Saturday, January 30, 2016

On Gambling and Good Moods

The lottery has received a lot of attention recently, due to an obscenely large jackpot of $1.3 billion. Obviously, many people bought tickets for the drawing - more than usual - as happens with large jackpots. But recent research identified another reason for increases in lottery ticket sales: an unexpected sports win.

The authors found that when a sports team won a game they were predicted to lose (using a metric they called prediction error: 1-the probability they will win the game), lottery sales increased - by as much as $160,000 in fact, for a day with several unexpected victories. The same was true for unexpectedly sunny days - days when the weather person predicted clouds or rain.

Read the abstract here for more information on the study and authors.

There has already been a long history of research into the impact of the external environment on mood and satisfaction with one's life. A study by Schwartz and Clore, using phone interviews, found that on sunny days, people reported being more satisfied and happy with their lives and on rainy days, people were less satisfied and happy. But, if you made people aware of the nice weather, such as by asking "How's the weather today?", the "rainy day" ratings looked more like "sunny day" ratings.

Essentially, what is happening here is that people are misattributing the source of their good mood - they think it's the circumstances of their lives when it is actually the weather. But how does this lead to increased lottery sales?

Before I get into that, I think I should quickly differentiate between a couple of psychological terms: mood refers to an emotional state without a clear source (either you're unable to identify it or you've forgotten what it is), while an emotion has a clearly identifiable source. Making people aware of the source of the emotional state (good weather) can change a mood to an emotion.

This is important, because moods can have a strong impact on our decision-making - more than emotions, because we can try (not always successfully) to counteract the impact of emotions on decisions. That is, if I'm angry at person X (and know it) and make a decision about person Y, I can try not to let my anger toward X affect my behavior toward Y. But if I'm angry at X but don't realize it, and I'm instead in a bad mood, that will definitely impact my decision about Y; I may misattribute my mood to Y.

But it's not just that mood influences how we look at people or things - it also influences how much thought we put into a decision. We call this the "mood as information" effect (read more here). When we're in a positive mood, we essentially say "everything is good as is, keep doing what you're doing." When we're in a negative mood, it's a sign that "something is wrong; better figure out what is is."

So if we're in a good mood because of the weather or a sports victory, and we were thinking of buying a lottery ticket, we may do that without much additional thought. That is, we may misattribute the source of the good mood and think of it as a sign that buying that lottery ticket is a good idea. But if we're in a bad mood, we may be more likely to systematically think about whether buying that lottery ticket is a good idea. And considering the probability of winning, it almost never is.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Freud and Dogs

My husband shared this story with me last night, which he read in his Dog-A-Day calendar:
Sigmund Freud had an awareness of the role dogs could play in therapy long before the words “therapy dog” were coined. The celebrated psychiatrist often allowed his Chow to sit in on sessions with his patients. If the dog kept his distance from a patient, the doctor knew that patient was tense or troubled. Freud also realized that petting his dog had a therapeutic effect on many patients.
He said, "So Freud wasn't all bad." To which I replied, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

The thing I will give Freud is that he was good at observing, which is part of the scientific method, but not all of it. The "research" Freud contributed to the field of psychology was not really scientific - more like anecdotes. Some have followed up on his observations using scientific methods, allowing some of his conclusions to be confirmed, and others refuted. The problem I have with Freud is that his contributions gave people a skewed view about psychology, and what psychologists do - even research psychologists, like myself. I suppose that's not really his fault, rather the fault of people who encountered Freud's work.

It would be interesting to find out if others also noticed the calming effect of dogs, and see where research into therapy dogs as we know them today began. There are certainly days at work that I'd love to have a dog in my office.

Edit: Thanks to my friend, David, at The Daily Parker, here's a little history of animal-human bond research, including a funny story from 1908 about Colonel Deems and his dog Riley, as well as a summary of research on the positive effects of animals on our well-being.

Therapeutically yours,


Monday, January 25, 2016

Trivial Only Post - The Top Reason I'm Late for Anything

i'm composing this post as I'm sitting in stop and start traffic.  Don't worry, I'm using talk to type. And I'm running late, though it's not the traffic necessarily that made me late; the traffic is only adding to the lateness. The reason I'm late I've discovered is a reason that I'm often late for things.

 I was reading a really sad book and I had to wait until my cry face subsided before I could show myself in public. So friends, if I'm late for something that's probably the reason.

 Trivially yours,

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Do You Become a Faster Reader?: Practice Practice

As a researcher, I spend a lot of my day reading and summarizing what I read. This is because two of the most important products I produce in my job - journal articles and study proposals - involve writing sections about past research and theory on the topic.

I'm sure people in many other professions also spend a great deal of their time reading. So the idea of reading and comprehending information quickly is very appealing. Unfortunately, a recent research review article outlined the reading process, as well as popular speed-reading programs. The authors challenge the validity of these programs, stating that they do not increase reading speed and that increased speed comes at the cost of decreased comprehension.

Well, darn.

What works then? The authors state that the best way to increase both speed and comprehension is to practice reading and improve one's vocabulary. This is really the purpose of practicing anything - to get better and faster at it. Anytime we practice something, we are trying to increase our cognitive processing speed. The first time you encounter something new, you think about it, you puzzle it out, you examine it. Over time, you develop cognitive shortcuts that allow you to know what to do more quickly. When you first started reading, you were probably painfully slow (compared to where you are now), because you were still learning about each letter, how to sound them out and combine them into words. Once you have enough experience with that, you don't have to spend as much cognitive energy on those aspects of reading (and we like this because cognitive resources are fixed and we're cognitive misers), and can focus instead on something else, like learning new words or keeping more complicated storylines in your mind. So if you read a lot, and encounter a lot of new words, you're able to read more quickly, because you're using less cognitive energy.

The same is true for just about anything, even skills that are mostly physical. The first time you pick up a basketball to shoot a free-throw, you're doing a lot of thinking: your stance, your arm motion, the amount of force you put behind the ball, and so on. As you get more experienced, you can do these things more quickly, and can make (and note) small changes to improve your accuracy. And you can do all of this without consciously thinking about it. When people "psych themselves out" in sports, it's because they think about it the way they did when they first started out.

Research suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. What you're doing in that time is getting better/faster at processing the tasks involved and reserving cognitive energy for more challenging tasks. And what is "challenging" is relative - what was once challenging becomes easy (less cognitively tasking) with enough practice and you can move up a level to the new "challenge."

And to my fellow Chicagoans, if you're looking for some cozy places to practice reading, check out this list from BookRiot of 7 Cozy Bookstores in Chicago.

So get out there and practice practice!

Cognitively yours,

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sharing is Caring, Oversharing is Annoying: On the Benefits and Costs of Self-Disclosure

Social media has made it easier than ever to share information about oneself. But this concept, known as self-disclosure, has been an area of research since long before Facebook profiles and online dating. This research shows that self-disclosure can have positive effects on relationships, by increasing feelings of intimacy, and decreasing uncertainty in the relationship. However, this research also suggests a cost of revealing too much: for instance, sharing too much information can make you seem self-centered, and revealing negative information (like that you're actually a Donald Trump supporter) about oneself decreases liking.

In fact, a semi-recent post on Psychology Today summarizes self-disclosure research, and identifies some examples of what not to share: too much negativity or whining, and insignificant details (but only with people you interact with a great deal - those people you never talk to love knowing what you ate for breakfast).

That's why the findings a recent study on nondisclosure are so surprising. Nondisclosure means refusing to provide information or answer questions about oneself. The study found that people who refused to answer questions for a dating profile, trust exercise, and job application were less date worthy, trustworthy, or hirable, than people who answered the questions, even when the people answered in really terrible ways.

Some example questions include: Have you ever stolen anything worth more than $100? Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from? Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible (e.g., torture) to somebody?

People were more likely to want to date, trust, or hire someone who answered those questions above, even if the answer was "Frequently" for all them, than someone who selected "Refuse to answer."

To be fair, the study looked like a forced choice situation. Honestly, if faced with someone who "frequently" fails to tell partners about a current STD, and someone who takes the 5th on that question, I'd probably choose option 3: staying at home with a good book and a large glass of beer. But it's possible that participants were not given that option or assumed they had to make a choice.

However, the participants of the study also rated the candidates on various characteristics, such as trustworthiness. Even though, for the example questions above, at least two deal with lying (stealing something and neglecting to tell a partner about an STD). So apparently lying liars who fess up on questionnaire are more trustworthy than withholding liars.

Perhaps one reason for this finding is the fact that participants were being asked to evaluate others. When we're evaluating someone, we want to obtain as much as information as we can. And if we don't have a lot of information on someone, we start using the most insignificant information to fill in the details; this is also when we are most likely to use stereotypes and other biases. In jury decision making research, this is known as the liberation hypothesis - when evidence against the defendant is strong (clearly favors guilty) or weak (clearly favors not guilty), we decide based on evidence, but when evidence is ambiguous, we begin using "extralegal" information.

Arguably the same things happens when we evaluate people in other contexts. And when you're deciding between two candidates who are very similar, the characteristic that differentiates them is the only additional information you have - in this case, the only thing that differentiated the two candidates was whether they answered all questions or skipped some.

It would be interesting to see this research conducted in a more real-life setting and/or with other potential candidates to compare against. It also would be interesting to examine other factors - for instance, perhaps the candidate who answered all questions was viewed as feeling guilty about these actions. That is, maybe the participants perceived the candidate fessed up because he/she does not plan on doing it again. I know many people who fess up to something with every intention of doing it again, but it seems like the purpose of fessing up is to lead the other to believe one is willing to change.

Or there could be other factors that explain these findings. What do you think is going on here?

Thoughtfully yours,

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Music, Gender, and Stereotypes

As I was listening to some of the new/new-to-me music I received for Christmas and my birthday this year, I realized that most was by female artists:
  • Adele, 25: "Hello" is probably the best known song off this album, but certainly not the best. I like the song, but there's something strange about her timbre on the chorus. The second single off the album, "When We Were Young," is also a ballad, but the album has some great uptempo tracks (such as "Send My Love") as well as better ballads (more interesting arrangements with a good beat - "I Miss You" is a great example of this).
  • Sara Bareilles, What's Inside: Songs from Waitress: The 2007 film, Waitress, has been turned into a musical (now on Broadway!) with music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles. This album features music from the show, but performed by Sara and her band, as more of a studio album than original soundtrack. Not as pensive as some of her past albums, but super-cute with interesting harmonies (Sara's a cappella arranging experience showing).
  • Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials and Lungs: Love me some Florence + The Machine, who by the way are Florence Welch and Isabella "Machine" Summers, plus the backing band. It's hard to pick favorites from these albums - all the tracks are really good.
  • Ellie Goulding, Delirium: Most of you have probably heard "Love Me Like You Do," the incessantly catchy track that has much more interesting verses than chorus, but the album is excellently produced, and features many solid (and uptempo) tracks. One of my favorites is "Army."
  • Elle King, Love Stuff: "Ex's & Oh's" is probably best known off the album, but the rest of the tracks are equally good. She blends a lot of interesting styles (blues, soul, country, rock) - "Last Damn Night" (one of my favorites), which has a very Led Zeppelin vibe to it, is followed by "Kocaine Karolina," a country/bluegrass number on which Elle plays banjo.
The remaining music I received was mostly choral: Mozart's arrangement of Handel's Messiah, and music by Tarik O'Regan.

Still hoping to get the new Sia album (hint hint).

It occurred to me that this is the most albums by women I've received at one time. Even still, the music on my iPod currently favors male artists (over twice as many male artists, in fact).

Why might this be the case? It's possible there are simply a lot more male artists. But a recent study highlighted another possibility: men may be perceived as more creative, at least in certain domains. The study found that, even when using the same stimulus materials (e.g., architectural designs), the materials were viewed as more creative if the designer was a man.

Part of the issue may simply be a lack of representation of creative women in these and other domains, such as in arts education. But a recent victory for female composers may signal a change in that regard. Britain's A-level music syllabus previously included only male composers. This prompted a student, Jessy McCabe, to petition that female composers be added. Though her petition was ultimately successful, the initial response from the board was: "female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter)." The revised list now includes a handful of female composers, including Clara Schumann.

Small victories. Obviously, more work is needed.

Musically yours,

Friday, January 8, 2016

My New Year's Resolutions

New Year's Day was a week ago, but it's never too late to come up with some New Year's resolutions, right?

1. Write more - That includes not only writing more for this blog, but also getting back to writing projects I started ages ago. For the last couple of years, I've done National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo), which occurs in November. And each November I get little to nothing written. In part, it's because November is a busy time and I did a lot of writing in November 2015, just not on my novel. Instead, I worked on four grant proposals submitted in December, including one that I wrote primarily in my "free" time. November was also difficult this last year for other reasons, another reason for neglecting novel ideas. But that's okay, because there are 11 other months in the year that can be spent writing!

2. Stop stressing over things I can't change and do something to change the things I can - This sounds suspiciously like the Serenity Prayer. I prefer this one:

We can't always control the things that happen to us. And we certainly can't control the reactions and behaviors of others. The only thing we can control is our own behavior and reactions. So my resolution for this year is to stop worrying about whether people like me, or if things are going poorly, or any number of things outside of my control. Not only that, but I can always reframe those negative things outside of my control - thinking of them in a way that makes them neutral or even positive (maybe even funny!).

3. Take better care of myself - Not just physically (though I'm working on it), but also emotionally. This ties into the first two, of course. Writing is one of the activities I enjoy, that gives me peace. And worrying - something I did a lot of grad school, but had been able to stop doing for several years - has been go-to response lately. I just have to get better at telling myself to stop it, and I'm happy to report in the last couple weeks, I've succeeded pretty well.

4. Savor the good things in life - Let's face it, I'm pretty damn lucky. Even with set-backs, things work out. And fortunately I was gifted with a great brain that helps me get out of these set-backs and get back to good. So it's time to savor those good things. I've done some research on savoring before, a concept developed by one of the professors I worked with in grad school. It involves thinking about and mentally re-experiencing the good things in life to maximize enjoyment. We can savor past events (reminiscing), present events (savoring the moment), and potential future events (anticipating). Savoring increases happiness and well-being, and buffers the impact of negative life events and stress.

The tl;dr version?

Resolvedly yours,

Friday, January 1, 2016

More on Self-Improvement: New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year!

Congratulations, everyone - we've made it to 2016! Hopefully you had a wonderful celebration bringing in the new year and did exactly what you wanted to do - whether that's going to a party or staying home for a quiet night.

The new year is an exciting time because for many, it is seen as an opportunity to start over. To make changes from what we didn't like about the previous year and move toward self-improvement. One way we do this is in the form of New Year's resolutions.

Research (by Norcross, Mrykalo, & Blagys, 2002) suggests that almost half of Americans make a New Year's resolution, with the most frequent being: weight loss, exercise, and smoking cessation. Unfortunately, the same research suggests that we have a lot of difficulty maintaining these resolutions.

No, seriously, a lot.

Norcross and colleagues found that after one week, only 77% of people who had made a New Year's resolution had stuck with it. By the two year mark, only 19% had stuck with their resolution - mind you, these resolutions are usually lifestyle changes that people would expect (hope) to be permanent. When a person resolves to, say, quit drinking, they don't usually mean for just a few days.

Why are people who voluntarily make a New Year's resolution - I mean, it's unlikely someone put a gun to their head and forced them - so bad at sticking with it?

As a recovering behaviorist, I can tell you there are a variety of factors at play. Most importantly, behavior change isn't easy. If it were, Americans wouldn't be spending almost $10 million a year on self-help books and programs. And they certainly wouldn't be spending $90 billion on alcohol each year, nor would we have over 260 billion cigarettes purchased each year, in the US alone.

There are a variety of influences on our behavior. Some are internal, involving our feelings and thoughts, like motivational states, or cravings and physiological reactions. Others are external, which can include reactions by others, or something more concrete, like money. Successful behavior change involves targeting both types of influences. For instance, a person who wants to quit smoking not only needs to feel strong motivation and figure out ways to handle cravings and withdrawal symptoms, they may also need to make changes to their environment, even changing who they associate with and settings in which they socialize.

Changing a behavior, too, requires a combination of internal and external motivators, though internal motivators tend to be stronger. Why? Because external reinforcers of behavior, like money, food, or even praise from others, lose their effectiveness over time. Receiving $5 when you have nothing is lot more rewarding then receiving $5 when you already have $100 accumulated. Being given tasty food when you're hungry is more rewarding then being given tasty food when you're full. And so on. As the old joke goes, it may only take one psychologist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change.

People may also set goals without really thinking about the specifics about that goal and how to get there. One thing behaviorists encourage is for people to set SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. I may resolve to exercise more, but lose steam because I don't have the specific details about what I mean by that. If I don't sit down and determine those details, it will be difficult, maybe even impossible, to get started.

On the other hand, if I resolve to exercise 30 minutes a day, three times a week, I have something to work with. True, there's more I need to figure out, like, "Is that goal realistic with my schedule?" or "What kind of exercise?" or "How long should I give myself to work up to that level of exercise?". But even before I figure out those issues, I already have something specific and measurable.

Whatever the goal, there are multiple programs and interventions that can help people reach it. However, another problem people run into is that some (maybe many) programs aren't based on strong science. So people may jump on a particular bandwagon without doing their homework to learn whether that bandwagon actually works. This is likely another reason for the high attrition in maintaining resolutions. Doing that homework requires a certain level of scientific literacy, but probably a good mindset to start with is, if it sounds too good to be true (Quit smoking in 3 days! Lose 10 pounds in a week!), it probably is.

When I taught Learning & Behavior at the undergraduate level, I had my students complete a behavior modification project, in which they identified a behavior they wanted to change and spent the semester applying the topics they learned in class to changing it. Students seemed to enjoy the experience, and many were successful. Those who weren't reported that they had made some positive changes, and now had the tools (and hopefully motivation) to keep working. Too bad I can't follow-up now and see how many are still successful!

What about you, dear reader? Did you make a New Year's resolution? If not, no worries. You're awesome! If so, I wish you all the luck and simply ask that you consider some of the things I've shared to help you get there.

Newly yours,

More on Peer Review from an Editor's Perspective

Earlier today, someone shared the following with me: an editor's perspective on the peer review process. In the piece, she offers feedback to peer reviewers (including offering internal criticism, such as offering additional literature or analyses to strengthen the paper, over external criticism, comparing the topic of the present paper to other topics and assessing its validity and importance), authors (on how to navigate the peer review process), and fellow editors. I found her recommendations of data collection and research needs about the peer review process to be very interesting:
I recognize that there are biases in the journal peer review process. One thing that surprised me in my career was how the baseline probability for publishing varied dramatically across different research areas. I worked in some areas where R&R or conditional acceptance was the norm and in other research areas where almost every piece was rejected. [...]
I also think that journal editors have a collective responsibility to collect data across research areas and determine if publication rates vary dramatically. We often report on general subfield areas in annual journal reports, but we do not typically break down the data into more fine-grained research communities. The move to having scholars click on specific research areas for reviewing may facilitate the collection of this information. If reviewers’ recommendations for R&R or acceptance vary across research topics, then having this information would assist new journal editors in making editorial decisions. Once we collect this kind of data, we could also see how these intra-community reviewing patterns influence the long term impact of research fields. Are broader communities with lower probabilities of publication success more effective in the long run in terms of garnering citations to the research? We need additional data collection to assess my hypothesis that baseline publication rates vary across substantive areas of our discipline.