What I Should Have Said Outside Ballroom C

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 2.44.04 PMAUSTIN, TX — SPSP CONFERENCE 2014.

When leaving Ballroom C after Hall and Wood’s talk on partisanship and dissonance affect I heard someone whisper to a colleague, “Wasn’t that just cognitive dissonance?”

I wanted to yell at them right there and shout that, “You just went to a session on the application and social extensions of cognitive dissonance! Of course it was ‘cognitive dissonance.’ But it was damn clever, insightful, and useful.”

I did not, of course, say such things in person. But now here I am on the Internet saying what I should have been said outside Ballroom C.

So let’s back up for a second and let set the scene.


Debrah Hall started her presentation by talking about how in the 2012 Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan stated, “My playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin.”

Debrah Hall and Wendy Wood argue this moment made many liberals uncomfortable. Why? Because liberals found themselves feeling similar to a conservative.

In a series of experiments, Hall and Wood show that partisans feel “dissonance affect” when they feel similar to members of an opposing political party. They conclude that their findings, “Demonstrate that similarity to the negative reference standard provided by outgroups can elicit the feelings of psychological threat that accompany cognitive dissonance, highlighting a dilemma faced by politicians who seek to appeal to voters by accentuating basic similarities that transcend party lines.”

Studies like these illustrate and bring a sense of clarity to the partisan problem (and also extend group psychology in general). Yet, in retrospect, after hearing Hall’s presentation, one might think that, “Of course this is true, a book in 1957 predicts this.” However before hearing Hall and Wood’s findings one might also assume the opposite. One might assume that accentuating basic similarities would easily “transcend party lines.” Hall and Wood give us a nice a lesson. Just because a book in 1957 might have circuitously predicted something, does not mean that today we are saliently aware of that something.

Hall and Wood provide us with findings that feel immediately true, despite the fact we’d never thought of them. They bring high definition focus onto the true nature of the political partisan problem. If we believed that partisans actually wanted to and would feel immediately comfort coming together and enjoy their similarities, then we would try to promote bipartisanship in a misguided way.

Many people walk away from SPSP talks like this one, with questions like “Didn’t we already know that?” or one of Michael Norton’s least favorite phrase “Isn’t that just cognitive dissonance?” In a video interview with Indecision Blog, Harvard Professor Michael Norton argued this dismissive critical attitude is the wrong attitude and academics should adopt a rather more positive constructive attitude.

Similarly, Cornell Professor David Pizarro laments that he was once told  not to do a project because, “Either way the results ended up, both theoretical conclusions would be obvious.” To which he responded, “Then is there not some value in knowing which one is actually correct.”

Researchers often fail to see the value in clever research projects that test two competing hypotheses and fall victim to a “knew-it-all-along” hindsight bias. On a similar note, Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt argues, “The sign of genius is the ability to see things that are completely obvious but to which everyone else is blind.” While there are definitely other signs of genius, our field tends to often dismiss this kind of “genius.” And unfortunately, it is genius of this kind that is often the most important type to immediate real world problems and is a fundamentally piece to developing rich vast theoretical models of nuanced behavior.

Repeated Exposure Bias – The ‘Lady Gaga’ Article Press Release

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.51.35 AMThe research appears in the latest issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

DURHAM, NC – Children may actually be right when they lament that their parents don’t understand their problems.

New research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business finds that the more experiences a person has, the harder it is for them to empathize with those who have less experience.

“The big take-away from our research is just because at one time you went to your first concert or had your first heartbreak doesn’t mean you’ll know how someone else will experience their first concert or heartbreak,” said Troy Campbell, author of the study and a Ph.D. student at Fuqua. “For instance, parents don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager, because they don’t feel the things teenagers feel anymore.”

Campbell and colleagues conducted five experiments that subjected volunteers to shocking images, jokes and annoying noises, things designed to make an impression.

For instance, in one experiment, the researchers repeatedly showed a single photo of Lady Gaga to two groups. One group repeatedly saw a photo of her in a sexy leather outfit. Another repeatedly saw a photo of her dressed only in crime scene tape. Both groups were later shown both of the images and asked which image would be more shocking to first-time viewers.

The volunteers predicted that others would be less shocked by whichever photo they had personally been repeatedly exposed to. They incorrectly concluded that how they felt after repeated exposure to the images would be how others would feel upon first seeing the images.

“As a fan of Lady Gaga, I always found it fascinating how shocked people were by Lady Gaga. I would show them her videos and photos and they’d find the content shocking and offensive,” Campbell said. “So I did a study on this. And what I found was that the more exposure to Lady Gaga one has, the less shocking one finds her but also the less shocking they think others will find her, even if they know others have much less exposure to her.”

In another experiment, volunteers were told to repeatedly write the same funny joke. After doing so five times, they rated the joke as less funny than those who wrote it just once. Those who copied it five times also said that others would find it less funny than did the volunteers who copied the joke only once, and they were also less likely to share the joke with others.

Campbell said these experiments indicate that people may be unable to detach from their current feelings, making it harder to relate to others who are going through an event for the first time. “We all assume that those people with experience are the perfect guides, but when it comes to emotional items like music, jokes and pain, they can be quite biased by their experiences,” he said. “Empathy is hard to begin with, and too much experience can make it even harder.”
_        _        _        _

This research was in part supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship and NSF Grant 1124486.


Short APS Observer video from a long time ago — explaining the findings when we were first starting out. 

The Matching Strategy (New OBHDP Article)

img_70841In the course of our everyday lives, we may sometimes find ourselves in awkward situations in which the chances of offending someone with our choices are quite high.

For instance, you might find yourself picking up lunch for yourself and an overweight friend. Do you get her fries or salad as a side dish? What do you get for yourself? What will she think when you return with your selections for her and for yourself?

As another example, you might find yourself at the airport, choosing two books for a flight: one book is for yourself and the other is for a friend who is not as scholarly. Do you get her a highbrow book or a lowbrow book, and what do you get for yourself? What will she think when you return with both of the books?

Perhaps, rather than being the chooser in this awkward situation, you’ve sometimes been the recipient — for example, the overweight friend. As a recipient, you may have seen others squirm as they tried to not offend you with their choices. You may have tried to step in and preclude awkwardness by explaining exactly what you want — fries or salad. But what happens when choosers are on their own and must return to their friends with two items in hand? What choices do people make?

In our work at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, we found that people generally choose matching options when choosing for themselves and groups that are often stigmatized in America. For example, they get themselves the same food, book, or music as they get the other person, and they choose this way in order to avoid offending. We looked specifically at how individuals make choices for themselves and black Americans, obese people, the less educated, and the elderly — groups that may often be stigmatized in America, depending upon the social context.

In one of our experiments, we procured a custom-designed fat suit and hired a student who was naturally slim to sometimes dress up in the suit and sometimes not. We had different people interact with her in both situations and then asked these people to pick a snack for themselves and for the student. They could choose between chocolate chip cookies and wheat crackers.

We discovered that in general, people pursued a matching strategy when choosing for themselves and the “overweight” student. In other words, they overwhelmingly chose either two bags of healthy wheat crackers or two bags of unhealthy chocolate chip cookies for themselves and the “overweight” student. The same conclusion held true for other types of stigma we studied.

Therefore, in contrast to much consumer behavior research that has found that we prefer to dissociate from stigmatized others, we found that people made product choices that associated and converged with stigmatized group members.
Our findings build upon a small but growing body of research about how we tiptoe around stigma. In other words, instead of making stigma salient, we prefer to avoid bringing it up as much as possible.

For example, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton and his colleagues foundthat white participants avoid mentioning race even when bringing up the difference would be helpful and relevant in a situation.

Our findings and Norton’s conclusions raise an important question: does tiptoeing work? Norton and his colleagues actually found that black participants evaluated white participants worse when white participants avoided mentioning race. Is that also the case with the matching strategy we found? Does matching make stigmatized group members feel good or do stigmatized group members see through such a strategy and become offended?

We hope to answer these questions in the future. In a world that is ever more diverse and interconnected, understanding how people react to and negotiate interactions with stigmatized group members is becoming ever more important.

peggyliuphdThis post is written by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business researchers Peggy Liu and Troy Campbell.

These authors conducted the primary research discussed in this article with Duke professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Gráinne Fitzsimons.

For more information about this research, please contact Peggy Liu at peggy.liu@duke.edu.

Why Science Must Be Fun

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.28.12 AMOn this season of Parks and Recreation, city councilwoman character, Leslie Knope lamented: “All I have on my side is science and facts… and people hate science and facts.”

Knope could not persuade the public to adopt a scientifically sound water bill because her scientific facts were “too boring.” In the end, in order to the win the vote, Knope, with the help of hype man Tom Haverford, had to play hip-hop music and spin a story that made her idea more fun.
This fictional example reveals a real but unfortunate truth: Data does not drive people — fun, emotions and engaging narratives do. In an ideal world, we would not need people like Parks and Recreation‘s Haverford to play hip-hop music and flash lasers to accompany scientific charts. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

We live in a world where we need people like Bill Nye to get up and be scientific, but also be silly and fun. As a scientific community we must understand that science needs to be fun and emotional to move nonscientists and influence policy and, on occasion, to get needed funding for research.


To illustrate this point, ask yourself: Are there any successful aquariums without gimmicks like a shark tunnel or air and space museums without IMAXs? No, because in reality these place would go out of business immediately — most people would not voluntarily pay to visits places that only educated them.

In working with science museum staffs, I’ve discovered museum staffs are smart and, most importantly, practical. They know their two main goals are to educate and to encourage guests to be good stewards of the planet. But to reach these noble goals, they realize they must put the goal of “fun” first.

It may be unsavory, but it’s necessary, and not only with schoolkids but with adults, businesses and policymakers. Famed author Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of making scientifically inspired ideas fun and emotional and, in doing so, been able to influence many.

Recently, my fellow scientists at Indecision Blog and I asked Gladwell, “Based on your success with influencing policymakers and businesses leaders, what advice do you have for scientists like us trying to influence those same people?”

His answer boiled down to just two words: “Tell stories.”

Gladwell said it was “an obvious answer” but a fundamental strategy to having influence.

This does not mean that all scientists should try to be like Gladwell, start blogging, exclusively aim to be a TED speaker, or cut their hair to look like celebrity scientist Brian Cox. It also does not mean scientists should stop conducting research just because it seems boring to the public. Basic and, let’s be honest, boring research is our bedrock and it must remain.

It all just means that when good science is produced, that science needs to be better communicated to nonscientists. That is all.

Today, many scientists fear “headline science.” In almost all fields of science, some journals and scientists have published sketchy results because the results have had good news headlines. On top of this, many “pop science” books have flaws or gross simplifications. Accordingly, many scientists cringe at the idea of communicating in a “fun” and “popular” way. As a result, they reject the whole enterprise of popular scientific communication.

However, there’s a difference between producing bad science for the sake of a good story and producing good science but never communicating it with a good story. The first is a sin of commission (doing something wrong) and the second is a sin of omission (failing to do what’s right and necessary).

Unless good science is communicated with good stories and fun, then the public will only pay attention to bad “science” (like the TV show Ghost Hunters) and politicians will only listen to ideological arguments free of data.

Science is a service. It is done for the benefit of humankind. If the ideas of science never influence the public and public policymakers, then science has not succeeded.

And if “mattering” means we need a few more Tom Haverfords dancing around scientific charts or a few more Bill Nyes sporting bow ties, then so be it. Science is meant to change the world, not just entertain and please the minds of a few intellectuals.

West Coast Winter

andrewI just found out on Twitter that my favorite musican of all time – Andrew McMahon of Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin retweeted this article. The article is based on his idea of “West Coast Winter.” Pretty awesome to have your high school hero like what you are doing, especially when what you are doing is writing about psychology. Hear the song that inspired this at the end of this article. 

As a Southern Californian native, nonnatives always assume I must be sad every time Christmas rolls around and it’s not white. They tell me that I must feel blue because something “essentially Christmas” or “properly winter” is missing.

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. While the world assumes Californians are sad on Christmas day, us Californians are actually quite happy as we stroll along the breach and enjoy the unique concept of a Southern California Christmas.

As the Southern Californian band Jack’s Mannequin sings: “It’s Christmas in California and it’s hard to ignore that it feels like summer all the time. But I’ll take a West Coast winter to remove my splinters. It’s good to be alive.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.22.12 AMIf you moved here you would probably hate this “always summer” feel. You would probably miss the snow and the cold. But we don’t. We don’t dwell on how we are missing out on the typical winter traditions, because winter does not mean the same things to us that it does to you.

For us, winter means putting on a long-sleeve T-shirt and sharing a peppermint flavored frozen yogurt on a sunny patio; or taking a late-night walk on a decorated pier, possibly after a Christmas Eve service with the people we love; or strolling down Disneyland’s Main Street under the artificial (but quite awesome) snow.

If we Southern Californians wanted to, we could drive inland and be in the snow in a few hours or less. But we don’t all migrate inland for the winter. Why? Because that’s not who we are and that’s not what winter or Christmas means to us.

In the winter season, many Californians often even develop what social scientists call an “oppositional identity.” We choose to swim or surf on Christmas Day and we proudly (and sometimes annoyingly) post photos of how beautiful and completely unmiserable it truly is here. In Southern California and the West Coast at large, we develop traditions in opposition to traditional winter norms.

As Californians, we are not claiming our winter is any better or worse than other winters (well, some of us probably are). However, we just claim that a West Coast winter isn’t so bad and actually enjoy it this way.

In general, the world is often jealous of our generally perfect weather. So it is understandable that the world would like to think that for one season or just one Christmas Day, Southern Californians are the jealous of others’ weather. But the truth is, were are not jealous.

When West Coasters are on the beach, with a new pair of Rainbow sandals fresh from the San Clemente outlet, a board in their hand, and In-n-Out Burger in their other hand, watching a pelican fly over the Christmas lights on the pier, it doesn’t feel like the moment is missing anything! In fact, for a Southern Californian native, a moment like this could not any feel more complete.

For research that inspired this article check out the topics of “perspective taking” and “oppositional identity.”


Women Are Expected to Follow (Even in “Liberal” Academia)

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.13.13 AM

My girlfriend will graduate with her Ph.D. one year before me. Recently, at a part

y people asked her about this. They asked what she was going to do while, quote, “waiting for me to graduate” and asked, “You’re going to hang around here and then follow him to whatever professorship he gets right?”

The implication was subtle but clear: as a woman, she would be following me.

Despite this conversation occurring at a party of socially liberal people, and despite the fact that my girlfriend is a fantastic scientist, and despite the fact that the conversation was among female scientists and professionals, the message was as ancient as the old testament: Adam would come before Eve.

We are in a society that screams that it embraces equality. But we still quietly and subtly embrace the concept of “Adam then Eve” not the equal idea of “Adam and Eve.” And we would never even consider giving “Eve” first billing in the couple’s title. Who’s ever heard of “Eve and Adam”? No one, because when it matters, the man comes first.
Despite much progress in women’s equality, in the most conservative and most liberal environments, there are still societal expectations that women will care for the kids; not make trouble; defer to the male ego; and, follow. Today many liberals seem more keen to support the concept of “Adam and Steve” than the true equal standing of men and women.

A wealth of research shows that even people who consciously agree with statements such as “equality is important” do not always carry out a life that reflects the stat

ements. Sexism can be subtle, unconscious, or so ingrained in social norms that we do not notice it.

Today, acting a little bit sexist is the norm not the exception. You do it, I do

it, and both women and men do it. Women can be sexist to other women and men often rigidly enforce “no homo” gender norms amongst themselves.

These everyday sexist acts can perpetuate gender-consistent behavior even in those who disagree with the norms. If society implies that people should be a certain way (“wait for their boyfriend” or “not cry in an unmanly way”) then out of convenience or fear people will tend to act that way.

Women and men may even internalize norms they dislike. Constant exposure to gender norms can create gender schemas. Gender schemas are models in the mindthat can lead people to unconsciously and automatically act in gender specific and even sexist ways. All progressive people have felt the influence of gender schemas when they’ve blurted out something extremely sexist, only to immediately think to themselves, “Why

did I just say that?” People may catch their sexist behaviors once in awhile, but for the most part their subtle sexism may go undetected by themselves and those around them.

When we see blatant sexism, we often know to say it is wrong. However, we do not realize that even those men and women with pro-equality stickers proud

ly displayed on their MacBooks are not without their subtle forms of discrimination.

If sexism occurs subtly and unconsciously, then we must consciously resist it. We must address the norms straight on. Does this mean we should eliminate gend

er and all become unisex? No. Ultra-conservatives want you to think that anyone who preaches “equality” really wants a “genderless apocalypse.” When in reality most people promoting equality are just suggesting we make it okay to break gender norms and develop societally acceptable models of people who break the norms.

How we reach such a future can come through many ways.

One way is policy. We need policies that allow women to break the norms. Things like child support. Because if women overwhelmingly care for the children right now, and that is unlikely to rapidly change, then child support remains an “equality” issue. We must change both psychological and real obstacles to equality. No matter what changes, many women will choose to be stay-at-home moms and we should respect that choice. However, we should not socially and almost legally force the stay-at-h

ome option on women.

It also means we need to expand the “precarious” male identity. Men should get paternity leave and be encouraged to take it. Young boys must be taught to respect women and not feel a need to prove their superior “manliness” at all moments.

Because maybe nothing illustrates our gender problem more than how a male feels when he loses to a woman at nearly anything. No matter how many Hillar

y Clinton rallies that man has been to, losing to a woman still stings like hell.

I want my future children to live in a world where it’s okay for a boy to lose to a girl. Where it’s okay for Eve to come before Adam. Where Adam is comfortable with following. And where Eve feels great leading.

Bite Size: Happiness and the Humanities

Meaning is Healthier Than Happiness

Good piece separating two different lifestyles and what pursuing happiness doesn’t always work like one would prefer.


-Favorite Part-

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the study wrote. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, “Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.



Science is Not the Enemy of Humanities

An interesting piece that will make you think regardless if you agree with everything in the piece.


-Favorite Part-

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions.




Beach Bodies: The Wrong Model of General Health

man hot

Originally featured on Huffington Post — lead blog Health-Living.

What is health? If you ask doctors and scientists they’ll sat it’s a few hours of exercise per week and a balanced diet. That’s a realistic standard most everyone can reach.

However, ask most Americans about health and they’ll point to David Beckham, Victoria’s Secret models, or anyone with a banging beach body. That’s a discouragingly high standard that most people cannot or would find incredibly difficult to reach.

In popular society, we often have the wrong understanding of health. Instead of seeing health as something for everyone, we’ve turned health into something elite — “salad people.” We’ve confused athleticism, very low-calorie diets and the general beach body for a normal model of health. Perhaps nothing shows this more explicitly than the covers of beauty and health magazines that constantly feature the most impossibly fit and attractive celebrities as models of health.

When we make the athletic lifestyle and small waist lines our societal standard of health, many people are likely to say themselves, “I guess healthiness is not for me,” “It’s too much effort,” or “I don’t have the genes or the time.”

The beach body diet and athletic lifestyle is a worthy and healthy lifestyle enjoyed by many people. However, even the simpler healthy lifestyle recommended by doctors can have massive health benefits over a lifestyle that is more sedentary and nutritionally unbalanced.

A wealth of research on goal pursuit shows that high standards discourage people from beginning goal pursuit. 2011 findings from Szu-Chi Huang (then a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin) and her colleagues found that when people are considering pursuing a health goal, they frequently ask themselves, “Can I get there?”

In an ingenious set of experiments, Duke University Professor Christine Moorman and colleagues tested this influence of feeling or not feeling health competent on future healthy behaviors. When people were made to feel like they were not smart in the health domain, they subsequently made unhealthy decisions. The takeaway? If people do not feel health is “their thing,” or “they can’t get there,” they will not act healthy.

Accordingly, if we keep calling Americans unhealthy, they may just stay that way. All we may be doing is making most Americans feel bad about themselves, not sufficiently motivating them in a positive direction.

Tragically on the other end, for those people who are already quite healthy, popular standards of beauty, athleticism or even health might push them over the edge to unhealthy eating and lifestyles. People may undereat and face malnutrition to gain a small waistline or use dangerous steroids to gain big muscles.

So what’s the answer?

On one hand, health is a very complicated issue. Yet, on the other hand, it is quite simple. With few exceptions, to be healthy a person just needs to eat an easily manageable fresh and varied diet, exercise a little and avoid serious stress. It’s something most people know in the back of their minds, but it’s corrupted by the popular standards of perfect health and beauty.

Unfortunately, to complicate things more, a constant flame war rages in society between two extreme sides. One side loses it anytime someone says anything that seems slightly not “body positive,” and the other side loses it anytime someone says anything that seems to “normalize obesity.”

However if you are in part of the rational middle majority, then know this: there is a happy medium.

The happy medium is found when the standard of health is not about looking good or being able to run a six-mintue mile. Instead the standard should be about having a body that is healthy. Yes, that will mean some people should lose weight and should be motivated to improve general health, but it does not mean those people need to strive for six-pack abs.

If Americans are to become happier and healthier, respect for the standards known by health scientists must triumph over the current popular health standards. We must wash away the beach-body model of health and paint a picture of a realistic, obtainable and scientifically-sound model of health.