Monday, October 31, 2011

What do Halloween and Social Psychology have in common? Deindividuation, of course

Cute trick-or-treaters or mahem-makers?
As the children take to the streets tonight in search of a trick-or-treat, you might be wondering the best way to protect your house from some heavy candy-looting. In 1976, Ed Diener and his colleagues asked a similar question, though they were more interested in the conditions that prompted trick-or-treaters to overindulge and take more than they should. Halloween is a holiday which encourages people to dress up in costumes and roam the streets in large groups - the perfect recipe for deindividuation. Deindividuation occurs when people’s own sense of individuality is diminished and can result in antisocial behaviors. Diener used Halloween as an opportunity to research how anonymity, group size, and feelings of responsibility influence people’s willingness to steal extra candy and money. 

The scene: Imagine that you come up to a house with a table, on one side is a bowl full of individually wrapped bite-sized candy bars, about 2 feet away on the other side is a bowl full of pennies and nickels. Nearby is a decorative backdrop with a peep hole that camouflages an unobtrusive observer. When you arrive at the door, a woman you have never met greets you.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Improving memory - (retrieval) practice makes perfect

Today we would like to present you with the another (terrific) guest blogger. Joseph Williams is a graduate student in the cognitive psychology program at UC-Berkeley. Enjoy!

You’re about to read a 200-word science passage on sea otters so that you can successfully answer questions about it in a week’s time. What strategies would you use to study it? Which of these options would you choose? (a) reading it four times, (b) drawing out a concept map of all the key ideas, or (c) reading it, trying to recall it, reading it one more time, and trying to recall it one more time.

If you smugly chose the alluring quadruple study option or took a gamble on the newfangled concept map, it’s likely that a week from now your memory would be letting you down. A recent paper in Science by Karpicke & Blunt at Purdue University reports an experiment along these lines. Testing oneself or engaging in retrieval practice had the greatest benefit for being able to remember facts from the passage and for drawing inferences that required putting these facts together. But it seems so counterintuitive that testing yourself on information could be better than thoroughly studying material or building elaborate diagrams. Surely students would all be on the honor roll if only they put in that much effort!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The power of red


Like most teenagers in suburbia I took a driver’s education class shortly after I earned my learner’s permit. Though I picked up critical driving tips, and got plenty of practice in the driver’s seat, one of the most interesting facts I learned concerned car insurance and the color red. According to my teacher, drivers with red cars had to pay higher insurance rates. Apparently this was due to the fact that people in red cars were more likely to speed. I’ve since learned that the relationship between red and speeding is actually a pervasive urban legend. Nevertheless, it piqued my interest in the association between color and behavior. Though red might not be associated with speeding, it has been found to relate to a variety of psychological processes and outcomes in both humans and non-human primates including dominance, competitive sports outcomes, achievement, and sexual attraction.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Three Myths About Power

Does Power Corrupt? source
The reign of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi came to an end last week at the hands of a combination of rebel and UN forces. Qaddafi-- at least according to the American news media and some of his own people--was widely considered a tyrannical ruler who stifled free expression and democracy during his 40 years of rule. Whenever I think of men like Qaddafi, the social psychologist in me can't help but think that the situation has created the tyrant we now know-- that there is something about power that changes people, and transforms them into ruthless and oppressive individuals.

This explanation fits our narrative about power nicely, but it actually doesn't hold up well to empirical investigation. In today's blog I discuss three myths about power. We come to believe these myths based on anecdotal evidence, even though they don't seem to hold up to empirical investigation.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Friday Fun: The three most important questions to ask on a first date

If you could ask only three questions to gauge your compatibility with a potential dating partner, what would they be? Would you ask about their religious beliefs? political orientation? career goals?

According to research conducted by OkCupid, a popular online dating service that collects data from its users and allows users to submit their own questions for others to answer, the three questions that best predict compatibility (measured as the likelihood of forming a committed relationship with another OkCupid user) are not exactly what you might expect. Users who agreed on their responses to the following three questions were more likely to form a relationship:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

There's nothing wrong with turning red: The social functions of embarrassment

Embarrassment is embarrassing. The act of blushing, for example, can itself be more traumatic than whatever triggered it, prompting some to resort to blush-reducing surgery. Even if you're not a blusher, embarrassment is often hard to hide - it makes itself known in nervous laughter, sweaty palms, averted eyes, and other involuntary responses. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid this awkward experience. But research suggests that showing embarrassment is nothing to be ashamed of, and in certain ways it might even serve us well.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good food, bad food: The psychology of nutrition

Imagine you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick what food you think would be best for your health (never mind what food you would like).

Alfalfa sprouts
Hot dogs
Milk chocolate

Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asked people this same question and found that 42% of people chose bananas, 27% spinach, 12% corn, 7% alfalfa sprouts, 5% peaches, 4% hot dogs, and 3% milk chocolate. Only seven percent of people chose a food that could actually offer them enough calories and all the nutrients they needed for long term survival. No, not alfalfa sprouts (not nearly enough calories): hot dogs and milk chocolate. These two animal products (the milk in milk chocolate) provide protein and fat, two necessary nutrients that would be deficient in the other foods. Overall, hot dogs would provide all necessary nutrients, sufficient protein, and a more optimal amino acid balance, suggesting they would be best suited to help you survive for a year.

So why is this psychology professor asking people what type of food they’d want to have if they were stranded on a desert island? Rozin found that people’s beliefs about what makes up a healthy diet is heavily influenced by psychology. In this particular paper (Rozin, Ashmore, & Markwith, 1996), he and his colleagues researched whether people’s views about a healthy diet were biased by something termed “dose insensitivity.” Before I describe what that is, let’s try out a few more of the questions that he asked people.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Fun: Our first readership poll

Everyone loves a Friday Fun Poll!
What can we say, we like collecting data. So take a break from whatever you're doing and fill out the polls below to tell us a little bit about yourselves!

Poll results...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Want to become a wizard? Just read Harry Potter

I will never forget when the final installment of the Harry Potter series came out. Myself and a few of my closest friends from college, all big HP fans, were spending the weekend at my Mom’s house. Although I hadn’t seen these friends in 6 months, although there were a ton of activities to do in that region of upstate NY, although we were twenty five years old - we could not wait to see how J.K. Rowling was going to wrap up the series. The second we picked up the Deathly Hallows, we literally did not stop.  We lounged around all day, moving from the sun chairs outside, to the porch, to our beds, and back. We ate, we drank, we read. We barely talked. Parmita and I, the most determined, read straight through the night – 759 pages in total. It was a marathon, and let me tell you, it was well worth it.

Though the power of a good book is undeniable even to the lightest of readers, researchers have discovered some unexpected benefits from an engaging narrative. For example, people tend to feel less lonely after reading a familiar narrative, and even seek out comforting books after experiences of social rejection (Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009). Narratives have been found to help develop social skills – they teach us rules that govern social interactions and help us to cultivate empathy (e.g. Mar & Oatley, 2008). In an interesting study published recently in Psychological Science, Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young even found that we actually feel like, or become, the characters of the book, and that this assumption of the characters’ identities makes us feel happier and more satisfied with our own lives. Here's the study...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Class Warfare

"I think it's dangerous, this class warfare." -- Mitt Romney (2012 presidential candidate)

In the last week or so, everyday Americans have taken to the street, Wall Street to be exact, to express their discontent with the current economic climate. In short, the bottom 99% of Americans are upset about economic inequality, and rightly so. After all, American economic inequality is worse than every other developed country (we've discussed this inequality here and here). In particular, there seems to be striking inequality in salary between average workers and corporate CEOs  (262:1 and rising).

Of course, not everyone is supportive of movements like these, which seek to diminish the pay disparities between the wealthy and the less-so. For instance, Herman Cain, the godfather of pizza (now current republican presidential candidate) said this about the protestors:  "Don't blame Wall Street, and don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and are not rich, blame yourself." Apparently, a portion of people out there believe that people have personal responsibility for the amount of money they make and that wealth is gained through hard work, ability, and talent. But who exactly are these people?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Fun: Breaking News! Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Man and IPhone pictured in loving embrace (source)
Right now I am teaching a personality psychology class and we are talking about research methods. Invariably, anytime I teach psychological methods I always end up talking about correlations--specifically, that a correlation is an association between two variables and nothing more. The important point is that correlations--even those that come from fancy associations between behavior and brain images--do not mean causation. Students are typically quite receptive to this information.

It's too bad that some journalists (and to be fair, even some scientists) forget this lesson. 

Just for fun, I gave out extra credit this week to any student who could find a news article claiming causation from correlation. I gave my students a 6 hour time window to complete this assignment. Not surprisingly, half my class of 60 students came back with a unique example (for those keeping score at home, that's 30 news articles that inappropriately infer cause from correlations)! Below, I summarize my three favorites:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Would you eat the worm?

Imagine finding yourself in the following situation. You arrive at a psychology laboratory to participate in an experiment. The experimenter tells you that the purpose of the experiment is to understand the effects of "certain tasks" on physiological responses. On one side of a table, you see a series of covered cups, and on the other side you see a dead worm on a plate, a cup of water, a napkin, and a fork. The experimenter reminds you of your rights as a participant, saying that your participation is voluntary and you are free to terminate the study at any time.

Next, after doing a neutral task where you assess the weights of the covered cups, the experimenter tells you that you have been randomly assigned to an experimental condition where you will be asked to eat the worm. You then wait for ten minutes while the experimenter goes to do something in another room, during which time you are left to anticipate your upcoming worm-eating experience. When the experimenter returns, he or she says, "Oh, an error has been made. You weren't exactly assigned to the right condition. You actually are supposed to choose which task you will perform, between eating the worm or discriminating the weights."

What do you decide? Do you eat the worm even though you no longer have to? 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Experiential versus material purchases: Science says that buying new shoes won’t make me happier

Material purchasing at its finest
Last weekend I went to the mall in search of a new pair of tennis shoes since I’ve run the life out of my current pair, and while I was there, I continued my never-ending quest to find the perfect pair of boots (just ask my husband – I’ve been on this quest for years). When I arrived at the mall, the parking lot was so full that I had to circle around before I could find a spot. The stores were equally crowded inside. Apparently none of these shoppers had read Leaf Van Boven’s 2005 review article highlighting the benefits of spending money on experiences over material goods. Juli first mentioned this finding in her post on the four ways to buy happiness, and I wanted to spend some more time on the topic since I still have a bit of trouble accepting the findings, particularly when I’m on a quest for a material good that I’m sure will change my life (spoiler alert - I did buy a pair of boots, though I’m not sure they’re “the ones”).

When surveying various cultures to determine what makes people happy, researchers kept stumbling upon the finding that having more didn’t equate to being happier. And people who aspire to have more are, in fact, less satisfied. For example, the more that people endorse the statement “Buying things gives me pleasure” the less satisfied they are with their lives. But, it seems, this is only true if you are spending your money to buy “things” rather than “memories.” Whether people are asked to directly compare experiential versus material purchases or to simply write about or reflect on a specific recent purchase, they report that the experiential purchase made them happier, contributed more to their overall happiness, and was “money better spent.” In the moment, Recalling their most recent vacation seems to put people in a better mood than recalling their last shoe purchase.