Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Value of Believing that People Can Change

We label people by the characteristics they show all the time.  We think of a particular person as being a bully, a nerd, a musician, or an athlete.  The label may be a reasonable reflection of who they are right now, but it also carries a belief that the behavior reflects a person’s essence.
When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others.  I have a cartoon on my office door of two prisoners sitting in a cell.  One says to the other, “You’re not a murderer, you’re just a person who happened to murder someone.”   This cartoon works, because being called a murderer feels like it carries something essential about the individual.
If you use terms to describe people and you believe that they cannot change, then life can be stressful.  Every time that someone treats you badly, you take that as evidence that they are a bad person and not just that they did a bad thing.  So, if you are able to think about people’s personalities in a less fixed way, perhaps that would decrease your overall stress.
This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Yeager, Rebecca Johnson, Brian Spitzer, Kali Trzesniewski, Joseph Powers, and Carol Dweck. 
One paper looked at simple correlations between beliefs and stress in high school students over the course of a school year.  At the start of the school year, ninth graders were given a brief questionnaire about whether they thought people’s personality could change.  They were also given a test of their reaction to social exclusion.  This test is called Cyberball.  In this game, participants sit at a computer and think they are passing a ball along with two classmates playing at other computers.  After the ball is initially passed to everyone, the participant is excluded for several minutes as they other players pass the ball only back and forth to each other.  After this exclusion, participants rated how stressful they found the game to be.  Finally, at the end of the school year, the students provided information about their stress level and their physical health.  The researcher also looked at the students’ grades at the end of the year.
The more participants believed that personality can change, the less affected they were by being excluded while playing Cyberball.  In addition, the more that people believe that others can change, the lower their stress, the better their health, and the higher their grades at the end of the year.
This result raises the possibility that if people were trained to think that personality characteristics can change, then they might do better in school.  In two additional studies, the researchers used an intervention of this type.  One study was done in a fairly wealthy school district, while the other was done in a very poor district.  In each study, participants were ninth-grade students who were at risk for failing out of school.
At the start of the school year, participants in an experimental intervention condition read an article about how personality can change.  They also read stories that were supposed to have come from upperclassmen talking about how this knowledge helped them.  Then, students wrote their own stories that they were told would be used by future students.  Students in the control condition read about how athletic ability can be changed.  As in the study just described, all participants then played the Cyberball game.  In addition, their stress, health, and grades at the end of the year were measured.
Even though, this intervention was brief, it had a significant and lasting impact on participants.  Compared to students in the control condition, those who got the intervention reacted less strongly to the Cyberball game.  At the end of the year, they experienced less stress, had fewer health problems, and had higher grades than those in the control condition.  This effect was strongest for those students who did not already believe that personality could change over time.
Why does this intervention work?  Statistical analyses suggest that believing that personality can change leads to a smaller reaction to social exclusion (as measured by the Cyberball game).  Reacting less strongly to social exclusion has a cascade effect over time, and lowers stress levels while also having a positive impact on performance in school.
These studies fit with a growing body of evidence by Carol Dweck and her colleagues demonstrating that the belief that people can change has many benefits.  Students who believe their own behavior and performance can change work harder in school to overcome academic difficulty.  People who believe that others can change are more likely to work with them to regain trust after they have a bad experience. 
Ultimately, it is important to realize that you should not completely define the people in your life by their current behavior.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Distracted Driving Teaches Us About Attention

The message is finally getting out there that smart phones cause real problems while driving.  Texting while on the road is extremely dangerous, because it requires the driver to look away from the road and also soaks up precious mental resources.  Even talking on the cell phone can be dangerous.
But, if cell phones are so obviously dangerous, then why do we continue to talk on the phone and drive?  Why do so many people think that they are actually pretty good at multitasking while they drive?
This question was addressed in an interesting study by Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Joel Cooper, and David Strayer in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
As they point out, recent theories of attention suggest that when we perform complex tasks, we use two circuits of behavior.  One circuit focuses on task performance, while the other focuses on the strategy for the task we are performing.  When driving, the lower-level circuit (called the inner loop of attention) is involved in aspects of driving like keeping the car in the proper lane.  The higher-level circuit (called the outer loop of attention) is involved in aspects of driving like dealing with unpredictable elements of the environment (cars, wind, and pedestrians).  In tasks like typing at the computer, the inner loop controls the typing of letters on the keyboard, while the outer loop controls the selection of words in a sentence.
To explore these aspects of attention, the researchers had participants drive in a simulator.  Participants were driving down a straight highway.  The difficulty of the task was manipulated by changing the wind.  The more unpredictable the wind, the harder it was to keep the car in the lane.
The researchers also manipulated the complexity of a second task that participants had to perform.  The secondary task interferes with the outer loop.  The more complex the second task, the more that the outer loop is focused on that task rather than on driving.
Sometimes, participants did no secondary task.  Sometimes, they performed a 0-back test in which they heard digits between zero and nine, and had to repeat back the digit they just heard.  This task is fairly easy to do.  Sometimes, they did a 2-back test.  In a 2-back test, participants hear digits and they have to repeat the one they heard 2 digits ago.  In order to keep doing the task, then, participants have to remember each new digit and then say back the one they heard two digits before.  This task is hard to do.
Participants drove down the highway in each combination of wind while doing either no second task, the 0-back task, or the 2-back task.  The researchers measured how well people were able to stay in their lane as they drove.
When participants were not doing any secondary task at all, they were equally good at staying in their lane regardless of the level of the wind.  When the wind was highly unpredictable, then participants got much worse as the secondary task got harder.  That is the typical finding in multitasking.
Interestingly, when the wind was only moderately unpredictable, people were not strongly affected by the secondary task.  They were reasonably good at staying in their lane regardless of how difficult the secondary task got.  And when the wind was highly predictable, participants actually got better as the secondary task got harder.
What is going on here? 
When the driving task is very easy, then the inner loop guides driving, but the outer loop does not have much to do.  So, it tends to monitor how the inner loop is doing.  Unfortunately, paying attention to a skilled task can actually make performance of that task worse.  That is one reason why skilled golfers and tennis players have trouble with their swings when they pay attention to the mechanics of their swing.  In this case, the complex secondary task occupies the outer loop, and lets the inner loop do its job.
When the driving task is vary hard, though, the inner loop guides driving, while the outer loop handles the disruptions caused by the wind.  These two systems function well together.  When the outer loop is kept busy by the difficult secondary task, then it cannot monitor the unpredictable wind as carefully, and driving suffers.
What does this mean for driving?
Most of the time, driving is fairly easy.  There are few unpredictable events.  As a result, most people actually drive reasonably well while they are talking on the cell phone.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to know when unpredictable events will happen (by definition), and so when performance suffers while driving, it can be disastrous.  That is why it is important to avoid distracted driving.
Just because participants in this study actually improved when they were distracted is not a good excuse to multitask when you are driving.  Remember that the easy driving task in this study just required staying in a straight lane with no other cars, pedestrians, or wind.  Real driving has many more potentially unpredictable aspects than that.  As a result, your outer loop has plenty to do most of the time when you are driving.