Monday, October 29, 2012

We are more likely to bribe than I am

There is a variant of the golden rule that says “Whoever has the gold, rules.”  This power of money comes from its ability to grease the wheels in government and business.  Some of these uses of money are legally sanctioned (like the rampant lobbying in Washington, DC) and some are not (like outright bribery).  But there is a long history of people using money to get access to power.

On the other side, though, there is a moral argument against buying influence and power.  In her book, The Purchase of Intimacy, sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out that there are many kinds of relationships that we feel reluctant to trade against currency.  Societies make it taboo to trade money for sex, because we do not want there to be a strict monetary value for close relationships.  Likewise, there is a moral value against purchasing access to power.  People who are governing are supposed to be focused on the good of the people.  At the point where there is a monetary value on governing, leadership becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold.

Because there is a moral dimension to bribery, someone willing to offer a bribe has to overcome the fear and guilt that come with overstepping a moral norm.  Psychologically, this involves some kind of moral disengagement. That is, a person willing to offer a bribe has to find a way not to see bribery as a strong moral violation.

Nina Mazar and Pankaj Aggarwal explored a cultural factor that can create this moral disengagement in a paper in the July, 2011 issue of Psychological Science. 

Anthropologists and cultural psychologists have explored dimensions along which cultures differ.  One of the important dimensions is individualism vs. collectivism.  Western cultures (like the United States) tend to be quite individualist.  They focus on individual responsibility.  In contrast, East Asian cultures tend to be collectivist.  They focus on the good of the group and the relationships between people rather than on the individual.

These authors suggest that members of collectivist cultures may find it easier to offer bribes, because they are more likely to be focused on relationships between people rather than individual responsibility.

First, they did a simple correlational study.  They related the data from the Bribe Payers Index collected by Transparency International (which rates how likely it is that companies from different countries offer bribes) to measures of the collectivism of those cultures and to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the countries.

As you might expect, companies from wealthier countries are less likely to offer bribes than companies from poorer countries.  This reflects that companies from poorer countries are more desperate to do business than those from richer countries.  After controlling for wealth, though, companies from countries with a collectivist culture are far more likely to offer bribes than companies from countries with an individualist culture.

To test the psychological mechanisms involved in this effect, the authors examined this issue experimentally.  In one study, half the participants were induced to think about themselves as individuals (by searching for the pronouns I and me in paragraphs), while others were induced to think of themselves as members of a group (by searching for the pronouns we and our in paragraphs). 

After this participants read a scenario in which they were a salesman at a company trying to close a big deal with a client.  They were asked whether they would offer a bribe to the client.  Among other questions, they were also asked how much individual responsibility they would feel for their actions. 

In this study, 58% of people primed to think collectively were willing to offer bribes, while only 40% of those primed to think individually were willing to offer bribes.  This difference between groups reflected that people primed to think collectively felt less individual responsibility for their actions than those primed to think individually. 

Of course, there is plenty of bribery even in individualist cultures.  In this study, 40% of people who were primed to think individually still offered a bribe.  And bribery scandals in the US are common.  In the end, there are many forms of moral disengagement.  Collectivist thinking provides just one way to avoid individual responsibility.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When you negotiate, don’t argue

There are lots of opportunities for negotiation these days.  Bargain hunters wander through weekend garage sales and haggle with the sellers.  Car buyers have to settle on a final price for a car with a dealer.  House hunters send proposals back-and-forth trying to decide on a selling price for a house.
There is a lot of interesting psychology in these negotiations.
The first thing that happens in most negotiations is that either the buyer or the seller makes an offer.  That initial offer serves as an anchor.  Research on the rules that people use to make judgments suggests that we often use a strategy called anchoring and adjustment.  According to this strategy, we start with some anchor point and the adjust our belief about the true value based on other information.
In the case of a negotiation, we know that people try to buy low and sell high.  So, if the buyer makes an offer, the seller knows that the initial offer needs to be adjusted upward to get a fair price.
The key question is how much that offer should be adjusted.
This issue was addressed by Yossi Maaravi, Yoav Gonzach, and Asya Pazy in a paper in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  They were interested in the role that persuasive arguments might play during negotiations.
Because people use the initial offer as an anchor, many people have suggested that including a persuasive argument for why the anchor is correct may minimize the amount that people adjust the anchor when making their counteroffer in the negotiation.  For example, if you are interested in buying a house, the seller might ask for $350,000, arguing that the house was newly renovated and is near good schools. 
Maaravi, Gonzach, and Pazy argued that when people hear an argument in favor of the initial offer, they think of counter-arguments.  These counterarguments may actually push the counteroffer further away from the initial offer than it would have been had there been no persuasive argument.  Someone looking at a house might find all the areas that still need renovation and think about other houses even closer to the better schools in town and give a low offer on the house.
They supported this view in a number of studies.  In one of the four experiments in this paper, half the people played the role of the seller of a factory, while the rest played the role of the buyer.  Everyone received detailed information about the factory. 
In some groups, the seller was asked to make the first offer.  For half of these groups, the seller also had to give arguments in favor of their offer.  In this case, the counteroffers by the buyer were lower when the seller made arguments in favor of the initial bid than when the seller gave no arguments.  The buyers were asked to write down reasons for their counteroffers, and they gave more reasons for making a low bid when they were responding to arguments by a seller than when there were no arguments.  The final price the group agreed on was also lower when the seller made arguments with the initial offer than when no argument was made.
The opposite pattern was observed for groups where the buyer went first.  In this case, sellers generated more reasons why the buyer’s initial offer was bad when the buyer made arguments along with the initial offer than when there were no arguments.  The sellers made higher counteroffers when there were arguments along with the initial offer than when there weren’t.  Finally, the purchase price was higher when the buyer made arguments than when there were no arguments made.
Putting all this together, then, it appears that it is hard to be persuasive when negotiating.  People enter negotiations knowing that the other party is an adversary.  Each side wants to get the best deal, and so they treat every piece of information given by the other party with skepticism.  They find reasons why persuasive arguments are flawed and use those counterarguments when adjusting the anchor set by the initial offer.
What does this mean for you?
If you are involved in a negotiation, it is probably a good idea to make the first offer.  That initial offer serves as an anchor.  However, after you make that initial offer, resist the temptation to give reasons to justify that initial bid.  Instead, let the other party come back with a counteroffer.  Chances are, that counteroffer will not be adjusted as far away from your initial offer as it would have been if you had made arguments in your own favor.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Overcoming anger at products that backfire

There are many products that aim to protect us in various ways.  We install smoke alarms at home to keep us safe from fires that may start while we are asleep.  Every fall, people line up for flu vaccines to protect against the flu viruses expected that year. 
Despite the best intentions of these products, though, they sometimes fail.  A smoke detector may have a faulty sensor and may not wake up a family in time for them to escape a burning house.  A child may get very sick after a vaccination.
Research by Jay Koehler and Andrew Gershoff published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2003 found that people are particularly sensitive to cases in which safety products backfire.  They feel betrayed by these products. 
For example, they found that people preferred a car with an airbag system that gave them a 2% chance of dying in an auto accident to a car that had an airbag where the airbag led to only a 1% chance of dying in an accident, though there was also a .01% chance that someone might be killed by the airbag in an accident they would otherwise have survived.  That is, people felt so betrayed that in a very small number of cases they might be harmed by the safety device that they preferred a car that was less safe overall.
This behavior in an experiment is similar to the behavior of parents who may avoid vaccinating their children because of the small number of cases in which vaccines have harmful side-effects.  The vaccines ultimately save far more lives than they prevent, but parents still avoid the vaccines.
In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, these same authors explored ways to minimize the effects of this betrayal on people’s choices.  It would be particularly useful for people to pick the safest option in the long-run, even when there are rare cases where the safety device is itself to blame for a bad outcome.
Gershoff and Koehler reasoned that people may feel such negative emotion when they hear about a safety device that backfires that they are driven away from choosing that option.  In those cases, they suggested that finding ways to minimize how much people experience an emotion might increase choices of the safer option.  They conducted five studies in this paper, I’ll describe two of them here.
In their experiments, participants all had to choose between the two cars described earlier.  One would lead to a 2% chance of being killed in a serious accident, while the other would lead to a 1.01% chance of being killed in a serious accident.  However, the safer car included a .01% chance in which the safety device would lead to the death of someone who would otherwise have survived the accident.
In one study, the authors took advantage of previous work suggesting that people experience emotions less strongly when making a choice for someone else than when making a choice for themselves.  In this study, people saw the descriptions of the two cars and asked which they would choose.  Half of the people chose the car for themselves, while the other half chose for someone else.  People were more likely to choose the safer car (despite the betrayal) when choosing for someone else than when choosing for themselves.
In another study, the authors asked all of the participants to fill out a survey measuring how often they go with their intuition or gut instinct when making a choice.   This survey is a valid measure of how strongly people use their emotions.  After filling out this survey, people chose between the cars.  Consistent with the importance of emotion in experiencing this betrayal, people were increasingly less likely to choose the safer car as their reliance on intuition in choice increased.
Ultimately, when evaluating any option, it is important to look at its safety and reliability record.  Products that are potentially dangerous (like cars and even medicines) will always carry some risk.  The total risk for a product is the combined risk that a bad outcome will happen despite the protection of the product as well as the possibility that the safety devices in the product will backfire.  In the end, it does not matter where those risks come from.  The safest product is the one that is safest overall.
So, if you are inclined to avoid a product because of a small risk that it might backfire, you should find ways to minimize the influence of emotion on your choice.  A simple way to do that is to imagine purchasing the product for a friend rather than doing it for yourself.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Buying can reduce giving

When you wander through the grocery store, there are lots of products that tie themselves to social causes.  The product will have a picture of the charity logo on the package, and the company often states that a portion of the purchase price goes to support the charity.

The idea here is that everybody wins.  The company gets the benefit of showing that it is socially responsible.  The purchaser gets to feel good about supporting a charity without having to pay anything extra.  The charity gets more money to support its work.

An interesting paper in the July, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology by Ariadhna Krishna suggests that things might not be so rosy for the charity.

In a preliminary study, experimenters set up a booth on a college campus.  On some days, people walking across campus were givent he chance to donate to the American Cancer Society.  On other days, participants were given the chance to purchase a can of Red Bull for $2.50, and they were told that $0.50 would be given to the charity.  They were also allowed to donate additional money.  When only a donation was requested, about 80% of the participants gave money, but when there was a chance to purchase a drink, only about 20% of people gave money.  Even when including the amount of money that would be raised from the sales of the Red Bull, the charity got more money overall when there was no product for sale.

To explore this issue more carefully, the paper reports two other studies.  In these experiments, people were given a budget of $100.  They could purchase a basket of products and could also choose to donate some of their budget to a charity.  To keep people focused on the choice, one person received the products they purchased. 

In one condition, the products were not associated with any charities.  In a second condition, the products were associated with the same charity that participants could give money to.  In a third condition, the products were associated with one charity, but participants could donate to a different one.  One possible reason why people give less money when they purchase a product associated with a charity is that the purchase might make them feel like they have already given money.

In this study, people were willing to give more to the charity if none of the products were associated with charities than if all of the products were associated with charities (even if the donation was going to go to a different charity than the one associated with the products).  As with the pilot study, the charities got less money overall when products were associated with the charities than when people were just free to donate whatever they want.

What is going on here?

After the study, people were asked the reasons for their choices.  When the products were associated with charities, people were more likely to mention buying products they needed than when they products were not associated with charities. 

Why does this matter?

Research by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick in 1999 suggests that people make decisions based on the goal that is active at the time.  That goal can shift from highlighting a moral dimension to highlighting a financial transaction.  When people start thinking about money, they become less concerned about the moral dimensions of choices.

In this case, when people are trading off between buying things for themselves and making a purchase that is not associated with a charity, then the moral part of the decision becomes important.  People have to decide whether they want to do that morally correct thing. 

When the products all give some money to charity, though, then both buying products and giving money are seen as equal on the moral dimension.  In this case, people focus primarily on getting the best value for their money.  And so, they purchase products, but do not give extra money to the charity.

What can you do to make sure you give enough money to the causes you care about?

Remember that these effects are strongest when you are in the context of making purchases.  That means that it may not be the best time to think about giving donations when you have just been at the store making purchases. 

Instead, try to be a bit more systematic about your giving.  Think about how much money you make and how much you would like to give to charities ideally.  Then, keep track of your donations throughout the year.  If you find yourself falling short of your goal, then give a donation at the end of the year to the charities of your choice to help you reach your goal for giving.

Monday, October 8, 2012

You end up believing what you want to believe.

Not long ago, one of my colleagues posted a link to a paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published in 2010 that analyzed data from a number of studies involving almost 350,000 people.  The analysis suggests there is no significant relationship between heart disease and eating saturated fats.  He seemed excited about this result, presumably because it supported his desire to eat fatty foods. 

It is always nice to discover that something you hoped were true really is true.  But, can your desire for an answer affect the way you evaluate the evidence?

This question was explored in a clever study by Himanshu Mishra, Arul Mishra, and Baba Shiv published in the June, 2011 issue of Psychological Science.  They examined how people evaluated new evidence when what they believed to be true conflicted with what they wanted to be true.

In this study, participants were people who expected to have children in the near future.  All of them believed that caring for young children at home was better for the child than sending them to an outside daycare.  Of these participants, half were people who expected they would send their child to daycare some day, while the other half were people who expected they would keep their child at home.

The experiment was conducted in a different session from when the participants expressed their beliefs about daycare and home care, and so it was not obvious to participants that this study was intended to be related to their existing beliefs or plans for the future. 

In the experiment, everyone read one study that supported the conclusion that home care really is better than daycare.  The other study supported the conclusion that daycare is better than home-care.  The methods of the two studies were different.  People were asked to evaluate the studies for whether the methods were valid and whether the studies were convincing. 

Not surprisingly, the people who believed that home care is better and planned to care for their children at home believed that studies demonstrating that home care is best were more convincing than those demonstrating that daycare is best. 

Those who planned to care for their children using daycare showed the opposite pattern.  Even though they originally believed that home care is best, they found the study demonstrating daycare to be best to be more convincing than the study demonstrating home care to be best.

In many real-world situations, there is conflicting evidence from different studies.  So, it is important to make judgments about which evidence is strongest.  But, these results suggest that people are biased to interpret the evidence in ways that are consistent with their desires. That means that people may ultimately come to believe that the weight of evidence supports the position that they already wanted to believe was true.  And they will believe this without recognizing that their own desires influenced the evaluation of the evidence.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Are you too busy to change your mind?

Over the course of your life, attitudes shift.  As a teen, you might be a complete omnivore, diving into every barbecue with abandon.  As a young adult, you might hear economic arguments against meat production and cut back on the amount of meat you eat.  Still later, you might hear about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and give up meat altogether. 
Your attitudes are not just there to be changed, of course.  Your attitudes also help you decide how to act.  Your attitude toward eating meat affects the foods you buy, cook, and eat. 
An interesting paper in the June, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dolores Albarracin and Ian Handley explores the effects of wanting to do something on your attitudes.  This research suggests that wanting to do things makes it easier for you to think about your attitudes but harder to change them.
In one study, participants were told that they were going to express their attitude toward gun control at the end of the study.  Then, the participants filled in words with missing letters.  For some people, the words were all related to performing actions (like action, motivation, and doing).  For other people, the words were all related to inaction (like freeze, stop, and calm).  A third group filled in words that were unrelated to either action or inaction.  The idea is that filling in words relating to action would put people in a mode of wanting to act.  Filling in words relating to inaction would put people in a mode of wanting to rest.
After that, participants expressed their attitude toward gun control by pressing one button if they were in favor of gun control or a second button if they were opposed to it.  Participants were fastest to express their attitude if they were primed for action and slowest if they were primed for inaction.  The control condition came out in between.  Another study in this series showed that people are only faster to express an attitude when they are warned at the start of the study that they will later have to express that attitude.
A second set of studies examined attitude change.  In these studies, people again heard that they were going to express an attitude about a topic (in this case vegetarianism).   This time, the participants were selected based on a survey they took earlier in which they expressed opposition to being vegetarian.  Just as in the study I described earlier, half of the participants were primed toward action and the other half were primed toward inaction.  Then, everyone read a passage providing a few strong arguments for reducing meat consumption.  After reading the passage, people gave their opinion about vegetarianism. 
After reading a passage promoting being a vegetarian, the people primed toward inaction changed their attitude toward vegetarianism quite a bit, while those who were primed toward action did not change their opinion much at all. 
Putting this all together, the studies in this paper indicate that when people are oriented to act, they have ready access to their existing opinions.  That makes it easier to act, but the strength of these prior opinions makes it hard for people to change their existing attitudes.  When people are oriented to wait before acting, they do not have ready access to their existing opinions.  As a result, it is harder for them to engage in actions.  However, people oriented toward inaction are also more likely to be affected by information aimed to change their opinion.
This research does suggest why television commercials are so often effective.  When people are watching TV, they are generally oriented toward inaction.  Most TV watching is done by people who are seated with the goal of being entertained.  As a result, they are in exactly the state they need to be in to be influenced by persuasive messages.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why we prefer visionary leaders

In the United States, the Presidential election cycle is in full swing.  The debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are about to begin.  Voters are making up their minds, and early voting has already begun in some states.

In 2008, one of the big factors that helped to sweep Obama into office was that he was seen as an inspiring and visionary leader.  The country was mired in two wars, and an economic crisis threatened to plunge the US into a depression.  In that context, Obama’s campaign speeches about hope and change resonated with the voters.

A paper in the July, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Nir Halevy, Yair Berson, and Adam Galinsky explored why people seek out visionary leaders.

Research on leadership suggests that there are two conflicting sets of qualities that people look for in a leader.  At times, people want a visionary—a leader who will guide them to be better than themselves.  At other times, though, people seem to want a leader who is one of them—a person that they can relate to.  Indeed, in the 2000 election, George W. Bush gained in popularity over Al Gore, because he was seen as likeable.  Bush was a candidate people could imagine sitting down and talking to over a beer.

In one study, Halevy, Berson, and Galinsky had college students read a scenario in which they experienced a personal crisis (they were trapped in a burning apartment) or a group crisis (their fraternity/sorority house burned down and, although nobody was hurt, everything was destroyed).  Unsurprisingly, students reading these scenarios felt sad, scared, and anxious.

Afterward, participants read about two candidates who were running to be president of their fraternity/sorority.  One candidate was described as a visionary leader who inspired other students.  The other was described as a typical student who shares opinions with most other members of the group.  The participants rated their degree of support for each candidate.  Not surprisingly, the visionary candidate got more support from participants overall than the candidate who was similar to most other group members.

After rating their endorsement of the candidates, participants rated their mood again.  Interestingly, the more strongly people endorsed the visionary candidate, the more that their mood recovered from the negative feelings they had after reading about the crisis in the first part of the study.  This effect was particularly strong in the group crisis condition (where the house burned down).  That is, visionary leaders help people feel better in times of crisis.

In a second study, participants read about a crisis in which a fire burned a large part of a town.  Afterward, they read a speech by the town’s mayor.  The speech either emphasized hope for the future—the kind of speech a visionary leader often gives—or it emphasized how everyone is part of the same community—a less visionary speech.  After reading these speeches, participants indicated how much time they would volunteer to help the community repair itself after the fire.  Participants who read the visionary speech were willing to commit about 25% more hours than those who read the other speech.

These studies suggest that visionary leaders are particularly attractive in times of crisis.  Leaders who express a vision for the future and give a message of hope make people feel more comfort when times are bad.  At the same time, these leaders seem to energize people to want to take action.

Is there a downside to being a visionary leader?

A candidate presented as a visionary runs some risk.  Hope is an anticipatory emotion.  People who are hopeful are looking forward to the future when things will get better.  Campaigns are focused on the future, and so visionary messages play well, particularly in difficult times.  The task of governing, though, is one that must be done day-to-day.  Most of the world’s problems are not ones that can be solved immediately.  And situations can sometimes get worse before they get better.  So, visionary leaders run the risk that people will become disillusioned.