Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Adolescents Get Fixated On Rewarding Things

It is common to talk about how the teenage years are a time of risky behavior.  And, when we talk about why teens engage in risky behavior, there is a tendency to focus on the development of the frontal lobes.  We know that there are mechanisms that involve the frontal lobes of the brain that stop behavior that has been engaged.  In Smart Change, I call these mechanisms the Stop System.  The frontal lobes do not mature fully until early adulthood, and so that is part of the reason why teens do risky things.
If it was just that the Stop System hasn’t matured yet, then even young children should engage in lots of risky behavior.  Instead, there is another component.  Adolescents also engage lots of behaviors that they perceive to be rewarding.  I call the mechanisms that drive people toward behaviors the Go System. 
This view suggests that adolescents have a perfect storm of a Go System that is driven to pursue rewards despite potential risks and a Stop System that is not capable of stopping a behavior that is risky.
An interesting paper in the November, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Zachary Roper, Shaun Vecera, and Jatin Vaidya provides some evidence for this view of adolescent risky behavior.
These researchers suggest that if adolescents are drawn toward rewards, then they should persist in paying attention to rewarding items in the environment, even when they are no longer rewarding. 
To test this possibility, 40 teens (ranging in age from 13-16) and 40 adults (with an average age of 27) were run in a study.  In the first part of the study, participants saw a number of colored circles on a computer screen.  Inside of each circle was a line.  There was always one red or green circle on the screen, and the rest were other colors.  Participants had to press one of two buttons to indicate whether the line inside the target circle was horizontal or vertical.  When they responded correctly, they were rewarded.  For each participant, one color was generally associated with a larger reward (10 cents) than the other (2 cents).  So, for a particular participant, the red circle might generally lead to a 10 cent reward and the green circle might lead to a 2 cent reward.
After doing 240 trials like this, the task was changed.  Now, participants did another 240 trials in which they had to find a blue diamond and report the orientation of the line inside that shape.  The rest of the objects on the screen during these test trials (which are called distractor items) were colored circles.  On some trials, one of those distractor circles was a red or green, which had been associated with a reward in the first part of the study. 
The key question was whether the amount of time it took participants to respond correctly on the test trials was affected by the presence of circles that had been rewarded in the first part of the study.  If it takes longer for participants to respond in the presence of a distractor that had been rewarded in the past, it suggests that distractor is attracting attention from the real goal of the task.
Adults are not strongly affected by the initial training.  In the first group of test trials, they are a little slower at responding when one of the distractors had been rewarded in the first group of trials.  After about 60 trials, though, adults are no longer affected by what had been rewarded before.  That is, the Go System no longer drives adults toward old rewards.
The teens act quite differently.  They are much slower to respond when one of the distracting circles had been rewarded in the past.   They are slowest when the distractor was color that got the large reward.  They are fastest when none of the distractors had been rewarded.  The circle that got the small reward came out in between.  This effect persisted over the entire set of 240 test trials.
Finally, the effect was strongest in the 13- and 14-year-olds who were tested.  They were most captivated by the circles that had been rewarded before.  The 15- and 16-year olds were also a bit slower when faced with a circle that had been rewarded before, but not as much as the younger teens.
This suggests that the risky behavior we see in teens has two sources.  First, the Go System of teens gets directed toward things that have been rewarded in the past.  It is hard for teens to dampen this activity of the Go System.  Then, on top of that, the Stop System has trouble overcoming the direction of the Go System, so that teens continue to act on the impulse to do what had been rewarded on the past. 
Ultimately, this validates the importance of using the environment to help teens protect themselves.  It is just hard for teens to overcome strong temptations.  Perhaps the best way to help teens to avoid risky behavior is to remove the most significant risks from the environment.  While teens have to learn to say no to activities they should not perform, there is no reason for them to have to overcome the full strength of their Go Systems.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Your Beliefs About Change Affect Whether You Take Responsibility

In any relationship, there are times that you don’t do the right thing.  You brush off a colleague.  You snap at a romantic partner.  You do things that are selfish. In order to repair the relationship, though, you need to take some responsibility.  By taking responsibility, you can work to change yourself to improve the relationship in the future.
If taking responsibility is done to help you change, then your beliefs about change should influence your tendency to take responsibility for actions.  This question was examined by Karina Schumann and Carol Dweck in a paper in the December, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
In one study, the researchers did a study of people who were in a long-term relationship in which they were living with their partner.  The researchers measured people’s beliefs about whether personality can change.  They also asked people to do a daily diary for a week.  For any conflict participants experienced, they were asked whether they apologized as well as whether they took responsibility for their actions.  Beliefs about whether personality can change did not affect whether people apologized for their actions.  But, the more strongly that people believe that they can change, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their mistakes.
In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s beliefs about change by having them read a scientific article that either supported the idea that personality remains relatively fixed or that it changes.  After that, participants read a number of scenarios in which they imagined that they had done something wrong to someone else.  After those scenarios, participants answered a number of questions including whether they would take responsibility for their actions. 
Participants who read that personality can change were more likely to say that they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those who read that personality remains relatively fixed.  This study suggests that people’s beliefs about whether they can change can be manipulated and that manipulating these beliefs influences their tendency to take responsibility for their actions.
A third study used a similar methodology.  Again, people’s beliefs about change were manipulated.  Again, participants read a scenario in which they had to imagine doing something wrong to another person and were asked whether they would take responsibility for their actions.  After that, participants were asked to fill in word fragments.  For example, they might see the fragment THREA___.  The fragments can be filled in either with a word related to stress (like THREAT) or with a word unrelated to stress (like THREAD).  The more stress that people are feeling, the more likely they are to fill in the fragments with words related to stress.
As before, participants induced to think that they can change were more likely to say they would take responsibility for doing something wrong than those induced to think that they cannot change.  Interestingly, participants induced to think they cannot change filled in more of the words in a way that related to stress or threat than participants who were induced to think that they cannot change. 
Putting this all together, then, it suggests another powerful influence of beliefs about change.  When you believe that your behavior can change, you are more likely to be willing to admit responsibility.  A big reason why you are able to admit fault is that you recognize that once you admit what you have done wrong, you can work to make it better, and so you are not threatened by admitting mistakes.  People who do not believe that they can change are stressed by admitting their mistakes, because they believe that those mistakes say something fundamental about who they are as a person.
Ultimately, people can change their behavior, even if that change requires some effort.  A key part of the process of change is recognizing what you have done wrong and learning from your mistakes.  Believing that you can change gives you the best opportunity to fix your behavior and repair your relationships.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Do Brands Interfere with Religiosity?

There are many ways to express identity.  If you walk down the street, you will see people wearing t-shirts with brands of products on them.  They carry coffee mugs with the names of coffee companies.  They carry bags that are branded with the logos of companies. 
People also express their identity through religion.  Religious beliefs can influence the actions people take.  In addition, people may wear religious symbols on shirts or jewelry.  They may put religious symbols on their cars.
In may ways, of course, religion and products seem fundamentally incompatible.  Religion focuses on the sacred and the spiritual.  Brands focus on the earthly and material.
A fascinating paper by Keisha Cutright, Tulin Erdem, Gavan Fitzsimons, and Ron Shachar in the December, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined whether commitment to brands interferes with commitment to religion. 
In one preliminary study, participants were asked to choose between a pair of coffee mugs and a pair of t-shirts.  For half the participants, the items had a brand name on them (Starbucks on the mug, Adidas on the t-shirts).  For the other half, the products were unbranded.  Later in the study, participants filled out scales to rate the strength of their commitment to religion and how often they attend religious services.  Participants who made choices of branded products exhibited a lower commitment to religion and commitment to attend religious services than those who made choices of products without brand names.
A second study asked participants to think and write about one of two types of brands.  Some participants were asked to write about a brand that really said something about their personality.  Other participants were asked to write about a brand that they thought was functional but did not say anything about their personality.  Later, they completed the scales of religious commitment.  In this study, participants rated their religious commitment as lower if they wrote about brands that relate to their identity than if they wrote about brands that were purely functional.
In another study, participants selected a t-shirt for themselves, for another person, or for both themselves and another person.  For some participants, the t-shirts had a company brand on them, but for other participants the t-shirts had no brand.  Later, they rated their religious commitment, but also were given an opportunity to donate up to one dollar to either a group of faith-based charities or to a group of non faith-based charities.  Compared to the other groups, participants who chose a branded t-shirt for themselves exhibited lower religious commitment and also donated less money to faith-based charities than those who chose non-branded t-shirts or chose for another person.
Control conditions in these experiments demonstrated that commitment to brands influenced religious commitment, but not commitment to other ways of expressing identity like commitment to sports teams, art, music, or engaging in social interactions. 
What does all of this mean?
There is a tendency for people to try to maintain some consistency in their beliefs at any given moment (even though people may be quite inconsistent over time).  So, when thinking about material goods, that will strengthen people’s thoughts about their material self, and weaken aspects of their self-concept that are inconsistent with that material self (including aspects of self-concept related to religion).
It is important to recognize that the effects observed in studies like this are short-term effects.  That is, outside of the overt presence of brands, people’s beliefs about their religiosity will return to whatever their long-term state is.
However, these patterns of thought can become habitual.  To the extent that we live in a world surrounded by brands that influence our self-concept, that can make it harder to build up and maintain a more spiritual or religious self-concept as well.