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!