Thursday, February 28, 2013

You can vent your anger if you really want to

The beauty of psychology research is that it can make you think differently about things.  A case in point comes from the ongoing research on the influence of violent video games on aggressive behavior.

I have written about this topic frequently in this blog over the years.

The research to date generally shows that playing violent video games increases aggression.  There are many ways to measure increases in aggression.  Some studies use techniques where they give people an opportunity to blast an opponent with noise.  Brad Bushman and his colleagues have shown that after people play violent video games, they are willing to blast people with louder noises than when they played a nonviolent game.

Other studies look at how easy it is to think aggressive thoughts.  Studies like this use a lexical decision task.  In lexical decision, you see a string of letters and have to decide whether it is a word.  If you saw the letters BRAIK, you would say “no” it isn’t a word, but if you saw the letter BRAKE, you would say “yes” it is a word.  Lots of research shows that when seeing letters that form a word, you are faster to respond when the concept described by that word is easy for you to think about.  That means that you would be faster to judge that the letters FIST form a word when you are thinking about being aggressive than when you are not. 

In general, studies using these lexical decision tasks show that you are faster to respond to words related to aggression after playing violent video games than after playing nonviolent video games. 

When I have written about these studies in the past, I have gotten comments from a number of gamers who insist that playing violent video games really does help them to vent their anger.  That places people’s experience in opposition to the data from studies.

A study by Markus Denzler, Michael Hafner and Jens Forster in the December 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin may help to explain what is going on.

They suggest that playing a violent video game may actually help to decrease aggression if you play the game with the goal to vent your anger.

In one study, participants were first asked to remember a situation in which they were angry with someone else.  If you try this yourself, you’ll realize that thinking about something that made you angry can actually start to make you angry again.  After thinking about something that made people angry, they were asked to do a lexical decision task involving some words that were related to aggression (like FIST) and others that were not related to aggression (like STOVE).  As you might expect, people were faster to respond to the words related to aggression than to the words not related to aggression.
Next, everyone was given the chance to play a 4-minute video game.  The game was a simple first-person shooter in which people had the chance to shoot at soldiers that appeared on the screen.  When a soldier was shot, a blood spot appeared on the screen.

Half the participants just played the game.  The other half were told to play the game in order to vent their anger.  After playing the game, everyone did the lexical decision task again.

Consistent with the previous research, people who played the game with no goal responded faster to words relating to aggression than to words not relating to aggression.  In fact, playing the game made it easier for them to think about aggression than when they first thought about being angry.

However, those people who played the game with the goal to vent their anger seem to have succeeded.  It was actually harder for them to respond to the words related to aggression than to the words not related to aggression.  

The authors did a similar study looking at how people typically deal with anger.  They used a scale that measures how often people try to vent their anger by doing something aggressive like slamming a door.  This study also asked people to think about someone who made them angry and had them play a violent video game.  People who typically try to vent their anger and played a game found it harder to respond to words relating to aggression than those who don’t typically vent their anger and played a game.

What does this mean?

This study suggests that if you have the goal to vent your anger, then playing a violent video game can actually help you to achieve that goal.  However, if you play a video game when angry without the goal to vent your anger, then playing the game helps you to think about being aggressive.

There is, of course, another set of studies that needs to be done here.  These studies just looked at how easily people could think about aggression.  It will be important to look at situations in which people can actually act aggressively (like the noise task) to see whether making it harder to think about aggression translates into less aggressive behavior in practice.

For now, though, this is a great example of research that can make you think differently about a topic.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kids think humans are special

There is no doubt that humans are special among all of the animals on Earth.  We have come to dominate the planet, because of our abilities to communicate effectively, use tools, and create complex cultures. 

Although, we are special, we are also members of the animal kingdom.  There are lots of reasons why that matters.  We can learn a lot about the way the human body functions by studying animals.  There are also ethical issues.  The more that we see humans as just another member of the animal kingdom, the more that we are likely to respect the rights of those animals to live and to protect their habitats.

Yet, language distorts the relationship between humans and the rest of the animals.  In English, we usually use the word animal as a contrast to the word human.  At the dinner table, parents will tell their children to eat like a person not like an animal.  We say that a pack of wild teenagers was running around like animals.  We witness a great performance by an athlete and say that he was an animal out on the field. 

By the time we are adults, we understand that humans are animals, even though they are also special.  Children, however, seem to take time to sort out the relationship between humans and animals.

An interesting set of studies by Patricia Hermann, Douglas Medin, and Sandra Waxman from the January, 2012 issue of Cognition explores this issue and suggests a way to help children bridge the gap between humans and animals.

In one study, 3- and 5-year-olds were taught a new word (blicket).  They were introduced to a puppet, and were told that the puppet lives far away and has funny words for things.  They were shown pictures of a dog and a bird (both animals) and were told that the puppet calls these things blickets.  Then, they were shown a variety of pictures of other nonhuman animals, as well as a picture of a man and a woman, and a number of objects that are not alive.

In this study, the children applied the word blicket to the dog, the bird, and the other animals they were shown.  They did not apply the word blicket to the objects.  In addition, they did not use the word blicket for the people.  So, the children clearly treated humans differently than the other animals.

In a second study, though, the same procedure was used.  This time, though, the word blicket was applied to a person and to a bird or a dog.  Again, the children were tested on a variety of other animals and objects.  In this case, the children were quite willing to apply the word blicket to the human (as they were taught).  They also applied the word to other nonhuman animals.  The 3-year-olds tended to apply the word to lots of the objects as well, but the 5-year-olds did not use the word blicket for objects.

That is, by the age of 5, children were able to see that a word that applies to humans and other nonhuman animals should not be used for objects as well.

What does this mean?

By the time children are 5, they generally see humans as special.  However, they also seem ready to recognize that humans and other animals have a lot in common.  They just need a little push to help them learn to classify humans and other animals together.  Giving them a word that applies to both is one push in that direction.

In the modern world, we need to reinforce the connection between humans and other animals.  Obviously, learning this relationship prepares students to learn science to see that humans and animals share a deep biological bond.  Equally important, though, in a world where children can live their lives seeing few other animals beyond pets and the occasional bird and squirrel, we need to strengthen the connection between our species and all of the other animals with whom we share the planet.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Price, quality, and value

Whenever you are thinking about buying something, price plays a role in your decision process.  Consider going to a big box retailer like Bed, Bath, and Beyond and standing in front of the wall of blenders.  Chances are, you are not a blender expert, and so you have to come up with some way to make your choice.  You use price in two ways to help you out.

First, you use price to help you judge quality.  Chances are, a very inexpensive blender is also a low-quality blender.  It may have fewer settings and be made of cheaper materials.  An expensive blender is generally assumed to be a high-quality blender with lots of features and solid construction.

Second, you make a judgment about whether the product is a good value.  We generally don’t want to overpay for something, and so we like to feel as though we are getting a good value for our money.

An interesting paper by Torsten Bornemann and Christian Homburg in the October, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explores the role of distance on the way that people use price to judge quality and value.

I have written frequently in this blog about the role of distance in thinking.  Generally speaking, when something is far from you in space or time, then you think about it more abstractly than when something is near to you.  Bornemann and Homburg suggest that distance focuses you more on the role of price in predicting quality than on the importance of value. 

In one study, the manipulation focused on distance in time.  Participants were given a description of a new e-reader.  They were either told that the product was coming out in 2 days or in 6 months.  Some people were told that the e-reader was relatively inexpensive (about $120), while others were told that it was relatively expensive (about $250).  Participants evaluated whether the product was likely to be good quality, whether it was a good value, and whether they were interested in purchasing it.

When people read about a product that was coming out in a few days, the price had little impact on their judgments of quality.  When people read about a product coming out in 6 months, though, they thought the product would be much higher quality when it was expensive than when it was inexpensive.

For judgments of value, though, the pattern was different.  When the product was coming out in 6 months, price had little impact on people’s judgments about whether it was a good value.  However, when the product was coming out in 2 days, people felt that it was a much better value when it was inexpensive than when it was expensive.

Ultimately, people were least interested in buying the product when it was coming out in 2 days and was very expensive.  The focus on the high price in this situation drove people away from wanting to buy it.

The authors obtained a similar effect using a social measure of distance.  In this case, participants were college students and they were either giving their own opinion about a product or predicting the opinion of the typical student.  When giving their own opinion, price primarily influenced their perception of value.  When predicting the opinion of the typical student, though, price affected judgments of quality.

In the end, though, you probably want to consider both quality and value when making a choice.  When you’re standing in front of the wall of blenders, you can do that by taking your choice in stages.  Start by treating the choice as if you are picking the best blender for a friend.  That will allow you to focus your evaluation on the quality of the products.  After you feel you understand the quality, then go back and focus on the one you would really like to buy.  That way, you can let your focus on value happen after you have already thought about quality.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The psychological response to obstacles

Few important things in life come easy.  Starting in school, there are days where assignments just don’t go well.  That concept you thought you had nailed in class has flown from your mind by the time you sit down to do your work.  As you get older, the obstacles get more varied.  You might want to buy a great new car, but you don’t have the money.  You could be thwarted at work by someone who has a different agenda.  Or perhaps the economy has made it difficult for your business to push forward on a new venture.
Dealing with obstacles is a crucial part of being successful in life.  And there are lots of strategies we use to help us deal with them. 
Sometimes, of course, we just push through the obstacles.  That is, an obstacle may just increase our sense of commitment to a goal.  I have written before about research by Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, and Arie Kruglanski showing that we often associate key obstacles with the goal they block.  So, seeing a tempting piece of cake may actually help to remind you that you’re on a diet. 
When you’re faced with a new obstacle, though, this kind of automatic reminding won’t work.  An interesting paper by Janina Marguc, Jens Forster, and Gerben Van Kleef in the November, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates that when we hit a new obstacle, one way that we deal with it is by thinking about the problem more globally. 
To get the intuition behind this, consider a simple experiment from this paper.  In this study, participants solved a difficult maze on a computer screen.  As they worked on the maze, the computer tracked their eye movements.  For some participants, when they reached a particular spot in the maze, their path was suddenly blocked by a barrier.  In response to this literal obstacle, participants suddenly searched the entire maze for other paths, while those who experienced no obstacle continued on their way.  That is, the obstacle led people to think about the task globally rather than focusing on the specific part of the maze they were working on.
Of course, this result isn’t that surprising.  The surprising part is that dealing with an obstacle tended to make people think more globally in general.  For example, other groups experienced the obstacle in the maze and then were given other tasks in which they could respond locally or globally.  In another study, participants were given an unrelated perceptual task.  In this task, people saw large letters made up of smaller ones like the letter S made up of smaller letter F’s in the figure.  Letters like this come from a classic study by David Navon.  People who experienced an obstacle in the maze were faster to identify the large (more global) letter than people who had not experienced an obstacle. 
Experiencing an obstacle also affected conceptual processing.  In yet another study, people were given the Remote Associates Test (RAT).  In the RAT, you see three words that appear unrelated, and you have to identify a fourth word that fits with all three of those words.  For example, you might see the words CRACKER, UNION, and RABBIT.  (I’ll give you the answer later.)  Solving these items correctly requires thinking more globally about the words.  People who experienced an obstacle were better at solving items in the RAT than people who had not experienced an obstacle.
This conceptual study also allowed the authors to demonstrate an important quality of this increase in thinking globally following an obstacle.  There is a difference between people in how likely they are to remain engaged with difficult tasks.  This difference is called volatility.  People who are not that volatile tend to engage with a task and stick with it even when it gets difficult.  Those people who are highly volatile tend to skip from task to task to task.  The influence of an obstacle on a later task was observed only for people low in volatility.  Those people who are high in volatility were not more likely to think more globally in general following an obstacle.
What does this mean for you? 
Your motivation system wants to help you achieve your goals.  One way it does this is to naturally change the way you are thinking about a problem when you reach an obstacle.
You can help it along, though.  When you reach an obstacle and you’re feeling stuck you can help yourself to think more globally and abstractly.  A simple way to do that is to look around the room.  Check out all of the objects in front of you.  For example, I have a coffee mug, a stuffed Squirt (from finding Nemo) and a stapler on my desk.  Looking at each object, think about the more general category it comes from (container, toy, and office supply in my case).  Do that for a number of objects, and you will prompt yourself to think more abstractly.  After that, go back to the task where you reached an obstacle and see if that helps.
By the way, the correct answer to the RAT item from earlier was JACK.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Narcissists feel like better leaders than they are

Narcissists are people who dream big.  They generally think of themselves as being more intelligent and exceptional than they are.  Because of their high levels of self-confidence, they are also tapped to be leaders in many situations.   

Not only are narcissists asked to be leaders, but their confidence makes them feel like good leaders to others.  People in a group want to feel like the group is doing a good job.  Narcissists project a confident image, and that confidence is infectious.  The rest of the group comes to believe that their leader is doing well.

So, should we just let the narcissists take over?

A paper by Barbora Nevicka, Femke Ten Velden, Annebel De Hoogh, and Annelies Van Vianen in the October, 2011 issue of Psychological Science suggests that there might also be a downside to narcissistic leaders.

Because narcissists are so confident in their abilities and opinions, they may keep group members from sharing information.  In addition, narcissists pick up their self-confidence in large part through the reactions of other people.  As a result, narcissists need to feel like the success of a group is due to their efforts.  In situations where shared information is crucial to good performance, a narcissistic leader may cause a group to be very confident that their leader is a good one and yet they may perform poorly.

To test this possibility, groups of three people were asked to evaluate candidate for job.  Before getting together as a group, a leader was selected at random.  The group leader was the one who had to make the final decision in the task.  The participants in this study also filled out an inventory that measured their level of narcissism. 

Each group member was given a list of 9 characteristics for each of three job candidates.  Some of those characteristics were given to each group member, but some were given only to individuals.  The descriptions were cleverly set up so that one job candidate would look best if only the information that all group members shared was considered, but that if the group pooled all of its information, then a second job candidate would actually be the best one. 

Two results emerged from this study.

First, group leaders who had a high score on the narcissism scale, were generally seen as more effective leaders than group leaders who had a low score on the narcissism scale.  That is the typical result from studies of narcissism and leadership.

Second, groups with more narcissistic leaders tended to share less information than those with less narcissistic leaders, and as a result, they made worse decisions.  So, even though the groups with narcissistic leaders felt better about their group leader, they actually performed more poorly than those with less narcissistic leaders.

What does this mean?

There are often two distinct issues in group performance.  First, groups do need to have some confidence that they are going to succeed.  That confidence can increase motivation to continue with a difficult task.  In that way, a narcissistic leader can be good.

However, if the group needs to share information in order to succeed, then narcissistic leaders need to curb their tendency to dominate the discussion and decision making and let others share information.  Otherwise, the group runs the risk of rushing to judgment without key information that might lead to better performance.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why we love independence, individuality, and Starbucks

Why we love independence, individuality, and Starbucks
Last year, I drove from Austin, where I live, to San Antonio to do a reading for my new book Smart Thinking at a great independent bookstore called The Twig Book Shop.  As I drove the 60 miles between cities I was struck once again by how the highway landscape was probably nearly identical to the one I would see near any metropolitan area.  There were Home Depots, PetSmarts, Targets, and of course Starbucks all along the route (not to mention Macaroni Grills, TGIFs and McDonalds to feed the hungry). 
Why do the chain stores rule? 
Much of this, of course, has nothing to do with psychology.  It is hard to run a small business.  There are lots of decisions you have to make from scratch.  And one bad year or a downturn in the local economy can wipe out years of hard work (not to mention a lifetime of savings).  Big companies have the benefit that bad sales at one location can be absorbed as long as sales in other locations remain strong. 
But there is an element of psychology in the success of chain stores as well.  This issue was explored in a paper in the January, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Shigehiro Oishi, Felicity Miao, Minkyung Koo, Jason Kisling, and Kate Ratliff.
They started with an interesting hypothesis.  Americans prize individuality, but they also prize mobility.  We cherish the opportunity to move to a new city or a new state to advance our careers or just to get a change of scenery. 
The researchers suggested that when people move frequently, they may end up attaching themselves to chain stores.  The anxiety of moving may lead people to prefer familiar stores over the unique businesses that they may encounter.  This proposal was tested in a number of ways.
First, the researchers asked a broad question using census and corporate data.  If people tend to prefer chain stores more strongly when they move around a lot, then states in which people move frequently should have more chain stores than states where people move less often.  The researchers obtained the number of outlets of a variety of chain stores (ranging from Home Depot to Kay Jewelers) from annual reports filed by the companies.  Data on how often people move around was obtained from the 2000 census.  Using the statistical technique of multiple regression, the researchers looked at the combined influence of residential mobility (how much people move around), median income, and population of each state as predictors of the number of outlets for these chains.  They found that the amount of mobility really did predict the number of outlets of chains in a given state.  Population also affected this number (not surprisingly).  Median income of families was not a predictor of the number of outlets of chain stores.
So far so good.  In states where people move around a lot, there are more outlets of chain stores than in states where people don’t move around so much.
But still, there are lots of potential reasons for that.  For example, states where people move around a lot tend to be bigger states overall (like Colorado).  Perhaps having lots of open space makes it easier for chain stores to build big outlets.
In another study, the authors tested individuals.  They brought 100 college students from the east coast of the US and had them imagine that they were shopping on a trip to California.  They were given the choice between shopping at a chain store (Whole Foods) or a local grocery store (Fresh Mart) for 14 different types of stores.  The researchers measured how often each participant moved growing up as well as a number of other personality variables.  Even taking into account these other variables, the number of times that people moved was positively related to the number of times that people picked the chain store over the local store in this task.  That is, moving a lot increased preference for chain stores.
These two studies are still correlational.  That is, you can’t experimentally assign people to move a lot or to stay in one place.  In the rest of the studies in this paper, the researchers induced a feeling of mobility to look at its influence on preference for familiar things.
In one of these studies, participants either wrote about how they would feel if they landed their dream job and that job required them to move every 6 months for several years.  A second group wrote about how they would feel if they landed their dream job, which required them to live in the same town for several years.  Finally, a control group just wrote about a typical day in their life.
After that, participants were exposed to a number of unfamiliar faces five times.  Research on mere exposure has found that people quickly come to prefer things they have been exposed to compared to those that are unfamiliar.  After seeing these faces, participants rated how much they liked a series of faces.  Some were ones they had seen before, while others were new faces they had not seen before. 
Participants who were primed to think about moving around a lot showed a larger preference for the familiar over the unfamiliar faces than those who were primed to think about living in the same place (or people in the control condition).  The researchers counted the number of anxiety-related words people used in the writing they did at the start of the study.  The number of anxiety related words was a good predictor of the strength of the preference for familiar over unfamiliar faces.
Ok.  I said a lot here.  What does all of this mean?
The independent lifestyle that we often lead in the United States creates great freedom.  But that freedom comes at the cost of our connection to community.  When we move from place to place, we disrupt our connections to family and friends.  We also force ourselves to adapt to a new house and a new environment.
In those times, we tend to attach ourselves to things that are familiar as an anchor.  There are lots of things that we might use for that anchor.  One of them is the places we shop.  Shopping at a familiar chain store after moving provides a sense of balance to counteract the chaotic feelings we might have as we try to re-root ourselves in a new home.

Monday, February 4, 2013

An hour next year is shorter than an hour tomorrow

We all need to make plans for the future, and many of those plans involve estimating time.  If I have to write a grant proposal before a deadline, I need to make a reasonable estimate of the amount of time that it will take to complete the proposal in order to fit it into my schedule.  A manager at a company needs to figure out how long a project will take in order to allocate the right number of people to ensure it is completed.

One factor that may influence your judgments of the amount of time a project will take is the amount of time it will take before you start the project.  At times, you may be planning for a project you are about to start in the next few days.  At other times, though, you are budgeting your time off into the future.

An interesting paper in 2011 by Alf Kanten published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology addressed this question. 

One way that you figure out how long a project will take is to figure out how much work you can get done in each unit of time.  Think back to what you did yesterday.  Each event can be remembered in some detail.  As a result, each hour feels like it was relatively long.  But, if you try to think back to a day 6 months ago, it is hard to call up a lot of vivid details, and so each hour does not feel as packed with events.  As a result, hours in the distant past feel shorter (psychologically) than hours from the recent past.

Kanten found this works in the forward direction too.  People were given a line and were asked to place a mark on the line to indicate their feeling about the perceived length of an hour.  Before making this estimate, the participants were either induced to think abstractly or to think concretely.  Quite a bit of research by Nira Liberman, Yaacov Trope and their colleagues suggests that when things are distant from you in time, then you think about them more abstractly than when they are near to you.  Participants who were thinking abstractly marked a shorter length for an hour than those who marked a longer length. 

How does this difference in the perception of time affect judgments about how long a project will take?

In another study, participants judged how long a project would take.  For example, college students were asked to imagine they had been assigned to read a chapter of a history book and to write a summary of it.  Others were asked to imagine cleaning their apartment.  Some participants had to imagine starting the project tomorrow, while others were asked to imagine doing it some time the following year.

People judged that the project would take longer if they had to do it in the distant future than if they had to do it tomorrow.  That is, if each hour feels shorter in the future, then you can get less work done in each hour, and so it will require more hours to complete the project. 

It is probably good that we are biased to think that projects will take longer in the future than in the present.  When planning, it is generally a good idea to be overly cautious.  After all, it is worse to leave too little time for a project than to leave too much.