Monday, August 31, 2015

Why Do People Gamble Too Much?

I grew up in Central New Jersey.  When I was about 10, the state legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, making it the only place on the East Coast of the US at that time where people could gamble legally.  I have some relatives who live near Atlantic City.  There are lots of cheap buses to get there from all over the New York and New Jersey area, and so I would hop on with all of the gamblers to go visit family.  The ride down was always tense with anticipation, but the ride back had lots of tired and dejected gamblers.  I always felt like many of those people on the bus with me had real gambling problems.

What exactly is it that drives people to gamble too much? 

Intuitively, it seems like there are two possibilities.  One is that people with gambling problems are focused on the thrill of gambling.  When you walk through a casino, there are lights and bells and the sounds of people winning money.  There must be a real jolt when your number comes up on a roulette table, or the bars all align on a slot machine. 

Of course, another possibility is that gamblers are just focused on the money.  They want to win money and gambling seems like a way to do it.

An interesting paper by Cheryl Hahn, Tim Wilson, Kaichen McRae, and Dan Gilbert in the October, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored these two possibilities. 

As a measure of the vulnerability to problem gambling, they asked participants to fill out the Gambling Attitudes and Beliefs Survey, which has been used in past research.  This scale asks people to rate their agreement with statements like “I know when I’m on a streak” and “If I lose, it is important to stick with it until I get even.” 

In one study, participants were given the gambling survey.  Later, they were given a chance to play what seems like a strange gambling game.  Two decks of cards were placed in front of them.  One deck had 9 red cards and 1 black card.  The other deck had 5 red cards and 5 black cards.  At the start of each trial, the decks were shuffled and placed face-down on the desk.  Participants could choose which deck they wanted a card drawn from.  If the card was red, they would get 10 cents.  If the card was black, they would get nothing.  The game was repeated for 20 trials.  A second group was shown the experimental situation, but they just predicted how may cards they would want to take from each deck over the course of the study.

Economically, it seems clear that participants should always choose from the deck with 9 red cards, because they have the best chance of winning when they draw from that deck.  If they choose often from the deck with only 5 red cards, then they must value the suspense of whether they will win and the thrill of winning despite lower odds. 

People who scored highly on the gambling survey predicted that they would choose somewhat more cards from the risky deck (with 5 red cards) than people who scored low on the gambling survey.  In actuality, though, people who scored high on the gambling survey actually chose fewer cards from the risky deck on average than those who scored low on the survey. 

That is, these results suggest that people who scored highly on the gambling survey were more interested in the money than in the potential thrill of beating the odds.  The researchers obtained a similar result in a second study.

In one final study, participants who had filled out the gambling survey were given 3 minutes to do a series of math problems.  Some people were told that they would be paid 5 cents for each problem they got correct.  Others were given no monetary incentive.  The people who got a low score on the gambling survey answered about the same number of items correctly regardless of whether they were being paid.  Those who got a high score on the gambling survey answered more questions correctly on average when they were being paid than when they were not. 

Putting these results together, it suggests that people who are vulnerable to problem gambling are more strongly motivated by obtaining money than by the suspense of gambling or the thrill of winning.

Of course, this finding was obtained with college students, and there may have been few real problem gamblers in this sample.  As the researchers point out, the stakes in this situation were also low.  More work still needs to be done to see whether this focus on winnings over the thrill of gambling holds up in further studies.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Intelligence, Spatial Ability, and Creativity

One of the goals of intelligence testing has been to help to identify those people who are likely to be productive in life and to give them access to resources that will allow them to maximize their potential.   

The danger with these intelligence tests, though, is that they do not perfectly predict what will happen to people in the future.  In his fascinating book, Ungifted, Scott Barry Kaufman provides both a personal story as well as data about the strengths and weaknesses of intelligence testing.  On the personal side, he had difficulties in school early on, and performed poorly on tests of intelligence, but he has published significant scientific work in the field of intelligence.  So, the tests were not a good predictor of his future success.  He is not alone.  Intelligence tests predict only a small part of what makes people successful.

Perhaps what is missing is other intelligence tests.  This question was explored in a paper in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Harrison Kell, David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and James Steiger.  

They examined data from a longitudinal study of participants who were first given the SAT as 13-year-olds in the 1970s.  The participants all scored in the highest one-half of one percent on either the math or verbal SAT.  Later, they were given other tests, including two tests of spatial reasoning ability.  One of these tests, (the Mechanical Reasoning portion of the Differential Aptitude Test explores people’s ability to reason about configurations of devices like gears and pulleys.  Another (the Spatial Reasoning portion of the DAT) looks at people’s ability to construct boxes and shapes from segments. 

The researchers examined whether the 563 individuals in this sample had published papers in research journals and had gotten patents for inventions.  Overall, 160 individuals from this sample had published journal articles or had a patent.  

A key finding from this research was that the combination of math and verbal SAT score could be used to predict which people in the same were likely to publish in research journals.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who published in science and technology journals tended to have higher Math SAT scores as children than those who published in Arts, Humanities and Social Science Journals.  Those who published in journals tended to have higher verbal SAT scores as children than those who just had patents.  

Overall, this analysis predicted about 11% of the difference among people in their types of publications.  

Spatial ability added to this prediction.  Those people who published in the sciences and who held patents had higher scores on the tests of spatial reasoning as children than those who published in arts and humanities journals or in biology and medical journals.  The addition of the spatial ability scores added the ability to predict an additional 7% of the differences among people.

How should these results be interpreted?

On the one hand, it is clear that extraordinary intelligence scores obtained as children do have some influence on later performance.  Over 25% of the people in this sample ultimately published papers in research journals or had patents.  That is a higher percentage than you would expect in the population of the United States at large.

At the same time, that means that most of the people in this sample did not publish or have patents.  In addition, though SAT scores and spatial ability scores help to predict the fields people will enter to some degree, most of the differences among people involve factors beyond these tests of ability.

Ultimately, tests of intelligence or ability are a relatively small predictor of people’s success.  As I discuss in Smart Thinking, raw ability is useless on its own.  Success is built on a basis of hard work acquiring an area of expertise and honing that knowledge to use it to solve new and interesting problems.  Intelligence may make it a little easier to acquire that knowledge and to use it, but it does not substitute for years of hard work.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Does Cognition Get Worse With Age?

We all know that cognitive ability gets worse as we age.  Even healthy older adults think more slowly and remember less than healthy young adults.  The declines are slow and steady, though clearly not debilitating.  Many older adults continue to make important and productive contributions to their fields into their 70s and 80s and beyond.

An interesting question about the performance of older adults is whether the declines reflect that older adults are just worse than younger adults on a day-to-day basis or whether older adults are more variable.  That is, do older adults have more extreme good days and bad days than younger adults?

This issue was explored in a paper by Florian Schmiedek, Martin Lovden, and Ulman Lindenberger in the September, 2013 issue of Psychological Science.  They analyzed data from a long-term study of Germany younger adults (on average 25 years old) and older adults (on average 71 years old).  Each participant completed roughly 100 sessions of a battery of cognitive tasks measuring memory skills, perceptual ability, and working memory capacity.  (Working memory is the ability to hold onto information in the moment to use it during thinking.)  Overall, participants performed 9 tests in each session.

Participants did this battery of tests at least twice a day during the study period, so that it was possible to disentangle variability in performance that was just a result of different times of day and variability in performance that was due to having good days and bad days.

Overall, the older adults performed less well on the variety of cognitive tests than the younger adults.  Interestingly, the older adults were more consistent in their performance over time than the younger adults.  The older adults showed less variability across all of the different tasks both from one time of day to another and from one day to the next than the younger adults.
This finding helps to explain why declines in cognitive performance with age are not 
debilitating to older adults.  Even though older adults do get worse overall, their performance stays within a narrow range from day-to-day.  Generally speaking, older adults do not have rapid swings from really good days on which they perform exceptionally well to really bad days on which they fall apart.  This low level of variability helps older adults to maintain reasonable performance each day.

Indeed, one of the signs of significant declines in aging associated with senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is that there is a lot of daily variability in performance.  The rapid daily changes associated with these disorders cause real problems for patients.  They also serve as a warning sign for people who are on the lookout for cognitive problems in themselves or aging relatives.

Friday, August 14, 2015

When Does Choosing a Treatment Matter?

In the United States, many provisions of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) is the law of the land.  Opponents of the law have been concerned that it will ultimately reduce some people’s options for the care that they receive, even as it increases the number of people who are insured overall.  
The long-term implications of this law for health care are not at all clear, but there is an interesting question about the role of options in health care.  Does it matter if people have a choice among a set of treatment options?
This question was explored in a paper in the October, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Andrew Geers, Jason Rose, Stephanie Fowler, Heather Rasinski, Jill Brown, and Suzanne Helfer.  They were interested in whether the option to choose a treatment would influence people’s perception of pain and discomfort.
In one study, participants came to a lab set up to look like a medical testing facility.  Prior to the experiment, the participants had filled out a questionnaire measuring how much they like to have control over situations in their lives.  When they arrived at the experiment, they were told that they would be placing a hand in very cold water.  Then, they were shown two jars of creams.  One group was told that these creams were two different kinds of protection against the cold.  One cream was described as warming the hand to protect like a glove, while the other was described as blocking pain receptors.  A second group was told that the creams were different kinds of cleansers, one of which was organic and the other of which was made in the United States.  Half of the people in each group were allowed to choose which cream they wanted to have applied, while the other had a cream selected for them by the experimenter.  Then, they put their hand in the water for over a minute and then rated their discomfort.
The people who had no choice over the cream they got experienced slightly less pain when they were told the cream was a protector than when they were told it was a cleanser.  This finding is a classic placebo effect.  People who had a choice showed a different pattern. When people had a choice and like to have control over their lives, then they showed a large placebo effect.  Choosing a protecting cream led them to feel much less pain than choosing a cleansing cream.  People who do not desire control over their lives showed no difference in their perceived pain regardless of whether they were offered a choice between protecting creams and cleansing creams.
So, the placebo effect was most powerful for those people who desire control and were given a choice.
This finding was repeated in a second experiment involving a choice of colors that some people were told are soothing, where the pain was a loud noise.  In addition, a third experiment found that the desire for control could be manipulated by having people imagine situations in which they did not have control and wanted it or had control when they didn’t want it.  The same pattern was observed in both of these studies.  When people had a high desire for control, then choosing a treatment led to large placebo effects.  When they had a low desire for control, then choosing a treatment removed the placebo effect.
What does all of this mean?
Placebo effects are extremely powerful, particularly for pain relief.  So, it is valuable to know when the largest placebo effects will be observed.
Choice of treatments can be good, but it depends on how much people like to have control.  Those people who (either because of their personality or the situation) like to have control over their lives should be able to choose their treatments.  Those people who do not like to have control over their lives should have their treatments chosen for them. 
Finally, it is important to recognize that this study involved only placebos.  There were no active ingredients in any of the treatments given in this study.  It is not entirely clear what will happen when the treatments also involve actual drugs.