Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do Sunny Days Make You Feel Good About Life?

I have a soft spot in my heart for the song “Sunny Side of the Street,” and that song has helped me get through some tough times in my life. The lyric “Life can be so sweet/On the sunny side of the street” captures our general belief that rainy days are sad, while sunny days are happy. 

Clearly, this belief is embedded in our culture.  Not only do we get songs like “Sunny Side of the Street,” but we also have classics like “Rainy Days and Mondays (Always Get Me Down). 

There are a few studies out there that also examine the relationship between weather and measures of well-being (including mood and overall life satisfaction).  An interesting paper in the May, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Richard Lucas and Nicole Lawless points out that there is a lot of inconsistency in the results of studies that have looked at the relationship between mood and well-being.

These researchers analyzed data from over 1 million people who rated their overall life satisfaction on a 4-point scale as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that is run by the US Centers for Disease Control.  This survey included information about where the survey was filled out, and so the responses could be compared against a variety of weather variables for that location.

The researchers examined the relationship between the rating of life satisfaction and temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity.  The researchers also explored a variety of different aspects of these variables.  For example, with cloud cover, they not only look at the cloud cover that day, but also how that cloud cover deviated from the norm at that time of year as well as the difference between the cloud cover on the day of the survey from the previous day’s cloudiness.  Similar analyses were done for all of the weather variables variables.  The researchers also looked for gender differences.

These analyses allowed the researchers to explore questions like whether people are happier when the weather is much sunnier than normal for that time of year, and whether a sunny day that follows a cloudy day makes people happier. 

What do you think they found?  Take a second and make your predictions.  Which of these aspects of the weather had the biggest effect on people’s judgments of their life satisfaction?

The answer is…none of them.  The fascinating thing about these careful analyses is that no aspects of the weather had any appreciable impact on judgments of life satisfaction.  There were a couple of statistically reliable results reported in the study, but they reflected differences of about 0.02 on the measure of life satisfaction.

So, if the weather does not affect our daily judgments of life satisfaction, why do we think that the weather matters?

There are several factors at work here.

First, looking at the data, there are some broad relationships between life satisfaction and the weather.  Overall, people who live in warmer climates are more satisfied with life than people who live in colder climates.  People who live in sunnier climates are more satisfied with life than those who live in cloudier climates.  So, the overall weather in a region does seem to be related to life satisfaction.  Of course, there are many possible reasons for that.  It is easier to exercise when it is warm and sunny than when it is cold and rainy, so perhaps people who live in warm climates get more physical activity than those who live in cold climates.

Second, we often assume that specific factors will have a greater influence on our overall well-being than they actually do.  Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson and their colleagues have explored how they would be affected by positive or negative life events.  People assumed that their life satisfaction would be changed for a long period of time by events like getting into a romantic relationship or being denied tenure.  In fact, although those factors did have a short-term influence on people’s well-being, they did not have a long-term influence on judgments of life satisfaction.  That is our overall level of life satisfaction is governed by many factors, and it is hard to predict how any factor will affect us.

Ultimately, we have to realize that the best predictor of how satisfied we are going to be with our lives tomorrow, six months from now, or next year is how satisfied we are with our lives today.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Your Ethical Mindset

People’s ethical behavior is complicated. 

On the one hand, we have situations in which we are strongly consistent.  For example, many vegans I know will not eat any animal products, they will avoid buying products with leather or animal ingredients, and they give time and money to causes to protect animals.

On the other hand, there are times when our ethical actions may balance each other out.  I know people who give money to environmental causes, but then buy gas-guzzling cars that they know are harming the environment.  They recognize the contradiction in behavior, but accept the contradiction. 

An interesting paper by Gert Cornelissen, Michael Bashshur, Julian Rode, and Marc Le Menestrel in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores the roots of these behaviors. 

As these researchers point out, there are two dominant modes of ethical reasoning.  Consequentialist reasoning focuses on outcomes.  When reasoning consequentially, you focus on whether the end result of an action is one that is acceptable.  Deontological reasoning focuses on principles or rules.  When reasoning deontologically, the key issue is whether a particular ethical principle was enforced. 

Consider the “trolley dilemma,” which has been used in many studies of ethical reasoning.  In this dilemma, a runaway trolley on a track is on a collision course that will kill five people.  You are standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley to another track that would cause only one person to be killed.  Do you pull the lever?  Consequential reasoning suggests that one dead person is better than five dead people, and so you should pull the lever.  Deontological reasoning suggests that killing anyone with an action is a bad thing, and so it is better to let the trolley run its course than to commit an action that would cause someone to die.

The researchers suggest that if you reason about outcomes, then you may be likely to balance outcomes across decisions, but if you reason about moral rules, then you may be likely to maintain consistency across your behavior.

In one study in this paper, participants were induced to think either consequentially or ontologically.  One group was asked to remember an ethical situation in their past.  The consequential group focused on doing something because it benefitted or hurt other people.  The other group was asked to remember an ethical situation in which they followed or failed to follow a principle or norm.

Within each of these groups, some people were asked to focus on a case in which they did something ethical (they helped people or followed a principle).  Others were asked to focus on a case in which they did something unethical (they hurt people or failed to follow a principle).

After recalling a situation, participants played the “dictator game.”  The dictator game emerged from research on behavioral economics.  In this task, two participants are introduced to each other.  Then, one participant is given money (in this case ten coins).  They are told that they can give as many coins as they want to their partner, and that they get to keep the rest.  The more coins they give to their partner, the more fairly they are acting toward someone else.  In this study, participants met their partner, then went into separate rooms where the dictator game was described.  Each participant was told that they were playing the role of the dictator, so data was actually collected from every participant.

When participants were asked to think about ethical situations that were focused on outcomes, they balanced their outcomes.  The people who thought about a situation in which they helped someone gave fewer coins to their partner than the ones who thought about a situation in which they hurt someone else.

When participants thought about ethical situations that were focused on principles, they maintained consistency.  Those who thought about following a principle gave more coins to their partner than those who thought about a situation in which they failed to follow a principle. 

Another study in this series obtained a similar finding, except that participants were given the opportunity to cheat.  Those who thought about consequences were more likely to cheat if they thought about an ethical action they took in the past than if they thought about an unethical action.  Those who thought about principles were more likely to cheat if they thought about an unethical action than if they thought about an ethical one.

You can use these mindsets to help you in ethical situations.  If you find yourself in a dilemma where you are tempted to do something unethical, focus on situations in your past in which you stood up for a principle that was important to you.  This focus will help you to do the ethical thing in the future. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Memory, Aging, and Distraction

The population in the United States is aging.  That has created a lot of anxiety about the cognitive effects of getting older.  Lots of research suggests that older adults are worse than younger adults on a variety of different thinking tasks.  They remember fewer words from lists they see.  They are slower to respond in many situations.  They have more trouble ignoring distracting information. 

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Renee Biss, Joan Ngo, Lynn Hasher, Karen Campbell, and Gillian Rowe suggests that—while these factors may look like they are all aspects of cognitive decline—there are times when these changes may actually be helpful.

In particular, there has been a long line of research in psychology showing that older adults have worse basic recall memory than younger adults.  The typical way to demonstrate this effect is to show participants a list of words and then have them recall the words from that list after a short delay.  College students remember a higher proportion of the words on the list than adults in their 60s and 70s.

The researchers in this study speculate, though, that in many situations there may be subtle reminders of what needs to be remembered in the world.  If older adults pay more attention than younger adults to information that may seem distracting, then that may actually help their memory.

To test this possibility, college students (with an average age of about 20) were compared to older adults (with an average age of about 68.  First, participants saw a list of 20 words that they were told to remember for later.  After a brief delay in which everyone counted backward by 3s starting with the number 74, participants were asked to remember as many words as possible from the list.

After that, participants did a 1-back test. In a 1-back test, a series of pictures are shown, and participants respond with one key when the current picture was identical to the previous picture and with a second key when the current picture was different from the previous picture.  The pictures in this test were all line drawings of objects that were not related to the words that were studied.

On each trial, though, there were words superimposed on the pictures in a different color than the line drawing.  Participants were told that the words were irrelevant to the task and that they should be ignored.  However, eight of those words were items that had actually been presented on the study list.  After doing this 1-back test, participants were asked to recall the list of words again. 

On the initial test, the older adults recalled significantly fewer of the words from the list than the younger adults.  After the 1-back test, older adults recalled more words that had been shown in the 1-back task than words that had not been shown.  In fact, they remembered just about as many of those repeated words as younger adults did.  The younger adults were not affected by the 1-back test.  They remembered words equally well regardless of whether they were repeated in the 1-back test.  In fact, the older adults remembered the repeated words just about as well as the younger adults did, allowing them to overcome the age difference in memory.  Overall, people recalled a little over 30% of the items from the list, so this is not a ceiling effect.

One other interesting finding in this study was that older adults responded slightly more slowly to the pictures when the accompanying word had appeared on the initial list than when it had not.  Younger adults showed no difference in speed to respond to these items.  This finding suggests that older adults were more distracted by items they had seen before than younger adults.  None of the participants included in the analyses explicitly recognized that words from the list had appeared in the 1-back test, so this distraction was happening without awareness.

This research replicates previous work showing that older adults remember less and are more distractible than younger adults.  However, this work also suggests that there is a silver lining to this combination.  If older adults need to remember a piece of information, they may be more likely than younger adults to notice information in the environment that helps them to remember it.  This combination may help them overcome some of their memory limitations.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Frustration and Violent Video Games

If you talk to people who enjoy violent video games, they give many reasons for playing.  Some just like the chance to do things that they would never do in real life.  Others enjoy the chance to get together with friends and play.  Still others see violent video games as a chance to escape the stresses of daily life and blow off a little steam.

Of course, one problem with asking people why they engage in a behavior is that they often don’t have real insight into the factors that influence their behavior.  As I often say, the reason that so many people need therapy and counseling in their lives is because they are not entirely sure why they do what they do.

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jodi Whitaker, Andre Melzer, Georges Steffgen, and Brad Bushman explored the role of taboo behaviors and frustration in men’s interest in violent video games.

Taboo behaviors are things like cheating and stealing that people know are wrong.  When people are tempted to do something wrong, it is arousing.  They engage in a battle between the strength of the temptation and their willpower.  And, as studies by Dan Ariely and his colleagues point out, we often fail in our efforts to do the right thing.

Presumably, though, if you give in to temptation, then the arousal that comes with the temptation subsides.  If you have the chance to steal a candy bar and you do it, then you no longer feel the temptation so strongly.  If you have the chance to steal that candy bar, and suddenly realize that you are being watched, then you can’t give in to the temptation, but you still may feel the strength of that temptation.  That may cause frustration.

Whitaker, Melzer, Steffgen, and Bushman suggest that this frustration may make violent video games seem more attractive to play than they would be otherwise. 

To test this proposal, college men were brought to the lab and asked to estimate the weight of two common objects using quarters.  They would take a stack of quarters out of a bowl and try to find a stack that was about equal in weight to the object.  (Men were run in this study because women are much less likely than men to be interested in playing violent video games.)

Some participants were given no chance to steal.  The door to the experiment room was kept open, and the experimenter stood watching the participant throughout the study.  A second group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study.  These participants had the opportunity to steal some quarters if they wanted.  A third group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study, but midway through the experiment, the experimenter came back in and said that actually the door had to be kept open.  This group had the temptation to steal made active, but were then blocked from stealing.

After estimating the weight of the objects, participants rated their current mood, which included a measure of their level of frustration.  Then, they completed a short survey about video games.  They listed the games they play frequently and also rated the attractiveness of eight games.  Half of these games were violent games, and the other half were not violent games. 

Participants who were in a closed room throughout the study did steal some quarters.  On average, participants took almost 75 cents.  Those who had only a limited chance to steal took about 35 cents on average.  Those participants who were in an open room for the whole experiment rarely stole.  As you might expect, the group that had a brief opportunity to steal were significantly more frustrated at the end of the study than those who either had a chance to steal or had no chance to steal at all.

Overall, participants rated the nonviolent video games more attractive than the violent games.  However, the group that briefly had the chance to steal found the violent games significantly more attractive than either of the other groups.  The group that had a chance to steal throughout the study found the violent video games more attractive than those who had no chance to steal.  Statistical analyses demonstrated that the degree of attractiveness of the violent video games for these groups could be explained by people’s level of frustration.

A second study obtained the same pattern of results using cheating on a quiz rather than stealing as the taboo behavior. 

This research suggests that people are attracted to violent video games when they are aroused by a temptation and frustrated in their pursuit of that temptation.  However, there is still an open question about why this happens.  One possibility is that people are attracted to violent video games when they are frustrated, because they hope that playing the game will relieve the frustration.  A second possibility is that this frustration creates arousal and that this arousal makes action attractive. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is That Extra Hour of Study Time Worth It?

It is no surprise that teens and young adults are a pretty sleep-deprived group.  Yesterday morning at 9am, for example, I taught a small class here at the University of Texas.  The students staggered into class looking like they could use a nap.  I also have three teenagers.  They generally stay up late and get up early during the week, hoping to catch up on weekends by sleeping all morning.

There are lots of distractions in the modern world that lead people to stay up late in the night.  For students, though, there is also homework.  On the night before a big exam or a major paper, many students put in a lot of extra study time in order to prepare. 

Does that extra study time help performance in school?

This question was explored in a studying the January, 2013 issue of Child Development by Cari Gillen-O’Neel, Virginia Huynh, and Andrew Fuligni.  They tracked a group of high school students in 9th, 10th, and 12th grade.  At each grade level, students filled out a daily diary for 2 weeks. 

Every evening during the study, the students rated the amount of sleep they got the day before, the amount of time they spent on homework, and they answered questions about any academic problems they had the previous day (like doing poorly on a test and having difficulty understanding new material).

Overall, there was a tendency for high school students to sleep less as they advanced in school.  So, the 9th-grade-students slept an average of 7.6 hours a night, while the 12th-graders slept only 6.9 hours per night.  Students experienced fewer academic problems as they advanced in school.  That means that students are actually learning better school skills over the years. 

The most important result, though, was that when students lost sleep because they spent extra time doing schoolwork, they had significantly more problems the next day than when they got their typical amount of sleep.  This negative effect of extra study time was strongest for 12th-grade-students and weaker for the 9th- and 10th-grade students.

What is going on here?

Sleep is important for many reasons.  It helps memory.  You consolidate memories during sleep.  Sleep also helps you focus and sustain attention.  Sleep also gives you energy to be active.  You are much more likely to be a passive learner when you are tired.  And you learn less when you are passive then when you actively engage with new material.

So, why are high-school Seniors hardest hit? 

The 12th-graders are sleeping least to begin with.  They are just at the edge of their ability to function properly.  When they disrupt their sleep schedule further with extra study, it has strong repercussions for the next school day.  The 9th- and 10th-grade students are a bit more resilient, because they are not as strongly sleep-deprived.

What does this mean?

First off, this study reinforces the general observation that teens and young adults are not sleeping enough.  Getting even an extra 30 minutes of sleep a night would be a huge benefit for this group.

Second, it means that students need to try to spread their work out over longer periods of time.  It is an age-old tradition to cram for exams and to finish papers at the last minute.  There are lots of good reasons to want to avoid cramming.  For example, cramming for an exam may help a student pass that particular exam, but information learned the night before the test is not remembered in the long-term as well as information that is studied over several nights.  If cramming for a test also reduces the amount of sleep a student is getting, then that just adds to the problem. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mood and persuasion

We live in a world of persuasion.  Advertisements try to convince us to buy products.  Stories on television and radio attempt to influence our opinion on a variety of topics.  Politicians seek to influence our beliefs about laws and society. 

When faced with an attempt at persuasion, we generally expect that stronger arguments for a position should have a bigger influence on our attitudes than weaker arguments.  Yet, when we look around the world, we see all kinds of strategies to persuade.  Many advertisements, for example, use celebrities to endorse the products.  It is a rather weak argument that we should eat a particular food or wear a specific watch just because a celebrity has been paid to appear in an ad, yet advertisers continue to use celebrities, which suggests that these ads must work (at least to some degree). 

Under some circumstances, almost any argument seems to be effective.  In a classic experiment by Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1978, participants were 50% more likely to let someone cut in line to use a copy machine to make a few copies if they said, “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies”” than if they just said “May I use the Xerox machine?”  This additional information is a weak argument in favor of letting someone cut in, but any reason seemed good enough.  

An interesting paper in the April, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Rene Ziegler explored an additional wrinkle on attitudes by examining the influence of moods on the evaluation of attitudes. 

There are many potential influences of attitudes on mood.  On the one hand, research by Alice Isen and her colleagues suggested that positive moods tend to lead to more careful and creative thinking than negative moods.  On the other hand, negative moods can influence people to be more vigilant, which may make people in negative moods more critical of arguments.

Ziegler’s research suggests that people pay the most attention to arguments that oppose the mood they are in.  In the studies in this paper, participants evaluated arguments about topics that were not particularly important to them (like whether a shopping mall should be build in a nearby city).

In one study, participants first expressed their attitude about a number of topics including whether a mall should be built.  Then, people’s mood was manipulated by having them write about a past life event that was either happy or sad.  This kind of manipulation has been used in many previous studies to influence people’s mood. 

Next, participants read an argument about whether the mall should be built.  Some people read an argument in favor of building the mall, while others read an argument opposed to it.  The argument was designed to be either strong (focusing on things like the economic impact of the mall) or weak (focusing on the aesthetic design of the mall).  After reading the argument, participants rated their attitude about building the mall.

When an argument is consistent with people’s prior beliefs, then it is also consistent with their current mood, because we generally feel good when we read about things that we agree with.  When the argument is contrary to people’s beliefs, then it is inconsistent with their current mood, because we generally feel negatively when confronting beliefs we disagree with.

Participants in this study who already thought the mall was a good idea evaluated the argument more carefully when it opposed their prior belief than when it was consistent with that belief.  The measure of care was the difference in attitude following the strong or the weak argument.  That is, participants in a positive mood felt equally strongly about the mall after reading an argument that was consistent with their prior belief regardless of whether the argument was strong or weak.  But, participants in a positive mood who read an argument inconsistent with their prior belief felt more strongly about it when the argument was strong than when it was weak.  That is, people in a positive mood saw the difference between the strong and the weak argument when that argument was inconsistent with their initial belief.

The opposite pattern was observed for people in a negative mood.  For them, they responded to the strong and weak arguments differently only when those arguments were consistent with their previous belief. 

A second study in this series actually manipulated people’s initial belief about the domain and observed a similar pattern.

This research suggests that there is a complicated relationship between mood and persuasion.  We are driven to pay attention to information that is inconsistent with our current mood.  In a positive mood, we pay careful attention to arguments that disagree with our beliefs.  In a negative mood, we pay careful attention to arguments that agree with our beliefs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Powerful people are happy.

There is a popular image that people who are in positions of power are really unfulfilled.  Perhaps they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Perhaps being able to choose to do what you want carries a psychological cost.  Or, perhaps this belief is just wishful thinking on the part of people who do not have power in their lives.  Maybe, those people who have the power to do what they want in life really are more satisfied than those who don’t.

This question was explored in a paper in the March, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Yona Kifer, Daniel Heller, Wei Qi Elaine Perunovic, and Adam Galinsky. 

These researchers suggested that having power provides people with the ability to do what they want to do in life.  That opportunity creates a feeling of authenticity in life.  That is, powerful people can act like themselves rather than having to act as others would like them to be.  This authenticity should make powerful people happy.

This proposal was tested in two ways.

First, the researchers gave a series of surveys to a few hundred Israeli adults.  These surveys measured people’s satisfaction with their work, romantic relationships, and friendships.  The surveys also explored how much power people felt they had in each of these situations.  In addition, a series of questions asked about whether people felt like they could act authentically in their work, romantic, and friendship lives.  The researchers also measured a number of variables that might also predict life satisfaction like extraversion, neuroticism, and overall well-being. 

In each of these roles, people were more satisfied with that aspect of their lives when they felt that they had power to control that aspect of their lives than when they did not.  So, people’s work life was better if they were in a position of power than if they were not.  People felt better about their romantic relationships when they felt like they had some control in the relationship.  People enjoyed their friendships more if they had some power within their group of friends. 

The best predictor of this relationship between power and satisfaction was authenticity.  That is, these surveys suggested that power increased people’s satisfaction with life because it enabled people to act they way they wanted to in those situations. 

The researchers then used a more experimental approach to address the same question.  In one study, participants were asked to think either about situations in which they had power or in which they had no power.  After this priming task, people rated how authentically they can act in life as well as their overall feelings of happiness.  People who thought about having power in their lives rated themselves as being able to live more authentically than people who thought about being powerless.  The people who thought about having power also gave higher ratings of overall happiness than those who thought about having no power.

One final study asked a group of people to think about situations in their lives in which they were able to be true to themselves (that is, to be authentic) or situations in which they had to be inauthentic.  In this study, people who thought about situations in which they were authentic rated themselves as happier than those who thought about situations in which they were inauthentic.

Putting all this together, then, these studies suggest that if you are in a position of power, then it enables you to live your life on your own terms.  And that authenticity creates a general sense of well-being.

So, power does make people happy.

There is one thing to watch out for in all of this, though.  While having power can make you happier, seeking power does not make you happier.  There is quite a bit of evidence that people who spend their lives seeking power do not focus on the intrinsic joy of life.  So, people who seek power are actually less happy than those who do not. 

Is there a way out of this paradox?  That is, can you have power without seeking it?

One way to become powerful is to try to focus on attaining power.  This kind of scheming may succeed, but it is likely to make you unhappy.

A second way to become powerful is to spend your life getting things done.  In a work setting, that means focusing on the contribution you can make to your organization (and making sure that people above you in the organization recognize your achievements).  In your social life that means doing things for the people around you.  When you are effective in the things you do, people often recognize that.  In addition, getting things done makes you happy. 

If you consistently do things in your life that help you and others achieve goals, then your journey is a happy one.  And over time, you will find that you rise to a position of power within your network.  And that makes you happy as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Distance From an Event Affects How You Deal With It

Imagine that you have been having a stressful time at work. Your boss has been angry about the performance of your group, and you are afraid you might lose your job.  Losing your job would affect all aspects of your life including whether you can keep your home.  As a result, you start having trouble sleeping. You spend hours at night thinking about the situation, and you get to work tired.

What should you do to help yourself? 

You might consider trying to fix the cause of the problem—the stress.  You could take a meditation class and learn to control your stress.  Alternatively, you could treat the symptom and take a sleeping pill or buy a book on how to get a good night’s sleep and follow its instructions.

What you choose to do in this situation depends on a lot on how you end up thinking about it.  If you are focused on the cause of the problem, then you will probably focus on fixing the stress.  If you are focused on the consequence of the problem, then you are more likely to find ways to get some sleep.

An interesting paper by SoYon Rim, Jochim Hansen, and Yaacov Trope in the March, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the distance between you and the event will affect whether you focus on what is causing the event or what the outcomes are from that event, which in turn influences how you deal with it.

For example, in one experiment, participants were asked to spend five minutes imagining imagine how their lives would be either tomorrow or one year from now.  This task has been used before to create a sense of distance.  Then, the participants were shown eight different events (like getting a cavity in their teeth) and they had to generate as many causes of the event (like eating too much sugar) and as many consequences of the event (like tooth pain) as they could.  People thinking about their lives in the near future were able to generate (slightly) more consequences of the events than causes.  People concentrating on the future generated significantly more causes than consequences. 

Another study in this series showed that people thought about causes of events more for events involving other people than for themselves.  They thought more about consequences for events involving themselves than for events involving others.  The difference between self and other is another way of thinking about psychological distance.

This difference in focus influences the way people think about how to deal with events.  In another study, participants first wrote about their lives either the next day or in a year.  Then, they focused on a scenario like the one that I described earlier in which they were suffering stress at work or school, and that was affecting their ability to sleep.  They were given two possible behaviors they could engage in.  One was focused on the cause (like taking a yoga class to relieve stress).  A second was focused on the outcome (like taking a class to help learn to sleep better).  Participants thinking about the near future selected the behavior that affected the consequence 62% of the time.  Participants thinking about the distant future selected the behavior that affected the cause 62% of the time. 

Putting this all together, then, when you focus on the near future, you are more concerned with the consequences of events than with causes.  When we talk about getting some distance from an event, we really mean that it is easier to think about the whole context from a distance.  As a result, we are better able to focus on the causes of something rather than the symptoms when we are able to hold it at arm’s length.

If you find yourself focusing on the symptoms in your own life, it can be useful to find a way to create some distance.  Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to imagine that the event is happening to someone else.  Pretend that it involves someone else’s life and ask yourself the recommendations that you would give to them if they were dealing with those issues.  Then, follow your own advice.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

You Follow Advice Despite Conflicts-of-Interest

There are many situations in life in which you have to follow other people’s advice.  Doctors recommend medications to treat problems.  Mechanics suggest ways to maintain your car more effectively.  Financial advisers indicate the investments they think you should consider.

Because companies know that advisers play a bit role in the choices people make, those companies will often create incentives for advisers to make specific recommendations.  Drug companies wine-and-dine doctors in the hope that the doctors will recommend their medications to patients.  Mechanics often have higher profit margins on some kinds of maintenance, which gives them a reason to suggest those procedures.

These incentives create a conflict-of-interest.  When you get advice from someone, you hope that you are getting the advice that is best for you.  When advisers have an incentive to recommend a particular option, then they may suggest that option to you even when it is not ideal. 

To help protect you, there are often regulations that require disclosures of conflicts-of-interest.  In those cases, an adviser has to tell you in advance that they have reasons to recommend particular options.  The idea is that if you know that an adviser may be biased, you can use that information to help you make a choice.

Do these disclosures work?

This question was addressed in a paper in the February, 2013 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Sunita Sah, George Loewenstein, and Daylian Cain.   Their studies suggest that these disclosures may actually increase the likelihood that people make choices that are in the advisers best interest rather than their own.

In their studies, participants were people who had never met.  These participants were recruited in public places, so they were not generally college students.  One participant played the role of the adviser, while the other played the role of the chooser. 

The options in these studies were opportunities to win a prize.  In a given opportunity, there were six possible prizes.  The prize a participant would actually get depended on the role of a die.  Choosers were faced with two sets of prizes, and they had to select which one they wanted.  Then, the experimenter would roll a die, and they would get the prize that matched the number for that set.  The two sets were designed so that one was better than the other.  For example the better set might have the chance for prizes like a $50 gift card to Amazon, a candy bar, or a can of Coke.  The worse set might have the chance for prizes like a $20 gift card, a can of generic soda, or a candy bar.  When people were given a free choice between the two sets, they almost always chose the better one.

The second participant played the role of an adviser.  The adviser always saw the options first and made a recommendation for what the chooser should pick.  In some cases, there was no conflict-of-interest.  Both the chooser and the adviser would get prizes after the study regardless of what the adviser recommended and what the chooser selected.  In those cases, the adviser generally recommended the better option, and the chooser generally picked it.

In some cases, though, the experimenters created a conflict.  In these cases, the adviser would get a chance to win a prize only if the chooser picked the worse set of prizes.  So, there was incentive for the adviser to recommend the worse option. 

If the chooser was not told about the conflict, then they took the advisers recommendation only about 30% of the time.  Ratings they gave after the study suggested that they felt the adviser gave a bad recommendation.

In the disclosure condition, though, the advisers had to write down that they made this recommendation because they would only receive a prize if the chooser selected the worse option.  In the conditions in which the conflict was disclosed, choosers felt that the adviser was not trustworthy, but they took the adviser’s recommendation about 75% of the time.

What is going on here?

Choosers in these studies seem to have been motivated to make a selection that helped both themselves and the adviser.  That is, choosers picked something that was worse for them overall just to help the adviser to get something as well.

Other studies in this series found that choosers would pick the worse option about half the time even when the disclosure was made by the experimenter rather than by the adviser. That is, having an independent person disclose the conflict did not stop people from picking the option that was worse for them just to help the adviser.

These studies demonstrate that your willingness to be cooperative with others can work against us.  After all, an adviser’s job is to help you get what you want.  Yet, when your advisers have a reason to recommend something that is better for them than it is for you, there is still a desire to help them out at your own expense.

In the real world (as opposed to these experimental situations), the problem is probably even worse.  In these studies, participants could generally evaluate the options perfectly well for themselves.  In the world, you go to advisers (doctors, mechanics, financial planners), because they have expertise that you don’t have.  So, even if you do not completely trust the advice we are given, that advice is still better than what you might be able to come up with on your own. 

Ultimately, your best defense against biased recommendations is to get several independent opinions.  Hopefully, the various advisers you consult will have different conflicts.  If you can find some consensus among several advisers, that agreement may reflect what is best for you.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why is your birthday motivating?

It is common to use landmarks as a way of getting yourself motivated to do something new.  Culturally, New Year’s Day is a common date where people make the commitment to do something new (though they have typically given up on their new goal soon after the new year starts).  Similarly, people often use their birthday as a way of getting pumped up to do something new. 

An interesting paper by Johanna Peetz and Anne Wilson in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this issue.  These researchers suggest that landmark dates affect how similarly people view themselves right now to their future selves. 

In one study, the researchers used New Year’s Day to demonstrate this phenomenon.  About six and a half weeks before New Years Day, a group of people were asked to rate how confident, extraverted, motivated, and content they were at that moment.  They were also asked to give these same ratings for their self seven weeks in the future.  One group was given the date seven weeks from that day (January 4).  A second group was reminded that this was right after New Year’s Day.  A third group was told to rate their future selves right before New Year’s Day. 

Everyone in this study rated their future self more positively than their current self.  However, this difference was much larger for the people who specifically thought about themselves right after New Year’s Day.  The other two groups rated themselves as only slightly more positively. 

There are two key aspects to this result.  First, people want their future self to be more positive than their current self.  Second, this desire to be a better person in the future is more pronounced when there is a major landmark on the calendar.  Other studies in this series showed the same effect with people’s birthdays.

Why does this matter?

When there is a gap between who you are now and who you want to be in the future, that gap can motivate you to take action to make yourself a better person. 

In another study, participants were studied in January.  They were given a calendar showing the next six months.  For one group, a variety of holidays and weekends were marked in a different color on the calendar as landmarks.  For the other group, these landmarks were listed, but they were not highlighted. 

Participants rated their current self and their self six-months into the future on six health-related adjectives (like physically fit, strong, and energetic).  As in the previous study, there was a bigger difference in people’s ratings between the current and future self when the landmarks were prominent than when they were not.

Participants also rated their intention to engage in a variety of health-related activities like eating better and exercising.  Participants were also encouraged to use the calendar to write down specific intentions for health-related activities in the future.  Finally, as participants left the study, they were offered brochures for fitness classes. 

When the landmarks were displayed on the calendar, participants expressed more intention to engage in health activities.  Participants with a calendar that had landmarks were also much more likely to write on their calendar and to take a brochure than those who had no landmarks.

Putting this together, it seems that landmark dates can help people to see the difference between who they are now and who they would like to be.  This difference can be motivating to engage in activities to improve the future self.

Of course, the motivation to change is only a small part of the battle.  We know that people express lots of intentions to do new things around New Year’s Day, birthdays, and other holidays.  But, they rarely follow through with these intentions.

So, it is important to use that motivation to make specific future plans for how you will improve your life.  Without those plans, it is unlikely the boost in motivation will lead to actual change in behavior in the future.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why are Experiences Often Better Purchases than Things?

I have written a few blog entries in the past on the observation from research by Tom Gilovich and Leaf Van Boven as well as by Elizabeth Dunn, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson that people get more happiness out of purchases when those purchases are experiences than when they are material things.  So, a ski trip creates more happiness than a new stereo that cost about the same amount of money.

Even in the original research, though, the researchers realized that this distinction is not as clean-cut as it appears.  For example, if you buy an expensive car, that could serve as a physical possession. However, that car might also create a variety of driving experiences that lead to happiness.  

A paper in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Peter Caprariello and Harry Reis examines the role of sociality on the difference between experiences and things.  When you purchase an experience, chances are you are going to share that experience with at least one other person (and perhaps many others).  When you purchase a thing, there is a greater chance that the object is something you are going to use alone.  These researchers suggest that items you use in a social setting are preferred to those used alone.

As an example, in one study participants were asked to think back to a purchase they made some time in the past.  Some people were asked to think about the purchase of an experience (like a movie ticket or trip to an art museum).  Other people were asked to think about the purchase of a material possession (like clothes or a stereo sound system).  Some people were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use alone.  Others were asked to think about purchases of experiences or possessions that they would use with other people. 

After thinking about these items, they rated how happy they were with the purchase now, how happy they remember being with that purchase when they made it and whether they thought the purchase was money well-spent.

In this study, the things and experiences that people remembered purchasing did not differ significantly on average in price or length of time since the purchase. 

Overall, people were happier with their purchase (both at the time of purchase and at the time of the study) when the item was bought to use socially than when it was bought to use alone.  People also rated themselves as happier at the time of purchase when they bought an experience than when they bought a material possession. Surprisingly, they rated the money as better-spent on material goods than on experiences.

What does all this mean?

First, an important part of the difference in happiness that people get from a purchase comes from using that purchase for social interactions.  There is still some tendency for purchases of experiences to make people happier than purchases of things above-and-beyond the social aspect (at least at the time of purchase). 

People rate money as better-spent on material goods, because once an experiential purchase has been used, it is gone, except as a memory.  Material goods stay around longer.  Thus, a year after a purchase, you can still use a shirt or a stereo you bought.  At best, though, you can only remind yourself of a great trip. 

I find it interesting that people think the money is better-spent on material goods, even for possessions that will be used alone that create low-levels of happiness.  This finding suggests that people focus their judgments of how they spend their money on the value the purchase rather than on the happiness they get from that purchase.

Ultimately, this work suggests that when you have some discretionary money, it is a good idea to find ways to use it to bring you together with other people.  In the long-run, those purchases will help you to buy some happiness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Schedule that Interview Early in the Day

Suppose you had the job to interview students for a university.  Over the course of an admissions season, you might interview 25 students a week for six months.  That would translate to over 500 interviews.  Some of those students are probably strong candidates for your school, while others are not.  And over the years, you probably get good at separating the good candidates from the bad ones.

Ideally, you would evaluate each new student relative to the entire set you have interviewed in the past.  After working for 10 years, that would give you a base of well over 5000 students that you can use to judge each new applicant. 

It shouldn’t matter, then, who else you have interviewed that day.

A fascinating study by Uri Simonsohn and Francesca Gino in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that—contrary to this analysis—expert interviewers are heavily influenced by the other interviews they have already done that day.

These researchers examined the ratings given to candidates who interviewed for an MBA program.  They had access to the overall rating given to the candidates, scores on subcomponents of the interview like the assessment of the candidate’s willingness to work in a team and interest in the school, as well as the number of interviews already done that day.  They also had information about performance (like GMAT scores), qualifications for the program (like the evaluation of the student’s admission essay) and information about the interviewers (like the average score they typically give to interviews). 

The researchers did analyses to look at the factors that predict the overall interview score.  Even after controlling for lots of other factors (like the candidate’s GMAT score, essay quality, and characteristics of the individual interviewer), there was also a negative correlation between the previous scores given to candidates that day and the score given to the current interviewee.

That is, if all of the previous candidates had gotten high scores, the interviewer gave someone later in the day a lower score. 

What is going on here? 

It seems that interviewers like to have each day’s ratings balance out.  When an interviewer sees 3 or 4 good candidates in a row, they become concerned that they are giving too many high ratings.  So, if another good candidate comes walking through the door, they get a lower rating just so that the ratings for the day are not uniformly high.  By chance, of course, there should be lots of days in which there are several good candidates in a row.  So, interviewers probably should not take the other people interviewed that day into account, but they do.

The researchers tested a number of alternate explanations for the finding.  For example, it is possible that being interviewed in the day just magnifies differences among candidates.  So, a candidate seen late in the day who is slightly worse than the previous candidates may be rated much worse than that same candidate seen early in the day, because of the contrast with the better candidates.  However, an examination of the specific interview characteristics (like willingness to work as a team) did not show the same negative correlation with the previous interview scores.  That is, the interviewers were able to give a reasonably objective evaluation of the candidate’s characteristics, but then used the previous interviews for the day to balance out the overall ratings.

If you are being interviewed for a position, this finding suggests that you might want to schedule your interview early in the day to minimize the interference of previous interviews on your evaluation. 

If you are doing interviews, then you should be aware that you may try to balance out your evaluations over the course of a single day.  Instead, you should do your best to compare each candidate to the overall ideal candidate for the position.  Don’t worry that you have also seen other good candidates that day.  Remember, that things will balance out in the long-run even if they don’t balance out in the short-term.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rejection and Discrimination Have Different Effects

If you decide to start blogging, you have to develop a thick skin.  Not everyone is going to like what you have to say, and the internet comments people give you are not always phrased in the nicest way.  Still, the negative comments can sting.  And that leads to an immediate sense of rejection.

Not all forms of rejection are the same, though.  It is one thing to have someone attack the ideas you have put forward.  It is another thing entirely to think that you are being rejected based on some personal characteristic like race, gender, or religion.  In that case, the rejection slips into a feeling of discrimination.

Do people treat rejection and discrimination in the same way?

This question was explored in a paper in the February, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jeremy Jamieson, Katrina Koslov, Matthew Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. 

In their study, participants were either black males or white females.  At the start of the study, participants selected an avatar to represent themselves in a chat room.  The avatar was the same race and gender as the participant.  Next, they were told that they were going to give a brief speech via webcam, and that the other participants were going to judge that speech.  They would be able to see the comments of the other participants as they spoke.

In reality, the comments of the other participants were typed by the experimenter from a list.  All of the comments were negative and were designed to be relevant to what the participant said.  For example, if a participant made a comment about themselves, the comment might say, “Oh someone is feeling good about themselves today.” 

For all participants, the evaluators were shown by avatars of the same gender.  However, half the participants were critiqued by avatars of the same race, while others were critiqued by avatars of a different race. 

The experimenters took physiological measurements during the study. They measured things like blood pressure and cardiac output.  They also took cortisol measures.  Cortisol is a hormone that is released in stress situations and can be measured through a saliva sample.  The cortisol measures were taken before and after the speech.  The experimenters also watched the video of the speeches later and looked for signs of anger and shame. 

In addition, there were three behavioral measures.  The experimenters measured participants’ ability to recall a story told at the beginning of the study.  They also used an emotional Stroop task.  In this task, participants see words related to positive and negative emotions printed in a font of a particular color.  Participants have to identify the color of the font as quickly as possible.  The longer it takes participants to identify the color, the more that they are paying attention to the emotion described by the word.

Finally, the experimenters used a measure of risk taking called the Columbia Card Task.  In this measure, participants see a set of cards face-down and are told that they can turn over cards to try to gain as many points as possible.  Some of the cards allow participants to gain points, while others cause them to lose points.  Across trials, the decks vary in the number of negative cards that they are told are present as well as the size of the gains for the positive cards and the size of the losses for the negative cards.  Some decks have high rewards, while others have low rewards.  Some decks have small losses, while others have large losses.  This task is used to measure risk taking.

The results of this study demonstrate that people treat rejection by a member of the same race differently from discrimination (defined as rejection by a member of a different race).

Physiologically, when people are rejected by a member of the same race, they show an increase in blood pressure.  When people are rejected by a member of the opposite race, they show an increase in cardiac output (which is a response to a threat).  Participants rejected by a member of the same race show higher levels of cortisol than participants rejected by a member of the opposite race.  Participants rejected by members of the opposite race exhibit more anger than those rejected by members of the same race.

Rejection and discrimination also have different behavioral effects.  There is a tendency for participants rejected by people of the same race to have worse memory for the story than those rejected by members of the opposite race.  This finding is consistent with research showing that stress and cortisol levels influence memory.

Participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are slower to identify the font color for negative emotion words in the Stroop task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, discrimination makes people pay more attention to negative emotions.

Finally, participants rejected by someone of the opposite race are riskier in the card selection task than those rejected by someone of the same race.  That is, they select more cards from the decks, particularly when there is the possibility of getting large rewards.  This result suggests that discrimination increases people’s tendency to take risks more than rejection.

This study does not have a neutral control condition, so it is hard to know whether the behavioral measures reflect increases in risk over a baseline or just a difference between rejection and discrimination. 

What I find most interesting about these studies, though, is that the reaction to social rejection depends on whether it is interpreted as rejection or as discrimination.  Rejection creates stress.  Discrimination creates vigilance, and perhaps a tendency to be willing to take risks to get high rewards.