Monday, November 27, 2017

Free Will and Gratitude

There are lots of psychological benefits to gratitude.  Feeling grateful to others can lift your mood.  It enhances your feeling of connection to other people.  Gratitude can also motivate you to do work for others.
When you feel gratitude toward another person, you are feeling appreciation that the person has done something for you that required some effort on their part and that was ultimately designed to be helpful to you.  When there was no effort or cost to someone’s actions, then you may feel fortunate that there was a positive outcome, but you are not necessarily grateful to them for engaging in that action.
For example, suppose an electric cable comes loose on your car while you’re driving, and the car stops by the side of the road.  A driver stops and looks under the hood and reconnects the wire allowing you to get home.  You are grateful that the driver sacrificed the time to help you.  If the driver of the car sped by, but that caused a vibration in the road that cause the cable to reconnect, you would feel lucky that happened, but not grateful to the driver. 
This analysis of gratitude suggests that we need to make some assessment of whether the action of another person came at a cost to them in order to feel grateful.  A paper in the November, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Michael MacKenzie, Kathleen Vohs, and Roy Baumeister, suggests that people’s beliefs in free will may influence the perception of cost, which may in turn affect the feeling of gratitude.
The idea is that if you believe that people have free will, then you believe that the actions they are taking were intentional.  Those intentions reflect that they have explicitly done things to help you.  That increases your sense of gratitude toward them.
In one set of studies, the researchers simply measured people’s beliefs in free will and also their tendency to be grateful.  As you would expect if beliefs in free will affect gratitude, these measures were positively correlated.  The more that people believed in free will, the more that they tended to experience gratitude in their lives.
Of course, it is hard to draw strong conclusions from correlational studies like this.  In another experiment, the researchers manipulated beliefs in free will by having people reflect on sentences that suggested that there is free will or that there is not.  This induced a temporary difference between groups in the strength of their belief in free will.  Then, participants thought about events of their lives in which someone did something for them.  Participants were more grateful for these events if they were induced to believe in free will than if they were induced to believe that free will does not exist.  A control group who did not think about free will before the task behaved similarly to those induced to believe in free will, suggesting that most participants from this population of undergraduates tend to believe in free will.
A third experiment also induced differences in the belief in free will by using passages that argued that free will does or does not exist.  After that, participants were led to believe that they were going to do a rather boring experiment for another experimenter.  After walking to another room, that experimenter told them that the study could be completed without their help and they did not have to do the boring task.  Participants returned to the first room, where they were asked a few questions about the first experimenter, including questions about whether they were grateful to the experimenter for letting them go and whether the experimenter was sincere about the motivations for letting them out of the experiment.
Participants induced to believe in free will were more grateful to the experimenter than those induced to believe that free will does not exist.  In addition, participants induced to believe in free will felt that the experimenter was more sincere than those who were induced to believe that free will does not exist.  The belief that the experimenter was sincere was able to statistically explain the relationship between belief in free will and gratitude.
Putting all of this together, then, in order to feel gratitude, you have to believe that the person who has done something for you actually wants to help you.  One factor that affects the sense that someone wants to help is whether they have free will.  After all, without free will, you are destined to act the way you do. 
This research also has implications for companies who are performing customer service.  If companies want people to feel grateful for the service they get, it is useful for customer service agents to let customers know they have some autonomy in the actions they take.  This way, customers will believe that agents have chosen to help them, rather than believing that something about company policy forced them to be helpful. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Value of Having A Transcendent Purpose for Learning

School is the ultimate marshmallow test.  I’m sure you all remember Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test in which an experimenter gives a child one marshmallow and leaves the room saying that the child will get two marshmallows if he or she doesn’t eat the marshmallow while the experimenter is out.  Resisting the temptation to eat one marshmallow is taken as a measure of self-control.
School requires doing lots of things in the short-term that are less fun than what you could be doing, but lead to better long-term outcomes.  Studying for an exam is less fun than watching YouTube videos or playing video games.  But, people who get a college education typically make more money and have more satisfying careers than those whose education stops at high school.
A paper by David Yeager, Marlone Henderson, David Paunesku, Gregory Walton, Sidney D’Mello, Brian Spitzer, and Angela Duckworth in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored motivations that would focus students on schoolwork rather than tempting alternatives. 
These researchers distinguish between two kinds of motivations:  self-interested and self-transcendent.  Almost every student has a self-interested motive for education.  They want to learn to make themselves smarter or to help them get a job.  Only a subset of students, though, has a self-transcendent motive in which they also want their education to allow them to help make the broader world a better place and to help others.  The question is whether this added “purpose” would influence students’ motivation to study.
In a field study, over 1,000 high-school seniors from a low SES background were studied.  These students were all planning to go to college the following fall.  The participants were given questionnaires to assess whether they had a self-transcendent motive for their education, or just a self-interested motive.  They were also asked about other motivations for going to college like extrinsic motivations such as being able to move out of their parents house or to make new friends.  Participants filled out a self-control measure that examined their perceptions of how well they control their behavior.  They participated in a task in which they had the chance to either do math problems (which they were told would strengthen their basic skills and help them academically) or to do something tempting like watch videos or play a video game.  Finally, the experimenters measured how many of these students were enrolled in college the next fall. 
Having a transcendent purpose for their learning predicted participants’ scores on the self-control measures.  It also predicted the likelihood that students would do math problems rather than watch videos or play a game.  Finally, the more that students had a purpose, the more likely they were to be enrolled in college in the Fall. 
Of course, it is hard to draw strong conclusions just based on a correlational field study like this.  In a second study, ninth-grade students were given an exercise to get them to think about having a broader purpose to their education.  This exercise had them write about how their education in high school would allow them to help others and make the world a better place.  A control group wrote about differences between middle school and high school.  The researchers then measured the students’ grades in science and math classes at the end of the term.  The students who did the purpose intervention had higher grades at the end of the term than those who did the control manipulation.  This manipulation was most effective for the students with the lowest GPA before the intervention was done.
Two other studies used college students.  These studies encouraged participants to develop a purpose for their education.  One study demonstrated that participants spent more time on study questions if they were told to think about the transcendent purpose for their education than if they were not.  A second study found that students were better able to resist tempting alternatives to work when they thought about the transcendent purpose for their education than when they did not. 
What does all of this mean?
Success in school requires pushing off many enjoyable moments for the future in order to focus on learning.  Certainly, many learning activities are enjoyable.  But, learning new skills and facts also requires a lot of tedious and frustrating activities.  These desirable difficulties are a part of the learning process.  To stay motivated to engage in these tasks for the long-term, it is crucial to have a broader purpose for education.  It is not enough just to want a job or to make money.  It is also important to want to do things for others and to make the world a better place.  As humans, we find these transcendent goals highly motivating.
And, of course, this works for things beyond school.  Work is another aspect of life that can often be tedious and frustrating.  People who succeed in the workplace are also those people who see their work as having a higher calling to help others and to improve the world.