Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Psychology Commencement Address 2015 at the University of Texas

I had the honor of giving the commencement address to the Psychology students at the University of Texas in 2015.  Here are my remarks.

Graduates, family and friends, faculty, Dean Flores.  I am honored to be speaking at today’s commencement.  Before I get started, I want you to take a second to drink this moment in.  In the rush of events this weekend, you run the risk of having your memory for the graduation feel like a blur.  So, just enjoy this feeling.  Feel the pride of your family and friends.  Bask in the glow of your accomplishment.  

Today, you are graduates in Psychology at the University of Texas.  At this time of transition, you are leaving the familiarity of the routine of the university for the uncertainty of the next phase of your life.  You might be worried about how your work here has prepared you to join the broader world.  You may not realize it, but as a result of your education, you are uniquely qualified to make the world around you a better place for two reasons.  First, you now have more insight into the human condition than most people, who live in blissful ignorance of the reasons why they act the way they do.  Second, you are now a trained scientist who can ask and answer questions with data.

For the next few minutes, I want to focus on three questions you can use as a guide no matter where your life takes you from UT.  These questions are the ones that will help you to improve the lives of the people around you.  

The first question is “Why?”  


Because understanding the way the world works is a crucial part of solving new problems.  Without knowing why the world works as it does, all you can do is to carry out procedures and hope they succeed.  Chances are, when you have a problem with your computer, you just restart it.  You do that hoping it will fix the problem so that you don’t have to call tech support or stand on line at the Genius Bar and talk to someone who does know how your computer works 

As it turns out, most people understand the way the world works far less well than they believe they do.  That is, they suffer from an illusion of explanatory depth.  This illusion is a problem, because you can’t solve new problems in new ways unless you understand the way things work.  And you won’t bother learning the way things work if you think you already know.  So, an important ingredient for success is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know.

The question “Why?” is the cure to the illusion of explanatory depth. By constantly asking that question of yourself and others, you ensure that you maximize the quality of the knowledge you have so that it will be there when you need it.  You have spent your time at UT honing your skill to ask and answer the question “why?”  Now, you need to keep doing it after you leave.  As an added bonus, by asking “why” of the people around you, you also help to cure their illusions of explanatory depth.

The second question is “What would I have done in that situation?”  Another important thing you have learned as psychology students is that the actions people perform involve a complex interaction between who they are and the situation they find themselves in.  

When you see somebody do something that you think is a mistake (or flat out wrong), it is tempting to conclude that there is something wrong with their personality.  Personality reflects the factory settings of people’s motivational system—the brain mechanisms that drive people to act.  We all have a tendency to act in a particular way, and that reflects those factory settings.  For example, I like to be on stage in front of people giving talks.  Other people find even the thought of giving a speech enough to make them ill.  In part, that reflects personality differences.

Often, though, the situations that people are in are a much bigger influence on what they do than their personality.  Before you conclude that someone’s mistake reflects some problem with who they are, ask yourself what you would have done in the same situation.  As you begin to think carefully about how you would navigate the circumstances of someone else’s life, it can give you a greater appreciation for the outside factors driving their behavior.

This matters, because if you think there is truly something wrong with another person, it undermines your trust in them.  For a social species like ours, trust is critical.  However, if there aspects of a situation that you believe are affecting people’s behavior, then you may not lose trust in them.  Instead, you can work with them to help them deal better with that situation in the future or to make sure that situation never happens again.  

The third crucial question is, “What’s the evidence?”  As a psychology student, you have learned that people will go to great lengths to preserve their existing opinions.  People interpret the world in a way that is consistent with what they already believe.  Through confirmation bias, they seek new information that would provide further support for their current opinions.  And, in the modern era in which there are hundreds of channels and thousand of websites, they can curate their life experience to ensure that they rarely encounter opinions that differ from their own.

But, you were trained as a scientist.  Science is one of humanity’s great inventions.  It is a system for helping us to change our opinions by looking for the evidence that would support both what we currently believe to be true and—more importantly—what we currently don’t believe to be true.  At the point where the weight of evidence argues against our pet theories, we have to give them up in favor of something more consistent with the data.

As an example, let’s look at biology.  After Watson and Crick published their work on the structure of DNA, the next great biological quest was to crack the genetic code.  The sequences of base pairs in DNA code for amino acids.  Watson and Crick figured out that sequences of three base pairs were the basic unit of genes.  The next problem was to determine how the various combinations of base pairs coded for particular amino acids.  

Francis Crick was part of a team that also involved mathematicians and cryptographers that came up with an elegant mathematical solution to the problem.  One commentator later called their solution “the prettiest wrong idea of the 20th century.”  In fact, scientists cracked the genetic code by brute force—synthesizing the amino acids from the base pairs.  And the actual answer was not mathematically elegant, though it was chemically stable.  

The wonder of science is that no matter how elegant and beautiful an argument may be, if it runs counter to the data, you have to reject it.  In the modern world, we face a lot of problems.  Some of them—like climate change—involve science that may fall outside your area of expertise.  Others—like the value of high-stakes testing in public education—may hit closer to your training.  Whenever you encounter a question in which data would help to provide a good answer, you should look for that data.  Ask for evidence.  Ideology and oratory are persuasive, but there is nothing better than good data for most of the thorny problems in life.

Of course, you should also use data only when you’re addressing questions that ought to be answered scientifically.  There is no amount of scientific data that matters when you decide that a particular musical piece is magnificent or that a sunset you are watching is stunning.   

The degree you receive today from the University of Texas demonstrates that you have learned a process for making the world a better place.  Whether you choose a profession that ties directly to your studies here or not, the insight you have about people combined with your knowledge of scientific method have given you an excellent basis to ask crucial questions.  Wherever you go, and whatever you do, keep asking “Why?”  In the most frustrating times, ask “What would I have done in that situation?”  And give yourself a chance to test your assumptions by asking “What is the evidence?”

As you cross the stage today, remember that you are walking into a future in which you will use the skills you learned here every day.  Find your way to make the world a better place.  And—every once in a while—reach back out to us here at UT and let us know how you’re doing.  

Congratulations graduates, and enjoy this glorious day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Does rejection make you creative?

When you watch movies about high school, certain stereotypes repeat. The football players hang around in packs wearing their letter jackets with cheerleaders hanging off their arms. The science nerds sit quietly in the cafeteria eating lunch hoping nobody notices them. And the artists sit by themselves—at a distance from all of this social interaction—watching the world go by.

This scene reinforces a stereotype that there is a relationship between creativity and being rejected by society.  Of course, even if this relationship exists, it is hard to know the direction it goes. It is possible that people who are truly creative are rejected by others, because their ideas go against the norm. It is also possible tat something about social rejection fuels creativity.

This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Sharon Kim, Lynne Vincent, and Jack Goncalo in the August, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.  They suggest that social rejection can make some people more creative.

In particular, people differ in how strongly they prize independence. Some people really want to see themselves as unique and different from everyone else.  Other people get a lot of their energy from being part of a group.  The more independent people are, the more that social rejection can actually make them more creative.

In one study, the authors measured people’s need to feel unique using a questionnaire.  Then, participants were brought to the lab with five other people and were told that some would be selected for a group exercise, while others would work alone.  They filled out a description of themselves.  Some people were told that they were rejected from the group and would perform tasks alone.  Other people were told that they were accepted into the group and would join the group right after doing some tasks. 

In this first study, participants then did the remote associates test (RAT), which has been used as a measure of creativity.  In the RAT, people see three words (like SALT DEEP and FOAM) and they have to select a word that goes with all three of these words (in this case, SEA).  Doing well on this test requires people to think divergently. 

The authors found an interaction between social rejection and people’s need to feel unique.  For people with a low need to feel unique, rejection had no influence on their scores on the remote associates test.  For people with a high need to feel unique, though, they got more correct answers on the RAT following rejection than following acceptance into a group. 

In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s need to feel unique using a procedure that has been employed in other studies.  Participants read a passage and were asked to circle the pronouns.  For some people, the pronouns were first-person singular (I  and me).  For other people the pronouns were first-person plural (we and our). Participants who circle singular pronouns are more focused on being independent than those who circle plural pronouns.  After that, the rejection manipulation and RAT were done as before.   The people primed to be independent who were rejected scored best on the RAT of all the groups.  Once again, being independent and being socially rejected led to creativity.

A third study repeated the one I just described with the manipulations of independence and rejection, but used a different measure of creativity.  This group was asked to draw alien creatures from a planet not like Earth.  This task has been used by Tom Ward and his colleagues in the past as a measure of creativity.  The drawings were then judged for their creativity. The group that was primed for independence and was socially rejected also made the most creative drawings.

What is going on here?

When people are part of a group or want to be part of a group, then there is social pressure for people’s ideas to conform to those of the people around them.  This conformity makes people less creative, because it decreases the value they put on divergent thinking.  When people are motivated to be independent, though, then having unique ideas further reinforces that independence. The combination of a mindset to be independent and some social rejection is one way to spur this mindset.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Personality and weight gain

There is a tendency to look at people who have put on weight and assume that there is something about their personality that made them gain weight.  We rarely contemplate the opposite possibility, though.  Perhaps behaviors that lead people to gain weight actually lead to changes in people’s personality over time.

This possibility was explored in a fascinating paper by Angelina Suttin and seven co-authors in the July, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  These authors examined data from about 2000 people taken from two longitudinal studies.  The adults in these studies were generally in their 40s and 50s at the time of the first measurement.  The individuals in these studies took a basic personality inventory and also had their height and weight measured (in one study) or they self-reported their weight (in the other).  The measurements for each individual were taken 8-10 years apart. 

The researchers analyzed the data to see whether significant weight gain (a gain of more than 10 pounds) and significant weight loss (a loss of more than 10 pounds) influenced measures of personality.  Weight loss had no reliable effect on the measures of personality.  However, weight gain had two relationships to personality.

Participants who gained more than 10 pounds were just as impulsive as those who did not at the baseline measure, but were significantly more impulsive in the follow-up test than those who did not gain weight.  Surprisingly, those who gained weight also increased in how likely they were to deliberate about decisions compared to those who did not gain weight.

This pair of findings is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it suggests that repeated behaviors that lead to bodily changes can ultimately influence personality characteristics as well.  Giving in and eating too much repeatedly over a 10-year period can lead people to become more impulsive overall. 

Second, the combination of results for impulsiveness and deliberation is interesting.  You might think that people who are impulsive do not think about their actions and the consequences of their actions.  In this case, though, people are both more impulsive and more deliberative.  That means that they likely understand the consequences of their impulsiveness, but they cannot stop themselves from acting.

These data suggest that it might be useful to take a different approach to weight loss, particularly with older adults.  Often, we provide a lot of information about healthy eating and weight loss.  The assumption is that if more people understood why their eating habits are leading to weight gain and potential bad health, they would change the way they eat.

These data suggest that information alone is unlikely to help.  The people in this study are able to think about their actions, they simply don’t change their behavior in the face of temptation.  That suggests that we need to help people to change their environment to make the behaviors they want to perform easier to do and the behaviors they want to avoid harder to do.  In addition, it suggests that people need to engage with family and friends to save them from temptation.  Ultimately, when you are likely to be impulsive, the people around you can be a great source of strength.

Friday, May 8, 2015

You Use Body Information to Recognize People, But You Don’t Know You’re Doing It.

Standing at the airport waiting for a friend or relative to emerge from a flight can be a frustrating experience.  People come pouring out of the exit, and you are searching for one person in particular.  On a crowded day, you might not even be able to get that close to the exit, and so it can be hard to see the person you are looking for.  Yet, most of the time, you manage to find the person you seek.
Part of what helps you to identify friends and relatives is information about their body.  You recognize their height, body shape, and even their manner of walking.  In fact, all of that may help you to know who you are looking at before the person is close enough to really see his or her face. 
An interesting paper in the November, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Allyson Rice, Jonathon Phillips, Vaidehi Natu, Xiaobo An, and Alice O’Toole demonstrates that people use information about the body to identify people, but they are not aware that they are doing so. 
In these studies, participants saw pairs of pictures drawn from a large database.  Participants had to identify whether the pair of pictures showed the same person or different people.  The pictures used in the study were carefully selected so that this task was quite difficult.   Many of the pictures of the same person were rather dissimilar, while many of the pictures of different people were similar to each other.  As a result, face information alone was not helpful in determining whether the people in each pair were similar.
When participants were given the full pictures, they were reasonably accurate in making the judgments of which pictures were the same or different.  Some participants were shown only the faces from the pictures.  This group was not good at all at distinguishing the same and different pairs.  A third group saw only the bodies with the faces covered by an oval.  This group was about as accurate at identifying the pictures as the group who saw the full pictures. 
So far, this probably doesn’t seem so surprising.
In another study, participants were given the full pictures to judge.  Afterward, they were asked about a variety of facial and bodily features, and were asked how much they used this information to make the judgments.  Participants performed well in this study, suggesting that they had to be using information about the body, but their ratings suggested they believed that they were focused on the nose, face shape, ears, mouth, eye shape and eyebrows, but not on properties like the hair length, height, shoulders, and neck. 
These ratings suggest that people are mistaken.  That is, when people see just the face information, they are not able to distinguish between the pictures of the same people and pictures of different people.  The body shape information is important, yet people do not report using it.
A final study demonstrated that people really were reporting the information they used to make judgments incorrectly.  In this study, participants saw full pictures. They viewed the picture pairs while their eyes were being tracked.  Eye tracking enables researchers to monitor what people are looking at on a moment-by-moment basis.  The technique is effective, because you clear vision for only a small area (about the size of your thumbnail at arm’s length).  So, your eyes are constantly in motion to create a clear image of what you are seeing.
In this eye tracking study, some of the pairs of pictures were ones in which face information could be used to make reasonably accurate judgments.  Other pairs required body information to be used.  When the face information was helpful for making judgments, people looked at it quite a bit.  When the face information was not helpful for making judgments, then people focused more on areas of the body that would help them to determine whether the two people were the same.
What does this mean?
First of all, your visual system is smart.  It does a good job of figuring out the information you need to make judgments. 
Second, you do not have complete access to all of what your visual system is doing. Even though you shift your attention from the face to the body when body information will help you to recognize a person, you still think that you are focused on the person’s face.  This is another great example of how your conscious experience of what you are doing is not an accurate portrayal of what you are actually doing.