Friday, September 28, 2012

What’s it worth to you?

The civil courts are one of the most humane systems society has invented.  We take the pain and suffering that have been caused by the negligence or even the willful actions of others and translate it into a dollar amount.  This system allows people to settle their disputes fairly and without revenge.  But it does rely on our ability to translate things like pain and suffering into a monetary value.

There was an interesting paper exploring this issue in the August, 2008 issue of Psychological Science by Eugene Caruso, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson.  They looked at the value that people give to things in the past and in the future.  Consider, for example, an auto accident.  A woman in her car is struck head-on by another car driven by a man who didn’t pay attention to a stop-sign.  The man is clearly at fault.  The woman is injured and it will take 6 months for her to heal.  How much should she be awarded by the insurance company for her pain and suffering?  The researchers asked this question in two ways.  In one situation, the accident was 6 months ago, and the woman is now completely healed.  In the other, the accident just happened, and she is beginning her recovery period.  They found that people were willing to award the woman twice as much when the pain and suffering was yet to happen than when it was now over.  So, future pain and suffering was more valuable than past pain and suffering. 

One interesting side-note, people do not believe that they ought to value the present and future differently.  The researchers did some studies in which they asked both the past and future questions to the same people.  In this case, people gave the same value to past and future events.  However, if they saw the past question first, then the values they gave to both events was lower than if they saw the future question first. 

It is also worth pointing out that this effect was not limited to negative events.  In another study, people were asked how much they would want to be paid for 10 days worth of boring work.  People asked for more money if they were asking for work they had yet to do than if they were being asked for payment for work they had already completed.

So, what does this mean?  I guess that depends on whether you are the insurance company or the person who has suffered damage…Insurance companies ought to wait to place any value on pain and suffering until they are over.  They will seem less valuable when they are finished than while they are ongoing.  On the other hand, if you have suffered damage, your pain and suffering will have the most value while you are going through it.   

Monday, September 24, 2012

Identity and Disease Prevention

Some diseases strike at random, but others are directly related to some core aspect of a person’s identity.  Smoking is a dangerous activity that can lead to lung cancer and heart disease.  But, smoking becomes a part of a person’s identity, which can make it hard for a person to stop smoking.  Diseases like breast and ovarian cancer strike women.  They have a deep connection to women’s self-identity, both because of the role of breasts in appearance and sexual attractiveness, and because of the role of both the breasts and ovaries in reproduction.
This connection between disease and identity is important, because it can influence the effectiveness of methods of disease prevention.  In the case of breast cancer, for example, many organizations have developed huge public-relations campaigns to promote breast self-examinations and mammograms for women over 40.  These campaigns have met with mixed success.
A new study in the June, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Stefano Puntoni, Steven Sweldens, and Nader Tavassoli suggests that this relationship between identity and disease may limit the effectiveness of these campaigns.
In one set of studies, they had women read an ad about breast cancer.  One version of the ad highlighted women’s self-identity.  The ad started by saying, “Hey, Woman! Yes, you!”  It also had images of women and pictures of pink ribbons.  The other version of the ad did not highlight women’s self-identity.  It just started by saying “Hey You!” and it did not have any pictures of women in the ad.  After reading these ads, people rated their risk of a variety of diseases including breast cancer.  Specifically for breast cancer, the women who read the ad targeted at women rated their risk as lower than the women who read the ad that was not targeted specifically at women.  In another study using an ad for ovarian cancer, women donated less money to fight ovarian cancer after reading an ad that was targeted at women than at an ad that was not specifically targeted.
The idea here is that when a person’s identity is threatened, she wants to remove the threat by not paying attention to the information that makes her uncomfortable.  Consistent with this idea, in another study, women showed better memory for a breast cancer ad when it was not targeted specifically at women than when it was. 
So, what can be done?  The authors suggest that threats to identity are most effective when the person does not connect the feeling of threat to their identity specifically.  That is, when reading an ad like a breast cancer ad, a woman might find that the ad makes her uncomfortable, and might just choose to skip it to avoid feeling bad.
The authors suggest that acknowledging that a subject is fearful up front can make messages relating to that fear effective.  To demonstrate this point, they did one additional study in which women saw either an ad that highlighted gender or one that did not.  In this case, though, before rating their risk of diseases, they stated their fear of a variety of diseases.  Women who saw an ad that highlighted gender, but first rated their degree of fear of breast cancer showed about the same level of belief about the risk of breast cancer as women who saw the ads that did not highlight gender.
That is, expressing that breast cancer is threatening helped women to acknowledge that it also poses a risk.
These studies demonstrate why it is so difficult to help people engage in behaviors that would help to prevent diseases.  Many diseases are threatening to a person’s identity.  We do not like to pay attention to information that threatens our sense of self.  So, we ignore that information. 
There are two lessons here.  If you are trying to convince others about the importance of preventative behaviors, try to do it in a way that minimizes the relationship between disease and identity.  On the other side of the coin, if you see information about prevention behaviors that feels threatening, start by acknowledging that disease is scary.  That will help you to recognize that the fear need not be the guiding force in your beliefs and behavior.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The power of (benign) envy

It is a deep part of human nature that we compare ourselves to other people.  A particularly interesting kind of comparison is the upward comparison in which you focus on someone you think is better than you in some way.

When you make an upward comparison, there are a number of different emotional reactions you might have.  As a sax player, I often get to hear amazing musicians play.  One reaction to hearing a great musician would be to admire their skill.  A second reaction would be to wish that I could play as well.  This kind of emotional reaction is a benign envy.  I want what the other person has.  A third reaction would be to feel a more destructive envy in which I recognize that the other player is better and with that something bad would happen to that player.

An interesting paper by Niels van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters in the June, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that benign envy may be particularly useful in getting people motivated to work harder. 

In one study, college students were first put in a mindset that behavior change is easy or a mindset that it is hard.  These mindsets emerge from research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues, and I have written about them before in this blog.  Participants who were given a mindset that change is easy read about a person who overcame many obstacles to become a famous scientist.  Participants who were given a mindset that change is hard read about a person who was always on the road to being a great scientist and ultimately became a famous scientist.

After reading this passage, participants read a newspaper article about an excellent student who did well in a national academic competition.  After reading this article, participants rated how much they felt benign envy (wanting to be like this student), admiration (appreciating what the student had accomplished) and more malicious envy.  Finally, the participants did what seemed like an unrelated study.  As part of that study, they estimated how many more hours they planned to study in the next academic semester. 

Participants who were given the mindset that change is easy tended to feel benign envy toward the excellent student they read about.  In contrast, participants who were given the mindset that change is hard tended to feel admiration toward the excellent student.

When asked later about study time, those people who thought that change is easy expressed that they planned to study more than those who thought change was hard.  A previous study in this series showed that having some kind of upward social comparison was important for influencing effort on a task, so it wasn’t just the manipulation of mindset that affected the results.

There are two key lessons for self-improvement here.  First, keep an open mind about change.  If you put in the effort, then your performance will improve.  I may never be as good a sax player as some of the great musicians I hear, but I can get better.  Second, when you compare yourself to others, it is fine to envy what they have, as long as you use that envy to make yourself better rather than to tear other people down.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chance and explanation

In Game 2, of the 2011 NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks came roaring back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win the game.  Dirk Nowitzky, who had shot poorly for most of the game, suddenly started making shots.  This exciting rally evened the playoff series at 1-1.
For the next few days, newspapers, bloggers, and people standing by water coolers across the country swapped theories about this remarkable turnaround.  Did Dallas respond to taunting by the Miami Heat stars?  Did they realize their backs were up against the wall and that they would have great difficulty coming back to win the series after losing the first two games?  Did the Heat choke under pressure?
The one thing I didn’t hear in any of this discussion was the most likely explanation for the sharp change in fortunes of the two teams in the final quarter of the game:  chance.  That’s right.  Pure randomness.  Not an enthralling explanation, but most likely the correct one.
In game situations, NBA ballplayers make about 40-50% of their shots.  Dirk Nowitzky has been hovering around that 50% mark all season.  That means that over the course of a season, he makes about half his shots.  Just for fun, pull out a coin and flip it 20 times and write down the sequence.  A good coin will land on heads about half the time, but over any small sequence of (say) 5 flips, you might get 4 or even 5 heads in a row.  That doesn’t mean that the coin is on a hot streak.  It is just chance. 
Even so, back in 1971, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman pointed out that people expect things to even out in the short run.  If a coin comes up heads three times in a row, we expect there to be a few more tails later to even things out.  We are surprised when a fair coin flips heads 5 times in a row, although it is fairly common for that to happen. 
What makes a coin flip fair is that in the long run it comes up heads 50% of the time.  People extend this belief to assume that it will commonly come up heads even for a few coin flips.  Tversky and Kahneman called this a belief in the law of small numbers.
The second factor at play here is that people love to give explanations for things.  I have written about the importance of explanation for people often in this blog.  Whenever something differs from people’s expectations, they want to give some reason why this situation was different from what they anticipated.  People are highly skilled at coming up with explanations for things.
Putting these together, then, think about the end of Game 2.  Dallas made a few shots in a row.  At the same time, the Miami Heat missed some shots.  If this had happened in the middle of the second quarter, nobody would have noticed.  In fact, these streaks happen all the time in the middle of games.  But, when it happens at the end of the game, everybody takes note.  It is surprising and it demands an explanation.  That’s when all of the speculation begins.
And that is fine.  In a world where there is violence, unemployment, crime, and illness, it is fun to spend a few minutes chatting with friends about the NBA Finals.  The best explanation for what actually happened in the game may be chance, but that doesn’t make it a good conversation starter.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Video games, violence, and dehumanization

One periodic theme in this blog has been the influence of video games on behavior.  To summarize what I have discussed in the past, video games can have both positive and negative influences.  On the positive side, playing prosocial video games promotes helping behavior.  In addition, extensive video game play seems to make people faster at making some kinds of complex decisions.  On the negative side, playing violent video games generally increases aggressive behavior in laboratory experiments.  In field studies, giving school children video games in the home leads to a decrease in their grades and the time they spend on homework.
Today’s blog entry is another entry in the negative column.
Violent video games often treats the victims of the violence abstractly.  In some games, the victims are aliens or nonhuman monsters.  In other games, the opponents are soldiers who are so heavily protected with body armor that they do not really look like people at all.  In still other games, the opponents are members of some group of outsiders like gang members.
Dehumanization is also a factor that supports violence in the outside world.  Nick Haslam and his colleagues have explore the ways that treating others as less than human tends leads to a negative attitude toward the dehumanized group and increases aggressive behavior toward the dehumanized group.
A paper in the May, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Tobias Greitemeyer and Neil McLatchie looked that the relationship between playing violent video games and the tendency to dehumanize others.
In one study, people played either a violent video game, a prosocial video game (in which the object was to help others) or a neutral video game (Tetris).  After playing, the game, participants rated the personality characteristics of a typical person from their country as well as a typical immigrant.  Previous work suggests that the personality traits of openness and conscientiousness are most typically thought of as uniquely human traits. The traits of emotional instability (neuroticism) and aggreableness are thought of as the ones most shared with other animals.  The expectation was that when you dehumanize someone, you will rate them as exhibiting the personality traits most typical of animals rather than those that are uniquely human. 
No matter what video game people played, they tended to view people from their own country as having a high degree of the personality characteristics typically associated with humans.  The difference among groups came primarily in ratings of immigrants.  Those who played a violent video game were much more likely to rate immigrants as having mostly characteristics also associated with animals compared to those who played prosocial or neutral video games.
Did this affect behavior?
In another study, participants had the chance to act aggressively toward another person.  Following a technique developed by Brad Bushman and Roy Baumeister, participants write an essay on a political issue. Then, they provided feedback on the essay written by another participant (who they were told was in another room on the same lab).  Afterward, they played either a violent video game or a neutral video game (in this case, pinball).  Next, they got the other participant’s comments on their essay.  Those comments were quite negative.  Participants then rated a number of personality characteristics about the other participant in the study.  Finally, participants had the chance to give a recommendation for the other participant who they were told was being considered for a competitive job.  Obviously, giving the other participant a negative evaluation would be a way to get back at them for the bad comments on their essay. 
What happened?
Participants who played the violent video game tended to rate the other participant as having fewer personality characteristics associated with humans than those who played the neutral game.  In addition, those who played the violent video game tended to give worse ratings to the other participant, suggesting that they were acting more aggressively toward them.
That is, playing a violent video game led people to think of others as less human and that made it more acceptable for them to act aggressively toward them.
Obviously, it is a long way from giving a negative evaluation of others to performing more violent actions toward them.  However, the weight of evidence about violent video games is troubling.  Playing violent video games generally increases people’s aggressive behavior toward others.
That said, it is not clear whether playing violent video games has a long-lasting effect on aggression.  In most studies, participants play a game and then have the chance to act aggressively soon afterward.  There is much less evidence suggesting that people playing violent video games act more aggressively in general.
In the end, though, it is worth recognizing that playing violent video games can increase the tendency toward aggression in the short-run.  If you are going to play violent video games, then in the period after you finish playing you should probably avoid other situations in which aggression might be a problem.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Motivation and the middle

Middles can be hard.  Wednesday has become “hump day” to recognize that we don’t have the energy that we got from a good weekend any more, but we can’t quite look forward to the weekend.  College students get their Spring Break in March after the initial excitement of the semester has worn off, but the panic of impending finals hasn’t kicked in yet.

What makes middles so hard to deal with?

A paper by Andrea Bonezzi, Miguel Brendl, and Matteo DeAngelis in the May, 2011 issue of Psychological Science demonstrates that middles are hard, because people switch their frame of reference as a task goes on.  At the beginning, you focus on how far you have come, and that is quite motivating.  Eventually, though, it becomes difficult to notice additional progress.  When you can’t see your progress any more, your motivation flags, until you get near the end. At that point, you shift your focus to what you have left to do.  As you get nearer to the end, this comparison motivates you to finish. 

This view suggests that your motivation depends on whether you are currently focused on how far you have come or how far you have to go.

In one study, participants were given $15 at the end as payment for their time.  They were asked if they would be interested in donating to a charity that was hoping to collect $300.  People were told about the progress collecting money so far.  Some people got that information in terms of the amount of money collected.  Others got the information in terms of the amount of money that remained to be collected.  Finally, the study varied whether the amount of money collected so far was small, in the middle, or large.

When people were given information about how much money was collected so far, they gave the most money when only a small amount had been collected compared to what they gave when the progress was in the middle or near the end.  When they got information about how much remained to be given, people gave more when the charity was close to the goal rather than in the middle or far from the goal. 

These results demonstrate that people’s motivation changes with the frame of reference they are using.

In a final study, the authors looked at people’s motivation to do a boring proofreading task.  They had to proofread 9 documents.  Some people got a progress bar showing how many they had done so far.  Some got a progress bar showing how many documents were yet to be completed.  A third group knew that they were going to do 9 essays, but they just had a marker showing where they were in the task.

The group that had a progress bar showing how far they had come from the start was most effective at proofreading (as measured by the number of typos they found per second) when they were near the beginning of the task than as they progressed.  The group that had a progess bar showing how much remained to be done was most effective as they neared the end of the task. 

Of interest, the group that did not have a frame of reference that focused on either the beginning or the end of the task was effective on the first few and last few documents, but performed worst in the middle.

This result suggests that people shift their frame of reference as a task goes on.  They start by focusing on how far they have come and then shift to focusing on what remains to be completed.  This pattern leads to the lowest levels of motivation in the middle of the task.

So, what can you do when you are stuck in the middle?

One way to keep up your motivation in long tasks is to provide yourself with more landmarks along the way.  Those landmarks can be used to help motivate you to complete sections of the task rather than having a long stretch in the middle where it is difficult to see your progress.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Being specific affects whether you think something will happen

It is important to be able to make judgments about how likely it is for events to happen, because that influences many long-term decisions.   When you buy a car, for example, the sales staff wants to sell you an additional extended warranty.  This warranty covers damage to the car that may occur several years after you purchase the car.  The decision about whether to buy the insurance depends on your judgment about how likely the car is to break down in the future. 
One factor that affects your judgments about these future events is how specifically you think about them.  However, the influences of being specific are complicated.
Sometimes, thinking specifically about things will make you think the events are more likely than thinking about them abstractly.  This happens when it is easier to think about an example of a specific event than an abstract one.  It may be difficult to think about a car breaking down, but a few specific examples might make it easier to remember similar situations that happened to you or a friend in the past. 
In this case, someone selling you an extended warranty would do well to remind you about the many things that can go wrong with a car as it gets older.  As you hear about worn belts, slipping transmissions, and broken ball joints will make you remember other times this has happened.  In this case, specific thinking makes you feel that an event is more likely, and so you are more likely to purchase insurance.  This idea is consistent with a number of studies done by Derek Koehler, Amos Tversky, and their colleagues.
At other times, thinking specifically can actually make a set of outcomes harder to think about.  This possibility was explored in a paper in the May, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Joseph Redden and Shane Frederick.  They pointed out that sometimes thinking specifically requires keeping track of many different possible outcomes.  In this case, it may feel harder to think about the specific cases than about the general one.  When that happens, your belief that the specific events will happen may actually go down.
In one study, they had people judge whether they were interested in playing a number of bets on an upcoming Dallas Cowboys football game. Participants also made judgments about many other bets unrelated to the game. In each case, participants had the choice between receiving $15 for certain or receiving $35 if a particular outcome occurred.  Some outcomes were fairly general.  The participants rated how interested they were in gambling that Dallas would kick a field goal some time during the game.  They also rated how interested they were in gambling that the opposing team would kick a field goal some time during the game.  In each case, people were reasonably interested in the bet and thought that there was about a 65% chance they would win.
Other outcomes were specific, though together they were equivalent to the general bets.  For example, one involved betting that Dallas would kick a field goal in the first half OR the opponent would kick a field goal in the second half.  The second involved betting that the opponent would kick a field goal in the first half OR Dallas would kick a field goal in the second half. 
If you think that there is about a 65% chance that each team will kick a field goal some time during the game, then across these two other bets, you ought to think that there is about a 65% chance that you will win the more specific bets as well.  Yet people were much less interested in playing these specific bets and overall judged that there was only a 53% chance that they would win these bets.
These specific bets are more difficult to think about than the general ones.  You have to focus just on the first half for one team and just the second half for the other team.  This increase in difficulty makes the bets seem less attractive.
What binds these examples together is the importance of ease of thinking in evaluating the future.  If an abstract event does not call much to mind, but a specific event does call past events to mind, then you tend to judge the specific event as more likely than the abstract one.  If a specific event has lots of sub-events that are difficult to track, then the specific event is seen as less likely than the general one.
So, the next time you are deciding whether to buy insurance, don’t rely on your gut feelings.  Try to get some actual data about how likely it is that a bad event will happen and compare that probability against the price.  For these kinds of long-term decisions, your feeling about the choice is not a reliable indicator of the actual chances that a bad outcome will occur.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When relying on significant others backfires

When you are trying to achieve a difficult goal, it is common to engage the people close to you for help.  Romantic partners are often an important source of support in cases like this.  A romantic partner can provide encouragement to help with an important goal and can serve as a cheerleader when you find your motivation flagging.
An interesting paper in the March, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Grainne Fitzsimons and Eli Finkel suggests that this reliance can sometimes backfire.  In particular, if you come to rely on your romantic partner for support, you may sometimes exert less of your own self-control. 
In one study, women were asked to write about how much their partner helped them achieved their goals to stay healthy and keep fit.  A second group wrote about how their partner helped them achieved their career goals.  A third group wrote about a positive characteristic of their partner. After the writing task, participants expressed how much time they planned to devote to pursuing activities relating to health and fitness in the upcoming week.   
The women who wrote about how much their partner helps with their health and fitness goals said that they would devote much less time in the coming week to this goal than the women in the other two groups.   The more committed that women were to their relationship with their partner, the more that writing about their partner’s help decreased the amount of time they would commit to health and fitness in the next week. 
In another study, a group of male and female students wrote about their partner’s help pursuing their academic goals.   Other groups wrote about a partner’s good characteristics or their partner’s help with the goal of having fun.  Later, participants had the chance to perform two tasks. The main task was an academic preparation task that they were told would help them to study for future tests.  The second was a set of fun word problems.  They were told that doing the fun problems would be enjoyable, but would make the second academic preparation task less effective.
Participants who wrote about their partner’s help with their academic goals spent more time doing the fun problems than those in the other two groups.  That is, those people who thought about how much their partner helps with academic success actually exhibited less self-control than those who thought about other characteristics of their partner.
These results suggest that people in close relationships come to rely on their partners for help pursuing important goals.  This reliance is probably helpful in the long-run, because the partner provides much-needed support.  However, this support comes at a cost.  When put in situations that rely on self-control when their partner is not around, people may have less willingness to exert their own self-control than they might if they did not have a supportive partner.
Over time, then, if you are in a committed relationship, you and your partner may form a unit that acts effectively together.  However, if you find yourself having to commit to your goals when your partner is not around, you may find it difficult to do so. 
However, these results are strongest when you think specifically about the way your partner has helped you in the past.  So, if you are in a committed relationship and you find your self-control flagging, think about the general positive characteristics of your partner rather the ways your partner helps you achieve your goals.  That shift in focus should help you maintain your focus on your goals.