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.