Monthly Archives: October 2009

Is the First Spot Always Best in a Preference Test?

wine-tastingDoes someone interviewing for a job stand a better chance of getting the position if she’s first on the list of interviewees, last, or somewhere in-between?  Does someone running for public office stand a better chance of getting elected if he’s first on the ballot, last, or otherwise? 

These are questions of order in choice — and depending on who you’re asking, you’ll likely get a different answer about which spot in the picking order is more advantageous.  The issue is whether we can rely on a psychological standard for determining which slot in the order is typically favored by a chooser.  The flip side of this coin — what traits of the chooser play into which position he or she is most likely to favor? 

A new study in the journal Psychological Science investigated these questions using an especially tasty tool: wine.  Researchers wanted to know which wines in a given sequence would be favored by knowledgeable wine drinkers and vino sippers of average experience.  One hundred and forty-two people participated in the study, ages 19 to 75. 

Participants were told that they would taste locally produced wines and were randomly assigned to taste one sequence of two, three, four, or five samples.  Although participants expected to taste different samples of one grape varietal (e.g. Riesling), all of the samples consumed by a given participant actually consisted of the same wine. 

Participants were given a basic description of the wine-tasting procedure and direction on how to taste each wine.  Everyone had  approximately 25 seconds to sample each wine and 10 seconds between wines.  Participants drinking only two wines were given a total of 1 minute for tasting, and the interval increased all the way up to 2.5 minutes for those tasting five wines. 

At the end of each tasting sequence, each participant was asked, “Which ONE of ALL the wines that you have tasted today is you favorite?”  After the tasting was concluded, all participants completed a questionnaire to determine their level of knowledge and experience with various wines.  

The results:  the first wine was generally favored in all wine tasting sets (suggesting a ‘primacy effect’), and this applied to high and low-knowledge tasters.  High-knowledge tasters also tended to favor the most recent wine (‘recency effect’) when there were more than three wines in a set. 

So, across the board, there was a consistent “first-is-best” result, which suggests that participants were biased from the beginning to favor the first item in the set.  However, high-knowledge tasters broke ranks with this standard when they had several options to choose from.

The reason is that when faced with multiple options, high-knowledge users tend to compare the most recent item to the last one in the set.  If the most recent wine is their favorite, it will compare favorably to the last wine (in other words, the new favorite displaces the last favorite). 

In short — it’s usually better to be the first item in a set, unless (1) there are several options to choose from, and (2) the choosers are especially knowledgable about the items in question.  Putting that another way: first is usually best, except when it’s not.
Mantonakis, A., Rodero, P., Lesschaeve, I., & Hastie, R. (2009). Order in Choice: Effects of Serial Position on Preferences Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02453.x

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What Would You Do?

ABC News in the U.S. occasionally runs a TV show called “What Would You Do?” that puts people in difficult situations to see how they’ll react.  The host, John Quinones, then approaches the unknowing subjects to let them know that the situation was staged and debrief about why they acted as they did.  It all amounts to a well-done, real-world experiment in social psychology. 

The first video clip below features a situation involving a young girl approached by a stranger in a park.  Watch how people nearby react and how the reaction changes, or doesn’t, when the nature of the stranger changes. The second video features a situation involving a guy who won’t leave a woman alone at a bar.   (In the first video, by the way, only 12 of 50 people took action — sad commentary.)



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Just How ‘Blind’ Are You When Talking on a Cell Phone?

cell-phone-driving_smallEveryday in the news we see stories decrying the use of cell phones while driving.  Research reports aplenty have been released estimating the percentage of one’s attention siphoned by mobile jabber and how little is left to focus on the highway. 

This is great and I’m glad the discussion is happening, but it might be useful to ask whether cell phone use in other (non-driving) venues has a similar effect on attention. What better way to make the point that cell phone use is dangerous when driving than showing its effect on someone doing something not nearly as focus intensive — like walking, for instance.

That’s exactly what the authors of a new study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology wanted to do. Researchers examined the effects of divided attention when people are either (1) walking while talking on a cell phone, (2) walking and listening to an MP3 player, (3) walking without any electronics, or (4) walking in a pair. 

The measure of how much attention is diverted during any of these activities is called “inattentional blindness” — not ‘seeing’ what’s right in front of you, or around you, due to a distracting influence.  If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of the gorilla walking through the crowd of people passing around a ball, then you’ve seen an example of inattentional blindness (here’s a great paper on the effect downloadable as a PDF). 

For the first experiment of the study, trained observers were positioned at corners of a large, well-traveled square of a university campus.  Data was collected on 317 individuals, ages 18 and older, with a roughly equal breakdown between men and women.  The breakdown between the four conditions (with MP3, with cell phone, etc) was also roughly equal.  Observers measured several outcomes for each individual, including the time it took to cross the square; if the individual stopped while crossing; the number of direction changes the individual made; how much they weaved, tripped or stumbled; and if someone was involved in a collision or near-collision with another walker.

The results:  for people talking on cell phones, every measure with the exception of two (length of time and stopping) was significantly higher than the other conditions.  Cell phones users changed direction seven times as much as someone without a cell phone (29.8% vs 4.7%), three times as much as someone with an MP3 player (vs 11%), and weaved around others significantly more than the other conditions (though, interestingly, the MP3 users weaved the least of all conditions). 

People on phones also acknowledged others only 2.1%  of the time (vs 11.6% for someone not on a phone), and collided or nearly collided with others 4.3% of the time (vs 0% for walking alone or in a pair, and 1.9% when using an MP3 player).

The slowest people, who also stopped the most, were walking in pairs.  In fact, next to the other conditions walking in pairs was the only one that came anywhere close to using a cell phone across the range of measures.

The next experiment replicated the first, but only one measure was tracked: whether or not walkers saw a clown unicycling across the square.  And this was an obnoxiously costumed clown, complete with huge red shoes, gigantic red nose and a bright purple and yellow outfit.  Interviewers approached people who had just walked through the square and asked them two questions: (1) did you just see anything unusual?, and (2) did you see the clown?

The results:  When asked if they saw anything unusual, 8.3% of cell phone users said yes, compared to between 32 and 57% of those walking without electronic devices, with an MP3 player, or in pairs.  When asked if they saw the clown, 25% of cell phone users said yes compared to 51%, 60% and 71.4% of the other conditions, respectively.  In effect, 75% of the cell phone users experienced inattentional blindness.  (The discrepancy between the 8.3% and the 25% might be because the clown didn’t register as something “unusual” — this is, after all, a university campus.)

So, coming back around to the original point — if using a cell phone impairs attention as drastically as this study shows for people just walking, could it by any stretch of the imagination be a good idea to use one while driving? 

One caveat to that concluding question should be mentioned: As noted in the results, people walking in pairs–most likely talking to each other–were next in line for inattentional blindness. This jibes with research (discussed in this TIME article) indicating that talking to someone in your car while driving is significantly distracting–perhaps not quite as much as chatting on a cell phone, but in the neighborhood.  Auditory cues, whether from a phone or from the person next to you, divert attention. The problem with cell phones, however, is that a user lacks the other set of eyes his co-chatter has to offer, which could very well be the difference between being in an accident or getting home safely.
Hyman, I., Boss, S., Wise, B., McKenzie, K., & Caggiano, J. (2009). Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone Applied Cognitive PsychologyDOI: 10.1002/acp.1638


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Neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe Discusses How We Read Each Other’s Minds

We know that we can sense the thoughts and feelings of others, but how do we do it?  From the TED 2009 Global Conference, Rebecca Saxe, professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, shares fascinating research that uncovers how the brain thinks about other peoples’ thoughts — and judges their actions.

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When the Powerful Feel Incompetent, the Rest of Us Feel Their Wrath

boss-yellingYou’re sitting at your desk when the phone rings. It’s your boss and he wants to see you in his office.  You’re not sure why – nothing in particular comes to mind that would put you in his crosshairs. In fact, you’ve actually been doing a great job lately. Even your boss’s boss mentioned that you were doing outstanding work in a staff meeting the other day, right in front of everyone, including your boss. What could possibly be the problem?

You walk into his office, sit down, and are immediately awash in the most inappropriate display of yelling you’ve ever seen in the workplace. It’s hard to follow all of the criticisms he’s throwing at you, but you make out “incompetent,” “unresponsive” and “careless” amidst a caravan of expletives. The source of the criticism, you finally realize, is a small error you made in a report—something likely no one else even noticed. How could that bring on all of this?

Or…is that really the source of this reaction? Then you remember the look on your boss’s face when his boss sung your praises in the staff meeting. Suddenly this makes sense—he was threatened, and now he’s found one thing to aggressively nail you on.  

It’s no surprise that power and aggression often move along the same track. In particular, the threat of losing power is like striking a match near the aggression gun powder keg.  Studies have shown that the perceived need to protect one’s power kicks ego defenses into high gear, loaded with enough aggression to regret for a lifetime.

This is, of course, personality specific. Not everyone is going to react this way, but a generous number of people do. According to a 2007 study of American workers, 37% (about 54 million people) have been bullied at work, defined as “sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled” by their bosses.  We know that much of this comes from the kind of defensiveness shown by the boss in the scenario above, but what’s really brewing below the surface of the boss’s psyche to elicit this extreme a reaction?  

A new study in the journal Psychological Science took on this question from an intriguing angle: could it be that a lack of perceived self competence triggers aggression among the powerful?  Power increases the degree to which people feel they must be competent, to fill the demands that come with a high position and to hold onto the position against would-be challengers. If someone in power doesn’t really think he or she is competent enough (or fears they might not be and thinks someone may eventually see through them) then any perceived threat could spark an aggressive reaction – or so this study wanted to test.

Researchers conducted four experiments to test the hypothesis. In the first, they established a basic correlation between power and aggression by having 90 professionals from various fields complete an authority survey (to determine their level of power); the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale (which measures how people think about others’ evaluations of them); and the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionaire (which measures things like argumentativeness, likelihood of physical reaction, etc).  The result was that the higher the level of perceived incompetence, the higher the level of associated aggression. Again, this was just a straight correlation – no data manipulation. 

The next three experiments took the study farther. In the second, researchers examined peoples’ responses to a primed power role. Assigned roles of varying authority, participants were asked to complete a survey to determine their level of perceived self competence. They were then asked to determine how loud a sound blast should be used as a penalty for undergraduate students who answer questions incorrectly on an upcoming experiment (a fabricated prop for the study).  The results: for those in high-power roles who had low perceived self competence, the sound blast level was significantly higher than for people with a high level of self competence. More sound, more aggression.     

In the third experiment, participants were first evaluated to determine their level of perceived self competence, and then were asked to complete a “leadership aptitude test.” Some of the participants were given scores indicating that they have excellent leadership skills, and some were told that they had average leadership skills (in other words, some got a self-worth boost and some didn’t). 

They were then divided into two-partner groups and told that they’d be competing for a $20 prize with their partners based on scores they earned from taking an intelligence test, with the twist that one partner would chose from a selection of easy to hard tests for their partner to take. They were also advised that whether or not the partner won $20 would not affect the other person from winning $20 (both could win).  The results: by a wide margin, participants who had low perceived self competence and did not receive a self-worth boost opted to punish their partners by selecting the hardest IQ tests, indicating a significantly higher level of aggression.

Taken together, the findings from these experiments (including the fourth, not described here for sake of post length) point to a strong conclusion: people in positions of power who do not perceive themselves as competent are far more likely to aggressively lash out against others.  The result is ironic, because we typically think of those who attain power as being especially competent – how else can they get so far?  But what this study suggests is that power may enhance self critique of competence, and the more someone questions whether they really have what it takes to be in power, the more threatened they’ll feel by any number of situations and people, and aggression too often follows.
Fast, N., & Chen, S. (2009). When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02452.x

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R. D. Laing on Psychophobia and the Politics of Psychology

Below is a tremendous clip from a longer video called Did You Used To Be R. D. Laing?  in which the ever provocative psychologist discusses a condition he describes as “Psychophobia”– a fear of our own psyches–and reservations he had about modern psychological thinking. The full video was released a year after his death in 1989.  The clip is about 3.5 minutes long. 


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Once You Start Trusting a Source, Beware the Trust Trap

mousetrapIf you follow a news commentator closely, reading everything he or she writes in whatever venue it appears, you may unknowingly be in a trust trap.  Studies have shown that once we invest trust in a particular source of knowledge, we’re less likely to scrutinize information from that source in the future. 

Now a new study in the journal Applied Psychological Science has taken this investigation a step further, showing that the trust trap can also result in the creation of false memories — and not only in the short term.

Researchers crafted an experimental design in which they exposed two groups of participants to a series of images followed by narration about the images.  The first group (refered to as the “treat-trick” group) received mostly accurate narration about the images.  The comparison group received mostly misinformation.  Both groups then completed tests of recall to determine how much accurate versus inaccurate information they remembered. 

One month later, the participants were brought back to undergo the same experiment, except this time the treat-trick group was given misinformation during the narration (ie. the “trick”), as was the comparison group.  Both groups again completed tests of recall.  

Here’s what happened:  In the first session, the treat-trick group had a significantly higher rate of true memory versus the comparison group (which we’d expect since only the comparison group was given misinformation during this session) — at a rate of about 82% for the treat-trick group and 57% for the comparison group. 

But in the second session, in which both groups were given misinformation one month later, the treat-trick group had significantly lower true memory recall than the comparison group: 47% versus 58%.   The graph below shows overall results for both sessions of the study.


The most likely reason for this effect is that the treat-trick group fell into a trust trap.  Because information provided by the narrative source in the first session was accurate (and test scores were high as a result), participants believed the source to be credible and trustworthy.  The comparison group, on the other hand, had no reason to invest trust in the original source and exhibited recall at roughly the same level for both sessions. 

What’s most interesting is the timeframe of this effect.  Researchers conducted the sessions a month apart, allowing ample time for a trust effect to wear off.  But it didn’t. 

The real-world implications of this research are important. Eyewitness testimony can be changed when a witness listens to an information source they’ve previously trusted as credible (either media, interrogators, or other people), and this study suggests that the window of opportunity for this effect is large.  Any follow-up information received by an eyewitness from any number of sources can significantly alter his or her memory. 

Yet another example of how malleable our memories truly are, and the risks we run of putting so much faith in something so changeable.
Zhu, B., Chen, C., F. Loftus, E., Lin, C., & Dong, Q. (2009). Treat and trick: A new way to increase false memory Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1637


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