Thursday, May 30, 2013

Role models and beliefs about leadership

It is hard to be a leader.  Even those people who want to take on leadership roles have to learn to lead effectively.  On the one hand, you have to be responsible for getting tasks completed.  On the other hand, you have to learn to delegate effectively to make sure that you don’t take on more than you can handle.

Role models are a great help in leadership situations.  Leadership role models are people who are already in a position of authority that you look up to and hope to be like.

An interesting paper by Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, and Audrey Innella in the February, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores the influence of people’s beliefs about leadership on the effectiveness of role models. 

I have written often in this blog about the effect of two types of beliefs about psychological qualities that comes from the research of Carol Dweck and her colleagues.  One set of beliefs is that psychological properties are fixed talents.  The other is that these properties are skills that can be learned.  It turns out that some people think leadership is a talent that is relatively fixed while others think it is a skill that can be acquired.  The more that a person thinks that leadership is a skill to be acquired, the greater the positive influence of role models on her behavior.

In one study testing this idea, participants were given a questionnaire to test how strongly they believed that leadership is either a fixed talent or a learnable skill.  Next, participants wrote an essay.  Some wrote about a leadership role model who was important to them.  Others (in a control condition) wrote about a vacation.  Finally, participants were asked to take on the role of leader in a group experiment.  They had to imagine they were a recruiting manager of a company and had to teach the other members of their group about how to evaluate resumes of potential employees.  They were given information to help them prepare the presentation.  Then, they gave the presentation over a webcam.  Finally, people rated their confidence in their leadership performance and their anxiety at taking on this leadership role.

People’s confidence benefitted from thinking about a role model only when they believed that leadership is a skill to be learned.  People who believed that leadership is a skill were more confident when they wrote about a role model in their lives than when they wrote about a vacation.  People who believed that leadership is a talent were about equally confident regardless of whether they wrote about a role model or a vacation.

The anxiety results were interesting as well.  People who believe that leadership is a talent actually got more anxious when thinking about a role model than when thinking about a vacation.  That is, when you think that leadership is a talent, then thinking about a role model may highlight the ways that you do not measure up to that role model.  That may highlight the ways in which your leadership skills are lacking. 

A second study found similar results, but manipulated people’s beliefs about leadership by having them read an article that either suggested leadership is a fixed talent or that leadership is a learnable skill.

Ultimately, leadership (like almost every other cognitive ability) is something that can be learned and improved.  Thus, you should engage with your role models to help to learn the skills that they have.  In addition, you should treat the leadership skills you don’t yet have as a challenge rather than as a sign that you will never measure up to the people you admire.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Culture can affect your attention to emotional information

Culture has many influences on our daily behavior.  Some of these effects are obvious.  Americans watch football and baseball, while Europeans watch soccer (which they consider to be the real football).  Other influences are less obvious, because they direct the kinds of information that we pay attention to.

An interesting example of this role of culture was provided in a paper in the February, 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Igor Grossmann, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Ying-Yi Hong.  They explored how cultures affect the way people pay attention to emotional information in the environment.

The starting point for these studies is the observation that Russian culture is stereotypically characterized by negative feelings.  That is, Russians themselves will say that they focus on negative feelings more often than Americans will.

In one study, American and Russian college students were asked to study a series of pictures.  Some of these pictures were neutral pictures of clouds.  Others were positive happy pictures, and still others were negative sad pictures.  The participants were shown the pictures one at a time on a computer screen and were told to press the space bar on the computer when they were done studying each picture.  They were told that there would be a memory test later in the study.  Compared to the neutral pictures of the clouds, Americans looked at the positive pictures longer than the negative pictures.  In contrast, the Russians looked at the negative pictures longer than the positive pictures.

Of course, there are many possible reasons for this result.  Perhaps the negative pictures happened to contain images that were particularly relevant or interesting to the Russians for reasons other than the emotion expressed in the picture.

A second experiment used a clever manipulation of culture.  This study focused on Russian Latvians.  Latvian culture has more European influences than Russian culture.  Russian Latvians are bicultural.  That is, they tend to show influences of both cultures.

In this study, participants were shown strings of letters (like BRANE) and were asked whether the letters formed a word by pressing one button if it was a word and another button if it was not.  (In the case of BRANE, the answer would be ‘no’.)  The strings of letters that were actual words in this study were Latvian adjectives that were either positive (like friendly) or negative (like lazy). 

Here is the really clever part.  Before seeing the string of letters, participants saw pictures that were either symbols of Latvian culture, symbols of Russian culture, or neutral pictures.  Previous work has shown that this procedure does a good job of priming the cultural mindset related to the picture.

When these participants saw Latvian cultural symbols, they responded more quickly to positive words than to negative words (compared to the baseline of the neutral pictures).  When these same participants saw Russian symbols, they responded more quickly to negative words than to positive words.  This result reinforces the conclusion that Russian culture leads people to pay more attention to negative information in the environment.

These results are fascinating, because they suggest that culture can affect your more general mood by affecting what you pay attention to in the world.  If your culture leads you to look at positive things, then that will help to lift your mood.  If your culture leads you to look at negative things, then that will tend to depress your mood.

How can culture have an effect like this?  One of the most powerful ways that cultures affect our thinking is through communication.  If everyone around you is focused on sad things and they talk about sad things, you will start to do the same thing.  In general, you want to be able to talk with the people around you.  If you know that they are going to be thinking about the sad aspects of life, you are going to start to look for that sadness in order to be a part of the conversation.  In the end, that affects the way you think, even when you are not in a situation where you have to communicate with others.

Monday, May 20, 2013

What makes you feel rich?

Many aspects of your life are affected by how well-off you feel.  Money troubles are a significant source of stress for people and for relationships.  Decisions to make purchases and to donate money are based on whether you feel like you are doing well.  Election results are driven by whether people feel as though they are doing well financially.

What factors go into making people feel rich?

This question was addressed in a nice paper in the January 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Abigail Sussman and Eldar Shafir. 

They had people evaluate pairs of people to determine which one they thought felt richer.  Some people had both a high level of assets and a high level of debt.  Others had a low level of assets and a low level of debt. 

Of course, the actual wealth of a person is determined by the difference between assets and debt.  If you have more assets than debt, you have a positive net worth.  If you have more debt than assets, you have a negative net worth.  Because your overall wealth is determined by the difference between assets and debt, it shouldn’t really matter whether you reach that difference by having lots of assets and lots of debt or few assets and little debt.

When the profiles being evaluated had a positive net worth (more assets than debt), they were evaluated as being wealthier when they had low debt (and few assets) than when they had high debt (and many assets).  In contrast, when the profiles being evaluated had a negative net worth (more debt than assets), they were evaluated as being wealthier when they had many assets (and very high debt) than when they had few assets (and only a moderately high debt). 

Why does this matter?

In another set of studies, people were asked to imagine that they were interested in making a significant purchase, but that they would have to borrow money to make it.  People are often in that situation when buying cars, furniture, or appliances.  They were shown pairs of profiles like the ones in the study I just described and asked which person would be more likely to borrow money (assuming that each could borrow at the same interest rate). 

The results were similar to those in the previous study.  When the profiles described people with a positive net worth (more assets than debt) they were more likely to borrow money when they currently had low debt than when they currently had high debt.  But, when the profiles described people with negative net worth (more debt than assets), they were more likely to borrow money when they currently had high debt (and also had many assets) than when they had low debt (and also few assets). 

That means that financial decisions like the willingness to make a big purchase or to take on more debt are based on people’s current feeling of how well off they are.  This feeling ought to be based on net worth (assets minus debt).  But it isn’t.

This perception of wealth can be a particular problem for people who have a negative net worth.  If you currently owe more than you own, then you have a bias to focus on your assets.  That means that the money you have in the bank and other assets like stocks or home equity may cause you to spend more and to consider taking on even more loans. 

As the financial crisis of 2007 showed us, though, assets can evaporate quickly sometimes, which can leave people with high levels of debt and few resources to pay off that debt.  So, when considering whether you should borrow more money, focus on your overall net worth.  In addition, evaluate how easily your assets could decline in value before saddling yourself with another loan.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

White lies affect your behavior

Our ethical principles often come into conflict.  On the one hand, we believe that honesty is the best policy.  On the other hand, we also believe that we should try to be nice to other people as often as possible.  Consider, then, the case of a bad meal at a restaurant.  Perhaps the restaurant is crowded, and your food arrives late.  To top it off, the dish has cooled off.  Invariably in those situations you are in a hurry, and so you start eating your meal.  After a few minutes the server comes by and asks you how you’re doing. 
In that situation, you may choose to say honestly that you are disappointed that the food came out cold.  In many cases, though, you may opt out of telling the truth and instead tell the server that everything is fine.  These little untruths are often called “white lies,” because they seem to cause little harm and often help social situations go more smoothly.
Do these white lies have any influence on your later behavior?
This question was explored in a set of studies by Jennifer Argo and Baba Shiv in the April, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  These researchers argued that in many cases, white lies have little effect on the teller later.  However, in situations in which the policy of being honest is highlighted, liars often do nice things for the person they lied to. 
In one study, students at a university went to a research lab.  Participants then received lists of words that could be used to form sentences.  For example, a participant might get the words him before cat they met.  These words can be used to form the sentence “They met him before.”  For some participants, the words included many that were related to the concept of honesty.  For other participants, no honesty-related words were used.  This procedure is known to be effective at priming people to think about a concept without their awareness.
Next, the research assistant running the study left the room saying that she had run out of experiment packets and needed to make some copies.  The research assistant was then gone from the room for 12 minutes, which got the research participants annoyed.  Upon returning to the lab, the research assistant asked half of the participants how they were doing.  People’s general response to this question is, “Fine.”  In this case, of course, the participant was not fine, and so this response was a white lie.
At the end of the study, participants were given the chance to do one of two additional studies.  The experimenter told the participants that one of the piles had a study that she was running for her own research, while a second pile had a different person’s research study in it.  (In actuality, both piles had the same packets in it.)  In that packet, participants were told that as part of their participation in the study, they were entered into a drawing to win $100.  They were asked to state how much of that $100 they would be willing to donate to the experimenter to help her for her research in the event that they won the raffle.
Those participants who were not given the chance to tell a white lie (regardless of whether they were primed to think about honesty) selected the experimenter’s study about 40% of the time, and they were willing to donate about $35 to the experimenter if they won the raffle. 
For those participants who were given the chance to lie, the results were quite different depending on whether they were primed to think about honesty.  Those who were not primed to think about honesty acted like those people who did not lie.  Those people who did think about honesty, though, acted much more favorably toward the experimenter.  They selected her study 88% of the time, and were willing to donate an average of $53 to her research.  That means that these participants were actually willing to give away more money than they would keep for themselves in order to make up for having told a lie.
These findings suggest that white lies aren’t simply a form of social grease that we apply to make our social interactions go more smoothly.  We really do recognize them as being lies.  As a result, we need to be quite careful about how these lies affect our future behavior toward the people we have lied to.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Guilt and leadership

Are good leaders born or made?  To some degree, of course, that is a false question.  A person’s characteristics may predispose them to want to be a leader and even to have some potential to lead effectively, but there is still a lot of learning that has to be done to become a good leader.
That said, quite a bit of research has begun to explore the personality characteristics that give someone a head start toward being a good leader.
Personality psychologists have identified what they call the “Big Five” dimensions of personality.  Essentially, if you throw a large number of questions about behavior into a survey, there are five broad characteristics that emerge from people’s responses:  Openness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Agreeableness, and Extraversion. 
All of them are associated with leadership to some degree.  People who are open to experience, for example, tend to be better leaders than those who are not.  Perhaps obviously, people who are conscientious are also better leaders than those who are not so conscientious.  People who are emotionally stable are also more effective leaders than those who are not emotionally stable.  The other two traits have a more complex relationship with leadership.
Agreeableness is the degree to which a person gets along with others.  A moderate degree of agreeableness is good for leaders, because they have to have some talent at getting along with others.  However, leaders who are too agreeable will not tell others things that they do not want to hear.  So, high levels of agreeableness are not good for leadership.
Extraversion is the degree to which someone seeks out others and likes to have the spotlight shown on them.  Clearly leaders need to be comfortable interacting with others and bringing ideas from a work group to a broader audience.  At the same time, a leader who wants the spotlight too much can keep other group members from getting enough credit for their efforts.
Of course, there are lots of other characteristics that define people’s personality beyond these Big Five.  A paper in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Rebecca Schaumberg and Francis Flynn explored the influence of people’s proneness to feel guilty on their leadership ability.
These researchers distinguish between two related emotions—guilt and shame.  People experience guilt when they have a responsibility that they have failed to live up to.  The emotion is focused on the failure.  Shame also arises from a failure to live up to a responsibility, but it is self-focused.  People experience shame when they feel like they are a bad person because of their failure.
In one study, guilt and shame were measured using questionnaires in which people were asked to imagine that they had failed at some important task or responsibility.  They rated both the degree to which they would feel bad about what happened (guilt) as well as the degree to which they would feel bad about themselves (shame).  Participants also filled out a survey to assess the Big Five dimensions.
Several days later, participants came to the lab in groups and performed a series of group activities.  In one activity, for example, the group had to imagine that they were developing advertisements for new products.  After performing these group activities, participants rated the other group members for their leadership in the activities.
The best predictor of whether people would take a leadership role in this study was the degree to which people tend to feel guilt as a result of failures.  The tendency to experience guilt was a more powerful predictor than any of Big Five personality characteristics.  
Why does the tendency to feel guilt play such a significant role in leadership?  In another study, participants rated their tendency to experience guilt and shame as in the study just described.  In addition, they rated their sense of responsibility for other people.  The participants in this study were students in an MBA program.  The measure of leadership in this case came from evaluations done by the leadership center run by the business school where the participants were students. 
As in the study I just described, people’s tendency to feel guilt (rather than shame) predicted the independent ratings of how good a leader they were.  The tendency to feel guilt also predicted people’s sense of responsibility for others.  Statistical analyses suggest that guilt influenced the sense of responsibility for others, which in turn affected people’s success as leaders.
Of course, this research does not address the factors that make some people (and not others) feel guilty in the first place.  When these factors are better understood, it might be possible to teach other people these skills in order to increase their effectiveness in leadership roles.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Size of food orders is affected by the need for status

The amount of food you eat is affected by the size of the portion you get.  At restaurants, for example, people generally eat what is on their plate.  So, the more food they are given, the more that they will eat.   This is a particular problem, because obesity rates are rising worldwide.  We need to find ways to help people eat less food. Portion size seems like a great place to start.

There are lots of ways to influence portion size.  At home and at buffet lines, it is helpful to use small plates.  You tend to put enough food on a plate to fill it, so using a smaller plate leads to smaller portions. 

In addition, restaurants often offer portions of different sizes.  At high-end restaurants, for example, steak-eaters may choose the size of the steak they order.  At fast-food restaurants, there are often specific sizes of drinks and fries that are available.

An interesting study by David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the size of a portion that someone orders can be influenced by their need to enhance their status.  The idea is that in many situations, bigger portions are seen as reflecting higher status than smaller portions.  When people are feeling powerless, they often want to make themselves feel better by enhancing their status.  Ordering a larger portion is one way to do that.

The researchers started by confirming that people generally viewed people who were eating larger portions as having higher status than those eating smaller portions.  Next, they looked at the relationship between feeling powerless and portion size. 

In one study, participants were residents of an apartment building.  The researchers set up tables in three different lobbies of the building.  Each table was set up to look like it was advertising a new bagel restaurant in town that was giving out free samples.  One table had a sign saying, “We all feel powerless in the morning, treat yourself to free bagels.”  One table had a sign saying, “We all feel powerful in the morning, treat yourself to free bagels.”  A third (control) table said “It’s morning, treat yourself to free bagels.” 

On the tables were two bowls with bagel pieces.  In one bowl, the bagel pieces were cut in small cubes, and in the other, the bagel pieces were cut into large cubes.  People coming to the table were told to take as many bagel pieces as they wanted, but they had to eat them at the table.  The people who were at the ‘powerless’ table were more likely to take large bagel pieces than those at the other tables.  As a result, they ate more.  On average, people at the ‘powerless’ table consumed about 100 calories worth of bagels, while those at the other two tables consumed about 70 calories worth of bagels.

Two other experiments in this series extended the results.  One study showed that people were most likely to order large portions when they felt powerless and were eating in a social situation.  If they felt powerless and were eating alone, then they did not order large portions.  This finding suggests that people are selecting portions in part based on the status that those portions may give them.

Finally, the researchers created a situation in which smaller portions signal higher status.  In this case, they had participants in the lab read an article suggesting that thinner people are more likely to be successful in business than fatter people.  The experimenters manipulated the feeling of powerlessness by having people imagine either that they were an employee who had to do what their boss wanted them to do (a powerless position) or that they were a boss who could tell their employees what to do (a powerful position).  At the end of the study, participants were able to select from among different sizes of Toblerone candy bars.  In this study, participants who thought that being thinner conveyed higher status selected smaller candy bars when they felt powerless than when they felt powerful. 

Putting these findings together, then, it seems that in general people think that larger portions convey more status than smaller portions.  As a result, people may overeat in order to increase their status compared to other people.

If we want to help people to eat less food, then there are a few things we can do.  First, these studies suggest that we can help people to see that being thin can also convey status.  In that case, the need to show status can actually get people to select smaller portions.  Second, people who are concerned about their portion sizes should focus on the aspects of their life in which they have control in order to minimize the need to show status through food.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

You listen most to the experts who disagree with you

Despite your beliefs when you were 15, you can’t really know everything.  As a result, you often have to listen to the advice of experts as you form opinions.  What kind of expert opinion has the biggest influence on your attitudes?

You might think that you are most inclined to be affected by experts who agree with you.  After all, there is a lot of research on confirmation bias that suggests that we tend to focus on information that confirms our hypotheses about the world.

An interesting paper in the January, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Jason Clark, Duane Wegener, Meara Habashi, and Abigail Evans suggests that the opposite may be true.  

Their proposal is that when you hear that when an expert expresses an opinion that disagrees with your own, your own beliefs are threatened.  In addition, you believe that experts are probably going to make strong arguments in favor of their position.  So, you pay careful attention to experts who disagree with you, presumably so that you will be ready to rebut their opinion.  Paradoxically, then, you may be most strongly influenced by the opinion of experts who disagree with you.

To test this idea, participants did a broad survey on a series of topics, one of which was their attitude about taxes on sugary drinks.  Then, participants read an opinion in favor of taxing sugary drinks.  Some people were told that this opinion came from an expert in food and nutrition.  Others were told that it was written by a high-school student.  Finally, the opinion itself consisted of arguments that were judged in a pre-test to be strong or arguments that were judged to be weak.  After reading the arguments, people rated their attitude toward taxes on sugary drinks.

People who did not believe in taxes on sugary drinks were hearing opinions that did not fit with their initial opinion.  For these people, hearing a strong argument by an expert increased their attitude toward taxes significantly, while hearing a weak argument by an expert decreased their attitude significantly.  Hearing an argument by a non-expert did not affect their opinion much.

The opposite pattern occurred for people hearing a message that agreed with their previous opinion.  In this case, the strength of the expert argument had little influence on their attitude.  However, hearing a weak opinion expressed by a non-expert led to a significant decrease in their argument.

That is, people seemed to pay quite a bit of attention to experts when the expert disagreed with them, but actually paid more attention to non-experts when listening to someone who agreed with them.  A second study demonstrated that this effect was best explained by people’s expectation that experts would provide good arguments. 

I found this result to be both hopeful and cautionary.  On the hopeful side, it looks like we have some tendency to grapple with arguments from people who disagree with us.  That means that all of us have some capacity to change our opinion.

On the cautionary side, though, the modern world has given us an abundance of choice in the opinions we choose to hear.  That is, while we can learn from people who disagree with us, we don’t necessarily like to hear what they have to say.  When given the choice, most people would rather listen to others who agree with them rather than disagreeing.