Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning Requires Doing

The SXSW conferences just ended in Austin Texas.  For those few of you still left who don’t know about SXSW, it is a series of interlinked conferences that focus on advances in three core business sectors:  technology, music, and movies.  As a resident of Austin, I try to take advantage of things going on in the city surrounding these conferences.  I attended a few satellite meetings for high-tech companies.  I heard a few music shows.  I also play the saxophone, and I played a couple of gigs at clubs in Austin during the week.

The juxtaposition of the music and technology meetings led me to think about an interesting disconnection between these two sectors. 

On the one hand, many of the high-tech companies are trying to make large volumes of information accessible to masses of people.  The idea is that individuals and companies can become more productive as information becomes easier to access. 

On the other hand, the many great musicians who descended on Austin last week were a testimony to the power that comes with intense and sustained practice.  The virtuosity on display all over town reflected years of practice by each musician.

The disconnection is that we tend to think of information as something that just needs to be accessed.  If only we could put the right information in the right place, people could use it effectively.  But, nobody thinks that they could learn to play an instrument at a professional level without actually engaging with it actively.

Ultimately, though, you cannot simply make information accessible in the cloud and expect it to be used.  Acquiring knowledge requires as much activity as learning to play a musical instrument. 

It is crucial to develop practice techniques for learning that parallel those of musicians.  Here are four things you can start doing now to make your learning more active.

1)  Produce something.  A musician practices by playing.  The same thing is true of learning conceptual knowledge.  After you finish hearing a lecture, reading a book, or watching a documentary, explain it back to yourself to make sure that you really have learned it.  If you can’t repeat it back, then go over the material and try again.

2)  Get the details right.  In this busy world, we are often content to read executive summaries and to get the 30,000-foot view of a situation.  Musicians know that they have not really learned a piece until they know the details.  Not just some of the notes, but all of them with the correct timing, and the right changes in tempo and volume throughout.  The same is true of the knowledge that is really important.  You cannot develop creative solutions to new problems unless you truly understand those problems in detail and have accurate knowledge that you can bring to bear to solve that problem.

3)  Learn your theory.  The ability to improvise in music requires more than just knowing a few notes.  Great improvisers have a command of music theory.  They know the relationships among scales and the variety of scales that can be played over different chord structures.  Similarly, if you want to be able to solve creative problems, you need to know the theory in your area of expertise.  Focus on asking and answering the question “why?”  The better your ability to understand why things happen, the more effectively you can diagnose the cause of unexpected events.

4)  Nail your scales.  Any good musician has spent countless hours playing scale patterns.  These basic skills form the building blocks of more complex musical abilities.  Those wicked guitar lines that could be heard from every bar in Austin during SXSW had their roots in hours of practice playing scales.  There is a parallel in every area of expertise.  What are the key skills you need to have to have in your line of work?  Do you feel like you have truly mastered those skills?  If not, you will end up spending a lot of time focusing on the low-level details of executing your work when you really want to be thinking about more complex topics.  So, find the scales in your area of work and make sure you know them backwards and forwards.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fairness depends on who is in charge

We often have to make judgments about what is fair.  Parents try to treat their children fairly.  Employers keep their employees happy by making everyone feel like the work setting is fair.  Educators have to create a system of grading that is seen as fair.

What qualifies as fair in each of these situations may be different, of course.  Children often see fairness as equal treatment.  If one child gets a larger slice of cake than another, then you can almost guarantee cries of “That’s not fair!”  In a work setting, though, we don’t expect everyone to be paid the same amount.  Instead, it seems fair if each person is paid in proportion to their effort or their value to the company.

A fascinating paper in the December, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Shoham Choshen-Hillel and Ilan Yaniv explores another factor that influences judgments of fairness—who is in charge.

When psychologists talk about whether someone is in control of their situation, they talk about agency.  A person with high agency controls their destiny.  A person with low agency is at the mercy of others for their situation.

The research in this paper demonstrates that when people have a low degree of control over their situation, they tend to favor equal divisions of resources.  When they have a high degree of control, they tend to favor options that give the best possible outcome for everyone concerned, even if they don’t benefit as much as others do.

In one study, they had participants perform a task in which they had to estimate the prices of a variety of products.  It took about 10 minutes to complete the task, at which point the participants were paid about $3 for their time.  (The study was done in Israel, so participants actually received 10 Israeli shekels.) 

Participants were then told that another person was also going to do the same task.  Those in the low agency version of the study were then asked whether they would be more satisfied if the other participant received the same amount of money for completing the task (10 shekels) or more money for completing the task (20 shekels).  People were about evenly split between the two options.  That is, about half the people wanted the other person to get the same amount of money as they did, while the other half would be happiest if the other person actually got paid more than they did.

Participants in the high agency version of the study were told that they could decide whether the other person doing the task would get the same amount of money (10 shekels) or more (20 shekels).  In this case, over 80% of the people in the study said that the other person should get more.  That is, when people had control, they wanted the outcome that would give the most combined benefit.

In another version of the study, the researchers found that high agency even led people to pick options that gave the greatest combined benefit when it would leave them with a lower payment overall.  In this study, one option was that the participant would get 11 shekels, while the other person would get 10.  The second option was that the participant would get 10 shekels (less money), but the other person would get 20. 

Participants who had no control over this situation generally preferred the option where they got slightly more money than the other person.  Those who could control the payment, though, generally preferred the option where they got less money, but the pair got more money overall.

This is a fascinating finding.  It suggests that when a group wants to maximize its overall gain, it is important to give everyone some control over how resources are allocated.  In this case, people will be most likely to accept an outcome that benefits the group most, even if they themselves don’t get as much of the pie as others do.

Of course, it will be important to see how well these findings extend to more real-world situations with higher stakes.  After all, in these studies people were being paid between $3 and $6.  People might feel differently if the sums of money were larger.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Motivation and procrastination—Just keep swimming

When I was growing up, the US Army had recruiting commercials that showed active soldiers going through a series of difficult physical activities along with the ad tag line, “We do more before 9am than most people do all day.”  And if you know anyone who is a habitual procrastinator, that phrase could easily become “…than some people do in a whole month.”

As a college professor, I see differences among students in their amount of procrastination all the time.  Some students come to my office hours all semester asking questions and keeping up with all of the reading.  Others start big projects a few days before they are due only to discover that the project requires more time than they have left to complete it.

There are many causes for procrastination, of course.  An interesting paper in the December, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Antonio Pierro, Mauro Giacomantonio, Gennaro Pica, Arie Kruglanski, and Tory Higgins explored an important motivational factor.

In previous work, Kruglanski and Higgins have identified two distinction motivational modes that they call the locomotion and assessment orientations.  The locomotion mode is related to action.  When you are in that mode, you are driven to do things in the world.  The assessment mode is related to thinking about and evaluating aspects of your life.  When you are in that mode, you are focused on whether you are dong the right thing.

For example, a shopper in locomotion mode who is looking at the wall of blenders in a big box store will size up the assortment quickly and will grab one and move on.  A shopper in assessment mode will spend a long time comparing the various options before reaching a decision.

In a variety of studies, the authors used questionnaires to assess whether people are typically in a locomotor mode or an assessment mode.  Locomotor questions were items like “By the time I accomplish a task, I already have the next one in mind.”  Assessment questions were items like “I spend a great deal of time taking inventory of my positive and negative characteristics.” 

The authors assessed procrastination either using questionnaires about how often people think they procrastinate or by using actual tasks in which the researchers examined when people performed a task relative to a deadline.  In all six of the reported studies, the more that people reported having a locomotor orientation, the less they procrastinated.  The more that people reported having an assessment orientation, the more they procrastinated.

In a few studies, the authors also examined potential reasons for procrastination.  They found that the stronger people’s locomotor motivation, the less distracted they were by other tasks that might get in the way of completing a goal task.  So, the locomotor orientation is really associated with getting things done.

The assessment orientation is related to perfectionism.  The stronger people’s assessment motivation, the more likely they were to be concerned that they might have made a mistake.  That concern could lead people to avoid completing a task. 

The studies in this paper were focused on differences between people in whether they generally have a locomotor or an assessment orientation. 

It is also possible to create situations that affect these orientations.  Time pressure, for example, often shifts people into a locomotor mode, which is why students with a tendency to procrastinate often start projects as a deadline looms. 

Highlighting the way that projects will be evaluated can shift people into an assessment mode.  That mode can create anxiety.  Researchers have used instructions that people’s performance will be watched and evaluated by experts as a way of inducing stress. 

Future research should explore whether situations that bias people toward a locomotor or assessment mode can influence procrastination.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

He has a great personality: Not every positive description is positive

The statement, “(S)he has a great personality,” has become a cliché for saying that someone is unattractive.  How does this happen?  After all, if someone has a great personality, that is a good thing. 

The negative impression comes from our ability to say things indirectly.  The philosopher H. Paul Grice described this most clearly.  He argued that we expect people to say things that are clear, truthful, and relevant.  The idea of relevance is particularly important.  Consider a woman who has just been set up on a blind date.  She asks her friend to describe the date.  If all she gets back is, “he has a nice personality,” then she may begin to wonder why her friend didn’t say anything about the way he looked.  This omission is taken as evidence that he must not be very attractive.

So, it is possible to give someone a negative impression of a person by saying something positive about them.  Does this really work?

This question was addressed in a paper by Nicolas Kervyn, Hilary Bergsieker, and Susan Fiske in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  They had students imagine that they were with a group of two other friends who were considering whether to have a new person join their group.  The group was either a work group or a group planning a vacation together.  In a work setting, it is important that someone be conscientious and capable.  In a social setting like a vacation, it is important that someone be warm and fun to be around.

In this scenario, participants were told that they had missed a previous meeting with the new person, and their friends were giving them a new description.

In a control condition, participants were told only that the new person made a good overall impression.  In the ‘competent’ condition, participants were told that the new person seemed smart, hard-working, and competent.  In the ‘warm’ condition, participants were told that the new person seemed nice, sociable, and outgoing.

The results showed that people were sensitive to both what was said about the new person as well as what was not said.  When people were evaluating someone to join their work group, their evaluation was much higher for the competent person than for the warm person (with the control condition coming out in between).  When people were evaluating someone to join their vacation, their evaluation of the warm person was much higher than their evaluation of the competent person (with the control condition again being in between). 

These impressions come out in the descriptions people later give of the new people they are evaluating.  In one study, after making all these ratings, participants described the new person.  When they were evaluating a new person for a work group and heard that they were warm, their descriptions conveyed that the person was probably not a hard worker.  Similarly, when they evaluated a new person for a vacation and heard that they were a hard worker, their descriptions conveyed that the person was probably not that nice to be around.

Overall, then, we are quite sensitive to both what people tell us directly in their words as well as what they say to us indirectly through what they fail to say.  It is particularly interesting that these impressions may become an explicit part of the way we think about a new person, even though they were never stated explicitly.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The value of a nap during skill learning

There are lots of skills that we pick up over the years.  Driving requires a complex coordination of hands and feet to control a car.  Playing a musical instrument involves learning many different movements to produce beautiful sounds. 

When we first learn these skills, we often spend a lot of time practicing.  I play the saxophone, and when I’m learning something new, I will repeat a pattern many times on the horn.  As I go over that pattern, it gets a little better.

As it turns out, though, after I’m done practicing, I’m not done learning.  My skill will actually continue to improve once I go to sleep.  For example, Sara Mednick and William Alaynick review a number of findings from the sleep literature in a 2010 review paper in the Journal of Experimental Clinical Medicine.  They point to findings showing that after people practice tapping a rhythmic pattern, they get a little better at it.  After they sleep for the night and wake up, their performance on that pattern is even better than it was before they slept.  Not only that, but even a nap can help.  Studies show that if you nap for an hour or so, you’ll also improve on a skill you’re learning.

What’s going on here?

There are five stages of sleep that are distinguished by brain activity and chemical changes in the brain.  The first stage lasts a couple of minutes when you first fall asleep.  The second stage of sleep (cleverly called Stage 2 sleep) is the kind of sleep that occupies about 60% of your night.  Stages 3 and 4 of sleep are sometimes called Slow Wave Sleep because of a characteristic pattern of electrical activity that they create.  The last stage is REM sleep, which is named for the rapid eye movements people make in that stage.  A number of studies demonstrate that skill learning is related to getting Stage 2 sleep. 

Finally, an interesting paper by Ursula Debarnot, Eleonora Castellani, Gaetano Valenza, Laura Sebastiani, and Aymeric Guillot in the December, 2011 issue of Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience brings all of this together along with an interesting practice procedure.  In their study, participants (none of whom were musicians) first practiced some simple tapping patterns a couple of times.  Then, rather than practicing tapping, they just practiced mentally by thinking about tapping the pattern rather than doing it for real.  There is some evidence suggesting that this mental practice can improve your performance on a real skill.

After that, some people stayed awake while others took a nap.  Those who took a nap slept for either 10 minutes or an hour. 

People did get better at the skill by practicing mentally.  As with other skills, taking a nap increased the amount of improvement.  The fascinating ting about this study was that even a 10-minute nap helped to improve tapping performance.

Most of us spend about a third of our lives asleep.  That means that by the time you are 30 years old, you have slept for about 10 years.  It is nice to know that this sleep is having a positive influence on your ability to learn.