Monday, July 30, 2012

Can living abroad make you more creative?

These days, the word multicultural has both positive and negative connotations.  On the one hand, the world is becoming a smaller place.  The internet allows us to talk to people from all over the world with no delays.  Airplanes allow you to be somewhere else in a matter of hours.   Success in the modern world requires understanding something about people from other cultures.
At the same time, the ease of moving from place to place has led to an increase in immigration around the world.  Members of majority cultures in a country sometimes bristle at the presence of outsiders who speak different languages, dress in different clothes, and compete for jobs.
Are there psychological benefits to multicultural experiences?
This issue was addressed in a paper by William Maddux, Hajo Adam, and Adam Galinsky in a June 2010 paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  They were particularly interested in whether living abroad and learning about the cultural practices of people from another culture would make you more creative.
The idea here is that when you go to a different culture, there are often subtle differences that you have to learn about.  For example, in the US, if you go to someone’s house and they offer you a drink or snack, you respond “Yes” or “No” depending on whether you want a snack.  In Russia, though, it is impolite to say “Yes” the first time something is offered, and so you refuse the first request.  The host asks again, and after a brief negotiation, you may settle on having a snack.  A Russian visiting the US for the first time might refuse the offer of a snack, only to be surprised that she is not asked a second time.  Eventually, she must learn that the practices are different. 
Learning that the same task (getting a snack) has different solutions is a hallmark of creativity.  Thus, living in another culture and learning the practices of that culture may enhance the psychological processes that make people more creative.
To test this possibility, the authors ran a series of studies.  In one study, all of the participants were students who had some experience living abroad.  At the start of the study, some participants were asked to think about an experience in another culture in which they learned something new about the culture and also learned the reason why people did what they did.  Others thought about an experience in which they learned something about their own culture and why people do what they do.  A third group thought about learning something new about a sport.  A fourth group did not do an initial memory task.
Then, all the participants performed the Remote Associates Task.  In this task, you see three words and have to come up with a fourth word that relates to the first three.  For example, you might see the words PUTTING   BACK   HORN.  The correct answer in this case would be GREEN.  Doing this task successfully requires thinking differently about all of the words.
The authors found that the group who thought about their experiences learning about a new culture solved many more of the items from the Remote Associates Task than people in any of the other experimental groups.  This finding suggests that reminding people about their cultural learning experiences increased their creativity. 
Other studies demonstrated that asking people who have never lived abroad to think about learning something about a new culture did not increase creativity.  These other studies also demonstrated that the key aspect of learning something new about another culture is understanding why people do what they do.
This work demonstrates a clear benefit of living in another culture.  There are few experiences in life that require you to really re-think the many aspects of life that you take for granted.  Living in another culture and adapting to it is one of the most powerful of those learning opportunities.  Living successfully in another culture then helps you to be creative in a variety of other circumstances. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batter see, batter do.

The baseball season is in full swing, and across the US fans are glued to their TV sets.  I have always thought of baseball as a grand soap opera.  Like a soap opera, it is boring to watch just one game without knowing the players and what they have been doing lately.  Even within a single game, though, there are times when a particular team catches fire.  Hitters who have been sleepwalking through the game suddenly come alive with a cluster of hits leading to a big inning.
Why would hits cluster like that?
A paper by Rob Gray and Sian Beilock in the March, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Applied suggests that experienced baseball players may be affected by what other players have done.
In their studies, they took both experienced college-level baseball players and relatively inexperienced recreational players and had them hit baseballs in a batting simulation.  In this simulation, players held a bat and swung at pitches shown on a screen in front of them.  A lot of work done with this system (including many studies by Gray, Beilock, and their colleagues) suggests that the simulation captures many of the aspects of real batting. 
Batters get sets of 5 pitches.  They had to try to hit one of those five pitches.  Before seeing a set of pitches, the batters saw a prompt on the screen.  Sometimes the prompt was a ball flying into the outfield as if it had been hit.  Sometimes, it was a ball lying on the outfield as if it had been hit there.  Sometimes, it was the word “left,” “center,” or “right.”  Sometimes, the prompt was just an empty field.
The experienced hitters were strongly influenced by the prompt.  On average, they hit the ball successfully into the field on the first or second pitch they saw.  They were faster to get a hit when they saw a ball flying to the outfield or when they saw the ball lying in the outfield than when they got no prompt at all.  The words had little effect on their hitting relative to the prompt.  The inexperienced hitters were also more likely to get a hit after seeing the ball fly to the outfield, though on average it took them 2-3 pitches to get a hit.
The prompt also affected where the players hit the ball.  When players saw a ball flying (or sitting) in left field, they tended to hit the ball to left field.  Seeing a hit to center field led them to hit the ball to center, and seeing a ball hit to right led them to hit the ball to right field.  This effect was strongest for the experienced hitters.  This effect occurred even when the players were instructed to try to hit the ball directly over second base into center field. 
Presumably what is happening here is that seeing a baseball hit to the outfield leads hitters (and particularly experienced hitters) to think about the movements they would have to make to hit the ball in a similar way.  This thinking (which is probably not done consciously) prepares the hitter for batting.  In this way, a hit by one player can actually affect what a second player does on the next at-bat.
Assuming you’re not a baseball player, though, what does this mean for you?
Findings like this suggest something interesting about the way we understand the world.  When watching events in the world, part of the way we understand what is happening is by imagining how we would perform the same action. 
Go to a rock concert, and watch the number of people who spontaneously play air guitar during a musician’s solo.  This isn’t just wishful thinking, it is an expression of the way we understand what that musician is doing.  That may also be why it is so hard to watch a contortionist at the circus.  When we see a flexible performer bending in directions that do not seem possible, we cringe at the pain we would feel if we performed the same actions.
These results also suggest why we often adopt the goals of the people around us.  Henk Aarts, Peter Gollwitzer, and Ran Hassin have shown that watching people perform an action often leads us to do the same thing.  They call this phenomenon goal contagion.  If we understand what people are doing in part by understanding how we would do it ourselves, then it is straightforward to see how that might also make us more likely to perform a similar action.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Building during brainstorming

You’re probably familiar with brainstorming.  There is a complicated problem to be solved, so you get together in a group and throw out ideas hoping to come up with a great idea.  The basic rules of brainstorming (as well as the word brainstorming itself) come from Alex Osborn’s work in the 1960s.  The idea is to try to come up with as many ideas as possible, to avoid criticizing ideas at first, and to say whatever you are thinking rather than focusing at first on whether the idea would work.

There has been a lot of research on brainstorming over the years, and it generally shows that groups are less effective than individuals.  That is, if you got a group of three people brainstorming, that group would come up with fewer ideas (and fewer good ideas) than if the people had worked alone.  This observation that groups are less effective than individuals is called productivity loss.

A potentially powerful aspect of brainstorming, though, is the process of combining ideas.  That is, after a set of ideas are generated, it may turn out that a combination of a few of the ideas is more effective than any of those individual ideas alone.  Are groups more effective than individuals when combining ideas?

This question was explored in a paper in the May, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Nicholas Kohn, Paul Paulus, and YunHee Choi. 

In one study, participants were university students.  They either worked in groups of three or they arrived at the lab as a group of three people, but worked alone.  Their job was to generate ideas that would improve their university.  Consistent with the previous observations of productivity loss, the groups came up with fewer ideas than the sets of three people working alone.

After an initial idea generation stage, the participants were shown all of the ideas generated by the group (or by the group of three individuals in a session) and were asked to combine the ideas.  At this stage, some of the people who worked in groups where asked to do the idea combination working alone.  Likewise, some of the people who worked alone when generating ideas worked in a group to combine the ideas.

There were a couple of interesting observations from this study.  People who had worked in a group were more likely to make combinations from ideas that they had generated themselves than people who worked alone.  That is, being in a group seemed to make people focus on their own ideas.  People who worked alone at first seemed more open to other people’s ideas.  That said, the people who generated ideas in a group generally came up with more useful ideas overall after the ideas were combined. 

Still, this study seems to suggest that groups do not really do that well compared to the same number of people working alone.  Is there any advantage to working in a group?

In a second study, Kohn, Paulus, and Choi gave people a list of ideas that were generated by other people.  This situation mirrors cases where a committee has to evaluate suggestions made by others. 

In this case, people either worked in a group of three or they worked alone.  They were asked to combine the ideas to come up with new suggestions.  In a clever manipulation, some groups were given ideas that were frequently generated as suggestions for improving the university.  Other groups were given the same number of ideas but the ideas were all ones that are given by only a few people when generating ideas to improve the university. 

The people working alone created combinations of ideas that were judged to be moderately novel and moderately feasible regardless of the kinds of ideas they were given to start with. 

The people working in groups, though, were particularly productive when given rare ideas.  The groups generated combinations that were much more novel and yet still quite feasible to implement when given rare ideas.   That is, groups seemed particularly well-suited to taking rare ideas and creating new and interesting combinations from them.

Ultimately, if you are in a situation where you have to generate ideas, it is generally better to start by having people work alone.  That makes the collection of people more productive and also more open to new ideas.

That said, it may also be useful to break idea generation and combination into two stages.  Have one group start by generating ideas to solve a problem.  Then, get a different group of people together to create combinations of those ideas.  Afterward, the entire group can get together to discuss the results.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The costs of changing your mindset

One factor that makes cognitive psychology such a difficult topic to study is that people have many ways of approaching the same problem.  A student trying to solve a geometry problem might attempt to remember a formula related to that problem or to think of another problem similar to the one being solved at that moment or to draw a diagram.  To make matters more difficult, the same person may try many different strategies when solving a set of problems (or even within a single problem).

But, this flexibility is also interesting.  What processes enable us to switch between strategies?  Clearly, there are benefits to being able to use many strategies to solve problems.  Are there costs as well?

A paper by Ryan Hamilton, Kathleen Vohs, Anne-Laure Sellier, and Tom Meyvis in the May, 2011 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes explores the costs of switching strategies. 

These authors point out that we have many broad mindsets that we can use to solve problems.  For example, in other blog entries, I have talked about construal level.  Sometimes we solve problems by thinking about them abstractly, while at other times we solve problems by thinking about them concretely.  They argue switching between abstract and specific ways of thinking about problems requires self-control resources.

Research on ego depletion by Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and their colleagues suggests that when you exert a lot of self control at one time, it can make it more difficult to exert self-control again later.  The idea is that self-control is a limited resource that takes time to rebuild. 

So, to explore whether switching problem solving mindsets involves self-control resources, Hamilton, Vohs, Sellier, and Meyvis put people in a situation in which they had to switch strategies and then looked to see whether that affected later situations that would require self-control.

One study used construal level as a mindset.  Some people were asked to answer a series of questions about why they would carry out a series of actions.  Research by Antonio Freitas, Peter Gollwitzer, and Yaacov Trope shows that answering why questions makes people think abstractly about the reasons and goals related to actions.  Other people were asked to answer a series of questions about how they would carry out a series of actions.  These how questions make people think specifically about what is required to achieve a goal.  A third group answered a group of why questions and a group of how questions, and so they had to switch mindsets during the study. 

After answering questions, people did what they thought was an unrelated study that was focused on testing a bitter but healthy drink that participants were told is popular in Japan.  People earned a nickel for each small cup of the drink they finished.  Because the drink had an unpleasant taste, it took some self-control to drink it.  The participants who answered only how or why questions drank about three times as much of the drink as those who had to switch between how and why questions.  This result suggests that switching mindsets required self-control.

An impressive aspect of this research paper is that the experimenters present five studies.  Each one uses a different type of mindset.  For example, another study had bilingual participants either answer questions in one language or switch between languages.  A third experiment had people try to perform a task by maximizing the number of points they gained, minimizing the number of points they lost or switching between maximizing points gained and minimizing points lost.

The measures of self-control used later involved things like maintaining physical exertion, or keeping a straight face while watching a funny video.  In each study, people who had to switch between mindsets led to worse performance on the later self-control task compared those who could maintain a single mindset.

This work suggests that there is a mental consequence to hard thinking.  When you spend a day working on hard problems you are likely to have to switch the strategies you use many times.  Each of those switches carries a cost with it.  You are taxing a resource that may be limited.  Over time, your ability to switch strategies itself may be affected, because you will have tapped out that resource. 

If you have been working on hard problems all day, and you find yourself stuck, it may be a good idea to walk away from the problem for a while.  There are many good reasons to let a problem rest when you reach an impasse.  This research suggests that giving yourself a break may help you to recoup the self-control resources that you spent on earlier thinking.

Finally, remember that after a long day of hard thinking you should try to avoid other stressful situations.  When your self-control is depleted, there is lots of evidence that you may react more aggressively towards others than you might if your self-control is intact.  So, be aware that after a long hard day of thought you might be grouchier than normal.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How does physical experience affect mental movement?

We use lots of mental images to help us plan actions.  I remember times when I helped friends move from one apartment to another.  The trickiest part of these moves was getting the couch out of the living room and outside onto a truck.  Yet, we often managed to do it successfully by first imagining how to position the couch to get it through narrow hallways and out of awkwardly placed doors.

The importance of this kind of imagery for performing actions in the world leads to questions about whether the ease of acting in the world affects the ease of manipulating your mental images.  This question was addressed in a paper by Stephen Flusberg and Lera Boroditsky in the February, 2011 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 

These authors did a clever study using a version of a mental rotation experiment first done in the 1970s.  In the original mental rotation studies, people saw three-dimensional figures like the ones in the Figure shown here.  Sometimes people saw two identical objects, while sometimes the objects were mirror images of each other.  They had to judge whether the objects were the same.

As shown in the figure, the objects could appear in different rotations relative to each other.  The classic finding of these studies is that the larger the degree of rotation between the objects, the longer it takes people to respond whether they are identical.  These results suggest that people are mentally rotating an image of the objects until they are aligned so that they can judge whether they are identical.

Flusberg and Boroditsky had people play with the objects before doing the mental rotation task.  They built wooden versions of the figures.  Some of them were painted red and others were painted blue.  The figures were attached to an axle that was set in a can.  They acted as a handle on the axles.  The cans were set up so that some of them had sand in them, so that they were hard to turn, while others were empty and were easy to turn.

At the start of the study, participants were asked to turn the handles.  For each of the participants, one color was hard to turn and the other was easy.  For example, the red handles might be difficult to turn, and the blue ones easy.

After this experience with the physical handles people did a mental rotation study.  Participants saw pairs of pictures and judged whether the objects were identical, just as in the classic study.  There were two big differences from the previous work.  First, half of the objects were blue and half were red.  Second, half the participants were told to imagine physically moving the objects until they were aligned, while the other half were told just to imagine the objects moving on their own.

The group that was told to imagine the objects moving on their own showed the classic mental rotation effect, but no effect of the color of the objects.  That is, it took longer to make the judgment as the objects were rotated further from each other.  But, people’s previous experience with the objects had no effect on this mental rotation.

The group that was told to imagine moving the objects showed both the classic mental rotation effect and an effect of the color of the objects.  That is, those objects that were the same color as the ones that were harder to move were mentally rotated more slowly than those that were the same color as the ones that were easier to move.

These results demonstrate the close linkage between action and imagery.  When an object is hard to move, it is also hard to imagine moving it. 

Why would our ability to move objects affect our images? 

In order to solve problems like moving a couch, we need to bring to bear both our knowledge of the geometry of the object as well as our knowledge of our own physical abilities.  It would not be useful to envision ways of moving an object that we could not carry out physically.  So, incorporating both visual aspects of objects and movement makes your ability to plan more efficient, because you do not consider many possibilities that would be physically impossible to perform.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cheating, thinking, and memory

Most people walk around the world thinking of themselves as pretty good, law-abiding, upstanding citizens.  Sure, you might exceed the speed limit every once in a while, but the speed limit is a guideline.  You might make a little extra cash helping a friend with something, but not declare that on your income tax.  After all, the government isn’t really interested in pocket change.
These kinds of justifications for doing something that violates the law are called moral disengagement.  You don’t want to change your self-concept that you are basically a good person, so you take the negative action and make it feel more morally acceptable. 
How are you able to pull this off, though?  If you break a law or cheat, you really have done something that violates some kind of moral code.  Even if you try to describe it as being acceptable, wouldn’t your memory of doing something wrong lead to feelings of guilt?  In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story, The Telltale Heart, a murderer is pursued by the sound of the heart of his victim. 
A paper in the March, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Lisa Shu, Francesca Gino, and Max Bazerman suggests that one mechanism that our memory helps with this process of moral disengagement.  In particular, when people cheat, they tend to have poor memory for aspects of the situation that might lead to feelings of guilt.
The authors developed a scale to measure people’s overall degree of moral disengagement.  It had questions like, “Rules should be flexible enough to be adapted to different situations” that measure whether people want to be bound by strict codes.  A preliminary study in the paper found that people using this scale showed higher levels of moral disengagement when they imagined themselves in a situation in which they cheated on an exam than when they imagined themselves with an opportunity to cheat that they did not take.
In an elaborate study, the experimenters gave people a task developed by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely that provides an experimental setting where people can cheat.  Participants are brought together in a large group.  They do a series of complicated math problems.  Then, they are given an answer key and score their performance. After that, people pay themselves from an envelope of money for each correct answer.  Because the room is large and people are paying themselves, and there is no real oversight by the experimenter there is a chance for people to cheat.  Mazar, Amir, and Ariely found that people often took more money than they should have in this situation.
Shu, Gino, and Bazerman set up a complex task.  Half the people given this task were paid by the experimenter, so they could not cheat.  The other half paid themselves, so that they could cheat if they wanted to.
These two groups (no possible cheating vs. potential to cheat) were assigned to one of three other conditions.  One group just performed the task.  A second group read an honor code that talked about the rights and responsibilities of students before doing the math test.  A third group read the honor code and signed it before doing the math test. 
So, what happened?  The group given the opportunity to cheat took about twice the amount of money they should have.  The group that read the honor code took about 50% more money than they should have.  The group that read and signed the honor code did not cheat much at all. 
People did the moral disengagement scale after the math test.  Those who had no opportunity to cheat showed very low levels of moral disengagement overall, though reading the honor code and signing it actually made them feel strongly that they should stick to the rules.  When people had the chance to cheat, those who did not read the honor code showed a pretty high level of moral disengagement.  That is, they used moral disengagement as a strategy for keeping them from feeling guilty about cheating.  Those who just read the honor code, but didn’t sign it also showed a moderate amount of moral disengagement.  But, those who signed the honor code showed very low levels of moral disengagement. 
At the end of the study, people who read the honor code were asked to recall as many of the items on the honor code as they could.  The people who read and signed the honor code remembered a lot of it regardless of whether they had the opportunity to cheat or not.  Of interest, the people who just read the honor code remembered much less about it if they had the opportunity to cheat than if they did not. 
People read the honor code before they did the math test.  So, the difference in memory had to arise from something about cheating.  Indeed, those specific individuals who cheated on the test were the ones who showed the worst memory for the items on the honor code.  That means that people were systematically suppressing information that might have made them feel guilty about their behavior.
What do these results tell us? 
First, the results suggest that people have a finely honed mechanism for helping them to justify cheating.  One the one hand, people think about rules being more flexible when they have just cheated.  That helps them to view their own behavior as more socially acceptable.
At the same time, people’s memory for the rules (and probably for their own behavior) are worse when they cheated than when they did not.  Forgetting the details of the rules helps people to avoid guilt.
That said, there is a hopeful side to these results.  The people who read and signed the honor code tended not to cheat.  That means that any organization that expresses strong moral norms will promote good behavior by the people in that organization.  Cheating need not be the norm.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Speed and confidence

Your confidence in your beliefs matters.  If you are sitting in a meeting, and you have an idea for a solution to a problem, you are more likely to suggest that solution when you are confident that it is a good solution.  In addition, people are more likely to be persuaded by your arguments when you are confident in your beliefs than when you are merely tentative about them. 
Some research on confidence focuses on how your confidence in a belief or evaluation is based on the speed of the thinking you are doing.  This research seems inconsistent on the surface.  On the one hand, people use the speed of their judgments to determine whether something is familiar.  Fast judgments signal that the object being evaluated is familiar, and people should often be confident in their judgments about familiar items.  This work suggests people should be confident in fast judgments.
On the other hand, people prize judgments that have been thought through carefully.  The effort required for careful thinking leads to slow judgments.  This work suggests that people should often be confident in slow judgments. 
But people clearly are not confident in every judgment, so it can’t be that people are confident about all fast and slow judgments. 
This puzzle was explored in a paper by Zakary Tormala, Joshua Clarkson, and my University of Texas colleague Marlone Henderson in a March, 2011 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
These authors suggested that fast and slow judgments are most useful in different situations.  When people are forming an opinion about an item for the first time, then it is better for them to be slow than to be fast, because that would signal to them that they were thinking through the issue carefully.  In contrast, when people are expressing an opinion about an item that they have encountered before, then it is better for them to be fast than to be slow.  In this case, the speed would suggest that a previous evaluation they made was easy for them to recall. 
Tormala, Clarkson, and Henderson provided evidence for this possibility in three studies.  In one representative experiment, participants began the study by studying a series of 12 paintings on a computer screen for 10 seconds each for a later memory test.  Then, participants were shown one painting and were asked to evaluate how much they liked it.  Some people evaluated a painting that they studied in the first part of the experiment.  The rest evaluated a painting they had not seen before.
After making their evaluation, people were told that the software running the study was keeping track of measurements relating to the way students make decisions.  They were then given feedback about the amount of time it took them to evaluate the painting.  Half the students received (bogus) feedback that their judgment was made more quickly than that of most other students participating in the study, while the other half of the students received feedback that their judgment was slower.  After getting this feedback, people rated their confidence in their earlier evaluation of the painting.
The influence of people’s belief about the speed of their judgment depended on whether the painting they evaluated was familiar.  People who saw the familiar painting were more confident when they were told they made a fast judgment than when they were told they made a slow judgment.  People who saw the unfamiliar painting showed the opposite pattern—they were more confident when they were told they made a slow judgment than when they were told they made a fast judgment.
These results suggest that most of us have two different beliefs about what ought to make us confident in judgments.  When we are expressing a belief we have already formed, we expect our gut reaction to give us an accurate evaluation.  When we are forming an evaluation of a new object, though, we believe that we should think it through carefully.
Finally, these results make clear that it is not so easy to determine how quickly you have made a judgment.  In the studies reported in this paper, people took as much time as they wanted to make their judgments.  Their beliefs about whether the judgment they made was done quickly or slowly depended on feedback that they were given from the experimenters.  More generally, you make judgments about how efficiently you are thinking by comparing yourself to others, because you often do not have an objective standard for measuring speed.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Incompetent doesn’t mean clueless

Overconfidence is a common part of human experience.  In a recent blog entry, for example, I wrote about how people who are fans of a particular football team are overconfident about their team’s chances at winning games.  There is also a strong tendency for people to be overconfident in their predictions for their own performance in the future.  When asked about how they will do on an upcoming exam, students often predict that their score will be better than it actually is.
This tendency toward overconfidence seems particularly strong in people who have the least cause to be overconfident.  Justin Kruger and David Dunning explored this issue in detail in a 1999 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Across a range of tasks from judging humor to logical reasoning, they found that the worst performers were the most overconfident in their abilities.  The people who did best on these tasks were reasonably accurate at predicting how well they would do, but the people who did worst were highly overconfident.
This pattern is a potentially dangerous mix. It is potentially disastrous for someone to enter with confidence into a situation in which they have no real ability. 
The situation may not be quite as bad as it seems, though.  A paper in the March, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Learning, Memory, and Cognition by Tyler Miller and Lisa Geraci suggests that the worst performers may overestimate their performance, but they may not be truly overconfident. 
As they point out, there are two dimensions of overconfidence.  One way to be overconfident is to believe that you will perform better than you actually do perform.  Technically, that is just overprediction.  To be truly overconfident, you also need to be confident in your prediction for your performance.  That is, you need to think you are going to do well in an upcoming situation, and you need to be relatively certain that your prediction is accurate.
To explore this issue, students in a psychology class were asked to predict their grade on an upcoming exam.  They were also asked to state how confident they were in that prediction. 
Consistent with previous work, the people who performed well on the exam made reasonably accurate predictions for their grade.  Those who performed poorly (getting grades below 70) tended to overpredict their score by 10 or more points.
However, the group that did most poorly on the exam was also the least confident in their predictions.  That is, this group made bad predictions, but these individuals also had a sense that they did not have a good basis for making a prediction. 
What is going on here?
The people who do most poorly in an area also tend to know the last about it.  One reason why the worst performers overpredict performance is that they do not realize how much they don’t know.  Predictions by experts often get better, because they have a better sense of how much they know as well as of how much they don’t know.
That said, at least some poor performers seem to have some clue that they are on shaky ground.  That is why their confidence in their predictions is low.
Ultimately, though, you should recognize that you are likely to overpredict your performance.  When you start out in a new area, be prepared to do less well than you anticipate that you will.  Perhaps the knowledge that you tend to be overconfident will give you some motivation to work harder to achieve the level of performance you hope for.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Your beliefs affect the strength of the placebo effect

The placebo effect refers to any situation where body and mind are affected by an intervention to a greater degree than would be expected based on the intervention itself.  Most commonly, we think of placebos as pills or shots that have no active medical ingredients in them that lead to improvements in health.  Placebo effects are incredibly powerful. 

A fascinating paper by Baba Shiv, Ziv Carmon, and Dan Ariely in the November, 2005 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explored how placebo effects are influenced by what people know about the placebo. 

In a series of studies, these researchers had people drink an energy drink that was advertised as affecting people’s mental ability.  To determine the effect of the drink on people’s performance, they measured the number of words that people were able to unscramble.  The key aspect of the study focused on the information that people were given about the drink.

In one study, people were told about the effectiveness of the brand SoBe, which is a real product.  One group was told that a large number of studies suggest that drinks like this create large improvements in mental functioning.  A second group was told that the drinks provide a slight improvement in thinking.  Participants were also told about the cost of the drink.  Half of the participants were told that the drink cost its regular price ($1.89), while a second group was told that it was purchased at a discount ($0.89).  Finally, a control group performed the word-unscrambling test without hearing about the drink at all.

The control group got about 7 problems correct.  Those people who read that the drink was not that effective generally did worse than the control group, while those who read that the drink is highly effective did better than the control.  The price of the drink also affected performance.  Those who got the discounted drink also performed worse overall than those who got the full-price drink.  Indeed, the people who got the worst combination of information (the drink is only slightly effective and was low-priced) got only about 4 problems correct, while those who got the best combination of information (the drink is highly effective and regularly priced) got over 10 problems correct. 

As part of the study, people were asked to rate how effective they thought the drink would be at influencing their thinking ability.  These ratings were a good predictor of people’s performance.  That is, the more that people believed in the drink, the more that it had an effect on the number of problems they solved.

These results are quite important for thinking about placebo effects.  You might think that you get placebo effects just from being a part of an intervention.  For example, you may learn that taking a pill makes you feel better, and so your body may react in ways that make you feel better whenever you take a pill. 

Ultimately, then, part of the effect of a placebo is based on how much you believe in it.  All of the factors that determine whether you think something will work as promised can influence placebo effects.  That is why price affects the placebo effect.  We normally think of discount products as being less effective than full-price products.  That same belief also influences the influence that a placebo has on us.