Monday, March 30, 2015

Self-Compassion and Health

A few times in this blog, I have written about self-compassion.  Self-compassion is the degree to which you treat yourself with kindness.  It differs from related concepts like self-esteem, which is how good you feel about yourself.  Self-compassion determines how well you come back from adversity.  If you get down on yourself when things go wrong, then it is hard to bounce back from a problem.  If you treat yourself with kindness, then it is easier to recover from a bad experience.

An interesting paper in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Meredith Terry, Mark Leary, Sneha Mehta, and Kelly Henderson examined the relationship between self-compassion and health behaviors. 

A key question in health-care is what factors lead people to seek help for medical problems.  Every year, some number of people avoid going to the doctor, even when they think they might be sick.  This avoidance can be dangerous if the delay leads a treatable condition to get worse.

In a series of studies, the authors examined the relationship between a measure of self-compassion and a variety of health-related behaviors.  To measure self-compassion, the authors used a scale that described a series of bad things that could happen in someone’s life like making a stupid mistake or having a hard time doing something that other people find easy.  They asked people to evaluate whether they would be likely to do self-compassionate things like cheering themselves up or uncompassionate things like judging themselves harshly.

One study found that people with health problems who have a high level of self-compassion are less depressed about those problems than people with a low level of self-compassion.  Another study found that people with a high-level of self-compassion said they would see a doctor more quickly for health problems than people with a low-level of self-compassion.  The authors found this relationship even after controlling for factors like how good people are at planning for the future.

A final study looked at why self-compassion influences health-related behaviors.  This study found that people with a high level of self-compassion also treat themselves kindly.  That is, they do not get down on themselves for having an illness.  They also frequently remind themselves that many people have health problems and that they do not deserve to be sick.  The combination of self-kindness and positive self-talk help to explain the influence of self-compassion on health behaviors.

This study adds to a growing body of work demonstrating the powerful effects of self-compassion.  Everyone is going to experience negative events in their lives. People try a new venture and fail.  They get sick or injured.  They get in relationships that ultimately break up.  They have loved-ones who get sick or die.  Nobody can escape the bad things that happen in life.

The key is to find ways to deal with those negative events in a positive way.  It is fine to experience the pain of a negative event.  But, after acknowledging the pain, it is also important to get up and try again—to remember that failures and illnesses and bad relationships are not a verdict on your worth as a person, but just another hurdle to be overcome.  Ultimately, you need to learn to treat yourself with the same kindness you would show to others in the same situation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Self-control and success

Most of us believe that a certain amount of self-control is crucial for success.  In order to succeed in the modern world, you need expertise in some area.  Gaining that expertise requires work and practice.  The discipline to work or practice at something means that you have to give up things that might be fun right now in order to engage in actions that will be rewarding in the future. 

Research by Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, and their colleagues supports this link.  They looked at the relationship between the delay of gratification task developed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s and later performance. 

In the delay of gratification task, young kids (often preschoolers) are put in a room where they are seated in front of a desirable food (like a marshmallow or cookie).  They are told that the experimenter is going to leave the room for a while and that if they have not eaten the treat while the experimenter is gone, they will get two treats instead.  The experimenter then leaves the room for a period of time (often about 10 minutes) and then returns.  The amount of time that a child is willing to wait in order to get the extra treat is a measure of self-control.  Mischel, Shoda, and their colleagues find that the amount of time that children will wait as preschoolers is related to many positive outcomes in adolescence such as higher grades, greater social competence, and a better ability to deal with stress.

What is going on with this delay of gratification task? 

On its face, it clearly measures some kind of self-control ability.  However, it may also measure other factors like intelligence that could ultimately lead to differences years later.  An interesting paper by Angela Duckworth, Eli Tsukayama, and Teri Kirby in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the delay of gratification task in more detail. 

They examined the data from 966 children who were given the delay of gratification test as preschoolers as part of a longitudinal study.  In addition to this test, there was information from parents and caregivers about ability to focus attention, impulsivity, temperament, and intelligence.  In 9th grade, these same students were assessed for their grade-point average, achievement test scores, their body mass index, and their tendency to engage in risky behavior.  A variety of other demographic characteristics were also measured including parental education level, SES, gender, and race/ethnicity.

In this study, performance on the delay of gratification task was related to both parent/caregiver ratings of self-control as well as measures of intelligence.  A statistical analysis was then used to look at how these measurements in preschool related to outcomes in ninth grade.  The delay of gratification task did not predict anything on its own.  Instead, higher self-control at age 4 predicts higher standardized test scores, higher GPA and lower body mass index in ninth grade.  Higher intelligence at age 4 strongly predicts higher standardized test scores in ninth grade.  There is a weak relationship in which higher intelligence at age 4 also predicts slightly higher body mass index in ninth grade.

What does all of this mean?

Grade-point average in school is a better predictor of future success than just standardized test scores, because GPA reflects a combination of overall ability level and willingness to work hard in school.  Self-control is related to people’s ability to work hard to achieve their long-term goals.  This self-control is also reflected in a lower body mass index, suggesting that people with a high level of self-control at a young age do more things to take care of themselves as they get older.

If you were lucky enough to be born with a high level of self-control as a child, then that bodes well for you in the future.  But, what if you are a “one-marshmallow” person, prone to give into short-term temptations?

In that case, you have to find ways to protect yourself from yourself.  One important thing you can do is to remove temptations from your environment.  You cannot give in to playing video games rather than studying if you don’t have any video games in the house.  You cannot eat too many potato chips if you don’t buy them. 

A second thing you can do is to engage with people around you to help you achieve your long-term goals.  Find a study partner and work with them on classwork.  Get an exercise buddy and let that person nag you to go to the gym.  Spend more time with people who have achieved the kind of success you hope for.  Their goals and habits will start to affect the way you act.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Kinds of People Start Businesses?

I live in Austin, Texas, which prides itself as a center for entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs are people who start their own businesses.  In Austin, we have many different kinds of new businesses ranging from high-tech companies that want to be the next Dell or Facebook to food-truck restaurants where someone just wants to follow their dream of cooking for others.

Starting your own business is difficult.  You have to put in long hours.  You have to be prepared to fail.  A high percentage of new ventures do not succeed.  You have to be willing to change course if things are not working out as expected.

Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.  For decades, psychologists and business researchers have explored whether there is a collection of personality traits that is associated with starting a business.

A fascinating paper by Martin Obschonka, Eva Schmitt-Rodermund, Rainer Silbereisen, Sam Gosling, and Jeff Potter in the July, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored two related questions.  First, is it reasonable to characterize an entrepreneurial personality?  Second, are there clusters of people with that personality profile within a country?

Based on a lot of previous research, these authors suggested that there is a personality profile for entrepreneurs which is based on the Big Five personality dimensions.  The Big Five dimensions, which reflect the largest differences in behavior across people are Openness to Experience (your willingness to consider new ideas), Extraversion (your desire to be the center of attention), Conscientiousness (your willingness to work hard and follow rules), Agreeableness (your desire to be liked by others), and Neuroticism (your lack of emotional stability).  They suggest that the ideal entrepreneurial profile is someone who is high in openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness and low in agreeableness and neuroticism. 

(As an aside, you might wonder why a good entrepreneur is low in agreeableness.  While it is important to be liked by people who might want to do business with you, it is more important to be critical and demanding when starting a business.  Highly agreeable people do not like to give other people bad news, and so they often temper their criticisms in ways that could hurt a business.)

In the first study in this paper, the researchers analyzed a data set in which over 600,000 people from all over the United States took a 44-question Big Five scale.  The questionnaire also had information about where people lived.  The researchers measured how well each person in the sample compared to the ideal profile for an entrepreneur.

The first interesting result is that the personality profiles were not evenly distributed throughout the US.  There were more people fitting this profile in the western US than in the eastern US, though Georgia and Florida also had a high concentration of people with this profile. 

There are many possible reasons why this personality profile might cluster in particular regions.  For example, people with an entrepreneurial personality profile might move to areas where they think they will meet like-minded folks.  In regions with many people who have this profile, they may act in ways to heighten these behaviors in other people as well.   

The researchers then looked at the relationship between the entrepreneurial profile of people in a region and entrepreneurial activity in that region.  In these analyses, the researchers controlled for many other factors such as the ethnic makeup of those regions, the overall economic climate of the regions, and the age and gender profiles of the regions.  In these analyses, regions with more people who had the entrepreneurial personality profile also had more startups and other entrepreneurial activity.

To follow up on these studies, the researchers did the same analyses in Germany and the United Kingdom using large-scale data sets from those countries.  The same pattern was observed in these studies. People with an entrepreneurial profile were found in clusters in each country.  The regions that had the most people with that entrepreneurial profile also had the most entrepreneurial activity.

This kind of large-scale analysis of the social structure of personality profiles is fascinating, and opens up a number of new avenues for research. Ultimately, it would be interesting to know what factors cause this entrepreneurial personality profile to become clustered in regions. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

People Who Lack Self-Control Value Others Who Have It

Willpower is a notoriously fickle thing.  Some days, you can withstand even the fiercest temptation.  On other days, you can be distracted from your goals by almost anything.  There are clear differences between people as well.  Some people maintain a single-minded focus on their goals, while others give in to the slightest enticement.

What can you do in those situations in which your willpower is going to let you down?  At those times, it can be helpful to cling to the people around you who are good at resisting temptation.  You can draw strength from other people. 

An article by Catherine Shea, Erin Davisson, and Grainne Fitzsimons in the June, 2013 issue of Psychological Science suggests that people with low self-control naturally value the self-control in other people. 

In one study, the researchers manipulated people’s self-control resources using an ego depletion task.  Some participants had to perform a moderately difficult self-control task.  They watched a video and had to evaluate a character on the video.  During the video, words flashed on the task.  The ego-depletion group was told to ignore the words, while the control group watched the video with no instructions.  This task is known to wear down people’s self-control abilities, which can cause self-control failures in later situations.

After watching the video, participants read a vignette about an office manager.  The story either suggested that the manager had a high, moderate, or low level of self-control. They were asked to rate how good a leader the manager was likely to be. Participants who had just done an ego depletion task and had a low level of self-control resources gave higher ratings when reading the story about the manager with a high level of self-control than when reading the story about the manager with a low level of self-control.  Ratings of the manager with a moderate level of self-control came out in between. 

The participants who did the control task did not give significantly different ratings to the three managers.  They were less influenced by differences in other people’s self-control.

A second study demonstrated a similar effect, but looked at individual differences in participants’ self-control.  Differences in self-control were measured using the Stroop task.  In the Stroop task, people identify the color of the font of words.  The words are names of colors.  When the word names the same color as the font, people are faster to name the color than when the word names a different color from the font.  The difference between the speed of the consistent and inconsistent responses is a measure of self-control.  People with a high level of self-control show less of a difference than those with a low level of self-control. 

The people with a low level of self-control (as measured by the Stroop task) gave a similar pattern of ratings as those in the ego-depletion condition of the previous study.  Their ratings differed substantially based on the level of self-control of the manager.  The people with a high level of self-control did not differ much in their ratings of the manager. 

A third study examined the relationship between the degree of self-control of the members of a romantic couple and their level of dependence on each other.  A partner with a low level of self-control relied much more on their significant other when that person had a high level of self control than when that person had a low level of self-control.  A partner with a high level of self-control relied on their significant other equally strongly regardless of that person’s level of self-control.  

These studies suggest that people naturally recognize the role that other people can play to enhance their self-control.  When a person has a low-level of self control as a trait or when their willpower is tapped, they are much more prone to value the willpower of other people than when their self-control resources are high.