Wednesday, December 28, 2016

If You Want to Focus on the Long Term, Be Grateful

A common observation about human behavior is that people are biased toward what is best in the short-term.  That does not meant that people always pursue short-term pleasures over long-term gains.  It just means that the value of the long-term option has to be much larger than what people will get right now in order for them to choose to delay the benefit.
Economists call this idea temporal discounting.  To use a money example, imagine that I was willing to give you $100 next month, or a smaller amount of money right now.  If I offered you $10 right now, you would probably wait a month to get the $100.  If I offered you $90 right now, you would probably take that rather than waiting.  But, where is your dividing line?  What is the smallest amount of money that you would take to wait a month to get $100?
The smaller the amount of money you would take now, the less you value future experience compared to present experience.  If you would be willing to take $45 now as opposed to $100 in a month, then you are saying that $100 in a month is only worth $45 in today’s dollars.
In many situations, we want people to value the future more than they do now, so that they are willing to engage in activities that create future value.  A paper in the June, 2014 issue of PsychologicalScience by David DeSteno, Ye Li, Leah Dickens, and Jenifer Lerner suggests that when people experience gratitude, they give more value to future events compared to present ones.
In this study, participants ultimately evaluated lots of situations like the prospect of getting $20 now or $50 in a week.  These problems were given in order for the researchers to make an estimate of how much people were valuing future events compared to present events.  Participants were told that some of them would actually get an amount of money based on one of their choices, so they should choose carefully.
The participants were divided into three groups.  A control group was just asked to recall the events of a typical day.  A second group was asked to recall situations that made them happy.  A third group recalled situations that made them feel grateful.   The idea behind the last two groups was to help distinguish between gratitude and more general positive feeling.
The group that thought about gratitude valued the future more than those who thought about either happy events or a normal day.  This finding suggests that there is something about gratitude (above and beyond being positive) that leads people to be more focused on the long-term rather than the short-term. 
It is not completely clear why gratitude should have this effect.  One possibility is that gratitude makes people feel more connected to those around them.  Social connection influences people’s sense that they are part of something larger and more permanent than themselves.  That may make it feel less difficult to wait for a future reward.
Another possibility is that engaging in acts of kindness (which creates gratitude) often requires some degree of altruism on the part of the performer.  So, thinking about these altruistic acts may make people feel like they can give up something in the present in order to get a future reward.
Clearly, though, more work needs to be done to understand why gratitude has the influence on the way people value the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

If You Are Going to Take Notes, Do It By Hand

I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at universities.  There have been several changes in the way students approach their classes in that time.  The most noticeable is that when I started teaching, students took notes in notebooks, but now almost every desk has a laptop on it when I give a lecture. 
There seem to be a lot of obvious benefits to taking notes on a computer.  For one, it is easy to save the notes in a place where you can find them later.  For another, you will be able to read your notes later.  My own handwriting is terrible, so it is nice to have a tool that will allow me to read my notes later.
Before we go out and encourage every student to bring a laptop to class, though, it is worth checking out a study by Pam Mueller and Danny Oppenheimer in the June, 2014 issue of Psychological Science. 
They compared college students’ performance on tests following exposure to material.  The students were assigned either to take notes longhand or using a laptop.  In these studies, the laptops were set up so that students could only take notes on them.  Of course, in the real world laptops can provide a variety of distractions.
In the first study, students watched a TED talk.  (For those of you who have been living under a rock, TED talks are lectures on a variety of topics that last about 15 minutes.)  They took notes during the talk.  Then, they engaged in other activities for about 30 minutes.  Finally, they were given a quiz about the lecture.  The quiz contained both factual questions and conceptual questions that required some understanding of the subject matter.
Students did about equally well on the factual questions regardless of how they took notes.  However, the students did much better on the conceptual questions when they took notes longhand than when they took them using the laptop.
The experimenters compared the content of people’s notes to the transcript of the lecture the student heard.  When people typed their notes on a laptop, they were much more likely to copy what people said directly rather than writing their impressions of it.  That is, people writing out their notes had to think more deeply about the content of what they heard than those people who were just typing.
The experimenters expanded on this finding in two other studies.  In one study, they instructed people using the laptops to take good notes rather than just transcribing what they heard.  Even when people were given these instructions, they still had a greater tendency to type what they heard than people who were taking notes longhand.  As before, the people who used the laptops did more poorly on a test of conceptual knowledge than those who took notes by hand.
In a third study, students were tested one week after hearing the initial lecture.  In this study, students had a chance to read over their notes before taking the test.  The idea was that if students took really detailed notes on the laptop, then perhaps those notes would be more valuable a week after the lecture than they were immediately afterward. 
In this study, participants who reviewed their notes still did better if they took notes longhand than if they took notes on the laptop.  Interestingly, in this study, the students did equally poorly regardless of the type of notes they took if they were not able to study their notes before taking the test.
Putting all of this together, it suggests that there is real value in having to think about the material in the process of taking notes.  It is because handwriting is slow and effortful that people have to think more clearly about what they want to write down rather than copying down what is being said by rote.  In addition, there is real value to studying later.  Just taking good notes is not enough to be able to remember the information later.  It is also important to go back over your notes and make sure that you think about the information again after being exposed to it the first time.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Learning to Converse Is Learning to Interact

It is hard to study how children really start to use language.  Part of the problem is that we treat language itself as a thing to be studied independent of how it is used.  So, we focus on the words kids learn or the way they structure those words into simple and (eventually) more complex sentences.
Another problem, though, is that when language is really being used, the whole situation is messy.  Early on, a parent or caretaker is interacting with the child.  They are trying to do some activity together.  Originally, the parent may use some words, which the child may or may not understand.  There is also some pointing and holding of objects.  Eventually, language comes to play more of a role in this process.
That means that really studying the development of the use of language requires looking not just at the words kids are using, but also the developing complexity of the interactions between children and the people around them.
An interesting paper in the June, 2014 issue of Child Development by Lauren Adamson, Roger Bakeman, Deborah Deckner, and Brooke Nelson looked at a group of children over several years to begin to map out how these interactions change over time. 
They observed children interacting with their mothers starting at a year and a half old and continuing until they were about five and a half.  It is worth recognizing up front that this kind of research is hard to do.  Most researchers focus on tasks that can be done in one session that take an hour or less.  For a group to follow up with the same children over a period of four years is a tremendous amount of work.
At each visit, the mother and child played a game together in which the experimenter played the role of the director of a play.  The mother was supposed to be a supporting cast member, and the child was the “star” of the play.  Then, the experimenter set up several scenes for the child to play, in which the parent had to help the child achieve some goal.  Over time, the actions got more complicated as the child’s abilities grew.
For example, in one scene, the experimenter brought several objects into the room, put them in a cabinet, and left the room.  The mother was then supposed to get her child to hide the objects in a different spot and then talk to the child about where the experimenter would think the objects would be when she got back to the room.
The researchers looked at video of these interactions to examine how the the nature of the interaction changed over time, as well as how language use entered into the interactions. 
Some of the results are fairly obvious.  For example, at a year and a half, the parent and child interact with each other a lot, but there is very little language being used.  Mostly, the parent is directing the child’s actions and occasionally using some words.  By the time the child is 3, though, language is deeply embedded in the interactions.  Almost every action taken by either the parent or child is accompanied by words.
An interesting change over time is that at younger ages, the mothers are really directing the interaction.  They are setting up a structure for how the task should be accomplished by moving objects around and asking leading questions.  By the time the child is five, the interaction is much more balanced.  The parent still leads, but the child is also injecting more suggestions and making more recommendations.
Another change over time is the type of things that language is being used to describe.  At three, much of the language is focused on single objects and observable elements in the world.  By the age of five, there is also a lot more discussion about relationships among objects and not just about the objects themselves.
One surprising aspect of the data is that at the age of 2 and a half, there is lot of variability between kids in how much language they are using when interacting with their mothers.  Some children use language in nearly every interaction, while others look like the 18-month-olds, where very little language is being used.  But, by the age of 3 and a half, just about every child is using language in all of their interactions with their mother.
That means that as soon as children learn to speak reasonably well, their interactions shift immediately to the use of language, because it is such an important tool for communicating. 
A study like this is largely descriptive.  It focuses on what happens at different points in a child’s life as they start to converse with other people.  What is nice about this work is that it focuses both on the use of words and sentences, but also on the kinds of interactions that children are having with others.  Ultimately, an understanding of how language develops is going to require connecting the use of language to the situations in which language is used.