Thursday, March 27, 2014

Staving off boredom by focusing on it.

You probably have a complex relationship with new things.  For example, the first time you hear a new song, it is unfamiliar, and you are not sure whether you like it.  After that first listen, the song begins to grow on you.  For a while, it may seem like you can’t get enough of the song, and you may play it repeatedly.  Eventually, though, you get bored with it, and another song captures your attention.

This same pattern comes up across many different aspects of your life, including foods, TV shows, and even friends.

The reasons for this boredom are straightforward.  Initially, you focus on the positive characteristics of the new thing.  In order to continue to experience the positive feelings that come along with that thing, you spend more time with it.  Eventually, though, your experience begins to feel repetitive.  You can predict what is going to happen.  And so, you start to feel some negative feelings in addition to the positive ones.  When those negative feelings outweigh the positive feelings, you go in search of something new.

Psychologists call this phenomenon satiation.

Can you slow down the rate of satiation?

An interesting paper by Morgan Poor, Adam Duhacheck, and Shaker Krishnam in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this topic.

They suggested an interesting prospect.  If you focus both on the positive experience of the object as well as the negative experience, you might actually be able to slow down the rate of satiation.  The idea is that if you acknowledge the negative feelings that occur as you start to get bored, you may engage strategies to think about the object in different ways in order to continue having a positive experience with it.  They tested this proposal in several studies.

In one experiment, participants either listened to a short snippet of music or to a longer and more repetitive part of the same piece.  Pretests showed that people who listened to the shorter piece liked it better and experienced less boredom than those who listened to the longer piece.  The participants in this study read one of two articles before listening to the music.  One group read about how important it is to distinguish among all of the emotions you are experiencing.  A second group read about how difficult it is to distinguish among emotions.  Finally, the participants listened to the long piece of music.  Every 30 seconds, they rated their overall enjoyment of the song.  Consistent with the researchers’ proposal, people who read about the importance of distinguishing among emotions enjoyed the piece throughout the listening period.  Those who read about the difficulty of distinguishing among emotions quickly got bored, and after three minutes, they were no longer enjoying the music.

Another study in this series showed a similar effect with looking at a beautiful photograph.  In this study, participants also described any strategies they used to help manage their emotions.  Participants who were encouraged to distinguish among all of the emotions they experienced often talked about trying to manage their emotions by focusing on the positive characteristics of the photo and looking for new subtleties in the picture over time.  Those who were not encouraged to distinguish among their emotions were much more likely to try to avoid the photo in order to avoid the negative experience.

Putting this together, these results suggest a novel approach to satiation.  A good way to fight boredom is to start by acknowledging that you are getting bored.  By allowing yourself to experience both the positive and the negative emotions, you can engage strategies to help you accentuate the positive characteristics of the experience to allow them to continue to outweigh the negative ones.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Shooter bias and stereotypes

Police called to the scene of a crime often face a difficult situation.  There may be one or more potential perpetrators.  There is yelling and screaming.  People are running around.  One or more people may be armed.  In this situation, the police are asked to make split-second decisions about how to proceed.  Failing to shoot an armed suspect could lead a police officer to get shot.  Shooting an unarmed or potentially innocent person can lead to tragedy.

Despite all of their training, mistakes do happen.  And when they happen, they often end up as front-page news.  The news coverage gets particularly heated when White police officers shoot an unarmed African American suspect or an innocent bystander.

Research suggests that there is a bias for White people to shoot unarmed Black suspects more often than unarmed White suspects.  These findings in laboratory studies have been obtained both with trained police officers as well as with college students role-playing as police officers.  This is called the shooter bias.

An interesting set of studies by Saul Miller, Kate Zielaskowski and Ashby Plant in the October, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored why this happens.

One possibility is that there is a pervasive stereotype in the United States that Black men are more dangerous than White men.  One possibility is that this stereotype causes people to be more likely to make the snap decision to shoot a Black man than to shoot a White man.  A second possibility is that people are prone to shoot anyone who belongs to a different social group than they do, and that specific stereotypes about Whites and Blacks are not the primary cause of the shooter bias. 

To explore this issue, college students participated in a simulated shooting task in which they saw faces of men.  The faces were either paired with a gun or with a neutral object.  They had to press a button within 630 milliseconds of the appearance of the face to decide whether to shoot.  The task was to shoot when there was a gun and not to shoot when there was no gun.

In these studies, all participants filled out a questionnaire assessing their belief about whether the world is a dangerous place.  This questionnaire has items like “There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all.”  The more that someone believes that the world is a dangerous place, the more likely they may be to have a shooter bias.

In the first study, all of the faces were White males.  Participants were given a personality quiz at the start of the experiment and on the basis of that quiz were told that they had either a “Red” or a “Green” personality.  In actuality, the color was randomly assigned to them.  They were given a sticker of their color to wear.  The faces they saw during the study appeared either on a red or a green background, and participants were told that this color reflected the personality of the individual shown. 

In this study, participants who were moderate or low in their belief that the world is dangerous showed no shooter bias.  But, people who were high in their belief that the world is dangerous were more likely to shoot an unarmed person if that individual’s personality color was different from their own than if it was the same.

This result suggests that the shooter bias can happen, even in the absence of a cultural stereotype that a person is dangerous.

In a second study, White college students saw White, Black, and Asian faces.  For this group of students, the cultural stereotype that Black men are dangerous was strong, but there was no cultural stereotype that Asian males are dangerous.  In this study, there was a broad tendency for all participants (regardless of their belief that the world is dangerous) to mistakenly shoot unarmed Black men more often than to shoot either Asian or White men.  For participants whose belief that the world is dangerous, though, they were also more likely to mistakenly shoot Asian men than to shoot White men.

What does all of this mean? 

There seem to be two sources of shooter bias.  First, there are cultural stereotypes (like the stereotype that Black men are dangerous) that influence people’s snap judgments.  On top of that, for people who are already concerned that the world is dangerous, there is a bias against anyone who is in a different group. 

This work suggests that the belief that the world is dangerous is an important factor.  People with a low level of belief that the world is dangerous are much less likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed person. 

One reason that this finding is important is that many advocates of concealed weapon laws justify the importance of these laws on the premise that the world is a dangerous place.  The idea is that if more people were carrying weapons, then that would make the world safer.  Unfortunately, promoting the belief that the world is dangerous may also promote a mindset that increases the likelihood that innocent people will get shot.  More research should explore this issue.  In addition, future studies should explore whether teaching people that the world is not as dangerous as they think it is can reduce the shooter bias.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What kinds of people take care of themselves?

A recent walk that I took through the streets of Austin was a lesson in the diversity of orientations that people take toward the future.  Passing by Lady Bird Lake downtown, there were a number of joggers, bikers, and walkers on the trail getting in their exercise.  On top of the Congress Avenue bridge, a few smokers were enjoying a cigarette and the view of the lake.  Nearby, a heavyset couple prepared to dig in to a large meal while seated in the outdoor patio of a steakhouse. 

Just on this brief walk, there was a clear cross-section of people who took different approaches to their long-term health.  The people exercising on the trail around the lake were engaged in activities that would benefit their long-term health. In contrast, the smokers and people have a large meal were doing something that felt good in the short-term, even if it had potential negative consequences in the long-run.

All else being equal, people typically prefer things that are enjoyable in the short-term to things that are beneficial in the long-term, but are less pleasant in the short-term.  That is why people continue to overeat and drink to excess even though it can be harmful in the long-run.  It is also why people may opt against healthy foods in the short-term and may opt out of regular exercise. 

The large number of people who were exercising around the lake does suggest that a number of people are willing to engage in healthy behaviors.  One thing that needs to be explained is why some people are willing to do what is best for them in the long-run while others are not.

Personality psychologists have found that there is a stable tendency for some people to be more concerned with the future consequences of their actions than others.  Indeed, there are two kinds of questions that you can ask people to assess their concern for the future.  One focuses on how much people care about what is going to happen to them in the future.  The other is the degree to which they are focused on the benefit they will get from an action right now. 

Of course, the fact that these questions predict how likely it is that someone will exercise or eat healthy food does not explain much by itself.  It just says that people who are generally concerned about the consequences of their actions for the future seem to share that concern across many aspects of their life.

A paper in the October, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Jeff Joireman, Monte Shaffer, Daniel Balliet, and Alan Strathman explored why this concern for the future influences people’s actions. 

They found that questions about people’s concern for the future predict people’s motivational outlook.  Specifically, Tory Higgins and his colleagues have distinguished between two broad motivational orientations.  A promotion focus leads people to concentrate on potential positive things in the world and on the person they would ideally like to be.  A prevention focus leads people to concentrate on potential negative things in the world and on their responsibilities. 

The researchers suggested that a focus on who people would like to be ideally might allow those people to think about their future selves more effectively than a focus on their responsibilities.  Thus, they proposed that people who express a concern for the future consequences of their actions might have a stronger promotion focus than those who tend not to be concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  These researchers also suggested that the degree to which people are focused on the present benefits of their actions should have no reliable relationship to people’s overall motivational orientation.

In two studies, groups of people filled out a scale designed to assess their concern for the future consequences of their actions.  They also measured the strength of people’s promotion and prevention focus.  Finally, they examined their attitude toward and intention to perform a healthy behavior.  In one study, that behavior was eating healthy foods, while in the other study it was exercising.

In both studies, the more that people were concerned with the consequences of their future actions, the more they tended to have a promotion focus.  This promotion focus then predicted their positive attitude toward the healthy behavior, which in turn predicted their intention to perform that behavior.  It would have been valuable to have some measure of whether people actually performed the healthy behavior, but that issue was not addressed in these studies.

Overall, these results suggest that there are people who tend to take care of themselves.  Those people are concerned about the future consequences of their actions.  That concern influences their motivational state.

There are still a number of factors that need to be explored, though, before it is clear how this research can help us take care of ourselves.  First, we need to know the true relationship between motivational state and concern for the future.  Does concern for the future cause people to take a promotion focus, or does it work the other way around?  Does viewing the world in terms of potential gains make you more concerned about the future?  Second, if you manipulate someone’s motivational state, will that really change how much they pursue activities with long-term rewards?  There are many ways to affect whether someone adopts a promotion mindset.  Would all of these methods get people to take better care of themselves?

Right now, these are tantalizing research results, but more work clearly needs to be done.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Can you be unconsciously creative?

In the movies, creativity often involves moments of insight.  A character struggles with an idea.  There is a montage of pained faces and crumpled sheets of paper.  Then, suddenly, the light comes on.  A choir sings.  A new creative moment has happened.

When you see this movie scene, or you hear about a moment of creative insight, there is an interesting question that comes up.  Where, exactly, did this new idea come from?  After all, it is pretty clear that there was a lot of hard thinking going on.  Yet, suddenly, the new idea appears from out of nowhere.

A recent set of studies has focused on the difference between conscious and unconscious thought.  Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have pointed out that it is possible to be thinking a problem, even when you are distracted.  In this case, what seems to be happening is that the problem you are solving is having a chance to find other knowledge that relates to it and to bring that knowledge to mind.

One way to think about this is that researchers who study creativity often distinguish between two phases of creative idea generation—divergence and convergence.  In the divergent phase, you generate a lot of potential solutions to a problem.  In the convergent phase, you evaluate those ideas and focus on those that seem most promising.

The work on unconscious thought suggests that it may be most effective for the divergent phase of creative thought.

A paper by Haiyang Yang, Amitava Chattopadhyay, Kuangjie Zhang, and Darren Dahl in the 2012 volume of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this process in more detail.

In one study, they had people generate as many uses as possible for a paper clip.  This task has been used often as a way of getting people to think creatively.  The experimenters varied both the amount of time people spent thinking about their answers as well as whether they used conscious or unconscious thought.  Groups spent either 1, 3, or 5 minutes thinking about the uses for a paper clip.  The conscious thought group was simply told to think about the problem.  The unconscious thought group was told to think about uses for a paper clip, but then was asked to count backward by 3s.  This task made it hard for people to do any controlled thinking about the task.  After the thinking period, participants had 2 minutes to write down their answers.

For the groups that spent one minute or five minutes on the task, the conscious thought group came up with more ideas (and more novel ideas) than the unconscious thought group.  For the groups that spend 3 minutes on the task, though, the unconscious thought group came up with more ideas and more novel ideas than the conscious thought group.  A second study replicated this finding with a different creativity task and found that while unconscious thought at a medium duration could lead to more novel ideas, those ideas were not necessarily more appropriate for solving the problem.

What is going on here?

Deliberate conscious thought involves both divergent and convergent processes.  You are reminded of things you know about that might help you to solve the problem, and then you evaluate those ideas and focus on the ones you like.  In addition, as you think about the problem consciously, you are able to generate new descriptions of the problem that may help you to take a different perspective on it.  These conscious processes get better over time, so the longer you spend thinking, the more you come up with.

Unconscious thought has just the divergent component.  The description of the problem races through your memory activating things that might be useful.  At short durations, there isn’t enough time to activate much.  At longer durations, some of the initial activation of an idea dies down and it is lost.  At medium durations, though, the largest number of different ideas are active.

How can you use this to help you? 

In cases where you are stuck on a difficult problem, it can be valuable to walk away from that problem and to engage in another activity.  Take a walk.  Play a mindless video game for a few minutes.  Go to the gym.  The other activity you do should not lead you to think a lot about something new and difficult, it just occupy your conscious train of thought.  After some time away from the problem, come back to it and see what you come up with.