Monday, January 28, 2013

Learning and Liking

Over the last 20 years, a big trend in Psychology has been a focus on how the world helps you learn.  A hundred years ago the behaviorists (like B.F. Skinner) assumed that everything from your knowledge of skills like riding a bicycle to your knowledge about how to use language was learned.  By the 1950s, though, psychologists assumed that many things like language were so complex that they probably could not be learned completely from scratch.  Instead, linguists like Noam Chomsky suggested that a lot of the mechanisms for using language are built into the brain from birth. 

More recently, the pendulum of research has begun to swing back toward learning.  The idea is that the brain is able to pick up on information about how frequently you encounter things to learn.  Jenny Saffran, Richard Aslin, and their colleagues have demonstrated that babies learn a lot about the sounds of language that make up words by keeping track of the patterns of sounds that occur in sequence.  Tom Landauer and Susan Dumais found that you can learn a lot about what words have similar meanings by using the patterns of words that occur together in the same conversations.  Over time, you are much more likely to hear about doctors and nurses being talked about in the same conversation than to hear about doctors and lettuce.

One place where this kind of learning has an influence on your daily life is in affecting what you like.  People are wired to be uncomfortable with objects that are completely new.  Anything unfamiliar might not be safe, and so we are cautious on our first encounter. 

Quickly, though, we become much more comfortable with things that are not dangerous.  In the 1960s, psychologist Robert Zajonc (pronounced ZAY-ons) observed that after seeing something just once, people like it much better than they did when they had never seen it before.  You have probably noticed this with music.  The first time you hear a new song on the radio, you may or may not like it, but you enjoy it better the second time.  If the song plays often on the radio, you come to like it.  By the time you see that band in concert, the songs that get the biggest cheers are the ones that have been on the radio.  It isn’t that only the songs on the radio are good ones.  It is just that people like the songs they have heard before more than the ones that they have never heard.

So far, so good.  You use a lot of information about how often things happen in the world to make judgments about what you like.  And the things you like tend to be the things you buy.

Remember, though, that the brain evolved in an environment in which nature decided what you were going to see often.  Thousands of years ago, the people, animals, plants, and foods that you saw most often were the ones that were a part of your ecosystem.  The number of times that you came into contact with things reflected how often you were likely to see them.

The statistics of the modern world are quite strange.  Certainly, there are lots of things in your local neighborhood that become familiar because you see them all the time.  You recognize the neighbor’s car, a friend’s dog, or a building you pass on your way to work.

But, you have also lost control of your information environment.  In exchange for watching shows on television, listening to new music on the radio, and reading riveting blogs, you allow people to pay for the right to expose you to ads.  The most significant effect of advertising is to change what is familiar to you.  Products and services that you might never encounter in your neighborhood become familiar because they are being presented to you in ads. 

Now, you might think that you’re a savvy consumer.  You know the ads are out there, so you try not to pay too much attention to them.  You’d prefer to make your own choices.

And there’s the rub.

These learning mechanisms that use information about how often you see things work particularly effectively when you are not really paying attention.  Seeing a product in an ad gives your knowledge about that product a little boost of familiarity.  If you’re not really paying attention to the ad, though, then you don’t necessarily realize why that product feels so familiar.  When you see it later at the store, or a snack bar at the movies, that familiarity gets translated into liking that product and wanting it.

And there is a lot of research suggesting that ads are very effective at influencing what you want precisely because they make products feel more familiar.  A clever study by Melanie Dempsey and Andrew Mitchell in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2010 found that people who saw an ad for a new product would choose that product later, even if the features of that product were a little worse than the features of another product that was unfamiliar. 

So, what can you do? 

First, when you are making important choices you should slow down.  The effects of familiarity on what you like are strongest when you act quickly.  Familiarity still has an influence when you think for a long time, but at least you are giving yourself some time to consider other factors that might go into making a choice.

Second, be more deliberate about who you allow to feed information to you.  For example, many websites, computer programs, and smart phone apps have both paid and ad-supported versions.  Ask yourself whether it is worth a small amount of money to seize control of your own information environment.  The more that you cede control of that environment to others, the more that you are allowing the things you like to be sold to the highest bidder.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Be more creative by thinking about others

We value creativity, and are often justifiably proud of our most creative acts.  Solving a difficult problem at work is a major achievement.  Writing a song or creating a novel work of art is an amazing feat.   If you wander the aisles of your local bookstore, you find lots of books that promise to unleash your inner creative genius.
So, when a research finding comes along that suggests an easy way to improve your creativity, you should sit up and listen.
A paper by Evan Polman and Kyle Emich in the April, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides just this kind of straightforward demonstration.
One of the factors that often prevents people from doing something really creative is their existing knowledge.  If you are writing a song, it is hard to come up with something that is very different from what other people have written, because you are reminded of melodies you have heard before.  If you are solving a problem at work, there is a tendency to focus on solutions that people have used in the past to solve similar problems.
So, how do you break away from the influence of the past?
Polman and Emich make use of construal level theory.  This theory, developed by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman, and their colleagues suggests that we think about things that are near to us in space or time in specific terms, but we think about things that are far from us in space or time in more abstract terms.  For example, when thinking about a trip you might take to Paris next summer, you might focus on how much fun it would be or how great it would be to sit in a cafĂ© and watch the world go by.  When thinking about a trip to Paris you are going to take next week, though, you focus on what you are going to wear, how you are going to exchange money, and what you will do when you encounter Parisians who speak no English.
Polman and Emich reason that if you are trying to think creatively, then generating some distance between you and the problem you are solving might enhance your creativity.  Indeed, some research by Jens Forster, Ron Friedman, and Nira Liberman in a 2004 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests this might be true.
To create a sense of psychological distance, Polman and Emich had people perform a variety of tasks that tap creativity.  They either performed these tasks while thinking about themselves or when thinking about someone else.
In one study, people were asked to draw aliens.  Tom Ward has done research on creativity, and has shown that most people who draw aliens give them lots of properties that exist in animals on earth.  The aliens people draw often have two eyes and are symmetric so that they have similar limbs on each side of their bodies.  That is, most people do not draw creative aliens.  They are stuck using their knowledge of animals, even when they are trying to do something really novel.
In one of Polman and Emich’s studies, people were asked to draw an alien for a story they would write later, or they were asked to draw an alien for a story that would be written by someone else.  A group of independent raters then looked to see how many properties the aliens had that are not typical of animals on earth.  The people who drew aliens for themselves used many fewer novel properties than the people who drew aliens for someone else to use.  That is, people were less creative when drawing for themselves than when drawing for someone else.
In another study, people were asked to solve an insight problem.  The problem involves a prisoner stuck in a tall tower.  The prisoner finds a rope that is half as long as it needs to be to climb out of the tower and escape.  The prisoner divides the rope in half and ties the two parts together and escapes.  How does he do this? 
Half of the people were given this problem and were told to imagine that they were the prisoner.  The other half were told to imagine that someone else was the prisoner.  About 2/3 of the people who solved the problem for someone else got the right answer, while only about 1/2 of the people who solved the problem for themselves got it right.  Again, thinking for someone else made people more creative.
By the way, the right answer here is to divide the rope lengthwise, and then tie the ends together and climb to safety.
These results suggest a simple way of helping yourself to be more creative.  When you are in a situation where you need to escape the curse of your own specific knowledge, pretend that you are being creative on behalf of someone else.  That will help you think about the problem more abstractly and avoid just repeating the solutions you already know about.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dealing with negative events

As the saying goes, “Into each life, a little rain must fall.”  That is, you can’t go through life without having anything negative happening.
Let’s take this literally for a second.  Presumably, if you had outdoor plans, then a real rainstorm is a negative event.  Of course, you have a choice when faced with rain about how to keep it from making you feel too bad.  In general, there are two ways to deal with a negative event like rain.  
One possibility is to rethink the event to find the silver lining.  This kind of reappraisal turns what seems to be a negative into a positive (or at least something less negative).  In the case of a storm, you could focus on the benefits that the rain will bring to plants, flowers, and the environment.
A second possibility is to disengage from the situation. By focusing your attention elsewhere, you dull the negative impact of the event on yourself.  If the rainstorm disrupted an important life event, then you might have difficulty seeing the positive.  In that case, you might just try to ignore the negative event.
The way I have set up this discussion suggests that people use both strategies, but they engage them in different situations.  When an event is a little negative, then you may be more likely to reappraise the situation than to disengage from it.  When it is highly negative, though, you may be more likely to disengage than to reappraise.
A paper in the November, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Gal Sheppes, Susanne Scheibe, Gaurav Suri, and James Gross explored this question.  In one study, participants were taught labels for both strategies while viewing a set of 8 pictures depicting negative events.  On half they were told to reappraise the pictures by finding another way to interpret what is happening while on half they were told to disengage by focusing on something else rather than event shown in the picture.  Participants were able to use these strategies easily, suggesting that they were already familiar with these modes of thinking about negative events.
After that, participants saw an additional set of 30 pictures showing negative scenes.  Some were only slightly negative, like a woman looking sad.  Others were highly negative, like a frightened woman bleeding from the face.  After seeing the picture briefly, participants had to decide whether they were going to reappraise the picture or disengage from it by pressing a button.  Then, they viewed the picture for another 5 seconds.  (In one study, participants talked about what they were thinking to ensure that they were really following the strategy they selected.)
The data came out as expected.  When faced with a minor negative event, people preferred to reappraise the situation than to disengage from it.  When faced with a major negative event, people preferred to disengage from the situation than to reappraise it. 
Although this choice of strategy may help to protect a person from negative mood, it does have a consequence.  Participants were shown the pictures afterward in a memory test.  People were much better able to remember the pictures when they reappraised them than when they disengaged from them.  So, if you are in a situation in which you need to remember a negative event and to learn from it, then you may need to focus on it rather than disengaging.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Let temptation help you out

There are two kinds of dieters in this world.  Those who see a piece of chocolate cake and see it as a monumental hurdle to be overcome, and those who see that same piece of chocolate cake and see it as a reminder that they are on a diet.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the ones who see the cake as a reminder of their diet are more successful at keeping to their diet than those who see it as a hurdle.

Research by Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, and Arie Kruglanski in a 2003 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology first reported this difference between people who were successful and unsuccessful at satisfying their long-term goals.  And it isn’t just dieting.  Students who are successful at getting their work done are reminded to study by temptations like parties and games, while those who are not successful at getting their work done are derailed by these temptations.

Unfortunately, that study alone doesn’t help us much.  It does tell us that people who are successful have this connection between the temptation and the goal that is important to them.  It doesn’t tell us how to learn that connection.

A paper in the October, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Floor Kroese, Marieke Adriaanse, Catharine Evers, and Denise DeRidder fills this gap. 

These researchers drew on Peter Gollwitzer’s idea of an implementation intention.  Gollwitzer’s work suggests that if people make specific plans to help them satisfy a goal, then those intentions increase their success at satisfying the goal.  A key part of an implementation intention is to foresee obstacles to the goal (like temptations).  So, perhaps an implementation intention increases the strength of the relationship between the temptation and the goal.

To test this possibility, women were recruited to participate in a study of healthy eating habits.  At the start of the study, the women were asked to name an unhealthy snack food that is tempting for them.  The researchers measured whether the women were interested in dieting, and also whether they were successful at dieting.  Half of the women were also asked to form a specific implementation intention in which they resolved that if they encountered their tempting food that they would stick to their diet.  This group repeated the implementation intention a few times.  The other half did not form a specific implementation intention.

A week later, all of the women were asked to report how well they did in resisting their tempting food in the previous week.

The group that did not form an implementation intention generally acted as you would expect.  Those people who reported being unsuccessful dieters generally gave in to their tempting food more often than those who reported being successful dieters.  

The group that did form an implementation intention formed a more solid connection between the temptation and their goal.  For this group, those people who are generally unsuccessful dieters actually gave in to their temptation somewhat less often than those who are generally successful dieters.  That is, the specific implementation intention improved people’s ability to resist their temptation by strengthening the connection between the temptation and the goal.

This study gives hope to us all.  If there is some temptation you are trying to resist, forming an implementation intention can help.  The idea is to think specifically about your temptation and about the situation that you are most likely to see it.  Then, there are two things you can do.  First, resolve to stick with your goal, even when you encounter the temptation.  Second, make a specific plan to help you stick with your goal.  In the case of a tempting piece of chocolate cake, for example, consider walking away from it.  If you are at a restaurant, and someone else is eating the cake, think about getting a cup of coffee or a glass of water instead.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Habits are incredibly powerful

We like to think we have a tremendous amount of control over our own behavior.  Yet, our habits have a huge influence on the way we act.  In general, we like to do what we did last time in the same context.  For example, I recently went to a conference for internet marketers.  The members of this group, who pride themselves on being at the leading edge of a digital revolution, are still strongly bound by habits.  When I gave my talk at this conference soon after re-entering the auditorium from lunch, almost everyone was sitting in the same seat as they had been before they left for lunch.  They mindlessly returned to the same seats.
Two interesting studies in a paper in the November, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by David Neal, Wendy Wood, Megju Wu, and David Kurlander demonstrate both the power of habits and a way to disrupt those habits.
In the first study, one group of participants was recruited before going to watch a movie at a theater.  They were told they were going to watch some movie trailers to give their opinions about them.  Participants were given water and popcorn and they watched 15 minutes of trailers.  After leaving the theater, the participants rated how much they liked the popcorn and how frequently they eat popcorn when going to the movies. 
The interesting manipulation in this study was that half of the participants got fresh popcorn that had just been popped, while the other half got stale popcorn that had been popped a week before the study.  After the study, those who got the fresh popcorn rated it as tastier than those who got the stale popcorn.
People who don’t have the habit to eat popcorn at the movies ate far more of it when it was fresh than when it was stale.  However, those who routinely eat popcorn at the movies at most of the popcorn regardless of whether it was fresh or stale. That is, having the habit to eat popcorn led people to eat, even when they were eating lousy pocorn.
The habit is specific, though.  Another group of participants was recruited to watch and rate music videos in a meeting room.  That group was also given popcorn that was either fresh or stale.  Everyone in this context ate less if they got stale popcorn than if they got fresh popcorn, even if they have the habit to eat popcorn at the movies. 
The last study in this paper demonstrated that you can interfere with people’s habits.  Habits are often specific in the actions that are used to carry them out.  Your habit in the car to press the accelerator and the brake is related to the movement of your leg. 
With popcorn, people often have the habit to eat with one hand or the other.  Most right-handers eat their popcorn with their right hand, for example.  In another study, people were recruited at a theater to watch movie trailers.  They were given a box of popcorn that had a handle they had to slide over one hand.  They were either told to slide it over their dominant hand or over their nondominant hand.  So, if you’re right-handed and you normally eat popcorn with your right hand, then if you are forced to hold the popcorn box with your right hand, your habitual way of eating is disrupted.
As with the previous study, people who had the habit to eat popcorn at the movies, and who could eat mindlessly with their dominant hands ate a lot of popcorn regardless of whether it was fresh or stale.  But, those who had to eat with their non-dominant hand ate less popcorn when they got stale popcorn than when they got fresh popcorn.
There are a few key things to take away from this study.
First, your habits are incredibly powerful.  When you are in an environment that supports a habit, you end up carrying out that habit without thinking.  If you are interested in habit change, then, you need to become aware of your environment to help stop yourself from behaving mindlessly.
Second, habits are specific to the actions you take.  An easy way to help yourself change habits is to find a way to block the actions you normally perform.  Just switching hands was enough to get people who eat popcorn regularly to eat less of the stale popcorn.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Don't waste my time...

We all know that time flies when you’re having fun.  In a previous blog entry, I pointed out that when you are involved in something engaging the time seems to rocket by, even though that same event may feel long when you look back on it.  The flip side, of course, is that boring events seem to drag on.  A one-hour lecture history lecture can seem longer than the entire era being described. 

An interesting paper in the October, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Edward O’Brien, Phyllis Anastasio and Brad Bushman explores the role of your sense of entitlement on the perception of the passage of time.

The basic idea is straightforward.  At any given time, everyone feels some sense of entitlement.  Standing on the line to check out at a big box retailer, you might feel particularly entitled to better service.  So, a 10-minute wait for a slow cashier may feel like an hour.  On the other hand, if you were sitting in a waiting room at the White House with before having a chance to meet the President, you might consider yourself lucky to be there.  In that case, a 10-minute wait might not feel so long. 

In one study, the authors just looked at the correlation between people’s general sense of entitlement and their perception of time.  It turns out that there is a difference between people in how entitled they feel in general.  Some people generally feel more like they deserve to get things from the world than other people. 

The authors gave people a number of questionnaires including one that measured the sense of entitlement.   Then they had people do either a boring task (copying a matrix of letters) or a less boring task (using that same matrix of letters to find people’s names).  People did this task for exactly 10 minutes, and then they were asked how long the task took.  (To make the time judgment harder, there were no clocks in the room, and people had been asked to remove their watches before starting the study.) 

When people did the relatively fun task, there was no relationship between the amount of time people felt they spent doing the task and their general sense of entitlement.  In contrast, when people did the boring task, the more people generally feel entitled, the longer they felt they spent on the task. 

Two other studies actually manipulated people’s sense of entitlement.  For example, in one study, college students did a long (and rather boring) questionnaire in which they answered mundane questions about themselves (like how often do you eat fast food?).  To influence the sense of entitlement, one group was told that they were answering the questions, because the university wanted to know more about each individual student.  A second group was told that the university wanted to know more about the student body in general.  After doing the questionnaire, participants judged how long it took to complete and also rated how much they thought the survey was a waste of their time.

Now, you might think that being asked questions about yourself would be more interesting than answering questions about students in general.  So, it could easily be the case that the survey would seem shorter when you are more engaged in the task.  In fact, people felt the survey took more time when they were told it was about them in particular than when it was about students in general.  So, the sense of entitlement increased people’s judgments of the time the survey took to complete.  Other analyses of the data show that this difference reflected that people who thought the survey was about them in particular felt the task was a bigger waste of their time than those who thought it was about students in general.

What does all this mean?

Time is one of our most precious resources.  The greater your sense of entitlement, the more that you want to avoid wasting resources.  As a result, the more entitled you feel, the more pain you experience when your time is wasted.  Even though nobody enjoys frustration, this mechanism is a good one to have.  If we did not experience frustration when our time was being wasted, we might persist doing things that do not deserve our effort.