Thursday, September 26, 2013

What makes us think rituals work?

One of the biggest difficulties that we have to deal with is that most of the things that happen to us are utterly out of our control.  Cultures have developed many strategies for dealing with this fact.  One of the most fascinating of these strategies is the creation of rituals.

Obviously, religions have lots of rituals that involve sequences of actions and objects.  Enter a Catholic church, for example, and there are stations for people to pray and light candles.  Handwritten notes may also be included. 

Rituals are not limited to religions, though.  Baseball players have actions they go through to prepare for an at-bat.  Starting in the on-deck circle, some players may repeat the same actions, swinging a weighted bat in a particular pattern and stretching in the same way.  As they enter the batter’s box, they may continue with a pattern of clearing dirt and practice swings.  All of these patterns are aimed to increase hitting success.

Do people have intuitions about what makes a ritual effective?

This question was addressed in a fascinating paper by Cristine Legare and Andre Souza published in Cognition in 2012.  They started by exploring a particular cultural ritual in Brazil called a simpatia.  Simpatias are formulas that people use to help them solve problems ranging from illnesses to bad luck.  For example, a formula might say

In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose.  After that, set fire to the leaves.  Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag.  Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad.  Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row.

These ritual formulas are common in Brazil, though (as in most cultural tools) not everyone believes in them.  In one study, Legare and Souza made up simpatias that varied in a nine different ways such as the number of steps that had to be carried out, whether people had to eat something as a part of it.  Brazilians were read versions of these simpatias and were asked how effective they thought they would be. 

Three aspects of the simpatias seemed to have the biggest influence on people’s beliefs about whether they worked.  First, formulas with more steps were thought to be more effective than those with fewer steps.  Formulas that required steps to be repeated were more effective than those that required no repetition.  Finally, formulas that had to be performed at a specific time (such as during the full moon) were thought to be more effective than those that could be performed at any time.  

Brazilians are not taught specifically about the construction of simpatias, but it is possible that these beliefs reflect something specific about Brazilian culture.  To test this possibility, Legare and Souza also tested a group of college students in the United States.  Because the simpatias were unfamiliar to these students, overall they did not think that they would be very effective.  However, like the Brazilians, the Americans thought that having repetitions and having many steps in the procedure would make the simpatias more effective than having no repetitions and few steps.  Specificity of the time of day did not affect judgments of American students significantly.  

What is going on here?

People seem to have some causal beliefs about the way that rituals work.  Some amount of effort seems to be required to make rituals effective.  More steps and repetition are both factors that increase effort.  Perhaps that effort signals a degree of commitment. 

It is less clear why time specificity would matter, though many religions require that specific prayers be said at particular times of the day or even specific times of the year.  Time specificity also signals a particular type of commitment, because the person performing the ritual has to wait for the right time.

These findings are interesting, though they raise a host of new questions.  For example, what role to rituals play in helping people to reduce anxiety about things that cannot be controlled?  Do people performing rituals end up behaving in ways that may bring about the desired outcomes? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The downside of planning

For most of us, life is just too busy.  It is hard to do everything you want and need to do in a day.  If you’re lucky, then your failures are not that systematic.  One day, you get to the gym, but don’t get to relax with a book.  Another day, you get the shopping done, but don’t clean up the kitchen.  Those kinds of goal failures are fine.  They just reflect that you have to make choices about what you are going to accomplish.

The real problem comes when your goal failures are systematic.  If you consistently fail to go to the gym, then you don’t accomplish the long-term goal of staying in shape. 

Because everyone has some set of goals that they find difficult to achieve, there has been a lot of research focusing on how to get better at accomplishing the most difficult goals.  One of the most effective techniques for helping you to achieve your goals is the implementation intention, which emerged out of research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues. 

An implementation intention is a specific plan to achieve a goal.  The idea is that many of your goals are defined too abstractly to be able to carry them out.  “Going to the gym,” for example, is a very general statement.  When you create an implementation intention, though, you create specific steps to achieve the goal and to avoid obstacles.  You might say that you are going to go to the gym on Tuesdays and Fridays at 4pm.  You think through specific obstacles like what you will do if a meeting comes up during your gym time or if you are just feeling too tired to go.  These implementation intentions are effective, because they help you to recognize when and where you will take actions that allow you to succeed.

An interesting paper from 2012 by Amy Dalton and Stephen Spiller in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that there are limits to the effectiveness of implementation intentions.  In particular, implementation intentions get less effective as the number of goals you are trying to achieve goes up.

In one study, the authors asked people to commit to either one new goal (like reading a book for pleasure, calling a friend, or eating a healthy meal each day) or six new goals.  They either committed themselves to the goal, or they formed a specific implementation intention.  Then, for five days, the researchers asked people which goals they fulfilled.  They also asked people for their commitment to the goals. At the end, they asked people how difficult they thought it was to achieve these goals.

When people were focused on one goal, the implementation intention helped people to achieve their goal.  They were much more likely to pursue the goal when they formed an implementation intention than when they just committed to the goal.  When they were focused on six goals, though, they actually were slightly less likely to achieve their goals when they formed an implementation intention than when they did not. 

This finding reflected that when there was only one goal, people were more committed to that goal and thought it would be less difficult to achieve the goal when they formed an implementation intention than when they did not.  When there were six goals, though, the implementation intention made people feel that satisfying the goals would be difficult to achieve, and so the plans actually decreased people’s commitment to the goals. 

The main message of this work is that you have to be careful not to overwhelm yourself with the details when working toward a difficult goal.  Implementation intentions have both a positive and a negative part.  On the positive side, they help you to figure out exactly how to add goal-related activities to your life.  On the negative side, they can also make it clear how difficult it is to achieve the goal. 

If you find yourself overwhelmed by the details, then try to scale back your expectations.  Even small steps toward a goal are better than no steps at all.  For example, if you cannot get to the gym every day, try to get there at least once a week.  After you add these new behaviors to your routines, you may find ways to increase your commitment to that goal later.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why empathy makes you more helpful

Charities often tug at your heartstrings when looking for donations.  Each year at the Austin City Limits music festival, for example, Austin Pets Alive! a local no-kill dog shelter sets up on the path that people walk toward the entrance to Zilker Park.  They bring several cute dogs and encourage people to come and pet the dogs.  They also ask for donations to help support the shelter’s activities.  After playing for a minute with these cute and loving creatures, it is almost impossible to keep yourself from reaching into your wallet to support the group.

What is going on here?

There is a lot of research suggesting that empathy increases people’s desire to help others.  Empathy is the ability to share other people’s emotion. The better able you are to feel what someone else is feeling, the more likely you are to want to help them when they are in a difficult situation.  This ability also extends to animals.  We are able to project feelings onto animals like dogs, and that increases our need to help them.

But, what is it about empathy that promotes the need to help?

An interesting paper by Louisa Pavey, Tobias Greitemeyer, and Paul Sparks in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored this question.  They suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to be helpful.

A theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci suggests that people engage in behaviors for one of two broad reasons.  Sometimes, people have internal or intrinsic motivation.  They simply find these behaviors desirable.  Sometimes people engage in a behavior because it is expected of them or they will be punished if they do not perform the behavior.  In this case, they are externally or extrinsically motivated.

Pavey, Greitemeyer, and Sparks suggest that empathy increases people’s intrinsic motivation to want to help, and that pushes them to act.  They tested this proposal in two ways.

In one study, they measured people’s general level of empathy using a questionnaire.  They also asked a series of questions about why they might help other people.  Some of these questions focused on intrinsic motivations (I help people because I want to).  Other questions focused on extrinsic motivations (I help people because it is expected of me).  They asked people how likely they were to engage in a series of helping behaviors like donating money to charity and giving time to the community in the next two weeks.  After two weeks, they asked how much people actually engaged in these behaviors.

As you might expect, people who had high scores on the empathy scale were more likely to say they would help others and to actually help others than people low on the empathy scale.  Other statistical analyses found that this difference was best explained because people who scored high on the empathy scale had a higher level of intrinsic motivation to help others than those who scored low on the empathy scale.  Empathy was not highly related to extrinsic motivation to be helpful.

Of interest, though, the researchers also found that it is possible to increase people’s level of empathy.  To do this, they had people read a story about a woman suffering from depression.  Some people were asked to focus on how that woman must be feeling.  Others were asked to focus on the facts and details of her life.  The people who focused on her feelings felt more empathy than those who focused on the facts.  Those with higher empathy also expressed more intrinsic motivation to be helpful and rated themselves as more likely to provide help to this woman. 

There are two interesting aspects of this research.  First, empathy seems to influence behavior by increasing people’s desire to be helpful.  Second, even people who are not generally high in empathy can be put in situations that make them more sensitive to other people’s feelings. That is why the animal shelter was successful.  They helped people to feel empathy for the animals in their care, and that led to a desire to be helpful.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why we create moral issues.

In 2012, when Barack Obama announced that he was supporting same-sex marriage, he cast the discussion in moral terms.  The focus of his remarks was on fairness.  He pointed out, for example, that there are gay men and women serving in the military who are not free to marry the people they love.  That is unfair.

The concept of fairness is a moral value.  Why are discussions of issues like gay marriage turned into moral issues?  There are many ways that this discussion could have been frame.  For example, the President could have focused on the economic benefits for couples to have the option to marry.

One reason by President Obama framed his discussion as a moral issue is that opposition to gay marriage has also been cast in moral terms.  Opponents of gay marriage often have strong religious views that make homosexual behavior broadly and gay marriage in particular a moral issue.  So, Obama was simply fighting one moral value with another.

But that doesn’t explain why everyone feels that an issue like gay marriage should be discussed in moral terms.

An interesting paper by Daniel Effron and Dale Miller in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores this issue.  They point out that the psychological value of creating a moral issue is that it gives people a legitimate reason to have an opinion on an issue.

Most of the time, we give people the right to weigh in on an issue when it affects them directly.  If someone threw garbage all over my lawn, it would make sense if I was angry about it in the morning, because my house was affected directly.  It would be strange, though, if a stranger walking through the neighborhood got angry about it.  After all, she is not affected by the mess.  If, however, she turns it into a moral issue, then we, as a community, give her the right to have an opinion about what happened. 

In one study, Effron and Miller asked people whether they thought abortion rights was a moral issue.  A few weeks later, they asked the same people to read about a man or a woman who advocated strongly in favor of a pro-choice position on abortion rights and donated money to a pro-choice group.  They were asked whether they were skeptical, suspicious and surprised about this person’s support of abortion rights.  Participants were unsurprised that a woman would be pro-choice.  People who thought that abortion is not really a moral issue were skeptical of men who took strong stances on abortion, while those who thought it was a moral issue at heart were not at all skeptical or surprised by a man who took a strong stance.  That is, when an issue is seen in moral terms, it gives people the right to have an opinion, even if the issue may not affect them personally.

In another study, the researchers looked at the rights of victims of a minor crime.  They were told about two people whose houses were damaged by vandals.  One house sustained $1,000 worth of damage, while the other sustained only $80 worth of damage.  In this case, people judged that the person whose house was more badly damaged had more right to be outraged at what had happened.  However, other people were told the same story, but in this case, the smaller amount of damage consisted of graffiti that was morally offensive to the homeowner.  Once the crime took on this moral dimension, people judged that the person who had sustained less damage was more entitled to be angry.

Putting all of this together, the moral dimension is used to help people participate in community-wide issues.  Generally speaking, we expect people to be involved only in issues that have direct relevance to their lives.  However, our society cannot function effectively if people are only self-interested.  As a result, we turn issues into moral issues to allow us to have discussions that may affect the lives and behavior of other people around us.

Monday, September 9, 2013

How can we get you to save for retirement?

Perhaps the biggest source of human misery is the tradeoff between short-term and long-term goals.  We are wired to do what seems best to us right now, even if those actions conflict with what is best for us in the long-term.  That is why we eat that piece of cake instead of dieting.  It is also why we spend our money now rather than saving for retirement.

In order to protect our future self from our current self, we have created retirement accounts where we put some amount of our money now so that we’ll have enough to live on when we get older.  In many companies, employees are required to put a certain amount of money away for the future, and then they have the option to save even more.

Often, people do not put away enough money for their retirement.  There are lots of reasons for this.  For one, there are lots of expenses in the present that are important, and so it is just hard to find enough money to save for the future.   But even when it is possible to save for the future, your ‘old’ self feels distant from who you are now.  It is hard to deny your current self to benefit the person you will be after you retire.

So, what can you do to help yourself save enough for retirement?

This question was explored by Christopher Bryan and Hal Hershfield in a paper in the August, 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 

They point out that there are two distinct ways to try to convince people to save for their future.  One is to remind people that it is in their own best interest to save money for the future.  That is, people must be reminded that the money they save now will be money they get to use later. 

The second is to appeal to people’s sense of social responsibility.  People may have a hard time visualizing their future self, but they certainly know that self is someone close to them.  And most people spend money on their close relatives in addition to themselves.  So, appealing to people’s responsibility for their future self may be an effective way to get them to save for the future.

To test this idea, employees at a university were given one of two persuasive messages about retirement savings.  One message focused on how retirement savings were in the person’s best interest.  The other message focused on how saving for retirement was a responsibility to that person’s future self.  The researchers also gathered information about how socially close people felt to their future self.  Finally, the researchers gathered information from the university benefits office about how much money people chose to save for retirement after seeing the messages.

The message about self-interest had no influence on people’s behavior.  That is, reminding people that it was in their self-interest to save for retirement did not spur additional savings.  The message about responsibility for the future self did affect some people, though.  In particular, people who felt socially close to their future self were much more likely to save additional money for retirement after being exposed to the message about responsibility.  Those people who did not feel socially close to their future self were not much more likely to save for retirement.

The results of this study suggest that if you want to help protect your long-term self from your short-term self, there are two things you need to do.  First, spend some time thinking about who you are going to be as you get older.  This exercise will help you to feel closer to the person you will be in the future.  Second, remember that you have a responsibility to treat your future self as you would any member of your family.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Creativity, persistence and working memory

On Sunday nights, I play in the horn section of a blues band.  Each week, musicians come from all over town to play with us.  So, over the course of the night, I get many opportunities to hear people play solos on a variety of instruments.  And sometimes, I am just blown away by the quality and creativity of people’s solos. 

One thing that is clear is that the great musicians who play with us have spent a lot of time honing their talents.  A fascinating paper by Carsten De Dreu, Bernard Nijstad, Matthijs Baas, Inge Wolsink, and Marieke Roskes in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people’s working memory capacity may also play a role in the creativity on display.

Working memory capacity is the amount of information that people can hold in mind at once.  All of us have a relatively limited amount of information we can think about at any one time, but there are differences between people in the size of working memory.  This capacity can be measured with tests like the OSPAN, in which people solve math problems while trying to hold words in mind at the same time.  The more words you can remember on this test, the larger your working memory capacity.

In one study, the researchers actually explored the creativity of improvisations played by cellists with no formal training in improvisation.  At the start of the study, they measured everyone’s working memory capacity.  Then, participants were given the chance to perform three 3-minute improvisations based on a theme (such as Winter or Spring).  Each improvisation had a different theme.  The improvisations were recorded in a studio, and then professional musicians rated them for their originality and creativity.  The creativity of the first improvisations people performed was about the same regardless of their working memory capacity.  However, the people with high working memory capacity played better improvisations as they progressed through the study, while those with low working memory capacity played worse improvisations.  So, by the end of the study, the people with higher working memory capacity were playing significantly more creative improvisations than those with low working memory capacity.

In another study, participants whose working memory capacity was measured were given a fairly unconstrained brainstorming task in which they were supposed to generate as may ideas as they could.  These ideas were rated for their originality and their rarity.  Of interest, the researchers explored flexibility and persistence as well.  Flexibility was measured by the number of different categories that someone explored while brainstorming.  A flexible person might generate one idea about pollution and then another about education, and then a third about transportation.  Persistence was measured by how likely people were to stick with the same category and to produce lots of ideas from that category.  A persistent person might generate several ideas about education.

People with high working memory capacity generated more original and novel ideas than those with low working memory capacity.  People with high working memory capacity were also more persistent than those with low working memory capacity.  That is, they generated lots of ideas within a category.  Other statistical analyses suggest that this difference in persistence explains the difference in the originality of people’s ideas.

What does all of this mean?

In order to be creative, it is important to get beyond familiar ideas.  Chances are, when you start thinking about something, whether it is a musical solo or an idea to revolutionize our education system, the first few things you come up with will be variations on ideas you have encountered in the past.  Only after you think through those more mundane ideas are you likely to start really generating something new.

It seems that when you have high working memory capacity, you are better able to pull out both the initial ideas that are not deeply original as well as other more novel ideas. 

There is still much research to be done to investigate this further.  For example, the studies I just described were both correlational.  That is, the researchers measured people’s working memory capacity and then related that to their performance on tasks of creativity.  They did manipulate working memory in one study by having a group of people do a task called the Remote Associates Task (RAT) while trying to remember some numbers at the same time.  The RAT is often used as a measure of creativity.  It would be useful to see more results like this with a wider range of creativity tasks and ways of affecting people’s working memory capacity before drawing stronger conclusions.