefit of the people negotiating.
Of interest, cultural intelligence did influence how well people did in the negotiation.  When both members of the pair were low in cultural intelligence, they tended to do quite poorly.  The performance of the pair improved with the lower cultural intelligence score of the participants.  That is, it was not enough to have one person in the pair who had high cultural intelligence.  Negotiations were most effective when both members of a pair were both high in cultural intelligence.  Of interest, people’s motivation to understand other cultures was particularly important for success in negotiation.
An open question from this paper is whether cultural intelligence is a relatively fixed trait of people or whether it is something that can be learned.  It seems likely that people can improve their cultural intelligence.  As they spend more time with members of other cultures, people’s motivation to learn about other cultures will increase and their base of skills for conversing with people from other cultures will also improve. 
The world has become a smaller place, but that creates a tremendous opportunity to learn.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

When are attitudes pliable?

All of us have core beliefs.  Things that we accept as being important to us that we expect will drive our behavior.  Yet, there are times in social situations where it is awkward to express those beliefs, and we may even find ourselves sympathizing with someone else’s opinion, even though at some level we feel like we disagree with them.

For example, I was once in a taxi on a long drive from an airport to a hotel where I was staying.  The driver spent quite a bit of time relaying his political beliefs to me.  Those beliefs were the opposite of my own on a number of dimensions.  I did not feel like engaging with the driver, though, and so I kept silent.  Afterwards, I wondered whether this driver’s tirade could have any influence on my own beliefs.

This issue was addressed in a paper in the July, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Alison Ledgerwood, Yaacov Trope, and Shelly Chaiken.  These authors suggest that attitudes are much more strongly influenced by the specific situation you are in when you think about them specifically than when you think about them generally.

I have written a number of times in this blog about the idea of construal level.  Consider the issue of universal organ donation, for example.  You might have a general attitude that organ donation is a good thing, and something people should do.  At the same time, if you think about it specifically, you are forced to grapple with death, and the mechanics of organ donation.  When you think about something generally, then your attitudes will tend to stay fairly consistent.  When you think about something specifically, though, then you’re your attitudes are more prone to be influenced by aspects of the current situation.  Focusing on your own death might make you less interested in organ donation, while focusing specifically on people who might be saved by getting an organ transplant might make you more interested in it.

To demonstrate the influence of generality and specificity on attitudes, these investigators ran a number of studies in which people prepared to talk with someone else about a difficult topic like organ donation or universal health care.  Prior to the discussion, the participant in the experiment was given information about their partner’s attitude toward the topic.  Half were told that the partner supported the topic, while the other half were told that the partner opposed it.  Some time after finding out their partner’s opinion, participants were asked to express their own opinion on the topic.

Across studies, the researchers used a variety of techniques to manipulate how generally or specifically people thought about the core topic.  In one study, a time manipulation was used.  People were told they would discuss a potential change to an organ donation law that would take effect in a few days or that would take effect next year.  Previous work suggests that things that are near in time are conceptualized more specifically than things that are distant in time. 

In this study, people’s attitude toward organ donation was unaffected by their partner’s attitude when the law was set to take effect in a year.  That is, when thinking about the topic generally, people stuck with their long-term attitude.  When the law was set to take effect in a few days, however, people expressed a much more positive attitude toward organ donation when their partner was in favor it of than when their partner was opposed to it.  Similar results were observed with other ways of manipulating how generally people represented the core issue.

What does this mean for you?  We have all sorts of beliefs about the world.  Some of them are the product of a lot of careful thought and consideration.  We’d probably like those beliefs to have a big impact on the way we live our lives.  So, for these beliefs, it is best if we try to think about them in general terms.

On the other hand, we also have beliefs that are not as well considered.  These biases and prejudices can also influence our behavior, but we have less reason to trust them.  In this case, thinking about these beliefs specifically provides more opportunities to allow other events in the world to allow us to influence those beliefs.  Over time, perhaps you can turn these unanalyzed beliefs into ones that you have confidence holding.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Evaluating the actions of others

We make decisions about the characteristics of other people from their actions.  We decide that someone is aggressive if they yell, make rude comments, and try to push people around.  Often, though, a specific behavior is ambiguous.  It is not entirely clear what it signals.  For example, if someone goes skydiving, he might be adventurous or he might be reckless.  How do you decide?

One factor that influences the way you evaluate other people is the concepts you are already thinking about.  That is, if you are already thinking about danger, then that active concept can affect your interpretation of someone’s behavior.  The way this works is a bit complicated, though, as described in a paper in the July, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Marlone Henderson and Cheryl Wakslak. 

They looked at the effects of active concepts and distance on evaluation of people’s behavior.  Quite a bit of work (some of which I have described in previous entries) suggests that when people think about things that are near to them in space or time, they tend to think about them much more specifically than when they think about things that are far away from them in space or time.  So, if you find out that someone is skydiving in a town nearby, you are more prone to think about the specific aspects of strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane than if they are going to skydive in a city far away.  When they are far away, you treat the action abstractly.

Henderson and Wakslak suggested that the concepts you are thinking about are much more likely to have an effect on your evaluation of someone’s actions when you are thinking about their actions specifically than when you are thinking about them only generally. 

In one study, they got people to think about recklessness (which is a negative trait) or adventurousness (which is a positive trait) by having them do a word search puzzle that had lots of words that related to either to being reckless (like dangerous and cautious) or to being adventurous (like exciting and bravery).  After doing the word search people evaluated a person shown in a picture skydiving.  That person was described as either skydiving in a nearby town or across the country. 

When the person was skydiving nearby, then people had a more positive evaluation of them when they were thinking about adventurousness than when they were thinking about recklessness.  Their active concepts had no reliable influence on their evaluations when they person was skydiving far away.   So, active concepts only affect the interpretation of actions when you are thinking about someone specifically. 

So what effects your evaluation of someone when they are far away?  Henderson and Wakslak also did a study in which they had people give their general attitude toward another behavior that could be thought of as reckless or adventurous (riding a motorbike).  They found that this general attitude did not affect people’s evaluation of someone motorbiking nearby, but it did have a reliable effect on their evaluation of someone motorbiking far away.  So, when someone is mentally distant from you, then you tend to use your general attitudes to evaluate them.

This research is also related to work on stereotypes.  Stereotypes are a general attitude about a group.  When someone is psychologically distant from you, then you often use your stereotypes to evaluate them.  However, when someone is psychologically close to you, then you tend to evaluate them based on their specific actions.  On the positive side, that means that if you hold a negative stereotype about a group, that will not affect your evaluation of people close to you.  On the negative side, the positive characteristics of people who are close to you and are also part of a stereotyped group will not make you think better of the group in general. 

For example, there is a widespread stereotype that women are worse at math than men.  You might know a lot of women who are quite good at math.  Because those women are psychologically close to you, however, their math ability may not affect your general impression that women are bad at math.  Ultimately, combating stereotypes requires thinking generally about a group and recognizing that there is no basis for a general attitude that you hold.    

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Seeing and hearing song lyrics

When I was in high school, I spent the summer of 1983 fixing video games.  I had some background in electronics, so a guy who owned video arcades around my home town hired me to sit in a workshop and repair broken games.  That whole summer, my closest companion was a little radio in the shop, which played the songs of the summer repeatedly. 

One of the songs that played at least twice a day that summer was “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.  Most of the song had clear lyrics (“Every breath you take, every move you make…”).  But there was one line that puzzled me.  A few times in the song, Sting sounded like he was singing, “I’m a pool hall ace…” which made no sense at all.  At some point, I bought Synchronicity on cassette (it was the 80’s after all) and was able to read the lyrics.  Turns out, it was “Now my fool heart aches.” 

So, is there any way to get better at understanding the lyrics of songs?

It turns out that being able to see the singer as the song is being sung will help.  This issue was examined in a paper in the June, 2010 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review in a paper by Alexandra Jesse and Dominic Massaro. 

You  might think that understanding speech is basically done through what you hear.  After all, speech is an auditory mode of communication.  Of course, many people have the ability to read lips, so there must be some information about what is being spoken from the movements of people’s mouths. 

In fact, there is a lot of evidence that people put together various sources of information for what is said.  The best example of the influence of vision on speech is the McGurk effect.  In this effect, you hear a soundtrack of someone saying a syllable usually spoken from the front of the mouth (like ba, where you put your lips together to speak it).  At the same time, you see a mouth saying a syllable spoken from the back of the mouth (like ga, where you place your tongue at the back of your mouth).  If you close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, you hear ba.  But, if you watch the face as you listen, then what you perceive is an average of what you hear and what you see.  So, you end up hearing da, which is a sound you would make if you put your tongue toward the front of your mouth.

For an example of the McGurk effect in action, check out this demo from Dominic Massaro’s website.  http://mambo.ucsc.edu/psl/dwmdir/01_5.mov

In the paper by Jesse and Massaro, they had people watch a video of someone singing the song Don’t Cry for me Argentina from the musical Evita.  People either saw the video, heard the singing or saw both.  To make the task a bit harder, the soundtrack had some noise added to it to make the lyrics harder to hear.  Interestingly, people were about twice as good at identifying the lyrics they heard when they were able to see the singer while the song was being sung than when they just heard the song or just saw the singer.  This is an impressive gain in performance.

This finding has a variety of interesting implications.  For example, it may help to explain why we often have so much trouble talking to people on the phone.  When you talk with someone face-to-face, you get information from them from the sounds of what they say as well as from their mouth.  Over the phone, you just have the auditory information. 

In fact, a lot of research suggests that talking on the cell phone while driving (even using a hands-free device) still draws a lot of attention and can increase people’s likelihood of getting in an accident.  One reason why conversations on the cell phone may draw so much attention is that people have to concentrate hard on the voice to understand what is being said, because they are only getting spoken information. 

And, of course, it means that you can save yourself some embarrassment when singing a song with your friends if you can get the lyrics right before you belt out a song in a group.