The Joys Of Multi-Culturalism

A new paper from William Maddux of INSEAD:

A longitudinal study found that the psychological approach individuals take when immersed in a general multicultural environment can predict subsequent career success. Using a culturally diverse sample, we found that “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which students adapted to and learned about new cultures—during a highly international 10-month master of business administration (MBA) program predicted the number of job offers students received after the program, even when controlling for important personality/demographic variables. Furthermore, multicultural engagement predicted an increase in integrative complexity over the course of the 10-month program, and this increase in integrative complexity mediated the effect of multicultural engagement on job market success. This study demonstrates that even when individuals are exposed to the same multicultural environment, it is their psychological approach and engagement with different cultures that determines growth in integrative complexity and tangible increases in professional opportunities.

The Offensive Nature of Cheap Crime

Jean Valjean’s lengthy prison term for stealing a loaf of bread may be the most well-known (albeit fictional) example of a punishment that didn’t fit the crime, but in the real world things like mandatory minimums have forced similar ordeals on too many people.

While there are numerous legal and political issues that have helped engender scenarios where crimes with small payoffs — for example, selling a small amount of crack — have exhobitantly large punishments, there may also be a psychological explanation. A new study led by Wenwen Xie highlights one way our attributions about the cause of wrongdoing can lead a person to be viewed more negatively when their crime leads to small payoff rather than a large payoff.

Xie’s initial experiment mirrored the procedure in Leon Festinger’s famous cognitive dissonance study in which participants were paid a small or large amount of money to convince somebody that a boring task was interesting. While Festinger was concerned with how the money would change the liar’s perception of the task (he found that lying for a small amount of money made participants later rate the task as less boring), Xie wanted to know how the money would change somebody else’s perception of the liar.

In Xie’s experiment, after participants observed a confederate get paid for lying about the task’s unpleasantness, some participants were offered a handshake by the confederate, while some were asked by the experimenter to count the money. Participants were then asked to wash their hands in order to operate equipment for an unrelated task. Unbeknownst to the participants, another experimenter who was unaware of the aim of the study timed how long the participants spent washing their hands. Previous stuides have shown that feelings of immorality can be transferred through contact, and that this perceived immorality can be measured by how long people spend cleansing themselves. Thus, the amount of time participants spent washing their hands offered a measure of their moral judgments regarding the liar (in the handshake condition) or the money (in the money counting condition.)

As expected, when the liar was paid a small amount of money, participants spent more time washing their hands when they shook the liar’s hand compared to when they counted the money. Alternatively, when the liar was paid a large amount of money, participants spent more time washing their hands when they counted the money compared to when they shook the liar’s hand. The researchers concluded that when the liar was dishonest for a small amount of money, participants blamed the liar for the immorality, and thus washed for longer after touching the liar’s hand. However, when the liar was dishonest for a large amount of money, participants blamed the money for inducing the immorality, and thus washed longer after touching the money.

In a follow up experiment participants saw photos of somebody pushing over another person in order to pick up a large or small amount of money. After viewing the photos participants handled either a photo of a hand reaching for the money or a photo of just the money. Once again, participants judged people more hashly when they violated a norm for small amounts of money. Specifically, they spent more time washing their hands after handling photos of the hand reaching for a small amount of money compared to photos of the hand reching for a large amount of money. The implication is that when people do something bad for a small payoff, the immorality is more likely to be attributed to something internal, such as their character, but when they do it for a large payoff, the immorality is more likely to be attributed to something external, such as the temptation of money.

If you think about it, the findings make perfect sense. If somebody frequently betrays others willy nilly for meaningless payoffs, they pose a much bigger threat and are likely a “worse” person than somebody who will only resort to betrayal for a major payoff. So it’s reasonable that we would have a darker view of the character of people who seemingly have a lower threshold for breaking norms.

The problem is that these tendencies have the potential to create inequalities in criminal justice systems. The findings suggest that some people may judge somebody who makes a small-time drug deal more harshly than somebody who makes a large drug deal. Similarly, when a bond trader lies in order to steal millions of dollars they may be judged as less morally corrupt than somebody who lies to grift a stranger out of a few hundred dollars.

In reality, such “small” crimes are often being committed for larger relative payoffs. A corner drug dealer or petty thief is probably stealing to afford basic neccesities, while a white collar crook is stealing so he can have another vacation home. In that sense the “value” of the payoff to the criminals is higher in the petty crime scenario.

Unfortunately, many in society are unlikely to see it this way. And so the seemingly small payday earned by the drug dealer on the corner can make him seem like somebody who is inherently a criminal, while the enormous payday earned by the crooked banker can make him seem like an ok guy who was pulled in by the allure of unspeakable wealth.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Xie, W., Yu, B., Zhou, X., Sedikides, C., & Vohs, K. (2013). Money, Moral Transgressions, and Blame Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.002

Psychologists Finally Figure Out Whether You Made Your Hurricane Sandy Joke “Too Soon”

Psychology of humor kingpin Peter McGraw is back with another study on the connection between humor and psychological distance. In a 2012 study (pdf) McGraw found that humor depends on both the severity of an event and the distance (temporal, social, physical, etc.) that a person feels from it. The result is that something not severe, like tripping and falling, tends to quickly lose humor as time passes, while a severe event, like a car accident, requires the passage of time to attain its optimal moment of comedy.

In his most recent study McGraw and his team looked at how this played out with Hurricane Sandy. Using tweets from a mock Sandy Twitter account as jokes, the researchers looked at how the perceived humor of Sandy jokes evolved over time. The verdict? The optimal time to make a Sandy joke was about 4-5 weeks after landfall.

Humor is a ubiquitous experience that facilitates coping, social coordination, and well-being. We examine how humorous responses to a tragedy change over time by measuring reactions to jokes about Hurricane Sandy. Inconsistent with the belief that the passage of time monotonically increases humor, but consistent with the benign violation theory of humor, a longitudinal study reveals that humorous responses to Sandy’s destruction rose, peaked, and eventually fell over the course of 100 days. Time creates a comedic sweet spot that occurs when the psychological distance from a tragedy is large enough to buffer people from threat (creating a benign violation) but not so large that the event becomes a purely benign, nonthreatening situation. The finding can help psychologists understand how people cope and provide clues to what makes things funny and when they will be funny.

Overall, the findings were in line with the researchers’ earlier work. In order for something to be funny, it has to essentially be perceived as benign or non-threatening.

Yes, Senate Hearings Are About Grandstanding

From a new paper by Wesleyan’s Logan Dancey:

Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings offer senators a public opportunity to exercise their “advice and consent” privilege and scrutinize presidential nominees. In this article, we examine the purpose and functioning of confirmation hearings for federal district court nominees, which make up the majority of presidential selections to federal courts. Using transcripts from all hearings between 1993 and 2008, we find the characteristics of individual nominees have little effect on the types of questions senators pose. Instead, larger institutional and political factors—such as Senate composition, party of the president, and proximity to a presidential election—are much better predictors of how senators use their opportunity to scrutinize nominees. The results indicate senators use hearings to engage in partisan and ideological position taking rather than to ascertain the qualifications of district court nominees.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about reforming senate procedures, and while that’s certainly a good thing, the focus has generally been limited to a small number of issues like filibusters and holds. Meanwhile, it seems like a large chunk of legislative sessions contribute nothing toward improving the decision-making and policies of the government. Clearly, large changes to Congressional procedure will always be pipe dream, but when people talk about procedural changes it would be helpful to ask the question I often say we should ask when we talk about our school system: How would we do this if we were building it from scratch?

On Death, Grief, and Regret

There are a number of reasons you should read Derek Thompson’s terrific piece on losing his mother to pancreatic cancer, but one thing that stood out is the way he’s able to describe how the fear of your reaction to losing something can enhance the awful process of actually losing it. In the end, despite being such a self-professed mama’s boy that he “made people with perfectly adequate mother-son bonds think, there is a boy who needs more friends in life,” Thompson got through it.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

In fact, his experience was not all that uncommon. Thompson’s story is interspersed with a good roundup of research on grief — research that suggests crippling grief is the exception rather than the rule.

Ten percent of us experience “chronic” and relentless grief that demands counseling. Another third or so plunges into deep sadness and gradually begins recovery. But most of us—”between 50 and 60 percent,” Bonanno said—quickly appear to be fine, despite day-to-day fluctuations. Scientists used to consider these patients tragic actors, shoving their feelings into the core of their bodies, where they would only explode with volcanic violence in dreadful ways later in life. But this, Bonanno says, might be the biggest myth of all. “If you think you’re doing okay,” he said, “then you’re doing okay.”

Something else that struck me about Thompson’s story is that nowhere in the 3,000+ words is there the faintest hint of regret about anything. No second guessing anything he did or the way he spent his time.

I once had a professor who said a better way to think about regret was to view it as a type of desire — specifically, the desire to have done something differently. Thus regret could viewed as the desire to have spent more time with somebody, or the desire to have treated somebody with more kindness. When somebody dies all the regrets regarding your relationship, and thus all these desires, are instantly transformed into desires that can never be fulfilled. It wouldn’t surprise me if the emotional toll of all these unmet desires exacerbates the grieving process.

Perhaps Thompson’s lifelong adoration of his mother left him with no second guessing, no regrets, and no permanently unfulfilled desires. Perhaps that’s what helped him into the fortunate 60% of grievers who are able to move on with their lives. And perhaps the lesson of Thompson’s experience is to provide an addendum to the oft-cited piece of life advice: Don’t just live each day like it’s your last, live each day like it’s somebody else’s last.

There Might Actually Be an Accurate Pro Sports Cliché

When an athlete finally wins a championship after years of falling short they’ll often say that it’s so much sweeter because of all the adversity they had to overcome. I’ve always written that off as one of the 99.7% of sports clichés that have no factual basis, but a new study lead by the University of British Columbia’s Alyssa Croft suggests there’s some truth to it. Adversity might actually make success feel better:

Can experiencing adversity enhance people’s appreciation for life’s small pleasures? To examine this question, we asked nearly 15,000 adults to complete a vignette-based measure of savoring. In addition, we presented participants with a checklist of adverse events (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one) and asked them to indicate whether they had experienced any of these events and, if so, to specify whether they felt they had emotionally dealt with the negative event or were still struggling with it. Although people who were currently struggling with adversity reported a diminished proclivity for savoring positive events, individuals who had dealt with more adversity in the past reported an elevated capacity for savoring. Thus, the worst experiences in life may come with an eventual upside, by promoting the ability to appreciate life’s small pleasures.

I wholeheartedly condone snarkily using this as an excuse the next time you accidentally screw over a friend.

What Do You Do When the Traffic Light Turns Yellow?

It’s possible that self-driving cars will obviate the need to ask questions about human decision-making behind the wheel, but until that happens there’s a lot of utility in figuring out why drivers drive in a certain way. Along these lines, a new study from a Alberto Megías and his collaborators at the University of Granada poses an interesting question: When a light turns yellow, what influences whether you decide to speed up or slow down?

Using a simulated environment, the researchers examined the rapid decisions participants made immediately after seeing advertisements with a picture that had a positive (e.g a romantic picture), negative (a mutilation), or neutral (a book) emotional valence. They found that negative emotions led to more cautious behavior.

Our results support the differential influence of emotional pictures (positive, negative, and neutral) displayed on central billboard advertisements. We found that a negative emotion aroused by these roadside advertisements made drivers brake more often than positive and neutral ones, which led drivers to be more cautious and to cross less often during a yellow traffic light. However, when drivers decided to cross the intersection, the negative advertisements increased their response time.

Megías believes that negative emotions make people more likely to envision negative outcomes, and that this makes them more cautious. While the study provides some evidence that it might be possible to induce certain behaviors through visual stimuli on the road, there are two things worth mentioning. First, it’s possible that running the red light, and thus avoiding the possibility that somebody rear-ends you, is the safer action. The point being that even if you could theoretically nudge people toward a certain behavior, it’s hard to know which behavior is optimal. Second, it’s probably good to be skeptical of any idea that hinges on drivers paying attention to distractions.

That said, I think eventually a kind of psychological urban design will become very popular. The opportunity to influence behavior through small changes to the environment is just too juicy of a low-hanging fruit. It could be 10, 20, or 50 years, but don’t be surprised if one day cities dedicate a lot of resources toward figuring out which small details can enhance public safety.
Megías, A., Di Stasi, L.L., Maldonado, A., Catena, A., & Cándido, A. (2013). Emotion-laden stimuli influence our reactions to traffic lights Transportation Research Part F DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2013.09.017