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Archive for the ‘Emotions’ Category

Mahzarin Banaji on “Group Love”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 17, 2013

SillimanLecturePoster

From Yale News (by Phoebe Kimmelman):

On Thursday evening, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji delivered a talk entitled “Group Love” where she demonstrated that the audience held an implicit bias for Yale over Princeton.

Banaji, who worked as a professor of psychology at Yale from 1986-2002 before taking a similar post at Harvard, focused in her talk on how group affiliations, or lack thereof, affect the ways in which we see the world and interact with others. In her research, Banaji has helped bring Freudian theories of the subconscious in the psychology laboratory to be empirically tested.

University President Peter Salovey delivered introductory remarks, saying Banaji had been the “heart and soul” of the Yale psychology department during her 16 years there.

“She is of those scientists who changes her field with her insights and her empirical data with a deep sense of social responsibility to her colleagues, her students and her field,” Salovey said.

In the lecture to roughly 100 people, Banaji first discussed an experiment she did in 2006 at Harvard that involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while they answered random questions about two hypothetical people, presented with only their political preferences. Neuroimaging showed that the subjects used different areas of the brain to make predictions about people with whom they agree and those with whom they disagree. Banaji used this study to introduce the idea of love of the in-group, a preference people have for a group of people who think the way that they themselves do.

Through presenting multiple studies, Banaji demonstrated the magnitude of positive bias towards the in-group in subjects ranging from sports fans to elementary school students. While we may not be able to eliminate our biases, Banaji said certain cognitive strategies can “outsmart” them. For instance, Banaji said she rotates among her computer screensavers images that defy racial and gender stereotypes.

“It’s not that we hate people of another group, but it’s love for the in-group that’s paramount,” she said.

Salovey and Banaji, who started as faculty at Yale on the very same day, were close friends and next door neighbors, he said. Salovey recalled that he and Banaji were each other’s “support systems” while writing PSYC 110 lectures together.

Banaji came to campus for this year’s Silliman Memorial Lecture, an annual speakership that began in 1888 and has brought such prominent scientific figures to campus as J.J. Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Though a committee of faculty from Yale science departments usually chooses a speaker whose research is in the hard natural sciences, committee chair and Sterling professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Joan Steitz said that her colleagues were eager to hear from Banaji this year. Though the lecture has no affiliation with Silliman College, the endowment is named for the mother of Benjamin Silliman, a scientist after whom the college is named.

“If you think about the impact that psychology and neurobiology and brain science [are] having these days, the committee did not consider it at all inappropriate to be going in that direction with this particular lecture,” Steitz said.

Since leaving Yale in 2002, Banaji has served as a professor of social ethics in Harvard’s psychology department, where she has continued her research on how unconscious thinking plays out in social situations.

Nick Friedlander ’17 said he found the lecture “eye-opening” because it revealed biases he did not know he held before.

For Zachary Williams ’17, the lecture demonstrated how little of the conscious mind controls mental processes.

“It was truly a treat to be able to sit in close quarters with such a fantastic paragon of academia and hear her talk about such relevant topics,” he said.

Banaji’s most recent book is entitled “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Implicit Associations, Morality, Neuroscience, Situationist Contributors | 1 Comment »

The Good Feeling of Fast Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2013

Moose

Situationist Contributor Emily Pronin’s recent articles, When the mind races: Effects of thought speed on feeling and action. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 283–288, was highlighted in a recent APS Observer column.   Here is an excerpt containing a helpful overview of Pronin’s fascinating study and findings.

You wake up. Your phone blinks. You touch the screen, slide your finger, and chills shiver down your spine. “See me tomorrow,” says the email your boss sent at midnight. Your thoughts accelerate. “What does she want? Why did she write so late? Am I in trouble? The company is in trouble. This down economy! I’m getting fired. Why me? Where will I work? I have skills. There are other companies. I have no skills. Where will I apply? Can we move? What will my parents think? How will the kids react to changing schools? I can do this. We can do this. No matter what.”

We think. It helps us. Errands, plans, and goals require thought. Synapses fire. Action potentials race down axons. Chemicals bathe our brains with neurotransmitters. Thoughts guide action, from ordering a coffee to avoiding predators. What we think matters. But according to Emily Pronin of Princeton University, how fast we think matters, too.

Making people think fast boosts their happiness, energy, riskiness, and self-confidence. In an impressive program of research, Pronin and colleagues have documented these effects using many ways to speed up thinking. In one study, participants read trivia statements at fast or slow speeds (Chandler & Pronin, 2012). Next, they completed a risk-taking task. Participants could earn money — but only if they didn’t take too many risks. Fast-thinking participants took the most risks and earned the least money. On the bright side, having people read at twice their normal reading speed increased their positive emotion (Pronin & Wegner, 2006).

Pronin (2013) argues that fast thinking prepares people to take immediate action. Feeling good nudges that process along, as does increased energy. If you spy a moose while running on a trail, it will behoove you to take swift and confident action even if it involves some risk. You may even experience an “a-ha” moment that provides a creative solution you would not have considered if you were thinking at a normal or slow pace (Yang & Pronin, 2012).

Read the entire column here.

Image from Flickr.

Other Situationist posts about Emily Pronin’s work:

Posted in Emotions, Positive Psychology, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Cheater’s Buzz

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 14, 2013

exam cheating

From Newswire:

People who get away with cheating when they believe no one is hurt by their dishonesty are more likely to feel upbeat than remorseful afterward, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

Although people predict they will feel bad after cheating or being dishonest, many of them don’t, reports a study published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior,” said the study’s lead author, Nicole E. Ruedy, of the University of Washington. “Our study reveals people actually may experience a ‘cheater’s high’ after doing something unethical that doesn’t directly harm someone else.”

Even when there was no tangible reward, people who cheated felt better on average than those who didn’t cheat, according to results of several experiments that involved more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and England. A little more than half the study participants were men, with 400 from the general public in their late 20s or early 30s and the rest in their 20s at universities.

Participants predicted that they or someone else who cheated on a test or logged more hours than they had worked to get a bonus would feel bad or ambivalent afterward. When participants actually cheated, they generally got a significant emotional boost instead, according to responses to questionnaires that gauged their feelings before and after several experiments.

In one experiment, participants who cheated on math and logic problems were overall happier afterward than those who didn’t and those who had no opportunity to cheat. The participants took tests on computers in two groups. In one group, when participants completed an answer, they were automatically moved to the next question. In the other group, participants could click a button on the screen to see the correct answer, but they were told to disregard the button and solve the problem on their own. Graders could see who used the correct-answer button and found that 68 percent of the participants in that group did, which the researchers counted as cheating.

People who gained from another person’s misdeeds felt better on average than those who didn’t, another experiment found. Researchers at a London university observed two groups in which each participant solved math puzzles while in a room with another person who was pretending to be a participant. The actual participants were told they would be paid for each puzzle they solved within a time limit and that the other “participant” would grade the test when the time was up. In one group, the actor inflated the participant’s score when reporting it to the experimenter. In the other group, the actor scored the participant accurately. None of the participants in the group with the cheating actor reported the lie, the authors said.

In another trial, researchers asked the participants not to cheat because it would make their responses unreliable, yet those who cheated were more likely to feel more satisfied afterward than those who didn’t. Moreover, the cheaters who were reminded at the end of the test how important it was not to cheat reported feeling even better on average than other cheaters who were not given this message, the authors said. Researchers gave participants a list of anagrams to unscramble and emphasized that they should unscramble them in consecutive order and not move on to the next word until the previous anagram was solved. The third jumble on the list was “unaagt,” which can spell only the word taguan, a species of flying squirrel. Previous testing has shown that the likelihood of someone solving this anagram is minuscule. The graders considered anyone who went beyond the third word to have cheated and found that more than half the participants did, the authors said.

“The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small,” Ruedy said. “It’s important that we understand how our moral behavior influences our emotions. Future research should examine whether this ‘cheater’s high’ could motivate people to repeat the unethical behavior.”

________________________________________

Article: “The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior,” Nicole E. Ruedy, PhD, University of Washington; Celia Moore, PhD, London Business School; Francesca Gino, PhD, Harvard University; and Maurice E. Schweitzer, PhD, University of Pennsylvania; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, online, Sept. 3, 2013.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Emotions, Morality | 2 Comments »

Wegstock #14 – Jerry Klore

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 1, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring the late Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We are highlighting individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, through August and September.

In his interesting lecture, Gerald Klore discusses some of Dan Wegner’s books and hobbies and Jerry’s own research on the role of affect as information about the demands on and availability of bodily and social resources.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

Wegstock #11 – Thalia Wheatley

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2013

In 2011, a conference honoring the late Dan Wegner, “Wegstock,” was held at Harvard University.

The talks are brief and are well worth watching.  We are highlighting individual talks, roughly 15 minutes each, through August and September.

In this video, Thalia Wheatley discusses her wonderful work on the universal dynamics of emotions and puppets and balls and music. Watch and enjoy.

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Secret Pleasures (more on Dan Wegner’s Work)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 18, 2013

telling secrets

This excerpt, which highlights some of the remarkable work by the late Dan Wegner, comes from an article written by Eric Jaffe in a 2006 edition of the APS’s Observer:

“Freud’s Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis was for patients to be completely open with a therapist no matter how silly or embarrassing the thought,” says Anita Kelly, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame who published one of the first books on the formal study of secrets, The Psychology of Secrets, in 2002.

Only since the late 1980s and early 1990s have researchers like Daniel Wegner and James Pennebaker put Freud through the empirical ringer and begun to understand the science behind secrets. “The Freudian way of thinking about things was, he assumed suppression took place and looked at what was happening afterwards,” says Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. “The insight we had was, let’s not wait until after the fact and assume it occurred, let’s get people to try to do it and see what happened. That turned out to be useful insight; it opened this up to experimental research. It became a lab science instead of an after-the-fact interpretation of peoples’ lives.”

For Wegner, an interest in secrets began with a white bear. In Russian folklore attributed to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or sometimes both, a man tells his younger brother to sit in the corner and not think of a white bear, only to find later that the sibling can think of nothing else. If a meaningless white bear can arouse such frustration, imagine the crippling psychological effects of trying not to think of something with actual importance when the situation requires silence — running into the wife of a friend who has a mistress, being on a jury and having to disregard a stunning fact, or hiding homosexuality in a room full of whack-happy wiseguys.

So in 1987, Wegner, who at that time was at Trinity University, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology discussing what happens when research subjects confront the white bear in a laboratory. In the study, subjects entered a room alone with a tape recorder and reported everything that came to mind in a five-minute span. Before the experiment, Wegner told some subjects to think of anything except a white bear, and told others to try to think of a white bear. Afterwards, the subjects switched roles. Any time a subject mentioned, or merely thought of, a white bear, he or she had to ring a bell inside the room.

It was not quite Big Ben at noon, but those who suppressed the white bear rang the bell once a minute — more often than subjects who were free to express the thought. More remarkably, Wegner found what he called the “rebound effect”: When a subject was released from suppression and told to express a hidden thought, it poured out with greater frequency than if it had been mentionable from the start. (Think fresh gossip.) He also found evidence for an insight called “negative cuing.” The idea is that a person trying to ditch a thought will look around for something to displace it — first at the ceiling fan, then a candle, then a remote control. Soon the mind forms a latent bond between the unwanted thought and the surrounding items, so that everything now reminds the person of what he is trying to forget, exacerbating the original frustration.

“People will tend to misread the return of unwanted thoughts,” Wegner said recently. “We don’t realize that in keeping it secret we’ve created an obsession in a jar.” Wegner told the story of a suicidal student who once called him for help. Desperate to keep her on the phone, but lacking any clinical training, Wegner mentioned the white bear study. Slowly the student realized she had perpetuated a potentially fleeting thought by trying to avoid it. “She got so twisted up in the fact that she couldn’t stop thinking of killing herself, that she was making it come back to mind. She was misreading this as, there’s some part of me that wants to do it. What she really wanted was to get rid of the thought.”

One method of diverging attention from an unwanted thought, says Wegner, is to focus on a single distraction from the white bear, like a red Volkswagen, an idea that he tested successfully in later experiments. The concern with this technique, which Freud first laid out, is that a person could become obsessed with an arbitrary item, planting the seeds for abnormal behavior. In a later experiment, published in 1994 in the same journal, Wegner found more evidence that secrets lead to strange obsession. He placed four subjects who had never met around a table, split them into two male-female teams, and told them to play a card game. One team was instructed to play footsie without letting the other team know. At the end of the experiment, the secret footsie-players felt such a heightened attraction toward one another that the experimenters made them leave through separate doors, for ethical reasons. “We can end up being in a relationship we don’t want, or interested in things that aren’t at all important, because we had to keep them quiet,” Wegner said, “and it ends up growing.”

Live Free or Die

The logical opposite of an unhealthy obsession based on secrets is a healthy result from disclosing such secrets. This healing aspect of revelation is where Wegner’s work connects with James Pennebaker’s. In the late 1970s, Pennebaker was part of a research team that found, via survey, that people who had a traumatic sexual experience before age 17 were more likely to have health problems as they got older. Pennebaker looked further and found that the majority of these people had kept the trauma hidden, and in 1984 he began the first of many studies on the effects of revealing previously undisclosed secrets.

In most of Pennebaker’s experiments, subjects visited a lab for three or four consecutive days, each time writing about traumatic experiences for 15 or 20 minutes. In the first five years, hundreds of people poured their secrets onto the page. A college girl who knew her father was seeing his secretary; a concentration camp survivor who had seen babies tossed from a second-floor orphanage window; a Vietnam veteran who once shot a female fighter in the leg, had sex with her, then cut her throat. By the end of the experiment, many participants felt such intense release that their handwriting became freer and loopier. In one study of 50 students, those who revealed both a secret and their feelings visited the health center significantly fewer times in the ensuing six months than other students who had written about a generic topic, or those who had only revealed the secret and not the emotions surrounding it.

The work led to many papers showing evidence that divulging a secret, which can mean anything from telling someone to writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned, is correlated with tangible health improvements, both physical and mental. People hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer, while those who wrote about their secrets showed, through blood tests, enhanced immune systems. In some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients increased. In another test, Pennebaker showed that writing about trauma actually unclogs the brain. Using an electroencephalogram, an instrument that measures brain waves through electrodes attached to the scalp, he found that the right and left brains communicated more frequently in subjects who disclosed traumas.

(It should be noted that the type of secrets discussed in this article are personal secrets—experiences a person chooses not to discuss with others. They can be positive, in the case of hiding a birthday cake, or negative, in the case of hiding a mistress. Secrets that could be considered “non-personal,” for example, information concealed as part of a job, were not specifically addressed.)

Exactly why revelation creates such health benefits is a complicated question. “Most people in psychology have been trained to think of a single, parsimonious explanation for an event,” said Pennebaker, who did much of his research at Southern Methodist University before coming to the University of Texas, where he is chair of the psychology department. “Well, welcome to the real world. There are multiple levels of explanation here.” Pennebaker lists a number of reasons for the health improvements. Writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps understand features of the secret that had been ignored. Revelation can become habitual in a positive sense, making confrontation normal. Disclosure can reduce rumination and worry, freeing up the mental quagmires that hindered social relationships. People become better listeners. They even become better sleepers. “The fact is that all of us occasionally are dealing with experiences that are hard to talk about,” Pennebaker said. “Getting up and putting experiences into words has a powerful effect.”

At the end of a recent Sopranos episode, Vito looks most content after seeing a New Hampshire license plate, with its state motto: “Live free or die.” Pennebaker’s research may add a new level of truth to that phrase.

Little Machiavellis

In the early 1990s, it was not unusual for 3-year-old Jeremy Peskin to want a cookie. His mother, Joan, used to hide them in the high cupboards of their home in Toronto; when she left, Jeremy would climb up and sneak a few. One day, Jeremy had a problem: He wanted a cookie, but his mother was in the kitchen. “He said to me, ‘Go out of the kitchen, because I want to take a cookie,’ ” Joan recalled recently. Unfortunately for Jeremy, Joan Peskin was a doctorate student in psychology at the time, and smart enough to see through the ruse. Fortunately for developmental researchers, Peskin’s experience led her to study when children first develop the capacity for secrets.

What interested Peskin, now a professor at the University of Toronto, was Jeremy’s inability to separate his mother’s physical presence from her mental state. If she was out of the room, he would be able to take a cookie, whether or not his mother knew that he intended to take a cookie. Peskin took this insight to the laboratory — in this case, local day-care centers — where she tried to get children age three, four, and five to conceal a secret. She showed the children two types of stickers. The first, a gaudy, glittery sticker, aroused many a tiny smile; the second, a drab, beige sticker of an angel, was disliked. Then she introduced a mean puppet and explained that this puppet would take whatever sticker the children wanted most. When the puppet asked 4- and 5-year-olds which sticker they wanted, most of the children either lied or would not tell. The 3-year-olds almost always blurted out their preference, even when the scenario was repeated several times, she found in the study, which was published in Developmental Psychology in 1992. Often the 3-year-olds grabbed at the shiny sticker as the puppet took it away, showing a proper understanding of the situation but an inability to prevent it via secretive means.

The finding goes beyond secrets; 4 has become the age when psychologists think children develop the ability to understand distinct but related inner and outer worlds. “When I teach it I put a kid on the overhead with a thought bubble inside,” Peskin said. “When they could think of someone else’s mental state — say, ignorance, somebody not knowing something — that influences their social world.” In a follow-up study published in Social Development in 2003, Peskin found again that 3-year-olds were more likely than 4- or 5-year-olds to reveal the location of a surprise birthday cake to a hungry research confederate. “When a child is able to keep a secret,” Peskin says, “parents should take it as, that’s great, this is normal development. They aren’t going to be little Machiavellis. This is normal brain development.”

Confidence in Confidants

Soon after Mark Felt revealed himself as Deep Throat, the anonymous source who guided Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal, Anita Kelly’s phone began to ring. “One morning I had 10 messages from different news groups,” she recalled recently. “They wanted me to say that secrecy’s a bad thing, and I’d say, look, there’s no evidence. This guy’s in his early 90s, and has seemed to have a healthy life.”

When preparing The Psychology of Secrets, Kelly re-examined the consequences and benefits of secret-keeping, and began to believe that while divulging secrets improves health, concealing them does not necessarily cause physical problems. “I couldn’t find any evidence that keeping a secret makes a person sick,” Kelly said. “There is evidence that by writing about held-back information someone will get health benefits. Someone keeping a secret would miss out on those benefits. It’s not the same as saying if you keep a secret you’re going to get sick.”

Her latest work, in press at the Journal of Personality, challenged the notion that secret-keeping can cause sickness. Instead of merely looking at instances of sickness nine weeks after disclosure, Kelly and co-author Jonathan Yip adjusted their measurements for initial levels of health. They found, quite simply, that secretive people also tend to be sick people, both now and two months down the line.

“It doesn’t look like the process of keeping the secret made them sick,” she said. High “self-concealers,” as Kelly calls them, tend to be more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have more aches and pains by nature, perhaps suggesting some natural link between being secretive and being vulnerable to illness. “I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.”

This conclusion came gradually. In the mid-1990s, following Pennebaker’s line of research that had really opened up the field, Kelly focused on the health effects of revealing and concealing secrets. The research clearly showed links between secrets and illness. In a review of the field for Current Directions in Psychological Science in 1999, Kelly notes some of these health correlations: cases in which breast cancer patients who talked about their concealed emotions survived almost twice as long as those who did not; students who wrote about private traumatic events showed higher antibody levels four and six months after a Hepatitis B vaccination; and gay men who concealed their sexuality had a higher rate of cancer and infectious disease.

But in 1998 she did a study asking patients about their relationships with their therapists. She found that 40 percent of them were keeping a secret, but generally felt no stress as a result. Kelly began to believe that some secrets can be kept successfully, and that, in some scenarios, disclosing a secret could cause more problems than it solves. Psychologists, she felt, were not paying enough attention to the situations in which disclosure should occur — only that it did. “The essence of the problem with revealing personal information is that revealers may come to see themselves in undesirable ways if others know their stigmatizing secrets,” she wrote in the 1999 paper.

John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied secrets, agrees that sometimes openness is not the best policy. “People are so accustomed to saying an open relationship is a good one, that if they have secrets it can make them feel that something’s wrong,” he said recently. In 2005, Caughlin published a paper in Personal Relationships suggesting that people have a poor ability to forecast how they will feel after revealing a secret, and how another person will respond to hearing it. “I’m not touting that people should keep a lot of secrets,” he said, “but I don’t think people should assume it’s bad, and I think they do.” In her new book, Anatomy of a Secret Life, published in April, Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, referred to secrets as “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario. “In teenagers, having secret identities is normal, healthy separation from parents and needs to go on,” said Saltz recently.

To address this concern, Kelly has focused her recent work on the role of confidants in the process of disclosure. She created a simple diagram advising self-concealers when they should, and when they should not, reveal a secret. On one hand, if the secret does not cause mental or physical stress, it should be kept, to provide a sense of personal boundary and avoid unnecessary social conflict. If it does cause anguish, the secret-keeper must then evaluate whether he or she has a worthy confidant, someone willing to work toward a cathartic insight. When such a confidant is not available, the person should write down his or her thoughts and feelings. “The world changes when you tell someone who knows all your friends,” said Kelly, who experienced this change firsthand 15 years back, when she shared with a colleague something “very personal and embarrassing,” as she called it, and then found her secret floating among her colleagues. “You have to think, what are the implications with my reputation,” she said. “It’s more complicated once you have to reveal to someone.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts discussing Dan Wegner’s research, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Life, Morality, Social Psychology | 1 Comment »

Francesca Gino on the Situation of Being Sidetracked

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2013

Excerpts from an interview of Situationist friend Francesca Gino by Gareth Cook from Scientific American:

There is an area of self-help devoted to advice on completing tasks, and the focus is generally on the positive: How to get organized, how to choose good goals, how to stay motivated, etc. Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, also wants to help you achieve your goals, but she begins with the negative. What are the psychological forces that send people off the rails? In Sidetracked, she argues that to succeed we first need to know our enemy, the often-unconscious factors that stop us from getting things done. Then we can fight back. She answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Why did you write this book?

Many of the ideas I study and write about are motivated by my personal experience and by what surrounds me –interesting patterns of behavior that often, at first glance, make little sense. Sidetracked focuses on situations where we set out to accomplish specific goals but ended up reaching different outcomes –outcomes we often regret. Think of a time when you had a clear plan of action—a new career path, a diet you intended to follow, an exciting regular workout plan, a new saving plan for retirement, a new hire in your team, or a new car you were planning to buy after much research and deliberation. What happened when it came time to make decisions in pursuit of your goal? You may have found yourself following a course of action that took you completely off track. I certainly found myself in this type of situations many times in the past. And when talking to friends and colleagues, I discovered that they shared similar experiences where they got sidetracked as they were implementing their well thought-out plans.

In Sidetracked, I explain how even simple and seemingly irrelevant factors have profound consequences on our decisions and behavior, diverting us from our original plans. Most of us care a good deal about being consistent—we care about following through on our goals and wishes. And we also aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, and honest individuals. But often, without our knowledge, subtle influences—often unexpected—steer us away from what we initially planned or wanted. As a result, our decisions fail to align with our best intentions.

I wrote Sidetracked to discuss the main set of forces that prevent us from following through on our plans, and to identify a set of principles we can apply to stay on track going forward. My book describes theses forces using examples and case studies from personal and professional domains, as well as research that I conducted with amazing colleagues over the last ten years.

You say that very small things can throw people off their plans. Can you give some examples of what you mean by this?

* * *

Some of my research examines the role of forces that sidetrack us in the context of morality. In general, once we identify a goal we want to reach, we develop plans that can help us reach that goal. For instance, in the case of our moral goals, we may decide to volunteer regularly or spend some time each week helping others. Yet, even if our moral goals and plans are clear, subtle forces can lead us astray. Here’s an example of how this may happen. Have you or a friend ever bought a knock-off product like pair of faux “designer” sunglasses or a fake watch? If so, would you believe they may have colored the way you viewed the world—not just literally, but more fundamentally? In fact, those cheap sunglasses might have degraded your moral behavior. In a series of experiments, my colleagues Mike Norton, Dan Ariely, and I found that people were more likely to act dishonestly when they were wearing fake products, such as designer copycats. In our studies, participants who thought they were wearing knock-off sunglasses (in fact, the $300 sunglasses were quite real) were more likely to cheat on various problem-solving tasks than participants who were told they were wearing designer lenses. It seems that what we wear influences how we feel (inauthentic) and behave (dishonestly), whether we realize it or not, even when our goal is to act honestly and follow our moral compass.

But getting things done is also a matter of motivation, right? You have to really want to finish what you started.

Yes, motivation is clearly an important ingredient in following through on our plans. But, as it turns out, the same set of forces that derail our decisions can also influence our motivation to get things done. Here’s how. My colleague Scott Wiltermuth and I conducted a series of studies to examine how we could boost individuals’ motivation and effort. In our research, Scott and I varied how we framed potential rewards to study participants so that they would perceive them as belonging to two categories or only one. The categories were pure fiction: in fact, in some of our studies we put potential rewards (which consisted in a variety of useful objects, such as pens or notebooks) in two separate containers rather than in just one. And yet, the completely arbitrary categories we created affected participants’ motivation. In one study, participants were over three times as likely to work on a task for the full amount of time they were given when the potential rewards were divided into two categories.

By creating meaningless categories, we triggered a feeling in participants that they would be missing out if they did not get a reward from the second category available to them. This type of fear seems to drive many of the decisions we make in our personal and professional lives. In the case of my research with Scott, participants felt a sense of fear that they would miss out on some of the available rewards (those belonging to a different category). But this fear can be more general –from the feeling of missing out on special deals to the fear of missing out on an event our friends are attending. It explains why I often spend endless hours waiting in line so that I can be the first to see a highly rated movie or to buy the latest iPhone. And have you ever signed up for store email lists so that you won’t miss out on the latest deals? I certainly have.

What are some of the concrete techniques that you’d suggest people use to not get sidetracked?

* * *

You can read Professor Gino’s answer  to that question (and the entire interview) here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Marketing, Positive Psychology, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situational Benefits of Compassion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 20, 2013

Dorothea Lange Damaged ChildEmma Seppala, for The Observer, has an outstanding overview of some of the health consequences and contagiousness of compassion.  Here is a portion of her article:

Decades of clinical research has focused and shed light on the psychology of human suffering. That suffering, as unpleasant as it is, often also has a bright side to which research has paid less attention: compassion. Human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it. What led 26.5 percent of Americans to volunteer in 2012 (according to statistics from the US Department of Labor)? What propels someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?

What is Compassion?

What is compassion and how is it different from empathy or altruism? The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.

Is Compassion Natural or Learned?

Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have what APS Fellow Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Research by APS Fellow Jean Decety, at the University of Chicago, showed that even rats are driven to empathize with another suffering rat and to go out of their way to help it out of its quandary. Studies with chimpanzees and human infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness, also back up these claims. Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany, have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward. A recent study they ran indicated that infants’ pupil diameters (a measure of attention) decrease both when they help and when they see someone else helping, suggesting that they are not simply helping because helping feels rewarding. It appears to be the alleviation of suffering that brings reward — whether or not they engage in the helping behavior themselves. Recent research by David Rand at Harvard University shows that adults’ and children’s first impulse is to help others. Research by APS Fellow Dale Miller at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business suggests that this is also the case of adults, however, worrying that others will think they are acting out of self-interest can stop them from this impulse to help.

It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency since it is essential for human survival. As has been brought to light by Keltner, the term “survival of the fittest,” often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. A lesser known fact is that Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest.” Indeed in The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin argued for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” In another passage, he comments that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.

One more sign that suggests that compassion is an adaptively evolved trait is that it makes us more attractive to potential mates. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests that both men and women agree that “kindness” is one of the most highly desirable traits.

Compassion’s Surprising Benefits for Physical and Psychological Health

Compassion may have ensured our survival because of its tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall well-being. Research by APS William James Fellow Ed Diener, a leading researcher in positive psychology, and APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our life spans.

The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving. A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves. In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study,  which was published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.

This is true even for infants. A study by Lara Aknin and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that even in children as young as two, giving treats to others increases the givers’ happiness more than receiving treats themselves. Even more surprisingly, the fact that giving makes us happier than receiving is true across the world, regardless of whether countries are rich or poor. A new study by Aknin, now at Simon Fraser University, shows that the amount of money spent on others (rather than for personal benefit) and personal well-being were highly correlated, regardless of income, social support, perceived freedom, and perceived national corruption.

Why is Compassion Good For Us?

Why does compassion lead to health benefits in particular? A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, and APS Fellow Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The results were reported at Stanford Medical School’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education’s (CCARE) inaugural Science of Compassion conference in 2012. Their study evaluated the levels of cellular inflammation in people who describe themselves as “very happy.” Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning.

Another way in which a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity is that it may serve as a buffer against stress. A new study conducted on a large population (more than 800 people) and spearheaded by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin found that stress did not predict mortality in those who helped others, but that it did in those who did not. One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is the very fact that it is so pleasurable. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle exerts a beneficial impact on health. Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers — but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.

Another reason compassion may boost our well-being is that it can help broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus. If you recall a time you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative calls you for urgent help with a problem, you may remember that as your attention shifts to helping them, your mood lifts. Rather than feeling blue, you may have felt energized to help; before you knew it, you may even have felt better and gained some perspective on your own situation as well.

Finally, one additional way in which compassion may boost our well-being is by increasing a sense of connection to others. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health, as well as a higher propensity for antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation. Adopting a compassionate lifestyle or cultivating compassion may help boost social connection and improve physical and psychological health.

Read the entire article, including sections on “why compassion really does have the ability to change the world” and “cultivating compassion” here.

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Posted in Altruism, Distribution, Emotions, Morality, Positive Psychology | 2 Comments »

The Boston Bombings and the Cognitive Limits of Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 17, 2013

Boston Marathon 2013

From Situationist friend and Harvard Law School 3L, Kate Epstein, an essay about Monday’s tragedy:

As I hear reactions to the bombings at the marathon on Monday, I find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald’s column in The Guardian, titled “The Boston bombing produces familiar and revealing reactions: As usual, the limits of selective empathy, the rush to blame Muslims, and the exploitation of fear all instantly emerge.” Particularly interesting to me are our cognitive limits, as humans, when it comes to empathy. Greenwald writes:

The widespread compassion for yesterday’s victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid.

I felt the same way in the aftermath of Monday’s events, but I can also empathize with those who do care more–or at least feel it in a more real way–when the victims of a random act of violence are white, close to home, and so obviously innocent. “They, unlike the countless non-white, non-American casualties of the War on Terror, are– for me and many around me–part of our in-group, and our minds actually function in a way that makes us much more easily empathize with them.”

Studies have shown that parts of our brain associated with empathy and emotion are more likely to be activated when we observe someone of our own race, as opposed to an out-group member, in pain. This makes sense given research on unconscious bias using implicit association tests, which have been shown to predict real-life behavior outside of the lab.

The good news is that our automatic attitudes are sometimes malleable. Awareness of the differences between our egalitarian values and our implicit attitudes can induce emotional reactions that can motivate behavioral changes and help us be the empathetic and altruistic people we hope to be. On the other hand, lack of awareness combined with an inundation of negative images and stereotypes from commercial media and popular culture can reinforce implicit biases, underscoring the need for education and self-awareness.

In a world with so much violence and pain, it makes sense that we simply could not feel deeply empathetic every time a human being is injured or killed. We rightly feel intense moral outrage that someone would senselessly harm innocent people gathered in Boston yesterday, and yet we do not so easily empathize with victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, most of whom see the bombings as just as random and senseless, against victims just as innocent.

We should forgive ourselves for exhibiting these cognitive limits–after all, we are only human. But we should recognize, in these moments when we do so easily feel sorrow, anger, and compassion, those events which do not normally elicit those emotions, and force ourselves to grapple with the consequences of that fact. When we read dry, mundane news reports about human suffering, when we (rarely) hear body counts of the War on Terror (such as the estimated 122,000 violent, civilian deaths in Iraq thus far), when we are made aware of the latest unnamed drone victims in North Waziristan, let’s try to channel the empathy events like this make us feel, and then let’s turn that empathy into action.

Related Situationist posts:

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Emotions, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

Tis Happier To Give Than To Receive

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 5, 2013

aknin map 2013

From EurekaAlert:

Feeling good about spending money on someone else rather than for personal benefit may be a universal response among people in both impoverished countries and rich nations, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Our findings suggest that the psychological reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts,” said lead author Lara Aknin, PhD, of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The findings provide the first empirical evidence that “the warm glow” of spending on someone else rather than on oneself may be a widespread component of human psychology, the authors reported in the study published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers found a positive relationship between personal well-being and spending on others in 120 of 136 countries covered in the 2006-2008 Gallup World Poll. The survey comprised 234,917 individuals, half of whom were male, with an average age of 38. The link between well-being and spending on others was significant in every region of the world, and it was not affected by other factors among those surveyed, such as income, social support, perceived freedom and perceived national corruption, the study said.

The results were similar in several experiments the researchers themselves conducted with participants in wealthy and poor countries. For one analysis, they compared responses from 820 individuals recruited mostly from universities in Canada and Uganda. The participants wrote about a time they had either spent money on themselves or on others, after which they were asked to report how happy they felt. They were also asked if they spent money on another person to build or strengthen a relationship. People who remembered spending money on someone else felt happier than those who recalled spending money on themselves, even when the researchers controlled for the extent to which people built or strengthened a relationship, according to the study.

The researchers obtained the same results when they conducted an online survey of 101 adults in India. Some respondents were asked to recall recently spending money on themselves or someone else, while others were tested for their happiness level without recalling past spending. Those who recalled spending on someone else said they had a greater feeling of well-being than those who remembered spending on themselves or those who weren’t asked about spending.

In another experiment, 207 university students in Canada and South Africa reported higher levels of well-being after purchasing a goody bag for a sick child rather than buying one for themselves. Both groups went to labs where they were given a small amount of money and told to buy a bag of treats for themselves or one for a child at a local hospital.

“From an evolutionary perspective, the emotional benefits that people experience when they help others acts to encourage generous behavior beneficial to long-term human survival,” said Aknin.

Download the pdf here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Positive Psychology | Leave a Comment »

The Gendered Situation of Smiling

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 27, 2013

Mona Lisa smile

By Soledad de Lemus, Russell Spears, & Miguel Moya wrote a terrific post on SPSP Blog about the mystery and meaning of the smile.  Here are some excerpts:

We  smile when we feel happy, but smiles are more than just the outward display of an inner emotion. We are far more likely to smile when we are with other people because a smile is a message: just one more way for people to communicate information to and establish social ties with other people.

A smile, though, sometimes means more than just “I am happy.” Just as many species bare their teeth to signal their dominance and rank, smiles exchanged among humans serve an interpersonal, regulatory function.  In our research we wanted to understand how smiles, which usually serve to signal  positive affiliation, also define status in the social hierarchy when the smile is coupled with other nonverbal information (e.g., posture). Specifically, we studied women’s nonverbal reaction to a man’s smile: will she, in addition to smiling back, also display signs of submissiveness, such as downcast eyes or a narrowing posture?

For social psychologists interested in gender, patronizing and paternalistic forms of discrimination have become a key focus of research in recent years. There are good reasons for this. Forms of prejudice and discrimination that are subtle make them more difficult to recognize and resist (Jackman, 1994), and these forms can be expressed more easily. For instance, gender relations are characterized by a power difference between men and women such that the men are considered as more worthy (e.g., as more competent, agentic than women) but women as friendlier, and more socially-oriented than men;  attributes that some consider to be important but less valuable in society. Further, gender stereotypes prescribe dominance to men compared to women, who are often expected to behave in a more submissive way to comply with the stereotypes of their group.

Other researchers have diligently explored how behaving in a complementary way in a social interaction helps to maintain positive relations, facilitating achievement of common goals. That is, when people are working together on a task with another person and they want to succeed in this task and also to maintain a positive interpersonal relations,  they will often respond to the other person’s behavior in a complementary way. This tendency generates interpersonal complementarity:  If one behaves in a dominant manner, the other will be more submissive (or vice versa), as long as there is a positive affiliation between them (e.g., they see each other as friendly and cooperative). These results have been found also when observing the non-verbal behavior of people during interpersonal interactions (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003).

Bringing together these two ideas (the role of power in gender relations, and the existence of complementary behavior in interpersonal relations), we hypothesized that in an affiliative setting—with smiles serving as strong signals of the situation’s positive emotional tone—people will display complementarity: in response to dominant behavior they will become more submissive, especially when gender is salient (i.e. in an intergroup context) providing a gender stereotypic basis for dominance vs. submission. When the context is more competitive (not affiliative –no smiling) the motivation will be to contest (compete with) the dominant behaviour, instead of complementing it.

We tested our hypotheses in three studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (de Lemus, Spears, & Moya, 2012).

. . .

Our research supports the argument that certain forms of prejudice and discrimination (sexism) that are subtle (disguised with a smile) make them more difficult to recognize and resist. The other way to frame our findings (perhaps in a more positive tone), is that when the smile is not present, women do seem to challenge male sexist dominance. This is, to some extent, a positive finding in terms of gender equality. We conclude our paper saying that “if women sustain the cycle of sexism unconsciously through their behavior this makes achieving gender equality harder than we might have thought. However, this implies that raising consciousness is literally as well as metaphorically the way forward.”

Read the rest of their post and a summary of their results here.

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Posted in Embodied Cognition, Emotions, Evolutionary Psychology, Life | Leave a Comment »

Recent Research on Well-Being, Giving, Getting, and Gratitude

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 20, 2013

Helping Others

From SPSP Press Release:

Giving away money to feel wealthy

New research shows that people all around the world – from Canada to Uganda, from South Africa to India – derive more happiness from spending money on others than they do on themselves.

For the first time, we show that giving away money or spending it on others confers the ironic psychological benefit of increasing the giver’s sense of wealth,” says Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and co-author with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia of the upcoming book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. In a suite of new, not-yet published, studies, Norton and colleagues showed that charitable giving makes people feel wealthier.

This research follows on other recent work published in Psychological Science by Norton and colleagues that shows that giving time to others – from helping with homework to shoveling a neighbors’ driveway – actually makes people feel that they have more time. “In fact, giving time away alleviates people’s sense of time famine even more than receiving unexpected windfalls of free time.”

That people feel wealthier from spending money on others may explain why poor individuals tend to give away a higher fraction of their income than members of the middle class do. In one study, researchers reported that Americans earning less than $20,000 a year give a higher percentage of their income to charity than others earning up to $300,000 a year.

“Our results suggest when the poor give money away, that very act might mitigate their feelings of poverty,” Norton says. “More broadly than this specific benefit, our investigation contributes to the growing body of research documenting the benefits of prosocial behavior, which include greater happiness, reduced mortality, and better immune function.”

Buying experiences to feel happy

In related research, psychologists are finding that spending money on experiential purchases, such as vacations, concerts, and meals out, tends to bring us more happiness than material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry, or electronic gadgets. Amit Kumar and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University are investigating one potential explanation for this difference: that experiences prompt storytelling more than possessions do.

In new research, they asked participants to recall either a significant experiential purchase or a significant material purchase. They then asked them how much they had talked about the purchase they recalled, and questions related to the satisfaction they derived from their purchase. Participants rated a higher satisfaction for experiences than for possessions, which was because they were more likely to talk about the experiences with other people.

In another experiment, the researchers measured what happens when people cannot talk about their purchases. They asked participants if they would be willing to pay a price to be able to talk about a beach vacation (experiential purchase) or an electronic good (material purchase). “Participants were more likely to switch from a better purchase that they could not talk about to a lesser purchase that they could talk about in the experiential condition than in the material one,” Kumar says.

“Well-being is likely to be enhanced by shifting the balance of spending in our consumer society away from material goods and towards experiential ones,” Kumar says. “This research also suggests that there are benefits to be had not only by nudging people to choose experiences over possessions, but also by encouraging people to share stories about their experiences.”

Knowing what is best to help others

The roots for how we give to others form at a very young age. Children, it turns out, are very sophisticated givers – not only coming to someone’s aid when needed but also coming up with the best strategy for doing so, often independent of an adult’s instruction.

In new research, Kristina Olson of Yale University and Alia Martin have found that children often will act, thinking they know better than others what is best for them or others. In a series of experiments, the researchers investigate whether 3-year-old children will help someone by ignoring the specific request and instead offering a better alternative.

In one study, for example, when an experimenter asks the child for a specific marker, but the child knows that marker does not work, the child will instead offer up a better marker. In another study, a pre-recorded child asks the child participant to give her a piece of chocolate via a tube that supposedly connects them. If the participant knows that chocolate makes the other child sick, the participant will decide to give her fruit snacks instead.

“Perhaps most provocatively, children will selectively decide not to help in this way if they don’t like the person,” Olson says. “For example, if an experimenter has previously been mean, children won’t warn the adult of a potential harm – such as something sharp in the container they are reaching in – but will if the experimenter was not mean.”

“These results suggest that children are able to help adults and peers already by the preschool years in rather complex ways, even when the beneficiary is misguided about what he or she wants,” Olson says. “Children don’t just blindly do as they are requested, but rather consider a person’s goal and consider alternative possible ways to achieve that goal.”

Read the entire press release here.

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Posted in Altruism, Distribution, Emotions, Positive Psychology | 1 Comment »

Amy Cuddy on Body Language

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 4, 2013

Situationist friend, Amy Cuddy, delivers a fascinating TedTalk on how body language affects how others see us and on how we see ourselves.  Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.

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Posted in Embodied Cognition, Emotions, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 3, 2013

This post (authored by Adam Benforado) was originally published on February 4, 2007.

Superbowl XLI

As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event.It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about.Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.

How foolish.

The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money.And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.

With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products.They call in the scientists.brain-on-advertising.jpg

For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.”The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.”As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it

shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.

Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.

As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:

[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.

nfl-coke-logos.jpg

For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff.For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff.For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.

Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.

Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:

We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.

Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses.It’s just that I’m still uneasy.

Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly.Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.

Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy marlboro-sm.jpgMarlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated.From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.

Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play.Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed.Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.

As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.

* * *

(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)

Posted in Emotions, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Sports | 1 Comment »

Happiness or Meaningfulness – But Not Both

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 13, 2012

Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Lynn Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky have just posted their excellent paper, titled “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self-contributed to meaning but not happiness. We offer brief composite sketches of the unhappy but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life.

Download the paper for free here.

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Mind-Wandering and Why It Matters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 18, 2012

From Harvard Gazette (regarding new research by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth):

People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So says a study that used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.

The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, is described this week in the journal Science.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.

To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love.

“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard. “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the nonpresent.”

Killingsworth and Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.

Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.

“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,’” Killingsworth and Gilbert note in Science. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

This new research, the authors say, suggests that these traditions are right.

Killingsworth and Gilbert’s 2,250 subjects in this study ranged in age from 18 to 88, representing a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and occupations. Seventy-four percent of study participants were American.

More than 5,000 people are now using the iPhone Web app.

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Posted in Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Money-Based Happiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2012

An excerpt from a recent, terrific New York Times piece by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton:

The notion that money can’t buy happiness has been around a long time — even before yoga came into vogue. But it turns out there is a measurable connection between income and happiness; not surprisingly, people with a comfortable living standard are happier than people living in poverty.

The catch is that additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard. The magic number that defines this “comfortable standard” varies across individuals and countries, but in the United States, it seems to fall somewhere around $75,000. Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.

Why, then, do so many of us bother to work so hard long after we have reached an income level sufficient to make most of us happy? One reason is that our ideas about the relationship between money and happiness are misguided. In research we conducted with a national sample of Americans, people thought that their life satisfaction would double if they made $55,000 instead of $25,000: more than twice as much money, twice as much happiness. But our data showed that people who earned $55,000 were just 9 percent more satisfied than those making $25,000. Nine percent beats zero percent, but it’s still kind of a letdown when you were expecting a 100 percent return.

Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make. Imagine three people each win $1 million in the lottery. Suppose one person attempts to buy every single thing he has ever wanted; one puts it all in the bank and uses the money only sparingly, for special occasions; and one gives it all to charity. At the end of the year, they all would report an additional $1 million of income. Many of us would follow the first person’s strategy, but the latter two winners are likely to get the bigger happiness bang for their buck.

We usually think of having more money as allowing us to buy more and more of the stuff we like for ourselves, from bigger houses to fancier cars to better wine to more finely pixilated televisions. But these typical spending tendencies — buying more, and buying for ourselves — are ineffective at turning money into happiness. A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TVs and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out). Our own recent research shows that in addition to buying more experiences, you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.

Read the entire article, including their discussion of value of “underindulgence.”

Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending (Simon & Schuster), co-authored by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, is due out in the spring of 2013!

Pre-order it on Amazon here.

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Posted in Altruism, Book, Deep Capture, Distribution, Emotions, Illusions, Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Adult Well Being and Social Connection

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 5, 2012

From Springer:

Positive social relationships in childhood and adolescence are key to adult well-being, according to Associate Professor Craig Olsson from Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, and his colleagues. In contrast, academic achievement appears to have little effect on adult well-being. The exploratory work, looking at the child and adolescent origins of well-being in adulthood, is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.

We know very little about how aspects of childhood and adolescent development, such as academic and social-emotional function, affect adult well-being – defined here as a combination of a sense of coherence, positive coping strategies, social engagement and self-perceived strengths.

Olsson and team analysed data for 804 people followed up for 32 years, who participated in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (DMHDS) in New Zealand. They explored the relative importance of early academic and social pathways to adult well-being.

In particular, they measured the relationship between level of family disadvantage in childhood, social connectedness in childhood, language development in childhood, social connectedness in adolescence, academic achievement in adolescence and well-being in adulthood. Social connectedness in childhood is defined by the parent and teacher ratings of the child being liked, not being alone, and the child’s level of confidence. Social connectedness in adolescence is demonstrated by social attachments (parents, peers, school, confidant) and participation in youth groups and sporting clubs.

The researchers found, on the one hand, a strong pathway from child and adolescent social connectedness to adult well-being. This illustrates the enduring significance of positive social relationships over the lifespan to adulthood. On the other hand, the pathway from early language development, through adolescent academic achievement, to adult well-being was weak, which is in line with existing research showing a lack of association between socioeconomic prosperity and happiness.

The analyses also suggest that the social and academic pathways are not intimately related to one another, and may be parallel paths.

The authors conclude: “If these pathways are separate, then positive social development across childhood and adolescence requires investments beyond development of the academic curriculum.”

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Image from Flickr.

Posted in Education, Emotions, Positive Psychology | 1 Comment »

Susan Fiske — Varieties of Dehumanization

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2012

From : Situationist Contributor, Susan Fiske recently spoke at the UCLA Psychology Diversity Science Initiative Lecture Series.

Abstract: Americans are becoming ever more aware of our huge social-class divides, for example in income inequality. Even outside socio-economic status, other forms of status divide us (Fiske, 2011). Status-comparison compels people, even as it stresses, depresses, and divides us. Comparison is only natural, but the collateral damage reveals envy upward and scorn downward, which arguably poison people and their relationships. Based on one of the Stereotype Content Model’s two primary dimensions, status/competence, several experiments-using questionnaire, psychometric, response-time, electro-myographic, and neuroimaging data-illustrate the dynamics of envy up and scorn down. All is not lost, however, as other experiments show how to mitigate the effects of envy and scorn.

Initial studies suggest the importance of status, as people value other people by their apparent social status (Cikara, Farnsworth, Harris, & Fiske, 2010). Other data show how scorn down minimizes thought about another’s mind; contempt deactivates mentalizing processes (Harris & Fiske, 2006). Turning to envy up, other studies demonstrate that Schadenfreude (malicious joy) targets envied outgroups (Cikara & Fiske, in press-a). However, counter-stereotypic information, empathy, and outcome dependency can mitigate both scorn and envy (Ames & Fiske, under review; Cikara & Fiske, in press-b; Harris & Fiske, 2007).

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Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Perceived Time

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 21, 2012

Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Lynn Aaker recently posted their latest paper, “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” (forthcoming Psychological Science) on SSRN. For those of you who have time to read it, here is the abstract.

When do people feel as if they are rich in time? Not often, research and daily experience suggest. However, three experiments showed that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available (Experiments 1, 3) and were less impatient (Experiment 2). Participants who experienced awe were also more willing to volunteer their time to help others (Experiment 2), more strongly preferred experiences over material products (Experiment 3), and experienced a greater boost in life satisfaction (Experiment 3). Mediation analyses revealed that these changes in decision making and well-being were due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time. Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

Download the paper for free here.

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Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Life | 1 Comment »

 
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