Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"I barely studied, and I still aced the test!" "Why didn't you study?"

Paper we’re looking at: On being happy but fearing failure: The effects of mood on self-handicapping strategies AL Alter, JP Forgas - Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2007

Today we’re going to talk about the wonderful world of self-handicapping. It’s rarely talked about by that name, but we’ve all seen it (and most of us have done it, at one point or another).

The classic example is the student who doesn’t study for an exam, or who shows up hung over. The more relevant (and serious) example is when we engage in extended procrastination instead of doing the things we know we should be doing (such as preparing that report, writing that presentation, prep for the job interview, etc).

Why the hell would anybody in their right mind work AGAINST their best interest? Is self-handicapping behavior just some kind of temporary psychological breakdown? Does it indicate a deeply disturbed person, or one who has poor logical reasoning abilities?


Turns out, there are 2 main preconditions to self handicapping behavior. One is that the person is happy, and the second is that they’ve previously received non-relevant feedback in the area they’re handicapping.

Wait a minute… I’m trying to get you to swallow the fact that somebody being HAPPY means that they’re going to put off working on what they should be working on, or even actively sabotage themselves. But that doesn’t make much sense – after all, haven’t we been told pretty much forever that happiness is a golden ticket that creates success, improves health, and generally makes the world a much better place?

Well, boys and girls, that’s exactly what this paper is all about.

Consider an anecdote about chess grand master Deschapelles. It seems that there was a time when he’d begun to doubt his ability to continue competing at a high level. So what did he do? Well,

“he offered every opponent an extra pawn and an extra move. This apparently self-defeating behavior gave Deschapelles a plausible excuse for defeat and earned him extra credit when he won the match.”

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of self handicapping. It’s about stacking the deck AGAINST yourself, in the mistaken belief that if you do well, you’ll get even more credit – and if you fail, then nobody will believe that it’s because of YOU, but because of circumstances.

Now, what about that “irrelevant feedback” point? This was glossed over in the paper, but it’s probably one of the MOST important points to come out of it, so I’m going to give it some loving right here.

The experiment in this case consisted of 3 parts, and as usual were split into groups so that effects could be studied.

Part 1: Subjects were given feedback on a verbal test (one group got real feedback, the other group got random/inconsistent feedback).

Part 2: Subjects watched a movie clip designed to alter their mood (either happy or sad).

Part 3: Subjects were given the option of drinking one of 2 herbal teas, which they were told were either performance enhancing or performance inhibiting, before doing another verbal test.

Here’s what happened. When the feedback was unreliable (somebody who’d bombed the test was told “Good job!”), FAR more people chose the performance enhancing tea than when it was reliable.

In a secondary effect, people who were happy also chose the performance inhibiting tea far more often – which means that the combination of the subjects being happy, and receiving unreliable feedback, was deadly – in fact, in that condition, over 75% of subjects chose the self-handicapping route.

Here’s the breakdown for who chose what (first number is irrelevant feedback, second is relevant): Happy: 75% vs. 45%; neutral: 40% vs. 14%; sad: 47% vs. 21%

This is RIDICULOUSLY important for any type of educator. It means that giving BS “positive feedback” that the students know they don’t deserve will increase their self handicapping behavior. Leading to lower actual results. Leading to more BS feedback. Leading to even lower actual results.

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that even when feedback is relevant, there’s still quite a bit of self handicapping going on for happy people. That goes back to the earlier point about working hard to preserve the happy mood – self-handicapping allows us to face failure without FEELING like failures, which is counter-productive in the long run, but feels ever so good in the short run.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that if you’re in a position of authority over other people (boss, parent, teacher, coach), that you really need to work to make sure that your feedback is relevant (blowing smoke up people’s derriere’s might seem like a good idea, and you might think it will raise their precious self esteem, but it’s going to be counterproductive).

Further, it means that if you’re on one of those positions, you should be aware that while happiness is great and should be encouraged, that it can lead to self-handicapping. Often it’s unconscious – people won’t tell you why they’re choosing the self-handicapping option. Knowing that it might be coming, and knowing why, is going to put you in a better position to help them.

But what if you’re NOT in any of those positions? Then you’ve only got to worry about your own self-handicapping. And that’s almost certainly the hardest to catch.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Working Vacation Time

Hey all,

Hope everybody's been enjoying the look at the papers.

Just a quick heads up that I'm gearing up for a nice extended vacation shortly, where I'll be doing some of my favorite things - Reading on a beach, enjoying some mojitos, and yes, getting some work done (mostly writing, which benefits a lot from isolation and the lack of phone, internet, and just about every person I know).

I"ll be back in early August to continue the journey.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why don’t we always live our values?

Paper we’re looking at: Addressing Discrepancies between Values and Behavior: The Motivating Effect of Reasons Gregory R. Maio Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom

You don’t have to look very far at all to find, for lack of a better word, hypocrisy. It’s sadly pretty common to see people who talk all day long about their cherished values, but who act VERY differently.

Why does this happen? Weren’t they raised right? Didn’t their parents instill proper values into them? Was it a failure, perhaps, of their church? Of the schools? Of a modern secular society which has abandoned its God fearing roots?

Thankfully, NO!

In fact, a careful reading of this paper might lead one to believe that it’s just the sort of attitudes expressed above that LEAD to “immoral” or “valueless” behavior.

Because for all the cries of “failure to instill proper values”, this paper seems to suggest that values that are instilled are basically meaningless. Instead, it’s only when we take the time to really think about & consider our values that they will have any sort of guiding impact on our behaviors.

This paper leads off with one of the most glaring and blatant discrepancies between “Values” and “Actions” – Namely, the US declaration of independence. How much further can you get from espoused values (what you say) and behavior than having slave owners who write: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I mean, WOW. Wow. So does that mean that the founding fathers were big lying sacks of … sugar?

Not according to this paper.

In fact, the authors propose that it’s the very “self-evident” nature of some beliefs that make them particularly meaningless in many contexts. Because they’re self evident, we don’t give them any deep thought; we don’t make a conscious decision of whether or not to accept the belief or the value. And that, it seems, is CRITICAL to having a belief shape behavior.

There’s a famous study done on seminary students (presumably, deeply religious people). They were scheduled to give a talk on a biblical passage. In some cases, the talk was to be on the parable of the good Samaritan, about a person who helps somebody obviously in need; in other cases, about another passage.

They split the group further – One group was manipulated so they thought they were going to be late, and the other was confident they’d have plenty of time before starting.

On the way to the location of their talk, each of the seminary students came across a man who was laying on the ground, obviously in pain, and obviously in need of help (Was he having a heart attack? Stroke?). So who stopped to help this man?

Did everybody stop, as we’d expect of people who were deeply religious, and so committed to helping others? The ones who’d just read & prepared a talk on helping others (the Good Samaritan groups)?

It turns out that the only factor that mattered was whether or not they thought they’d be late. Of the group that thought they were late, only 10% stopped to help the man obviously in need. Of the group that was on time, 63% stopped. It didn’t matter what talk they were giving – the only thing that mattered was whether they were late or not.

WOW. That’s a pretty cool experiment, isn’t it? But it’s also pretty chilling in its findings – Because it suggests that something as simple as being a couple minutes late for a talk can completely overthrow the “self evident” belief that it’s right & good to help somebody in need.

[As a side note, it also shows that the people who were late & giving the good Samaritan talk didn’t think too opportunistically when they saw the man who needed help – otherwise, they’d have realized that this would make an EXCELLENT opener for their talk…]

The authors point out that most of our “Values Education” comes in the form of All or None statements when we’re kids. “Treat people fairly.” “Be honest.” “Share with others.”

And most kids who are taught those values will say “I know honesty is right. I know treating others fairly is right.”

Most of those kids will grow up into adults who feel VERY STRONGLY that honesty is right. They’ll teach their kids. But they’ll probably also tell a pan-handler that they have no change to spare. Or tell their wife that no, those jeans do not make her look fat.

So where does this disconnect come from? How can somebody who feels passionately about something act in ways that flat out contradict their beliefs?

The long and short of it is this: If the ONLY reason we hold a value is because we swallowed it as a child, without thinking through it logically or really DECIDING if we wanted it, then when it comes time to put that value to the test, all we have is a rather shallow reason to follow the value.

Here’s an example they used in the paper: What if you’re solicited for a charitable donation, by somebody who is rude, at a time when you’re worried about a lot of bills?

Well, chances are, you can think of a lot more reasons to NOT make a contribution – And if the only reason you value “Helping the less fortunate” is that it’s something you were taught as a child, it’s probably pretty easy to convince yourself that not giving is the better decision. You had solid reasons NOT to give, and only a hollow, almost meaningless reason to give.

It really shouldn’t be a HUGE surprise – when we think about our values, when we debate about them, when we have to defend them, when we try to convince skeptical others that the values are “right”, we’re going to be a lot more engaged with them. We’re going to anticipate potential failure points, and determine how we’ll behave when they come up.

Or, in the words of the paper:

“We believe that generating reasons for a value motivates provalue behavior because individuals become convinced that the value is “rational” and not just ideological. That is, generating reasons for a value provides concrete examples of why behaving consistently with the value is sensible and justified. Thus, when situational forces work against provalue behavior, people become able to retrieve concrete information in addition to their vague feelings about the value. In this manner, the (new) concrete information helps to make the value a more compelling guide for behavior.”

Now, I need to clarify something here – This study isn’t saying that all values or beliefs we hold are rationally or logically sound. Far from it. It’s not the inherent logic of the values that we cherish – it’s the fact that there is SOME REASON for the value. The reason doesn’t have to make sense. But if we can think of 10 reasons to live a certain value, even if the reasons aren’t linked to the value in any sort of empirical way, that value will still be a lot stronger than an ideological feeling that the value is “right.”

Okay - so what does all this mean to you and me?

Quite simply, it means that if we want to consider ourselves as people who have strong values, or who live our values, then we NEED to take time to really THINK about those values.

Why do we value honesty? When would we be tempted to lie? What's the effect of compromising on our values when it's convenient?

There's a very old question in philosophy which I'm going to butcher here: "How would you design a society, if you had no idea where you'd end up in it? Would you want it to be free-market capitalist, communist, socialist? Would you want it to be a strictly democratic society, where the will of 50.01% could trample the other 49.99? What rules would you put into place, if you didn't know whether you'd be a beggar or a king in that society?"

Of course, the point is to ask "What is fair?" But it's also a WONDERFUL exercise in looking at things we take for granted in a new light. So I'm going to pose the question for you - Which values would you choose to have, if you knew that you could never let them slip?

What rules would you set for yourself to follow those values, if you knew you ALWAYS had to follow them?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Why quitting smoking leads to eating more

Paper we’re looking at: Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More Than a Metaphor Matthew T. Gailliot, Roy F. Baumeister

What is self-discipline, exactly?
Why does quitting smoking lead to eating more?
Why are we more likely to be peevish and argumentative at certain points during the day?

These are some questions we’ll be talking about while looking at this paper.

I LOVE this paper. It explains a lot about things that plague us every day, and it provides us with some really easy guidelines to follow to get better performance in just about any area.

That sounds pretty self-helpy. But unlike traditional self helpy stuff, this is backed up with some very cool evidence.

First, let’s define Self Discipline (or Self Control) as the ability to control or override our thoughts, emotions, behavior or urges. It’s what keeps us from following through on our road rage fantasies, what keeps us from telling our boss to stuff it where the sun don’t shine, and what keeps us from ordering that second helping of dessert.

There’s evidence to link self discipline with:
• Healthier interpersonal relationships
• Greater popularity
• Better mental health
• More effective coping skills
• Reduced aggression
• Superior academic performance

Not to mention less susceptibility to drug and alcohol abuse, criminality, and eating disorders.

Not too bad – It’s probably something worth cultivating.

When you ask most people what self discipline is, though, you get answers like “It’s mind over matter.” Or “You either have it or you don’t.” People sometimes talk about mental energy (consider how much more likely you are to say the first peevish thing that pops to mind when you’re tired or frustrated, vs. when you’re feeling full of energy).

The researchers on this paper ask a very cool question – They asked “Where does this mental energy come from?” They guessed that it was linked to blood glucose (that wonderful substance that feeds our brain, among other things).

Here’s a scary thought: Every time you resist a temptation (ie exercise self discipline), it draws from your ability to resist ANY OTHER temptation. In one experiment, resisting the temptation to eat freshly baked cookies caused participants to give up much sooner on a later task that required them to concentrate & think. The 2 seem disconnected, but they’re both aspects of self discipline (resisting the urge to eat, focusing on a task & applying mental resources to trying to solve it).

Think of it like a gas tank – you can only use so much self discipline before it all runs out. In the case of our brains, the fuel is glucose.

Here are some other things that fall under the bailiwick of self-discipline (and hence rely on our supply of blood-glucose):

• Suppressing stereotypes and prejudice
• Coping with thoughts and fears of dying
• Controlling one’s monetary spending
• Restraining aggression
• Managing intake of food and alcohol

Here’s the long and short of it – Just about everything our brains do (consciously & unconsciously) relies on glucose to some extent, but the vast majority of things our brains do aren’t affected by minor fluctuations in glucose levels (like, say, going 8 hours without eating). However, this isn’t the case with tasks that require a lot of conscious cognitive resources (such as logical thinking, reasoning, and urge suppression).

So all of this is pretty cool, but there’s no evidence that there really IS a link between self control & blood glucose – At least, there wasn’t until the authors did the experiments that made up this paper.

They attacked it from a lot of angles – 9 studies were done to find evidence of a link between blood glucose & our ability to exert self control.

In the first two experiments, they looked at the difference in blood glucose between 2 groups before & after a task. In group 1, the task required no self control, and in group 2 it did. They found the group that exercised self control had lower blood-glucose levels afterwards than group 1.

The next 4 studies affirmed that people “use up” their self control – in other words, that the more self control they exerted, the less glucose they had available to exert self control as the tasks wore on. Indeed, they found that without a “re-fueling”, people exerted less & less self control as time went on.

The final 3 studies dealt with this “re-fueling” issue – Both groups had their self control tested, one group was allowed to have an energy drink, and they did another test of self control. The energy drink group showed much greater self-discipline/focus/etc. This is because the energy drink quickly converted to glucose, which gave a nice, quick “re-fuel.”

One of the scariest findings of this paper is this – While glucose depletion causes impairment of certain abilities (logical reasoning, focus, self-discipline, etc), it doesn’t necessarily cause a loss of motivation. So it’s very possible to be unaware that you’re functioning well below your peak, and keep ‘hitting your head against the wall’, so to speak – when all you really needed was a break to have a quick bite to eat & let the body start feeding the glucose to your brain.

And just as a heads up – it takes a minimum of 10 minutes to go from food in mouth to glucose, and sometimes much longer, depending on the food. That suggests that if you’re feeling sluggish, or irritable, or are having a problem that you just can’t seem to work through, a 15 minute break to have a bite to eat might be your best course of action.

It also means that dieting is a CRUEL, CRUEL trick – just as you need more willpower to fight the urge to eat that brownie, you’re denying yourself the glucose you need to fuel that willpower.

So what’s the long and short of it?

Eat breakfast – It’ll start your day off by replenishing the glucose you used up in sleeping, and give you the fuel you need for the first part of the day.

Snack – There’s a shelf life for the batteries that power your willpower. And it’s about 4 hours, give or take. Which means that if you have breakfast at 7:30 before you leave your house, and work through till 12:30, that last hour or two was at a much lower level of focus and/or logical reasoning ability than you’re capable of. Have a snack every couple of hours.

Be aware of your glucose gauge – Most importantly, start to become aware of the signals that your brain is giving you. Recognize the signs of low-glucose, and when you feel them, for the love of all that’s holy go eat something!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why “The Secret” is a big steaming pile of manure

Paper we’re looking at: From Thought to Action: Effects of Process- Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance

I’m going to ask you one of the worlds most annoying questions right now, and hope you forgive me… “Have you heard of ‘The Secret’”?

If you have, you know the basic concept it spouts – “Picture what you want, and your thoughts will vibrate out into the universe and manifest what you want!”

Of course it sounds like hooey. Of course it sounds like utter bunk. And, so, of course it’s sold about a bajillion dollars worth of books and spawned a whole industry of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

What’s most surprising to me, though, is that I’ve had otherwise intelligent people talk to me about this as if it’s something worthwhile. Sure, sometimes they preface it by saying “Now I don’t believe in any of the mystical magical stuff, but if we take that away, what it’s really doing is getting people to think about their goals – and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

That’s what this paper is about. It answers the question “Does spending more time thinking about your goals help you achieve them?”

Sure, I love this paper because it has some awesome research in it. Sure, I love it because it gives me the tools to make it MUCH more likely that I’ll achieve the goals I set for myself.

But mostly, I love this paper because I can reference it to all those “Secret” pushers, and give them a great big “IN YOUR FACE!”

Okay – Let’s look at the paper. Here’s the “Short Attention Span” version:

“The big message is simple – It’s not NEARLY enough to just visualize what you want. Instead, you have to visualize HOW you plan to get there. Just visualizing what you want is actually linked with LOWER performance than no visualization, where visualizing HOW to get what you want is linked with higher performance.

“Additionally, just visualizing what you want is linked with working less than planned on the goal, whereas process visualization is linked with working as planned or slightly more.”

The paper starts off by reviewing what we know about mental simulation (we can call it daydreaming, visualizing, what have you). There are 2 key elements of mental simulation for our discussion today:

1. It makes courses of action seem real or true – when people actively imagine future events, as opposed to reading or passively hearing about them, “they later express greater confidence that the events will actually occur.”

2. Imagining how events are going to happen lets us consider the structure or sequence of the event, the consequences of it, and basically puts us into strategic planning mode. For example, it gets us asking “If this deal goes through, what does that mean for the time I’ll be able to spend with my kids? What does it mean for my ability to keep up with the work?”

So not only does thinking about processes or events beforehand make us much more confident that those things will happen, it also lets us think about whether we WANT those things to happen.

This is all pretty cool already, and we haven’t even come close to the best parts!

One of the big take-aways from this paper is that we have to separate mental simulation with respect to goal setting into at least 2 categories – Outcome simulation & Process Simulation.

Outcome simulation is when we visualize the OUTCOME. It’s visualizing the mansion you want to live in, or standing on the first place spot on the podium, or being told “You’re being promoted!”

Process simulation is very different – Here, what we simulate is everything that needs to happen in order to reach the goal. So here we’d imagine training for the sport where we hope to end up on the podium; we’d imagine the different jobs or projects we’d need to complete well to be promoted – in short, we imagine HOW we’re going to reach the goal, not just that we’re going to reach it.

These 2 ways to use mental simulation are worlds apart – After all, it’s a lot more fun to imagine all the wonderful things that you want, than it is to imagine the work you’ll have to do to get them. But it’s also a lot more fun to nap than to exercise, and guess which one gets better results?

The study in this paper involved taking undergraduate students, splitting them into 4 groups, and giving them different ‘goal setting’ instructions. The first group was the control (obviously), the 2nd group was given only Outcome visualization instructions, the 3rd group was given only Process visualization instructions, and the 4th group was given both process & outcome instructions.

“Participants in the process simulation group were instructed to mentally simulate themselves studying for the exam, that is, to visualize when, where, and how they might study for the exam to achieve a high grade on the exam.”

“Participants in the outcome simulation group were instructed to mentally simulate themselves attaining a high score on the exam - that is, to visualize themselves having completed the exam and finding out that they achieved a very high score on the exam.”

So what happened in the study? Well, the results weren’t earth shattering, but they WERE statistically significant. Here’s what was found:

1. Students in the control group & the outcome group both studied about 5 hours less than they’d planned to study.

2. Students in the process group studied about an hour less than they’d planned to study, while students in the combined group studied more.

3. Students in the outcome group did the worst. They would have been better off not doing any sort of goal setting (they were about 5 percentage points below the control group).

4. Students in the “process only” group were 3% above control – Nothing earth shattering, but that puts them 8% above the “Outcome” group.

Quote from the paper:

“The beneficial effects of process simulation stemmed largely from its effects on problem solving activities, specifically planning and on the regulation of emotional states. In particular, process simulation participants reported having a detailed plan compared to participants in the other experimental conditions.

Focusing on the process needed to achieve a goal also enhanced other problem solving activities, specifically increasing the number of hours of study time participants devoted to preparation for their midterm. Process simulation also led to a decline in anxiety associated with the exam.”

One final note, that will likely be a post of its own in the not too distant future (it was a throwaway side note in this paper, too…)

“The outcome simulation perspective predicts that envisioning a desired outcome will help to bring about the desired goal. The self-help literature is replete with such advice. However, the results suggest that envisioning the desired outcome did not prompt effective actions to bring about the desired goal. In fact, outcome simulation can have negative effects on goal-directed behavior. [Researchers] reported similar results in a series of studies on the effects of positive fantasies.”

It goes on to explain that researchers found that when people spend a lot of time thinking about the positive outcome, they’re actually LESS likely to succeed than a control group.

They suggested that this might be because people believe the success is more likely to happen (remember that from way back at the start?), and because they simulate the experience of having that success – All of which prevents them from appreciating or thinking about the efforts that will be required to actually ACHIEVE that success.

That’s a BIG kick in the teeth to the hippy dippy “If you can see it, you can be it” and “just put it on your vision board” BS that’s so often sold to us.

The paper finishes off with a WONDERFUL quote, which I’ll finish off this post with as well:

“Common wisdom … has suggested that an “I can do it” strategy of envisioning a desired outcome can have a self-fulfilling effect on goal attainment. However, the current research does not support this belief. The results of the present research suggest that a more successful strategy for goal attainment may be to answer the mundane question “How can I do it?””

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Want to be brilliant? SLEEP MORE!

Paper we’re looking at: Sleep inspires insight Ullrich Wagner

If you’re like me, the concept of “Uberman” or polyphasic sleep is like a holy grail. The usual patter goes something like this:

“Hey, did you know that DaVinci only slept for a total of about 2 hours per day? Yeah, apparently he napped for 20 minutes every 4 hours.”

It was popularized on Seinfeld, and it’s made the rounds among bloggers & others who are looking for weird things to do. Mens health got into the game, with this article.

At first blush, it’s such a nice fantasy – Cut out all that ‘useless’ time you spend sleeping, and do more productive things! Finally get all that work done! Learn for the love of learning! Become the person you’ve always wanted to be, but never had time to become!

Sadly, it’s a pipe dream. The first clue, of course, is that NOBODY does this for any period of time. Some try it, and some can even manage to do it for weeks (sometimes a couple of months), but nobody sticks with it. That, in and of itself, should tell us something.

But this paper’s not a slam on the polyphasic sleep pipedream. In fact, it doesn’t even mention polyphasic sleep. This paper is about the link between sleep and learning, and more importantly, the link between sleep and INSIGHT.

Because this short paper destroys ANY illusion that polyphasic sleep is a good idea for any sort of growth, and shows us why getting sleep is so critical – ESPECIALLY if we want to generate insights or understanding on things we’ve learned, or problems we’re trying to solve.

Here’s the “big idea” from this paper: Learning something (ie a rule set), then sleeping, then getting a chance to test out that rule set makes it MUCH more likely that you’ll be able to extrapolate & find “hidden patterns” in said rule-set. In other words, you can go beyond what’s explicitly taught a LOT more reliably if you get sleep between initial learning & next application.

The experiment performed as the backbone of this paper is incredible – Not just in the findings, but in the authors ability to conceive of an experimental framework that could be used to test “insight.”

Think about that for a second – How would YOU go about creating a test to see if people had some insight about something they learned? How could you do it in a way that you could be sure that the insight was ONLY related to sleep, and not other factors?

Here’s how this study did it. I’m going to give you the exact instructions the study used.

Paper Excerpt:
"On each trial, a different string of eight digits was presented. Each string was composed of the digits ‘1’, ‘4’, and ‘9’. For each string, subjects had to determine a digit defined as the ‘final solution’ of the task trial (Fin). This could be achieved by sequentially processing the digits pairwise from left to right according to two simple rules.

"One, the ‘same rule’, states that the result of two identical digits is just this digit (for example, ‘1’ and ‘1’ results in ‘1’, as in response 1 here).

"The other rule, the ‘different rule’, states that the result of two non-identical digits is the remaining third digit of this three-digit system (for example, ‘1’ and ‘4’ results in ‘9’ as in response 2 here). After the first response, comparisons are made between the preceding result and the next digit.

"The seventh response indicates the final solution, to be confirmed by pressing a separate key. Instructions stated that only this final solution was to be determined and this could be done at any time. Not mentioned to the subjects, the strings were generated in such a way that the last three responses always mirrored the previous three responses. This implies that in each trial the second response coincided with the final solution (arrow). Subjects who gain insight into this hidden rule abruptly cut short sequential responding by pressing the solution key immediately after the second response."

End Excerpt

The subjects were broken up into 3 groups. One group did the task in the morning, then stayed up all day, then slept the night through. The second group did the task at night, then stayed up all night. The 3rd group did the task at night, then had 8 hours sleep.

So who did better? It was the group who did the task before sleep. And they did better by a WHOPPING margin.

Often we’ve been told that we should review notes & journal entries & such before sleep. We’ve been told that we should think about problems we want to solve before sleep.

This research suggests that that’s a pretty darned good idea. It suggests that sleep is where we take sets of rules & experiences, and turn them into genuine insights.

Chalk up another win for team sleep!

Friday, June 19, 2009

What you don’t know, makes you happier?!?!?!

Paper we’re looking at: The Pleasures of Uncertainty: Prolonging Positive Moods in Ways People Do Not Anticipate – Dan Gilbert et al

We’ve all heard the cliché “Everything happens for a reason.”

Of course, we’re all smart enough to question the wisdom of that, too – Does everything really happen for a reason, or do we just find a reason afterwards for what’s happened?

But psychologists pose a more interesting question: Is it healthy to LOOK for a reason for the things that happen?

Like all important questions, there is no single and simple answer here. But we HAVE learned some amazing things about the answer to this question, which impacts ALL of us, every day.

We all have what can be thought of as a psychological baseline when it comes to happiness. It’s different for everybody, and the easiest way to think about it is like a thermostat. So let’s play with that analogy for a minute. Let’s assume that warming up means getting happier.

Some people walk around at 50 degrees – They’re pretty sour, most of the time. Other people walk around near 80 degrees – these are the people who always seem to be happy – you know, the people you want to smack.

Whenever something happens (either good or bad), there is a change in mood. People who start off happier will get even happier with good news, and people who start off depressed will get even more depressed with bad news.

BUT – And here’s the kicker – within a certain period of time, they’ll always return to their base level.

This isn’t surprising – You take the first bite of a chocolate bar, and it makes you happier. It tastes wonderful. But before you’re even done eating it, you’re back to whatever your base level was before you started. The key to eternal happiness, unfortunately, is not in endless chocolate bars.

So the million dollar question is – How can we increase the lapse between feeling happier & going back down to the baseline, and how can we DECREASE the time between feeling sadder, and moving back up to the baseline?

That’s what this paper is all about.

Here’s the meat of the paper: Finding meaning in ANY event brings us back to our baseline faster and more reliably than assigning NO meaning to the event.

Quote from the paper: “Studies of bereavement, for example, have found that people who are able to find meaning in the death of a loved one cope better than people who are unable to find any meaning in their loss. Pennebaker and colleagues found that people who write about traumatic events (typically for 15 min on 3 consecutive days) experience remarkable long-term benefits. The people who benefit the most are those who begin with disjointed, incoherent accounts of their trauma but end with coherent, organized accounts, presumably because the writing exercise helped them make sense of their negative experiences.”

There is more useful knowledge in that one paragraph than by all the books of Dr. Phil combined.

It’s worth a second thought – and a third, and a tenth, and a hundredth thought. When you find MEANING in a traumatic event, when you can “make sense” of things, you experience tremendous long-term benefits. When you see things in terms of meaninglessness, or random acts, you lose out on those benefits.

[We’re going to focus on some of Pennebaker’s research in the future – for now, it’s enough to keep in mind that he found HUGE benefits in writing about traumatic experiences in order to ‘make sense’ of them.]

So what about the flip side, then? The theory that pops up here is that if we experience something POSITIVE, we’d actually be happier if we didn’t know why it happened. (Think about the concept of the ‘Random Act of Kindness’ – When somebody does something nice for you, for no apparent reason, it makes you happier for longer than if they did something nice for you for a very predictable reason.)

Quote from the paper: “In addition to predicting that a dose of uncertainty following a positive event will prolong the pleasure it causes, we expected that people would not recognize in advance the role of uncertainty. In fact, given that uncertainty is often associated with negative affect, people might predict the opposite, namely that they will derive less pleasure from uncertain positive events than certain ones.”

There was a really cool study done here – Here’s the description:

“Participants watched an abridged version of the movie Rudy, the true story of Daniel Ruettiger, who dreamed of attending Notre Dame and playing on the football team. Rudy does not have much athletic skill, but he makes the team through grit and determination only to warm the bench at every game.

“At the last home game of Rudy’s senior year, his teammates insist that he get to play, so the coach puts him in on defense in the closing seconds—at which point Rudy breaks through the line and makes a spectacular tackle… After watching the film, participants read two versions of what happened to Rudy after he graduated from college, which described equally positive outcomes that differed in their details. Participants in the certain condition were told which version was true of Rudy, but participants in the uncertain condition were not.

“We predicted that people in both conditions would be in a positive mood immediately after watching the film but that this positive affect would last longer in the uncertain condition.”

Here’s what they found. In almost EVERY case, people indicated beforehand that they’d prefer to be CERTAIN. They wanted to know.

But who was happier, for longer, after the experiment? Who’s “uplift” lasted? Well, you can probably already guess that it was the people who were left with uncertainty. They didn’t know exactly what happened, so there was some ‘mystery’ or some uncertainty. They couldn’t completely make sense of the narrative, and they were left happier, longer, because of it.

“The present studies suggest that people’s actual experiences will be more pleasurable if they know that an event will be positive but there is some uncertainty associated with it (a moderate amount of uncertainty, perhaps). People should not walk out of a movie theater before the film ends if they are not sure whether the ending will be happy or sad. Once they have determined that the hero and heroine will end up together, however, and live happily ever after, perhaps they should head for the exit before they find out exactly how the couple made it to the altar.”

The experiments done in this paper bring up some VERY intriguing points, and should give us all some pause. First, they remind us that when bad things happen, we’re not doing ourselves any favors by ruminating about them – instead, we should be trying to make sense of it. To put it into a narrative that makes sense, even if that sense making doesn’t seem like a particularly happy story. We’re reminded in this paper that people are basically sense-making machines, and that when bad things happen, we do better when we can think about it in a logical way.

But we’re also left with an intriguing “flip side” to that coin – namely, that when GOOD things happen, working to make sense of it or to remove the ‘mystery’ will only serve to deflate us more quickly. So don’t be afraid to leave some unanswered questions when good things are happening – You’ll be happier, longer, than if you figure it all out.