Thursday, February 20, 2014

Kids learn about ownership early on.

Ownership is an interesting concept.  Unlike many other aspects of objects, ownership depends on the history of the object rather than its features.  If you go to a store looking at shirts, the shirts there all belong to the store.  If you purchase one (by trading money for the shirt), then it becomes yours.  You get to keep the shirt unless you transfer that ownership to someone else. 

Sometimes, this can get a little complicated.  For example, a woman went to a flea market in West Virginia in 2010 and paid $7 for a box of stuff.  Inside the box was a painting that turned out to be a Renoir.  The woman planned to sell the painting at auction.  However, the Baltimore Museum of Art provided documents suggesting that the painting was stolen from that museum in 1951.  As a result, the auction was put on hold.  So, who owns the painting? 

An nice set of studies in the October, 2012 issue of Child Development by Susan Gelman, Erika Manczak, and Nicholaus Noles explored whether children are able to use aspects of an object’s history to determine who owns it.  They tested 2- and 3-year-old children.

They examined this question in two ways.

In one study, children sat at a table with an experimenter.  On a series of trials, they were shown three toys.  The experimenter took one toy and said to the child, “This is yours, this is for you.”  That toy was placed in front of the child.  For a second toy, the experimenter said, “This is mine, this is for me.”  That toy was placed in front of the experimenter.  (The order of these two assignments of objects was varied over trials.)  A third toy was shown to the child and was placed on the table without being given to anyone.

Next, all three objects were moved to a tray in front of the child, who was asked which toy belonged to the experimenter and which toy belonged to the experimenter.

There were three versions of the sets of toys that were used in the study, and the results depended on the sets.

In one condition, each of the three toys was attractive and each toy was different.  For example, the set might contain three different toy cars.  In this case, even 2-year-olds were able to identify which car was theirs and which was the experimenters, though they were not quite as good at this as the 3-year-olds. 

In another condition, all three toys were identical.  In this case, the only way to know which toy belonged to which person was to keep track of where those toys had been on the table.  In this case, the 2-year-olds had trouble with the task, but the 3-year olds did quite well identifying which toy belonged to which person. 

In a third condition, two of the toys were attractive (toy animals, perhaps), and the third was boring (a Styrofoam block).  The boring toy was assigned to the child.  In this case, the 2-year-olds tended not to claim ownership of the boring toy, though they did know which interesting toy belonged to the experimenter.  The 3-year olds correctly recognized which toy belonged to which person.

These results suggest that by 3-years of age, children know what belongs to them even if the objects are all identical and even if they really want something else. 

Does this ownership matter?

To explore this question, the experimenters took advantage of something called the endowment effect.  Danny Kahneman and his colleagues have found that people tend to like objects that they own better than objects that they do not own, even if they have been randomly assigned to those objects.  For example, people who are given a coffee mug in an experiment value that mug more highly than people who are just shown the mug.

In a second study, children were assigned objects just as they were in the first experiment.  In this case, though, the question they were asked was which object they liked the best.  They were also asked which object the experimenter liked best.

The most interesting result in this study came from the condition in which all three toys were identical.  In this case, both 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds tended to prefer the object that was assigned to them rather than either of the other two (identical) objects.  Interestingly, even though 2-year-olds had difficulty identifying which object was theirs in this task, they still showed a preference for the one that had been given to them.

Putting this all together, then, children learn quickly that the ownership of an object is based on the history of that object.  Of course, they get a lot of feedback about that as they grow up.  Early on, we start to tell children which objects are theirs and which belong to other people.  They learn that there are things they are allowed to do with objects that belong to them that they cannot do with objects that belong to someone else. 

It is interesting, though, that even for young children this ownership also brings with it a preference.  When a child owns an object, they tend to like it better than even identical objects that belong to someone else.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What is boredom?

We have all experienced boredom.  Sitting in a class where the teacher is droning on about a topic you don’t care about, you may find yourself daydreaming or staring at a clock that doesn’t seem to be moving.  Waiting for a delayed flight to take off at the airport, you may search in vain for something to distract you. 

Boredom is unpleasant and physically painful.  It can make you angry and frustrated.  Boredom can also influence your actions in negative ways.  Bored people are prone to overeat for example, 

So how does boredom work?

An interesting paper by John Eastwood, Alexandra Frischen, Mark Fenske, and Daniel Smilek in the September, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. 

These authors suggest that attention plays an important role in creating boredom.  In particular, there are a few conditions that need to be met for people to feel bored.  First, people need to have a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to feel bored.  When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed.  When they have high arousal, though, they have energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.

Second, boredom typically occurs when people have trouble focusing their attention and they believe the reason for this difficulty is in the environment.  When sitting in the airport, for example, there is probably a lot going on.  There are people having conversations that you could listen to.  You probably have something to read.  There may be televisions showing the news.  But, the stress of waiting for a delayed flight often makes it hard to concentrate, and so your mind jumps from one thing to another.  You assume that this is caused by the environment, and so you feel boredom.

The authors of this paper point to an interesting study by Robin Damrad-Frye and James Laird in the August, 1989 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In this study, participants had to listen to a tape of a person reading a Psychology Today article.  In the next room, there was a television soundtrack from a soap opera playing.  For some groups listening to the article, the TV was very loud and distracting, for others it was barely noticeable, and for some it was not playing at all.  After listening to the article, people rated their boredom during the study. 

The people who heard the barely noticeable TV rated themselves as more bored than either the ones who heard the loud TV or heard no soundtrack.  The idea is that both the loud TV and the soft TV were distracting, but for those who heard the loud TV it was clear why they were distracted from the article.  Thus, they may have been frustrated with the noise, but they were not bored.  Those who heard the soft soundtrack had difficulty concentrating, but they were not sure why, and so they attributed the difficulty concentrating to boredom.

This example leads to another key aspect of boredom.  As Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek point out, bored people become aware of their difficulty concentrating.  As a result, bored people often try to amuse themselves by daydreaming and letting their mind wander.  Interestingly, while mind wandering helps people to keep their minds occupied, studies suggest that the more your mind wanders, the more bored you feel.  The idea is that you recognize that this daydreaming is meant to occupy your mind, and so you realize that the situation is boring.

One more key element of boredom is control.  Boredom often occurs when you have little control over your situation.  Waiting rooms, lectures, and airline gates are all places where you have little control over your situation.  Normally, we react to unpleasant situations by changing the situation.  If you don’t like a book you are reading, for example, you close it and do something else.  Boredom happens when you are unable to change the situation.  

Finally, a real problem caused by boredom is that it leads you to dislike the things that are the object of boredom.  In my senior year of high school, for example, I was forced to read Moby Dick.  I struggled to get interested in it and spent long hours staring at the pages trying to lose myself in it.  To this day, I really do not like Moby Dick.  The negative feelings that came with the boredom have stuck to the book.

As the authors of the review point out, these negative feelings can actually impair later performance.  Stress can decrease people’s ability to pay attention and can narrow people’s working memory capacity.  These effects can be a particular problem in school settings.  Students need to be able to work at peak capacity to get the most out of school.  So, boredom can create long-term difficulties for students.

What can you do about boredom?  Obviously, there are times when you are stuck.  If you are listening to a lecture that you cannot leave, then you just need to find a way to get through it.  When you have some control, though, use your understanding of boredom to help you out.  If you can, try to do a meditation exercise to lower your arousal level.  If you can lower your arousal, it will help you to feel less bored.  Also, keep some music handy.  Music you enjoy can crowd out distractions in the environment.  It can also influence your mood in positive ways to counteract the pain of being bored.