Thursday, August 25, 2016

Trust of Strangers Requires Effort (Sometimes)

Trust is important.  Without the ability to trust strangers, society would fall apart.  You have to trust that people will generally deal with you honestly, and that they will follow through on their commitments.  After all, you do not know all the people who grow your food, make your clothes, and take care of your money in the bank.  You do not have the time to do all of these things for yourself.
Of course, most of this trust is implicit.  You do not often think about the number of strangers you rely on to get through your daily life. 
Sometimes, though, you have to place your trust in a stranger more explicitly.  Not long ago, I was sitting at an airport by a bank of outlets.  A woman walked up, plugged in a cell phone, and asked two of us sitting by the outlets to watch her phone for a few minutes while she went to check her flight.  She had to trust that we would not steal her phone, and we had to trust that she was not leaving us sitting next to a dangerous device.  And in the end, our mutual trust was rewarded.
An interesting paper that has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Sarah Ainsworth, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, and Dan Ariely examines whether this kind of trust among strangers requires mental effort.
The measure of trust they used in these studies was a behavioral economics game called the Trust Game.  In the Trust Game, participants are given $10.  They are told that they can give as much of that money as they want to their partner.  The experimenter will then triple the amount of money given to the partner, and the partner can return as much of that money as he or she chooses to the participant.  So, if the participant elects to give $3 to the partner, the partner will receive $9 from the experimenter.
This game requires trust.  The best joint outcome for the players in this game requires that the participant give all of the money to the partner and requires the partner to split the proceeds.  If the participant does not trust the partner, then the participant can choose to keep all of the money.
These researchers suggest that trusting a stranger in this game requires overcoming a natural tendency to avoid risk.  To explore this possibility, they overlaid an ego depletion manipulation on this study.  The concept behind ego depletion is that when people engage in a period of effortful self-regulation, they have difficulty overcoming their habitual tendencies in the future.  So, if trust requires some amount of effort, people who first do a task that requires effort will trust the stranger less than those who do not do this task.
In one study, participants watched a silent video of a woman being interviewed.  Periodically, words appeared in the lower right corner of the screen.  One group just watched the video, while a second group was told to ignore the words and to return their attention to the woman as soon as they noticed themselves looking at the words.  This task has been used in previous research on ego depletion.
After watching the video, participants were given the trust game and were told they were playing with a partner in another room.  Participants also filled out a scale that measured the personality characteristic of neuroticism.  Neuroticism is the degree to which people tend to focus on negative outcomes and also the degree to which they tend to experience high-arousal emotions like anxiety and anger.
In this study, participants with low levels of neuroticism were not strongly influenced by the ego depletion manipulation.  However, those with a high level of neuroticism gave much less money to their partner when they had to avoid looking at the words on the video than when they did not. 
The idea here is that people with a high level of neuroticism (and particularly the aspect of neuroticism that focuses on the strength of their negative emotions) have a tendency to fear risk.  This group wants to avoid giving money to their partner.  Only when they have enough motivational energy will they be able to overcome that tendency. 
Two other experiments examined two other factors that also influence people’s likelihood of trusting another person.  In one study, some participants were told they would meet their partner after the game.  In a second study, participants were given a (fake) EEG measurement at the start of the task.  Some participants were told that their partner had a very similar EEG measurement, of the sort you would only expect among siblings, relatives, and close friends. 
The ego depletion manipulation did not influence the amount of money people were willing to give to their partner when they believed they would meet their partner or when they believed they were very similar to their partner.  It did influence the amount of money that highly neurotic individuals were willing to give in these studies when they did not think they would meet their partner or did not think they were similar to their partner.
Putting all of this together, then, trusting strangers sometimes requires effort.  In particular, when you believe you will never meet someone and you have no particular similarity to them, you believe there is a risk to trusting them.  The more strongly you react to that kind of risk, the more effort you need to put in to trust a stranger. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Learning and Sleep in Toddlers

Quite a bit of research has begun to explore influences of sleep on cognitive processes.  In adults, sleep has a huge influence on memory.  Sleep speeds learning of new skills.  It also helps to separate the information being learned from the situation in which it was learned, which can make it easier to use that knowledge in other circumstances.

Young children spend a tremendous amount of time asleep, and so research is also beginning to explore the influence of sleep on things children learn.  An interesting study in the March/April, 2014 issue of Child Development by Denise Werchan and Rebecca Gomez examined how sleep influences toddlers’ ability to learn new words.

When a child learns a new noun, for example, it is important for the child to be able to apply that word to the object (or objects) for which they have seen it used, but also to apply that word to other objects that come from the same category.  For example, a child may sit in the family minivan and hear it called a car.  She may see a neighbor’s sedan and hear that called a car as well.  She might also be given a four-wheeled toy and hear that is a car, too.  To be a successful language-user, this child ultimately has to be able to recognize which other objects should be called a car and which ones should not.

This process requires generalization.  That is, the child has to go from the limited number of instances of the category they have seen to figure out which other objects share the same label.  This process requires some amount of forgetting.  After all, the child will observe many characteristics of these objects like their shape, size, color, and parts.  Some of these characteristics (like shape, and some parts) matter a lot in deciding whether to call something a car, and others (like color) matter less.  So, it is helpful for the child to forget some of what they have seen in order to begin to generalize the new word to other objects.

Werchan and Gomez suggested that sleep might actually interfere with toddlers’ ability to learn new words.  These researchers argued that sleep helps to solidify memories, and so if children associate too much information with a label, they might not learn to generalize it to new objects.

To test this possibility, 30-month-old toddlers were taught labels for three types of novel objects (which were constructed by the researchers).  The labels were words like dax or tiv that are not used as words in English.  During the training, children saw three examples of each object. They were also exposed to several other novel objects that were not labeled, that would be used as distractors later. 

One group of children was tested about an hour before their normal nap time.  They napped, and then came to a psychology lab to be tested four hours after the training.  A second group was tested far from their normal nap time.  They were also tested in the lab four hours after training, but they had not napped.  A third group was trained and then tested immediately.

During the test, children saw four objects:  a new example from one of the categories they learned, an object they saw during training that had not been named, an unfamiliar object, and a familiar object (like a toy duck).  They were told the label and were asked to point to the object.  For example, if they saw the object that had been called a dax during training, they would be asked “Which one’s a dax? Can you point to the one that’s a dax?”

The children who were tested immediately and those who napped got about 40% of the test questions correct.  The children who did not nap got over 80% of the test questions correct.

This study suggests that when toddlers are learning words, their ability to generalize those words to new objects requires them to forget some of what they saw.  More of this forgetting happens when children remain awake than when they sleep.  So, this kind of word learning is enhanced when children stay awake after learning the words.

As the researchers point out, this finding differs from what is usually observed with adults.  Adults often generalize their learning better after sleep.  The difference is that adults are better than toddlers at focusing on the most important information when learning something new.  So, for adults the most important part of generalizing is separating the content of what was learned from the situation in which it was learned.  Sleep helps with that separation.  Toddlers need to forget some of the content of what they learned in order to generalize effectively, and so for them sleep helps them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Guilt and Shame and Crime

When people do something wrong, there are two distinct emotions that they commonly experience:  guilt and shame.  These emotions differ based on what people feel bad about.  When people feel bad about the action they performed, then they experience guilt.  When they feel bad about themselves for having done something bad, then they experience shame.

How do these emotions influence future behavior?

An interesting paper in the March 2014 issue of Psychological Science by June Tangney, Jeffrey Stuewig, and Andres Martinez explored this question with people who had served time in prison for a felony conviction. 

The participants were nearly 500 individuals.  While they were still in prison, they were given an assessment of their tendency to experience guilt and shame following bad behaviors.  They were also given a measure that examined whether they tended to blame circumstances for their actions rather than themselves.  Blaming the circumstance is called externalizing blame, and is often associated with continued bad behavior.  That is, people who do not accept their own responsibility for their actions are less likely to change their behavior in ways that will reduce bad behavior than those who do accept responsibility for their actions.

The participants were also contacted a year after being released from prison.  They were asked to report whether they had been arrested for crimes in that year and whether they had participated in crimes for which they were not arrested.  The researchers also looked up arrest records in the FBI database. 

The researchers then looked at statistical relationships between guilt, shame, the tendency to externalize blame, and the likelihood of continuing to commit crimes.

Guilt and shame had very different influences on future behavior.  Guilt had a negative relationship with future crime.  People with a strong tendency to experience guilt were less likely to commit additional crimes than those with a weak tendency to experience guilt.

Shame had a more complicated relationship to future behavior. 

Shame was positively related to people’s tendency to externalize blame.  So, people who feel bad about themselves after performing a bad action will often try to blame the circumstance rather than themselves in order to help them repair the damage to their self-esteem.  Statistically, the more people externalized blame, they more that they tended to continue to commit crimes after being released from prison.

However, once the researchers accounted for the influence of shame on externalizing blame, shame tended to decrease future bad behaviors.    

What does this mean? 

The problem with shame is that it causes people to feel bad about themselves.  People who deal with shame by externalizing blame will not work to change their behavior.

However, if people experience shame without externalizing blame, then they will act more like people who feel guilty.  Both shame and guilt are negative emotions, and so people will work to find ways to avoid feeling bad.  One good way to keep from experiencing guilt or shame is to change behavior. 

This research also helps to demonstrate why the way we categorize the world is so important.  People experience shame when they use bad actions they have performed to categorize themselves as bad people.  People experience guilt when they think of themselves as people who happened to perform a bad action.  It feels easier to change your behavior when you are focused on changing an action than when you feel like you have to change who you are at your core.