Choice Enhances the Placebo Effect

From a new study led by the University of Toledo’s Jill Brown:

Two experiments investigated the hypothesis that treatment choice enhances placebo treatment efficacy. In Experiment 1, prior to a pain task, participants were given either an expectation that two (inert) products could reduce pain or no expectation. In addition, participants either selected between the two products or were assigned a product to use. Participants given both the placebo expectation and treatment choice reported the lowest pain. Experiment 2 conceptually replicated this finding using a placebo paradigm with aversive auditory stimuli. Additional control conditions indicated that a choice availability (rather than choice restriction) explanation best accounted for these results.

The takeaway? We need more crosswalk buttons!

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If you haven’t seen them, I’ve got two new articles floating around the internet. The first, at Pacific Standard, looks at new research on economic performance and risk aversion that suggests most Congressmen will get reelected even though American’s say they hate Congress.

The implication is somewhat depressing. If politicians allow the economy to deteriorate, the resulting increase in risk aversion could make many voters more likely to support delinquent incumbents. That’s not to say sabotage is a good electoral strategy. Job and income growth will always be the most important factors. But it would seem that regardless of performance, the economy mitigates its own impact on the election by altering the level of risk aversion in society. When the economy is strong, lower risk aversion harms incumbents. When the economy is weak, higher risk aversion helps incumbents. Given that we’re still waiting for a true economic recovery, incumbents ought to get another boost in 2014.

Read the whole thing!

The second article is on new research that suggests personalizing questions based on student interest can have a positive impact.

The study dovetails nicely with work done by Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Carol Lee on the importance of embedding learning in culturally relevant contexts. The type of personalization in Walkington’s experiment was rudimentary compared to that found in the work of Nasir–who examined mathematical thinking during games of dominoes–and Lee–who investigated the impact of culturally relevant literature on literacy. Still, Walkington’s findings support the idea that there’s more to learning than the bare bones structure of a lesson, and perhaps more importantly, that technology can be used as a means to add on to that structure.

Read on.

A Theory About Why the Powerful Don’t Care For the Powerless

Humans are skilled at perceiving the world in a way that makes life more enjoyable. One thing that helps with this goal is the tendency to view the world as a fair and orderly place, a bias often termed the “Just-world fallacy.”

There are benefits to believing injustice is rare. It makes you feel nice and warm on the inside. Research also suggests it increases your focus on larger long-term rewards rather than smaller short-term rewards. After all, if the world is a chaotic place where nobody gets what they deserve, there’s less reason to work hard or stick to long-term plans.

But it can be hard to believe in a just world because injustice is everywhere. There are repressive governments and natural disasters. Bad things surely happen to good people. And thinking about these innocent victims comes into direct conflict with the desire to believe the world is just. In lab experiments participants often resolve this conflict by derogating the victim, perhaps by coming up with some explanation for why the victim deserved their fate. In the real world you can see traces of this in people who believe food stamp recipients are wholly responsible for their own plight. If people are to blame for their misfortune, the world remains just.

A group of researchers led by Mitchell Callan of the University of Essex reasoned that if derogating victims increases the belief in a just world, and the belief in a just world helps people focus on long-term rewards, then it stands to reason that derogating victims could help people focus on long-term rewards.

To test their hypothesis Callan and his team conducted an initial experiment in which participants read about somebody who was mugged. Some participants learned that the mugger was apprehended (the world is just!) while others learned that the mugger was never caught (the world is unfair!) Afterward participants answered questions about how much they liked the victim and the degree to which they felt the victim was careless or responsible.

To measure commitment to long-term rewards, the researchers gave participants a “delay-discounting” task in which they revealed their preferences for accepting different amounts of money at different future times. Participants who were willing to wait longer for larger sums (i.e. those who didn’t “discount” a delayed payment) were measured as expressing a stronger commitment to the long-term.

The results were as expected. Among participants who had their perception of a just world threatened (because the mugger was not apprehended), those who rated the victim favorably, and thus perceived a more unjust world, were more likely to prefer quick payments. On the other hand, those who derogated the victim by rating him as unlikable and irresponsible were more likely to say they would hold out for larger long-term rewards. It appeared as though derogating the victim increased commitment to the long-term by helping to restore faith in a just world.

A follow-up experiment followed a similar procedure, but prior to the experiment researchers measured each participants’ “baseline” tendency to delay-discount. In addition, the level of injustice was manipulated by telling some participants the victim was a drug dealer. The results were the same as in the initial experiment. When participants saw victims as more deserving of their fate, participants were less likely to weaken their commitment to future rewards.

Here’s what’s so troubling about the study: The ability to put off small short-term rewards for larger long-term rewards is important if you want to attain a position of power. Very few people who are unable to turn down cocaine at a frat party the night before a chemistry exam are going to end up as a Congressman. Becoming powerful generally requires hard work, persistence, and a focus on large rewards that will arrive in a distant future.

Callan’s experiment shows that people can develop the ability to focus on long-term rewards by derogating victims. The implication is that our politicians and CEOs are more likely to come from a population that, on average, is less empathetic toward victims. Being able to view victims as undeserving of assistance may have helped them get where they are.

On a slightly less somber note, the study is a good reminder that it’s impossible to attain psychological perfection. As the internet fills with research-based tips on things like cognitive biases and habit formation, it can feel like there’s a solution for everything. But many times two laudable goals are incompatible. If you want to feel a sufficient amount of empathy for victims, the lost faith in a just-world could make it harder to stick to future plans. If you want to stick to future plans, it may be helpful to convince yourself that certain victims weren’t so innocent. So don’t be discouraged if it feels like it’s impossible to reach a psychological state with no drawbacks. Because it is.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

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Callan, M.J., Harvey, A.J., & Sutton, R.M. (2013). Rejecting Victims of Misfortune Reduces Delay Discounting Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.002

One More Reason to Not Let Your Kids Watch TV

“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is the term psychologists use to describe the ability to interpret the distinct mental states of others. The knowledge that each person’s head contains a unique conception of the world is the first step toward understanding what others want and feel.

Developing ToM is an important part of childhood. It’s what allows kids to get along with others and make sense of the world around them. An improved theory of mind among adults could ultimately lead to less conflict and a society better geared toward improving human welfare.

What helps and hinders the development of Theory of Mind? A 2009 study (pdf) led by York University’s Raymond Mar suggests that books and movies may help, but that television does not. And that’s the rosy view of television. A new study led by Ohio State’s Amy Nathanson suggests that television is detrimental to ToM development. 

This study explored the relation between preschoolers’ television exposure and one important indicator of cognitive processing called theory of mind (ToM). A total of 107 preschoolers and their parents provided data on the preschoolers’ television exposure (including both intentional viewing and exposure via background television), parent–child discussion of television, and preschoolers’ ToM. The results indicated that preschoolers who were exposed to more background television and who had a television in their bedroom performed more poorly on ToM assessments compared with other children. Parent–child discussion of television was positively related to ToM performance, however. These results have implications for how we understand the effects of television on preschoolers.

The study is largely correlational, so there’s still a question of causality. Perhaps a lack of social interaction in the family — the kind that might help with ToM development — drives kids to watch more TV. It’s also possible that kids with a less-developed ToM tend to be drawn to television. But the most likely explanation is that when young children watch TV they don’t develop an understanding of how other people think to the extent that they do when they interact with actual people.

A lot is written about the dangers of modern media, but much of the criticism tends to focus on how communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook dumb us down. While this is a serious concern — one that Neil Postman was somehow able to foresee with regard to television nearly 30 years ago —  I think a less-publicized and perhaps more serious threat is that human interaction will be replaced by inferior alternatives.

When two people choose to have an argument over Twitter rather than publishing competing essays or engaging in face-to-face debate, the dialogue may be less fruitful, but at least there is authentic human interaction. With that comes certain emotions and thoughts — for example, what the other person is thinking —  that can be stored for later use. But if people fulfill their need for cognitive and emotional arousal by observing fictional television characters rather than engaging in human interaction, the result may be less positive cognitive development. It’s the equivalent of getting calories from candy rather than through real food.

Nathanson’s study is just one data point, but in general the less you do something the worse you’re going to be at it. If we allow Netflix to start filling cognitive or emotional needs that social interactions used to fill, people will probably get worse at optimizing social interactions.
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Nathanson, A.I., Sharp, M.L., Alade, F., Rasmussen, E.E., & Christy, K. (2013). The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers Journal of Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12062