Thursday, July 18, 2013

White lies affect your behavior

Our ethical principles often come into conflict.  On the one hand, we believe that honesty is the best policy.  On the other hand, we also believe that we should try to be nice to other people as often as possible.  Consider, then, the case of a bad meal at a restaurant.  Perhaps the restaurant is crowded, and your food arrives late.  To top it off, the dish has cooled off.  Invariably in those situations you are in a hurry, and so you start eating your meal.  After a few minutes the server comes by and asks you how you’re doing. 
In that situation, you may choose to say honestly that you are disappointed that the food came out cold.  In many cases, though, you may opt out of telling the truth and instead tell the server that everything is fine.  These little untruths are often called “white lies,” because they seem to cause little harm and often help social situations go more smoothly.
Do these white lies have any influence on your later behavior?
This question was explored in a set of studies by Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv in the April, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  These researchers argued that in many cases, white lies have little effect on the teller later.  However, in situations in which the policy of being honest is highlighted, liars often do nice things for the person they lied to. 
In one study, students at a university went to a research lab.  Participants then received lists of words that could be used to form sentences.  For example, a participant might get the words him before cat they met.  These words can be used to form the sentence “They met him before.”  For some participants, the words included many that were related to the concept of honesty.  For other participants, no honesty-related words were used.  This procedure is known to be effective at priming people to think about a concept without their awareness.
Next, the research assistant running the study left the room saying that she had run out of experiment packets and needed to make some copies.  The research assistant was then gone from the room for 12 minutes, which got the research participants annoyed.  Upon returning to the lab, the research assistant asked half of the participants how they were doing.  People’s general response to this question is, “Fine.”  In this case, of course, the participant was not fine, and so this response was a white lie.
At the end of the study, participants were given the chance to do one of two additional studies.  The experimenter told the participants that one of the piles had a study that she was running for her own research, while a second pile had a different person’s research study in it.  (In actuality, both piles had the same packets in it.)  In that packet, participants were told that as part of their participation in the study, they were entered into a drawing to win $100.  They were asked to state how much of that $100 they would be willing to donate to the experimenter to help her for her research in the event that they won the raffle.
Those participants who were not given the chance to tell a white lie (regardless of whether they were primed to think about honesty) selected the experimenter’s study about 40% of the time, and they were willing to donate about $35 to the experimenter if they won the raffle. 
For those participants who were given the chance to lie, the results were quite different depending on whether they were primed to think about honesty.  Those who were not primed to think about honesty acted like those people who did not lie.  Those people who did think about honesty, though, acted much more favorably toward the experimenter.  They selected her study 88% of the time, and were willing to donate an average of $53 to her research.  That means that these participants were actually willing to give away more money than they would keep for themselves in order to make up for having told a lie.
These findings suggest that white lies aren’t simply a form of social grease that we apply to make our social interactions go more smoothly.  We really do recognize them as being lies.  As a result, we need to be quite careful about how these lies affect our future behavior toward the people we have lied to.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Size of food orders is affected by the need for status

The amount of food you eat is affected by the size of the portion you get.  At restaurants, for example, people generally eat what is on their plate.  So, the more food they are given, the more that they will eat.   This is a particular problem, because obesity rates are rising worldwide.  We need to find ways to help people eat less food. Portion size seems like a great place to start.

There are lots of ways to influence portion size.  At home and at buffet lines, it is helpful to use small plates.  You tend to put enough food on a plate to fill it, so using a smaller plate leads to smaller portions. 

In addition, restaurants often offer portions of different sizes.  At high-end restaurants, for example, steak-eaters may choose the size of the steak they order.  At fast-food restaurants, there are often specific sizes of drinks and fries that are available.

An interesting study by David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the size of a portion that someone orders can be influenced by their need to enhance their status.  The idea is that in many situations, bigger portions are seen as reflecting higher status than smaller portions.  When people are feeling powerless, they often want to make themselves feel better by enhancing their status.  Ordering a larger portion is one way to do that.

The researchers started by confirming that people generally viewed people who were eating larger portions as having higher status than those eating smaller portions.  Next, they looked at the relationship between feeling powerless and portion size. 

In one study, participants were residents of an apartment building.  The researchers set up tables in three different lobbies of the building.  Each table was set up to look like it was advertising a new bagel restaurant in town that was giving out free samples.  One table had a sign saying, “We all feel powerless in the morning, treat yourself to free bagels.”  One table had a sign saying, “We all feel powerful in the morning, treat yourself to free bagels.”  A third (control) table said “It’s morning, treat yourself to free bagels.” 

On the tables were two bowls with bagel pieces.  In one bowl, the bagel pieces were cut in small cubes, and in the other, the bagel pieces were cut into large cubes.  People coming to the table were told to take as many bagel pieces as they wanted, but they had to eat them at the table.  The people who were at the ‘powerless’ table were more likely to take large bagel pieces than those at the other tables.  As a result, they ate more.  On average, people at the ‘powerless’ table consumed about 100 calories worth of bagels, while those at the other two tables consumed about 70 calories worth of bagels.

Two other experiments in this series extended the results.  One study showed that people were most likely to order large portions when they felt powerless and were eating in a social situation.  If they felt powerless and were eating alone, then they did not order large portions.  This finding suggests that people are selecting portions in part based on the status that those portions may give them.

Finally, the researchers created a situation in which smaller portions signal higher status.  In this case, they had participants in the lab read an article suggesting that thinner people are more likely to be successful in business than fatter people.  The experimenters manipulated the feeling of powerlessness by having people imagine either that they were an employee who had to do what their boss wanted them to do (a powerless position) or that they were a boss who could tell their employees what to do (a powerful position).  At the end of the study, participants were able to select from among different sizes of Toblerone candy bars.  In this study, participants who thought that being thinner conveyed higher status selected smaller candy bars when they felt powerless than when they felt powerful. 

Putting these findings together, then, it seems that in general people think that larger portions convey more status than smaller portions.  As a result, people may overeat in order to increase their status compared to other people.

If we ant to help people to eat less food, then there are a few things we can do.  First, these studies suggest that we can help people to see that being thin can also convey status.  In that case, the need to show status can actually get people to select smaller portions.  Second, people who are concerned about their portion sizes should focus on the aspects of their life in which they have control in order to minimize the need to show status through food.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Guilt and leadership

Are good leaders born or made?  To some degree, of course, that is a false dichotomy.  A person’s characteristics may predispose them to want to be a leader and even to have some potential to lead effectively, but there is still a lot of learning that has to be done to become a good leader.
That said, quite a bit of research has begun to explore the personality characteristics that give someone a head start toward being a good leader.
Personality psychologists have identified what they call the “Big Five” dimensions of personality.  Essentially, if you throw a large number of questions about behavior into a survey, there are five broad characteristics that emerge from people’s responses:  Openness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, and Extraversion. 
All of them are associated with leadership to some degree.  People who are open to experience, for example, tend to be better leaders than those who are not.  Perhaps obviously, people who are conscientious are also better leaders than those who are not so conscientious.  People who are emotionally stable are also more effective leaders than those who are not emotionally stable.  The other two traits have a more complex relationship with leadership.
Agreeableness is the degree to which a person gets along with others.  A moderate degree of agreeableness is good for leaders, because they have to have some talent at getting along with others.  However, leaders who are too agreeable will not tell others things that they do not want to hear.  So, high levels of agreeableness are not good for leadership.
Extraversion is the degree to which someone seeks out others and likes to have the spotlight shown on them.  Clearly leaders need to be comfortable interacting with others and bringing ideas from a work group to a broader audience.  At the same time, a leader who wants the spotlight too much can keep other group members from getting enough credit for their efforts.
Of course, there are lots of other characteristics that define people’s personality beyond these Big Five.  A paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn explored the influence of people’s proneness to feel guilty on their leadership ability.
These researchers distinguish between two related emotions—guilt and shame.  People experience guilt when they have a responsibility that they have failed to live up to.  The emotion is focused on the failure.  Shame also arises from a failure to live up to a responsibility, but it is self-focused.  People experience shame when they feel like they are a bad person because of their failure.
In one study, guilt and shame were measured using questionnaires in which people were asked to imagine that they had failed at some important task or responsibility.  They rated both the degree to which they would feel bad about what happened (guilt) as well as the degree to which they would feel bad about themselves (shame).  Participants also filled out a survey to assess the Big Five dimensions.
Several days later, participants came to the lab in groups and performed a series of group activities.  In one activity, for example, the group had to imagine that they were developing advertisements for new products.  After performing these group activities, participants rated the other group members for their leadership in the activities.
The best predictor of whether people would take a leadership role in this study was the degree to which people tend to feel guilt as a result of failures.  The tendency to experience guilt was a more powerful predictor than any of Big Five personality characteristics.  
Why does the tendency to feel guilt play such a significant role in leadership?  In another study, participants rated their tendency to experience guilt and shame as in the study just described.  In addition, they rated their sense of responsibility for other people.  The participants in this study were students in an MBA program.  The measure of leadership in this case came from evaluations done by the leadership center run by the business school where the participants were students. 
As in the study I just described, people’s tendency to feel guilt (rather than shame) predicted the independent ratings of how good a leader they were.  The tendency to feel guilt also predicted people’s sense of responsibility for others.  Statistical analyses suggest that guilt influenced the sense of responsibility for others, which in turn affected people’s success as leaders.
Of course, this research does not address the factors that make some people (and not others) feel guilty in the first place.  When these factors are better understood, it might be possible to teach other people these skills in order to increase their effectiveness in leadership roles.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Credit cards make you pay attention to benefits

Most people have had the experience that paying for something with a credit card seems less painful than paying for it with cash.  In addition to this common experience, a number of studies have demonstrated that people are generally more willing to part with their money when paying with credit cards than with cash.  They are also willing to pay more for a product when paying with a credit card than when paying with cash. 

There are many reasons for this difference.  For example, it is just harder to keep track of how much you are spending when you are just dealing with numbers on a credit card than when you have actual cash. 

A paper by Promothesh Chatterjee and Randall Rose in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests another reason.  People pay more attention to the benefits of a product when paying with credit cards than with cash, but they pay more attention to the costs associated with the product when paying with cash than with credit cards.

In one study, participants were first primed to think about credit cards or cash.  This priming was done by having people use a set of words to form sentences.  Some of those words were related either to credit cards (Visa) or to cash (ATM). 

Next, participants read about a digital camera.  They were given information about benefits of the camera (“It has a 12x optical zoom”) and costs (“Has a 2-year warranty that costs an additional $69.99.”).  They were asked how much they would be interested in paying to buy this camera.  Later, they saw descriptions of possible features of a camera and were asked to remember whether those were actually properties they saw in the description. 

Consistent with the previous research, people who were primed to think about credit cards were willing to pay more for the camera than people who were primed to think about cash.  In addition, the people who were primed to think about credit cards were more accurate at recognizing the benefits of a product than its costs.  In contrast, the people primed to think about cash were (somewhat) more accurate recognizing the costs than the benefits.  A second study found a similar pattern using a slightly different methodology. 

In a final study, participants had the chance to actually make choices.  Again, they were primed to think about cash or credit cards.  This time, though, they saw descriptions of two mp3 players.  One of them had better benefits than the other.  The second had fewer costs than the first.  People primed to think about credit cards selected the player with the better benefits about 75% of the time.  People primed to think about cash selected the player with the lower costs about 75% of the time.

Putting all of this together, then, the form of payment you use to make a purchase affects how you evaluate the items.  Credit cards lead you to focus on the benefits of a product.  Cash leads you to focus on the costs.

What should you do?

When making any large purchase, you should think about whether you would be just as willing to buy the product if you were paying cash as if you were paying with credit.  This can be particularly important for purchases like cars and electronics where salespeople like to add on expensive warranties.  In the context of spending thousands of dollars on a purchase, a few extra hundred dollars may not feel like very much.  It is worth thinking about all that you could do with those extra hundreds.  Thinking about paying with cash may help you to do that.