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.