Thursday, December 5, 2019

Is Perspective-Taking A Skill?

When we study psychology, there is a tendency to think about the tasks that we do as if there were built-in modules in the brain dedicated to those tasks.  So, we talk about memory and assume that there is a particular thing in the brain that helps us remember information.  We talk about attention, and figure there must be particular brain systems that help us to pay attention.
As the science of psychology has matured, it has become clear that there are many different systems that help us with a variety of tasks.  We now know, for example, that there are many different kinds of memory.  Some help us remember information over the long-term and some help us to hold on to information for a few seconds or minutes.  Other memory systems allow us to execute habits or to predict what is likely to happen next in a situation.
An interesting paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Rachel Ryskin, Aaron Benjamin, Jonathan Tullis, and Sarah Brown-Schmidt examined perspective-taking as a task.  Perspective-taking is the ability to take someone else’s viewpoint into account when thinking. 
For example, in a classic study, Robert Krauss and his colleagues found that when people were asked to give directions to a landmark in New York City, they changed the way they described how to get to the landmark depending on whether the person asking was from the city.  For other city-dwellers, people gave less specific instructions, because they assumed people would know basic aspects of navigating the city like how to get uptown versus downtown.
These researchers examined whether perspective taking was a single ability or a task that involves multiple different systems.  They examined this question in an interesting way by looking at individual differences in performance on different tasks that require perspective taking.  If perspective taking is a single ability, then people good at one task involving this ability should be good at other tasks involving it as well.
They selected three tasks for participants to perform across multiple sessions.  In one task, participants saw a series of 80 words and were asked to generate cues that would remind them of those words in two days.  This task requires people to take the perspective of themselves in a few days to figure out what would remind them of the words they saw. 
The second pair of tasks involved conversations between two people seated at different computer screens in separate rooms in which one person had to tell another which object on a 3 x 3 grid to click on.  On each grid, there was one square that was covered, so a particular participant could not see behind it.  Participants also knew which square was blocked for the other participant, though they could see behind it.  The image here shows examples of the materials from the paper.  One square is always covered.  The gray square is the one in which the participant can see what is there, but knows the other participant can’t see it.
With these grids, the person speaking is shown one of the objects and is told that the other participant should find that object on their grid.  The object they are supposed to talk about is circled.  In this case, it is a banana.  The key question is when do participants use an adjective along with the name of the object to help the other participant.  In the situation on the left, the participant has to use the adjective big to distinguish the big banana from the small one.  On the right, there is no need to use an adjective, because there is only one banana.  In the middle, though, there are two bananas, but only one is visible to their partner.  So from the speaker’s perspective, they should call it a big banana, but if they recognize that their partner can only see one banana, then they should not use an adjective. 
Finally, participants hearing the instructions have to search their grid to find the object.  Participants in this study were connected to an eye tracker so that it was possible to see what they were looking at as the task progressed.
Suppose the speaker says, “Find the big banana.”  At the adjective (big), the participant could look at any large object on the screen.  When the noun arrives (banana), participants could glance at any bananas in the grid.  The question is whether participants will look at objects that they know the speaker cannot see, because those objects are hidden from the speaker. 
In addition to these three tasks, participants did a number of other measures to help understand what factors lead to good performance in perspective-taking tasks.  They did the Stroop Task as a test of executive function.  In this task, participants have to name the color of the font that words naming colors are presented in.  This task is particularly difficult when the color of the font is a different color than the color named by the word.  For example, people are slow when the word green is written in a blue font.  They also did tests of working memory (the amount of information you can hold in mind at once when doing a task) and long-term memory skill (the number of words from a list people could remember). 
On average, participants were reasonably good at all tasks.  They remembered about half of the words from the list for which they generated cues two days later.  They tended to use adjectives when they were needed and omit them when they were not necessary.  They found the object that their partner was talking about, and looked less at objects that were hidden from their partner than at other objects.  However, there were also substantial differences on these tasks across participants.
Of interest, the correlations in performance across all three the tasks were low.  So, doing well in one perspective-taking did not predict how well people would do on another task.  The measure of executive function did not predict individual differences in performance on any of the tasks that well.  Individual differences in working memory predicted how well people would do in the memory task and also in the task in which they were the speaker.  In addition, overall memory performance also predicted how well people would do on the memory task in which people found cues for themselves.  None of the measures predicted how well people would do when finding objects that were labeled for them. 
What does all of this mean?
The complex task of perspective-taking seems to involve a number of different abilities.  You have to figure out what information someone else has access to (or what information you are likely to have in the future) and then use that information to inform what you do on the task.  It appears that this task recruits many different abilities depending on the specific nature of the task you are doing.  So, even though we have a single word for perspective-taking, psychologically it involves many different abilities.
One ability that does seem to be important for this task across at least a few situations is working memory.  That makes sense.  If you are going to take another person’s viewpoint into account, then you need to be able to keep in mind both what you are doing as well as what the other person knows.  The less information you can hold in mind at one time, the less able you are to keep track of what other people know.
Finally, this study further demonstrates how careful we have to be at figuring out the basic units of thinking.  There is a tendency to focus on the tasks people perform and assume the brain is organized in a way that respects these tasks.  Studies like this demonstrate that every task we perform involves a variety of different more basic abilities that are brought together as needed.
One reason why this matters is that when we do neuroimaging studies to look at brain activity when people are doing a task, we often start to identify brain regions with the particular task people were performing.  As this study demonstrates, though, a task like “perspective-taking” is not a single thing.  So, it would be dangerous to conclude that there are particular brain regions that are associated with perspective-taking, because that complex task involves lots of more specific abilities.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Knowledge and blame

Human beings love to give explanations for things.  If you have ever spent any time with a five-year-old, you know that a child that age just loves to ask, “Why?”  This desire to understand why things happen continues throughout our lives.  Understanding why things happen affects many aspects of our lives, including our ability to assign blame for an action. 
The way we go about assigning blame often involves our ability to come up with counterfactual statements.  A counterfactual is a statement that starts, “If only…” where the “If” part of the statement talks about something that didn’t really happen. 
Suppose, for example, two children are playing catch with a football in the living room of a house.  One of them throws the ball too hard, and it hits an expensive vase.  We might blame the child who threw the ball by staying, “If only he hadn’t thrown the ball too hard, the vase would not have broken.”  Or, we might blame both children by saying, “If only they had played catch outside, the vase would not have broken.” 
There are many factors that people take into account when they create these kinds of counterfactuals when trying to figure out who to blame.  Quite a bit of research by Jonathan Baron and his colleagues, for example, demonstrates that we often focus on actions people take rather than inactions when assigning blame.  So, if a man pushes someone over and she gets hurt, we blame the man for hurting the woman.  We reason that if he had not pushed her, she would not have gotten hurt.  But, suppose the man watches a woman about to walk into a bench that she does not see.  He does not tell her about the bench, and she trips over it, falls, and gets hurt.  The man might have prevented the accident by speaking out, but we don’t think he is (as much) to blame.  In part, his inaction is not seen as much of a cause of the woman getting hurt, because even if he had spoken up, it is possible she still would have fallen.
An interesting paper by Elizabeth Gilbert, Elizabeth Tenney, Christopher Holland, and Barbara Spellman in the May, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explores another aspect of blame:  the knowledge of the individual performing the action. 
The idea behind these studies is that we often blame people more for actions when they have knowledge that they could have acted on.  So, if the children playing catch in the living room are 2-years-old, we might blame them less for the broken vase than if they are 10-years-old, because the 2-year-olds might know that throwing objects around the room can lead things to be broken, while the 10-year-olds know that and so they could have (and should have) acted differently.
In one study, participants read a scenario in which Sarah borrows a car from Josh.  It turns out that the car has brake problems.  Sarah drives a little recklessly and gets in an accident that hurts another person.  In this situation, people think Sarah and the brakes of the car are the cause of the accident.  However, if Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did not tell Sarah, then people now think that Josh is actually more to blame for the accident than Sarah.  If he had told her, then she might have driven differently.  In a third condition, Josh knew that the brakes had a problem and did tell Sarah, but she drove recklessly anyhow.  Now, Sarah is once again seen as more blameworthy than Josh for the accident, because she had enough knowledge to act more responsibly.
Another study in this series looked at the counterfactuals people create.  The scenario in this study involved a woman who is cutting the grass at her house with a lawnmower that is defective.  The lawnmower spins out of control and cuts her prize tulips.  In one condition, the woman does not know the lawnmower is defective.  In the other, her mechanic has told her the mower is defective. 
Participants were asked to generate several “If only” statements and to rate whether this counterfactual statement could have occurred and whether the woman could have controlled whether that happened.   They also rated the woman’s blame for destroying the tulips.
Participants thought the woman was more to blame when she knew the lawnmower was defective than when she did not know.  The reason for this difference was that when the woman knew the lawnmower was defective, people were more likely to think that she could have done something (like buy a new lawnmower) that would have fixed the problem and spared the tulips.  So, there was a direct link between the counterfactuals people created and the blame they assigned the woman.
Ultimately, when we are trying to understand the causes of events in our world, we reason about the way the world could have been had people taken different actions.  When we think that people could have easily taken an action that would have led to a different outcome, we blame them for that outcome.  And, knowledge is one key factor that makes us believe that a person could have acted differently.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Explanations and Our Place in Society

There is a funny paradox in politics. Many people who are successful or wealthy recognize the combination of talent and circumstances and plain luck that landed them where they are.  Those who are unsuccessful or poor can recognize how things might have gone differently if their circumstances had been different. 
Yet, the recognition that success and wealth do not happen purely on the basis of effort and merit does not change people’s attitudes toward social policy.  While we recognize that there is substantial income inequality in the United States, few people endorse specific policies that would redistribute income and opportunity.
Why is that?
This question was explored in an interesting paper by Larisa Ussak and Andrei Cimpian in the November, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 
They suggest that from an early age, people tend to explain the behavior of groups in terms of characteristics that those people have rather than in terms of the social forces that act on them.  This focus on inherent characteristics rather than extrinsic forces leads people to accept that groups deserve to be in the social position they are in.
The first few studies in this paper looked at 8-year-olds and adults.  They were given descriptions of groups of people from an alien planet.  They were told that the groups had some kind of inequality (for example, one group might have a lot more money than the other).  Then, they were given two explanations for that difference.  One explanation focused on inherent characteristics (one group is smarter than the other).  The second explanation focused on extrinsic factors (one group found a lot of gold).  Participants rated how plausible they thought these explanations were.  (Pilot studies showed that thought each explanation was equally plausible as a description of why one group might be wealthier than another.)  They also rated whether they thought the situation on the planet was fair. 
Both adults and 8-year-olds gave higher ratings to explanations based on inherent characteristics than to those based on external factors.  Of interest, the more strongly that a person preferred the inherent explanation to the external one, the more that they thought the situation on the planet was fair.
Other studies in this series found a similar result with children as young as 5.  In addition, studies found that children given the scenarios and asked to generate an explanation for the difference on their own tended to give explanations referring to inherent properties than to give explanations based on extrinsic factors. 
Interestingly, these differences in explanations are observed when children think about groups, but not about individuals.  When they are told about individuals from a planet who come from different groups and differ on some characteristic (like income), they are equally likely to give explanations based on inherent and extrinsic factors.  So, the effect I have described seems to apply just to beliefs about groups.
One final study manipulated the type of explanation and looked at fairness.  In this study, children were given either an inherent or an extrinsic explanation for a difference between groups on a planet.  Children given an inherent explanation thought the difference between groups on the planet was more fair than children given an extrinsic explanation.
Putting all of this together, when children and adults look at groups of people, they often assume that group differences result from characteristics of group members rather than situational factors.  As a result, they tend to think those group differences are fair.  This suggests that one reason why people often fail to endorse public policies that might help to repair differences between groups is that they think that the differences between groups actually reflect aspects of those groups that are causing the inequality rather than situational factors that public policy might be able to fix.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Your Memories Are Not Fixed in Stone

One of the scariest parts of the legal system is its reliance on eyewitness testimony.  A witness identifies who a defendant as the perpetrator of a crime can sway a jury in the absence of any physical evidence that that the defendant was actually the one who committed the crime.
For several decades, of course, we have known that eyewitness memory is faulty.  In the 1970s, classic studies by Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues demonstrated that people would mix together information they saw and things they heard in later questions when thinking back to an event.  In a 1974 paper written with John Palmer, participants watched a film of a car accident.  Later, participants were asked to judge how fast the cars were going.  Some people were asked how fast they were going when they hit each other, while others were how fast they were going when they smashed into each other.  A week later, participants were asked whether the saw broken glass in the accident.  Those who were asked about the cars smashing into each other were much more likely to say they saw broken glass than those who were asked about the cards hitting each other.
On the basis of results like this, there are two possibilities.  One is that when we remember things, we recreate our memory based on fragments of actual memories from the past.  This view of memory suggests that we may make mistakes when we do this reconstruction, but somehow the truth is still buried in our memories somewhere. 
A second possibility, though, is that when we are reminded of the initial situation, our initial memory is actually opened up again in ways that allow it to be altered. That is, over time the initial memory may be gone completely and replaced with a revised version.
For a long time, the first of these possibilities was the one that was generally assumed by the field.  More recently, though, studies suggest that our initial memories themselves may be changed in the future through a process called reconsolidation.  In reconsolidation, a memory is made active again, and while it is active, it is subject to change.
One example of reconsolidation in people comes from a 2007 study by Almut Hupbach, Rebecca Gomez, Oliver Hardt, and Lynn Nadel published in Learning & Memory.  They had participants two lists of words over a three-day period. 
On the first day, participants learned a list of 20 words that named common objects.  They practiced the items until they could recall at least 17 of the 20 items on the list.  On Day 2, some participants were reminded that they had learned a list on the previous day.  Others were not given a reminder.  These two groups then learned a second list of words naming a different set of common objects.  A control group did not learn the second list.  On the third day, participants returned and were asked to remember as many of the words from the first list as possible.
The control group recalled about half of the words on the list.  The group that was not reminded of the list that they learned on the first day recalled 45% of the words, and occasionally also recalled one of the words from the second list (about 5%).  The group that was reminded of what they did on the previous day recalled only about 36% of the words from the first list.  Interestingly, they also recalled about a quarter of the words from the second list they learned.
This finding suggests that just reminding people of the experience of learning the first list led people to combine their memory of the first list with that of the second.  Two control conditions refined this finding a bit.  In one study, participants recalled the first list immediately after learning the second list.  In this study, participants did not recall any of the items from the second list when remembering the first list.  This finding suggests that it takes time for the memory of the second list to be combined with the memory of the first list.
Another control condition looked at memory for the second list.  This study found that when people recalled the second list, they rarely also added words from the first list to it, even when they had been reminded that they had learned the first list in the previous session.  This study suggests that it is only the initial memory that is being affected by a later experience.
Putting all of this research together suggests that it is possible to rewrite aspects of our old memories with new information that was acquired after the initial memory was created.  These findings are particularly frightening when it comes to things like eyewitness memory, because it suggests that even if people were able to recall things correctly at some point in the past, that “truth” may no longer exist anywhere in memory.
This is just one more reason why the legal system needs to treat eyewitness testimony carefully.  After all, if old memories have been altered by new information, then the witness will believe deeply in their testimony, because it reflects their actual memory.  Unfortunately, that actual memory is not an accurate reflection of the past it represents. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bring Your Brain to Work is coming!

Hey everyone. I'm excited to start introducing Bring Your Brain to Work to the world. Over the next few months, I will be posting videos discussing topics that I'll be covering in the book. But, first a quick promo...

Monday, February 4, 2019

Social Comparisons Can Make You Give Up

Competition can often be motivating.  The history of discovery and innovation is filled with stories of people who were spurred on by the prospect that someone else would beat them to the goal.  Watson, Crick, and Franklin were concerned that other groups were also closing in on the chemical structure of genes. Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray were rivals in the development of the telephone (and indeed, Bell’s patent application preceded Gray’s by a matter of hours). 
Yet, in ordinary life, social comparisons can also be de-motivating.  To understand why, it is important to start with the core principle that people’s engagement with a task depends on two factors:  whether the goal is important for them to achieve and whether they believe they can achieve it. 
If you compare yourself to someone else who is just a little better than you are, you may be energized to improve and catch up with them.  In this case, competition increases your sense that the goal can be achieved, and provides some incentive to increase the importance of the goal.  But, if you compare yourself to someone who is significantly better than you are, you may feel like no matter how hard you work you will never measure up to their example.  Now, the gap between you and your goal seems impossible to bridge.
A paper in the March, 2016 issue of Psychological Science by Todd Rogers and Avi Feller provided evidence for the downside of competition.
In one study, they examined over 5,000 participants who were students in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  Many MOOCs have the students give peer evaluations to each others’ papers in order to make the workload manageable for the instructors.  In this MOOC, students wrote a paper about mid-semester and then gave evaluations to at least three papers written by their peers.
The measure of interest was whether students finished the course and ultimately received credit for it.  The quality of essays a student evaluated affected whether they finished the course.  About 68% of students who evaluated essays of average quality finished the course.  But, only 45% of the students who evaluated excellent essays finished the class.  That is, when students read excellent examples of other student performance (and thus had a chance to compare themselves to other students who were performing well), they were less motivated to finish the class than if they read average examples of other students’ essays.
As a way of understanding the size of this effect, the researchers also looked at the effect of the grade students got on their essay.  Overall, 93% of students who got a perfect store on their essay went on to finish the class, while 75% of students who got an average score finished the class.  That means that seeing examples of excellent work (as opposed to average work) was about as demotivating to students as getting an average score on their own essay (as opposed to an excellent score).  It also means that the worse you did on your own essay, the more that you could be made to feel like you could not possibly succeed in the class.
The researchers also did a second study in which they manipulated the essays people evaluated experimentally and got similar results.
These findings demonstrate that comparing yourself to excellent performers can sap your motivation.  You have probably experienced something like this before.  When learning to play a musical instrument, hearing a real virtuoso may lead you to think you will never be any good at all.  Similarly, starting at a new gym can be an exercise in despair when you see toned gym rats go through their workout. 
That doesn’t mean that you have to fall prey to the perils of social comparison. Ask yourself why you are working toward this goal in the first place? It is rare that your goal is to be the best in the world at something, and so there is no need to be threatened by the excellent performance of another person.  If you go to the gym to get in shape, the only person you need to be better than is the person you were before you started working out.
Also, it is important to remember that anyone who is good at something has put in a lot of effort to get to that point.  When you compare yourself to others , it is easy to discount the work that it took for them to reach their current level of performance. If you do compare yourself to people who are better than you, try to imagine how good they were at the same point in their own practice.
I started playing the saxophone about 17 years ago when I was in my mid-30s.  Living in Austin, Texas, I am surrounded by great musicians. At first, I was intimidated by their ability, and hearing the number of amazing players in town made me doubt my commitment to take up the instrument.  Eventually, though, I realized that my goal was not to quit my job and play the sax, but to have an artistic outlet.  Eventually, I focused on the goal that if I played for 10 years, I wouldn’t be horrible.  Now, I enjoy hearing my peers who are more skilled than I am, because it gives me a sense of new things I might eventually learn to do.  And I did reach my goal—I now play in bands in town.