Bad Presidents Are More Scandalous

From a new paper by the University of Georgia’s Ryan Carlin:

Why do some presidents emerge from a scandal unscathed while for others it may lead to a crisis of legitimacy? This question is crucial to understanding the conditions under which elected leaders are held accountable. This study proposes a theory of conditional accountability by which the public most consistently punishes presidents for scandals when the economy is weak. Under strong economic conditions, scandals do not tarnish presidents’ public standing. To test the theory, we use a new dataset that includes measures of scandals, presidential approval, and the economy for 84 presidential administrations in 18 Latin American countries. Consistent with our expectations, scandals only appear to damage presidential approval when inflation and unemployment are high.


What Increases Trust in Driverless Cars?

Driverless cars face a mountain of technological, legal, and regulatory barriers, but it seems likely that some type of autonomous vehicle will eventually reach the cusp of widespread use. At that point, assuming the vehicle hasn’t been made obsolete by the invention of the hoverboard, it will have to earn the trust and confidence of the people who might use it. A new study (pdf) led by Northwestern’s Adam Waytz suggests one way to tackle this problem is by giving the vehicle more human features.

The study, which Waytz conducted with UConn’s Joy Heafner and Chicago’s Nicholas Epley, required participants to drive different types of vehicles in a driving simulator. The researchers reasoned that the more human-like the car, the more people would view it as thoughtful and competent, and the more they would trust it to make decisions.

At the start of the experiment the researchers assigned participants to three groups. In the normal condition participants simply drove the car themselves. In the agentic condition the car could control its own steering and speed, a feature that could be activated with the press of a button. In the anthropomorphic condition the car had the same autonomous functions as in the agentic condition, but it was also given a name (Iris!) and a female voice. The voice described the car’s autonomous features and when to use them, and it followed the same script that the experimenter used when explaining the car’s features in the agentic condition.

Participants completed two six-minute drives around a pair of practice courses. After the first drive they reported how much they trusted the car and felt it was safe, how much they liked the car, and how much they perceived it to have human qualities.

During the second drive the simulator presented a situation in which another car jutted out in front of the participant. An accident was nearly unavoidable, though it was clearly not the participant’s or their car’s fault. After completing the 2nd course participants reported how much they thought that they or their car were responsible for the accident.

The results suggest that giving autonomous vehicles human qualities is an effective and easy way to make people more comfortable with them. Participants in the anthropomorphic condition reported overall trust ratings that were significantly higher than participants in the agentic condition, and those in the agentic condition reported trust ratings that were significantly higher than participants in the normal condition. Participants in the anthropomorphic and agentic conditions also liked their vehicles more than participants in the normal condition.

Perhaps most importantly, participants blamed their car for the accident significantly less in the anthropomorphic condition than in the agentic condition. The name and voice made the anthropomorphic car seem more like it was competent, and that perception led to less blame. As the researchers write, “The perceived thoughtfulness of the fully anthropomorphic vehicle mitigated the responsibility that comes from independent agency. This shows a clear relationship between anthropomorphism and perceptions of responsibility.”

The lower level of blame is important because autonomous vehicles not only have a massive hurdle to clear in getting on the road, they also need survive the backlash that inevitably comes when they start getting into accidents. These findings suggests that the human qualities that make people more comfortable with using autonomous vehicles also make them less likely to blame autonomous vehicles when outside forces (i.e. human error) create an accident. If future research confirms the benefits of anthropomorphic features it’s not hard to imagine a world 30 years from now where you don’t choose a cab based on price or the smoothness of an app, but on the celebrity personality that controls the driving and interacts with passengers (that is, unless every cab is Scarlett Johansson.)

More broadly, the study is a good reminder that when we imagine machines taking on new autonomous responsibilities we generally picture them in their non-autonomous form. If you had imagined an autonomous vacuum cleaner 25 years ago you might have been weirded out by the idea of a three foot tall, dust-bagged vacuum zooming around the room. Of course that’s not what we got. We got the cute, un-intrusive, and animal-like Roomba, and it doesn’t seem all that weird. That’s not a perfect analogy, but the point is that when we finally do have widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles the passenger experience may be different than it is today in ways that we can’t even imagine. So maybe Google should round up Spike Jonze and the four Pixar guys working on Cars 7, lock them in a room, and not let them come out until they create the most alluring humanoid car imaginable.
Waytz, A., Heafner, J., & Epley, N. (2014). The Mind in the Machine: Anthropomorphism Increases Trust in an Autonomous Vehicle Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.01.005

Turning Anxiety Into Excitement

A new study from Harvard’s Alison Wood Brooks:

Individuals often feel anxious in anticipation of tasks such as speaking in public or meeting with a boss. I find that an overwhelming majority of people believe trying to calm down is the best way to cope with pre-performance anxiety. However, across several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance, I investigate an alternative strategy: reappraising anxiety as excitement. Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance. These findings suggest the importance of arousal congruency during the emotional reappraisal process.

I believe this is what was known, circa 2009, as a “life-hack.”

There’s a Placebo Effect For Sleep

The placebo effect is known far and wide. Give somebody a sugar pill, tell them it’s aspirin, and they’ll feel better. What’s less well-known is that there’s evidence of the placebo effect in domains that go beyond the commonly known medical scenarios.

One study (pdf) found that hotel maids who were told their work was good exercise later scored higher than a control group on a range of health indicators. Another study found that when participants were told athletes had excellent vision, they demonstrated better vision when doing a more-athletic activity relative to a less-athletic activity. Many studies have also shown that placebo caffeine can have an impact. In one experiment caffeine placebos improved cognitive performance among participants who were in the midst of 28 hours of sleep deprivation.

Given that caffeine placebos can mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation, Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal of Colorado College decided to take the logical next step and investigate whether the effects of sleep deprivation could be influenced by perceptions about sleep quality. In other words, could making people think their sleep quality was better or worse influence the cognitive effects of sleep?

In an initial experiment participants were given brief lesson on the relationship between sleep quality and cognitive functioning, and told the normal proportion of REM sleep was between 20% and 25%. Participants were then hooked up to a machine and told it would measure their pulse, heart rate, and brain frequency, after which a program would use the data to calculate the amount of REM sleep they had had the night before. (Very few participants reported having suspicions about the machine.) Some participants were told they got 16.2% REM sleep (below average sleep quality) and some were told they got 28.7% REM sleep (above average sleep quality.)

After being told what the machine said, participants self-reported their own perception of their sleep quality. Finally, participants were administered the “Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test” (PASAT), a cognitive exercised that required adding many numbers together.

Draganich and Erdal found that participants who were told they had below average sleep quality performed significantly worse on the PASAT. At the same time, self-reported sleep quality was unrelated to PASAT performance. A follow-up experiment that included additional controls and three other cognitive tests largely confirmed the initial findings. In addition, the performance of participants on a verbal fluency test called the COWAT showed that not only does telling people they had below average sleep quality lead to inferior performance, telling them they had above average sleep can lead to superior performance.

Given the global importance of getting a good night’s rest the idea of placebo sleep seems potentially far-reaching. For example, you always hear that you should get a lot of sleep before a big test or interview, but that grandmotherly piece advice becomes even more important if the knowledge that you got too little sleep can harm your performance in a way that goes beyond the direct negative impact of not getting enough sleep.

The sleep placebo also suggests that finding a way to improve your sleep may be more important than you think. If you’re able to convince yourself that your bedtime routine is working — whether it’s reading, exercising, or eating honey — you might see the cognitive benefits of improved sleep even on nights when you don’t actually sleep better.
Draganich C, & Erdal K (2014). Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition PMID: 24417326

The Imaginary Diversity of College Recruitment Brochures

No big surprise here:

This study examined one aspect of the marketing of colleges by examining the portrayal of racial and ethnic diversity. Through a content analysis of over 10,000 photographs from 165 four-year institutions in the US, the accuracy of the photographic portrayal of diversity in recruitment materials was assessed. Findings indicate that the majority of institutions provided images of diversity to prospective students in 2011 that were significantly different than the actual student body. Furthermore, diversity was typically symbolized by portraying African American students at higher rates rather than presenting a more representative student body.

Stereotype Threat For Men?

Female role models that counter negative stereotypes (e.g. a female physicist) can help protect female students from the threat of confirming a negative stereotype (girls are bad at math). But what if those role models express having had some doubts about their ability?

A new study led by San Diego State’s David Marx proposes that when positive female role models express doubts it can mitigate their positive impact. Furthermore, Marx and his team believed that the opposite would happen with men. Because men are more likely to feel threatened by not living up to the expectations of a positive academic stereotype (rather than confirming a negative stereotype), a doubtful male role model might help alleviate some of the pressure of those expectations.

As predicted, doubtful female role models increased threat for females, while doubtful male role models decreased threat for males.

Past work has shown that female role models are effective buffers against stereotype threat. The present research examines the boundary conditions of this role model effect. Specifically, we argue that female role models should avoid expressing doubt about their math abilities; otherwise they may cease to buffer women from stereotype threat. For men, a non-doubtful male role model should be seen as threatening, thus harming performance. A doubtful male role model, however, should be seen as non-threatening, thus allowing men to perform up to their ability in math. To test this reasoning, men and women were exposed to either an outgroup or ingroup role model who either expressed doubt or did not. Participants then took a math exam under stereotype threat conditions. As expected, doubtful ingroup role models hurt women, but helped men’s performance. Outgroup role models’ expressed doubt had no differential effect on performance. We also show that expressions of doubt take on a different meaning when expressed by a female rather than a male role model.

The broader lesson is that over the course of many years the way students think about academic expectations and social and cultural norms can have an enormous impact. It’s not only important to focus on what students are learning and how they’re learning it, but on how they think about those things in the broader context of their lives.


I’m back from Japan (and my corresponding unannounced blogging hiatus), and though at the moment I’m fighting a losing battle against jet lag, expect posting to pick up in 2014 relative to the last few months.

As for Japan, behold the world famous Kyoto subway station caloric stair nudge:


You may have seen some version of this photo floating around the internet, but it’s worth pointing that not only are very few Japanese people overweight, my unscientific observation is that standing on the escalator rather than walking up the escalator or stairs is quite popular in Japan relative to the U.S. That means telling people how many calories they’ll burn for each stair may be less about encouraging healthy behavior and more about optimizing pedestrian traffic during rush hour.

And because there’s a rule against going to Japan and not posting at least one photo of a hilarious English translation, here’s my favorite.


The absence of a single letter can make something exponentially more terrifying.

Finally, in case you missed it, I wrote something for Pacific Standard about the psychology of living in urban environments.

Happy new year!