Monday, January 26, 2015

Distance Increases the Use of Statistics in Decisions

There is a real tension in decision making between using a broad sample of information and focusing on a compelling individual case.  Recruiters will get a lot of information about job candidates before scheduling an interview, but then will give a lot of weight to the interview itself in making a final decision.  Politicians may have a lot of statistics to support a particular policy, but they are often driven to act by a specific event.

Presumably, a decision based on a lot of evidence is better than one that is based only on a specific case.  An interesting paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Erin Burgoon, Marlone Henderson, and Cheryl Wakslak examined how we evaluate other people’s decisions that are based either on statistics or specific cases.

These researchers argued that the distance between you and the decision maker would influence your preference for the kind of decision that person has made.  Research on construal level theory by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues suggests that people think about situations more specifically when they are mentally close to that situation than when they are mentally far from it.  Thinking about a decision specifically can lead to a preference for using information about a particular case over using general statistical information.  So, if you hear about a person who has made a decision using specific case information, you are probably happier with that decision if that person is close by than if they are far away.

One study in this paper was run two weeks after the shooting in Arizona that injured US Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Participants read that their representative in Congress was supporting legislation to limit the size of the ammunition magazines in automatic weapons.  They read an interview that supported this legislation.  The interview focused either on statistics about gun violence or specifically on the shooting in Arizona.  Some participants were told that the interview took place nearby in that representative’s local office, while others were told that the interview was given in far-away Washington, DC.  After reading the interview, participants expressed their level of support for their member of Congress.

Participants who read that the interview was held nearby showed equal levels of support regardless of whether the legislation was being supported based on statistics or based on the specific shooting.  Those who read that the interview was held in Washington DC expressed a higher level of support for the Representative when the interview focused on statistics than when it focused on the specific case. 

This finding demonstrates that distance from the decision maker affects people’s beliefs about how that person should make a decision.  Another study in this series related this finding more specifically to construal level theory.

Research on construal level theory finds that you can induce a mindset to think about situations specifically or abstractly.  For example, if you ask people to talk about how to accomplish a goal, they think more specifically afterward than if you ask them to talk about why they should accomplish that goal.  Talking about how to do something focuses people on more specific details than talking about why to do something, and that influence carries over to other tasks people are performing.

In one study, participants were first asked to give feedback to the superintendant of a local school district.  They picked an issue of their choice and talked either about how or why the superintendant should make a change. 

Then, they read that the superintendant was going to make a change to a school lunch program.  They were told that 85% of parents who were surveyed supported the change, but that one irate parent left a long voicemail message opposing the program.  (Another group of participants read the opposite that 85% of parents opposed the program and one vocal parent supported it.)  Some people read that the superintendant made a decision based on the consensus of the parents, while others read that the superintendant made a decision based on the argument made by the vocal parent.  Then, people expressed their support for the superintendant.

Overall, participants felt that the superintendent made a better decision when the decision was based on the consensus of the parents than when it was based on a specific individual. However, if the participants had previously focused on “how” to accomplish a goal, they were more supportive when the superintendant decided based on the specific individual than if the participants had previously focused on “why” to accomplish a goal.  So, a mindset that gets people to think specifically increases their appreciation for choices made based on specific information. 

All things being equal, it is better to take a lot of data into account when making a choice than to focus on a particular representative case.  To help yourself appreciate decisions based on data, try to give yourself some mental distance from the choice being made.  That distance will help you to focus on a broader context in which a decision is being made.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Culture Affects Attention to Goals and Processes

When you want to guide your behavior, you have to pay attention to two different things—the goal and the process.  The goal is the outcome you want to have happen, while the process is the set of steps that will allow you to achieve that goal. If you want to speak to a friend, you might adopt the goal to make a phone call.  As a part of the plan to do that, you need to engage in the process of dialing your friend’s number.

In the United States, people tend to focus on the goal they want to accomplish when thinking about actions.  Is that a universal human tendency?

This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Yuri Miyamoto, Christopher Knoepfler, Keiko Ishii, and Li-Jun Ji.  They suggested that there are differences across cultures in how consistent people perceive themselves to be across situations, and that consistency might affect how people think about the actions they perform.

Self-consistency reflects the similarity in your actions across situations.  For example, you might feel that you are more outgoing when spending time with friends than when going to an event with family.  If so, you are not being highly self-consistent.  If you think you act similarly when spending time with different groups, then you are being highly self-consistent.  These researchers point to work suggesting that Americans and Hong Kong Chinese see themselves as more self-consistent than Japanese do. 

The key question was whether this difference in self-consistency would be related to the way people view their actions.  People who are highly self-consistent may focus on the overall goal they want to achieve, because they want to maintain the same goals across situations.  People who are lower in self-consistency may focus on the actions they take, because those actions may differ across situations.

To test this possibility, participants in the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong were given two different questionnaires.  One measured people’s beliefs about the consistency of their behavior in different situations.  The second gave people a set of situations and asked them whether they see that situation as involving a goal or an action.  For example, if you are greeting someone, do you think it is better to identify that action as showing friendliness or saying hello?  When you are taking a test are you showing your knowledge or answering questions?  

The results were interesting.  As expected based on the previous research, Americans and Hong Kong Chinese saw their actions as being more consistent across situations than the Japanese.  Americans and Hong Kong Chinese also tended to identify their actions with the goal rather than the action, while the Japanese tended to identify their actions with the action rather than the goal.  Statistical tests found that the degree to which people identified their actions with the goal was related to the degree to which they saw themselves as consistent across situations. 

Why does this matter?

First, cross-cultural research gives us a view of the variation in human behavior.  If we do a study in the United States that explores the way people think and act, we often conclude that the results of this study reflect the way people think and act in general.  These cross-cultural studies are important for helping us to tease apart the aspects of behavior that are universal parts of human nature from those that are a result of years of cultural training. 

Second, the focus on goals and actions may affect behavior.  When trying to change behavior, for example, people (at least in the United States) focus on the goal they want to achieve.  For example, when going on a diet, people set a goal to lose 25 pounds.  The problem with this focus on the goal is that when you achieve the goal, it is not clear what you should do next.  That is one reason why people who succeed at losing weight often regain it later.  If you focus instead on the process (what you eat, how you prepare your food), then you may end up losing weight, but you have generated a set of behaviors that you can maintain even after you reach your desired weight.  So, shifting your focus from goals to processes can be a benefit when trying to develop new habits.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Improving Concentration Improves Performance

There are times when it is just hard to get work done.  You want to read a book, but you can’t stop thinking about a comment a friend made earlier in the day.  You need to get something written, but there is a little voice in the back of your head trying to get you to check your email.  Think of how productive you could be if you could just focus on what you are doing rather than having your mind wander all over.

If you were trained to focus, would that actually make you more effective at thinking?

This question was explored in a paper in the May, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Michael Mrazek, Michael Franklin, Dawa Phillips, Benjamin Baird, and Jonathan Schooler.  These researchers explored the influence of mindfulness training on performance in a few thinking tasks.

Mindfulness training uses elements of meditation to help people become more aware of their thought patterns.  By doing exercises like concentrating on a taste or a smell, people learn to recognize the way that other thoughts can intrude on their current experience.  Along the way, this training helps people to learn to avoid actively suppressing thoughts, which can actually make people more likely to have the undesired thoughts. 

In this study, a sample of college students was randomly assigned either to a 2-week mindfulness training class or to a 2-week class on nutrition (which focused on healthy eating).  All participants were given a pre-test and a post-test.  They did a test of reading comprehension taken from the GRE.  They also did a test of working memory.  Working memory is the amount of information you can use in the moment to think.  The more that your mind wanders, the less working memory you have to focus on the task at hand.  During the tests, participants were also asked questions about their mind wandering.  At various points during the test, they were stopped and were asked whether they were concentrating fully on the test or whether they were having other thoughts unrelated to what they were supposed to work on. 

The participants given the nutrition class showed no reliable difference in their performance on either test from the beginning to the end of the study.  The number of mind-wandering thoughts did not change either.

The participants who were given the 2-week mindfulness training class improved on both the reading comprehension and working memory tests.  Their mind-wandering also decreased.  Statistical tests demonstrated that the improvement in test scores was related to the decrease in mind-wandering.

This research suggests that when it comes to smart thinking, you may be your own worst enemy.  The difficulties you have concentrating can have a huge impact on your ability to learn information and to solve new problems.  Your ability to focus is affected by many factors.  Your busy information environment (with repeated interruptions from cell phones, instant messages, and email) can draw your attention from what you are trying to accomplish. In addition, your own mind-wandering affects your thinking.

Mindfulness training like the class used in this study is one ingredient in a program to make you smarter.  This training helps you to learn more about your own thinking patterns, which ultimately helps you to sustain attention.  In addition, spend more time controlling your environment.  When you have hard work to do, shut off your email program and put your smart phone out of arm’s reach.  Start removing the mental distractions from your environment.

The less your mind wanders, the more effectively you will be able to think in the moment. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Does Early Academic Prowess Predict Later Success?

As you probably know, I am interested in smart thinking.  I spend a lot of time writing about how to improve your thinking skills.  I also argue that anyone can get smarter by learning more about the mind and how it works.

One of the things we value in the modern world is academic success.  The people we think of as smart are often the ones who do well in school settings.  An open question is how early success in school settings affects success in later life. 

Early in the history of the study of intelligence testing, Lewis Terman followed the careers of a number who scored at the genius level on the IQ tests that he helped to develop.  Many of these high-IQ individuals were quite successful in their careers, though others were not.  And there were also very successful individuals who did not score highly on the IQ tests. 

As interesting as the Terman Genius study is, there are few studies that have looked at people who score well on tests of achievement and aptitude early in life.  So, it is hard to get a clear sense of how early academic success predicts later performance in life.

A fascinating paper in the May, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla Benbow does just that.  They tracked a group of people who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) at the age of 13.  The SAT (as it was given back then) had two scores—a verbal score and a math score.

  The people they tracked were those who got a score that placed them in the top 0.01% (that is 1 in 10,000) on either the verbal or math portion of the test (or both).  So, these individuals were not just high-scorers for their age group, but extremely high-scorers.  Twenty years after taking the SAT, this sample of 320 people was surveyed about their achievements.  In addition, the researchers used databases to get additional information about employment, publications, patents, and awards.

Several interesting things emerged from this analysis.

The people who did extremely well on the verbal section of the SAT tended to go into careers in the arts, the humanities and the social sciences.  Those who did well on the math portion of the test tended to go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.  Many of those who became lawyers did very well on the verbal section of the SAT, and moderately well on the mathematics section of the test at age 13.

This group was highly accomplished in their fields.  The group that did well in mathematics generated large numbers of patents and large numbers of publications in journals in the STEM disciplines.  Those that did well on the verbal section of the test went on to publish books, plays, short stories, and publications in the humanities at a high rate.  These individuals also received a number of grants and awards to support their work.  Finally, many of these individuals went on to get tenure prestigious research universities.

There is no comparison group in this study.  The researchers just tracked the accomplishments of this group. However, the rates of publication and achievement of tenure are higher in this group than in the general population, so this group of individuals was clearly operating at a high level.

What kinds of conclusions should we draw from data like this?

On the one hand, kids who show high levels of academic achievement early in their careers are on a path toward greatness.  If we nurture those students, they have the study skills and interest in learning that will allow them to work at the highest levels of the fields they choose.  It is well-worth finding ways to help these students to continue their studies and to make their contribution to the world.

On the other hand, that does not mean that we should focus selectively on high achievers at the expense of everyone else.  Smart thinking is ultimately a skill that anyone can acquire.  Anyone who is motivated to learn can ultimately do great things in a field of study.  Early success may be a marker of great things to come in the future.  But, a person who is not in the top 0.01% at the age of 13 is not destined for mediocrity. 

One danger in labeling certain kids as “gifted” early on in their lives is that the kids who do not get that label can believe that they do not possess the talents required for greatness.  With effort and guidance, there is greatness in all of us.  And for a fascinating discussion of this issue, check out Scott Barry Kaufman’s new book Ungifted.