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.