Thursday, October 31, 2013

Persuasion is local

I do my best to avoid advertising.  I don’t have cable TV.  I listen to public radio.  But, I can’t avoid it completely.  I was reminded of that recently when I went to see one of the big summer blockbusters at a local theater.  I had to get to the theater early to avoid sitting right up front, but that meant I had to endure 20 minutes of advertising that the theater used to keep me “entertained” while I waited for the start of the show.

As I sat in the theater, I looked at the diverse audience.  There were young kids there with parents.  There were packs of teens.  There were grandparents taking grandchildren.  There was also a racial and ethnic mix in the crowd.  So, how can the same ad reach all of these people?

On the one hand, it is clear that a big part of advertising is just exposing people to a product or brand.  Research on mere exposure going back to the 1960s shows that people like things better when they have seen them before than when they are new.  I have written about the effects of mere exposure in other blog entries. 

But, what about the content of the message in an ad?  Even if the product is one that would appeal to most people in the crowd, do people respond differently to different kinds of messages? 

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer.  There is a nice paper in the June, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Jacob Hirsh, Sonia Kang, and Galen Bodenhausen that looked at the effectiveness of different advertising messages based on people’s personality traits.

Personality psychologists have identified the “Big Five.”  These traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism) are the broad ways that people differ from each other.  For example, extraverts tend to like excitement and to be the center of attention in group situations, while introverts do not.  People who are highly agreeable tent to like to please others.

The researchers developed five versions of an ad for a new phone.  Buried in the ad were sentences that were aimed at people with a particular personality trait.  For example, for the extraverts, the ad said that the phone was designed for “strong, active, outgoing people like you…you’ll always be where the excitement is…[this phone] will keep you in the spotlight.” 

The ad designed for highly agreeable people had sentences like “You’ll have access to your loved ones like never before…designed with empathy and consideration…get in touch with your caring side.”

The study was run using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is a site where people can do simple tasks and get paid.  Researchers are increasingly using Mechanical Turk to collect data, because it allows them to go beyond the population of college students that are normally used in research studies.

Research participants saw one version of the ad and rated how effective they thought it was.  Then, they filled out a brief questionnaire that assessed their personality along the Big Five dimensions. 

The data showed that ads were rated as more effective when the message resonated with an aspect of a person’s personality.  That is, people with high levels of extraversion responded favorably to the ad that was written for extraverts, while people with low levels of extraversion responded negative to that ad.  Obviously, people have many different aspects to their personality, so the same person might respond favorably to many different ads if they were all tailored to their personality characteristics.

This study demonstrates a weakness of the typical approach to advertising that blankets people with messages.  Any given ad is going to appeal most strongly to people with particular personality characteristics.  The same ad may be quite effective for people high in a particular characteristic and rather ineffective for people low in that same characteristic.

I suppose that is where social media like Facebook come in.  Presumably, people’s patterns of usage of social media provide information about their personality.  This information could be used by advertisers to present messages that are specific to their traits in ways that would maximize the appeal of those messages. 

Of course, if you don’t want to be influenced by ads, just shut off the TV and take a walk.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The value of experiencing through someone else’s eyes

Here at the University of Texas, we have started a new program called the Human Dimensions of Organizations.  It is an education program for people in the business world that draws from the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences to help people think like leaders.  A key aspect of thinking like a leader is understanding what the people you are leading are going through.

You might wonder why the humanities are included in a program that is designed to help people in business.  Why would a business leader need any training in literature, for example?

One argument that is made frequently is that literature provides people with an opportunity to experience someone else’s life.  An old Caucasian man can get a sense of what it is like to be a young African American woman by reading a story. 

This is a nice sentiment, but is it actually true?  That is, can you really begin to identify with someone just by reading a story?  This question was addressed in an interesting paper by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby in the July, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

The authors explored two main questions.  First, what factors influence whether a reader will experience the world of a person who is different from themselves when reading a story?  Second, are there consequences of experiencing the world of a different person?

In one study, the authors measured the strength of people’s self-consciousness.  Some people are often highly focused on who they are, while others go through life without thinking often about their identity.  After measuring the strength of self-consciousness, college student participants read a story about a college student written in the first person.  The story described an introvert who went to a college party.  After reading the story, participants rated how easy it was to identify with the main character of the story.  They were also asked a number of questions about themselves, many of which asked them about the degree to which they were introverted. 

People who were high in self-consciousness were less likely to identify with the main character of the story than those low in self-consciousness.  That is, the more that you tend to think about your own identity, the harder it is to take on another person’s identity.  The more strongly that readers identified with the main character of the story, the more introverted they rated themselves to be.  That is, experiencing the world through the eyes of an introvert made people think of themselves as more introverted.

A follow-up study demonstrated that if you reduce people’s emphasis on their own identity, it makes it easier for them to identify with the main character of a story.  A second follow-up study found that people are more likely to identify with a character when the story is written in the first-person than if it is written in the third-person.  Presumably, this happens, because a story in the third person creates distance between the reader and the characters.

One study also found a significant relationship between identifying with a character and later behavior. In this study, students read about a college student who overcame a series of obstacles on the way to go vote in an election.  The story was written either in the first person or the third person.  As just described, people identified more with the main character when the story was written in the first person than in the third person.  The 2008 Presidential election was held one month after the study was conducted.  All participants were screened to be eligible to vote in that election.  They were contacted after the election to see how many participants actually voted.  Overall, 65% of the participants who read the first-person version of the story voted, but only 25% of the participants who read the third-person version of the story voted. 

Two other studies in this paper found that when people are able to identify with main characters who differ from themselves in race or sexual orientation, that gives them a more favorable attitude toward those individuals and the groups they come from. 

Putting all of this together, then, literature does provide a way for people to experience the world in a different way.  When readers are willing to identify with a character, it can change attitudes and behavior.  Readers who identify with a character will feel more favorably toward that character and may also take on goals of that character.

This research suggests that reading about different groups can be helpful for aspiring leaders.  One of the greatest problems in business leadership is a failure to understand how the work environment can influence different people in different ways.  A leader who has experienced other people’s lives will have a valuable perspective on the way that different people think, act, and feel. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

To take people’s advice, take their perspective too

You may have noticed that there are two kinds of advice-giving situations.  Sometimes, people come to you for advice, because they really don’t know what to do, and they are asking for your opinion or expertise.  I get a lot of students who come to my office curious about classes that I would suggest that they take given their interests in Psychology.  They don’t know what to take, and they want suggestions to consider.

Other times, though, people already have an opinion.  In those cases, it feels like your advice has little effect on them unless you happen to agree with the opinion they already had.  I have had students come to me asking my opinion about research projects they are considering.  Often, I feel like they are going to go ahead with that project regardless of what I suggest.

A number of studies have demonstrated that when people have an initial opinion, they are likely to stick with that opinion rather than taking advice, even when it is likely that the advice would lead them to a better decision.

The real question is how you can get people to pay more attention to the advice they receive.  That issue was explored in a paper by Ilan Yaniv and Shoham Choshen-Hillel in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  These authors suggested that people who have their own opinion are more likely to take into account advice they get when they are asked to take another person’s perspective rather than their own. 

In one study, people were asked to make a series of estimates like the number of calories in a baked potato.  After making their estimate, people were shown the estimates made by five other people that were drawn randomly from a sample of estimates made from 100 other individuals.  Next, they were asked to make another estimate based on this advice.  Half of the people were asked what their estimate was given this advice.  The other half were told that another person would be shown the five estimates plus their own and would be asked to guess the true value.

The group that was asked what their own estimate would be after seeing the advice kept their initial estimate 50% of the time.  The group that was asked to make an estimate for another person kept their initial estimate only 17% of the time.  In addition, the group that made an estimate for someone else was closer to the true value than those people who estimated for themselves.

People who were making an estimate for themselves felt more confident that they were correct initially, and so they gave too much weight to their own estimate relative to those made by other people. 

Of course, just taking someone else’s perspective wasn’t quite enough.  In another study, after making the estimate for another person, people were asked what their own estimate was after seeing the advice.  In this case, people still tended to stick with their original estimate. 

That means that even after making an estimate for someone else that used all of the information about equally, people still wanted to place too much emphasis on their own initial guess.

In order to help yourself take advice, then, you really need to try to take someone else’s perspective when making a decision.  You have to realize that you are going to have a bias to stick with your own initial opinion.  Rather than looking for advice that agrees with what you already hope to do, try to imaging the situation from the standpoint of someone else. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

How do you decide who owns something?

Ownership is an important part of our daily lives, but most of us do not spend much time thinking about how we make decisions about who owns things.  We care about ownership, because the owner of an object gets to decide what is done with it.  Owners also benefit from the value of the object.

It might seem straightforward to decide who owns something, but it quickly becomes clear that things are more complicated than they seem.  Consider just a simple trip to the store.  You walk into a department store, and you know that all of the objects are owned by the store.  If you take one off the shelf, you are expressing an interest in owning the object, but you don’t own it yet.  So, just holding something does not make it yours.  If you pay the price of the object to the store, exchanging money for the object, it becomes yours, even while you are still standing in the store.  So, the exchange matters.  If you run out of the store with the object, then you have it in your possession, but the object still belongs to the store. 

What kinds of principles to people use to make judgments about ownership?

This question was explored in an interesting paper by Max Palamar, Doan Le, and Ori Friedman in a 2012 paper in the journal Cognition.  They looked at the relationship between people’s beliefs about who is responsible for an action and who owns an object.

When you are in the store, bringing an item to the cashier is your way of announcing that you would like to own it.  When the cashier accepts your money, you and the store are reaching an agreement about ownership.  In this way, you are both responsible for the decision about who owns the object.

The authors of this research paper look at situations where an object is not currently owned by anyone.  When people judge who is responsible for an action, they often focus on whether someone intended to bring about a particular result and whether their action actually led to the desired result.

In one example they use, a man named Mike sees a feather on top of a cactus in the desert.  If Mike wants to get the feather for himself, and he knocks it down with a stick, then we clearly think he is responsible for getting the feather out of the cactus.  If he knocks his stick against the cactus and the feather falls out without the intention to get the feather, then we think Mike is less responsible for getting the feather out.

What would happen in these cases if after the feather fell from the cactus a second man walked up to the feather as it was lying on the ground and picked it up?  Who would be the owner of the feather?

In several studies, people judge that Mike has more right to be the owner of the feather than Dave when he is more responsible for the action of freeing the feather.  So, when Mike wants the feather and takes an action that leads the feather to fall, then people think he should get the feather.  If Mike dislodges the feather accidentally, then people think he has less claim to owning it then if he deliberately dislodges the feather.

Why should we reason about ownership and responsibility in similar ways? 

One reason why this makes sense is because of the importance of control in ownership.  Because owning something allows me to control what is done with it, I am a better owner of that object when I have already done things to take responsibility for actions related to that object.  So, having an intention related to the object and carrying out an action that fulfills that intention demonstrates that a person deserves the control over that object that comes with being an owner.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Specific plans do not always help

A lot of research over the last several years has focused on how to help people to achieve their goals.  One of the results that has emerged from this work is that it is useful to form specific plans.  For example, Peter Gollwitzer’s work on implementation intentions suggests that envisioning a specific plan can increase people’s ability to perform new actions.

Are these specific plans always helpful?

A paper by Claudia Townsend and Wendy Liu to be published in the December, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that specific plans can backfire when people see themselves as being far from achieving their goal.  The idea is that if you form a specific plan that you think will be nearly impossible to achieve, then it is upsetting to create that plan.  In that case, you may actually decrease your commitment to the goal.

In one naturalistic study, they contacted people who were about to receive the tax rebate that was given out to many households in the United States in 2008 during the recession.  Some people were asked to form a specific plan about whether they would spend the rebate, donate it, or save it.  Other people were not asked to do any planning.  Participants were asked a number of other questions including whether they are generally good at saving money for the long-term.  After the rebates were sent, people were asked to report what they did with it. 

The group that did not plan saved about half of the money they received.  People who reported that they are good at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly more than half their money, while those who reported they are bad at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly less than half their rebate. 

This result along might just suggest that planning had no impact at all on behavior.  People who are good at saving are just better at saving money than those who are bad at saving money.

In another study, a planning group was asked to list all of the meals and snacks they would eat for the rest of the day.  An unrelated-planning group planned their studies for the rest of the day.  A third group did no planning.  During the study, participants were also asked to rate whether they felt they were overweight, of average weight, or underweight.  After the study was over, participants were offered a snack as part of their participation.  The snack was either an unhealthy food (a peanut-butter cup), or a healthy food (raisins).  Participants could also refuse to take a snack. 

Participants who felt they were overweight were much more likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack if they planned out their meals than if they did not.  Those who felt they were of average weight were less likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack.  Another study in this series suggested that planning meals made the people who reported that they were overweight feel more distress than those who were of average weight. 

These results are surprising given the previous research suggesting that specific planning helps people to achieve their goals.  What is the difference here?

One possibility lies in an important difference between the planning done in this study and the implementation intentions suggested by Gollwitzer and his colleagues.  In this study, people just planned for what they would like to do ideally.  They suggested how much of their rebate they would like to save or how much food they wanted to eat.  Implementation intentions have an important additional step.  They require that people think through all of the specific obstacles they will face in achieving their goal and to plan for them.

It is one thing to give an ideal for what you would like to achieve.  These ideals can be quite distressing to form when you think you are far from your goal.  However, if you plan for the obstacles, then you have a better chance at handling them when they arise.  A person trying to lose weight can plan to say “No, thank you.” when offered the chance to eat an unhealthy snack.  Without thinking about the obstacles, though, it is hard to have a ready-made course of action when roadblocks inevitably come up. 

So, the results of this study really demonstrate the danger of forming the wrong kind of plan.  It is not enough just to think about what you would like to do ideally.  To succeed at the really hard goals in life, it is crucial to figure out what can go wrong and be ready to address the obstacles.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

You are what you have done not what you own.

In the movie Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is chastised by his friend Rachel Dawes.  He claims to be a good person deep down, even though he is acting foolishly.  She tells him that his actions define who he is.  Later, as Batman, Bruce saves Rachel an attack.  She asks who he is, and he says “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” 

This line can be read in two ways.  One is that the best way for other people to measure your character is by what you have done.  The second is that people’s actions have a big influence on people’s self concept—that is who they think they are. 

This issue was explored in a paper in the June, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich.  The work jumps off from research by Gilovich and his colleagues that I have described in previous blog entries showing that people enjoy things they have purchased more when those purchases provide experiences than when they are just material goods. 

Carter and Gilovich were interested in whether people felt that people’s experiences played a larger role in their self-concepts than the material products they have purchased.

In one study, they had people think about five significant purchases of material goods they had made and five significant purchases of experiences.  A material good might be a television or a piece of furniture.  An experience might be a meal or a vacation.  After thinking about these purchases, people were asked to summarize their life story, writing out what made them who they are.  They asked people to incorporate some of the purchases in their story.  Overall, people included about twice as many experiences in their stories than material purchases.

This study suggests that people feel that their own self-concept is influenced more strongly by what they have done than by what they own.  Another series of studies in this paper explores perceptions of self by others. 

In one experiment in this series, people were asked whether someone else would have a better sense of their true self if they knew about the experiences they had purchased or about the material goods they had purchased.  People rated that others would know them best from their purchases of experiences.

In another experiment, people were asked whether they would know someone else better from their purchases of material goods or from their purchases of experiences.  Again, people rated that they would know someone else better from their experiences than from their material purchases.

It is important to note, of course, that many purchases that we make have both the character of material goods and experiences.  Someone might buy a car in order to own the physical object, but they also might buy it in order to have the experience of driving it.  The authors recognize this issue.  In another experiment, they had people think about the purchase of a 3D television.  They were asked to think either about the material characteristics of the TV or the experience of watching it.  People who thought about the experience rated that it would play a larger role in their self-concept than those who thought about the material aspects of the TV.

Putting all of this together, then, it appears that Rachel Dawes was perceptive.  We do tend to think of ourselves in terms of the experiences we have had.  We also judge other people by the things they have done.  That is an important reason why we are happier when we spend our money on experiences than on things.