Archive for the ‘psychology’ Tag

People procrastinate more on abstract than concrete matters

I’ve been putting off writting this blog post for a while.  Anyway, as reported in The Economist, a team of psychologists lead by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz, in Germany, conducted a series of experiments whose results indicate that people procrastinate more when asked to think abstractly than they do when asked to think in more concrete terms.

As the team report in Psychological Science, in all three studies, those who were presented with concrete tasks and information responded more promptly than did those who were asked to think in an abstract way. Moreover, almost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56% of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.

Check the article for details on how the several experiments were conducted.

The Economist story reminded me of another one on procrastination that I’d read in Slate last spring.  The author of that piece argues that we need to examine procrastination across different cultures to see what trends, if any, pop out and laments that not enough such research has been done among, for instance, the indiginous people of New Guinea.

Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he’s going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he’s supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Anyway, the Slate article indicated that Japanese respondants to a survey reported higher levels of procrastination than did Americans; New Zealanders reported less procrastination than did people from the States.


New experiment shows indifference to racism

An interesting experiment reported on by MSNBC indicates that the way people react to overt acts of racism and the way people say they would act to such acts are two different things.

The study involved 120 non-black students from York University in Toronto who were recruited for a purported psychology study.

A participant was directed to a room where two actors posing as fellow participants — one black, one white — waited. The black person said he needed to retrieve a cell phone and left, gently bumping the white person’s leg on the way out. The white actor then did one of three things: Nothing. Said, “I hate when black people do that.” Or used the N-word.

Then a researcher entered and said the “psychology study” was starting and that the student should pick one of the two others as a partner for the testing.

Half the participants just read about that scene, and half actually experienced it.

Those asked to predict their reaction to either comment said they’d be highly upset and wouldn’t choose the white actor as their partner.

Yet students who actually experienced the event didn’t seem bothered by it — and nearly two-thirds chose the white actor as a partner, the researchers report Friday in the journal Science.

The lead author of the study, Kerry Kawakami, said the results indicate that “just because a black man has been elected as president doesn’t mean racism is no longer a problem or issue in the States.”

The experience of pain and perceptions of intentionality

According to a new story in the Economist, two psychologists, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, have just published a study in  Psychological Science that indicates our perception of pain may be influenced by whether or not we think it was intentionally inflicted.  Like the famous Milgram experiments (blogged about here), Gray and Wegner’s study involved electric shocks.  When subjects thought that their partner (in actuality a confederate) decided to shock them, they rated the shocks are more painful than equivalent shocks that they were told were administered due to impersonal experimental protocol.

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

Washing your hands may make you evil

Cleanliness may not be next to Godliness after all. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who had been primed with concepts related to cleanliness (e.g. pure, immaculate, pristine, et cetera) or who had just washed their hands were less likely to be troubled by questionable behavior, which they rated on a scale of 0 (perfectly okay) to 9 (very wrong).  The Economist has the story.

The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did. Among the volunteers who unscrambled the sentences, those exposed to ideas of cleanliness rated eating the family dog at 5.7, on average, on the wrongness scale whereas the control group rated it as 6.6. Their score for using a kitten in sexual play was 6.7; the control group individuals gave it 8.3. Similar results arose from the handwashing experiment.

Dr. Simone Schnall conducted the research, which is published in Psychological Science.  The Economist reports that her hypothesis is that “feeling morally unclean (i.e. disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong.”  The article concludes by saying:

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Anyway, if you want to manipulate someone into doing something wrong, get them to wash up before making your proposal.

Conspiracy theories, superstitions, and our sense of control

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel like you have control over your circumstances

If you think these are bad luck, maybe you don't feel that you have much control over your circumstances.

According to recently released research, if you feel that events around you are random and out of your control you are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and superstitions.

The scientists say that people who feel that things are beyond their control can fall prey to “illusory pattern perception,” they see “a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.” So, yeah, as the Newsweek reporter writes, they “see things that aren’t there, falling victim to conspiracy theories and developing superstitions.”

It seems that our minds revolt against the idea that circumstances that effect us are entirely beyond our control, even when they really are random, as they sometimes are.  “The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics,” said one of the researchers. “Feelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening.”

The human mind prefers to believe that mysterious, invisible forces are secretly at work rather than that the world is random. Whitson put it this way: “People see false patterns in all types of data, imagining trends in stock markets, seeing faces in static and detecting conspiracies between acquaintances. This suggests that lacking control leads to a visceral need for order, even imaginary order.” Feel free to apply this to current events, starting with the conspiracy that people imagine in the proposed financial bailout.

Please do check out the article in question; it describes several different experiments which  demonstrate this effect under a variety of conditions.

Quite independently of finding the above article, I stumbled across an interesting video from British mentalist and showman Derren Brown dealing with superstitions and how they form.  Like all of his work, it’s thought-provoking and entertaining television.  Check it out. (The intro is about 80 seconds, if you want to skip it; total length 9:59.)

How many of us would have done better than those folks?  Statistically, probably not many.  I was impressed, however, with David Tennant, who, incidentally, currently plays the title role on the Doctor Who program.  Even with all the others talking about how they’d figured out the pattern he admitted he didn’t think they had; he rise above not only the human predisposition to form superstitions but also our tendency to go along with what everyone else is saying.  Perhaps he has a strong sense of being in control of his life along with a healthy amount of self esteem?

Anyway, if you still find yourself falling under the influence of superstitions, just remember: it’s bad luck to be superstitious!

Political views may have innate tendencies

Social scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have noted a correlation between the positions a person adopts on certain political issues and how he or she responds to frightening stimuli. They determined the later by measuring the subjects’ galvanic skin response (sweating) when viewing distressing images and also be observing their response to a sudden, loud noise. People who were more prone to being startled were more likely to adopt conservative positions on “hot button” social issues, like same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, and the Iraq war.

The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

[R]esearchers stressed that physiology is only one factor in how people form their political views — and far from the most important factor. Startle responses, moreover, cannot be used to predict the political views of any one individual — there are many liberals who startle easily and many conservatives who do not. What the study did find is that, across groups of people, there seems to be an association between sensitivity to physical threats and sensitivity to threats affecting social groups and social order.

Researchers also stress that this cannot be used to judge any individual’s political beliefs. “We are not saying if you sneak up on someone and say ‘Boo!’ and see how hard they blink, that tells you what their political beliefs are,” said John Hibbing, one of the involved political scientists.

We all like to think we’re completely objective and not influenced by external factors, only by the merits of the issues. However, it’s likely that we are all manipulated by outside forces and innate tendencies far more than we’d like to admit. Well, other people, at any rate—surely not the author or readers of this blog! The study was published in the journal Science.