People Lie to Themselves to Impress the Opposite Sex

From a new paper by TCU’s Sarah Brady and Charles Lord:

The present studies investigated whether motives to impress an opposite-sex other might moderate memory for one’s own past evaluative actions. In two studies, participants were more likely to misrepresent and misremember their previous survey responses when they expected to meet an attractive rather than unattractive member of the opposite sex who was known to have responded differently from them, even when they were offered a meaningful reward for memory accuracy. The results have relevance for theories of story retelling, audience tuning, and motivation to establish a shared reality.

Could we blame natural selection by calling this self-deception in pursuit of procreation?

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Does School Start Too Early?

The latest research, from Christian Vollmer:

There are individual preferences in circadian rhythm, also known as chronotype, ranging from morning-orientation to evening-orientation. In adolescence, the sleep rhythm shifts from morningness to eveningness while school schedules are early. School performance – short-term attention and gradings – may decrease with increasing evening-orientation. One thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven adolescents aged 10–17 provided self-reported information on their chronotype as well as their gradings and completed an attention test. Controlling for age and gender, earlier chronotype was a significant predictor of better gradings and better performance in the attention test. Moreover, concerning the attention test, we found a slower and more considerate completion strategy in morning-types and faster and a more impulsive strategy in evening-types. Using structural equation modeling, age had a negative influence while class level had a positive influence on gradings and attention. The authors suggest a delay of school start times by 1 h as a measure to improve the school performance of late chronotypes.

Get ready for the morning person-evening person achievement gap! Obviously this is an issue we’re ill-equipped to prioritize at the current moment, but getting kids on a learning schedule that’s more in line with their natural rhythms is not necessarily a trivial matter. In addition to improved learning, students will likely be more engaged and develop higher overall levels of positive affect toward school.

I want to go into this in more depth at some point, but the potential benefits of later school times is one of the many reasons that self-driving cars could be the most important education innovation of the next 30 years. As long as school transportation requires a great deal of adult supervision and central planning, school hours will always mirror the standard adult work schedule. But with cheap (or free) and secure self-driving cars that come to your door, students can go to school at any time.

And that’s just a small part of what self-driving cars can do. Overall, they have the ability to transform the education system by vastly expanding the geographic area in which a student can attend a school. Proponents of school choice often ignore the serious geographical roadblocks to a utopian system where the great schools thrive and the bad ones are left without students. If there are only two or three schools near your house, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to choose a great school. But self-driving cars put more schools into play. Not only will this lead to beneficial differentiation and specialization — such as the creation of schools that start later — it will make it less likely that students will be forced to attend a school because it’s their best bad option.

Is Education Attainment a Privilege or an Accomplishment?

I have a new article at Pacific Standard about why people are motivated to believe in meritocracy. (Go read it. I promise it’s better than what’s about to follow.) One thing I don’t talk about is the degree to which certain accomplishments are viewed as indicative of meritocracy. The big example of this is education. Is educational attainment a result of the privileges into which you were born, or is it a result of hard work?

One some level, education seems like a matter of luck. Fancy private schools, personal tutors, and college-educated parents surely create inequality of opportunity. But educational attainment also involves some legitimate amount of hard work. Clearly people’s views about education will fall somewhere along the spectrum between “Pure Meritocracy” and “Total Randomness,” but the question is, what’s likely to influence where those views fall?

A clever new study led by Gerald Eisenkopf attempts to find a basic answer. The study combines a series of experimental manipulations with the dictator game in order to reveal how certain people (in this case, German college students) perceive educational advantages.

Here’s how the study was set up: Two partners answered a series of trivia questions. Each partner received a small amount of money based on their individual performance, while a much larger sum was given to the two partners based on the pair’s combined performance. The pair then had to divide up the sum using the ultimatum game (one person proposes a certain split, and if it’s accepted by their partner, that’s how the money is split up, but if it’s rejected, they each get nothing.)

The key manipulation was that before answering the questions participants were given an “education” period. During this time they could review certain questions that might be on the test, but the conditions varied in ways that were designed to mimic the educational inequities in most seemingly meritocratic societies. In the “skill” condition, only 5% of the practice questions appeared on the actual test, thereby making the education period relatively useless. The result was that performance was mostly based on each person’s true trivia ability. In the “luck” treatment, each person in the pair could learn 50% of the answers, and so a person’s performance had little to do with their actual level of knowledge. Finally, in the “education” condition, one partner was able to learn 95% of the available answers, while the other partner only saw 5% of the answers. There were two types of education conditions. In one, participants had 15 minutes to go through the sample questions, plenty of time to learn all the answers. In the other education condition, participants had only four minutes, and therefore effort and skill played a larger role in determining the advantage provided by access to more answers.

When the partners were later forced to divvy up their winnings in the ultimatum game, the results revealed that educational opportunities influenced how people viewed merit. As expected, high achievers in the “skill” condition were allotted the most money by both high and low-achievers. However, there was divergence between the two groups when one partner was randomly given a better “education.” In these cases those who received a quality education and scored higher believed they were entitled to a larger share. Conversely, those who were not granted a quality education tended to propose splitting up the winnings in an egalitarian manner that was reminiscent of the proposed splits when performance was based on luck. In other words, the high-achievers who had studied hard to learn the answers believed they deserved more, while the low-achievers who didn’t have the same privileges as their partners felt their partners were less deserving.

While not earth-shattering, the results provide some confirmation for the half-baked perception of meritocracy that you might expect: People are more likely to view their own experiences as worthy of merit. You remember your hard work, but not your privilege.

One remaining question is whether there are other things that influence how people view access to educational opportunities. For example, what if your cousin was granted access to education? Would you view his accomplishments more like the way you would view your own (hard work, lots of merit), or more like the way you would view that of a stranger (all privilege, no merit.) And is it possible that changes in the structure of our education system alter the degree to which people see education as consistent with meritocracy? For example, would a noticeable increase or decrease in standardized testing cause people to view educational attainment as more or less dependent on hard work? There’s a lot riding on the way people view educational attainment, and so the answers to these questions could ultimately prove to be important.
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Eisenkopf, G., Fischbacher, U., & Follmi-Heusi, F. (2013). Unequal opportunities and distributive justice Journal of Economic Behavior & Organizaiton DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2013.07.011

The Dark Side of the Dark Side of Self-Regulation

Elizabeth Weil’s TNR cover story about the perils of teaching self-regulation has generated a lot of pushback. Both Daniel Willingham and Sarah Mead penned responses that you should read in full, but the basic issue is that Weil doesn’t marshall much evidence about the size and scope of the problem she is warning about. She carefully argues for the vague notion that an emphasis on self-regulation could potentially be bad for some kids, but we already know that. The question is how many kids? With what severity?

Here’s Willingham:

There’s a case to be made that American society is going too far in emphasizing self-regulation. But the way to make it is not to suggest that the natural consequence of this emphasis is the crushing of children’s spirits because self-regulation is the same thing as no exuberance. The way to make the case is to show us that we’re overdoing self-regulation. Kids feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior.

Weil doesn’t have data that would bear on this point. I don’t either. But my perspective definitely differs from hers. When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation.

Weil also fails to properly acknowledge that many students are not from stable backgrounds, and in doing so she glosses over a key feature of teaching self-regulation.

Here’s Mead:

Weil’s article also reflects one other feature that drives me up the wall in elite media pieces on education–a heavy focus on the experience of elite, largely white, professionals and their concertedly cultivated children whose experiences are highly unrepresentative of the nation’s families and children–particularly those who are most vulnerable. Maybe Weil knows too many children who are being diagnosed with “sensory processing disorder,” but what about kids in less privileged neighborhoods? Things like the peace tables Weil describes can seem ridiculous, but children from communities where adults don’t usually display strong self regulation or settle problems by “using their words,” may need instruction to help them do so. And so forth.

Weil’s piece is emblematic of a common problem in policy writing, and education policy writing in particular. Almost no policy benefits everybody. Most policies are good ideas if they benefit 60%-70% of people without causing disproportionate harm on the other 30%-40%. But nobody wants to engage with the downsides of their preferred policy because there’s little to gain. Furthermore, in many cases there’s just not enough data to say something definitive about that 30%-40% (such as whether it’s actually 30%-40%.) So everybody pretends their policy is great for every single person, and the result is that people don’t argue by saying, “Here’s why the gains of my policy outweigh the losses,” they argue by saying, “Here are the gains of my policy and oh gosh aren’t they all so awesome.” Both sides tend to embrace this one-sided vagueness because it makes arguing easier. You often see these types of arguments in writing about charter schools, where people talk about the consequences of enrollment patterns or disciplinary models without any attempt at a measured weighing of trade-offs or a specific discussion about the proportion or characteristics of students most likely to be helped or hurt.

Such is the state of affairs in which it’s normal for Weil to spend 3,500 words attacking a policy without making the case that the policy hurts a majority of students or a disproportionate number of the students we should be most concerned about. Granted, Wail doesn’t argue for cutting back that fervently. Her inquiring tone is one that’s commonly found in the “here’s a downside we haven’t thought of…” articles that have become a staple of web journalism. But those tend to be short pieces. Dedicating 3500+ words requires a careful analysis of the pros and cons. Weil doesn’t supply that, and she would have been better off acknowledging this problem (or simply writing a piece that was much less ambitious.)

Finally, Weil should have done more to develop an accurate understanding of what self- or emotional-regulation entails. The word “suppress” appears twice in the article, and I think this is where Weil veers off course. Regulating yourself is not about suppressing desires. It’s about moving beyond your initial impulse, examining the situation, realizing your initial impulse was unwise, and then charting a different course. Take the example of 1st grader who wants to dance instead of listening to a presentation. Rather than suppressing the desire to act out in a creative fashion, regulation would entail understanding that such behavior could distract others and harm her own learning. Ultimately, a new desire to follow classroom rules is formed. Crucially, the child hasn’t learned that the desire to dance is bad or that it should be suppressed.

Perhaps we’d be better off occasionally replacing “regulation” with “re-evaluation” or “reappraisal” (the latter is more common in academic literature.) Doing so would emphasize that there’s no suppression of any kind going on, and it would help curtail the narrative that blossoming bundles of creativity are having their impulses stifled by dry school psychologists.

The Importance of Student-Teacher Relationships

From a new study led by NYU’s Meghan McCormick:

A robust body of research finds positive cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between teacher–child relationships and children’s academic achievement in elementary school. Estimating the causal effect of teacher–child relationships on children’s academic achievement, however, is challenged by selection bias at the individual and school level. To address these issues, we used two multilevel propensity score matching approaches to estimate the effect of high-quality teacher–child relationships in kindergarten on math and reading achievement during children’s transition to first grade. Multi-informant data were collected on 324 low-income, Black and Hispanic students, and 112 kindergarten and first-grade teachers. Results revealed significant effects of high-quality teacher–child relationships in kindergarten on math achievement in first grade. No significant effects of teacher–child relationships were detected for reading achievement. Implications for intervention development and public policy are discussed.

Two points:

1. One of the commonly cited arguments for not using test scores to evaluate teachers is that test scores don’t account for a variety of other important teacher skills — for example, a teacher’s ability to develop meaningful relationships with students. But McCormick found that better relationships were reflected in higher test scores. That’s not to say that there aren’t other good reasons for being cautious about using standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions, but test scores tend to be indicative of more skills than critics give them credit for.

2. It’s difficult to accurately measure student-teacher relationships, but student surveys probably do a fairly good job of revealing which teachers establish better relationships with students. That may be one reason why student surveys sometimes do a very good job of identifying high-performing teachers. Meanwhile, the critique of student surveys is that kids just give high ratings to the teachers they like, but the connections between “liking” and relationships and relationships and achievement suggest that even those worst-case scenario surveys might have valuable data. 

The Plight of Being a Boycotter

It’s Sunday afternoon and you and a friend are strolling down the boulevard, peeking into various store windows in the hope of finding a breathtaking fall outfit. Suddenly, staring back at you from the Ambercrombie window is a stunning sweater vest. It’s exactly what your friend needs for his online dating site photo. But when you express your enthusiasm he stops you. “I’ll never buy anything from them. They use sweatshops.”

These types of moral refusals arise all the time, whether they involve coffee that was imported with a lack of fairness, a sports team featuring an athlete of questionable character, or a potential employer that’s a little too focused on making money. In these situations the standard way of explaining your behavior is to proudly tell the truth: You don’t believe it would be morally right to lend your support.

But sometimes these innocent explanations can have unintended consequences. When you provide a moral explanation for not doing something that somebody else was willing to do, it poses a threat to their moral standing. In a very indirect way you’re calling them immoral. And nobody likes to be called immoral. Might there be consequences for publicly stating your moral opposition?

According to a new study from a group of Dutch researchers, people tend to view moral refusers less favorably. In one experiment participants tasted a piece of sausage and were then confronted by confederates who had refused to taste the sausage. Confederates who explained their decision by saying that eating meat was unethical were rated less favorably than confederates who simply explained that they didn’t like the taste of meat. The researchers also measured participants’ cardiovascular responses, and they found that participants who were confronted with a moral reason for not eating meat entered a physiological state that was more indicative of threat.

All of this is bad news for moral refusers. They may think they’re helping people out by creating awareness of important issues, but they may actually be going around and making people feel threatened.

A follow-up experiment not only confirmed the initial findings, it also found evidence that the impact of a moral refuser was mitigated if the participants washed their hands with soap after eating the meat. The reasoning is that the cleansing leads to positive self-evaluation, and this positive evaluation counteracts the negative evaluation that results from being confronted with the idea that you’ve done something immoral.

The findings offer one explanation for why it can be so difficult to drum up support for initiatives with moral undertones. Every attempt to rally somebody to your cause initiates it’s own little psychological pushback as they fight against the threat you’ve posed to their pristine morals. If what you’re proposing is morally right, and they aren’t already supporting your cause, then they can’t possibly be morally perfect. But nobody wants to believe that so they disparage you, and by extension, your boycott.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t lay the moral smackdown on people who fail to support what you believe to be morally necessary. Just know that they may defend against your implicit accusations of immorality by choosing to see you in a less favorable light. And so if you’re dealing with a relatively insignificant issue (e.g. your vegetarianism), and you’re in the middle of attempting to make an extremely important first impression, it may be better to pass on the moral explanation.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
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Cramwinckel, F.M., van Dijk, E., Scheepers, D., & van den Bos, K. (2013). The threat of moral refusers for one’s self-concept and the protective function of physical cleansing Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.07.009