Thursday, July 13, 2017

Using Cognitive Science to Teach About Sex


Sex is a wonderful thing that has potentially life-altering consequences—particularly for teens.  Teen pregnancy can derail educational opportunities.  Sexually transmitted diseases from unprotected sex can have lifelong consequences. 
Because sex is so consequential, sex education is a routine part of teen education, though regions vary in the content of that education.  Some areas of the United States focus primarily on “abstinence only” education that asks teens to refrain from having sex at all.  Other regions have a broader base for their sex education that suggests that teens wait to have sex until they are older, but also provides information about contraception and ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections. 
The best possible outcome for sex education programs is for teens to have an appreciation for the desirability of sex and for them to be able to engage in healthy sexual behavior.  The longer that teens wait to initiate having sex and the more that they practice safe sex (like using condoms) the less likely that they will suffer from the potential negative consequences of having sex.
The most effective programs take a broad-based approach to sex education.  They provide facts about sexual function and healthy sexual practices.  They provide information about risks.  They also give teens practice having difficult conversations about saying no and using condoms.  In addition, they give homework to teens to speak to pharmacists about condoms in order to reduce their anxiety about buying them at the store.
A fascinating paper by Valerie Reyna and Britain Mills in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explored whether a sex education curriculum could be improved by using an understanding of differences between the way teens and adults learn about risks. 
Valerie Reyna and her colleagues have developed a comprehensive model of learning they call fuzzy trace theory.  One of the components of this model is that people store information in a number of different ways.  They learn about the surface of what they were told as well as the gist, which is a summary of the broad meaning of what they were told.
An interesting component of this theory is that adults tend to focus on the gist of what they learn, but that teens often focus on the surface details. 
In the case of sex education, this can be a problem, because many of the facts that teens learn about the consequences of unprotected sex are taught as probabilities.  For example, teens may be taught that the chances of getting pregnant after having unprotected sex are about 1 in 12.  That means that heterosexuals who repeatedly have unprotected sex are highly likely to create a pregnancy. 
Adults readily store this gist information, but teens tend to get focused on the details and remember the probability.  Consequently, they judge unprotected sex as less risky than they should.
In order to overcome this bias in teens, Reyna and Mills took an established sex education curriculum (called Reducing the Risk) and modified it to include more focus on gist level information and less focus on details that teens might remember in ways that would reduce their assessment of the severity of the risks of unsafe sex. 
In a randomized experiment, over 700 teens from three states were assigned either to the original Reducing the Risk curriculum, the modified curriculum that included more gist information, or a control condition that focused on communication skills. The classes in each condition involved a total of 16 hours of instructions with some homework.
The teens were given assessments of their sexual behavior and their attitudes and beliefs about sex before the classes and several times afterward with a final assessment a year after taking the class to which they were assigned.
A year after taking the class, teens who took either curriculum felt they were better equipped to say no if they did not want to have sex, were better prepared to use protection during sex, and had a better understanding of the risks unprotected sex than those in the control condition.
In addition, a year after the class, fewer people who took one of the two classes were deciding to become sexually active than those in the control condition.  Those students who took the course that focused on gist level information were least likely of all the groups to become sexually active.   For those students who were sexually active, those who took the course that focused on gist had fewer partners than those who took the standard curriculum or those in the control condition.  
In addition, the students who took the class that focused on gist also had a better understanding of social norms about safe sex than those who took the standard curriculum or those in the control condition.
That said, once students became sexually active, they engaged in about the same number of acts of unprotected sex and expressed about the same degree of intention to engage in safe sex regardless of whether they took one of the sex education classes or not.
Overall, these results suggest that a broad-based sex education curriculum does help reduce the amount of risky sexual behavior that teens engage in.  In particular, it can increase knowledge, decrease the likelihood of becoming sexually active, and potentially reduce the number of sexual partners that teens engage with.  Using an understanding of the way teens learn can improve the effectiveness of sex education, and it can help teens to develop more accurate knowledge about the risks associated with unprotected sex.
This is just another way that research in cognitive science can be used to improve the way people learn.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Saving Face by Using Ambiguous Language


When we use language, it seems so easy to understand what other people are saying that it is hard to appreciate the complexity of the act of carrying on a conversation.  Obviously, we miscommunicate at times, but most of the time, we do a good job of understanding what other people mean and making ourselves understood.
It is particularly striking that we are so good at communicating when we realize how often we do not say directly what we mean to other people. 
Even in everyday situations, we often speak indirectly.  For example, you might ask a colleague “Can you open the door?”  You are not literally asking this colleague whether she is capable of opening the door.  You are asking for her help. 
In addition to this indirect speech, we use a lot of terms whose meanings are ambiguous.  For example, in the previous sentence, I used the phrase “a lot.”  What does that mean.  It means more than a few and not as many as a ton but it does not refer to a specific number.
We use these ambiguous terms for many reasons.  One reason is that specific values may not be available (or all that relevant).  I don’t know exactly how many ambiguous terms there are in English, but a lot seems like a reasonable description of them, and so I use that term. 
An interesting paper by Thomas Holtgraves in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines the role people’s beliefs about saving face on the way we understand ambiguous words.
Whenever we communicate with someone else, we are presenting something about ourselves to others.  The public view of our selves is called our face.  We want to manage the impression we give to others and to present as positive a face as possible.  In addition, most of the time we don’t want to put our conversation partners in a situation in which they will lose face in our interaction.
For example, suppose a friend cooks you a meal.  At the end of the meal, you can say, “I liked it.”  The word “like” is ambiguous, and so you can use it for a range of attitudes toward the meal, but it allows your conversation partner to maintain a positive impression while you are talking.
If people are sensitive to this use of language, then they should assume that when people use ambiguous evaluations like this when talking with friends, their actual impression of the object is less good than when there is no reason to be worried the face of their conversation partner.
To test this possibility, the researcher had people read fictitious conversations between people.  Sometimes, the speaker was evaluating an item (like a home-cooked meal) that was made by the hearer.  They used ambiguous words such as “liked,” “loved,” “good,” and “excellent.”  Other times, the speaker was evaluating an item that was made by a third person, so that the face of the hearer was not involved.  For example, Sue might ask Jenny whether she liked the meal that Harry cooked, and Jenny might reply, “I liked it.”  Then, participants rated how much they thought the speaker actually liked the item.
Consistent with the idea that people are concerned about preserving face in conversations, participants rated that the speaker liked the object (such as the meal) less when they used an ambiguous word and were talking to the person who created the item than when they were talking to a person who did not make the item.  That is, people assume that the speaker is trying to help the hearer save face by not telling the hearer exactly what they thought of their product.
In other studies, Holtgraves demonstrated a similar effect with words that refer to frequencies and quantities like often or sometimes.  In this case, the speaker was telling the hearer that the hearer had a negative quality.  For example, Sue might tell Jenny “You sometimes have bad breath.”  Or, Sue and Jenny might be talking about Harry and Sue might say “he sometimes has bad breath.” 
In this case, participants thought the speaker meant that the ambiguous word to refer to a higher frequency when it was used to save face than when it wasn’t.  That is, telling Jenny she sometimes has bad breath means that she has it more often than telling Jenny that Harry sometimes has bad breath.
These studies demonstrate that a lot of the complexity of using language properly is not a result of the language itself, but rather a result of the way we use language to manage our social interactions.  Because we are sensitive to people’s need to preserve a positive public face, we use the ambiguity of language to help them do that.
Ambiguous words are helpful, because they do not require us to come out and criticize other people forcefully when we want to give them bad news.  Instead, we can soften the blow and make the conversation go more smoothly by giving the hearer some wiggle room in how they interpret what is said.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Creating Shared Memories


When we think about memory, we often focus on situations in which we encounter some information and then recall it later.  In many situations, though, after we encounter the information, we talk about it with other people.  That creates a shared recollection.  This can happen both socially and in education situations.
Much less is known about shared recollection than about individual recall.  Cognitive psychologists tend to focus mostly on what individual people do rather than groups of people, and so most memory studies involve individuals who study information and then remember it later.
A fascinating paper by Adam Congleton and Suparna Rajaram in the August, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at factors relating to shared memory. 
One observation from previous research on creating shared memories is that when groups work together to recall information, they remember less information overall than the individuals in the group would have remembered if they had worked alone.  The idea is that the group discussion focuses the group members on a subset of the information they were exposed to, and that subset is smaller than what the individual group members would have thought about if they had not been part of a group.
In this study, participants in a room were exposed to 120 words on a projection screen.  The words were chosen from 8 categories of objects, so that there would be some way for remembering one word to remind people of other words on the list.  After a brief delay, all participants were asked to remember as many of the words as they could.  Then, participants performed three more recall tests in that session and one additional test a week later. 
Some participants worked alone in all of the remaining recall tests.  The rest of the participants were put in groups of three.  In one condition, the group did the second recall task together.  In a second condition, the group did the third recall test together.  In a fourth condition, the group did both the second and third recall tests together.  The last recall test of the first day and the test a week later were all done individually.  There were some subtle differences across these three group conditions, but I will gloss over those for now.
When the group did recall, they talked about the words they remembered, and one member of the group wrote down each word that the group remembered. 
What happened?
Looking at the last recall session on the first day, groups of three individuals selected at random from the individual condition remembered more overall than the groups that recalled a list together.  That is consistent with the previous findings that I mentioned.
Recalling in a group increased the similarity of what people from that group were able to remember.  People in groups that worked together recalled more of the same items than people who recalled alone.  In addition, they tended to remember the words in the same order.  These findings suggest that working together as a group made everyone’s memory of the words more similar.
A particularly interesting result was that the groups that showed the most similarity at the end of the study (as measured both by the amount of overlap in what they remembered and the similarity of the order or recall) was related to the difficulty that groups have recalling information overall compared to individuals.  Groups that remembered less when they worked together were more similar later than groups that remembered more when they worked together. 
The idea is that when a group really works together, they influence each other’s memory.  The idiosyncrasies of what they would remember drop away, and they end up with a shared memory of the set of words.  So, everyone loses some details about the list, but they end up with a strong shared memory.
A similar pattern of results was observed after a one-week delay suggesting that working with the group influenced the long-term memory of the list.
The researchers in this study used lists of words, because that is a convenient way of comparing memories across people.  But, this work tells us something about memories in general.  When we discuss an event with the people around us, it affects what all of us are able to remember later.  Over time, the group’s memory for an event gets more similar, so that eventually all of the group members remember the same details about the event.  Even though they may have experienced the event differently, recalling it with others makes everyone’s memory more similar.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Personal Goals and Relationship Goals Trade Off


A quick walk through the checkout line at most grocery stores takes you past an array of magazines that the store hopes you will grab on your way out.  The headlines from those magazines scream out solutions to the problems people struggle with.  And to judge from their content, three of the biggest problems center around weight loss, sex, and relationships.
Why are relationships such a source of anxiety? 
A paper by Laura VanderDrift and Christopher Agnew in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that personal goals that people have trade off against relationship goals in ways that can hurt relationships.
The broad idea is one that is related to research that I did several years ago with Miguel Brendl and Claude Messner.  We found that when people were strongly motivated to pursue a goal, it made people appreciate (or value) goal related objects more and to devalue goal unrelated objects.
Similarly, these researchers suggest that when people are highly motivated to pursue a personal goal, they devalue their relationship.
In their studies, people were either asked to consider a personal goal relevant to them (Should I learn to play the saxophone or not?) or to actually think about the steps required to carry out that goal (What are five steps I would need to take to learn to play the saxophone?).  Previous research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues suggests that thinking about the steps required to carry out a goal increases the strength of that goal more than just thinking about the goal in general.
Across five studies in this paper, participants were much less willing to engage in behaviors that would have a positive impact on their relationship if they had an active personal goal than if they did not. 
In one study, participants who were in a relationship were less willing to forgive their partner for a transgression when they had an active personal goal than when they did not.  This was particularly true for transgressions that would get in the way of their personal goal. 
In another study, participants were given the opportunity to get information improving their relationship or improving their ability to achieve personal goals.  People who had an active personal goal were much less interested in getting information about how to improve their relationship than those who did not have an active personal goal.  However, the more strongly that people felt that their romantic partner helps them to achieve personal goals, the more interested they were in information that would help them improve their relationship.  So, even their interest in relationship information was related to whether that would help them achieve their personal goal.
A final study reversed this effect.  In this study, some participants were induced to have a strong relationship goal by having them list steps they would take to improve their relationship.  This group was much less interested in getting information to improve personal goals than a group that did not have an active relationship goal. 
This set of findings reflects an important aspect of our motivational system.  We are very efficient at achieving the goals that the motivational system engages.  As a result, we focus on information that is useful for achieving our goals and we devalue information that is not related to achieving that goal. So, when we have an important personal goal, our relationships take a back seat.  When we have an important relationship goals, our personal goals take a back seat.
So, if you find yourself wandering through the supermarket checkout aisle, and you resonate to the headlines about relationship problems, it might be time to think about specific steps you could take to improve your relationship as a way of engaging that goal.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Seeing unexpected things makes some people more creative


Most days don’t require a lot of creativity.  You get up and go through your normal routine.  Your school or work day involves a lot of repetition of tasks like those you have done before.  The day may be interesting, but it didn’t require you to really stretch out beyond your comfort zone.
Sometimes, though, you really need a novel solution to a difficult problem.  At those times, it would be great to have a way to jump-start the creative process.
Descriptions of the creative process often focus on two phases of creativity.  In the divergent phase, many different potential ideas need to be generated. In the convergent phase, those ideas need to be evaluated to select the ones that are most promising.  The divergent phase is particularly difficult, because it requires going beyond existing ideas in some way.
Research by Malgorzata Goclowska, Matthijs Baas, Richard Crisp, and Carsten De Dreu described in the August, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that thinking about inconsistent concepts jump-starts divergent thinking for some people. 
These researchers focus on an individual difference called Need for Structure.  The idea is that some people really like their world to be predictable and to follow rules.  Other people are less bothered when things do not go according to plan.  They suggest that divergent thinking by people who are low in Need for Structure (so that they are not bothered by surprises) is helped by thinking about surprising juxtapositions of concepts.  People high in Need for Structure are hurt by thinking about these surprising items.
In one study, participants were asked to study a series of pictures for a later memory test.  One group saw pictures of people in situations consistent with their costume.  They might see an astronaut in space or an Eskimo on the snow.  A second group saw pictures of people in situations that were inconsistent with their costume (an astronaut in the snow or an Eskimo in space). 
Then, the participants were asked to generate as many names as they could think of for a new type of pasta.  The instructions gave five examples of pasta names that all ended in an ‘i.’  The researchers were interested in whether participants would generate pasta names that ended in different letters and how often they would switch the last letter, which would suggest that they were trying different methods for generating names. 
The inconsistent pictures had an interesting influence on participants.  Participants who were low in need for structure tended to generate many more pasta names that did not end in ‘i’ and to generate names ending in many different letters compared to those people who were high in need for structure.  Seeing consistent pictures did not have much influence on participants’ performance regardless of their need for structure.
A second study demonstrated a similar finding using the Remote Associates Test, in which participants are shown three words (MAGIC PLUSH FLOOR) and are asked to find another word that could go with each of them (in this case, CARPET).  In this case, participants generated the attributes of either a schema-consistent person (a male mechanic) or a schema-inconsistent person (a female mechanic).  Participants who thought about the schema-inconsistent person generated more correct answers on the Remote Associates Test if they were low in Need for Structure than if they were High in Need for Structure.
These results suggest that if you are trying to jump-start your creativity, you need to know a bit more about yourself.  If you are willing to accept uncertain situations, then exposing yourself to inconsistent juxtapositions of concepts may get you thinking divergently.  If you are less willing to accept uncertainty, though, then this strategy won’t work for you.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Some Conformity Effects Are Short-Lived


There is often strong social pressure for people’s judgments and beliefs to conform to those of people around them.  It can be hard to be the only person in a group to express a divergent opinion.  At times, people will actually express an opinion closer to that of others while with a group in order to fit in.
What is the long-term impact of this conformity?
It is difficult to study this question, because it is hard to set up situations in which people disagree.  In addition, it is hard to get enough observations for each person to be able to make a strong statistical claim about the effect of conformity.
An paper by Hi Huang, Keith Kendrick, and Rongjun Yu in the July, 2014 issue of Psychological Science explored this question using judgments of facial attractiveness.  Although the study is not entirely satisfying, it has some intriguing effects. 
In this study, participants rated the attractiveness of 280 faces on a scale from 1 (not very attractive) to 8 (very attractive).   After making their rating, participants saw a rating that they were told reflected the average rating from 200 other people who had seen the same picture.  The rating they saw was either the same as the one they gave, or was between 1 and 3 points higher or lower.
Across studies, participants then returned to the lab 1, 3, or 7 days later, or 3 months later.  Then, they rated the attractiveness of the same set of faces. 
It is actually difficult to examine the second set of ratings statistically.  The group rating can only be substantially higher than the participant’s rating for faces that the participant rated as relatively unattractive.  The group rating can only be substantially lower than the participant’s rating for those that the participant rated as relatively attractive.  So, changes in the rating from one session to the next might just reflect a tendency to move more extreme ratings toward the middle of the scale.
The researchers used a statistical technique to control for this tendency for high ratings to get lower and for low ratings to get higher.  With this statistical control, they found that faces that they rated as attractive in the first session were seen as less attractive in a subsequent session when the group rating was lower than the participant’s rating.  However, this effect occurred only when the section session was 1 or 3 days after the first session.  By 7 days later (and also 3-months later), there was no significant effect of the group rating on the participant’s later rating.
This result suggests that when people hear an opinion that deviates from their own, there is a small tendency to revise their opinion in the direction of the group.  However, these effects are small and short-lived.  After about 3 days, the group influence seems to be gone.
On the one hand, this is an intriguing finding.  It suggests that just being exposed to the opinions of other people once does not necessarily have a long-term influence on a person’s beliefs.
That said, there is a lot more work that needs to be done on this issue.  People see many faces each day, and so it is not clear why group judgments about attractiveness ought to have a long-term impact on people’s beliefs.  In contrast, political beliefs or social beliefs might be more susceptible to the impact of other people.  In addition, people made a total of 280 judgments in each session of the study.  It is hard to believe that participants could really remember the judgments of others.  Indeed, it is surprising that there was any effect of the group judgment at all in this study. 
In the end, this study provides an interesting demonstration of how hard it can be to test what seems like a straightforward question.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Forgiving Allows Forgetting


We have all heard the adage Forgive and Forget.  The advice itself makes sense.  When someone has done something wrong to us in the past, bearing a grudge will make all interactions later difficult.  If you are always remembering the details of what someone has done wrong to you, then you are forced to relive those details in ways that bring those past events vividly into the present.
So, when you have forgiven someone, it is valuable to also forget the details of what they have done.
But, does that actually work?  Does forgiveness allow you to forget those details of a past transgression?
This question was explored in an interesting paper in the July 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Saima Noreen, Raynette Biermann, and Malcolm MacLeod. 
In an initial session, participants read a variety of scenarios in which they imagined that someone had done something wrong to them.  Each scenario described the person, the event, and the person did afterward.  Participants asked whether they would forgive the person for what they had done.  The scenarios involved a variety of transgressions including lying, infidelity, and theft. 
From people’s responses, the experimenters selected twelve items that people were willing to forgive and twelve that they were not willing to forgive. 
In the second session, the experimenters explored people’s ability to forget the details of the scenarios.
First, participants read 24 scenarios that were paired with words that could be used to remind people of the scenario.  Half the scenarios were ones that participant was willing to forgive and half were ones that participant was not willing to forgive.  Participants practiced associating the words with the scenario until they could recall the scenarios after hearing the word with better than 50% accuracy.
Then, for half of the items they learned, participants saw the word gain and were given a new set of instructions.  Those in the Think condition were given one of the words and were told to think about the scenario associated with the word and to state how the transgressor made amends for their mistake.  Those in the No Think condition were told to avoid thinking about about the scenario associated with the word.  The other half of the items that were not part of the Think or No Think conditions were used as a baseline.
Last, participants were asked to recall all of the scenarios given the cue words they had learned.
Overall, participants were equally good at learning to associate scenarios with words regardless of whether they were willing to forgive the transgressor or not. 
However, the recall data following the Think or No Think conditions was interesting.  For scenarios in which the participant was not willing to forgive the transgressor, these conditions did not have any influence on later recall.  For scenarios in which the participant was willing to forgive the transgressor, participants in the No Think condition recalled fewer scenarios (and fewer details of those scenarios) than participants in the Think condition.  The baseline items came out in between the two conditions.
What is going on here?
Previous research suggests that the instructions used in the No Think condition can make it harder for people to recall details of things they learned or experienced in the past.  These results suggest that the No Think instructions work for transgressions that people are willing to forgive, but not those they are not willing to forgive.
This result suggests that forgiveness may actually give people permission to forget.  That is, when people are willing to forgive, then they are willing to give up the details an episode.  But, when they are unwilling to forgive, they keep those details around.  Presumably, they will also re-experience those details negatively when they remember them in the future.
There are a number of interesting studies that remain to be done to understand this result better.  For one, this study used all hypothetical scenarios.  It would be interesting to look at the relationship between forgiving and forgetting with situations people actually experienced.  For another, this study focused on the relationship between forgiving and forgetting.  It would also be interesting to know whether inducing people to forget details of an event would influence their tendency to forgive.

Monday, February 20, 2017

What Happens When You Are Waiting For News?


I still remember the wait to find out whether I had gotten into the college of my choice.  I applied early and was told that letters would be mailed out on December 15.  That period was filled with occasional bouts of stress and a lot of thoughts about whether I would get in.  The last few days were particularly difficult as I waited for the mail to come.  On the day that the letter finally arrived, I put it down on the kitchen table and did a few chores around the house before finally sitting down and opening it. 
That kind of waiting experience is common.  Admissions decisions, medical test results, job applications.  All of these have some period of time where you have to wait to get news, but there is little or nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the decision.
An interesting paper by Kate Sweeny and Sara Andrews in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines how these kinds of waiting periods unfold.
They studied 50 people who took the California Bar exam.  There is a 4-month waiting period between taking the exam and getting the test score.  Succeeding on this exam is crucial for people who want to practice law.
Participants took a series of personality measures prior to taking the exam.  Then, the researchers took measures of anxiety and various strategies people use to deal with anxiety at four points in the process:  a day after taking the exam, 6 weeks after taking it, 12 weeks after taking it, and within a day of getting the score.
As you might expect, people were very anxious a day after taking the exam.  That anxiety went down a bit at the 6-week mark and then began to creep back up.  People were quite anxious a day before getting the scores.  One of the behaviors that went along with anxiety was rumination, which is the tendency to think repeatedly about the source of the anxiety and to worry about the outcome.  The more anxiety people experienced, the more they tended to ruminate.
A set of personality characteristics was associated with lower levels of anxiety.  People who have a general tolerance for uncertainty were less anxious (particularly early on) than those with an intolerance for uncertainty.  Though, as the date for getting the test score approached, everyone got nervous.  This tolerance for uncertainty is related to another characteristic called Need for Closure, which reflects how much people like to be done with things.  The higher people’s need for closure, the more they were anxious about waiting (particularly early in the waiting period).
Two other personality characteristics were also important:  defensive pessimism and dispositional optimism.  Defensive pessimism is a person’s tendency to assume the worst outcome when waiting.  Dispositional optimism is a person’s tendency to assume things will work out well in the end.  When people are highly optimistic and low in defensive pessimism, they tend to ruminate much less than when they are low in optimism and high in defensive pessimism. 
The researchers created a composite of these four characteristics, because they tended to be similar within a person.  That is, people who were tolerant of uncertainty were also generally low in need for closure, high in optimism and low in defensive pessimism. 
A high value on this composite was generally related to healthier approaches to waiting than a low value on this composite.  For example, people with a high composite personality score spent less time bracing themselves for bad news than people with a low composite.  They also spent more time trying to be optimistic and had high levels of hope that the outcome would go well.  People tried to distance themselves from the outcome as well.  This worked for some people early on, but as the actual date of getting the test score got closer, it got harder for people to distance themselves.
What does all of this mean?
First of all, it is worth getting to know yourself a bit to understand how you deal with waiting for news.  The more tolerant you are of uncertainty, the lower your need for closure (that is, the less you need things to be complete), the more optimistic and less pessimistic your outlook, the better you cope with waiting for news.
If you happen to be someone who finds waiting particularly difficult, then, what can you do? 
Purely from the standpoint of dealing with anxiety, it is useful to help yourself stop ruminating about the outcome and to avoid spending time preparing yourself for the worst.  Those behaviors are associated with a high level of anxiety.
If you find it hard to stop thinking about the outcome, then it is helpful to find ways to think about other things.  After all, you can’t affect the outcome while you are waiting, so you should not spend too much time worrying about it.  Instead, think about other things.  Focus on other aspects of your life.  Exercise, play a musical instrument, go out with friends.  Do things that are unrelated to the news you are waiting for.
All that said, when the time for getting the news is very close, it is hard to avoid thinking about it.  At that point, you might want to spend at least a little time planning for what you will do if things do not go your way.  It can be helpful to have at least the outline of a plan for what will happen if you get bad news.  But, there is no point in starting that planning process too early.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Distractions Make You Lose Your Place


We live in a world of distraction.  When you sit at your computer trying to write or work, there is a real danger that you will get interrupted by an email, instant message, text message, or phone call.  Even if you do your best to skip past the distractions, there still may be a moment where you have to decide whether to answer the phone or check your email.
What influence do those small interruptions have on your ability to perform complex tasks?
This question was addressed in a clever set of studies by Erik Altmann, Greg Trafton, and David Hambrick in a paper in the February, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
To explore this question, the researchers had to develop a complex task that would allow them to observe errors.  In this task, participants saw a computer screen with a box in the center.  On each trial, there was a number and a letter.  One of the characters was inside the box, and one was outside.  One character was either in italics or had an underline.  One character was either red or yellow.  The character outside the box was either above it or below it. 
The task required participants to perform a sequence of different judgments in a sequence.  To help participants remember the sequence, the order of the tasks could be remembered by using the word UNRAVEL.  For example, the first task (U) asked whether a character was underlined or in italics.  On the next trial, participants did the N task (is the letter near or far from the front of the alphabet).  Following that, they did the R task (is the colored character red or yellow).  Then A (is the character above or below the box), V (is the letter a vowel or a consonant), E (is the digit even or odd) and then L (is the digit more or less than 5).  After doing the L task, the sequence returned to U.
To respond to a particular task, participants typed the first letter of the response on a computer keyboard.  So, in the U task, they typed a U for underlined or an I for italics. 
There are two interesting aspects to this task.  First, the sequence is complicated.  Second, the individual tasks differ in how hard they are to perform.  Deciding whether a character is above or below the box is easier than figuring out whether the letter is near or far from the start of the alphabet.
To look at interruptions, there was a second task that happened periodically.  A box would appear on the screen with a code on it.  The code was a few letters or numbers.  They had to type the letters or numbers into the box to continue the task.  Some participants got 4-character codes, while others got 2-character codes.  That means that the interruptions were either about 4-seconds long or about 2-seconds long.  These interruptions happened randomly about every 6 trials.
How did the interruptions affect performance of the task?
These brief interruptions influenced people’s ability to remember where they were in the sequence.  People who got long interruptions (having to type 4 characters) were about three times more likely to make an error on the trial following the interruption than on trials with no interruption.  People who got short interruptions (having to type 2 characters) were about twice as likely to make an error on the trial following the interruption than on trials with no interruption.
The errors caused by the disruptions were sequence errors.  Basically, the interruptions caused people to lose their place in the sequence.  Most often, they mistakenly did the task they had just did or did the one following the one they were supposed to do in the sequence. 
The results related to the difficulty of the tasks were also interesting.  As I mentioned, some of the tasks were easier than others.  This ease was reflected in the likelihood people would make an error on that task.  For example, people made more errors on the near vs. far from the start of the alphabet task than on the underlined vs. italics task.  But, the effect of interruptions was the same for easy and hard tasks. 
Putting this all together, then, even very short interruptions are particularly bad when people are performing tasks that require a sequence of steps.  The interruption disrupts people’s ability to remember where they are in the sequence, and so they are likely to carry out the wrong step following an interruption. 
Just one more reason to try to keep your work environment free of even tiny distractions. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Happiness Is Interacting With Others


It is no surprise that social interactions can be a great source of happiness.  A wonderful holiday spent with close friends and family is not only enjoyable in the moment, it is also a source of wonderful memories for years to come.  Being in a great romantic relationship is uplifting. 
But, what about the large number of other interactions you have each day?  The cashier at the supermarket who smiles and tells you to have a great day.  The colleague you pass in the hall who nods as you walk by.  The friend of a friend you chat with for a minute about a recent TV show.  Do those interactions also make you happier?
In the 1970’s, sociologist Mark Granovetter has looked at the structure of people’s social networks.  This work suggests that you can loosely characterize people’s contacts into strong ties and weak ties.  Strong ties are the bonds among family, friends, and close work colleagues.  Weak ties are involve the people you see on occasion.  You do not have particularly deep or regular contact with your weak ties.
Research in business suggests that weak ties are extremely important for passing information across groups.  For example, a company may have lots of pockets of people who work closely together.  The members of this group share information extensively.  That information can only flow from one group to another through weak ties where one member of the group shares it with someone who is primarily connected to a different group within the company.
What about happiness?  Can weak ties contribute to your happiness?
This question was explored in a paper by Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn in the July, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
In one study, 53 adults over the age of 25 were given two clickers.  On 6 different days, participants counted the number of people they interacted with that day using the clickers.  They used one clicker for people with whom they had a close relationship (strong ties) and the other for people with whom they had a more distant relationship (weak ties).  On each day, participants also rated their well-being and their sense of belonging to a community.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory, because basic personality characteristics are also related to people’s well-being.  All of the analyses were done ensuring that the results could not just be predicted from the basic personality characteristics. 
On average, people interacted with 6.7 strong ties and 11.4 weak ties in a day.  One way you might think to analyze these data is to see whether the number of interactions predicts happiness overall.  Interestingly, differences in happiness between people are not that strongly predicted by the overall number of interactions they have.
However, the number of interactions people have does predict day-to-day differences in sense of belonging and happiness.  Strong ties are particularly important.  On days when people interact many times their strong ties, they report that they are happier and feel more like they belong to the community than when they interact fewer times with their strong ties.  In this sample, interactions with weak ties predicted people’s sense of belongingness, but only weakly predicted happiness.  That is, more interactions with acquaintances increased people’s sense that they belonged to a community, but had only a weak relationship to their overall happiness.
A second study with the same method examined 58 first-year college students.  They also kept track of their interactions using clickers.  You might expect the results with this group to be stronger, because first-year college students are just starting to form a new set of relationships.
In this study, the number of interactions with both strong and weak ties was related to the students’ sense of belongingness overall.  So, those students who interacted with a lot of people were happier and felt a greater sense that they belonged to the college community than those who interacted with only few people.
In addition, on days when people interacted with both their close friends and their acquaintances, they were happier than on days when they interacted less often with their close friends and their acquaintances. 
What does all of this mean?
The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life.  Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community.  Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community.  When we are first introduced to that community, those interactions and that feeling of belonging also increase our happiness.
So, smile at people when you walk down the street.  You just might be helping to make someone’s day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When You’re Sure of Your Beliefs, You Want to Convince Others


When people disagree on a topic, there are several ways they might deal with that disagreement.  They might avoid it altogether, either by pushing off a discussion or just agreeing with the other person in order to end the conversation.  On the other hand, people can also be active in resolving disagreements. 
In that case, people have the choice between being competitive or cooperative.  Competitive resolution means that people are trying to convince the other person to change their belief.  Cooperative resolution means that people are seeking some kind of middle ground.
There are many factors that can lead people to take a cooperative or a competitive stance when trying to deal with a disagreement.  For example, the personality characteristic of openness reflects how willing people are to consider new ideas.  People high in openness are more likely to be cooperative than those low in openness.  The characteristic of agreeableness reflects how much people want to get along with others.  Agreeable people are also more likely to seek a compromise than disagreeable people.
An interesting paper by Kimberly Rios, Kenneth DeMarree, and Johnathan Statzer in the July 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the way people’s certainty about their beliefs affects their tendency to be cooperative or competitive. 
People’s certainty about their beliefs can be broken down into two components:  clarity and correctness.  Clarity refers to whether people are sure about what they believe.  Each of us has some beliefs that we hold deeply and other issues on which we are not that clear about exactly what we believe.  Correctness focuses on whether we think our belief is “correct” in some broader cultural or moral context. 
The authors suggest that the more strongly people believe their attitude is correct, the more competitive they will be in discussions.  In contrast, the authors did not assume that clarity would be strongly related to competitiveness.
In one study, participants read about a proposed tax on junk foods that would be used to defray expenses for medical care for people who eat unhealthy foods.  Participants read about the issue, and then used a scale to rate both how clear they were about their own attitude as well as whether they believed that their attitude was the ‘right’ one to have. 
After that, participants were led to believe that they would be engaging in a discussion with another person who had the opposing view.  They were given the opportunity to select messages that would be sent to the other person before the discussion.  Some of these sentences suggested competition (“I plan on winning this debate.”).  Some suggested cooperation (“I hope that you will also want to find some common ground on this issue.”).  Still others reflected a desire to learn about the conversation partner’s beliefs (“I’m curious to learn about your position in this debate.”) 
In this study, the more strongly that people believed that their attitude was correct, the more likely they were to select competitive sentences to introduce themselves to their partner.  Being clear about the attitude did not have a strong influence on people’s sentence selections.  
Other studies in this paper manipulated correctness and clarity experimentally.  To manipulate correctness, people were shown a story suggesting that most other people agree with their attitude (leading to high correctness) or that most other people disagree (leading to low correctness).  To increase clarity, people were given opportunities to repeat their belief, which makes it easier for people to state what they believe.
In these studies, manipulations of correctness made people more likely to adopt a competitive stance in discussions.  Manipulations of clarity did not have a strong influence on the way people approached discussions. 
Putting this together, then, being certain of your attitude can affect whether you try to convince other people that you are right.  In particular, the more strongly you believe that your attitude is the right attitude to have, the more that you will focus on convincing others. 
That also means that if you find yourself in conflict with others on a regular basis, you might want to see whether you generally assume that your attitudes are the correct ones.  If so, you might consider taking other people’s perspectives in order to see whether there is validity to opposing points of view.  That may reduce your tendency to treat discussions as invitations for coercion.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Lower Your Stress By Thinking About the Distant Future


Stress is one of the biggest complaints people have about their lives.  People worry about money, work, and family.  They are also dragged down by events that have happened in the recent past.  A bad test grade can throw a student into a funk.  A fight with a partner in the morning can affect the rest of the day.  A missed sale at work can ruin a weekend.
How can people become more resilient to these negative events in life?
This question was explore in a paper in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk. 
They focused on people’s ability to travel mentally through time.  They suggest that thinking about the distant future can help people get beyond recent events that are causing stress.  In particular, this longer time-perspective helps people to recognize that most events in life are not that important. As a result, while they may be stressful in the short-term, they will not have long-term consequences.  Recognizing that events have their impact mostly in the short-term can make even their short-term impact less severe.
In one study, participants were all people who had a significant event in the previous two weeks that they found to be very stressful.  Some participants were told to think about their life the following week and to focus either on their feelings or the implications of the stressful event.  Other participants were told to think about their life the next year and to focus on the implications of the event.  A control group got no instructions.  Afterward, participants filled out a questionnaire about their current mood as well as questionnaires that assessed their feelings about the permanence of the event they experienced.
Participants who focused on their life a year after the event experienced less stress and negative feeling than those who focused on their life the next week or those in the control group.  Focusing on the distant future also led people to think that the event would have a less permanent impact on their lives than thinking about the near future.
The researchers ruled out a number of possible counterexplanations for this result  For example, they did a version of the study in which all participants were told that thinking the future (either the near or distant future depending on the condition they were in) has been shown to make people feel better about stressful events.  Even with these instructions, participants who thought about the distant future felt better and felt that the event was less permanent than those people who thought about the near future. 
Some of the studies looked at students who had just taken a midterm exam.  Students who did poorly on the exam felt better if they thought about the distant future than if they thought about the near future.  But, students who did well on the exam felt equally good regardless of whether they thought about the near future or the distant future. 
In this study, the researchers also looked at the students’ final exam grades.  You might think that reducing students’ stress by having them focus on the distant future might make them feel better in the short term, but not learn from their mistakes.  So, they might actually do more poorly on the final exam if they thought about the distant future.  In fact, students who did poorly on the midterm did equally well on the final exam regardless of the instructions they were given in the study, suggesting that thinking about the future reduced stress, but did not influence motivation to do well in the class.
Ultimately, these results suggest that thinking about the future helps to give you perspective on the negative events in your life.  When something goes wrong, it is tempting to obsess over the details of what went wrong.  High levels of stress are not helpful for getting work done in the future, though.  So, it can be valuable to recognize that most of the events of your life—even ones that seem incredibly important at the time—do not have a life-changing impact.