Monday, June 29, 2015

Improve Your Success By Contrasting

A big problem in learning to achieve your goals is being selective in what you do.  As much as you might value keeping all of your options open, at some point you have to commit time and energy into particular goals in order to attain them. 

A key part of being selective is figuring out which goals to pursue and which ones to leave behind.  To make that decision, there are two criteria you can use.  One is to determine how important a particular goal is to you.  The second is to think about how achievable that goal is.  Ultimately, you want to put your effort into things that are important to you that you also believe you can achieve. 

In the past, I have written about the research of Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues.  Their research suggests that an important part of the process of selecting particular goals to achieve involves comparing the present to the future.  These comparisons highlight what has to be done in order to help you achieve your goals.  When people are forced to make these kinds of comparisons (rather than focusing selectively on the present or the future), they are more likely to commit to achievable goals and to take steps to reach them.

How common is it for people to make these comparisons?

Timur Sevincer and Gabriele Oettingen explore this question in an interesting paper in the September, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

First, they developed a scheme for analyzing what people write about their goals in order to tease out whether they were contrasting the present and the future.  To do that, they asked people to write about goals that were important to them.  Some people were asked to focus only on the present and how they were currently achieving the goal.  Some people were asked to focus only on the future.  A third group was asked to contrast the present with the future.  Looking at this writing, they were able to tease out the statements that referred to the present and the future.  People’s writing did indeed show evidence of these instructions.  Those who were asked to compare the present to the future wrote more about both the present and the future than those asked to focus selectively.  This initial study demonstrated that the researchers could identify who was contrasting the present to the future just from the way people write about their goals.

In a second study, over 300 participants in an internet study were asked to write about a goal that was important to them.  They were given no particular instructions on whether to focus on the present or the future or both.  People were later asked to rate whether they thought the goal was achievable.  Finally, a week later, people were asked a number of questions about how hard they worked that week to try to achieve the goal they wrote about.

In this study, 9% of people spontaneously contrasted the present and future.  The most common types of writing focused selectively on the present (36% of people) or the future (24%).  The remaining participants talked about their goals in a different way. 

Interestingly, the people who spontaneously contrasted the present with the future were most selective in their goal pursuit.  They were most likely to take actions to achieve their goals when they thought the goal was achievable and least likely to take actions when they thought the goal could not be achieved.  The people who wrote only about the present, only about the future, or used another strategy were less selective.  They put in about the same amount of effort on their goals regardless of how achievable they thought the goal to be. 

The researchers obtained a similar result using a laboratory study in which students first wrote about their goal to get into graduate school and then wrote sample personal statements for an application.  In this laboratory study, a somewhat higher percentage of people spontaneously contrasted present and future (27%).  The most common strategy in this study was to focus on the present (51%).  Only 3% of participants in this study focused selectively on the future.

What does this mean?

First, following previous work, it is clear that if you want to focus selectively on the goals that you believe you will be able to achieve, then you have to start by contrasting the present and the future.  Figure out what you are doing in the present.  Then, think about what you want the desired future to be and how you will feel if you achieve your goal.  Finally, determine what needs to be done to bring that desired future into being and elaborate on the obstacles that will get in the way of reaching your goal.  That strategy is the best path for success.

Second, despite the importance of this mental contrasting, it is not something that most people do spontaneously.  People are much more likely to focus selectively on what they are currently doing now or what they should be doing in the future rather than on comparing the present to the future.  Next time you are thinking about goal achievement, make an effort to contrast the present and the future to improve your chances of success.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Goal Conflict Helps You See Both Sides of an Issue

One of the most persistent findings in psychology is confirmation bias.  When we have a belief about something in the world, we tend to seek out information that will confirm that belief.  For example, if you meet a new person, and you believe that they are an extravert, you might focus on finding out information consistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy attending big parties and meeting new people) rather than information inconsistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy time alone or like to stick with the same close circle of friends). 

An interesting paper by Tali Kleiman and Ran Hassin in the September, 2013 issue of the Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology suggests that people might be more prone to consider two sides of an issue when they are experiencing a goal conflict. 

Goals drive our behavior. One thing that makes it difficult to achieve our goals, though, is that sometimes they conflict.  For example, a student might want to study in order to get a good grade on an upcoming exam, but might also want to go out with friends to have a good time.  When it is not possible to do both, the goals are in conflict. 

Kleiman and Hassin suggest that when goals conflict, it puts people in a mindset that forces them to consider two sides of issues, because resolving the goal conflict requires that people consider the strengths and weaknesses of the opportunities before them.  Interestingly, goals can conflict even when people are not consciously aware of the conflict.

To test this possibility, participants were brought to the lab to do what they were told were two unrelated studies.  First, they did a lexical decision task.  In this task, they see strings of letter and have to respond whether they form a word.  If they saw the letters BROGI, they would respond that it was not a word.  If they saw the letters PARTY, they would respond that it was a word.  One group saw words that referred to both an academic goal (like CLASS and STUDY) and a social goal (like PARTY and MOVIE).  This condition created an unconscious goal conflict.  A second group saw words that were not consistently related to any goals.

After doing this lexical decision task, participants were told that they could ask a series of questions to someone to find out whether he was an extravert.  They were given a list of 25 possible questions and were asked to pick 12. Ten of the questions would ask for information that would confirm that the person was an extravert.  Ten of the questions would ask for information that would suggest the person was an introvert.  The remaining questions were unrelated to extraversion. 

People in the control condition chose far more questions relating to extraversion than introversion.  The people who were given the goal conflict asked about the same number of extraversion and introversion questions.  This result suggests that people primed with a goal conflict were not influenced by confirmation bias as strongly as those given no goal conflict.

A second study primed people with words that were opposites rather than just goal conflict, and found that opposites still lead to a confirmation bias.  A third study found that when people were primed with two unrelated goals that do not conflict directly, they still exhibit confirmation bias.  Each of these studies also replicated the finding that goal conflict reduces confirmation bias.

Putting these results together, the motivational system influences both actions and thinking.  Clearly, having an active goal pushes you to act in ways that are consistent with the goal. An active goal also pushes people to think about information that is related to that goal.  But, when goals compete, it pushes people to think in ways that will help them to resolve conflicts.  Reducing confirmation bias is one way to help resolve those conflicts. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

You See What You Believe

The world can be chaotic.  Cars whiz by on the road. People walk past you.  There may be birds and planes flying overhead. Despite all of this potential confusion, you manage to make sense of most of what is happening around you.  The ability to comprehend the world reflects an interaction between the things you see around you and your beliefs about the world.

An interesting question is the degree to which your beliefs influence what you are seeing in the moment.  This question was explored by Christos Bechlivanidis and David Lagnado in a fascinating paper in the August, 2013 issue of Psychological Science. 

They created a simple computer-based environment in which basic shapes (like squares and rectangles) could move and influence each other.  By playing with the environment for a while, participants could learn how the various objects worked.  For example, when a green square collided with a barrier, it caused the red rectangle to become a star.  The blue square would only allow squares, but not other shapes to enter its borders.  So, in order to get the red rectangle inside the blue square, the green square had to collide with the barrier first. 

In one study, some participants were given a series of exercises in this computer environment so that they learned how the objects acted.  Eventually, they learned how to get the red rectangle inside the blue square.  A second group got no training.

Afterward, participants saw a video of the objects moving in the world.  In this video, the red rectangle entered the blue square about 100 milliseconds before the green square hit the platform.  The red rectangle turned into a star after the green square hit the platform.  All of this happened in the same spatial position, so that participants could see all of the objects without having to move their eyes.

The participants then described the order of events in the test video and gave information about why the events happened in that order.  Those who received no training generally saw the events happen in the order in which they happened in the video.  They recognized that the red rectangle turned into a square before the green square hit the platform and that the rectangle became a star after it entered the blue square.  When asked, they said that this was the order they saw the events.

The participants who received training were much more prone to describe the events in the order that fit with their training.  They reported that the green square hit the platform before the rectangle turned into a star, and that the rectangle turned into a star before it entered the blue square.  They were also likely to say that this ordering happened, because that reflects the way the environment works. 

At one level, it should not be surprising that we have to use a lot of conceptual knowledge to help us make sense of what happens in the world.  Causal relationships do not often change that quickly, and so it is valuable (most of the time) for our beliefs to influence our interpretation of what we see.

However, this influence of belief on behavior can be a problem in situations like eyewitness testimony.  It is well known that the reports of eyewitnesses are not that reliable.  If people perceive events in a way that is consistent with how they believe that the world works, then their reports of the order of events in a complex situation may be wrong.   Because groups of people are likely to share causal beliefs, even entire groups may see events in the wrong order, so having multiple witnesses who provide corroborating testimony about the order of events does not necessarily mean that the events happened in that order.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Anxiety and Moral Judgment

A fascinating aspect of humanity is that we hold ourselves to a high moral standard.  We impose rules on ourselves to protect society from the short-term temptations that might cause us to do things that would have a negative impact in the long-run.  For example, we might be tempted to harm a person who bothers us, but a society in which everyone gave in to the temptation to hurt those who made us angry would quickly devolve into chaos.
When we make these moral judgments, to what extent are people driven by their ability to reason about the consequences of their actions, or are they influenced by their emotions?   For the past 25 years, researchers have become increasingly interested in the role that emotions play in complex judgments like moral decisions.  For example, Antonio Damasio reviews evidence for the role of emotion in cognitive processing in his book Descartes’ Error. 
Once we accept that emotion plays some role in complex decisions, it is important to figure out which emotions are influencing different kinds of choices.  This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Adam Perkins and several colleagues in the August, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
These researchers were interested in moral decision making.  In particular, many psychologists have looked at how participants respond in vignettes in which their actions could potentially cause harm to others.  Quite a bit of research demonstrates that people don’t like to cause harm to others, but that they are particularly averse to causing harm when they have to perform an action that causes direct harm to a person.
For example, imagine a situation in which you are working in a hospital as a late-night guard. An accident happens next door, and deadly fumes are released that get into the hospital’s ventilation system.  These fumes will kill three patients, but if you flip a switch, you can redirect the fumes to another area of the hospital that will kill only one patient.  In cases like this, although there is clearly a dilemma, people often elect to flip the switch.
As a second example, imagine that you are taking a cruise, when the ship catches fire and you have to get on a lifeboat.  All of the lifeboats have too many people on them, and are in danger of sinking.  In your boat, there is an injured person who is going to die before you are rescued. If you throw that person overboard, the boat will not sink and everyone else will be saved.  In this situation, people are reluctant to throw the person overboard, because this action would directly cause the death of the person.
The researchers suggest that the emotion of anxiety is a key factor that keeps people from stating that they would be willing to cause someone’s death directly in these vignettes.  To test this possibility, participants were given vignettes like these as well as control stories in which people had to make decisions with no moral dimension like which of two raffle tickets to buy based on the prize available. 
To test the role of anxiety in these decisions, 40 participants were run in three sessions.  In two of those sessions, participants were given a low or a moderate dose of the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam.  In the other session, participants received a placebo. 
The drug had no reliable effect on people’s decisions for choices that had no moral element or for people’s choices when their actions would cause a person’s death indirectly.  However, participants were most likely to elect to directly cause a person’s death in these dilemmas on the highest dose of lorazepam, least likely to cause the death in the placebo condition with the low dose condition in-between.
These results have to be taken with some caution.  The effects are rather small.  Participants made decisions in six decisions of each type in each session.  In the placebo condition, participants chose to kill a person directly in 1.75 of these dilemmas on average.  That rate rose to 2.33 dilemmas on average for the highest dose of the drug.  So, the drug did have a reliable influence on performance, but not a huge influence. 
In addition, these studies involve only vignettes.  It is hard to know exactly how people’s responses to stories relate to what they would actually do in a real situation.
 However, the study does help to isolate the set of emotions that influence moral decisions.  Anti-anxiety drugs like lorazepam influence anxiety and people’s response to threat.  They do not have a broad-based effect on emotion overall.  So, this research does push forward our understanding of the role of emotion in complex decisions.