Monday, June 25, 2012

Language makes you smart by naming roles

It is obvious that language is a crucial tool for communication.  Every animal communicates in some way.  Right now, my dog is barking at the window to warn a deer outside to get off the lawn.  Male songbirds announce their availability by whistling in the trees.  Even ants use chemical signals that allow other ants to follow paths they have taken. 
We have language, though, and that supports a tremendous range of communication abilities.  It even allows me to communicate with you across time and space.  I am typing this now sitting at a table in my house.  Some time in the future, you will read these words while sitting at a computer or iPad or smart phone. 
This incredible tool that enables us to communicate also supports all kinds of sophisticated thinking abilities.  One in particular that is quite amazing is our ability to use words to name things.  Some of our words are proper names that label specific individuals.  Standing in a crowd, if someone yells out, “Art,” I will turn around, but most everyone else will keep on walking.  That label refers to me. 
Other labels refer to categories that are described by the properties that they have.  A dog (like mine who is now lying on the sofa watching me type) names a small animal that usually has four legs and teeth and is often kept at home as a pet.  When we use this label, we are referring to things that generally have this collection of properties.  These property-based categories are very common.
One of the most fascinating kinds of categories is what Hunt Stilwell and I called role-governed categories in a 2001 paper that we published in the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence.  These categories provide a name for things that play a particular role in a situation.  For example, a pet is (usually) an animal that people keep and take care of as a companion at home.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of an animal it is as long as it plays this role.  People can have dogs, cats, birds, fish, lizards, and pigs as pets.   If these animals are not being kept as a companion then they are not pets, so the role they are playing is crucial for being able to use this label. 
There is growing evidence that these role governed categories differ from other kinds of categories.  For example, Micah Goldwater, Hunt Stilwell and I have a paper coming out soon in Cognition that explores the kinds of things that people think are true of different kinds of categories.  When you ask people to list the things that are typically true of property-based categories like dog, they tend to list features of the object like furry, barks, or cute.  When you ask them to list things that are typically true of role-governed categories, though, they tend to list properties that relate that the object to other things.  Listing properties of a pet, people say things like “lives with an owner,” or “provides companionship.”
In addition, when people think about typical members of a category, they do that differently for role-governed categories than for other kinds of categories.  When people think of a typical property-based category, they tend to think of an average or prototype.  The typical dog is medium-sized, furry, and friendly.  Labs and Golden Retrievers are typical dogs.  Chihuahuas and Great Danes are less typical dogs.
When people think of typical role-governed categories, though, they tend to think about ideal members of the category.  For example, a typical pet is easy to take care of, affectionate, and loyal.  That is close to what people’s ideal pet is. 
Having words that refer to roles is something that helps make people smart.  These labels help us to recognize when we see some new object that also plays the same role in a situation.  That allows us to extend these roles to new cases.   When I was in elementary school, there was a fad to create pet rocks.  A pet rock was different from a regular rock, because people took care of them and often painted them and treated them specially.  A friend of mine in grad school had a boyfriend that she used to take care of and feed, and we referred to him as her pet.  When someone at work has a task they work on and nurture over time, we refer to it as a pet project.
Without these words, it would be difficult for us to notice that the same role has come up again.  As beautiful as the song of a songbird is, it will never be able to recognize what a pet is, because it does not have the thinking abilities that support the kind of sophisticated language that people have.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Optimism persists in the face of experience

Optimism and hope often go together.  When people who start successful companies are interviewed later, they often say that they really believed that they could succeed.  Most new companies fail, so you have to have a really optimistic outlook in order to believe that you will beat the odds. 

This kind of optimism can be helpful, of course.  It is hard to get motivated to work hard if you think there is a good chance you are going to fail.  That kind of fear might get you to work hard for a while, but people are generally happiest with their work environment when they are achieving good outcomes rather than just trying to avoid bad ones.

An interesting question, though, is whether people can continue to be optimistic even after they experience failure.  Can someone get optimistic again after starting a business that fails?

A paper in the February, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Cade Massey, Joseph Simmons, and David Armor examined how optimism was affected by experience. 

It is hard to answer a question like this with businesses, because it takes so long for a business to succeed or fail, so they looked at predictions made by football fans over the course of a single National Football League season.

These researchers performed an on-line survey in which people were invited to make predictions about NFL games each week of the season.  At the start of the season, people were asked to name their favorite team.  Then, each week, they predicted the winner of each game and the number of points they expected that team would win by.  By the end of the season, nearly 400 people had made predictions for at least 14 weeks of the 17 week season.  Their data were included in the analyses.

The people in this study were real fans.  They generally watched about 4 games a week.  Many of them had a fantasy football team.  On average, they owned 2 football jerseys with their team on them.

So, what happened?

Looking first across the whole season, on average the favorite teams of all of the people in the sample won about 50% of the time.  That is, there was no bias here for people to root only for winning teams.  Even though the teams won only half their games, people predicted their favorite team would win 69% of the time.  So, people made predictions that were consistent with what they wanted.

This difference was just as strong at the end of the season as it was at the beginning of the season.  That means that even after your team has lost a large number of games, you are still optimistic about their chances the following week.  People did learn something about their favorite team.  Their predictions about the number of points that would separate their team from the opponent got a little more accurate over the course of the season.  However, people were still overly optimistic at the end of the season.

So, what does this mean?

Clearly, your optimism is not dimmed much by experience.  In general, even after you experience some setbacks, you are still likely to believe that you can succeed. 

It might seem strange that your beliefs about the chances of success would be inaccurate.  However, most things in life are not like football games.  The fan of a team watching the game on TV has no influence on the outcome of a game.  But in most things in life the harder you work toward them the more chance you have of success.  The more that you believe that you can succeed, the harder you will work.  So, optimism helps to create the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Even when you fail at something, the best way to help yourself succeed in the future is to work hard.  So, that dose of optimism is still useful, even if you have failed in the past.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The past hurts worse when it will return

It is common to say that time heals all wounds.  And generally, it does.  Painful episodes from your life become less painful over time.  It is just harder to remember the degree of discomfort you felt in the past either from a physical injury or from an emotionally difficult time. 

There is good reason for pain to fade over time.  Even though an event may have been painful, it does not make sense for us to relive that pain again repeatedly in the future.  Pain tends to focus your attention on the painful item, and it wouldn’t be healthy to be totally focused on that past pain.

A study by Jeff Galak and Tom Meyvis in the February, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that it is useful to remember the pain of a past event when that even may occur again in the future.  They suggest that when people are bracing themselves for a new situation, they may remember the pain of a past event as more severe.

In two preliminary studies they had participants either listen to an annoying noise or perform a really boring task.  After a break, they had people rate how irritating it was to experience the noise or do the task.  Some people thought that the noise or task was done, while others thought that they would have to experience it again later in the session.  Those people who thought the task was over rated the experience as less unpleasant than those who thought they would be experiencing it again.

It is not just laboratory tasks that work this way.  In a field study, the experimenters asked women to rate the amount of pain they experience when menstruating.  They found that women who had just finished their period rated their pain as higher than those who were in the middle of their cycle.  So, the remembered pain goes down over time.  But, those women who were just about to have their next period rated their menstrual pain as higher than those women in the middle of their cycle.  That is, as they braced themselves for their next period, women recalled higher levels of pain.

What makes this happen?

The authors of this study suggest that people are actively bracing themselves for the pain of a new situation.  To demonstrate that this process requires effort, participants did a boring task.  As before, some thought that the task was done, while others thought they would have to do more of it.  After doing the initial boring task, participants saw pairs of faces and had to judge which was more attractive.  In the easy task, the faces differed quite a bit in attractiveness.  In the hard task, the face pairs were all quite close in attractiveness, so people had to put a lot of effort into their judgments.  The idea here was that making hard judgments might make it difficult for people to brace themselves for the continuation of the boring task later.  

In this study, people who did the easy rating task showed the same results as before.  They remembered the boring task as more unpleasant when they thought they were going to have to do it again than if they thought it was over.  Those who did the hard task, though, did not show this difference.  In this case, both those people who thought they would be doing the boring task again and those who thought it was over remembered it as equally unpleasant (and about as unpleasant as those in the easy judgment condition who thought the task was over). 

So it seems to take some mental effort to brace yourself for the future.

What does this mean for you?

We often use emotions to help us make decisions.  We tend to approach situations that feel pleasant for us and to avoid situations that feel unpleasant.  It is certainly useful for us to minimize the remembered pain of the past when those events are over.  But, it is quite helpful that we can remember the pain more accurately when that pain can provide information to assist in an upcoming decision.  So, these results suggest that the cognitive system is sensibly designed to provide you with information about past pain primarily when it will be useful for you to have it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Gestures help you imagine movements of objects

Language is our most powerful tool for thinking.  We talk to other people to solve problems, and we also use internal monologues to guide our thinking.  However, there are some things that language is not so good at.  One particular limitation of language is in describing and manipulating three-dimensional space.  For example, when you want to describe the size of an object, you often resort to comparing an object to something of known size (“That dog was the size of a small car!”) or using gestures to indicate sizes.
Movements of your hands and arms seem particularly well-suited to thinking about space.  We have to configure our hands to grasp objects, and so we must have ways to represent sizes in order to plan those movements.  In addition, the movements themselves provide a method for changing the location objects and their orientation.  In a store, the price of many objects is printed on the bottom, and so you just pick up the object and turn it over, effortlessly exposing the bottom. 
Does this ability to move objects around also help you to think about the movements of objects that aren’t physically present?  This question was addressed in a paper in the February, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Mingyuan Chu and Sotaro Kita. 
These researchers examined people’s performance in a mental rotation task.  In mental rotation, people see pictures of two objects.  The objects are either identical or one is the mirror image of the other.  In addition, the objects are rotated through some angle so that they are each in a different orientation.  Examples of the figures used in studies like this are in the figure.  The top row shows a pair of identical objects at a moderate degree of rotation.  The bottom row shows objects that are mirror images. 
Studies of mental rotation started with the work of Roger Shepard and his students in the 1970s.  Participants are asked to press a button as soon as they know whether the objects are identical or are mirror images.  The classic finding of this work is that as the difference in angle of rotation between the two objects increases, people take longer to respond and they make more errors.  This pattern of findings suggests that people may be mentally rotating the objects to place them in the same mental orientation in order to compare them.
In one study, Chu and Kita used this mental rotation task and told people they could take as much time as they needed to solve the problems.  They looked at whether people spontaneously made hand movements in which they rotated their hands as if they were rotating the objects.  In this study, people were far more likely to make rotating hand movements when there was a big difference in orientation between the objects than when there was a small difference in orientation.  That is, when the problems got difficult, people seemed to use hand movements to help them rotate an object that wasn’t actually there.
In a second study, participants were either explicitly encouraged to use gestures or they were forbidden to use gestures.  In the case where people were forbidden to use gestures, they had to sit on their hands.  In this case, people made many fewer errors in their judgments when they were allowed to gesture than when they were not.
Why do gestures help you imagine rotations?
Because you often use your arms and hands to change the position of objects in space, your visual system has a lot of experience witnessing these changes in position when you make particular kinds of movements.  You have picked up lots of objects and turned them over, and so there is a strong association between these movements and the changes in what you can see in the world.  This close connection between body movements and the state of the world may come to influence your mental images as well.  Turning your hands in a particular direction supports thinking about the object moving in that direction, because these turning movements often led to movements of objects in that direction in the past.
That means that when you are trying to solve a difficult spatial problem, it is a good idea to give yourself room to move around.  These movements may actually help you think about space and movements through space more easily.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The power of generic statements

During the last election, we heard lots of generic statements about political parties.  Ads told us that Democrats want to allow the government to intrude on the rights of individuals.  We heard that Republicans want to take away funding for key social services.  We were told that the Tea Party was racist.

These kinds of statements are called generics.  A generic statement is one that makes a blanket statement about the members of a category.  We use these kinds of sentences all the time, even when we are not trying to be persuasive.  For example, the simple sentence “Cardinals are red” is a generic.  We often use sentences like this when teaching people about the properties of objects.

It turns out, though, that the psychology of generic statements is quite interesting, and that it has important implications for how we use them to persuade people.  The psychology of these generics was explored in a paper in the November, 2010 issue of Cognitive Science by Andrei Cimpian, Amanda Brandone, and Susan Gelman. 

They explored two facets of generics.  The first is the number of members of a category that have to have a property in order for us to be willing to use the generic statement.  For example, most of us would be willing to say that cardinals are red, even though only about half of cardinals (the males) are actually red.  Female cardinals are a dull color that helps them hide from predators.  The second facet is our belief about what proportion of category members people believe have a property when they hear a generic statement.

These researchers had people do one of two tasks.  In one condition, they described novel animals that live on a fictitious island.  People were told about a property that the animal has.  Some of the animals had particularly distinctive or dangerous properties, while others had properties that did not distinguish them from other animals.   They were also told what percentage of the animals of that type had the property.  These percentages varied from 10% to 100%. 

 One group was asked whether a generic statement (like “Morseths have silver  fur”) was appropriate to describe the animals.  People asked this question felt that generic statements were most appropriate to use when the property was distinctive.  That is, people feel that generic sentences are less appropriate for describing properties of objects that are common to lots of different things than for those properties that are distinctive.  Of particular interest, though, people were often willing to accept the generic statement even if only 50% of the animals had the property. 

A second group was asked to predict how many members of a category were likely to have a property given a generic statement.  If people heard a statement like “Morseths have silver fur” they believed that about 90% of them actually had the property. 

Think about this.  It means that people are willing to use generic sentences to describe a category when only 50% of the category members have that property.  But, when people hear a sentence with a generic in it, they assume that almost all of the category members have that property.

These results really matter.  They mean that when we hear an ad with a generic statement in it, we assume that it applies to almost all of the members of the category being described.  Hearing an ad that mentions Democrats, Republicans, or the Tea Party can be misleadingly persuasive by making people believe that almost all of them have a common set of beliefs.    

What can you do about this?  When you hear an ad that uses generic statements, think about how many members of a category you really think it applies to.  It will take a little work on your part, but it can ultimately help you to make better decisions. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Using magic (tricks) to study autism

To say that the brain is a complex organ is a tremendous understatement.  It is so complex, that it is often hard to believe that it works so well for most people.  At times, though, something goes wrong.  We can get a lot of insight into the way that brains function by studying both normal brains and abnormal ones.
A fascinating example of this work is presented in a paper by Gustav Kuhn, Anastasia Kourkoulou and Susan Leekam in the October, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  These researchers compared normal people with a group of people who have autism spectrum disorder (abbreviated ASD).  These patients had  a high-functioning form of autism.  Some of these people used to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is no longer an official diagnosis. 
The researchers looked at how normal and ASD people interpret a magic trick.  They started with an interesting hypothesis that the ASD people might actually be less likely to see the trick as magic, because they often notice fine details in people’s behavior. 
The trick they used is called the vanishing ball illusion.  In this trick, a magician throws a ball in the air twice.  Each time, he watches the ball as it goes up and down.  On the third throw, he palms the ball and makes a throwing motion.  At the same time, he looks up in the air again.  Many people claim to see a ball that then disappears. 
In this study, people were told that they were going to see a magic trick, and they had to figure out how it was done.  They watched a video of the trick, and while they were watching it, their eyes were being tracked.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectation, the ASD people were actually more likely to fall for the illusion than the normal people.  The eye movement data were quite interesting in helping to understand why.  The normal individuals did a good job of tracking the ball on the first two throws, and on the third throw, they looked both at the magician’s face and the path of the ball.  As a result, the normal people tended to see that the ball was never thrown on the third toss.
The ASD people had trouble tracking the ball on each of the first two throws, and so they tended to look at the magician’s face to see where the ball went.  On the third throw, they looked at the magician’s face again, and so they used his gaze to decide where the ball went on the last toss.  They were more likely than the normal people to claim to see the ball thrown on the third toss, because they were generally focused on the magician’s face rather than the ball.
It may seem surprising that the ASD people focused on the magician’s face, because many studies of autism and related disorders has focused on difficulties that people with autism have dealing with social information.  However, the evidence that people with autism have difficulty with all social information is mixed.
The findings of this study suggest that people with ASD may have difficulty switching their attention from one thing to another in a situation.  In a complex situation like this, a person has to shift their attention between the magician’s face, his hands, and the ball. 
Think about how difficult it would be to figure out what is going on the world if you have even a small difficulty in shifting your attention from one thing to another.  You would always be a little off in your interpretation of what is going on around you. 
Obviously, ASD is a complex disorder, and it will take many studies to pin down exactly what is going on.  But, these results demonstrate that difficulties with basic components of cognition can have a huge impact on a person’s ability to comprehend the world.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What is an apology worth to you?

Family dynamics are amazing.  It is fascinating to think about which relatives are no longer talking to others and to get the story behind the feuds.  These squabbles are the kind of thing that makes it so hard to create a seating chart at big family events. 
One common theme that emerges from many family stories centers on violations of trust and the apologies (or lack of apologies) that come from them.  On the one hand, I can remember sitting with relatives who were still angry after many years because of some insult or slight, but the real crime that kept the grudge active was that no apology was offered.  On the other hand, I also remember cases where there was a similar insult or slight and the apology offered wasn’t judged sufficient.
So, is there any value to apologies at all?
This question was addressed in a paper in the January, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by David DeCremer, Madan Pillutla, and Chris Reinders Folmer.  These authors looked at people’s beliefs about the influence of an apology and their actual reaction to apologies in a simple situation.
Participants came to the lab and played a trust game with another player (who was actually an experimenter).  In the trust game, participants are given money (say $10), and are told that if they give it to their partner, the experimenter will triple the money (turning it into $30).  The partner can then share as much of it back with the original partner as possible.  The outcome that most people think is fair is if they give the $10 to their partner, and then the partner returns half of the total back so that everyone ends up with $15.
In these studies, 90% of the participants elected to give the $10 to their partner.  The partner then returned only $5.  At that point, half the participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if the partner apologized for being unfair.  The other half received an apology from the partner and were asked how they would feel.  Those who imagined getting an apology said they would feel much better than those who actually received an apology.  A followup study showed that people who received an apology also trusted their partner less in the future than they thought they would when they imagined receiving an apology.
Why does this happen?
When someone violates your trust and then fails to apologize, you feel bad both about the violation and the lack of an apology.  When you focus on getting the apology, then you tend to overestimate the role it is playing in how badly you feel.  If you actually get the apology, you are still left with the violation of trust, and that feels bad even if someone did apologize for it. 
Ultimately, then, you have to realize that when someone violates your trust, the apology is not going to make that hurt go away.  You have two options there.  One is to nurse the grudge, or to actually communicate with the person who violated your trust.  Creating a trusting relationship with someone after a violation requires hard work, and only you can decide whether that work is worth doing.
In the end you need to recognize that getting an apology alone is not going to make things better by itself.  So, don’t let your relationship with someone else rest just on whether they apologized for something they did wrong.