The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘replication’

The Situation of Poor Choices

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2012

Social psychologist and Situationist friend Dave Nussbaum has another outstanding situationist post over on Random Assignments.  Here’s how it starts.

One of the obstacles that keeps the poor from rising out of poverty is the tendency to make costly financial decisions – like buying lottery tickets, taking out high interest loans (PDF), and failing to enroll in assistance programs – that only make their situation worse. In the past, these poor decisions have been attributed either to low income individuals’ personalities or issues in their environment, such as poor education or substandard living conditions. New research published this month in Science by Booth Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science Anuj Shah points to a new answer: living with scarcity changes people’s psychology.

The basic idea is that when resources are scarce – when people are short on time, or money, or food – each decision about how best to use those resources takes on greater urgency than when resources are abundant. This focus can have positive effects in the short term, but it comes at the expense of neglecting other, less urgent demands. For example, when they are under the press of urgent expenses like rent and groceries, people may neglect to do routine maintenance on their car and end up with costly (and avoidable) repairs down the road.

Shah, along with colleagues Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard and Eldar Shafir of Princeton, published five studies in which he studied the effects of scarcity on decision making in various games in which people were paid according to their performance. In each of the studies some people received ample resources with which to play, while others received very few. Moreover, in some studies the players had the opportunity to borrow additional resources with interest. The researchers then observed how scarcity affected the players’ borrowing behavior, their performance, and the psychological processes at play.

Across the studies Shah found that for people who had very few resources, the games took on more urgency. They became more focused on the task at hand in order to make the best use of their scarce resources, but that this added focus came at a price, including mental fatigue, costly borrowing decisions, and poor overall performance.

For example, in an Angry Birds-type of game, in which the object was to knock down as many targets as possible, players who could take only three shots per round spent more time aiming each shot than players who had fifteen shots. This added focus improved performance, but it had downsides. When players were given the opportunity to “borrow” a shot, by giving up two shots in a later round of the game, players who had fewer in shots made counterproductive borrowing decisions that hurt their overall performance.

Read the rest of Dave’s post, discussing possible implications of the research, here.

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Posted in Blogroll, Choice Myth, Distribution, Marketing, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Success

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 20, 2012

Dave Nussbaum has an excellent new post over on Random Assignments.  Here’s how it starts.

I don’t think Michael Lewis was trying to make a political point when he gave the commencement address at Princeton University last month (watch the whole thing here). Lewis, the author of several bestselling books including MoneyballLiar’s Poker, and The Big Short, knows a thing or two about the interdependence of luck and success and he was sharing his thoughts on the matter with the about-to-be Princeton graduates. Here’s a taste of what he told them:

Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky. I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

He’s right about that last point; it is easy to forget. It’s also convenient, Lewis told Jeffrey Brown in a follow-up interview on PBS’ NewsHour. Most people would acknowledge that both luck and merit are important ingredients to success. It’s just that people often like to feel like they are the authors of their accomplishments and ignore everything and everyone else who played a role. “As they age, and succeed,” Lewis told the graduates, “people feel their success was somehow inevitable.”

Now Lewis isn’t trying to deny Princeton graduates (or anyone else) credit for their success. He just wants them to take a minute to “dwell on just how fortunate they are.” His hope is simply that they have some compassion for people who worked just as hard they did but were less fortunate. As it turns out, there’s some research that suggests that taking a minute to dwell on your good fortune might have exactly that effect.

Way over on the other side of the country, on the campus of another elite university, Chris Bryan and his colleagues (PDF) asked Stanford University students to take a minute (or ten) to tell the story of how they got into the prestigious college. Not all the students got the same instructions, though. Half of the students were asked to focus on the role that “hard work, self-discipline and wise decisions played in helping you get here.” The other half were told to focus on the role of “chance, opportunity and help from others.” Neither group had any difficulty writing the essay. As Bryan, who will be joining the faculty at UC San Diego this fall, explained to me in an email:

People writing about merit would tell the story most successful people probably tell themselves by default–reminiscing about the long hours they spent studying, the times they made the “tough choice” they knew to be right, or how they skipped nights out with friends to stay home and work on an important paper. In some ways, the most interesting thing was that most people who got the good fortune instructions had no trouble acknowledging the lucky breaks they had gotten. Many said things like “I definitely worked hard to get where I am but I realize how fortunate I was to be born into a family that could afford to give me the support and resources I needed to succeed.”

So it seems that people are capable of seeing the role of luck and merit in contributing to their success. What Lewis might be particularly pleased to see, though, is how dwelling on luck, and the help they’d received from others, changed people’s attitudes. Compared to the students who wrote about their own merit, students who wrote about the role of good fortune in their success were, on average, more strongly in favor of policies like universal healthcare and access to unemployment benefits, which presumably helps with one’s obligation to the less fortunate. In addition to increasing support for liberal policies, thinking about one’s luck decreased support for conservative policies like building more prisons and instituting a flat tax. As Bryan explained to me, “it’s not that people’s ideology doesn’t matter, it’s just that their views on important issues can move around significantly depending on how they think about their own success. When they’re focused on their own talent and effort, they’re much less willing to contribute to the common good than when they pause to recognize that luck and help from other people played a big part in their ability to succeed.”

Read the rest of the post, which examines the relevance of Lewis’s remarks and Bryan’s research for politics, here.

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Posted in Blogroll, Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Random Assignments

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2012

Social Psychologist Dave Nussbaum recently launched his blog, Random Assignments.

The blog already contains several posts worth reading, including a series on the important topic of replication in social science.  The first two parts are “Replicating Dissonance” and “Conceptual Replication.”

Here’s a sample of Nussbaum’s writing:

The 1950s were a bleak time if you were a social psychologist interested in the empirical study of thoughts and feelings and how they affect human behavior. At that time, experimental psychology was dominated by behaviorism, an approach which focused exclusively on observable behavior, exiling ephemeral concepts like beliefs and emotions outside the boundaries of proper science. But things were about to change.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, published by Leon Festinger in 1957, was one of those things. The theory was based on the simple idea that when a person simultaneously holds two conflicting beliefs he will experience a feeling of discomfort – cognitive dissonance – and that he will be motivated to end that discomfort by reducing the conflict between the beliefs, often by changing one of them.

Today, the term cognitive dissonance has entered our vernacular and the idea that we change or discard beliefs that don’t suit us seems like common sense. Research on how people rationalize their beliefs has spread to political science, medicine, neuroscience, and the law, and is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of human psychology. But in 1957, at a time when the field of psychology was dominated by behaviorism, the notion was far more controversial. Luckily, Leon Festinger and his colleagues and students conducted numerous experiments that tested predictions derived from Cognitive Dissonance Theory that could not be accounted for by behaviorist principles.

One of my favorite of these experiments (PDF), published by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills in 1959, had college women reading obscene words out loud (words so obscene that I don’t feel comfortable writing them here myself, but the F word is in there, as is a four-letter word that also means rooster, and remember, this was 1959!). The women were reading these words as an initiation to get into a discussion group about the psychology of sex – they had to prove they were not going to be too embarrassed to take part in the conversation. This was the “severe initiation” condition. Another group of women recited a milder list of words (e.g., prostitute, virgin); this was the “mild initiation” condition. The women then heard a recording of a discussion by the group to which they had gained entry – as it turned out, the discussion was, according to the study’s authors, “one of the most worthless and uninteresting discussions imaginable.”  The question was which group of women would like the psychology of sex discussion group more, the ones who had to undergo the severe initiation or the mild one?

To find out, pay a visit to Nussbaum’s blog.

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Posted in Blogroll, Classic Experiments, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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