Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Follow-up On Self-Regulation and New Year's Resolutions

January is over and February is quickly coming to an end. But as this blog post points out, it's never too late to make a resolution and set some goals. The post also discusses some research on self-regulation, finding that people who followed a weight management program for two months also saw improvements in their ability to complete other important tasks. This just drives home the point that self-regulation is a general skill and that learning this skill, even in one specific application, can have far-reaching improvements on other aspects of life.

At the same time, it is important to remember that self-regulation uses mental resources, and regulating one aspect - especially if it is very taxing to maintain - can limit how much you can regulate in other domains. It's all about balance.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Kesha, Sexual Assault Cases, and Pretrial Publicity

By now, you've probably heard that singer Kesha sued to be released from her contract with Sony Records. The reason for this is because she alleges that her producer, Dr. Luke, raped her in 2006, and has also engaged in various types of harassment, and sexual misconduct over the years. The judge found in favor of Sony Records, meaning Kesha will not be released from her contact.

Whenever I read about cases in the media, I think of course of the research on pretrial publicity. I thought I'd posted on this topic before, but I can't seem to find a post about it, so forgive me if I'm repeating myself.

I did my dissertation research on pretrial publicity, which is any media coverage of a case (or the parties involved) before it goes to trial, and its effects on perceptions about guilt. This case of course differs in that no charges have been filed, but even so, I would respond in this situation in the same way I would to publicity about a criminal trial. Knowing that the media only presents certain information, and not all the facts one would hear in trial, I avoid drawing conclusions about cases I hear about in the news.

At the same time, based on the outpouring of support Kesha is receiving, including from celebrities who have worked with this producer (like Kelly Clarkson), I can't help but think there is some validity to her claims. Of course, Kesha has also been the target of victim-blaming, as do many survivors of sexual assault. And there are important differences in the tone of pretrial publicity in sexual assault cases.

Prior to my dissertation, I did a meta-analysis (which is a technique for quantitatively combining results from multiple studies) on pretrial publicity. Pretrial publicity is very frequently negative toward the defendant, but in sexual assault cases, they are often negative toward the victim. When I looked at results of studies based on the crime used in the case materials, I found that pretrial publicity significantly biased participants toward guilt - except in sexual assault cases. There were no significant differences in verdicts/guilt ratings between participants who received pretrial publicity and participants who did not.

They say a person who is sexually assaulted is raped twice: once by the perpetrator, and again by the system. Not only must the victim recount what happened, he or she must also convince multiple people, throughout the process, that the crime happened exactly as he or she said. Even worse, they may be asked how they provoked the incident (i.e., "asked for it"). Does anyone ask a victim of a mugging why they were walking alone with that purse or wallet just begging to be stolen?

If there's a long delay between when the event occurred and when the charges are filed, that invites even further speculation that the victim is making it up. But given the previously described treatment, is it surprisingly that most sexual assaults go unreported? Or that some victims might simply try to move on from the event and then - years later when they realize it still haunts them - finally decide to come forward?

As I said, I don't know what actually happened. But I hope at the very least the outpouring of support can convince Sony Records to have Kesha work with a different producer, and limit her contact with Dr. Luke.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Race, Stereotypes, and Implicit Attitudes

It’s no secret that I love social psychology. I’m constantly fascinated by new findings, as well as the classics, that help us to understand human behavior. At the same time, some findings show the dark side of human behavior, and show that even the most inclusive, open-minded person may possess attitudes they would not consciously agree that they hold.

A recent article published in Psychological Science made its way into my inbox last week. The article discusses two studies. In the first study, participants were first exposed to a prime (black or white boy, approximately 5 years old), then an object participants had to categorize as being a weapon or toy. This was done 12 times, with 6 photos of African-American boys and 6 photos of Caucasian boys. Afterward, participants rated age and race of the faces, as well as how threatening the face seemed. Participants identified weapons more quickly after exposure to African-American faces, and identified toys more quickly after exposure to Caucasian faces. A second experiment was identical to the first, except that photos of adult men were also included. For photos of adult men, images of tools replaced images of toys. Participants identified weapons more quickly after Black primes, and identified tools more quickly after White primes.

True, this is just one recent study. But the finding, and the methods, have long been established. Early work by Gordon Allport, who in a sense wrote the bible on prejudice, actually started as the study of rumor. His study 1947 study with Leo Postman involved a drawing of a well-dressed African-American man speaking with a Caucasian man who is holding a razor.

Though the results of the study are often misreported, in some trials of the study, where participants were asked to identify the individuals involved before recalling the events, a little over half of participants misremembered the razor being in the African-American man’s hand instead.

Allport continued in this line of work, postulating that prejudice originates from people’s need to generate categories in order to quickly understand others and navigate the social world. In fact, placing groups of people in mental “buckets” along with certain traits and characteristics is how stereotypes get started to begin with.

Even people who don’t necessarily believe stereotypes are true are aware of stereotypes about certain groups, and these stereotypes can be automatically activated in the presence of group members. This research was pioneered by social psychologist, Patricia Devine, who established that stereotype activation is automatic, and it takes conscious effort to downplay those stereotypes and keep them from influencing our behavior. (Read the original paper here.) Recently, Devine also suggested that ‘gaydar’ is actually the use of stereotypes to infer a person’s sexual orientation.

Shortly after Devine’s work, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji established the distinction between explicit attitudes (attitudes you consciously hold) and implicit attitudes (nonconscious attitudes manifested as automatic associations).  Implicit attitudes are generally measured through reaction time, in a task very similar to the study described above. Project Implicit, operated through Harvard University, offers multiple implicit attitude tests (or IATs) that measure nonconscious attitudes about a variety of groups - everything from race and gender to political parties and age groups.

Which brings us to where we are today. The important thing about Todd, Thiem, and Neel’s study is to demonstrate that, not only do people recognize weapons more quickly when associated with African Americans instead of Caucasians, but that this effect is true even with 5-year-old children. Obviously there are many important implications of this research. The question, then, is what do we do about it?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"I'll Never Be That Good": Social Comparison, Discouragement, and Self Theories

We are constantly being evaluated. Not only at work or in school, but in nearly every aspect of life, we are being evaluated based on any number of characteristics: appearance, intelligence, ability, etc. Even when others aren't evaluating us, we're evaluating ourselves. In fact, self esteem is defined as a positive or negative evaluation of oneself: are we who we want to be? According to Maslow, once our basic needs are met, and we feel a sense of belonging with people we care about, self-esteem becomes an important focus in our lives - and only with self-esteem, confidence, and achievement can we reach the highest level in his hierarchy of needs: self-actualization.

The thing about evaluation is that it requires some sort of comparison. We may compare ourselves to people we know, people we don't know (like celebrities), or even ideas of what we should or ought to be like. Who we choose to compare ourselves against may vary depending on how we're feeling. If we're feeling bad about ourselves, we may compare to someone worse off to give ourselves a boost. If we want to improve, we may compare ourselves to someone better off to motivate us to achieve more.

But what happens when we compare ourselves to someone much better than us - unattainably better? According to a recent study, we're likely to give up.

The researchers did two studies. In the first, they used real-world data from a massive open online course (free online courses, such as those you find on Coursera - they didn't state which course/provider they used because the proprietor preferred to remain anonymous). In order to receive a grade/certificate for the course, students were required to evaluate at least 3 essays written by other students (assigned at random). They found that students assigned to review higher quality essays were less likely to complete the course, and if they did complete, they tended to receive lower grades, than students assigned to review poorer quality essays.

In the second study, the researchers did an online experiment to try to understand why reading a high quality essay makes one more likely to give up. They gave participants an essay prompt from the SAT writing section and had them write an essay of 100 words or more. Participants then read and evaluated either two well-written essays or two poorly-written essays. They were asked whether they felt their essay was better than the two they read and whether they were capable of writing an essay better than the two they read, then answered questions about whether writing an excellent essay is relevant to how they feel about themselves (a concept called domain identification). Afterward, participants were given the option to write another essay for additional money. People who read the well-written essays were less likely to: think their essay was better, think they could write a better essay, and write the second essay. They also had lower domain identification scores.

Domain (de)identification is often used a proxy for discouragement. It's frequently used in stereotype threat research (something I've blogged about many times, and studied for my masters thesis). Stereotype threat occurs when a stereotype of a group impacts an individual group member's performance - such as a woman being reminded of the stereotype that women are bad at math right before she has to take a math test. One of the effects of reminding someone of a stereotype is that s/he will deidentify from that domain - such as deciding that being good at math just isn't important to her.

Of course, one important concept that wasn't examined in the study above (but has been examined somewhat in stereotype threat research) is self theories (or the long title: implicit theories of intelligence), a concept developed by Carol Dweck. People have different ideas about where ability comes from: they may believe ability is innate (you're born with it, "fixed") or they may believe ability results from hard work and study ("incremental").

It's actually a continuum, so people can fall between the two extremes, or believe that some abilities are innate while others are learned. The important thing about this theory is that it can explain motivation in the face of failure. People with a fixed view of intelligence will often give up when they fail, because they don't believe they can improve. People with an incremental view instead view failure as a sign to work harder, because they believe they can improve. With regard to women and stereotype threat, research suggests women are more likely to have fixed views.

It would have been interesting to see how self theories would impact the results of the second study. People with incremental self theories may have been more likely to try again on the second essay. Or they may have taken that feedback on their comparative ability and used it as motivation to improve their writing on their own.

Comparatively yours,

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Resting B*tch Face, Benevolent Sexism, and Smiling

Recently, scientists examined the underlying cause of resting bitch face. Don't know what resting bitch face is? Here's what Urban Dictionary has to say:
A bitchy alternative to the usual blank look most people have. This is a condition affecting the facial muscles, suffered by millions of women worldwide. People suffering from bitchy resting face (BRF) have the tendency look hostile and/or judgemental at rest.
Though there are some exceptions (Kanye West), most people accused of having resting bitch face (RBF) are women. Unsurprising, considering use of the word "bitch" - otherwise, wouldn't it be resting jerk face? In fact, one Urban Dictionary definition focuses on this aspect of RBF:
Originally meant to describe a bland or emotionless facial expression (resting) that unintentionally appears angry or grumpy (bitch face), the phrase has devolved and is now often used to shame women who have the audacity to not smile cheerfully every moment of every day for other people's enjoyment whether they feel happy or not.
The researchers found that the explanation for RBF is that some faces show contempt, even in their neutral state. As the researchers explain, contempt can be displayed through things like "one side of the lip pulled back slightly, the eyes squinting a little... or tightening around the eyes, and a little bit of raising of the corners of the lips — but not into a smile."

What is interesting, though, is that the researchers did not find gender differences for RBF - it appears to affect both men and women equally. So why do women get all the criticism for RBF?

Women are often criticized for not smiling, and may have random people on the street tell them to smile. It's definitely happened to me multiple times, as well as many of my friends. I don't know if men experience the same thing, but I'm guessing not, since I've never heard any of my guy friends say anything about it when listening to my girl friends complain about it.

In face, even Aimee Mann has people stop to tell her to smile - enough for her to name an album this to show her annoyance:

I'll admit, I don't always find it annoying, though there are times I'm not smiling for a reason, and being told to smile isn't going to make that reason go away. But I'm guessing, since people continue to tell others to smile, that many don't understand what's so annoying about it. After all, isn't it a compliment to believe that women are happy and cheerful, and to ask them to show those emotions?

There are many stereotypes about women that seem positive on the surface: Women are nurturing and  motherly, they make great teachers and nurses, and so on. However, any stereotyping based on gender is an example of sexism; we would call this type benevolent sexism. This is contrasted with hostile sexism, which focuses on negative stereotypes about women (e.g., bad at math, poor drivers, etc.).

At the same time, there is some research that shows smiling can actually make you feel happier. Check out this TedTalk for a great overview of these findings. These studies test something known as the "facial feedback hypothesis" - that is, your facial expression provides information on how you are feeling. So if you're smiling, you must be happy, right?  One of the first studies on the topic, for example, asked participants to hold a pencil in their mouths, either in a way that forces a smile or one that forces a frown:

But one way these studies differ from the real world situation of being told to smile is that people either 1) choose to smile themselves or 2) are asked to smile for some other purpose (not just to smile for smiling's sake). Would the researchers have found the same thing if they had walked into the room with the participant and said, "You know, you should smile more"?

Happily yours,

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Coin Flips, Probability, and the Lumpiness of Chance

Did you hear the big news from Iowa? Hillary Clinton is the luckiest lady in the world, winning 6 coin flips! (Maybe this guy did those flips?)

Okay, not really.

Really not really.

Despite the fact that the whole 6 coin flips story appears to be bogus, and that even if it were true, it didn't really win her much, this incident highlights a misunderstanding about probability. So I decided now was a good time to blog a little about the basics of probability. Probability forms the basis of all statistical analysis, but even if you have no interest in learning statistics, probability is pretty darn important.

It's true that when you flip a coin, you have two possible outcomes, each of which has an equal chance of happening - 50%. This means that on average when you flip a coin, you should get heads half the time and tails half the time.

I stress on average. Because if something is truly random, you have a 50% chance of heads each time,  meaning you could very easily end up getting heads multiple times in row. It's only in the long run that you see the probabilities even out to 50%. But in the short run, you could get 10 heads in a row.

Why? Each coin flip is independent of the previous one - definitely in this case, since they were different coins tossed by different people in different places at different times. If you get heads on the first flip, that outcome should have no impact whatsoever on the next flip, meaning you could get heads again. And again. And again. If getting heads the first time (50% probability of heads) guaranteed you would get tails on the next flip (100% probability of tails), your flips are no longer independent of each other.

Try an experiment for me. Grab a coin, any coin. Flip it and note the outcome. Now flip it again and note the outcome. Do that a few more times. You probably did not get a perfect 50/50 split on heads and tails. In small samples, you won't get perfect results, because chance is lumpy - you'll get clusters of certain outcomes, rather than clean outcome 1, outcome 2, etc. Even the size of the clusters (for example: 8 heads, 2 tails, 1 heads, 5 tails, etc.) will be random. In 10 flips, you could get any combination of heads/tails. If you increase your number of flips, over time (as you approach an infinite number of flips, actually) you'll start to see things level out.

Or you can try using this website, which flips coins for you. I asked the site to flip 6 coins for me, all US Connecticut $0.25 coins, and here's what I got:

That's right, 5 heads. Looks like I won Iowa.

Interestingly, I flipped 6 coins again with the site and got 3 heads, 3 tails. So now my totals are 8 heads, 4 tails. I flipped those 6 coins 8 more times. Overall, I had 27 heads and 33 tails. It's not exactly 50/50 (it's a lumpy distribution, after all, because truly random events aren't clean or pretty) but it's closer than when I started.

The 50% probability is kind of a guideline, but for each individual flip, the outcome is random and independent of the previous one, so anything can happen.

Now one thing the first article I linked did was figure out the probability of that particular combination of heads/tails. Yes, that approach is valid. You can figure out the probability of any combination, so long as each flip is random and independent. But if something has a non-zero chance of happening, it can happen! Completely at random without any need for outside intervention.

You know what's even less probable than the 6 heads? Pretty much any 5-card poker hand better than 3-of-a-kind. Maybe the new Iowa procedure should be to have the candidates play a hand of poker?

I should note that I can't take credit for the "chance is lumpy" expression - I learned that in this wonderful book that you should definitely check out if you're interested in learning more about probability:

Probabilistically yours,

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Haunted Places, Skepticism, and Natural Forces

As a long-time fan of horror movies, something I've blogged about many times, I've always been fascinated by the paranormal. I'm not sure how much of it I really believe in, however, and as a scientist, I tend to be instantly skeptical of any claims of paranormal activity. Of course, being skeptical is helped by having a little bit of knowledge of potential alternative explanations.

Yesterday, a friend shared this article with me, which lists 23 haunted places one can visit. The Stanley Hotel has been on my list for a while now, mostly because of horror movie fandom (it was used as the Overlook Hotel in The Shining). And I recently learned about Bachelor Grove Cemetery, not far from where I live.

One item on the list instantly jumped out to me as having perfectly rational, natural explanations for the phenomenon. This was #3: Hoia Baciu Forest in Romania. In the brief blurb, it is stated that people feel anxious and as though they are being watched when entering the forest, and local legend is that people who enter the forest never return home.

Fortunately, the forest has a website, where I could find more information about it, specifically the phenomenon people experience around or in the forest. (Gosh, isn't it great we have reports of what people experience in the forest despite the fact that nobody ever returns?)

Here's what the site has to say about what people experience:
Many of the locals who have been brave enough to venture into the forest complained of physical harm, including rashes, nausea, vomiting, migraines, burns, scratches, anxiety, and other unusual sensations... 
Moreover, the electronic devices are known to malfunction when introduced into the area... 
The Hoia-Baciu Forest ( World’s Most Haunted Forest ) has a reputation for paranormal and unexplained activity and people have witnessed numerous strange events on the land. The most common phenomenon includes the sudden appearance of mysterious orbs of light. People also report hearing disembodied female voices breaking the heavy silence, giggling and even apparitions.
After reading this, it seems to me that Hoia Baciu Forest is a hotbed... of electromagnetic field activity. EM fields are present naturally on our planet, created by the activity of the planet's core. These EM fields allow us to create compasses, among other things. Of course, in some places on the planet, where the crust is thinner, the strength of the EM field can be stronger. This is one explanation for the strange phenomenon in the Bermuda Triangle. Planes get lost there, people speculate, because the EM fields are so strong they mess with the instruments. Strong EM fields can render electronic equipment useless.

So that might explain the impact on electronic devices, and people getting lost and never returning. But what about the physical harm and apparitions? EM fields also have interesting effects on people: nausea, rashes, paranoia, feelings of being watched, even auditory and visual hallucinations. Though EM fields probably don't produce scratches, they do produce disorientation, which could lead people to get scratched by tree branches - maybe without even remembering that happened.

On the show, Ghost Hunters, one of the more systematic of paranormal investigation shows, what's the first thing they check when entering a supposed haunted house? The electrical panel, to make sure the EM fields it generates are within normal levels. I remember one episode where people reported the exact feelings I mentioned above, and they told them it was their electrical panel, not a ghost.

But the best tool I have to fuel my skepticism about the paranormal is a great book by Mary Roach:

She outlines research on EM fields, and even sits in a booth that generates EM fields - and reports many of the effects people experience in Hoia Baciu. Other chapters deal with other explanations for paranormal activity, such as objects moving on their own and/or levitating. Whether you're a believer in the supernatural or not, I highly recommend the book!

Skeptically yours,