Thursday, August 29, 2013

What does guilt do?

If you do something wrong that hurts someone else, you feel guilty.  Guilt is a valuable emotion, because it helps to maintain your ties to the people in your community.  It provides a painful consequence for actions that would weaken the groups that you belong to.

Because guilt is painful, people often find ways to soothe their feelings by making up for their actions in some way.  These repairs are also useful, because they help to re-strengthen people’s ties to the community that they have damaged.

A paper in the May, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Cynthia Cryder, Stephen Springer, and Carey Morewedge explored the way that people make these repairs.  They contrasted two possibilities.  One possibility is that when you do something wrong, you try to make it up to the specific people you hurt.  A second possibility is that a guilty person will try to do something for other people to help them feel better.

One set of studies explored a hypothetical situation described by a story.  In this case, college students read that they were part of a group project.  In a control condition, they were responsible for giving a presentation about the results of the project, and they gave the presentation.  In an experimental condition, they were responsible for giving a presentation, but overslept. 

Later that day, participants read that they were having dinner at a restaurant with a group.  Some people were told that they were having dinner with their project team.  The dinner was BYOB (bring your own bottle), and so participants had to select how much they would pay for a bottle of wine.  They were allowed to select from a set of wines ranging in price (and quality) from $8 to $20.  In addition, they were told that after dinner when everyone had paid what they thought they owed, the table was $9 short on the bill.  Participants were asked how much additional money they would contribute toward the shortfall.

Participants who were made to feel guilty were willing to pay more for a bottle of wine, and they contributed more toward the bill than people who were not made to feel guilty. 

So far, this result just indicates that guilty people want to do something to help people.  In another condition, people made to feel guilty were told that they were having dinner with a different group of people.  In this case, people spent about the same amount on the wine and the bill as those in the control condition.  So, people want to make repairs specifically to the people they harmed.

Two other results from this set of studies are also interesting. 

One is that guilt is a specific emotion that is different from just feeling bad about an action.  In another study, the researchers compared feeling guilty (using the oversleeping scenario just described) to a case where someone cheated on the project by using slides prepared by a group who did a similar project the previous year.  In this case, the dinner scenario only included the need to add money to the dinner bill.  Participants who felt guilty added more money to the bill than those who cheated.

The second is that guilt also affected real decisions of participants.  In a clever study, research participants were made to feel guilty toward another participant.  They were given an elaborate description of the experiment written in small print.  Few participants read the whole set of instructions.  Then, they were given the choice of eating either some fruit flavored jellybeans or some vomit flavored jellybeans.  Unsurprisingly, most people chose the fruit flavored jellybeans.  After making their choice, participants were told that “as they read in the description of the study,” another participant was going to have to eat the jellybeans they did not select.  This made people feel guilty that they made someone else eat vomit flavored jellybeans.  In a control condition, participants were told that their partner would eat the same flavor jellybeans they selected.

After eating the fruit flavored candy, participants played a dictator game.  The dictator game comes from behavioral economics.  Participants are given money (in this case $5) and are told that they can keep as much of it as they want, but they can choose how much they would like to give to a partner.  Participants were told that their partner in this game was the same participant who would eat the jellybeans based on their initial selection.  Participants whose initial choice forced their partner to eat vomit flavored beans gave about three times as much money to their partner as those whose initial choice forced their partner to eat fruit flavored beans.

These results show the positive power that guilt can have.  Whenever you do something that could hurt another person, you run the risk of damaging your relationship with them.  Your feelings of guilt lead you to be more generous to that person in a way that can demonstrate clearly that your relationship is valuable. 

One thing that further research needs to explore is how people who have been hurt by someone else react to these gestures.  It would be interesting to know whether you are more likely to forgive people who take actions to show that they value their relationship with you.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Changing your own mind

The old joke says that you only need one psychologist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change.  Part of wanting to change is changing your attitude toward some behavior.  A smoker needs to start thinking about why the dangers of smoking outweigh the benefits before she will have success quitting. 

What can you do to change your mind about something?

One possibility is that you should try to convince yourself.  That is, you could generate a set of arguments about a topic that you think are most convincing for yourself.  Another possibility, though, is that you should act as though you are trying to convince someone else.  In that case, you would generate arguments that you think would be most convincing for some other person.

Which is better?

This question was addressed in a paper in the May, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Pablo BriƱol, Michael McCaslin, and Richard Petty.  The answer is a little complicated.

Sometimes, you try to change your mind by making yourself even more convinced of something you already believe at least a little.  For example, most college students would be in favor of a proposal to decrease tuition at their school.  In this case, people are more convinced if they generate arguments to convince someone else than if they generate arguments to convince themselves. 

In one study, for example, the participants were college students, and they were asked to generate arguments in favor of lowering tuition.  They were asked to imagine either that they were trying to convince themselves or that they were trying to convince another person.  Later, they were asked about their attitude toward a proposal to lower tuition.  The people who generated arguments for someone else were more strongly in favor of the proposal than those who generated arguments for themselves. 

A different pattern was obtained when people had to convince themselves of something that they do not believe.  In this same study, some students were asked to argue that tuition should be raised.  Again, some people made this argument to convince themselves, while others made this argument to convince someone else.  In this case, students ended up feeling more favorably toward a proposal to raise tuition when they tried to convince themselves than when they tried to convince someone else.

Why does this happen?

It all comes down to effort.

When you are arguing about something you already believe, you don’t have to work that hard to convince yourself.  If you think tuition should be lowered, you aren’t going to try that hard to convince yourself of it, because you already believe it.  If you are trying to convince someone else, though, you will work harder and generate better arguments.  As a result, you end up convincing yourself even more strongly.

When you are arguing about something you don’t currently believe, though, you have to work harder to convince yourself.  In this case, you end up being more effective when you try to convince yourself than when you try to convince someone else. 

In the end, then, if you are truly trying to change your mind, you need to argue with yourself rather than with someone else.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Size does matter—when you’re putting

It is tempting to think of our eyes as video cameras that take in information about the world and try to give us a reasonably accurate picture of what is going on in the outside world.

Key arguments against this way of thinking about vision were made by JJ Gibson, who developed an ecological theory of how we perceive the world starting in the 1950s.  His approach focused on asking what vision is for.  He pointed out that the main function of vision is to help us perform actions in the world, and so our visual system should give us information that will help us to act effectively.

That means that our goals can influence what we see.  In a classic study, Bruner and Goodman found that poor children judged the sizes of coins as larger than well-off children.  The idea is that if you really need a coin, then you will actually think it is larger than it is. 

More recently, Dennis Proffitt and his colleagues have found that people looking at hills they will have to climb judge the slopes to be steeper when they are wearing a heavy backpack than when they are not.  The judged slope is an indicator of the amount of effort it will take to climb the slope, so when it feels like it will be hard to climb, the slope appears steeper.

Jessica Witt has explored a similar issue in sports.  Her work finds that baseball batters see the ball as larger when they are hitting well than when they are not.  Similarly, putters tend to see the hole as larger when they make a putt.  In some way, confidence in these sports skills influences success.

A paper in the April, 2012 issue of Psychological Science suggests that changing the way people see something can also influence their skill.  In their study, they had people make a series of 10-foot golf putts.  To influence people’s perception of the size of the hole, they made use of a classic visual illusion called the Ebbinghaus illusion.  In the Ebbinghaus illusion, a circle in the center is surrounded by other circles.  When the surrounding circles are large, then the circle in the center looks smaller than when the surrounding circles are small.

To create the Ebbinghaus illusion with the golf hole, circles of light were projected on the putting surface.  When the circles were small, the golf hole appeared larger than when the circles were large.  When the golf hole appeared large, participants in the study made more putts than when it appeared small.  The effect was not huge.  Participants made about 10% of the putts when the hole appeared small and about 17% when it appeared large.  But it was statistically reliable. 

This effect is interesting, because most studies show that goals and performance influence perception.  For example, the heavy backpack makes the hill harder to climb, which makes the slope appear steeper.  This study goes the opposite way.  It shows that influencing the way people perceive the world can influence how they act on it.

Of course, more work needs to be done to understand why this effect occurs.  In putting, for example, it is possible that when the hole appears larger, people are more confident and so they are willing to hit the ball a little harder, and so they are less likely to miss putts by being short of the hole.    

Monday, August 19, 2013

Thinking fast promotes risky behavior

The school year is about to start, and the University of Texas is about to be flooded with students.  Every year, a few of those students end up doing silly things.  The campus police blotter is filled with stories of strange risks large and small that students engage in.

There are many factors that can promote this kind of risk taking.  An interesting paper in the April, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Jesse Chandler and Emily Pronin suggests that someone’s speed of thinking might be one of them.

Quite a bit of work (much of it by Emily Pronin) has explored influences of fast thinking on behavior.  For example, fast thinking can improve your mood.

In one study in this paper, participants were asked to read a number of trivia statements.  Some people (the fast thinkers) were asked to read at about twice their normal reading speed, while others (the slow thinkers) were asked to read about half of their normal reading speed.  Consistent with previous work, the fast thinkers reported that they were in a better mood after reading than the slow thinkers.

After reading, everyone was asked to perform the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART).  In the BART, people see a balloon on a computer screen.  They can inflate the balloon a bit more with each press of a button on the keyboard.  Each time they inflate the balloon a bit more, they get 5-cents.  When they stop pumping up the balloon, they can keep whatever they earn.  However, if the balloon pops, they lose the money they have accumulated.  Participants are not given any information about how many pumps they can make on a given balloon before it will pop.  This task has been used in many previous studies to measure how much risk someone is willing to take.

In this study, the fast thinkers pumped the balloon more often than the slow thinkers, indicating that they were willing to take on risk.  On the positive side, this risky behavior allows these participants to make more money on each balloon that they did not pop.  On the negative side, they also popped more balloons than the slow thinkers.

A second study examined college student’s willingness to engage in real-world risky behaviors.  In this study, the fast thinkers watched a movie in which the scene changed every ¾ of a second.  The medium thinkers watched a movie in which the scene changed every second and a half.  The slow thinkers saw a movie whose scenes changed every 3 seconds.  The shots in the film were all nature scenes that were matched for content across the three versions of the film.

After watching the films, participants filled out a survey in which they rated how likely they were to engage in a variety of behaviors including things like playing drinking games, having unprotected sex, and damaging public property.  They also rated how likely these behaviors were to get them in trouble.

The fast thinkers rated themselves as more likely to engage in risky behavior in the future than the slow thinkers (with the medium thinkers coming out in between).  The fast thinkers also thought that the risky behaviors were less likely to get them in trouble than the slow thinkers.  So, fast thinking influences risk in part by decreasing how risky people see these behaviors to be.

What does this mean?

This work suggests that if you find yourself in a situation where you face some risk, it is probably a good idea to slow down. Counting to 10 before you go ahead and do something risky is not a bad idea.  It may help you to be more effective at deciding how dangerous an activity might be.

Of course, if you are the sort of person who never engages in anything risky, and you want to take more risks than you do now, then this work suggests you can do that by speeding up your thinking.  A little fast thinking might make you more willing to engage in things that your cautious nature might keep you from doing otherwise.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Respect and status are not the same

In any group, some people emerge as the leaders.  Those leaders have high status within the group, because others end up following what they decide.  Movies and TV shows about groups often suggest that within any group that has the power to accomplish things, there are a number of status seekers that hope to take over the leadership role.   If you watch a show about Elizabethan England, Renaissance Italy, or modern-day Washington, DC, you might end up thinking that all anybody cares about is achieving some degree of status.

Yet when you look at the groups around you, most of them are fairly stable.  Your local PTA has some people who rise up to run the show, while others are content to get the occasional assignment to help with a classroom or to participate in an activity to beautify the school. If you are a member of the PTA, you might not want to run things, though you probably want to be respected for the effort you put in.  That is, the PTA probably doesn’t operate like the Queen’s court.

An interesting paper in the May, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Cameron Anderson, Robb Willer, Gavin Kilduff, and Courtney Brown explored respect and status within groups. 

Their work suggests that everyone wants to be respected by the people around them, but people tend to seek a high rank within a group only when they are confident that they have something to contribute to that group.  They reported the results of an on-line survey of the groups people belong to.  In general, people were most likely to prefer being in the top ranks of a group primarily when they felt that they had a lot to offer the group.  They were content to take a smaller and lower-status role when they felt that other people had more to offer.  Regardless of their desire for status, though, everyone wanted to feel like their contributions were respected.

Based on this result alone, though, it is possible that the status people have in a group influences their sense of how much value they can provide rather than the other way around.

To disentangle these factors, the researchers also report three studies that manipulate people’s perception of the value they can provide.  For example, in one study, participants did a simple vision test in which they were briefly shown grids of black and white squares and had to estimate the proportion of black squares in each grid.  They were told that this pre-test would be a good predictor of how well they were going to do in a group task that was going to be done next.

After doing this estimation task, people were told that they got 12 answers correct.  Half the people were told that the three people they were going to work with did worse than they did.  So, these people thought they had high ability.  The other half of the participants were told that the three people they were going to work with did better than they did.  These people thought that they had low ability. 

Before continuing, people were asked a number of other questions including questions about whether they wanted a leadership role in the group task and whether they wanted their work with the group to be respected by others. 

Consistent with the survey, people who felt they had high ability were more likely to want a leadership role in the group than people who felt they had low ability.  Everyone wanted the same level of respect for their efforts from others, though.  Other studies in this series found that this relationship between the belief about ability and the desire for status was not influenced by factors like self-esteem or general beliefs that the world is a fair place.

This result is important, because it helps us to understand why groups often function effectively.  In every group, people need to take on a role that fits with the contribution that they can make to the group.  Those people with the most ability should strive to lead.  Other group members should be willing to defer to the group leaders.  When the group works effectively, though, everyone is respected for helping the group to succeed.

Groups start to break down when these relationships fall apart.  When someone seeks to lead without having the ability to contribute effectively, then the people working under them get frustrated quickly.  That is when tension emerges over who should have high-status positions.  Similarly, when people in low-status positions begin to feel like their contributions are not being respected, their attachment to the group weakens. 

Although status and respect are not the same, both are vital for the healthy function of groups.

Monday, August 12, 2013

When do you practice what you preach?

Philosophers and observers of human behavior have noticed that people often make moral claims that they cannot live up to.  There are countless examples of scandals involving religious and political leaders who talk publicly about living up to high moral standards, but whose personal lives do not measure up.  These observations have spurred a number of lines of psychological research.

In 1997, Jonathan Baron and Mark Spranca focused on a particular kind of moral statement people make called a protected value.  A protected value is a moral line that people say they simply will not cross.  For many people, for example, abortion crosses a protected value of the sanctity of human life.  For these people, they simply will not accept any violation of this value.  A key sign that a protected value is threatened is that people experience a sense of moral outrage. 

This strong reaction to violations of a protected value are felt most strongly when the value is challenged directly.  In fact, research by Julie Irwin and Jonathan Baron in 2001 suggests that even people who hold a particular protected value will make tradeoffs related to it when they are not asked about it directly. 

In their studies, some participants were people who expressed a protected value for saving the rainforest.  When faced directly with the opportunity to purchase furniture made from wood harvested from the rainforest, these participants were unwilling to do so.  However, if participants with this protected value were asked about how much money they would spend for a variety of pieces of furniture (some of which contained wood from rainforests), almost all of them expressed a price that they would actually be willing to pay.  So, when the protected value was not made overt in the choice, it had a much weaker effect on people’s behavior. 

Even in less extreme circumstances, people’s beliefs about their behavior often do not match their actual behavior.  An interesting paper by Oriel FeldmannHall, Dean Mobbs, Davy Evans, Lucy Hiscox, Lauren Navrady, and Tim Dalgleish published in Cognition in 2012 explores this issue.  They compared performance in hypothetical and real moral situations.

The studies focused on a game called Pain vs. Gain.  In this game, one participant is given £20.  A second participant is strapped into a chair where they will be given moderately painful electric shocks.  On each of the 20 trials of the game, the participant can pay up to £1 to minimize the severity of the shock.  If they give up 1£, then the other participant receives no shock at all.  If they give up nothing, then the participant receives the most painful shock. 

In the hypothetical version, the game is described to people, and they are asked how much money they would keep. In this condition, participants predict they will keep about £1.50.  This prediction reflects people’s general belief that they do not want to cause harm to other people.

In the real version of the game, participants actually played the game.  At the start of the study, they met a second participant who was assigned to receive the shocks.  They got to experience a mild shock to get a sense of what the other participant might feel.  On each trial, they made responses on a computer of how much money they would give up on that trial using a slider to pick a value between £0 and £1.  Then, they saw the effects of the shock on the other participant by video.  In actuality, the other participant was a confederate who was never actually given a shock, but was acting as though they had.  In this version of the experiment, participants actually kept about £12.50.  In this study, the data from a participant was only used if that participant believed that the study was real and the other participant had actually received the shocks.

So, people’s actual behavior differed quite a bit from what they would predict they would do. 

In a second study, the researchers explored ways to make people’s predictions more accurate.  They reasoned that people have a hard time simulating what it is like to be faced with this choice, and so they fall back on a general rule like “don’t harm other people” to predict what they would do.  In this study, they created three other hypothetical versions of the game. 

In one, the game was described in great detail, and participants were asked how much money they thought they would keep.  In this case, participants thought they might keep about £4.  In another version, the game was described, and participants actually played all 20 rounds of the game.  In this case, they kept about £8.  In a third condition, participants went through the entire scenario of meeting another participant and getting a sample shock, but then, they were told to imagine that the other participant was connected to the shock.  Then, they played all 20 rounds of the game.  In this case, participants kept about £12, which is about what the participants playing the real game kept.

This research is related to a lot of work on the consistency between people’s attitudes and their behaviors.  In essence, it is hard to predict what you are going to do in a situation if you are not experiencing that situation.  When you say what you are going to do in a situation, you are making your best guess about it.  However, it is hard for you to simulate all of the other factors that are going to influence your behavior.  As a result, your predictions are often inaccurate.  So, if you want to be as accurate as possible in predicting your future behavior, make the circumstances in which you make the prediction as similar as possible to the situation in which you will be acting.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why are people more forgiving when they get older?

Forgiveness can be difficult.  When someone does something wrong to you, it often takes time and effort to get beyond what they did and to forgive.  A common observation, though, is that older people (in their 70s and 80s) are much more forgiving than young and middle-aged adults. 

Why is this?

There are a number of factors that influence forgiveness that come together to make older adults more forgiving than younger ones.  

First, people who are religious tend to forgive others more often than those who are not religious.  Older adults tend to be more religious than younger ones.  As older adults become more religious, they become more forgiving.

Second, studies suggest that older adults experience fewer really negative interactions with other people than younger adults.  In addition, because of their life experience, older adults don’t get as upset about these negative interactions as younger adults.  These factors combine to make it easier for older adults to forgive others than younger adults.

A third factor, explored in a paper by Marianne Steiner, Mathias Allemand, and Michael McCullough in the April 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin focuses on personality factors. 

This work focuses on two observations. 

First, the tendency to forgive is related to the personality dimensions of agreeableness and neuroticism.  Agreeableness is how much someone feels the need to do and say things that help them get along with others.  Neuroticism is the degree to which someone feels negative emotions like stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness in response to life events.  As you might expect, people high in agreeableness tend to be more forgiving than those low in agreeableness.  People high in neuroticism tend to be less forgiving than those low in neuroticism.

Second, there is a drift in people’s level of agreeableness and neuroticism as they get older.  Older adults tend to get more agreeable and less neurotic as they age. 

In two studies, the Steiner, Allemand, and McCullough examined personality characteristics and forgiveness in adults ranging in age from 19-84.  In these studies, the older adults were indeed higher in agreeableness and lower in neuroticism than the younger adults.  In addition, people who were more agreeable were also more forgiving than those who were less agreeable.  People who were more neurotic were less forgiving than those who were more neurotic.  Overall, this led older adults to be more forgiving than younger adults.

So, if you don’t happen to be an older adult, how can you help yourself to be more forgiving?  One lesson to be learned from older adults is that most negative life events are less severe than they look up close.  People clearly say and do all kinds of mean things, but few people are truly mean deep down.  Holding a grudge against those people just provides you with fewer opportunities to see their good side. 

To help you put negative events into perspective, try thinking about them from the vantage point of an older adult.  Think about being 80 years old and looking back on your life right now.  Ask yourself whether the bad thing that just happened will really matter after all of those years have gone by.  Often, you will find that they really don’t matter much.  That can help to make it easier to forgive in the here and now.

Monday, August 5, 2013

You can overcome fixations and achieve insight

There are many different roads to innovation.  James Dyson developed his vacuum cleaner by noticing an analogy between vacuum cleaners and sawmills.  George DeMestral created Velcro after looking at cockleburs sticking to the fur of his dog.

One strand of insight comes from breaking functional fixedness.  The idea behind functional fixedness is best illustrated with the television show MacGyver.  In this show, the main character would routinely get into a jam.  To get himself out of it, he would fashion a device using all sorts of objects around him.  The fascinating thing, though, was that he would use these objects in novel ways.  Paper clips became wires; a toolbox was  emptied and used to float something on a lake; a clock was taken apart to use some of its gears.

Broadly, we tend to think of objects having particular functions.  Paper clips are for holding together papers.  Toolboxes are for holding tools.  We don’t think about all of the parts of those objects and the materials they are made from, and so we don’t recognize that we might be able to use those same objects for many different functions.  The fun of MacGyver was watching him rig up a device by using objects in new ways. 

For MacGyver, of course, it was all in the script.  What can the rest of us do?  An interesting paper by Tony McCaffrey in the March, 2012 issue of Psychological Science suggests that everyone can get better at breaking out of functional fixedness. 

The key to breaking out of habitual ways of looking at objects is to list all of the features of the objects and then to describe them by looking at what they are made of rather than by thinking about their function.  In the paper, McCaffrey gives the example of trying to combine together two metal rings using a candle and a block of metal.  People have a lot of difficulty with this problem.  However, if you start to list the parts of the objects, you recognize that a candle is made of wax and a wick.  That wick is made of string.  If you scrape the wax off the candle, you can use the string to tie together the rings. 

In a study exploring this method, McCaffrey compared one group that was taught to list out all of the properties of the objects with another group that did not get this instruction.  Then, the groups were given a series of six insight problems to solve that all required overcoming functional fixedness  The control group solved about half the problems, while the group listing features solved over 80% of the problems. 

This strategy is a nice one to use when you get stuck solving a problem.  Whenever you get stuck, it is possible that the knowledge and tools you need to solve a problem are easily available.  The key to effective problem solving is to describe a problem in a way that allows you to use your knowledge to solve it.  Listing the parts of objects around you in a function-free way is a nice method for helping you to redescribe a problem in ways that might allow you to find an innovative solution.