The More Informed You Are, the More Likely You Are to Change Your Mind

In American politics there is now an embargo on publicly changing your mind. It’s not on the standard oscillation between two positions that were each artificially constructed for political gain, but on forming new views after evaluating new evidence — for example, a staunch law-and-order senator eventually realizing the war on drugs is a failure, or a labor-backed Congressman deciding to support the deregulation of public education.

The smear campaign against taking a new position is unfortunate because there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. In fact, according to a new study, changing your mind is often a result of being better informed.

People who feel comfortable defending their views—defensively confident—may also eventually change those views and corresponding behaviors. National Election Studies surveys showed that defensive confidence predicted defection in the 2006 U.S. House elections, above and beyond the impact of various demographic and political variables. Moreover, defensive confidence was also associated with political knowledge and attention to politics and government affairs, but not attention to the news.

The connection between being comfortable defending a position and changing that position, initially seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it like this: Possessing knowledge that supports a position makes you more comfortable defending that position. However, because you based your position on knowledge, your position is liable to change when your knowledge changes. On the other hand, people who adhere to a position that’s not based on expertise won’t be as comfortable defending their position, but there is little chance that new knowledge will come along and change their minds. In other words, comfort with a position is associated with changing the position because they are both are driven by the same thing — knowledge.

The rigidness of politicians is frustrating because changing your mind is essentially an act of learning. When you reach a new view it almost always involves knowing something you didn’t know before. To go from believing  “My dog is stupid” to “My dog is a genius,” you would need to acquire and make sense of a new information (e.g. “My dog just assembled a ham radio from spare parts”). The message sent by our political system is that there’s no new knowledge out there. No need to even consider something will change your mind.

It’s also frustrating that this “anti-learning” message makes sense from the politician’s point of view. Politicians must pretend they can’t learn because they’re already supposed to know everything. To admit they were once wrong is to tacitly admit there’s a possibly that they might be wrong again. When each campaign is a nuclear arms race of unrealistic guarantees, a single admission of error can be crippling. Perhaps one day in the distant future the media will solve the problem by deciding to make a big fuss whenever a politician says something that’s not supported by recent peer-reviewed research.
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Albarracin, J., Wang, W., & Albarracin, D. (2012). Are Confident Partisans Disloyal? The Role of Defensive Confidence in Party Defection Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00896.x

Anxiety Can Make You Unprepared

Remember the time you had that really important job interview? You spent all week simulating every possible scenario in your head. You were so stressed and obsessed that you started stupid fights with your significant other, went three days without seeing the sun, and ate enough MSG to kill a small rodent. But it was all worth it because those hours spent ruminating about your interview left you wholly prepared for any challenging questions.

Or maybe not. A recent study that examined disaster preparedness found that anxiety makes you prepare less.

The thrust of this study is to understand the responses of anxiety-prone people to threats like natural disasters. It examines whether anxiety influences disaster preparedness, and whether disaster education and resources mediate between anxiety and disaster preparedness. Data were collected from 300 people, each from flood-prone and heat-wave-affected areas in Orissa, India. Controlling for the influence of age and family type, the results revealed that trait anxiety decreased flood and heat-wave preparedness.

Two points. First, the study completely busts the archetype of the crazy man stocking his bomb shelter and waiting for the apocalypse. If somebody really believed doomsday was coming, they would have too much anxiety to prepare for it.

Second, although the study deals with a fairly specific case, it seems plausible that our everyday ruminations also detract from our ability to adequately prepare for things in life (and thus prevent future anxieties.) That’s not to say that you should never dwell on something because you might risk increasing your anxiety, but it’s important to remember that our brains are good at thinking on the fly. That’s why humans and not gazelles own all the fancy California beachfront property. When we overanalyze, we quickly reach a point of diminishing returns, and as this study demonstrates, the returns can sometimes fall below nothing.  So next time you start obsessing, take a break and think about something else (for example, who is your least-liked Facebook friend?)

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Mishra, S., & Suar, D. (2011). Effects of Anxiety, Disaster Education, and Resources on Disaster Preparedness Behavior Journal of Applied Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00853.x

It’s Called “The 24-Hour News Cycle” For a Reason

It’s amusing to see the media’s discomfort with the “Ann Romney is a lazy free-loader” controversy. Media organizations initially made a big deal about it, but once they realized it was ridiculous they responded with a string of shame-induced meta-articles (for example, see here & here) about how silly things get blown out of proportion.

What the media seems unwilling to accept is that the manufactured controversy wasn’t a bug of the present environment, it was a feature. This was no slip up. It was the desired output of the system media bigwigs have built and protected.

A 24-hour news cycle means that every 24 hours there needs to be something new for newspapers and cable news networks to talk about. But sometimes there isn’t anything all that interesting. So something asinine gets undeserved attention.

As a thought exercise, imagine what would happen if there was nothing “newsworthy” to report? Would the CNN anchor get on TV and say, “Nothing is happening. We’re going to go home early and go off the air, and we’ll gladly refund all advertising that was purchased for the rest of the evening”? Of course not. Producers would take whatever had the highest marginal “newsworthy-ness” and they would make a big deal out of it. Sometimes that thing is somebody loosely connected to the Obama campaign pointing out a fact about the wife of the Republican presidential nominee.

It doesn’t matter how many self-critiques and calls for industry soul-searching there are, the fake controversies will keep coming until incentives change.

What Makes People Think a Ritual Is Effective?

Rituals are an odd thing. They incite deep devotion despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome. As University of Texas psychologist Christine Legare and her colleague Andre Souza write in a new paper, rituals are “irretrivably causally opaqe,” and that begs an interesting question: How do people evaluate the efficacy of a ritual when there is no causal explanation? In other words, if I have two rituals — let’s say, pulling my ear twice before shooting a free throw and listening to Enya whenever I have a cold — how would a person evaluate which one is more likely to bring about the desired result?

Legare and Souza attempted to find an answer by asking native Brazilians to rate the efficacy of different simpatias — recipes that are used in Brazilian culture to solve everyday problems (e.g. to alleviate depression, “on the last day of the month, throw a piece of the person’s clothes into a streaming river unbeknownst to the person. As the river flows away, the problem goes away.”)

After manipulating whether various criteria were present or absent in the simpatias, Legare and Souza found that there were three factors that significantly increased a ritual’s perceived effectiveness. More repetition (e.g. do it seven times rather than three times), more procedural steps, and the specificity of the ritual’s timing. These results held when the same simpatias were tested on students at an American University. According to Legare and Souza, these tendencies have an evolutionary origin:

We propose that one possible explanation for the effects of frequency (i.e., repetition of the ritual act(s), a greater number of procedural steps) and greater specificity (i.e., time specificity) is that information of this kind activates intuitive causal principles that evolved to understand causal efficacy about real-world events.

It’s not hard to see how “intuitive causal principles” that emphasize frequency and time-specificity would be useful to human survival. If a person’s indigestion goes away after eating seven blue fruits and one red fruit, it’s helpful to believe the improvement was caused by the blue fruits.

It would be interesting to see if these principles induce biases when applied to situations that already have a known causal connection. For example, if somebody says they inspected something five times, will the frequency of their actions lead us to overestimate the effectiveness of their work relative to somebody who inspected it only once? Similarly, if somebody says that for the best results you should do something at 8:45 pm, would we overestimate the usefulness of that advice relative to somebody who says you should do it between 8:30 and 9? It’s doubtful that the influence of these frequency and specificity principles is large, but it seems plausible that they could influence certain decisions or judgments at the margin.
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Legare, C., & Souza, A. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.004

Most Unions Hate Performance Pay

Major League Baseball’s players union has eagerly agreed to eliminate large bonuses for certain accomplishments:

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have come to an agreement that the 30 teams will no longer be able to offer personal service contracts or special milestone bonus clauses in future player contracts, MLB’s top labor official said on Friday.

The two sides decided to eliminate those negotiating chips in the wake of recent deals in which Albert Pujols signed with the Angels for 10 years at $240 million and Ryan Zimmerman extended his contract with the Nationals for six years at $100 million.

[…]

Manfred added that this has been an issue on the table between the parties for years. It pre-dated last year’s collective bargaining negotiations and violated a clause in the Basic Agreement that restricts bonuses based on statistical achievement. Pujols also had a marketing clause in his contract that would pay him $3 million if he reaches 3,000 hits and $7 million if he breaks Bonds’ home run record. Pujols went into action on Friday with 2,089 hits and 445 homers.

The union’s quick agreement to lower salaries initially seems odd — what’s not to like about additional large sums of money going to its players? But upon closer examination it becomes clear that the kind of bonus in Pujols’ contract rests at the top of a slippery slope. Halfway down the slope are contracts with tiny base salaries and large incentive bonuses, and at the bottom lie contracts with salaries based purely on performance. The players union wants nothing to do with these performance-based contracts because although a shift towards performance pay will ultimately lead to a more efficient distribution of the salary pool, it will make it easier to shrink that pool.

I point this out because it’s important to understand that teachers unions aren’t all that different from any other union. On one hand, this means that some of the “our kids depend on them” arguments that attempt to make a special class out of teachers are relatively weak when it comes to labor issues. On the the other hand, it means that there’s nothing inherently “evil” or selfish about teachers unions attempting to protect the salaries and interests of their members by opposing performance pay.

How Generalizations About Learning Hurt Student Motivation

Recent research on implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. whether you believe intelligence is fixed or malleable) has paved the way for some of the most promising low-cost high-reward educational interventions. For example, a series of short lessons about the brain’s potential to grow like a muscle can have significant and long-lasting effects on student achievement. Even something as simple as responding to good work with “you worked so hard” rather than “you’re so smart” can make a difference.

The problem, as a new study shows, is that there are countless inputs that go into forming a child’s beliefs about intelligence. A pair of experiments led by Andrei Cimpian of the University of Illinois discovered that simply linking success in something to a social group — for example, telling children that “girls are good at soccer” — can lower performance by instilling the mindset that intelligence is fixed.

We hypothesized that the mere act of linking success at an unfamiliar, challenging activity to a social group gives rise to entity beliefs that are so powerful as to interfere with children’s ability to perform the activity. Two experiments showed that, as predicted, the performance of 4- to 7-year-olds (N = 192) was impaired by exposure to information that associated success in the task at hand with membership in a certain social group (e.g., “boys are good at this game”), regardless of whether the children themselves belonged to that group.

The bad news is that blanket statements about groups is rampant is society. Even serious education policy analysis often contains some form of the sentence “underprivileged kids from a poor socio-economic background can’t/are bad at/have no chance to….”. Kids hear these things, whether it be from other kids, teachers, parents, or strangers, and they do have an effect.

I also think there’s a more abstract lesson about the diminishing returns modern humans are experiencing when it comes to broad “un-nuanced” generalizations. The reason people categorize things is because it’s often a useful heuristic for making sense of the world. But as our cognitive abilities have become more advanced the number of categorizations that benefit society (e.g. all berries with red spots are poisonous) is decreasing while the number of categorizations that can cause great harm to society (e.g. all tea party supporters are violent racists) seems to be increasing.

Over the next 100 years a key piece of human cognitive development will be finding ways to learn and teach how to instinctively understand the variation and flexibility within categorizations, and how to quickly break them into less biased and more useful increments. For example, when an 8-year-old girl hears “girls are bad at math,” it would be great if she had the psychological skills necessary to instantly interpret it as “from a statistical standpoint, girls tend to get lower scores on math tests, but this in no way means that working hard will not allow me to be better at math.”
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Cimpian, A., Mu, Y., & Erickson, L. (2012). Who Is Good at This Game? Linking an Activity to a Social Category Undermines Children’s Achievement Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429803

How Not to Have An Adult Debate About Education Reform: Part II

One overlooked obstacle facing education reform is that policy compromise has come in spite of deep philosophical disagreements that continue to lie untouched beneath the surface. For example, the debate about specific value-added systems often skirts the simple and central issue of whether or not value-added scores are a legitimate way to rate teachers.

Another instance where this arises is in the debate surrounding school closings and turnarounds. Every year at this time hearings and protests are held as New York City parents and students fight their school’s fate. Although much of the debate rightly focuses on whether or not there is evidence the school is making progress, a larger issue is ignored. No school is bad for every kid, and so when a school closes down, the social and academic transitions that follow are bound to hurt some kids. Generally this is made up for by the fact that future students (as well as some current students) will gain access to better schools.

School closure decisions are essentially a debate over what present cost we are willing to endure in order to obtain a future benefit. Yet society never talks about the issue in terms of the ideal sizes of those costs and benefits. Part of it is wise politics — it’s difficult to levy a cost on a real students in order to help unknown future students — and part of it is that it’s difficult to accurately estimate the costs and benefits (although the level of parent outrage could be a measure of the costs). But part of it is also the persistent failure to confront philosophical issues at the core of policy disagreements.

If asked, some people would surely say that if even one kid is hurt, we shouldn’t close a school. Others would say that even if every kid is hurt it’s still worth closing the school because the potential long term gains are too great. Most people will fall somewhere in between the extremes. Education stakeholders will never completely agree on the school closure issue, but we won’t see where the disagreement truly lies until people start talking in terms of costs and benefits.