Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When Thinking Feels Hard: New Layouts, New Features, and New Thought Patterns

It feels like the Internet landscape is changing.  Recently, Facebook unveiled its new look (as well as some additional features that have had more than a few express concerns about privacy).  As with any new Facebook roll-out, people are complaining.  The news feed has been replaced with Top Stories and Not So Top Stories (okay, not the term, but that's what it comes down to).  On the side, users not only have the chat list that has been available for some time, but a Twitter-style feed (dubbed the ADD bar) giving real-time updates from friends, friends of friends, and the occasional random friend of a friend of a friend.

As people have pointed out, the people who complain about a Facebook update are likely the same people who complained about the update before that, and before that, perhaps suggesting that some people like to complain.  But just like Dr. Gregory House thinks everyone lies, I say, "Everyone complains", at some time or another.  I think there's more to these layout changes than predisposition to complain.  That's right, ladies and gents, I'm talking about the situational influences - notice a theme here? :)

You may also have noticed the look of this blog has changed.  'Tis the season.  It seems like as a child, I would always want to reinvent myself in the Fall.  Perhaps the same is true for websites.  But how might these changes influence our perceptions?

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to researcher Norbert Schwarz give a talk at my grad school alma mater, Loyola University Chicago.  If you've never checked out his research, you definitely should; visit his homepage here.  Not only is he incredibly friendly and funny, his research, while definitely theory-driven, is incredibly applicable to a variety of social situations.  Or maybe it's that he's really good at taking theories and applying them to a variety of situations; either way, I would love to be able to do that.  Theory is not my strong point.

One area Schwarz has studied a great deal is metacognitive experiences, basically thinking about thinking, and how we use cues from our thinking to influence the way we think.  Wow, that made so much more sense in my head.  Okay, how about a concrete example?  Let's say I show you an ad for a car, then ask you to come up with a list of 10 reasons why you should buy that car.

Go ahead and get started on your list; I can wait.
Unless you know a lot about the car or I offered a really great option to consider (Batmobile anyone?), you probably had a lot of trouble coming up with a list of 10 items.  You might use that cue, "Wow, thinking of 10 items was really hard" to tell you something about whether you really want to buy the car.  That is, because thinking felt difficult, you took that as a cue to mean the thing you were considering was not that good.  Schwarz refers to this perceived ease/difficulty as "processing fluency".

Schwarz has shown that processing fluency can be manipulated in many ways, such as by using an illegible font or by asking participants to remember very specific personal events (such as 12 times you behaved assertively).  Another way is familiarity; more familiar things are easier to process.

Now obviously, we don't always need thinking to feel easy.  Sometimes, we encounter things to which we want to devote our full cognitive effort.  But as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we're cognitive misers.  We're choosey with how we spend our cognitive resources.  If we're asked to learn a new software package for work, for example, we might be willing to devote the effort (there are a lot of other variables operating, but this is just a for instance).  Facebook, on the other hand, is a leisure time activity, and many people who aren't high need-for-cognition folks would rather be able to have fun without thinking too hard.

But people continue to use Facebook, and though some users have likely split recently, Facebook currently has 750 million members (according to Google population data, the Earth's population is currently 6,775,235,700, so that means about 1 of every 9 people uses Facebook).  Perhaps processing fluency is not the only issue at work here; the very nature of the social networking site is, well, it's social.  Your friends are there, and in some cases, it might be your only opportunity for interaction.  That might make some people unlikely to leave (of course, since Google+ is now open to the public, the landscape may continue to shift).

For those who left Facebook, I'd love to hear your reasons (in comments below), even if you left long before the recent update.  For those who stuck around, don't worry; eventually you'll get used to the new look and thinking won't feel so difficult... just in time for the next update.

Thoughtfully yours,

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pachelbel and Queen: The Psychology of Music Cravings

Cravings; everyone gets them one time or another. Food cravings make sense (well, some of them). Your body often craves what it needs more of, though apparently some cravings for one thing (e.g., sugar) are actually a sign your body is lacking something else (e.g., magnesium). And while your taste buds may be fooled (Mmm, thanks for that Diet Coke, sweet nectar of life), your body is not (Artificial sweetener? Nice try, I still want sugar) (which some research suggests is why drinking diet soda doesn't actually help if you're trying to lose weight).

But today, I experienced another craving, one I've had before but never really considered until now. I found myself craving certain music. As I was listening to one album (Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil, admittedly, one I've been listening to a lot recently because my choir will be performing it) I found myself craving (for lack of a better word) another work, Carmina Burana, different in style, instrumental support, and subject matter: While Rachmaninoff is a series of a cappella songs based on chants from the Eastern Orthodox tradition (read: quite religious), Carmina Burana is a celebration of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll (well, perhaps not rock n' roll, but the other two most definitely), and of course, fortune. One of the most well-known works from Carmina Burana is "O Fortuna", a piece you've definitely heard; it's often used in advertisements, even though the lyrics "O fortune, like the moon, you are changeable…" are perhaps not well-suited for the car, movie, football game, etc., ads I constantly see it used in. But people keep using it because it sounds epic - like you're talking about something really important and awesome. Well, it does if you don't understand Latin. But I digress.

Read a list of popular culture uses of O Fortuna.

Obviously, when you crave food, it fulfills a bodily need; even if the food you crave isn't all that good for you (And really, are any food cravings for things that are actually healthy? I don't know about you, but I rarely crave carrots.), it still provides calories your body needs to run all of its systems. In fact, pretty much any craving you can think of fulfills a survival need of some kind. But what need does music fulfill? Apparently, I'm not the only one who has considered this question. There are textbooks, articles, and even whole scholarly journals devoted entirely to the psychology of music. Researchers have examined how music preferences relate to personality, the factors that explain why someone likes a particular piece of music, and how music affects mood, to name a few.

Even researchers outside of music psychology recognize the power of music to influence your mood. One of the most popular manipulations for studies on the effect of mood is to have participants listen to a piece of music known to elicit certain feelings: happiness, sadness, etc. But research directly on music is far more rare (but becoming more common thanks to all these great publication outlets). Peter Rentfrow and Sam Gosling, two personality researchers who also frequently examine music in their work, noted in this article that of the 11,000 articles published in top social and personality psychology journals between 1965 and 2002, music was an index or subject term in only 7. The few studies on these topics find that music is related to personality (such traits as sensation-seeking - also implicated in enjoyment of horror movies - as well as extraversion, warmth, conservatism, and psychoticism), social identity (something I've also blogged about before), and physiological arousal (though Rentfrow and Gosling's brief review of this subject still touches a lot on personality).

Of course preference would refer to what types of music you enjoy. Personally, I enjoy many different styles of music, everything from orchestral and choral music (what many refer to as "classical") to piano-driven pop to classic rock to blues (my background while writing most of this blog post was music of Stevie Ray Vaughan). But at certain times, I may prefer to listen to one style of music, or one particular artist, or even one particular song. What determines that minute-to-minute preference? One study (Ter Bogt, Mulder, Raaijmakers, & Gabhainn, 2011, abstract here) recently published in Psychology of Music may offer some explanation. They categorized their participants by self-rated level of importance of and involvement with music: high-involved, medium-involved, and low-involved listeners. High-involved listeners were the eclectic types - they liked a broad range of music styles, experienced a great deal of positive affect while listening, and reported that music served a variety of purposes in their lives: dealing with stress, constructing their identity, relating to others, and enhancing their mood. The other two groups showed more narrow music preferences and considered music to be a less integral part of their lives.

Relatedly, Saarikallio (2011 - abstract here) argued that music was important for emotional self-regulation, and performed interviews with people from a variety of age groups and levels of involvement with music, finding that reasons for listening to music included mood maintenance, distraction, solace, revival, and psyching up; reasons were quite consistent across age groups.

Though these studies don't tackle the topic directly, they suggest that people may select music from their internal list that they think will serve whatever purpose they're addressing (such as coping with stress or maintaining a happy mood). High-involved listeners have a larger internal list, and also get a great deal out of listening to music, so they probably do it regularly and may have certain songs in mind for particular needs. For example, I worked for a year in downtown Chicago, commuting from the north side. Though I had the El (that's the Elevated Train for non-Chicagoans) and didn't have to deal with Chicago drivers (shudder), the El was often crowded early in the morning and people were none too friendly. (I spent part of this time commuting with a broken arm and did anyone offer me a seat? No, but that's a blog post for another day.)  My solution for all the negativity: sublime choral music, especially Bruckner's Mass in e minor; just out-of-this-world gorgeous.  Made my commute so much more bearable.

There are countless other examples of studies examining the relationship between traits and music preference, whether those traits use personality theory terms (extraversion, openness to experience, etc.) or ability terms (musical abilities, etc.). Over the course of the literature I've read, I've had my ego stroked (you like lots of types of music and use music for emotional needs because you're a good musician - yay!) but also knocked down a bit (people who use music in those ways tend to have lower IQs - aw, man). But what about this notion of need? What need does music fulfill and can that explain the issues of musical cravings?

So who do I turn to when I want to examine human needs? Maslow, of course! Why didn't I think of it sooner? (See aforementioned finding about IQ.) Most people who have taken introductory psychology know Maslow as the guy who created the hierarchy of needs.

Look familiar? According to Maslow, human needs fit into one of five levels of the pyramid. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid are most important - without them, we don't really consider the needs higher up on the pyramid, because we're busy trying to fulfill those basic needs. So in order of importance, our needs are Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, and Self-Actualization.

 Arguably, music would be one of the Self-Actualization needs, falling perhaps under the sub need of creativity. How then can we explain the ubiquity of music in so many human cultures, even cultures that perhaps struggle to meet needs that are at the base of the pyramid? Of course, even though music is present in nearly all human cultures, there are certainly individual differences in importance of music (as was shown in studies above). Perhaps for some people, then, music falls on a lower, more integral part of the pyramid. For instance, Ter Bogt et al. (above) found that the high-involved music-lovers considered music to be an important part of their identity (both individually and socially). These individuals might place music, then, with Esteem or even Love/Belonging. In fact, music might fall in more than one place, and be used when fulfilling a variety of levels of needs; that might even explain why certain music is more appealing at certain times.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who experiences these musical cravings. Even so, despite services that introduce you to new music based on other music preferences, there doesn't seem to be anyone trying to measure and use these minute-to-minute variations to make a buck. Perhaps because when you get right down to it, no one completely understands it beyond knowing it exists.

Thoughtfully yours,

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keep Telling Yourself It's Only a Movie: The Psychology of Horror Movie Enjoyment, Part 2

As I said in my last post, I love horror movies. I set out to explore some reasons why I (and many other people) might love movies that others might find disturbing. Little did I know, this search would turn up so much information, in addition to my personal notes on the subject, that 1) my first blog post was quite long and 2) I still had to cut it off and add the ever-annoying "To Be Continued". Who knew that something so trivial could bring up so much relevant information in the scientific community? Well, I did, but that was what we call a rhetorical question, dear reader.

So what is it that sets horror movie lovers apart from others? Last time, I wrote about the sensation-seeking personality, which includes love of horror movies in a long list of traits held by people who seek out thrills in all the wrong places and suffer from an insatiable case of neophilia (and if you thought, "Ew, they like dead people?!" dear reader, read that word again). As I said, though, I hesitate to accept something so clinical. As a social psychologist, I try to look for situational explanations as well. And as a recovering radical behaviorist (hi, my name is Sara, and I'm a Skinner-holic), I try to think of how learning and patterns of reinforcement & punishment might have shaped a behavior.

Love of horror movies, for instance, seems to be correlated with gender. Men are more likely to enjoy them than women. Of course, you could make the case that there are some innate, biological differences between men and women that make them respond differently to these images, but behavior shaping and reinforcement could also explain some of these differences. When children start growing up, they begin going through what is called gender socialization: they learn how to be little boys and little girls.

One way this happens is through selective reinforcement. We reinforce (through our verbal and behavioral responses) when little girls play with dolls and little boys play with trucks; we may not necessarily reinforce when little boys play with dolls and little girls play with trucks. We often reinforce when little boys play rough, but sometimes even punish little girls when they play rough.

Gender stereotypes can become so internalized, we even get the kids to do the dirty work for us:

Even parents who insist they don't want to reinforce gender stereotypes with their kids may inadvertently reinforce gendered behaviors; a parent may not "have a problem" with Jr. playing with dolls but they may not say anything or join him during that kind of play, but would respond positively and join when Jr. plays with a truck.

As a behaviorist (oops, I mean recovering behaviorist), I love observing these kinds of interactions; people often fail to realize what kinds of behaviors they're rewarding.

So you could argue gender socialization influences movie choice. When children pick out a movie to watch at the movie theater, at home, etc., parents always have to option of saying, "No, not that one. How about something else?" Do that often enough, and with certain movie selections, and over time, children learn what sorts of movies they should be watching (and what they should avoid – or at least, what movies they should be watching when the parents are around; people constantly test to see what they can “get away with”).

The problem with explaining a behavior with reinforcement and punishment is that the definition is circular, and it's difficult to get to the root cause. What is a reinforcer? Something that reinforces, that is, makes a behavior more likely to occur again. The thing is defined by the effect is has on behavior, and if it doesn't have that effect on behavior, it was never that thing to begin with (do you see why I say recovering behaviorist? - I love this subfield of psychology but it definitely gives me a headache). You are never able to get away from individual differences here, because something that may be reinforcing for one person may be neutral or punishing for another. Individual differences are fine, of course (I love including some of these variables in my studies), but where do they come from? Biology, perhaps? Very early experiences? Start thinking too much about this, and Watson's insistence that, "I can shape anyone to be anything I want, mwa ha ha" and Skinner's "Innate schminnate" attitude start to unravel, and the only way to repair it is to weave it with – gasp – cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, and psychodynamics. Oh, the horror.

Of course, timing is key when it comes to reinforcement and punishment. We know that for a reinforcer to be truly reinforcing, and a punisher to be truly punishing, it should happen quickly after the target behavior; this is one of the basic tenets of behaviorism. To take this one step farther, something may only work if it is delivered at a certain time. Perhaps one has to be in a certain state of mind for a horror movie to be enjoyable, and if you see a movie during that proper window, you’re more likely to seek it out again. Your mind shapes to enjoy these images (there is evidence that experiences actually change your brain physically, and that early stimulation may have long-term implications for brain development and, therefore, things like intelligence), and you become, over time, a horror movie fiend.

If you first view a movie during one of those off times, your response may be disgust, a response that strengthens over time. This is similar to something I’m exploring for another blog post (coming soon!) about cravings. This argument still depends very much on inner states, like mood, but considering that other research has established things like mood influence our decision-making and processing of information, it stands to reason that mood could influence whether something is reinforcing or not. And also considering we know that physiological states influence whether something is reinforcing or not (a cookie isn’t very rewarding if you’re not at all hungry), it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to weave these two lines of thinking together.

Hard to believe I once spouted Skinner constantly – Skinner, the man who said, “So far as I’m concerned, cognitive science is the creationism of psychology. It is an effort to reinstate that inner initiating or originating creative self or mind that, in a scientific analysis, simply does not exist.” Ah, Skinner, you were a brilliant man, but just because you can’t take something out and dissect it, or put it in an operant chamber and train it to press a bar, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or important. Not to mention, with advances in technology and scientific methods, something that was once unobservable, and therefore untestable, unfalsifiable, and unscientific, often becomes the subject of routine scientific study.

If we keep moving forward in the 20th century in the history of behaviorism, we come to Albert Bandura and his work on vicarious learning, imitation, and modeling. We learn a lot by watching others and chose role models to imitate (something Thorndike began studying almost a century prior to Bandura, but he found little to no evidence in his studies of animals and determined such learning did not exist). It’s possible, then, that love (or hatred) of horror movies develops in part from who we aspire to be and from observing the responses of others. This could even explain why behaviors not in line with gender stereotypes get shaped and reinforced; a little girl may learn to behave in “boyish” way by observing and imitating little boys (perhaps one reason that little girls with lots of brothers become “tomboys” themselves – I use the quotes because I personally hate these terms, but sometimes there is no better way to explain something).

 To use a personal analogy, I grew up with a brother and mostly male cousins, so perhaps my early models were mostly male. And though I did engage in some “girly” play behaviors, I would also play with action figures and train sets with my brother, and we would often watch TV together: lots of He-Man, Justice League, and even WWF. (I was traumatized when I learned pro wrestling was fake. Hulk Hogan, I still remember that sobbing letter I wrote to you after you “broke your back”. Hope you had a nice vac-ay, you liar!)

Once again, we come back to the original dilemma, and to play devil’s advocate, you may be asking, “Okay, but where did the behavior originally come from? If we’re imitating, where does the imitated behavior come from? What makes parents want to reinforce gendered behavior? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And you really wrote a get-well letter to Hulk Hogan? Dork.” Yes, yes, I know. I suppose we can never truly get away from the cognitive, personality, and clinical arguments. But depending on them entirely seems as misguided as depending entirely on contingencies of reinforcement as the sole explanation for behavior (sorry Skinner). Taken together, I think we… well, I think we perhaps created more questions than we started with, but isn’t that what good science is all about? What do you think?

Thoughtfully yours,

Friday, September 16, 2011

Keep Telling Yourself It's Only a Movie: The Psychology of Horror Movie Enjoyment, Part 1

The weather is turning colder and fall is just around the corner. There are many things to love about fall. As much as people love summer activities, the heat begins to wear on many of us; the cooler days of fall are usually a welcome change by summer's end. Fall clothes are also some of my favorites; say goodbye to shorts and flip-flops and hello to scarves, sweaters, jackets - there's just something cozy about the layers, the neutral colors. Speaking of colors, fall leaves... need I say more? Yes, fall is wonderful for many reasons, including one more: Halloween.

Why Halloween? For one: It's the one time of year that it is acceptable to watch horror movies (I watch them pretty much year-round, but this is the one time that it's totally acceptable to talk about these movies and invite people over to watch them with you). I love horror movies. Despite (or perhaps because of) being slightly traumatized watching a scene from Children of the Corn when I was 4 or so years old, a scene I remember quite vividly, I grew up to be a horror movie fiend. When my family made its visit to the local video store, I'd want to check out movies from A Nightmare on Elm Street series (I've seen them all, even, shudder, Freddie versus Jason; Part 3: Dream Warriors, is my favorite for blending scary with funny – generally on purpose). On rainy days when we couldn't play outside, I'd turn off all the lights, block out of the windows, and watch the Exorcist in the dark. Alone, because no one in my family wanted to join me. And it wasn't just movies: I was a voracious reader, and though I would read pretty much anything from the fiction or nonfiction sections of the library, Stephen King was (and still is) one of my favorite authors.

Many believe that people who love scary movies don't find them scary. I don't know about others, but I find them terrifying. I'll sometimes have trouble sleeping after a really good one, like the first time I saw Poltergeist, and, especially when I'm alone, I'll find myself imagining all kinds of creepy things and explanations for weird noises. I probably find them just as scary as people who refuse to watch them (and I know a lot of people who fall into this camp, including my family, especially my mom).

But still, I love them. I own many, one of the first things people notice when looking through my movie collection. I talk about them to anyone who will listen; yes, I'm that person who still goes on about that awesome scene in that one movie that came out the year I was born but didn't see until I was 10 (aka: The Thing). When someone talks about zombies, I feel we have to clarify, "Are these slow-moving Night of the Living Dead zombies? Or crazy fast 28 Days Later zombies? Or somewhere in the middle Walking Dead zombies", because it’s an important distinction. And yes, I’m also that obnoxious person who thrives on horror movie trivia: did you know that A Nightmare on Elm Street (movie 1) took place in Springwood, California, but suddenly in later movies, they reveal they’re in Springwood, Ohio? That’s movie magic for you; they moved an entire city across the country.

So what explains my love of movies that would leave my mom insisting she sleep with the lights on surrounded by crosses, garlic, and silver? I started doing some research on this, and it seems there are many psychologists and communication experts who have sought to explain this very thing. There's actually a lot here, and a lot of commentary that I think is necessary, so this is the first of two parts on this topic.

One explanation is the notion of "sensation-seeking". Some people, for instance, are high sensation seekers. According to Jonathan Roberti, clinical psychologist and expert in sensation-seeking (read a review of his here), these individuals thrive on experiences that leave them emotionally and physically high. Not only would high sensation seekers be more interested in seeking out thrills and other emotional highs through the media (they apparently enjoy horror movies), they also are at increased risk for other "thrilling" activities, like drug use, excessive gambling, and casual sex. (Hmm, this isn't really sounding like me, but let's continue exploring.) Furthermore, high sensation seekers thrive on novelty, always seeking out new experiences, and are willing - and perhaps, prefer - to take risks to achieve these thrills; they're likely to select careers that allow them to take risks and experience new things - forensic identification, aka profiling, is one career they tend to express an interest in - and are prone to boredom.

Some research suggests that people have different brain responses to stimuli, and that some people, called "high stimulation seekers" (sounds like high sensation seekers to me, but different terms for different folks) experience activation in areas of the brain associated with reinforcement and arousal when exposed to intense stimuli, whereas others experience activation in emotional areas of the brain. While the researchers did not measure these brain reactions in response to horror movies, it may be that my brain responses are what differentiate me from my mom. While these images are reinforcing and psychologically arousing to horror movie lovers, they're upsetting to others.

But I hesitate to leave it at that. It seems that this explanation is more clinical, referring to enjoyment of horror movies as part of an additional diagnosis or, at the very least, a personality type. I hesitate to accept this explanation alone, because it clinicalizes (if that is in fact a word - and if not, it should be) something that could be considered normal. Additionally, though this research suggests there is a correlation between enjoyment of horror movies and these other behaviors, the one thing that makes horror movie viewing different from these other things is the notion of risk. There are risks of bodily injury or death involved in these behaviors, even something as commonplace as riding a roller coaster (though the odds are very, very low). The only risk involved with watching horror movies is that you might get a little freaked out, which could be quite traumatizing for people who dislike horror movies but probably not people who seek them out (either way, remember the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left: "to keep from fainting, keep telling yourself 'it’s only a movie'"). As Roberti points out, however, not all of their behaviors are related to risk; they also enjoy trying new things in general, in terms of art, music, and sports; they score high on the personality dimension, "Openness to Experience".

Still, there are many good reasons to avoid clinical explanations when other explanations are just as likely if not better. One early example of the dangers of over-clinicalizing is a study by Rosenthal, aptly titled "On Being Sane in Insane Places". In this study Rosenthal and 7 colleagues got themselves committed to different mental hospitals, by each meeting with psychiatrists and informing them they were hearing voices saying the words, "Empty", "Hollow", and "Thud". All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia (the final patient was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or “manic depression” as it was called then) and committed. After reporting to an inpatient psychiatric ward, these "pseudo patients" stopped faking any symptoms and began acting as they normally would to see how long it would take for facility staff to notice. Their stays ranged from 7 to 52 days, with an average of 19 days.

So, they had time to kill, and thought, "Let's have some fun". What's a social psychologist's idea of fun? Doing research. While they were inpatient, they had an interesting opportunity to observe the various happenings: patients' behaviors, providers' behaviors, and most importantly, providers' assessments of patients' behaviors. They found that once a patient had been labeled with a clinical diagnosis, his or her behavior was often interpreted in line with that diagnosis, even when situational explanations were perhaps better. For example, patients spent a lot of time hanging out in the cafeteria waiting for meal-time, which providers attributed to things like "oral fixation", but the researchers thought was more likely because there's not much to do in a mental hospital, but eating is one regular activity that breaks up the monotony. Even the researchers' note-taking behavior was attributed to their diagnoses. [Interesting side note: while the providers never caught on that the pseudo patients were not actually mentally ill, 35 of the 118 other patients caught on rather quickly, and would ask the researchers things like, "Why are you here? You're not crazy."]

As a social psychologist, I think we should at least consider situational explanations for these phenomena. That's for next time. To be continued...

Thoughtfully yours,

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgiveness and the 10-Year Anniversary of 9/11

Today, we remember the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th. In church today, the message was one of forgiveness. There are many religious and spiritual arguments for the importance of forgiveness that I won't go into. Psychologists also have explored this concept, and have discovered how forgiveness (and its converse, unforgiveness) influences an individual's mental and physical health.

Forgiveness is defined in many ways, but all of these definitions add up to one thing: forgiveness is something a wronged person offers to the one (or ones) who perpetrated the wrongdoing. It is generally viewed as a process that the forgiver works toward through many emotions and behaviors. Forgiveness is also often viewed as a personality trait; some people are simply more forgiving than others.

A lot of evidence suggests that being in a state of unforgiveness is damaging to both your mental and physical health (read one of many reviews here). Conversely, forgiveness is associated with better mental and physical health. Forgiveness is something you do, in part for the other person, but also for yourself. Refusing to forgive and continuing to hold a grudge is, for lack of a better word, toxic to your well-being.

This is because, in refusing to forgive, we often dwell on the wrongdoing. Psychologists refer to this constant dwelling on the negative as "rumination", and refer to rumination about perceived wrongdoing as "vengeful rumination". Research on rumination in general finds negative effects. Rumination is negatively correlated with sleep quality (abstract), as well as alcohol misuse, disordered eating, and self-harm (full paper). It makes focusing attention and problem solving difficult, because ruminators tend to be less confident in their problem solving abilities (full paper), and also because rumination uses working memory that could be devoted to the problem (full paper). Ruminators generate more biased interpretations of negative events, are more pessimistic about the future, and are poorer at solving interpersonal problems, as well (full paper).

Rumination is also associated with poor physical health. High ruminators show physiological stress markers, such as increased salivary cortisol (full paper here and abstract here) and immune system activity (full paper). People who ruminate also take longer for their heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal after being made to feel angry, which can put them at risk for organ damage over time (full paper).

Forgiveness is not "letting someone off the hook". It is not the same as condoning or absolving someone of wrong-doing. The old adage of "forgive and forget" doesn't necessarily lead to better outcomes, mainly because of the forgetting part. It is good to forgive, but not necessarily good to forget. Forgetting means failing to learn a lesson - a lesson that may be very important for you later on. This leaves the "forgiver" in a rather difficult position; one in which he or she must remember the wrongdoing without holding a grudge.

How, then, do you forgive? And how do you think about the act in such a way, that you can find forgiveness without simply ruminating on the event? Rumination has one key component - it is dwelling on the negative without trying to find a solution for the negative. You're stuck in the mud and simply spinning your wheels without really getting anywhere. Reflection, on the other hand, involves thinking through an event and trying to find closure. Reflective thought leads to a change in the thinker.

The review I linked to above (linked again here) discussed some of the reflection “forgivers” engage in. One cognitive process is empathy, in which the forgiver puts him- or herself in the other’s shoes, and attempts to experience the same emotional state. Not only do “trait forgivers” experience more empathy, but people who are randomly assigned to engage in empathy are also able to experience forgiveness. This provides some evidence that anyone, even people who are not naturally empathetic, can use this experience to forgive.

Forgivers are more generous in their appraisals of the one(s) to be forgiven, seeing them as more likable or having more likable traits. They are also better at understanding another person’s explanation for the behavior. In essence, they try to see the situation from the other person’s point-of-view. You don’t have to accept another person’s explanation, but rather, try to understand where they’re coming from. At the very least, this understanding can aid in finding a solution or determining a path to reconciliation. People often have a very self-centered view of the world in that they have difficulty recognizing that other people do not see things in the same way or have the same knowledge (a good blog post for another day).

Of course, one thing that may make forgiveness such a difficult process in the case of 9/11 is the severity of the wrong as well as the fact that the group responsible has such different worldviews. In a previous blog entry, I talked about stereotypes and ingroup/outgroup, all of which is definitely relevant here. Our tendency to dehumanize the outgroup makes forgiveness complicated, because forgiveness is a between-human experience. Forgiveness in this case is not impossible, but would have to involve an even greater degree of understanding and attempts to characterize the other group’s point-of-view.

Forgiveness is a process. Even 10 years later, the emotions are still very raw, but we can still continue moving forward.

Thoughtfully yours,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Too Pretty to Write this Blog Post: On Math Performance, Stereotypes, and Bad T-Shirt Choices

I know, I haven't posted in a while. Mea culpa, etc. etc. I'll try to be better about this from now on :)

Recently, two stories came across my desk (well, desktop, but whatever) that I've been meaning to blog about. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk about some of my early research interests. I've always been interested in the media: how it shapes our perceptions, and how it influences our behavior, performance on various tasks, and even our health (something I've done some research on and should definitely post about one of these days). One of my first studies I worked on - for my master's thesis - was about how the media influences women's math performance.

The most recent pop culture reference to women and academic ability was on a t-shirt marketed toward girls 7 to 16 at the major retailer, JC Penney. Though JC Penney eventually pulled the shirt, many argued that this t-shirt perpetuated negative stereotypes about girls and women. This is not the only instance of stereotypes about women popping up in the media. Abercrombie and Fitch prompted a "girlcott" in 2005 when they released a t-shirt with the phrase "Who needs brain when you have these?" printed across the bustline. T-shirts aren't the only outlets for these messages. Perhaps you remember the "Math is hard" Barbie? Teen Talk Barbie was the cause of controversy when one of the many phrases she uttered is "Math class is tough!" And advertising is constantly filled with gender stereotypes (both of men and women).

But wait a minute? Do these messages really affect women's math performance? Research (and not just my own) finds that they can. To avoid looking biased toward my own research, I won't even discuss my thesis.

But first, to give you some background information. Much of this research is influenced by the work of Claude Steele and his colleagues, and on Steele's concept called "stereotype threat". Essentially, stereotype threat occurs when the negative stereotype about a group's performance on a task makes a member of that group underperform on that task. To give a concrete example, Steele first explored this concept in a study on standardized test performance by African-American students. He and his colleague Aronson found that making African-American students conscious of racial stereotypes resulted in underperformance on a standardized test. Even asking them report their race on the test lowered performance. When racial stereotypes were made irrelevant through test instructions, African-American students performed at the same level as White students. (Read the original article here).

Stereotype threat became an important area of study because it provided evidence to counter claims of genetic inferiority that have been used to explain past race differences in standardized test scores. Steele and his colleagues went on to apply this phenomenon to a variety of groups, and used it to explain another group difference: women’s scores in math testing. In a conceptual replication of their study on African-American students' test performance, they found that when some women were told a math test had shown gender differences in the past, they performed worse than men; when they were told the math test they were taking had not shown gender differences, they performed at the same levels as men. (Full paper available here).

Prior to Steele and his colleagues' research, biological explanations were applied to gender differences in math and the sciences. Many people believed that women were just naturally bad at math. These opinions continue even today; early in 2005, Harvard University President, Lawrence H. Summers, presented a variety of explanations for women’s under-representation in math and science, including that the difference may be due to genetic inferiority (he resigned not long after, though this speech was just one of many marks against him).

Steele established three conditions that must be satisfied in order for stereotype threat to occur: 1) there must be awareness of the stereotype by society at large, that is, the stereotype that women are bad at math must be well-known; 2) the individual must be identified with the domain of interest, that is, a woman must be math-identified in order for stereotype threat to take place; and 3) the negative stereotype must be relevant to the individual during the domain-specific situation, that is, the stereotype that women are bad at math must be relevant to the individual when she encounters a math test. Though some people have called proposition 2 into question, and have even shown that stereotype threat can operate among women who don't really care about their math ability/performance, the other two propositions are necessary.

What these propositions mean, however, is that instructions from an experimenter aren't necessary for stereotype threat to occur. Simply having a high awareness of the stereotype (abstract here), being strongly woman-identified (full paper), or believing that gender stereotypes are correct (full papers here and here) can lead women to underperform in math even in the absence of any stereotype cues from the experimenter. It's not even necessary that the information made salient is related to math. Being the only woman in a group of men is one way (abstract, full paper). Receiving unwanted homework help from your parents is another (abstract here).

But it was work by Paul Davies and his colleagues that found stereotypical television commercials could lower math performance in women and impact their interest in math. In one study, some participants saw two stereotypical commercials: a teenage girl jumping for joy about a new acne medication and another of a woman drooling over a new brownie mix. Others saw counter-stereotypical ads: one in which a woman impressed a man with her knowledge of automotive engineering and another of a woman discussing health care concerns. Men and women who saw the counter-stereotypical ads did not differ on math performance. Men and women who saw the stereotypical ads did, with women receiving significantly lower scores. In a second study, women exposed to stereotypical ads avoided math questions in favor of verbal questions more frequently than women who saw neutral ads or men in either condition. A third study found that exposure to stereotypical television ads lowered women's interest in quantitative careers.

None of these television commercials said anything about women's math ability. Why then would these influence math performance? It has been argued that these messages create an "atmosphere of stereotype threat", where the messages are ubiquitous and inescapable. No special instructions are needed to make women question their math ability; messages present in their environment are enough. Some have argued that the controversy of JC Penney's t-shirt is misplaced; after all, it's just a t-shirt. But is it? Based on what we know about stereotype threat and how similar messages have influenced women's math performance, can we really shrug this off as "just a t-shirt"?

So what was the second story that came across my desktop? A cultural exploration of not math performance, but a related concept: spatial reasoning. In this really creative natural experiment, researchers examined two tribes in India, the Karbi and the Khasi. These two tribes are very similar in lifestyle, diet, even DNA (they likely share some common ancestors). The main difference is in gender roles. In the Karbi society, land is passed to male children when the parents die. Women rarely own land. In the Khasi society, women control the land and goods; men can't own land and their earnings are turned over to their nearest female relative. The researchers went to different members of these two tribes (in total, 1300 people) and found some striking results: in the Karbi society, men outperformed women, but in the Khasi society, no differences were found.

There are still people who argue that stereotype threat doesn't explain these differences, or if it does, is only one variable among many that explain these differences. There is definitely some validity to that argument. The effect sizes in these studies are small to moderate at best, meaning there is more pushing math scores around than stereotype threat. Furthermore, the original article that prompted this blog post is a t-shirt about "doing homework" in general - not just the math work. There aren't many stereotypes that women are bad in school - in fact, in some cases, the opposite stereotype exists - so would this t-shirt really have the effects I discuss above? What do you think?

Thoughtfully yours,