Boozing Your Way to Efficient Goal Pursuit

There are many reasons people like alcohol. It makes things seem more positive by making it harder to anticipate negative consequences, and it also causes models playing beach volleyball to instantly appear in your backyard. Anybody who has dared to let their BAC approach .1% could also tell you that alcohol changes the way you think about goals, and a new study suggests that alcohol does this by causing you to focus on a goal’s desirability rather than its feasibility.

We investigated whether consuming alcohol leads people to disproportionally focus on the desirability rather than feasibility of important personal goals. Students named an important personal goal and then either consumed alcohol or a placebo. Thereafter, we asked them to freely think about their goal and to write down their thoughts and images. We content-analyzed students’ elaborations with regard to what extent they focused on the goal’s desirability and on its feasibility. Intoxicated students wrote more about aspects of desirability and less about aspects of feasibility than those who consumed a placebo. The results suggest that this effect is one mechanism by which alcohol intake leads people to feel committed to personal goals despite low feasibility of attaining these goals

What’s interesting is that there are certain situations where this distortion leads people to behave more efficiently. For example, when sober, people often avoid the low-feasibility high-desirability situation of successfully finding a new romantic partner because they focus on the likely (and feasible) cost of a depleted ego and not on the unlikely but highly desirable benefits of a lifetime of romantic happiness. Generally the expected value of these benefits still outweighs the expected costs, but it is only when alcohol creates a focus on desirability that people realize this.

In other words, for people who are bad at cost-benefit analysis because they are too risk-averse, alcohol can occasionally nudge them to make better decisions by shifting the lens through which they view costs and benefits from one that focuses on feasibility to one that focuses on desirability. (Emphasis on occasionally. This probably is not the case when it comes to deciding whether to toilet paper you boss’ house.) On the other hand, for people who do a good job weighing the desirability and feasibility of certain outcomes, alcohol is less likely to be beneficial.

On a broader and more futuristic note, I think the kind of feasibility-desirability tradeoff the study touches on is the type of thing kids will/should be learning in schools 50 years from now. Because kids will be able to learn physics or computer science from free open-source technology, the goal of formal education will be to teach them how to make the right decision about what they should go teach themselves.
Sevincer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2012). Alcohol intake leads people to focus on desirability rather than feasibility Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9285-6

Thinking About Your Childhood Leads to More Prosocial Behavior

There are times when you can’t stop yourself from being a jackass. Maybe you’re in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you forgets an item. Without even an apologetic glance, they scamper away to retrieve it, blissfully unaware that the efficient thing to do is finish paying and re-enter the line, and you’re left with smoke billowing out your ears because you’ll be late for dinner all because this idiotic person can’t use one of the million smartphone apps dedicated to grocery shopp—–well, you understand what I’m saying.

The point is that at these times it would nice to have a little help behaving in a more prosocial manner. According to a new study, thinking about childhood memories can provide that assistance, even if the memories are about the time you peed your pants while dancing with Susie Martinez at the 4th grade Spring Fling Dance.

Drawing on research on memory and moral psychology, we propose that childhood memories elicit moral purity, which we define as a psychological state of feeling morally clean and innocent. In turn, heightened moral purity leads to greater prosocial behavior. In Experiment 1, participants instructed to recall childhood memories were more likely to help the experimenter with a supplementary task than were participants in a control condition, and this effect was mediated by moral purity. In Experiment 2, the same manipulation increased the amount of money participants donated to a good cause, and both implicit and explicit measures of moral purity mediated the effect. Experiment 3 provides further support for the process linking childhood memories and prosocial behavior through moderation. In Experiment 4, we found that childhood memories led to punishment of others’ ethically questionable actions. Finally, in Experiment 5, both positively valenced and negatively valenced childhood memories increased helping compared to a control condition.

The findings point to the larger potential of simple cues or thoughts that can influence behavior at the margin. Thinking of childhood memories is one of thousands of these cues, and if even 10 of them can be learned and internalized, they will begin to change the way a person acts in social situations.

Are you tired, frustrated, and despondent over the academic and social challenges of being in 11th grade? Take 30 seconds and think about your childhood. Maybe it will help at the margin. Maybe it won’t. But if people start experimenting with these kinds of psychology “hacks” at a young age, by the time they’re adults they’ll have a fully developed arsenal of tools that will help them cope with the world around them.

The challenge is that this kind of thing isn’t easy to teach. If you put a bunch of 12-year-olds in a room and attempt to talk about what to do “when you’re feeling sad or angry,” you’ll end up with an hour of snark and a bunch of Urban Dictionary synonyms for “fecal matter.” Hopefully, better technology can help solve the problem — we’re getting close to the point where funny videos and addictive role playing video games may be able to succeed where conflict resolution workshops have fallen short.
Gino, F., & Desai, S. (2012). Memory lane and morality: How childhood memories promote prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (4), 743-758 DOI: 10.1037/a0026565

A Happier, Commercial-Free Future

One day in the not-so-distant future the TV-advertising industrial complex will come crashing to the ground and be replaced by super-targeted location-based smartphone ads that will drive civil libertarians to start a colony under the sea. Fortunately, once we get past the privacy issues, the new system will be a good thing. There will be more efficient person-product matching, and our economy will waste less money on nuclear arms race advertising (e.g. Miller Lite and Bud Light spending billions of dollars to maintain the status quo and not create any value.)

A new study by a group of Northwestern researchers points to a third  and potentially more important consequence of a new advertising paradigm. Less exposure to desirable goods or “consumer cues” makes us less materialistic at the margin, and in the end that makes people happier.

Correlational evidence indicates that materialistic individuals experience relatively low levels of well-being. Across four experiments, we found that situational cuing can also trigger materialistic mind-sets, with similarly negative personal and social consequences. Merely viewing desirable consumer goods resulted in increases in materialistic concerns and led to heightened negative affect and reduced social involvement (Experiment 1). Framing a computer task as a “Consumer Reaction Study” led to a stronger automatic bias toward values reflecting self-enhancement, compared with framing the same task as a “Citizen Reaction Study” (Experiment 2). Consumer cues also increased competitiveness (Experiment 3) and selfishness in a water-conservation dilemma (Experiment 4). Thus, the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism—cues that are commonplace in contemporary society.

Try and count how many times during the day you’re exposed to something you want but can’t have. It’s impossible. And each of those moments may be chipping away at your positive affect. There will always be ads that induce a materialistic mindset, but in a future without TV or print ads there will be less of them.

Another downside to our current world is that when you see an advertisement you expend some thought considering the costs and benefits of various products and the state of your current material possessions. Because these thoughts are relatively fruitless, not only will fewer ads lead to less materialism and more happiness, it should also free up some mental capacity for more important thoughts. Like why all important decisions are not made via a tournament bracket format.
Bauer, M., Wilkie, J., Kim, J., & Bodenhausen, G. (2012). Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429579

The Importance of Friendship

Within our education system most of the focus on social environments is geared toward highly salient issues with legal implications — things like bullying and violence. What often gets overlooked is a much less serious but much more common situation — the shy kid with no friends who spends all day unhappy and uninterested.

As Stanford’s Geoffrey Cohen and Gregory Walton discovered, having even a tenuous social connection can make a big difference.

Four experiments examined the effect on achievement motivation of mere belonging, a minimal
social connection to another person or group in a performance domain. Mere belonging was
expected to increase motivation by creating socially-shared goals around a performance task.
Participants were led to believe that an endeavor provided opportunities for positive social
interactions (Experiment 1), that they shared a birthday with a student majoring in an academic
field (Experiment 2), that they belonged to a minimal group arbitrarily identified with a
performance domain (Experiment 3), or that they had task-irrelevant preferences similar to a peer
who pursued a series of goals (Experiment 4). Relative to control conditions that held constant
other sources of motivation, each social-link manipulation raised motivation, including
persistence on domain-relevant tasks (Experiments 1-3) and the accessibility of relevant goals
(Experiment 4). The results suggest that even minimal cues of social connectedness affect
important aspects of self.

One takeaway from the study is the importance of educational choices for students, not just between schools but within schools. Obviously if there are multiple public or charter schools within a given area, students will be more likely to end up in a better social situation, but more electives or internship-type opportunities within a school are also likely to give kids a better chance to feel as though they belong.

Schools should also take note of how important it is to create an environment where kids feel like they are part of something tangible. There’s a fine line between activities that can build real camaraderie and bullshit exercises that make kids lose respect for the education system, but perhaps schools should invest more time figuring out where the line is and designing activities that fall on the right side of it.

Walton, G., Cohen, G., Cwir, D., & Spencer, S. (2012). Mere belonging: The power of social connections. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (3), 513-532 DOI: 10.1037/a0025731

Right Now, the “Butter Battle Book” Is Dr. Seuss’ Most Relevant Work

The green light to make a move based on “The Lorax” was given in July 2009. Obama had recently been sworn in and we still didn’t fully realize how bad the recession was. Environmentalism was still all the rage, and so I’m sure choosing the “Lorax” to turn into a movie seemed like the right move. Fast forward two and half years and all anybody cares about is jobs, birth control, and Iran.

Given that going to war with Iran has a newfound prominence in our lives, what we really need is a Butter Battle Book movie. Seuss’ cold war era story about arms races and mutually assured destruction is the perfect retort to Iran warmongering. Never has the destructiveness of culturally generated hatred been so clearly shown. And from a psychological standpoint, learning that you shouldn’t hate a large diverse group of people you know little about is the kind of low-risk high-reward education society needs. Something like the Butter Battle Book won’t turn a neocon into a dove, but at the margin it might make open minded people more disgusted with war. That seems important.

On another note, I think that having successfully sprung the birth control trap on the GOP, Democrats should goad Republicans into attacking Dr. Seuss by continuously churning out Sueuss movies that promote progressive ways of thinking. Republicans won’t figure out how to combat the messages without trashing Dr. Suess, and people won’t stand for that. You saw what happend when Fox News tried to criticize the Muppets movie. The attacks had no legs because people love the fucking muppets. Dr. Seuss has the same kind of immunity.

Does Your First School Shape the Teacher You Become?

There are two ways to learn how to swim. You either get decked out in your best pair of water wings and slowly figure things out, or your brother pushes you in the pool and you thrash around until you float.

Ok, so there are probably more than two ways, but the point is that there still isn’t much consensus on whether or not “trial by fire” is a good thing. One area where this debate is particularly relevant is teacher training. Is it better for a teacher to learn in a “good” school where they have the luxury of resources and higher-achieving students, or are they better off starting in a “bad” school were they must learn to deal with the worst our education system has to offer?

new study by the University of Michigan’s Matthew Ronfeldt sheds some light on this issue. Ronfeldt examined the careers of teachers who did their pre-service preparation in “easy-to-staff” schools (where teachers tend to stay longer) and “hard-to-staff” schools. The results showed that for teachers, trial by fire is probably not the way to go.

Teachers who learned to teach in higher stay-ratio (easier-to-staff) field placement schools were more effective at raising test scores and more likely to stay in NYC schools during their first 5 years of teaching. Moreover, learning to teach in easier-to-staff schools was associated with better retention and achievement gains even for teachers who became teachers of record in the hardest-to-staff (lowest stay-ratio) schools and for those who ended up working with the most underserved student populations.


The main findings suggest teacher education programs should avoid placing prospective teachers in difficult-to-staff schools.

The methodology doesn’t rule out selection or peer affects that could lead to a different group of teachers starting at easy-to-staff schools, and it’s also worth noting that if a school is hard-to-staff it doesn’t necessarily mean it serves an underserved population (i.e. poor minority students). Nevertheless, the results are telling. Do they mean that Teach For America should start sending people to fancy schools in the suburbs? Of course not. But if you personally are dedicated to becoming the best teacher possible, it might be better for you to start off in an “easy-to-staff” school.

In my mind, the study also speaks to the larger issues regarding how much freedom various entities should have when it comes to running schools. For example, imagine that the findings from this study are repeatedly replicated so that the benefits of starting out in an easy-to-staff school become clear. Now imagine an entity (e.g. a school district, CMO, etc.) that runs a variety of different schools over a relatively large geographic region. Such an entity could place all of its new teachers in easy-to-staff schools, then after two or three years, offer them financial incentives to move to difficult-to-staff schools. This maximizes professional development and puts the best teachers in the schools that need them most.

Unfortunately, at the moment the above utility-maximizing scenario is impossible in most U.S. public school systems. School districts don’t offer financial incentives to teach in one school over another, and they can’t send all new teachers to a certain selection of schools. All of this is very hypothetical, but it illustrates why some people are so infuriated with the rigidness of public education in America.
Ronfeldt, M. (2012). Where Should Student Teachers Learn to Teach?: Effects of Field Placement School Characteristics on Teacher Retention and Effectiveness Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34 (1), 3-26 DOI: 10.3102/0162373711420865

Diversity Is Whatever You Want It to Be

The mission statements of colleges, corporations, and seemingly every organization excpet the KKK involve some kind of commitment to diversity. But the details usually end there, and that begs an important question: How do people define “diversity”? Is there some kind of objective measure?

A new study led by Miguel Unzueta of UCLA suggests the answer is no. Specifically, the study found that those who don’t value diversity will find ways to see a world where enough diversity already exists, while those who do value diversity will find ways to see a world that doesn’t have enough of it.

Unzueta and his colleagues first measured subjects’ “Social Dominance Orientation” (SDO), a measure of how much a person does not value an egalitarian society. They then presented subjects with a description of a fictional company, but they varied whether the company was high or low in racial heterogeneity (mostly white, or with significant numbers of whites, African-Americans, Latino, and Asians) and occupational heterogeneity (mostly engineers, or with a significant number of engineers, accountants, consultants, and marketers). Finally, they asked subjects for their perceptions of the company’s diversity and support for affirmative action policies.

The researchers found that when the company had low racial heterogeneity, only those who didn’t value egalitarianism (high SDO) judged that high occupational heterogeneity contributed to diversity. In other words, only those who didn’t care about egalitarianism believed occupational diversity could make a racially non-diverse organization more diverse. On the other hand, when the company’s racial heterogeneity was high, only those who valued egalitarianism judged that low occupational heterogeneity contributed to a lack of diversity. In this instance, only those who cared about egalitarianism believed occupational diversity could make a racially diverse organization less diverse. Or to put it more eloquently:

Our findings suggest that diversity may be in the eye of the beholder. Participants in this study altered their conception of diversity to include or exclude a nonracial dimension (i.e., occupational heterogeneity) in a manner that allowed them to legitimize attitudes toward policies that affect racial hierarchy.

One thing the study seems to confirm is that when an organization isn’t truly committed to diversity, any language proposing such a commitment is total bullshit because the organization will likely find sufficient diversity in the status quo. The study also suggests that if an organization is truly committed to diversity, an official diversity goal could be an endless and unattainable proposition. For example, even if an organization’s diversity goal appears to most neutral observers to have been thoroughly achieved, the organization may continue to inefficiently worked towards more diversity because it repeatedly finds places where diversity is lacking. (Imagine a university that expends a lot of resources to get Hispanic enrollment up, but then becomes obsessed with not having enough Scandinavians or Pacific Islanders.)


Unzueta, M., Knowles, E., & Ho, G. (2012). Diversity Is What You Want It to Be: How Social-Dominance Motives Affect Construals of Diversity Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611426727