Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How can we get kids interested in math and science?

High school is interesting, because it is the first time that students have the chance to start picking their own classes.  They have the change to determine the difficulty of the classes they want to take and they have some flexibility in the number of classes that they take in different subject areas.

This flexibility is particularly important when it comes to math and science classes.  It is generally agreed that the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Education, and Math) are important for the economy.  Students trained in these subjects go on to earn high salaries and to contribute to the growth of new businesses.

Yet, many students decide not to pursue difficult science and math classes in high school.  These early choices have a lasting influence, because when these students go to college, they continue to stay away from science and math.

What can be done to get students to take more science and math?

One possibility would be to try to convince students that science and math are fun.  Certainly, there are many people who find a lot of intrinsic enjoyment in solving math problems and in pursuing new knowledge through science.  And according to psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, students will gravitate toward classes that they enjoy.

The problem is that it can be difficult to convince a student who has not enjoyed math and science classes in the past that math and science are actually fun.  And anyone who has tried to push a teenager to do something that he or she does not want to do knows how difficult that can be.

However, Eccles also suggests that students will take classes that they consider valuable, even if they do not think that the classes will be enjoyable at the time.  That is, students realize that there are some classes that are just no fun, but that they need to take because of the importance of those classes for their future.

If we helped students to see the value in math and science classes, would that lead them to take more math and science?

That question was addressed in a study by Judith Harackiewicz, Christopher Rozek, Chris Hulleman, and Janet Hyde published in the August, 2012 issue of Psychological Science.  They conducted their experiment as part of a longitudinal study of children in Wisconsin. 

Starting when these students were in the 10th grade, parents were sent brochures that described the value of math and science classes.  The brochures also directed parents to websites that had more information on the value of math and science.  Parents were encouraged to talk to their children about math and science classes. 

The researchers then analyzed the high school transcripts of these students for their last two years of high school.  The classes taken by these students were compared to the classes taken by a control group whose parents did not receive any information about math and science.  The researchers also gathered information from parents and children about the number of conversations they had about math and science during high school.  Finally, the researchers had access to lots of demographic information about the families, because they were part of this long-term study.

So what happened?

One important predictor of the number of math and science classes that students took was their parents’ level of education.  The more education the parents had, the more math and science classes the students took.

On average, though, students whose parents received information about the value of math and science took one more semester of math and science in high school than those whose parents did not receive this information.  In particular, these students tended to take more elective and advanced classes.

Finally, the students whose parents received information about the value of math and science reported having more conversations about math and science classes with their parents than the students whose parents did not receive this information.

Putting this all together, then, high school students may not love math and science.  But, they can see the value in these classes.  When parents talk to their children about the importance of math and science, it really does have an impact on the classes they take.  And presumably, a student who is well-prepared in math and science in high school will continue that education in college.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Treating yourself with compassion helps you change for the better.

I read a book that compared the entrepreneurial communities in Silicon Valley and the Boston area.  In the early 1970s, both regions had a large number of high-tech companies.  By the late 1980s, though, there was a thriving community of startup companies in Silicon Valley, while the Boston area had a smaller number of large companies, many of which were struggling to survive.

One of the striking differences between the regions was their tolerance of failure.  In the Boston area, people in the high tech community were reluctant to go out on their own and start a new company, because if they failed, they felt it would count strongly against them when they looked for another job.  In contrast, in Silicon Valley, new companies failed all the time, and it was expected that an entrepreneur might fail several times before having some success.

At the surface, it is tempting to say that the cultures of Silicon Valley and Boston promoted a different level of fear of failure.  An interesting paper in the September, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen suggests that the difference might actually lie in the self-compassion promoted by each region.

Self-compassion is the degree to which people treat themselves with warmth and understanding.  People are not hard on themselves are treating themselves with self-compassion.  At one level, this might feel similar to self-esteem, which is the degree to which people think of themselves positively.  But, you can treat yourself with compassion without necessarily feeling positively toward yourself.

In one study, the researchers manipulated people’s level of self-compassion by having them think about a personal weakness or shortcoming.  The self-compassion group wrote a paragraph about how they would talk to themselves about this weakness from a perspective of compassion and understanding.  A second group was given self-esteem instructions. They were asked to write about talking to themselves about how to validate their positive qualities.

After writing, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they thought that the weakness they described was a permanent quality of themselves or something that could be changed.  The self-compassion group rated the weakness as more changeable than the self-esteem group.

In another study in this series, participants took a difficult vocabulary test.  Before taking the test, the self-compassion group was told not to be too hard on themselves if they did poorly, while the control group was not.  The test was hard enough that on average, participants only got about 40% of the answers correct.  After taking the test, participants were told that they were going to take a second test later and were given time to study before taking the test.  The self-compassion group studied 30% longer than the control group. 

What does this mean?

There are two ways to interpret failure.  One is to see failure as a reflection of who you are.  If you fail, then you yourself are a failure.  A second possibility is that you see failure as a challenge to be overcome. 

Self-compassion helps people to view failure as a challenge.  The way to overcome failure is to try again and to work harder the next time.  The studies suggest that self-compassion is more likely than self-esteem to lead people to treat failures as challenges. 

This work also suggests that the culture of Silicon Valley promoted self-compassion.  Entrepreneurs were taught to think of failure as a natural part of the business process and not a reflection on their capabilities.  In the long-run, this attitude may have played an important role in making Silicon Valley the thriving hub of high-tech business that it is today.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Social drinking helps people get along

On Sunday nights, I play saxophone in the backing band for a blues jam that is held at a local club.  Most of the people who come are musicians or other folks from the neighborhood who wandered in for a drink.  As I look around the room, most people have a drink in front of them.  They are talking and laughing.  Everybody seems to be having a good time. 

Of course, there is a lot going on there.  The music adds to the atmosphere.  Many of the people who are there know each other, and so they are continuing conversations that have been going on for weeks (if not years). 

What role does alcohol play in this?

This question was addressed in a paper by Michael Sayette and 8 of his colleagues in paper in the August, 2012 issue of Psychological Science.  They did a fascinating and well-designed study of the influence of alcohol on social interactions. 

A total of 720 people participated in this research.  One set of participants drank about 3 drinks over a 30 minute period.  The drinks were a mixture of vodka and cranberry juice.  The second set drank 3 placebo drinks.  The placebo was a mixture of flat soda and cranberry juice.  Before participants entered the lab, though, the glasses were wiped with vodka to give them an alcohol taste.  The third set drank cranberry juice and was told that they were given no alcohol. The reasoning behind these three groups is that it helps to distinguish between the effects of alcohol and the effects about the belief that you are drinking. 

Participants came to the lab in groups of three.  The experimenters ensured that the group members had never met before.  Participants sat around a table to consumer their drinks.  They thought that the purpose of the study was to test the effects of alcohol on other tasks that they would do later, but the experimenters were really interested in the interactions among people as they drank and how that affected how much the group members got along with each other.

After finishing their drinks, the group members filled out evaluations of how much they liked the other members of their group.

What happened?

First, the manipulations of the drinks worked as expected.  Participants in the alcohol condition had the highest blood alcohol levels (about .06 by the end of the study).  The other two sets of participants had very low blood alcohol levels.  Second, both the alcohol and placebo participants rated themselves as feeling somewhat intoxicated, though the participants who drank alcohol rated themselves as much more intoxicated than those in the placebo group.  Consistent with that, the alcohol participants estimated that they drank about 7 ounces of alcohol, while the placebo participants estimated that they drank about 4.5 ounces of alcohol.

Overall, the people who drank alcohol rated that they got along better with their group members than either the people who drank the placebo or the non-alcoholic drinks.  The difference between those who drank alcohol and those who drank the placebo was particularly large. 

Why did this happen?

The researchers did a painstaking analysis of the facial expressions of the group members and the speech patterns.  The groups that drank alcohol smiled more and gave fewer signs of negative feeling than the other groups.  So, on a moment-by-moment basis, the groups that drank alcohol seemed to be having a better time than the other groups.

In addition, everyone in the groups that drank alcohol seemed to participate in the conversations to a greater degree than the people in the other groups.  In the groups that drank alcohol, there were more conversations in which each person took a turn speaking. 

Putting all of this together, then, a moderate amount of drinking gets people to participate in social interactions and to enjoy those social interactions.  In that way, alcohol helps people to get along well with others.  This seems to be an effect of the alcohol itself, and not just the belief that you are having alcoholic drinks with other people, because the results of the placebo condition were similar to those of the control condition.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thinking style and belief in God

There is no doubt that the human mind is prepared to believe in the divine.  All over the world, cultures have created belief in one or many gods.  These beliefs are common in societies regardless of levels of technological advancement and scientific achievement.

Because of the prevalence of religious beliefs in cultures throughout the world, psychologists have explored why a belief in God is so common.  It is clear that there are many different factors that come together to support a belief in God.  For example, people tend to view even random events as having a cause, and God provides a good explanation for these seemingly random events.  The belief in God may also reduce people’s anxiety when faced with events that would be hard to explain otherwise.

An interesting paper by Amitai Shenhav, David Rand, and Joshua Greene in the August, 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that people’s thinking style may also influence the strength of people’s belief in God. 

Many different theories propose that there are two inter-related systems of thought.  One is a more intuitive system that helps people to make fast judgments.  The second is a more reflective system that allows people to reason through complex problems. 

A classic example of these systems in action involves a simple math problem:  You go to the store and buy a bat and a ball.  The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.  Together they cost $1.10.  How much did the ball cost? 

Many people have an immediate intuition that the ball cost ten cents.  After thinking about this problem further, though, you may realize that the ball actually costs five cents with the bat costing one dollar more ($1.05).  Even after you realize the correct answer to the problem, though, you can still see the appeal of the incorrect answer that the ball costs ten cents.  The fact that the wrong answer is still appealing even after you know the correct answer is an indication that there are two distinct systems of reasoning that are giving you different answers to the question.

Shenhav, Rand, and Greene suggest that an intuitive style of reasoning may also increase people’s belief in God.  They explored this question in two ways.

In one study, they gave people a series of problems like the ball and bat question.  They measured how often people gave the intuitively appealing answer to the problem.  They also asked people to rate the strength of their belief in God.  The researchers also had participants’ scores on tests of intelligence.  In this study, measures of intelligence did not predict the strength of people’s belief in God.  Instead, people were more likely to believe in God the more that they gave the intuitive answers to the problem. 

Of course, this study is just correlational.  The authors also provided a more experimental test of the relationship between reasoning style and belief in God.  In this study, participants either wrote a brief essay about a time that they used their instinct to solve a problem or a time that they used their reasoning ability to solve a problem.  The essay either had to describe a situation in which the problem solving had a good outcome for them or a bad outcome.  After writing this essay, participants rated their degree of belief in God as well as whether they felt they had experiences in their life that convinced them that God exists. 

When people wrote an essay about using intuition to solve a problem, their rated belief in God was significantly higher when they wrote about a good outcome for themselves than when they wrote about a bad outcome.  When people wrote an essay about using reasoning to solve a problem, their belief in God was lower when they wrote about a good outcome than when they wrote about a bad outcome.  A similar pattern was observed for people’s agreement that they had experiences that convinced them of the existence of God.

Why would reasoning style influence the strength of people’s belief in God?

One reason why people believe in God is that this belief helps people to deal with situations that have no obvious explanation.  God provides an intuitively appealing explanation.  Often, when you think deeply about a situation, though, you can also generate other explanations for the same situation.  Those other explanations can undermine a belief in God.

Before closing this blog entry, I should say that in my view this research does not (and should not) tell anyone what to believe.  The field of cognitive science is interested in the psychological mechanisms that support people’s belief in God.  The more we understand about these factors, the better we can understand ourselves as humans.  But, these data will not provide definitive answers to any of the difficult theological questions that have been debated for millennia.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy people succeed

One of the big changes in psychology over the course of my career has been the increase in research on positive psychology.  When I was a graduate student, there was a lot of work on stress and mental illness, but few researchers spent much time studying happy people.

Quite a bit of research has examined influences of positive affect on thinking.  Positive affect is the broad term used to describe the variety of positive feelings that people experience.  For example, work by Alice Isen and her colleagues found that positive affect made people more creative and more likely to be helpful relative to a neutral mood. 

What happens over a long period of time, though?  It is possible that the benefits of being happy persist over the long term and happy people are the ones who make the most of their lives.  It is also possible that there are benefits to being happy in the short term, but not in the long term.  Perhaps people who are uncomfortable with their life as it is now are more likely to pursue educational and career opportunities to improve themselves than people who are happy.  

So what happens?

This issue was explored in a study in the August, 2012 issue of Personality and Social PsychologyBulletin by Claudia Haase, Michael Poulin, and Jutta Heckhausen.  In one study, they analyzed data from a long-term series of questionnaires given to high school students as they prepared to graduate and in the period just after graduation.  At each of six time periods, students rated how much positive and negative affect they were experiencing.  They also rated how much they were devoted to working hard for their future occupation.  Students also rated how many internships or apprenticeships they applied for and how many they received.

For each time point in the survey, the researchers used statistical analyses to predict the degree of effort people were putting in toward their career.  Obviously, the best predictor of the amount of effort you are putting toward developing a career is how much effort you have expended in the past.  Once you control for past effort, though, the next best predictor is the amount of positive affect you experienced in the past.  The amount of negative affect you experienced did not predict effort significantly.  A similar pattern was obtained for analyses of the number of apprenticeships applied for and obtained.

Overall, when people are happy, they put in more effort to create a better future for themselves than when they are not happy. 

Why does that happen?  Putting in effort for the future is a risk.  That effort may not be rewarded.  In order to feel confident that the effort will be repaid, you have to believe that your effort will overcome the obstacles to success.  Positive affect helps people to believe that obstacles are surmountable and that effort put in for the future will lead to success.  Without that positive affect, people are less confident that it is worth it to work hard for their future.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Knowing more about a charity is not always better

My family has always been involved with charitable organizations.  I have childhood memories of my parents going off to meetings for charities they supported.  These days, we set aside money for causes that are important to us.  As a result, we are on the mailing lists for many other charities that are looking for donations.  We get letters, notices of events, and newsletters telling us about the good work being done by a variety of groups.
The idea behind these mailings is that the more we learn about a particular charity, the more likely we might be to give money to it. 
That makes a lot of sense, of course.  You cannot give money to a charity you have never heard about.  But, what is the best strategy for a charity to pursue?
This question was addressed in an interesting set of studies by Robert Smith and Norbert Schwarz in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
These researchers suggested that how much people know about a charity can have a different influence on people’s donations depending on how people interpret their level of knowledge.  Specifically, charities often have two goals.  One is to spread awareness about a particular issue.  Many charities focused on the environment, for example, work to help people to learn about threats to the climate and to fragile ecosystems.  The second goal is to help the problem.  A food bank, for example, works to feed hungry people.
When the goal of a charity is to help people, then the more people know about the charity, the more they should be interested in giving to it.  The idea is that when people know a lot about the charity, they will assume that the charity must be doing a lot of good work, and so their money will be well-used. 
When the goal of a charity is to spread awareness, though, then when people know a lot about it, that might actually hurt the charity.  The idea is that if the issue is already well-known, the charity may not need their help to spread the news about the issue. 
In one study, adults from a community were recruited to participate.  They read about a real charity that aims to reduce the influence of childhood heart disease.  Participants read one of two descriptions of the charity.  One description focused on how the charity helps children in need.  The other focused on how the charity raises awareness about childhood heart disease. 
After reading the description, participants took a quiz about the material to test how much they remembered about it.  Some participants took an easy quiz that asked only general questions about the charity.  Other participants took a hard quiz that asked them very specific questions.  People taking the hard quiz answered fewer questions correctly than people taking the easy quiz.  Those taking the hard quiz also rated that the quiz was more difficult than those who took the easy quiz. 
At the end of the study, participants had the chance to make actual donations to the charity.  All of the donated money was given to the charity.
When people read the description about the way the charity helps children with heart disease, people gave more money when they took the easy version of the quiz than when they took the hard version.  That is, when they believed they knew a lot about the charity, they gave more money than when they believed they did not know much about it.
When people read the description about the way the charity raises awareness about heart disease, the results were quite different.  Those who took the hard version of the quiz actually donated more money than those who took the easy version of the quiz.  When the charity is trying to raise awareness, people were more interested in giving money when they believed that they did not know much about the charity than when they believed they knew a lot.
This research demonstrates that the way you interpret how much you know depends on your goals.  For each version of the description of the charity, some people believed they knew more about it than others.  But, whether that knowledge affected their interest in donating depended on the goal of the charity. 
If you are trying to raise people’s awareness about an issue, then, it is important to go beyond just telling them about the issue.  There are two ways that you can make your message more effective.  First, start the discussion by getting people to think about how little they knew about this issue before hearing your message.  Second, remind them how little most people know about this issue, which is why it is crucial to raise awareness. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Your initial choices often get stronger

Every time we approach a new election cycle, a similar pattern emerges.  In the Presidential election, for example, most voters already have a pretty clear preference.  However, there are always at least 10 percent of voters (and sometimes even more) who classify themselves as “undecided.” 

Even people who are officially “undecided” may have some leaning toward one candidate or another.  Quite a bit of research suggests that the way that someone is leaning influences the way they interpret new information.  If you have a slight preference for one candidate, then you are likely to give more weight to the positive things you hear about that candidate and the negative things you hear about the other candidate.  In that way, you slowly start to confirm your initial impression.

The idea behind this effect is that we like to keep our beliefs consistent.  That means that we tend to focus on information that supports what we already like and to pay less attention to information that might call our existing beliefs into question.  This mechanism is also behind “cognitive dissonance” effects where people begin with a set of beliefs that are not consistent with each other and gradually change some of the beliefs until they fit together.

An interesting set of studies in the August, 2012 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by Evan Polman and Jay Russo examined some seemingly small factors that can have a big impact on this kind of spreading coherence.  

In their studies, they had people express a preference for two restaurants.  The descriptions were designed so that if you saw all of the features of the restaurants at the same time, you would think they were quite similar and would have a hard time choosing between them.  This was done by having four features that were about equally good for each restaurant and then one feature that strongly favored each restaurant. 

The first feature people saw favored one restaurant over the other.  One group was asked to circle which restaurant they thought was better at this point.  Naturally, people tended to recognize that the restaurant with the better feature was currently the better option.  After that, people saw additional features.  After each one, people rated how much that new feature favored one of the restaurants over the other.  They also rated how strongly they preferred one restaurant to the other up to that point.

Consistent with previous work, by the end of the study, 61% of people preferred the restaurant that had the best first feature.  In addition, overall, their ratings of the other features favored the restaurant that they preferred at the start of the study.

But, that isn’t the interesting part.

Another group of participants expressed their initial preference in a slightly different way.  Rather than circling the option they liked best, they had to use a pencil to completely darken a box to express their preference.  This process took about 10 seconds.  This extra effort increased people’s initial commitment to one of the options.  For this group 75% of people preferred the option they liked initially at the end of the study.  Their ratings of the other features favored the restaurant they preferred initially even more strongly than those of the people who just circled their preference at the start.

Why would having to darken a box increase people’s commitment to an option? 

You might think that having to spend about 10 seconds filling in a box would give people more time to think about the first feature.  However, in another study in this series, asking people to think more carefully about the first feature did not strengthen the effect of the initial preference as much as filling in a box.

Instead, it seems to come from the way people interpret the amount of effort they put into expressing this initial preference.  Filling in this box take a lot of effort.  People seem to attribute that effort to their commitment to the option.

The researchers explored this possibility in a third study.  In this study, one group is told that filling in a box is an easy way to express their preference for one of the options.  This group should be surprised that it takes so long to do it.  A second group is told that filling in a box is a difficult way to express their preference.  This group should not be at all surprised that it takes a while to fill in the box. 

In this study, the people who think that filling in the box should be easy show a much stronger effect of their initial impression than the people who think that filling in the box should be difficult. 

What does this all mean?

Our tendency to keep our beliefs consistent has an impact on the way we make choices.  Over time, our initial beliefs affect the way we interpret new information so that those first impressions get stronger over time.  Seemingly simple factors like the way that we express an initial preference can heighten this effect.

Perhaps the scariest part of these findings is that they typically happen without our awareness.  That is, we think we are evaluating each new feature objectively when we see it.  We do not usually realize how much our existing preferences are affecting the way we interpret new information.  As a result, we think we have built up our eventual preference by evaluating lots of evidence independently, when in reality we have been influenced by our existing beliefs.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Not all happiness is the same

If you were to stop people randomly on the street and ask them if they were happy, chances are most of them would say, “Yes.”  Most of us are happy most of the time. 

What exactly does it mean to be happy, though?

An interesting paper by Cassie Mogilner, Jennifer Aaker, and Sepandar Kamvar in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that there may be two distinct kinds of happiness.  One kind of happiness is a sense of calm well-being.  A person sitting by a swimming pool relaxing in the sun is happy in this sense.  A second kind of happiness is a feeling of pleasant excitement.  A person dancing with friends at a club on a Saturday night is experiencing this kind of happiness.

An interesting aspect of these kinds of happiness is that they seem to be related to people’s focus on time.  The calm type of happiness is most associated with a focus on the present moment.  The excited type of happiness is most associated with a focus on possibilities in the future.  As a result, young people are more likely to experience the excited kind of happiness than older people.  Older people (who are generally less focused on the future) are more likely to experience the calm type of happiness.

Why does this matter?

These researchers find that the kind of happiness you are experiencing affects the types of products you are interested in buying.

In one study, college-age participants (who are most likely to experience excited happiness naturally) either participated in a control condition that involved a breathing exercise or a meditation condition in which people were told to focus on the present moment and to let the past and future slip away.  The students in the control condition tended to rate that they were feeling more excited than calm, while those in the meditation condition rated themselves as feeling more calm than excited.  At the end of the study, as participants were packing up to leave, they were given the chance to select one of two types of tea.  One type of tea was described as being a relaxing blend of chamomile and mint, while the other was described as being a refreshing peppermint blend.  Participants in the control condition selected the refreshing tea about 60% of the time, while those in the meditation condition selected the calming tea about 60% of the time.

In a second study, older adults (who are most likely to experience calm happiness) did a sentence unscrambling task.  The sentences in the control group had no particular focus.  The sentences in the experimental group used many words focused on the future.  These sentence unscrambling tasks are well-known to influence what people are thinking about without their awareness.

Later participants listened to two versions of the same song.  One version was judged by independent listeners to be much calmer than the other.  After listening to the songs and rating them, participants were given the opportunity to select one version of the song as a free mp3 download. 

The participants in the control condition rated themselves as being mostly calm rather than excited.  They also selected the calm version of the song about 60% of the time.  The participants primed to think about the future rated themselves as more excited than calm.  They also selected the exciting version of the song about 60% of the time. 

Putting these results together, then, it seems that we experience two different kinds of happiness.  The calm type of happiness is related to a focus on the present moment, and is most common in older adults.  The excited type of happiness is related to a focus on the future and is most common in younger adults.  

Although we are unaware of it, these types of happiness also affect our preferences.  We seem to like products that will maintain the type of happiness we are experiencing right now.  So, if we are experiencing calm happiness, we select calm products.  If we are experiencing excited happiness, we select exciting products.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Getting stuck in trivial choices

I generally try to speed through the grocery store when I’m doing the shopping.  I want to get everything on my list, but I would really rather be somewhere else. 
I do like to watch other people shopping, though.  I guess it is an occupational hazard.  And every once in a while, I find someone standing in front of a wall of tomato sauce, conditioner, or baked beans trying to figure out which one to buy.  In the grand scheme of things, that particular choice is probably not that important, yet someone can spend a few minutes contemplating the benefits of one brand over another.  If you asked shoppers whether it was worth spending so much time choosing that product, they would probably say no, yet they do it anyhow.
This issue was addressed in a paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. 
They suggest that unimportant decisions can suck us in when they are more difficult than we expect them to be.  They call these choices decision quicksand, because they pull you in and take more effort than they deserve.
In one experiment, they used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.  Mechanical Turk is a marketplace where people can do simple questionnaires and other tasks and get paid to do them.  Many researchers have taken to using this site to collect data. 
They gave people the opportunity to select a task to perform some time in the future.  The task was described by simple features like whether it was going to be fun or boring, how much time it would take, and how much they would be paid.  Half the people were told that their selection was binding, so the decision was important, while the other half were told that they could switch tasks later, so their decision was not that important. 
Some people were given an easy choice between one option that was going to be fun, fast, and would pay well and another that was going to be boring, slow, and low-paying.  The people given the easy choice made a quick decision regardless of whether they were given the binding or non-binding versions of the choice.
Other people were given a harder decision task in which all of the tasks had both good and bad characteristics.  In this case, the people who were making the binding choice made a fairly quick decision, but those who were making the non-binding choice actually took almost twice as long to choose.  That is, the people with the less important version of the choice actually took more time to make the hard decision than those with the more important decision to make.
A second experiment in this paper found that unimportant choices that were unexpectedly difficult led people to seek more information.  In this study, people were told to imagine that they had to choose a flight for a business trip.  The flight was either a short and easy flight or a long and tiring one.  The task was made easy or hard by varying how hard it was to read the information about the flights.  In the easy version of the task, the options were written in a clear font.  In the hard version of the task, the options were written in low contrast so that they were difficult to read. 
After seeing an initial set of options, people were asked if they wanted to choose from among the set they saw or whether they wanted to see more options.  People who got the easy-to-read versions of the options were equally likely to want to see more options regardless of whether they were making a choice for a short or a long flight.  People who got the options that were hard-to-read were more likely to want to see additional options when choosing a short flight than when choosing a long flight.  That is, they requested more information for the less important choice.
What is going on here?
When we make choices, we have to trade off between effort and accuracy.  So, we ought to spend the most time on the most important choices in an effort to make sure we get the best option in that case. 
But, how do we know how much time we should spend on a choice?  At the beginning, we make an estimate of how easy the choice is going to be.  When we expect a choice to be hard and it is, then we are likely to focus just on the options and not on the difficulty of the decision.  But, when we expect the choice to be easy and it turns out to be hard, then we are surprised by that difficulty.  We naturally respond to that unexpected difficulty with more effort, even though that additional effort really is not necessary.  That response reflects that a little extra effort often allows us to solve the problems we encounter in daily life.
So, what can you do?  When you go to the grocery store—or anywhere else where you don’t really need to make a very accurate decision—keep your focus on reaching a decision.  Take a moment to short-circuit your desire to keep working on decisions that don’t matter very much and save your effort for the choices that are really important.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Persuasion is local

I do my best to avoid advertising.  I don’t have cable TV.  I listen to public radio.  But, I can’t avoid it completely.  I was reminded of that recently when I went to see one of the big summer blockbusters at a local theater.  I had to get to the theater early to avoid sitting right up front, but that meant I had to endure 20 minutes of advertising that the theater used to keep me “entertained” while I waited for the start of the show.

As I sat in the theater, I looked at the diverse audience.  There were young kids there with parents.  There were packs of teens.  There were grandparents taking grandchildren.  There was also a racial and ethnic mix in the crowd.  So, how can the same ad reach all of these people?

On the one hand, it is clear that a big part of advertising is just exposing people to a product or brand.  Research on mere exposure going back to the 1960s shows that people like things better when they have seen them before than when they are new.  I have written about the effects of mere exposure in other blog entries. 

But, what about the content of the message in an ad?  Even if the product is one that would appeal to most people in the crowd, do people respond differently to different kinds of messages? 

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.  There is a nice paper in the June, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Jacob Hirsh, Sonia Kang, and Galen Bodenhausen that looked at the effectiveness of different advertising messages based on people’s personality traits.

Personality psychologists have identified the “Big Five.”  These traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism) are the broad ways that people differ from each other.  For example, extraverts tend to like excitement and to be the center of attention in group situations, while introverts do not.  People who are highly agreeable tent to like to please others.

The researchers developed five versions of an ad for a new phone.  Buried in the ad were sentences that were aimed at people with a particular personality trait.  For example, for the extraverts, the ad said that the phone was designed for “strong, active, outgoing people like you…you’ll always be where the excitement is…[this phone] will keep you in the spotlight.” 

The ad designed for highly agreeable people had sentences like “You’ll have access to your loved ones like never before…designed with empathy and consideration…get in touch with your caring side.”

The study was run using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a site where people can do simple tasks and get paid.  Researchers are increasingly using Mechanical Turk to collect data, because it allows them to go beyond the population of college students that are normally used in research studies.

Research participants saw one version of the ad and rated how effective they thought it was.  Then, they filled out a brief questionnaire that assessed their personality along the Big Five dimensions. 

The data showed that ads were rated as more effective when the message resonated with an aspect of a person’s personality.  That is, people with high levels of extraversion responded favorably to the ad that was written for extraverts, while people with low levels of extraversion responded negative to that ad.  Obviously, people have many different aspects to their personality, so the same person might respond favorably to many different ads if they were all tailored to their personality characteristics.

This study demonstrates a weakness of the typical approach to advertising that blankets people with messages.  Any given ad is going to appeal most strongly to people with particular personality characteristics.  The same ad may be quite effective for people high in a particular characteristic and rather ineffective for people low in that same characteristic.

I suppose that is where social media like Facebook come in.  Presumably, people’s patterns of usage of social media provide information about their personality.  This information could be used by advertisers to present messages that are specific to their traits in ways that would maximize the appeal of those messages. 

Of course, if you don’t want to be influenced by ads, just shut off the TV and take a walk.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The value of experiencing through someone else’s eyes

Here at the University of Texas, we have started a new program called the Human Dimensions of Organizations.  It is an education program for people in the business world that draws from the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to help people think like leaders.  A key aspect of thinking like a leader is understanding what the people you are leading are going through.

You might wonder why the humanities are included in a program that is designed to help people in business.  Why would a business leader need any training in literature, for example?

One argument that is made frequently is that literature provides people with an opportunity to experience someone else’s life.  An old Caucasian man can get a sense of what it is like to be a young African American woman by reading a story. 

This is a nice sentiment, but is it actually true?  That is, can you really begin to identify with someone just by reading a story?  This question was addressed in an interesting paper by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby in the July, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

The authors explored two main questions.  First, what factors influence whether a reader will experience the world of a person who is different from themselves when reading a story?  Second, are there consequences of experiencing the world of a different person?

In one study, the authors measured the strength of people’s self-consciousness.  Some people are often highly focused on who they are, while others go through life without thinking often about their identity.  After measuring the strength of self-consciousness, college student participants read a story about a college student written in the first person.  The story described an introvert who went to a college party.  After reading the story, participants rated how easy it was to identify with the main character of the story.  They were also asked a number of questions about themselves, many of which asked them about the degree to which they were introverted. 

People who were high in self-consciousness were less likely to identify with the main character of the story than those low in self-consciousness.  That is, the more that you tend to think about your own identity, the harder it is to take on another person’s identity.  The more strongly that readers identified with the main character of the story, the more introverted they rated themselves to be.  That is, experiencing the world through the eyes of an introvert made people think of themselves as more introverted.

A follow-up study demonstrated that if you reduce people’s emphasis on their own identity, it makes it easier for them to identify with the main character of a story.  A second follow-up study found that people are more likely to identify with a character when the story is written in the first-person than if it is written in the third-person.  Presumably, this happens, because a story in the third person creates distance between the reader and the characters.

One study also found a significant relationship between identifying with a character and later behavior. In this study, students read about a college student who overcame a series of obstacles on the way to go vote in an election.  The story was written either in the first person or the third person.  As just described, people identified more with the main character when the story was written in the first person than in the third person.  The 2008 Presidential election was held one month after the study was conducted.  All participants were screened to be eligible to vote in that election.  They were contacted after the election to see how many participants actually voted.  Overall, 65% of the participants who read the first-person version of the story voted, but only 25% of the participants who read the third-person version of the story voted. 

Two other studies in this paper found that when people are able to identify with main characters who differ from themselves in race or sexual orientation, that gives them a more favorable attitude toward those individuals and the groups they come from. 

Putting all of this together, then, literature does provide a way for people to experience the world in a different way.  When readers are willing to identify with a character, it can change attitudes and behavior.  Readers who identify with a character will feel more favorably toward that character and may also take on goals of that character.

This research suggests that reading about different groups can be helpful for aspiring leaders.  One of the greatest problems in business leadership is a failure to understand how the work environment can influence different people in different ways.  A leader who has experienced other people’s lives will have a valuable perspective on the way that different people think, act, and feel. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

To take people’s advice, take their perspective too

You may have noticed that there are two kinds of advice-giving situations.  Sometimes, people come to you for advice, because they really don’t know what to do, and they are asking for your opinion or expertise.  I get a lot of students who come to my office curious about classes that I would suggest that they take given their interests in Psychology.  They don’t know what to take, and they want suggestions to consider.

Other times, though, people already have an opinion.  In those cases, it feels like your advice has little effect on them unless you happen to agree with the opinion they already had.  I have had students come to me asking my opinion about research projects they are considering.  Often, I feel like they are going to go ahead with that project regardless of what I suggest.

A number of studies have demonstrated that when people have an initial opinion, they are likely to stick with that opinion rather than taking advice, even when it is likely that the advice would lead them to a better decision.

The real question is how you can get people to pay more attention to the advice they receive.  That issue was explored in a paper by Ilan Yaniv and Shoham Choshen-Hillel in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  These authors suggested that people who have their own opinion are more likely to take into account advice they get when they are asked to take another person’s perspective rather than their own. 

In one study, people were asked to make a series of estimates like the number of calories in a baked potato.  After making their estimate, people were shown the estimates made by five other people that were drawn randomly from a sample of estimates made from 100 other individuals.  Next, they were asked to make another estimate based on this advice.  Half of the people were asked what their estimate was given this advice.  The other half were told that another person would be shown the five estimates plus their own and would be asked to guess the true value.

The group that was asked what their own estimate would be after seeing the advice kept their initial estimate 50% of the time.  The group that was asked to make an estimate for another person kept their initial estimate only 17% of the time.  In addition, the group that made an estimate for someone else was closer to the true value than those people who estimated for themselves.

People who were making an estimate for themselves felt more confident that they were correct initially, and so they gave too much weight to their own estimate relative to those made by other people. 

Of course, just taking someone else’s perspective wasn’t quite enough.  In another study, after making the estimate for another person, people were asked what their own estimate was after seeing the advice.  In this case, people still tended to stick with their original estimate. 

That means that even after making an estimate for someone else that used all of the information about equally, people still wanted to place too much emphasis on their own initial guess.

In order to help yourself take advice, then, you really need to try to take someone else’s perspective when making a decision.  You have to realize that you are going to have a bias to stick with your own initial opinion.  Rather than looking for advice that agrees with what you already hope to do, try to imaging the situation from the standpoint of someone else. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

How do you decide who owns something?

Ownership is an important part of our daily lives, but most of us do not spend much time thinking about how we make decisions about who owns things.  We care about ownership, because the owner of an object gets to decide what is done with it.  Owners also benefit from the value of the object.

It might seem straightforward to decide who owns something, but it quickly becomes clear that things are more complicated than they seem.  Consider just a simple trip to the store.  You walk into a department store, and you know that all of the objects are owned by the store.  If you take one off the shelf, you are expressing an interest in owning the object, but you don’t own it yet.  So, just holding something does not make it yours.  If you pay the price of the object to the store, exchanging money for the object, it becomes yours, even while you are still standing in the store.  So, the exchange matters.  If you run out of the store with the object, then you have it in your possession, but the object still belongs to the store. 

What kinds of principles to people use to make judgments about ownership?

This question was explored in an interesting paper by Max Palamar, Doan Le, and Ori Friedman in a 2012 paper in the journal Cognition.  They looked at the relationship between people’s beliefs about who is responsible for an action and who owns an object.

When you are in the store, bringing an item to the cashier is your way of announcing that you would like to own it.  When the cashier accepts your money, you and the store are reaching an agreement about ownership.  In this way, you are both responsible for the decision about who owns the object.

The authors of this research paper look at situations where an object is not currently owned by anyone.  When people judge who is responsible for an action, they often focus on whether someone intended to bring about a particular result and whether their action actually led to the desired result.

In one example they use, a man named Mike sees a feather on top of a cactus in the desert.  If Mike wants to get the feather for himself, and he knocks it down with a stick, then we clearly think he is responsible for getting the feather out of the cactus.  If he knocks his stick against the cactus and the feather falls out without the intention to get the feather, then we think Mike is less responsible for getting the feather out.

What would happen in these cases if after the feather fell from the cactus a second man walked up to the feather as it was lying on the ground and picked it up?  Who would be the owner of the feather?

In several studies, people judge that Mike has more right to be the owner of the feather than Dave when he is more responsible for the action of freeing the feather.  So, when Mike wants the feather and takes an action that leads the feather to fall, then people think he should get the feather.  If Mike dislodges the feather accidentally, then people think he has less claim to owning it then if he deliberately dislodges the feather.

Why should we reason about ownership and responsibility in similar ways? 

One reason why this makes sense is because of the importance of control in ownership.  Because owning something allows me to control what is done with it, I am a better owner of that object when I have already done things to take responsibility for actions related to that object.  So, having an intention related to the object and carrying out an action that fulfills that intention demonstrates that a person deserves the control over that object that comes with being an owner.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Specific plans do not always help

A lot of research over the last several years has focused on how to help people to achieve their goals.  One of the results that has emerged from this work is that it is useful to form specific plans.  For example, Peter Gollwitzer’s work on implementation intentions suggests that envisioning a specific plan can increase people’s ability to perform new actions.

Are these specific plans always helpful?

A paper by Claudia Townsend and Wendy Liu to be published in the December, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that specific plans can backfire when people see themselves as being far from achieving their goal.  The idea is that if you form a specific plan that you think will be nearly impossible to achieve, then it is upsetting to create that plan.  In that case, you may actually decrease your commitment to the goal.

In one naturalistic study, they contacted people who were about to receive the tax rebate that was given out to many households in the United States in 2008 during the recession.  Some people were asked to form a specific plan about whether they would spend the rebate, donate it, or save it.  Other people were not asked to do any planning.  Participants were asked a number of other questions including whether they are generally good at saving money for the long-term.  After the rebates were sent, people were asked to report what they did with it. 

The group that did not plan saved about half of the money they received.  People who reported that they are good at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly more than half their money, while those who reported they are bad at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly less than half their rebate. 

This result along might just suggest that planning had no impact at all on behavior.  People who are good at saving are just better at saving money than those who are bad at saving money.

In another study, a planning group was asked to list all of the meals and snacks they would eat for the rest of the day.  An unrelated-planning group planned their studies for the rest of the day.  A third group did no planning.  During the study, participants were also asked to rate whether they felt they were overweight, of average weight, or underweight.  After the study was over, participants were offered a snack as part of their participation.  The snack was either an unhealthy food (a peanut-butter cup), or a healthy food (raisins).  Participants could also refuse to take a snack. 

Participants who felt they were overweight were much more likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack if they planned out their meals than if they did not.  Those who felt they were of average weight were less likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack.  Another study in this series suggested that planning meals made the people who reported that they were overweight feel more distress than those who were of average weight. 

These results are surprising given the previous research suggesting that specific planning helps people to achieve their goals.  What is the difference here?

One possibility lies in an important difference between the planning done in this study and the implementation intentions suggested by Gollwitzer and his colleagues.  In this study, people just planned for what they would like to do ideally.  They suggested how much of their rebate they would like to save or how much food they wanted to eat.  Implementation intentions have an important additional step.  They require that people think through all of the specific obstacles they will face in achieving their goal and to plan for them.

It is one thing to give an ideal for what you would like to achieve.  These ideals can be quite distressing to form when you think you are far from your goal.  However, if you plan for the obstacles, then you have a better chance at handling them when they arise.  A person trying to lose weight can plan to say “No, thank you.” when offered the chance to eat an unhealthy snack.  Without thinking about the obstacles, though, it is hard to have a ready-made course of action when roadblocks inevitably come up. 

So, the results of this study really demonstrate the danger of forming the wrong kind of plan.  It is not enough just to think about what you would like to do ideally.  To succeed at the really hard goals in life, it is crucial to figure out what can go wrong and be ready to address the obstacles.