Thursday, June 27, 2013

It is motivating to belong to a group

There are lots of benefits to being a member of a community.  People feel more secure when they know that they have others around them who share their goals and care about their progress.  That is one reason why it can be so stressful to move or to travel.  Suddenly, you are cut off from your regular group.

But, how much of a connection do you need with others in order to get some benefit from being a member of a group?  This question was explored in a paper by Gregory Walton, Geoffrey Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven Spencer in the March, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Their research suggests that you don’t need much connection before you start to see some benefit. 

In one study, for example, college student participants read an article that was supposed to have been written by a more advanced student who had a positive experience in math.  The biography of the author of this article included their birthday.  For some participants, the biography was set up so that the author of the article and the participant had the same birthday.  For others, the participant and the author had birthdays several months apart. 

After reading this article, participants were given a geometry problem that is impossible to solve (involving coloring a map with a fixed number of colors).  Participants who shared a birthday with the author of the article worked longer on the impossible problem than participants who did not share a birthday.  In addition, the participants who shared a birthday with the author of the article had more positive thoughts about math and rated the math department at their university as a friendlier and warmer place. 

Another study created an arbitrary relationship between people.  People were given a sticker to wear at the start of the study.  Later, they were told that the people with that color sticker were either part of the “numbers” group or part of the “puzzles” group.  After being placed in these groups, people were given the impossible math problem used before.  People who were part of the “numbers” group worked on the problem longer than those who were part of the “puzzles” group.  Interestingly, this effect only happened for those people who were highly interested in math.  People who were not interested in math were not affected by being put in the “numbers” group. 

Putting these studies together, this work shows that even a simple relationship between people based on arbitrary reasons like sharing a birthday or being randomly assigned to a group) is enough to increase feelings of warmth and motivation. 

Ultimately, people seem wired to adopt the goals of the people around with, particularly when they feel close to those others.  Of course, that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what the people around us are doing.  For that reason, we have to be careful to surround ourselves with other people who are engaging in the behaviors that we would like to see in ourselves.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What do you enjoy doing?

Often, I hear people repeat the phrase, “Life is a journey, you have to enjoy the ride.”  I completely agree that it is important to enjoy the things you do each day.  If you want to set up your life so that you can enjoy as many of the moments as possible, though, are there particular experiences you ought to strive for?

This issue was addressed in an interesting paper by Sami Abuhamdeh and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the March, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The starting point for this paper is the observation that you perform activities for different reasons.  Extrinsically motivated activities are done because there is some goal that they achieve.  A student might go to a lecture, for example, because she has to go in order to get credit for the class.  Intrinsically motivated activities are done because there is something inherently rewarding about doing them.

The first study in this paper examined an intrinsically motivated activity—playing chess.  Most chess players play the game, because they enjoy it.  The researchers tracked 87 male chess players using a chess website over a 2-week period.  On average, players played about 16 games in that period.  After each game, the players rated their enjoyment of the game. 

Two main factors influenced players’ enjoyment of the games they played.  Games that they felt were challenging were enjoyed more than games that were easy.  Games in which a player felt he played well were enjoyed more than games in which a player felt he did not play well. 

This study suggests that people find activities particularly rewarding when they are challenged and engaged.

Of course, this result might just reflect something about chess players.  Perhaps the people who gravitate to chess are ones that enjoy a challenge.  So, in a second study over a thousand people were tracked for a week at a time.  Participants wore a watched that beeped at random times of the day.  When it beeped, participants were supposed to fill out a survey about what they were doing, why they were doing it, how much they enjoyed it, and they answered questions about whether the activity was challenging and whether they were performing well. 

There are two nice aspects of this method.  First, the researchers were able to sample a large number of activities.  Second, some of these activities were being done for extrinsic reasons (the participant had to do them) and others were being done for intrinsic reasons (the participant wanted to do them). 

An interesting pattern emerged.  First, people generally enjoyed intrinsically motivated activities more than extrinsically motivated activities.  For all activities, participants enjoyed them more when they thought they were doing them well than when they thought they were doing them poorly.  However, the results for challenging tasks depended on the reason for doing them.  For intrinsically motivated tasks (like playing chess or doing a sport) the activity was more fun when it was challenging than when it was not.  For extrinsically motivated tasks (like housework or an exam) the activity was more fun when it was easy than when it was challenging.

So, what can you do if you want to enjoy life’s journey?

First, try to focus your life on activities you do because there is something about them you enjoy.  Even when there are things you technically ‘have’ to do (like going to school or going to work), you can try to find elements of them that are inherently enjoyable.

Second, find ways to challenge yourself.  The more that you are engaged with your world, the more you will enjoy it.  Don’t take the easy road through life.  Not only will you achieve more, you’ll have a better time doing it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Developing good study habits really works

Knowledge is the essence of smart thinking.  No matter how much raw intelligence you have, you are not going to succeed at solving complex problems without knowing a lot.  That’s why we spend the first 20 (or more) years of our lives in school. 

Robert Bjork and fellow PT blogger Nate Kornell have explored some of the study habits of college students in a 2007 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.  Research on memory provides a number of important suggestions about the most effective ways to study. One of the most important tips is that students should study by testing themselves rather than just reading over the material.  It is also important to study over a period of days rather waiting until the last minute to study.  Kornell and Bjork’s studies suggest that only about 2/3 of college students routinely quiz themselves, and a majority of students study only one time for upcoming exams.

Of course, guidelines from memory research come from studies in idealized circumstances.  Researchers bring participants (many of whom are college students) into a lab and ask them to learn material.  Perhaps the recommendations drawn from these studies are not that helpful for real students dealing with real courses.

To address this question, Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky related the study habits of college students to their grade point average (GPA) in a 2012 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.  They asked students about a number of study behaviors.  They also had students report their current GPA.

The students with the highest GPA were more likely to study by testing themselves than the students with lower GPAs.  What is the most effective way to test yourself, though?  It turns out that most students report using flashcards, and the use of flashcards does not predict a student’s grades.  However, flash cards usually allow people to learn basic aspects of a domain like key vocabulary.  Really understanding something new requires practice with explaining it.  So, self-testing needs to involve deeper questions than the ones that are usually written on flash cards.

All college students tend to focus their study on upcoming assignments.  That is no surprise, because college is a busy time.  The most successful students, though, also schedule time to study for classes even before the exam is coming up.  The students who make a schedule and stick with it tend to get better grades than those who just work on whatever is coming up.

Finally, the time of day that students study also matters.  College students are notorious night owls.  Indeed, few students reported studying in the morning, or even in the afternoon.  Most students study in the evening and late at night.  One of the interesting results of this research, though, is that the students who study late at night tend to get worse grades than those who study in the evening. 

It is always nice when studies of real-world behavior mesh with recommendations from basic research.  In the case of studying, though, it seems particularly important to ensure that basic research influences behavior.  People invest several years and thousands of dollars in a college education.  That education has an enormous effect on their future productivity.  Cognitive science can ensure that students maximize the value of that experience.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Even for young kids, explanation guides exploration

It is generally a positive characteristic to be curious.  When you are curious, you spend a lot of time trying to understand the way the world around you works.

If we dig a bit deeper into this idea, there seem to be two related aspects of curiosity.  The first is that it is important to try to explain how the world works.  That is, curious people spend a lot of time asking the question “why?”  But, having asked why? it is also important to try to answer that question.  So, curious people should also explore the world, taking things apart and trying to understand what makes them tick.

As I discuss in my book Smart Thinking, it is crucial to develop high quality knowledge about the way the world works if you ultimately want to be able to solve new problems. 

An important question is whether creating explanations for things guides people’s search for new knowledge.  This question was addressed in a clever study published in a 2012 issue of Child Development by my colleague Cristine Legare.  She studied children between the ages of 2 and 6.

In these studies, children were exposed to both surprising and unsurprising events.  First, this study explored the kinds of explanations give to these events.  In particular, kids should be most focused on trying to explain surprising things.  Second, the study examined whether the type of explanations that kids give to surprising events influenced the way that the kids played with the objects later. 

At the beginning of the experiment, children were shown two boxes with lights inside them.  The boxes were designed so that when some objects were placed on top of them, the boxes would light up.  (The boxes were actually set up so that an experimenter watching the study could turn the boxes on and off, but from the child’s perspective, the boxes lit up when certain objects were put on them.)

The objects used in this study were blocks of different shapes and colors.  All of the blocks were actually boxes, so that if you looked carefully at them, you could see that they opened up.

A block of a particular shape and color (say a red triangle) was placed on top of one light box, and then the other.  When the block touched the box, it lit up.  Children were told, “This is a blicket.”  Then, another block of the same shape and color (another red triangle) was placed on each of the boxes.  Once again, when the block touched the box, it lit up, and it was labeled a blicket.  After that, a different block (perhaps a green hexagon) was placed on the box.  This time, the box did not light up.  The child was told “This is not a blicket.”

After being introduced to the box and the blocks, children saw two more demonstrations.  Now, two light boxes were put in front of the child.  The blicket was placed on one box and the not-a-blicket was placed on the other.  The first time this happened, the box with the blicket on it lit up, and the box with the not-a-blicket did not.  The key part of the experiment came when the next pair of blocks was tried.  In the consistent condition, the blicket made the box light up again and the not-a-blicket did not.  In the inconsistent condition, neither block made the box light up.

Children were asked to explain what just happened.  After giving an explanation, the children were allowed to play with the blocks for a while.  After completing this part of the study, the children each participated in the other condition as well.  So, each child did both the consistent and inconsistent conditions.

When children saw a consistent event, they rarely saw the need to explain what happened.  If blickets consistently made the box light up, then the best explanation for why a new block made the box light up was that it was a blicket.

The inconsistent events were the ones that really required an explanation.  In this case, there was a block that once made the box light up, and now a new one failed to make it light up. 

Children at all ages tried to come up with explanations for what went wrong.  At each age group, there were two general types of explanations that children gave.  Some tried to explain why the block did not make the box light up.  They might way that the block ran out of batteries, or that placed on the box the wrong way.  Others explained the unexpected event by focusing on the category the object belonged to.  They would say things like, “I guess that one isn’t really a blicket.”  Overall, about half of the kids gave explanations for why the object didn’t make the box light up, while about a third of the kids focused on the category of the objects.  The explanations given by the rest of the kids were some other type.

The type of explanation kids gave was related to the way the kids played with the objects later.  The kids who tried to explain why the block did not make the box light up spent more of their play time testing the blocks than the kids who gave other types of explanations for what happened.  They would stack a few blocks on the machine, open up the blocks, and tried different combinations of blocks on the boxes. 

The children who gave explanations based on the categories of the objects spent more time than other children sorting the blocks into categories.  They would place a block on the box, and if it lit up, they put it in one pile, but if it didn’t light up they put it in another pile.  This kind of behavior will not let children understand anything about why the blocks make the box light up, it just confirms that some blocks make the box light up, while others don’t.

A fascinating aspect of these findings is that there is a clear relationship between curiosity and exploration.  Starting from the age of 2, when a child asks the question why, this question is followed by an attempt to answer that question.  That means that giving explanations that focus on understanding why things happen drives a better understanding of why the world works as it does.  Merely categorizing objects in the world does not promote this same kind of understanding.

There are two important questions for future research raised by these studies.  First, are there big differences between kids in how likely they are to give why explanations?  Is a kid who asks why today also more likely to ask why tomorrow?

Second, can we teach kids to be better at asking why?  Because the kids who ask why are engaging in behaviors that promote smart thinking, it would be wonderful to help make that a habit even in kids who don’t generally ask why on their own.

And, of course, even as adults, we should spend a lot of time asking why.