Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When You’re Sad, You Want Things NOW!

You have probably seen cases where your mood influences your choices.  You watch different movies when you are sad than when you are not.  You listen to different music.  You engage in different activities.

Is it possible, though, that being sad could cost you money?

This issue was examined in an interesting paper in the January, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jennifer Lerner, Ye Li, and Elke Weber. 

They were interested in whether people who are sad are biased to want to get a reward now rather than waiting for a larger reward in the future.  The idea was that sad people might want to get something now in order to help them improve their mood.  By taking something now, though, they may be giving up something more that they could have down the line.

In one study, participants watched one of three video clips.  Those in the Sad condition watched a sad video about someone dying.  Those in the Disgust condition watched a video about someone reaching into a vile toilet.  The Disgust condition was used to ensure that the results were due to sadness and not just due to a negative emotion.  Finally, those in the Neutral condition watched a video about a coral reef.

After the mood induction, participants made a series of choices between getting a certain amount of money now and a larger amount of money some time in the future.  (Participants were told that some participants would actually be given the rewards they chose, so they should choose carefully.)  The idea behind these studies is to examine how much more money people need to get in the future in order to give up a particular sum right now.  Overall, people in the sad condition were more likely to take money now rather than waiting.  The median person in the sad condition needed to get only $37 in order to give up $85 in 3 months.  While the median person in the Neutral condition needed $56 in order to give up $85 in 3 months.  The people in the Disgust condition acted similarly to those in the Neutral condition.  So, these results are specific to feeling sad, and are not true of any negative mood.

So, sad people wanted to get a reward right now, even if it meant giving up much more money in the future. 

Another study in this series added a clever wrinkle.  From the results of the first study alone, you can’t tell whether sad people want something immediately or they are just more likely than other people to prefer rewards nearer to the present than those farther off into the future.

To test this idea, participants were shown either a sad or a neutral video.  Then, they were asked to choose between rewards they would get now and in the future or rewards that they would get two weeks from now and further in the future.  This design allows the researchers to tease apart these two possibilities.  If participants in the Sad condition always take less money for nearer events than further, it suggests that they don’t want to wait for future events.  However, if they only take less money for immediate rewards but not for those where two weeks is the nearer event, it would suggest that sad people are biased to get something right now.

The results of this study showed clearly that sad participants were biased to take rewards immediately over waiting for the future.  When the reward that was nearer in time was still two weeks away, the participants in the Sad condition acted like those in the Neutral condition.

Putting this all together, when you are sad, you engage mechanisms to make yourself happier in that moment.  One thing that you will do is to seek immediate rewards rather than focusing on larger rewards you might get in the future.  That bias may cost you in the future. 

If you find yourself feeling sad, try to avoid making decisions that trade off the present for the future.  In that sad mood, you will probably short-change your future self in order to get something immediately.  Instead, try to delay your choice until your mood improves.

Monday, July 28, 2014

We are motivated by the prospect of missing out on rewards

You probably know that the best motivation to do something is to really love to do it.  The love of the work itself is called intrinsic motivation.  I know that I get up each day wanting to come to work because I love my job.  I am glad that I get paid to do it, because I need to make money doing something.  But, my motivation to work hard comes from the enjoyment of the work itself.

That said, there are lots of really boring things out there that also need to get done.  When it is hard to generate much enthusiasm to do a chore, it can be helpful to have some kind of extrinsic reward to do it.  Some of these incentives may be things you choose for yourself (if I clean up my desk, then I’ll go out and get candy bar).  Other incentives may be provided by other people (if you alphabetize these folders, you will get $5).

A fascinating paper in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Scott Wiltermuth and Francesca Gino examined a way to improve the effectiveness of incentives. 

Think about a simple situation.  Suppose I have a set of items that I need put in alphabetical order.  It will take a long time to complete the task, so the longer I can get you to work on it, the better it is for me.  One way to get you to work longer would be to offer more incentives the longer you work.  So, if you work for 10 minutes, you can choose one item from a set, and if you work for 20 minutes, you can choose two different items.  You should certainly work longer to get two items than to get one.

Now, imagine I group the items available as rewards into two categories.  I tell you that if you work for 10 minutes, you can get an item from either of the categories you choose.  If you work for 20 minutes, you can take one item from each category.

Notice, that economically, these two situations are nearly identical.  In fact, if there are some differences between the items available in each category, you actually have more flexibility to get the rewards you want if you are offered the chance to pick two items than if you pick from each category.

Across six studies, though, the researchers demonstrate that people are much more highly motivated to get one item from each of two categories than to get two items that are not categorized. 

For example, in the first study, participants are asked to do a boring task in which they have to transcribe text.  They will get one prize if they work for 10 minutes and two prizes if they work for 20 minutes.  As in the example, I just described, one group sees the items grouped arbitrarily into two containers.  They can choose an item from one container if they work for 10 minutes and an item from each container if they work for 20 minutes.  The other group can select from among the entire set of items. 

In this study, about 35% of participants worked a full 20 minutes when the rewards were categorized into two groups, but only about 10% worked a full 20 minutes when they could select two prizes from a single group. 

Why does this happen?

The researchers collected evidence that the categories increase people’s concern that they might miss out on something if they don’t get a reward from each category.  In several follow-up studies, people were asked to rate whether they felt like they would be missing out if they did not work the full amount of time.  People offered the chance to select from two categories of items were far more concerned that they would miss out than those who could select two items from a single group. 

The researchers also explored this question in another way.  In two studies, participants were shown objects that were grouped into two categories or into more than two categories.  In each case, they could select from one category if they worked for a short period of time and from a second category if they worked for a longer period of time.  When there were only two categories, people were much more motivated to work the longer period than when there were more than two categories.  That is, when the situation guaranteed that people were going to miss out on some categories, they did not feel as motivated to work as when they could get a reward from every category.

Putting this all together, then, people have a strong desire to avoid missing out on experiences and rewards.  One way that we determine whether we might miss out on something is to focus on the categories of things around us.  Those categories make it easy for us to keep track of what we are missing.  We are willing to put in extra effort to avoid the possible regret we would feel from missing out.

Interestingly, the categories in these studies were completely arbitrary.  That means that the participants were motivated to work harder by a factor that had no real bearing on the rewards that were actually available to them.  Ultimately, this suggests that when you are working toward a reward, it is worth thinking about what makes that reward valuable to you.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When is it good to have a few close friends?

Look at your life.  Do you have friends?  What kind of friends do you have?  Have you got a few people in your life that you spend a lot of time with?  Have you got a larger number of acquaintances that you see on occasion? 

Which is better?

I often ponder this question when watching movies.  In lots of movies, there is a couple at the center of the action.  The husband may hang out with his buddies bowling, and later the wife has her weekly lunch with a college friend.  These scenes make sense dramatically, and they fit with a cultural belief that the path to happiness lies in having close friends.

How important is it for people to have a few close friends?

This issue was explored in a paper in the December, 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Shigehiro Oishi and Selin Kesebir.  They suggest that it is most important for people to have a small number of close friends when people live in an area where few people are likely to move away and when economic circumstances lead people to need the help of their friends.  That is, when people are relatively well-off, having friends is nice, but they do not necessarily need the kinds of close friends who can help them in a time of need.  When people are poor and need other people’s help, then it can be worthwhile to invest in close friends who can help them.  But, that investment will not be repaid if there is a lot of mobility.  When people move around a lot, then chances are those close friends will move away.

To explore the kinds of friends people have in different circumstances, over 200 participants were recruited to fill out a survey using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.  About half of the participants were men and half were women. 

Everyone was asked to think about very close friends (those they could not live life without), close friends that are not part of this inner group, and distant friends.  They were given 60 points and were asked to allocate those points based on how much time and effort they would put into spending time with these three groups in their life.  In addition, participants rated their current feeling of well-being.  Finally, participants gave their zip code.  The zip code was compared to census data to get information about how often people move in and out of that area as well as the median income in that zip code. 

The results fit the predictions made by the researchers.  Those people who were both living in an area that had a low median income and where people did not move around much were much happier when they devoted their efforts to close friends than when they devoted their efforts to a larger group of distant friends.  This effect was quite large.  The people in this group who focused on a small group of close friends were much happier than those who focused on a larger network of distant friends. 

For the other three groups (people who were financially well-off and those who had a low median income and lived in an area with a lot of mobility), people were actually slightly happier if they devoted their effort to a larger group of distant friends than if they devoted their effort to a small group of close friends

This finding is interesting, because it suggests that the best way to set up your social network depends a lot on the circumstances around you.  That means that the broad belief that it is important to have a few close friends may often be wrong.