The Daily Dissonance Struggle

I have a new article at Pacific Standard that takes a look at the psychological issues Republicans are struggling with as they attempt to stick to their beliefs in the face of waning public support. In short, they’re torn between shifting their beliefs to better align with the public, and reinforcing their beliefs to alleviate the sting of being in the minority. As always, go read the whole thing!

More broadly, I think that despite being relatively well-known, the role of cognitive dissonance in everyday life still flies under the radar. People tend to emphasize how dissonance incites or prevents large and visible decisions (e.g. deciding you no longer support the death penalty) but I think the real impact is in marginal belief shifts over the course of your life.

Here’s one example: Generally between the ages of 14-25 people becomes less concerned with what their peers think about them. It’s a natural progression that occurs as you go from being a middle school student to not being a middle school student. But those marginal shifts induce unpleasant dissonance as you deal with the fact that you spent time an energy concerned with something you’re no longer concerned about.

All of which is to say that the ups and downs of every day life are largely a result of the dissonance we experience as our outlook and priorities go through seemingly imperceptible changes. As we feel ourselves abandoning a belief that no longer serves us well we experience discomfort from losing the sunk cost of all the effort dedicated to acting on that belief. But once you overcome that dissonance, you’ve got a belief that’s better suited to your current situation, and you’re better off because of it. Then the cycle starts over again.

Baseball: Possibly Less Racist Than You Thought

A few years ago economist Daniel Hamermesh made a splash with a study purporting to show that MLB umpires were biased toward players of their own race when calling balls and strikes. Now the University of San Francisco’s Jeff Hamrick has a new study that examines data over a longer timer period (1989-2010 vs. 2004-2006) and finds that there is little evidence of racial bias.

We investigate potential racial bias by Major League Baseball umpires. We do so in the context of the subjective decision as to whether a pitch is called a strike or a ball, using data from the 1989-2010 seasons. We find limited, and sometimes contradictory, evidence that umpires unduly favor or unjustly discriminate against players based on their race. Potential mitigating variables such as attendance, terminal pitch, the absolute score differential, and the presence of monitoring systems do not consistently interact with umpire/pitcher and umpire/hitter racial combinations. Most evidence that would first appear to support racially connected behaviors by umpires appears to vanish in three-way interaction models. Overall, our findings fall well short of convincing evidence for racial bias.

I assume future research will investigate what we’re all dying to know: Whether or not there is racial bias in fielder obstruction calls.



Does it Matter if Stock Analysts Disclose Their Investments?

Important financial regulations may currently be withering on the vine, but patriotic wall street job creators still have some rules they must obey. One such rule, which comes from the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, mandates that stock analysts disclose conflicts of interests. Because analysts stand to profit if hordes of people try to buy stocks they own, it makes sense that they ought to let people know where they stand.

In theory, disclosures allow citizens to make better decisions, but it’s not entirely clear that’s the case. A recent study (pdf) led by Duke’s Sunita Sah suggests that when doctors disclose a professional or financial interest in a certain procedure, patients will see the recommendation as biased, but they’ll also feel social pressure to be of assistance. In the end this can make them more likely to take the doctor’s advice:

Disclosure of a doctor‘s financial or non-financial conflict-of-interest has an adverse effect on the doctor-patient relationship. It decreases trust in the doctor‘s advice, which is, however, accompanied by increased pressure to  comply with the doctor‘s disclosed interest. Thus, instead of being merely a warning, disclosure  can become a burdensome request to comply with advice that is trusted less.

Sah also conducted a series of follow-up experiments based around an artificially constructed advice-giving scenario. These experiments also found that when an adviser revealed he had something to gain from the deciding participant’s decision, the decider became more likely to follow the advice. However, there was an exception. When the disclosure was made by a third party, and thus the decider couldn’t assume that the adviser knew that he knew (stay with me), the disclosure did not make the decider more likely to follow the advice. It would seem that when the social relationship was more tenuous, or when there was no shared knowledge about the disclosure, there was less pressure to comply.

How might disclosures play out with regard to financial trading? A new study by Pepperdine’s Ahmed Taha and Wake Forest’s John Petrocelli sought to find an answer. Taha and Petrocelli examined how three samples of participants — MBA students, law students, and undergraduates — reacted to reports on two different imaginary steel companies that were written by two different analysts. One analyst owned stock in the company he was writing about, and participants saw one of three different versions of his reports. One version had a standard disclosure that said the author owns stock in the company being written about. A second version had the same disclosure, but with additional text that explained the analyst could gain if the reader purchased the stock. A third version contained no disclosure, and thus the two reports participants in this condition saw were essentially equivalent. Participants were then given an imaginary $10,000 to allocate between the two companies.

The researchers found that disclosure of ownership led participants to invest less money and view the analysts as more dishonest. When it came to the two disclosure conditions, the condition that explained why ownership was a conflict of interest had a stronger effect than the condition in which disclosure was simply made.

Taha and Petrocelli explain:

These results suggest that the perceived honesty and confidence of analysts is affected by whether and how it is disclosed that the analysts own stock in the companies they are recommending, and in turn, this perceived honesty and confidence affect investors’ investment decisions. Disclosure of analyst ownership reduces investment at least in part because investors question the honesty and confidence of an analyst who recommends stocks that the analyst owns.

Does this square with the results from Suh’s study? It would seem so. While the analyst’s disclosures were public and known to both the analyst and the reader, the impersonal nature of written stock reports means that people are unlikely to feel much social pressure to comply with the recommendations. So, good for Sarbanes-Oxley! It makes people distrust stock analysts, and because Joe Six-Pack can’t beat the stock market, anything that discourages him from trying to do so is a good thing.

One remaining question is whether the results might be different if the investor has a more personal one-on-one relationship with their analyst. That seems more akin to the medical advice situation, and it could lead a case where Sarbanes-Oxley pressures people into making poor decisions.
Taha, A.E., & Petrocelli, J.V. (2013). Sending Mixed Messages: Investor Interpretations of Disclosures of Analyst Stock Ownership Psychology, Public Policy, and Law DOI: 10.1037/a0033915

Sah, S., Lowenstein, G., & Cain, D.M. (2013). The Burden of Disclosure: Increased Compliance with Distrusted Advice Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0030527

Sexual Abuse Is Terrible

Not that there are a whole lot of people on the fence about the issue, but a new study led by Selby Conrad helps illustrate the severe negative long-term effects that sexual abuse can have on females, and in particular females who may already be at-risk for other reasons.

Young female offenders represent a growing number of young offenders. Studies have shown that youth in the juvenile justice system, particularly young females, report higher rates of lifetime sexual abuse than their nonoffending peers. The aim of this study was to examine gender differences in risk factors for recidivism, including a history of sexual abuse, among a juvenile court clinic sample. Findings suggest that, even after accounting for previously identified risk factors for recidivism such as prior legal involvement and conduct problems, a history of sexual abuse is the most salient predictor of recidivism for young female offenders, but not for males. The development of gender-responsive interventions to reduce juvenile recidivism and continued legal involvement into adulthood may be warranted.

Solving College Mismatch By Instilling a Sense of Competence

My latest piece for Pacific Standard looks at how perceptions of competence can lead to better college enrollment outcomes. The backstory is that research has shown that high-achieving low-income students often fail to apply to selective colleges. A recent paper by Caroline Hoxby found that sending them information packets about their options can help solve the problem, but one unexplored issue is how students are affected by the massive amount of choice involved in the college application process. My article focuses is on new research by Erika Patall that suggests choice can be de-motivating if it’s not accompanied by a feeling of competence:

Across the experiments results suggested that when participants felt competent, choice increased motivation relative to situations with no choice. However, when participants did not feel competent, choice decreased motivation and had a negative impact on future intentions to engage in the activity. It would appear that without a feeling of competence, the presence of choice can drive people away from a given task.


Hoxby’s information packets are seen as useful because they make students aware of their options. Patall’s study shows that it’s also possible the packets help because they raise feelings of competence, thereby motivating students to dedicate more time and effort to the college application process. The takeaway is that organizations attempting to improve student-college matches should consider emphasizing the message that students are fully capable of conquering the process. It’s good to give people information about choices, but it’s better to also ensure that the information instills a sense of competence.

Read the whole thing!

The broader point is that the impact of education goes beyond simply knowing a new fragment of information. Possessing more knowledge can have a slew of motivational and behavioral consequences, most of which are positive.

Why Does the GOP Hate Food Stamps But Love Farm Subsidies?

Perhaps the most striking thing about the GOP’s plan to shut down the government sans a long- or short-term strategy is that it’s arguably not the most incomprehensible position they’ve taken in the past month. That award goes to their comittment to ravage spending on food stamps while preserving subsides for a much wealthier group of farmers. As Jonathan Chait points out, regardless of what you think about the role and size of government, it’s hard for such a position to be logically consistent without your primary motivation being the immiseration of poor people.

Of course psychology research provides a lot of explanations for the seemingly inexplicable, so I’ll play devil’s advocate for a moment. What could possible make somebody think we should give money to wealthy farmers but not to malnourished poor people?

One possible answer comes from a new study led by Arie Nadler of Tel Aviv University. The question motivating the study was fairly straightforward: Do people think about or act differently toward low-status help-seekers compared to high-status help-seekers? Specifically, Nadler hypothesized that low-status people would be offered “dependency-oriented” help — i.e. a full solution to their problem — while high-status people were more likely to be offered “autonomy-oriented help (tools to solve their problem.)

The study involved a series of experiments that were based around participants interacting (via a computer) with a fictional person who either sought or did not seek help on math and verbal problems. (When participants arrived they were told they would be either the problem solver or the guide, but all of them were assigned the role of guide.) Across three different experiments the problem solver’s status was manipulated in different ways. In the first experiment participants were told he had either a 90% or 30% success rate on similar problems. In the second experiment they were told he lived in an area that was either high or low in socioeconomic status. And in the third experiment they were told he scored either high or low on the Israeli equivalent of the SAT.

Sure enough, when the problem solver was low-status, participants were more likely to offer dependency-oriented help — in this case, the actual answer to the problem. On the other hand, when the problem-solver was high status, participants were more likely to offer autonomy oriented help — in this case, an explanation of the way similar problems could be solved.

While that’s all fairly interesting — and may even seem to run counter to the GOP’s desire not to give poor people money for food — the findings relevant to today’s GOP come from some additional analyses Nadler conducted in order to uncover what was driving behavior toward the help-seekers. The most jarring finding was that while high-status people were viewed as more motivated to succeed when they sought help compared to when they didn’t seek help, low-status people were viewed as less motivated to succeed when they sought help compared to when they didn’t seek help. I believe this is what’s known in the business as a double standard. When high-status people seek help it’s because they’re driven and tenacious, but when low status people do it it’s because they’re lazy.

Nadler also found that when participants expected a strong performance on the problems (due to the problem-solver being high-status), they rated the problem-solver as having more ability when he sought help compared to when he didn’t seek help. On the other hand, when low performance was expected, participants rated the problem-solver as less able when he sought help compared to when he didn’t seek help. Once again, help-seeking was viewed as a positive trait for high-status people (e.g. rich farmers) but a negative trait for low-status people (e.g. food stamp recipients.)

Here’s Nadler summing it all up:

The findings indicate that a request for help by a low-status person is attributed to lack of ability and motivation, elicits feelings of pity, and leads to dependency-oriented assistance. The same request for help by a high-status person is attributed to momentary lack of concentration, elicits feelings of identification with the seeker’s predicament, and leads to autonomy-oriented assistance. These findings reinforce the suggestion that the help seekers’ status determines the meaning of a request for help. When they enjoy high status, the request for assistance indicates transient difficulty, high motivation to overcome it, and ability to do so. Conversely, when their status is relatively low, the same request indicates inability and chronic dependency.

This way of thinking is essentially a giant exercise in erroneously attributing outcomes to internal factors — a tendency also know as the “fundamental attribution error.” External circumstances simply aren’t considered when it comes to success and failure. High status people are successful because they’re great and will use your help to continue to be great, while low-status people lack what it takes to be successful, and thus they’ll continue to fail no matter what you give them.

If the GOP caucus is susceptible to this way of thinking, slowly but surely their position begin to make sense. Food stamps will always be a waste because in the end their recipients will always remain a drain on taxpayers. Hard-working farmers, on the other hand, have what it takes an thus they’ll put the tax dollars they receive to good use. It doesn’t matter that that’s not actually how farm subsidies work — some of the money goes to people who don’t do any farming or people who are dead. But once you assume you know somebody’s future based strictly on their past, none of that really matters.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Nadler, A., & Chernyak-Hai, L. (2013). Helping Them Stay Where They Are: Status Effects on Dependency/Autonomy-Oriented Helping Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0034152