Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories About Yourself Affect Judgments About Others

When you look at the people around you, there is a tendency to assume that they will act like you do.  That makes sense.  One of the easiest ways to try to understand the behavior of other people is to think about what you would do in the same situation.  And there is a tendency to do this most when you think that the person you are judging is like you in some way.
There are many aspects of memory, and they can all influence our judgments of others.  For example, not only are we able to recall information about ourselves, but we also get a feeling for how easy it was to recall that information.  That feeling can also influence our later judgments. 
This issue was explored in a paper in the April 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Karl-Andrew Woltin, Olivier Cornielle, and Vincent Yzerbyt. 
Their studies took advantage of an interesting way of decoupling what people remember from the experience of how easy it was to remember information that has been used in many previous studies.  In one study, they were interested in judgments of assertiveness.  They began by asking people to remember situations in which they themselves had been assertive in the past.
Some people were asked to recall only 4 situations. This group was able to remember these situations easily, and so they had the experience that it was easy for them to think about being assertive.  A second group was asked to remember 10 situations.  This group had trouble remembering 10 things and often recalled about 6 events.  The interesting thing here is that this group recalled more events than the one asked to remember only 4 events.  But, it was hard to remember the events, so people were left with the impression that it was hard for them to recall situations in which they were assertive. 
After recalling assertive behaviors, participants saw a picture of someone of the same sex and were told that person went to the same university.  They were asked to make a number of judgments about their traits.  Some of those judgments focused on assertiveness, while others focused on other characteristics.
In this study (and the others reported in this paper), the ease of recalling events did not affect judgments of unrelated traits.  However, when people found it easy to recall events in which they were assertive, they judged the other person as more assertive overall than when they found it hard to recall events in which they were assertive.
A second study demonstrated a similar effect using creativity rather than assertiveness.  Once again, participants who found it easy to recall events in which they were creative judged the new person to be more creative than those who found it hard to recall events in which they had been creative.
This study also had a second group of participants who were told that the design of the questionnaire influenced their belief about how easy it was to recall events about their life.  This group had a reason to feel like it was either easy or hard to think about instances in which they had been creative.  For this group, their judgments of the other person were not influenced by how difficult it was to recall situations in which they were creative. 
Another study in this series found that this effect occurred only when the person they were judging was similar to themselves in some way.  So, when the new person was of the same sex and attended the same university, then their judgments about the other person were affected by whether it was easy to recall events from their own life.  But, when the new person was of the opposite gender and went to a different university, then ease of remembering had no influence on judgments about the other person.
What does all of this mean?
Often, when we think about memory, we focus primarily on the content of what we remember.  However, there is also a lot of information that comes in the form of feelings about our memory.  One dimension of those feelings is the ease with which things come to mind.  Even though that ease can have many sources, we tend to use that ease as a signal of how commonly a particular event occurs in the world.  That use of ease is related to the availability heuristic first described by Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.
Even though experimental psychologists can do clever things to trick you into using these feelings in the wrong way, they are generally a very good indicator of how commonly you have encountered something in the world. 
In the case of judging what other people will do, it is also useful to knowledge about yourself to make judgments about others.  Human behavior is complex, and it can be hard to reason about all of the factors that affect what other people will do.  Using your feelings about what you would do in that same situation is a great first guess about what others will do.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Joy of Connecting With Others

I fly a lot.  I have a typical routine on the plane.  I pull out something to read or perhaps an iPad to watch a movie.  I do my work.  I don’t generally engage in much conversation with the person sitting next to me on the plane, though sometimes I end up in a long conversation. Invariably, those conversations are great fun.
An interesting question is whether my travel would be more enjoyable if I engaged in more conversations with people I meet on the plane?  This issue was addressed in a fascinating paper by Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder that appeared in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 
In two field experiments, they demonstrate that people generally avoid having conversations with strangers when commuting.  One study used train commuters, and a second used bus commuters.  During their commute, some participants were asked to imagine that they were told to have a conversation with another commuter they didn’t know before.  A second participant was asked to imagine that they were told to commute without talking to anyone.  A third group got no instructions. Participants rated whether how much they thought they would enjoy their commute as well as how productive they thought they would be.
In this study, participants imagining they had to talk to another person thought they would enjoy the commute less than those who imagined sitting in silence.  Those imagining they had to have a conversation also assumed they would be less productive on the trip than those who imagined sitting in silence.  The control group came out in between on both measures.
A second set of field studies actually had commuters on the train and bus engage in conversations or not.  A third group was given no instructions.  Afterward, participants rated how much they enjoyed the commute as well as how productive they were.  Participants also filled out a personality inventory.
Strikingly, participants who were asked to have a conversation with someone else on the train or bus really did have conversations.  These participants enjoyed their ride much more than those who were instructed not to engage with other people as well as those in the control condition (who also tended not to engage in conversations).  Interestingly, participants in all conditions rated themselves as about equally productive. 
If conversations like this are actually so enjoyable, why do people engage in them so rarely? 
One other study asked commuters a variety of questions and found that they underestimate how willing other people would be to talk to them.  So, commuters feel that they are much more interested having people choose to talk to them than other people are in being talked to.  As a result, people avoid striking up conversations for fear of bothering another person.
In addition, one study found that some people are able to predict their enjoyment of engaging in these random conversations.  This study looked at people taking taxis leaving from an airport.  Some participants were actually asked to engage in a conversation with the driver or to enjoy the solitude.  As with the other studies, those who had a conversation with the driver enjoyed the ride more than those who did not.  
 In a second study, participants predicted their enjoyment.   Those who routinely engage in conversations with the driver recognized that they enjoy the ride more when they talk than when they don’t.  People who rarely converse with the driver did not recognize that they would enjoy their ride more if they talked with the driver.
A final study examined another possibility.  Perhaps the people who initiate conversations enjoy them, but those who do not initiate the conversations enjoy them less.  That is, maybe the conversation is only positive for the initiator.  This study was done in a psychology lab.  Participants were waiting for the study to start.  Some participants were instructed either to engage in a conversation with a second participant in the waiting room or to avoid having a conversation.  Afterward, both participants were asked about how much they enjoyed the wait.  Both the participant who initiated the conversation and the non-initiator enjoyed the wait more when they had a conversation. 
Putting this all together, then, it seems like most of us are missing out on a bit opportunity to enjoy our life just a little more.  Many of us travel on trains, plains, busses, and taxis.  In those settings, we elect to protect ourselves from interactions with other people.  Yet, these data suggest that most of us would enjoy ourselves more if we had conversations with the strangers who sit near us rather than walling ourselves off.
These findings are particularly interesting, because technology makes it easier than ever to avoid connecting with strangers.  Almost everywhere you go, people are engaged with smart phones and tablets.  Because of those devices, we avoid connecting with real live people who are next to us.  And it seems that we are missing out by doing so.