When an athlete finally wins a championship after years of falling short they’ll often say that it’s so much sweeter because of all the adversity they had to overcome. I’ve always written that off as one of the 99.7% of sports clichés that have no factual basis, but a new study lead by the University of British Columbia’s Alyssa Croft suggests there’s some truth to it. Adversity might actually make success feel better:
Can experiencing adversity enhance people’s appreciation for life’s small pleasures? To examine this question, we asked nearly 15,000 adults to complete a vignette-based measure of savoring. In addition, we presented participants with a checklist of adverse events (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one) and asked them to indicate whether they had experienced any of these events and, if so, to specify whether they felt they had emotionally dealt with the negative event or were still struggling with it. Although people who were currently struggling with adversity reported a diminished proclivity for savoring positive events, individuals who had dealt with more adversity in the past reported an elevated capacity for savoring. Thus, the worst experiences in life may come with an eventual upside, by promoting the ability to appreciate life’s small pleasures.
I wholeheartedly condone snarkily using this as an excuse the next time you accidentally screw over a friend.
It’s possible that self-driving cars will obviate the need to ask questions about human decision-making behind the wheel, but until that happens there’s a lot of utility in figuring out why drivers drive in a certain way. Along these lines, a new study from a Alberto Megías and his collaborators at the University of Granada poses an interesting question: When a light turns yellow, what influences whether you decide to speed up or slow down?
Using a simulated environment, the researchers examined the rapid decisions participants made immediately after seeing advertisements with a picture that had a positive (e.g a romantic picture), negative (a mutilation), or neutral (a book) emotional valence. They found that negative emotions led to more cautious behavior.
Our results support the differential influence of emotional pictures (positive, negative, and neutral) displayed on central billboard advertisements. We found that a negative emotion aroused by these roadside advertisements made drivers brake more often than positive and neutral ones, which led drivers to be more cautious and to cross less often during a yellow traffic light. However, when drivers decided to cross the intersection, the negative advertisements increased their response time.
Megías believes that negative emotions make people more likely to envision negative outcomes, and that this makes them more cautious. While the study provides some evidence that it might be possible to induce certain behaviors through visual stimuli on the road, there are two things worth mentioning. First, it’s possible that running the red light, and thus avoiding the possibility that somebody rear-ends you, is the safer action. The point being that even if you could theoretically nudge people toward a certain behavior, it’s hard to know which behavior is optimal. Second, it’s probably good to be skeptical of any idea that hinges on drivers paying attention to distractions.
That said, I think eventually a kind of psychological urban design will become very popular. The opportunity to influence behavior through small changes to the environment is just too juicy of a low-hanging fruit. It could be 10, 20, or 50 years, but don’t be surprised if one day cities dedicate a lot of resources toward figuring out which small details can enhance public safety.
Megías, A., Di Stasi, L.L., Maldonado, A., Catena, A., & Cándido, A. (2013). Emotion-laden stimuli influence our reactions to traffic lights Transportation Research Part F DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2013.09.017
From a new study led by the University of Toledo’s Jill Brown:
Two experiments investigated the hypothesis that treatment choice enhances placebo treatment efficacy. In Experiment 1, prior to a pain task, participants were given either an expectation that two (inert) products could reduce pain or no expectation. In addition, participants either selected between the two products or were assigned a product to use. Participants given both the placebo expectation and treatment choice reported the lowest pain. Experiment 2 conceptually replicated this finding using a placebo paradigm with aversive auditory stimuli. Additional control conditions indicated that a choice availability (rather than choice restriction) explanation best accounted for these results.
The takeaway? We need more crosswalk buttons!
If you haven’t seen them, I’ve got two new articles floating around the internet. The first, at Pacific Standard, looks at new research on economic performance and risk aversion that suggests most Congressmen will get reelected even though American’s say they hate Congress.
The implication is somewhat depressing. If politicians allow the economy to deteriorate, the resulting increase in risk aversion could make many voters more likely to support delinquent incumbents. That’s not to say sabotage is a good electoral strategy. Job and income growth will always be the most important factors. But it would seem that regardless of performance, the economy mitigates its own impact on the election by altering the level of risk aversion in society. When the economy is strong, lower risk aversion harms incumbents. When the economy is weak, higher risk aversion helps incumbents. Given that we’re still waiting for a true economic recovery, incumbents ought to get another boost in 2014.
Read the whole thing!
The second article is on new research that suggests personalizing questions based on student interest can have a positive impact.
The study dovetails nicely with work done by Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Carol Lee on the importance of embedding learning in culturally relevant contexts. The type of personalization in Walkington’s experiment was rudimentary compared to that found in the work of Nasir–who examined mathematical thinking during games of dominoes–and Lee–who investigated the impact of culturally relevant literature on literacy. Still, Walkington’s findings support the idea that there’s more to learning than the bare bones structure of a lesson, and perhaps more importantly, that technology can be used as a means to add on to that structure.
Humans are skilled at perceiving the world in a way that makes life more enjoyable. One thing that helps with this goal is the tendency to view the world as a fair and orderly place, a bias often termed the “Just-world fallacy.”
There are benefits to believing injustice is rare. It makes you feel nice and warm on the inside. Research also suggests it increases your focus on larger long-term rewards rather than smaller short-term rewards. After all, if the world is a chaotic place where nobody gets what they deserve, there’s less reason to work hard or stick to long-term plans.
But it can be hard to believe in a just world because injustice is everywhere. There are repressive governments and natural disasters. Bad things surely happen to good people. And thinking about these innocent victims comes into direct conflict with the desire to believe the world is just. In lab experiments participants often resolve this conflict by derogating the victim, perhaps by coming up with some explanation for why the victim deserved their fate. In the real world you can see traces of this in people who believe food stamp recipients are wholly responsible for their own plight. If people are to blame for their misfortune, the world remains just.
A group of researchers led by Mitchell Callan of the University of Essex reasoned that if derogating victims increases the belief in a just world, and the belief in a just world helps people focus on long-term rewards, then it stands to reason that derogating victims could help people focus on long-term rewards.
To test their hypothesis Callan and his team conducted an initial experiment in which participants read about somebody who was mugged. Some participants learned that the mugger was apprehended (the world is just!) while others learned that the mugger was never caught (the world is unfair!) Afterward participants answered questions about how much they liked the victim and the degree to which they felt the victim was careless or responsible.
To measure commitment to long-term rewards, the researchers gave participants a “delay-discounting” task in which they revealed their preferences for accepting different amounts of money at different future times. Participants who were willing to wait longer for larger sums (i.e. those who didn’t “discount” a delayed payment) were measured as expressing a stronger commitment to the long-term.
The results were as expected. Among participants who had their perception of a just world threatened (because the mugger was not apprehended), those who rated the victim favorably, and thus perceived a more unjust world, were more likely to prefer quick payments. On the other hand, those who derogated the victim by rating him as unlikable and irresponsible were more likely to say they would hold out for larger long-term rewards. It appeared as though derogating the victim increased commitment to the long-term by helping to restore faith in a just world.
A follow-up experiment followed a similar procedure, but prior to the experiment researchers measured each participants’ “baseline” tendency to delay-discount. In addition, the level of injustice was manipulated by telling some participants the victim was a drug dealer. The results were the same as in the initial experiment. When participants saw victims as more deserving of their fate, participants were less likely to weaken their commitment to future rewards.
Here’s what’s so troubling about the study: The ability to put off small short-term rewards for larger long-term rewards is important if you want to attain a position of power. Very few people who are unable to turn down cocaine at a frat party the night before a chemistry exam are going to end up as a Congressman. Becoming powerful generally requires hard work, persistence, and a focus on large rewards that will arrive in a distant future.
Callan’s experiment shows that people can develop the ability to focus on long-term rewards by derogating victims. The implication is that our politicians and CEOs are more likely to come from a population that, on average, is less empathetic toward victims. Being able to view victims as undeserving of assistance may have helped them get where they are.
On a slightly less somber note, the study is a good reminder that it’s impossible to attain psychological perfection. As the internet fills with research-based tips on things like cognitive biases and habit formation, it can feel like there’s a solution for everything. But many times two laudable goals are incompatible. If you want to feel a sufficient amount of empathy for victims, the lost faith in a just-world could make it harder to stick to future plans. If you want to stick to future plans, it may be helpful to convince yourself that certain victims weren’t so innocent. So don’t be discouraged if it feels like it’s impossible to reach a psychological state with no drawbacks. Because it is.
(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
Callan, M.J., Harvey, A.J., & Sutton, R.M. (2013). Rejecting Victims of Misfortune Reduces Delay Discounting Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.002
“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is the term psychologists use to describe the ability to interpret the distinct mental states of others. The knowledge that each person’s head contains a unique conception of the world is the first step toward understanding what others want and feel.
Developing ToM is an important part of childhood. It’s what allows kids to get along with others and make sense of the world around them. An improved theory of mind among adults could ultimately lead to less conflict and a society better geared toward improving human welfare.
What helps and hinders the development of Theory of Mind? A 2009 study (pdf) led by York University’s Raymond Mar suggests that books and movies may help, but that television does not. And that’s the rosy view of television. A new study led by Ohio State’s Amy Nathanson suggests that television is detrimental to ToM development.
This study explored the relation between preschoolers’ television exposure and one important indicator of cognitive processing called theory of mind (ToM). A total of 107 preschoolers and their parents provided data on the preschoolers’ television exposure (including both intentional viewing and exposure via background television), parent–child discussion of television, and preschoolers’ ToM. The results indicated that preschoolers who were exposed to more background television and who had a television in their bedroom performed more poorly on ToM assessments compared with other children. Parent–child discussion of television was positively related to ToM performance, however. These results have implications for how we understand the effects of television on preschoolers.
The study is largely correlational, so there’s still a question of causality. Perhaps a lack of social interaction in the family — the kind that might help with ToM development — drives kids to watch more TV. It’s also possible that kids with a less-developed ToM tend to be drawn to television. But the most likely explanation is that when young children watch TV they don’t develop an understanding of how other people think to the extent that they do when they interact with actual people.
A lot is written about the dangers of modern media, but much of the criticism tends to focus on how communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook dumb us down. While this is a serious concern — one that Neil Postman was somehow able to foresee with regard to television nearly 30 years ago — I think a less-publicized and perhaps more serious threat is that human interaction will be replaced by inferior alternatives.
When two people choose to have an argument over Twitter rather than publishing competing essays or engaging in face-to-face debate, the dialogue may be less fruitful, but at least there is authentic human interaction. With that comes certain emotions and thoughts — for example, what the other person is thinking — that can be stored for later use. But if people fulfill their need for cognitive and emotional arousal by observing fictional television characters rather than engaging in human interaction, the result may be less positive cognitive development. It’s the equivalent of getting calories from candy rather than through real food.
Nathanson’s study is just one data point, but in general the less you do something the worse you’re going to be at it. If we allow Netflix to start filling cognitive or emotional needs that social interactions used to fill, people will probably get worse at optimizing social interactions.
Nathanson, A.I., Sharp, M.L., Alade, F., Rasmussen, E.E., & Christy, K. (2013). The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers Journal of Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12062
I have a new article at Pacific Standard that takes a look at the psychological issues Republicans are struggling with as they attempt to stick to their beliefs in the face of waning public support. In short, they’re torn between shifting their beliefs to better align with the public, and reinforcing their beliefs to alleviate the sting of being in the minority. As always, go read the whole thing!
More broadly, I think that despite being relatively well-known, the role of cognitive dissonance in everyday life still flies under the radar. People tend to emphasize how dissonance incites or prevents large and visible decisions (e.g. deciding you no longer support the death penalty) but I think the real impact is in marginal belief shifts over the course of your life.
Here’s one example: Generally between the ages of 14-25 people becomes less concerned with what their peers think about them. It’s a natural progression that occurs as you go from being a middle school student to not being a middle school student. But those marginal shifts induce unpleasant dissonance as you deal with the fact that you spent time an energy concerned with something you’re no longer concerned about.
All of which is to say that the ups and downs of every day life are largely a result of the dissonance we experience as our outlook and priorities go through seemingly imperceptible changes. As we feel ourselves abandoning a belief that no longer serves us well we experience discomfort from losing the sunk cost of all the effort dedicated to acting on that belief. But once you overcome that dissonance, you’ve got a belief that’s better suited to your current situation, and you’re better off because of it. Then the cycle starts over again.
A few years ago economist Daniel Hamermesh made a splash with a study purporting to show that MLB umpires were biased toward players of their own race when calling balls and strikes. Now the University of San Francisco’s Jeff Hamrick has a new study that examines data over a longer timer period (1989-2010 vs. 2004-2006) and finds that there is little evidence of racial bias.
We investigate potential racial bias by Major League Baseball umpires. We do so in the context of the subjective decision as to whether a pitch is called a strike or a ball, using data from the 1989-2010 seasons. We find limited, and sometimes contradictory, evidence that umpires unduly favor or unjustly discriminate against players based on their race. Potential mitigating variables such as attendance, terminal pitch, the absolute score differential, and the presence of monitoring systems do not consistently interact with umpire/pitcher and umpire/hitter racial combinations. Most evidence that would first appear to support racially connected behaviors by umpires appears to vanish in three-way interaction models. Overall, our findings fall well short of convincing evidence for racial bias.
I assume future research will investigate what we’re all dying to know: Whether or not there is racial bias in fielder obstruction calls.
Important financial regulations may currently be withering on the vine, but patriotic wall street job creators still have some rules they must obey. One such rule, which comes from the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, mandates that stock analysts disclose conflicts of interests. Because analysts stand to profit if hordes of people try to buy stocks they own, it makes sense that they ought to let people know where they stand.
In theory, disclosures allow citizens to make better decisions, but it’s not entirely clear that’s the case. A recent study (pdf) led by Duke’s Sunita Sah suggests that when doctors disclose a professional or financial interest in a certain procedure, patients will see the recommendation as biased, but they’ll also feel social pressure to be of assistance. In the end this can make them more likely to take the doctor’s advice:
Disclosure of a doctor‘s financial or non-financial conflict-of-interest has an adverse effect on the doctor-patient relationship. It decreases trust in the doctor‘s advice, which is, however, accompanied by increased pressure to comply with the doctor‘s disclosed interest. Thus, instead of being merely a warning, disclosure can become a burdensome request to comply with advice that is trusted less.
Sah also conducted a series of follow-up experiments based around an artificially constructed advice-giving scenario. These experiments also found that when an adviser revealed he had something to gain from the deciding participant’s decision, the decider became more likely to follow the advice. However, there was an exception. When the disclosure was made by a third party, and thus the decider couldn’t assume that the adviser knew that he knew (stay with me), the disclosure did not make the decider more likely to follow the advice. It would seem that when the social relationship was more tenuous, or when there was no shared knowledge about the disclosure, there was less pressure to comply.
How might disclosures play out with regard to financial trading? A new study by Pepperdine’s Ahmed Taha and Wake Forest’s John Petrocelli sought to find an answer. Taha and Petrocelli examined how three samples of participants — MBA students, law students, and undergraduates — reacted to reports on two different imaginary steel companies that were written by two different analysts. One analyst owned stock in the company he was writing about, and participants saw one of three different versions of his reports. One version had a standard disclosure that said the author owns stock in the company being written about. A second version had the same disclosure, but with additional text that explained the analyst could gain if the reader purchased the stock. A third version contained no disclosure, and thus the two reports participants in this condition saw were essentially equivalent. Participants were then given an imaginary $10,000 to allocate between the two companies.
The researchers found that disclosure of ownership led participants to invest less money and view the analysts as more dishonest. When it came to the two disclosure conditions, the condition that explained why ownership was a conflict of interest had a stronger effect than the condition in which disclosure was simply made.
Taha and Petrocelli explain:
These results suggest that the perceived honesty and confidence of analysts is affected by whether and how it is disclosed that the analysts own stock in the companies they are recommending, and in turn, this perceived honesty and confidence affect investors’ investment decisions. Disclosure of analyst ownership reduces investment at least in part because investors question the honesty and confidence of an analyst who recommends stocks that the analyst owns.
Does this square with the results from Suh’s study? It would seem so. While the analyst’s disclosures were public and known to both the analyst and the reader, the impersonal nature of written stock reports means that people are unlikely to feel much social pressure to comply with the recommendations. So, good for Sarbanes-Oxley! It makes people distrust stock analysts, and because Joe Six-Pack can’t beat the stock market, anything that discourages him from trying to do so is a good thing.
One remaining question is whether the results might be different if the investor has a more personal one-on-one relationship with their analyst. That seems more akin to the medical advice situation, and it could lead a case where Sarbanes-Oxley pressures people into making poor decisions.
Taha, A.E., & Petrocelli, J.V. (2013). Sending Mixed Messages: Investor Interpretations of Disclosures of Analyst Stock Ownership Psychology, Public Policy, and Law DOI: 10.1037/a0033915
Sah, S., Lowenstein, G., & Cain, D.M. (2013). The Burden of Disclosure: Increased Compliance with Distrusted Advice Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0030527
Not that there are a whole lot of people on the fence about the issue, but a new study led by Selby Conrad helps illustrate the severe negative long-term effects that sexual abuse can have on females, and in particular females who may already be at-risk for other reasons.
Young female offenders represent a growing number of young offenders. Studies have shown that youth in the juvenile justice system, particularly young females, report higher rates of lifetime sexual abuse than their nonoffending peers. The aim of this study was to examine gender differences in risk factors for recidivism, including a history of sexual abuse, among a juvenile court clinic sample. Findings suggest that, even after accounting for previously identified risk factors for recidivism such as prior legal involvement and conduct problems, a history of sexual abuse is the most salient predictor of recidivism for young female offenders, but not for males. The development of gender-responsive interventions to reduce juvenile recidivism and continued legal involvement into adulthood may be warranted.