Am I Buying This Just Because It’s Hot Out?

53721446_shopping_409705c               We all know that outside influences can affect our decisions, especially with the frequent manipulation of commercials, ads, and even store environments to encourage us to buy products we may or may not need. These manipulations are often subtle and subconsciously affect us, meaning that we are unaware that we have been directed to buy the product and we commonly think that it is exclusively our own decision to make the purchase. However, these alterations that encourage us to give in are not always in the hands of a team of advertisers, but rather Mother Nature.

Researchers Xun I. Huang, Meng Zhang, Michael K. Hui, and Robert S. Wyer Jr. conducted a series of studies examining the effects of warm temperatures on product preferences and financial decisions. The researchers suspected that warm temperatures may encourage us to conform, thus leading us to want a product that other people have or rate positively. Huang and colleagues completed four studies, each examining different aspects of conformity and this relationship to product preference and making financial decisions, like stock market forecasting and betting.

Huang and colleagues’ first study examined the relationship of warm temperatures to product preference, based on the consumers feeling of closeness towards previous raters of the products they were evaluating. They found that those placed in a warmer room, 75-77 degrees Fahrenheit, were more likely to purchase the preferred option and even rated themselves as feeling closer to the, unknown to them, raters of the products. These effects were not shown for those in a cooler room, 61-63 degrees Fahrenheit. The experimenters conducted a follow up study similar to their first one, but instead of providing percentages to indicate raters’ preference, they represented the liking of the product through relative market shares, with a high share indicating popularity. The results to this study paralleled with the first: the participants in the warm condition were more likely to choose the product with the highest share than those in the cool condition. These two studies indicate that being in a warmer environment encourages us to conform, be closer to, and follow others.

The experimenters wanted to further investigate the effects of warmer temperatures on conformity, and instead of measuring it through product preference, looked at it with financial predictions, specifically the stock market. The findings from this study remain consistent with the previous studies, in that participants in a warmer room were more likely pick the stock that they thought others picked. Like the previous studies, these effects were not as prevalent for those in the cooler room.

With results suggesting that warmer temperatures affect our financial decisions in that we do what others do, the experimenters wanted to see if being warm affected another financial decision: betting. Participants were instructed to imagine being at a horse racetrack and were getting ready to make bets. They were given background information on horse betting, specifically how the “favorite” horse was the one others had betted on. Consistent with Huang and colleagues’ previous findings, those in the warmer room were more likely to put their bet on the “favorite” and even viewed others’ bets as more valid and rated that they liked the other bettors.

The experimenters, with strong evidence that warmer temperatures lead us to think others’ preferences as more valid, liking other raters or bettors more, and overall conformity to others decisions, looked at real world situations. They obtained racetrack data from Hong Kong and evaluated temperatures and how many bettors betted on the “favorite”. They found that bettors were more likely to bet on the “favorite” when it was a hot day.

These findings suggest that warmer temperatures encourage us to conform, or “go with the flow”, when buying products and making financial decisions. These are very intriguing results, because I know when I am shopping, I am not thinking about how the current temperature may be making me feel closer to others and wanting to have the same product as them! These results will hopefully be further investigated, and who knows, in the future it may be applied in stores!

Huang, X., Zhang, M., Hui, M. K., & Wyer, R. J. (2014). Warmth and conformity:                    The effects of ambient temperature on product preferences and financial decisions.  Journal Of Consumer Psychology, 24, 241-250. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2013.09.009


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Looks Can Be Deceiving: The Representativeness Heuristic Displayed in Music Preference

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases to prevent people from making incorrect stereotypical assumptions, but why do our brains automatically make these inferences without as much as a second look? Our biological process of thought is to immediately organize visual stimuli into categories based on how they correspond to our preconceived notions of similar situations. The motivation behind automatic classification is that the process is efficient and correct the majority of the time. It is also easier to access the similarity of two events than their individual probabilities.

A heuristic is a mental shortcut to evaluate a stimulus based on our prior experiences. As humans, we subconsciously use these every day. Without heuristics, all of our evaluating processes would be lengthy and deplete precious cognitive resources. This seems too good to be true right? We can immediately get answers on how to respond to any familiar situation. The draw back to this system is that heuristics are not always accurate, and can lead us to improper assumptions that, if not carefully analyzed, can nullify the validity of our conclusions. One of the most useful ways to predict an event’s outcome is using the representativeness heuristic that states that the likelihood of an outcome can be determined by how similar the situation is to a previously experienced prototype or category.

Have you ever walked passed a stranger and after they passed immediately categorized them based on what clothes they were wearing, their posture, facial expressions, skin color, attractiveness, or even hairstyle? This happens because our mind naturally utilizes the representativeness heuristic. Lonsdale & North (2012) analyzed this process of judging other people across a more specific circumstance in their study analyzing societal generalizations and music genres. The participants were given information about 10 fictional characters across three conditions. The first condition consisted of a description of the fictional character such as age, income, religion, and political views, the second condition consisted of a portrait photograph of the fictional character, and the third condition consisted of both the photograph and the description. Participants were told to analyze the information and make a generalization of what would most likely be the character’s favorite music genre.

The results demonstrated that all participants unanimously agreed on the stereotype of music genre for the character’s description. Although, all participants agreed on the same music genres for each character, there was a statistically significant difference in the confidence of character categorization into the music genre groups based on the experimental condition. Using a chi-squared test, Lonsdale & North found that participants given only the portrait made significantly less clear-cut judgments of musical taste compared to the participants who received only the description and those who received the portrait and description.

In this experiment, all the participants used the representativeness heuristic to categorize the fictional characters they have never even met based solely on their first impression from the given information. The fact that all the participants chose the same groups for the characters provides hard evidence that our brains are always applying this heuristic even though we may not notice it. If the characters were real people, statistically, the participants would have guessed their favorite genre correct the majority of the time, but there are always exceptions. The lower-middle class, 20 year old, African American could have a passion for opera music instead of hip-hop. The teenage boy with a green mohawk, piercings, and a leather jacket could love the tune of smooth jazz instead of the predicted heavy metal.

The representativeness heuristic helps us judge people and stimuli using minimal effort. However, we must be careful using this heuristic in our everyday lives, especially in a society that is extremely critical of stereotypes. Have you ever made an incorrect generalization about someone that led you to a feeling of embarrassment? A good way to process information but be safe from social ridicule is to use the representativeness heuristic and then double check the results with the system II processes. System II encapsulates the way of analyzing situations in a reflective, controlled, and rule-based manner. This type of interpretation will give us much more accurate results, but it takes more effort and time. If we find the perfect balance of using these two systems, we can achieve an efficient way of processing stimuli and limit the number of mistakes that we make of incorrect categorization.

Lonsdale, A. J., & North, A. C. (2012). Musical taste and the representativeness                              heuristic. Psychology Of Music,40(2), 131-142. doi:10.1177/0305735611425901




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Anxiety + Stress = Confidence?

Absolutely no one likes to be stressed. Who ever jumped for joy when they realized they had to write five more pages of an essay before bed, or just remembered that they’d forgotten to get their significant other an extravagant birthday present? Stress is definitely a word that we correlate with negativity and counter-productivity. Overall, stress is usually a feeling humans don’t embrace, mostly because of the jittery feeling and unseemly forehead wrinkles that can come as a result. This way of thinking confines stress to a negative context. Why? Perhaps in conceptualizing stress as a state of being, it somewhat presents itself as the opposite of content or happiness. Stress is synonymous with distress or discomfort, so why would that ever be positive? Could stress be perceived as positive if applying stress can yield productive outcomes?


‘How can stress lead to something positive’, is what you might be thinking. Well, the teams of Carmen Sandi at EPFL(School of Computer and Communications) and Lorenz Goette at UNIL (University of Lausanne), did a study in which they observed the effects of inducing stress on individuals with both high and low levels of anxiety. In their observations, the experimenters observed the effects stress had on confidence and additionally, discovered a physiological response the body has to stress!


What the experimenters initially tasked themselves with was finding the definitive factors that influence confidence. This is important because, as the article states, confidence is fundamentally what promotes competition. In fueling social competition, confidence is not only integral to the way societies function, but it also shapes human interactions. Furthermore, the two factors that the researchers found to be most strongly correlated with confidence were anxiety and stress. The researchers defined anxiety as the “trait anxiety”, meaning it characterized an individual as being generally worrisome or threatened.


Now finally, the experiment! In order to discern the two types of anxiety, the researchers used trait-anxiety tests that categorized each participant as having high or low anxiety. Then, completely independent of the previous procedure (anxiety test), the participants were broken up into two groups. The first group experienced stress trials in the form of mock job interviews and or difficult math problems. The other group was the control, and therefore did not have to engage in any stress inducing activities. After the stress trials, all participants (both groups) were given a test of confidence. The researchers organized the test as a game which yielded a monetary prize. So participants received two choices, they could take their chance at the money by either entering a lottery or using their IQ scores to directly compete with the IQ of others for the prize (The highest IQ would win).


The results showed that approximately 60% of the control group, or non-stressed participants, chose to use their IQ scores to compete, which the researchers interpreted as indicative of high levels of confidence [regardless of anxiety]. Though in the group where stress trials were imposed, the results of the game varied a bit more. Actually, in the stress-induced group, anxiety scores played an integral part in determining confidence; Those with low anxiety proved to be more confident after experiencing stress (more likely to wager on IQ), and inversely those with high levels of anxiety proved substantially less confident after the stress trials (were less confident in IQ score and chose to enter lottery). Based on the study, stress can promote confidence depending on individuals’ predisposed level of anxiety.


I thought this was super interesting because essentially, understanding your level of anxiety can allow an individual to maximize their confidence and therefore productivity through exposure to higher or lower levels of stress. For instance, I understand that I usually have low levels of anxiety, so when I need to buckle down and get work done, I have to expose myself to stress. Another really fascinating part of this experiment was that the researchers discovered that the hormone cortisol is released (from the top of our kidneys) in response to stress. In low anxiety people, higher confidence was a result of the high levels of cortisol, and vice versa. This supported their previous findings, and also verifying them further through causational biological evidence. Conclusively, I think this experiment was well executed and will help promote further research into stress. Also, although only briefly, the researchers interestingly link socioeconomic status and base levels of anxiety, stating that individuals from more impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to display high levels of anxiety, and do worse under stress. I am not sure if I definitely agree with this statement, but it is definitely an interesting prospect that I’d challenge YOU to think about as well!


Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2015, February 18). How stress can lead to inequality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 18, 2015 from

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Is it Really Worth it? How Conscious and Nonconscious Prices Affect Consumerism

How much is too much for a new pair of pants? Fifty, sixty dollars? 100 dollars? Your answer may depend on a variety of things: how much you make, how badly you need a new pair of pants, and even how much value you place on fashion. However, there might be something else at play; how much you saw a different pair of pants for—or, for that matter, the price of a completely different item you saw. This process of comparing prices to previous values we have been exposed to is called the anchoring and adjustment heuristic and it is a well established phenomenon in the field of social psychology.

Specifically, the anchoring and adjustment heuristic suggests that we tend to focus, or anchor, on the first piece of information or value that we come across, and then adjust that value to where we think it matches the new stimulus. In most cases, that adjustment is insufficient, leaving our ultimate estimation of value far from what it actually is.

In a new study, Rashmi Adaval and Robert S. Wyer Jr., looked at the effects this heuristic may have on the common consumer. In four different experiments, the researchers examined the effects an anchor price had on products similar to the anchor product, dissimilar to the anchor product, and also the effect a subliminally primed anchor had on a product.

Researchers found that when exposed to either a high or low anchor price for a camera (either $419 or $49, respectively) participants underestimated or overestimated the price of a very similar camera. However, if participants were asked to think about the camera and its features before they saw the anchor, they were more likely to moderate this effect.

In a second experiment, the researchers examined whether a price for a camera could actually affect the price participants would estimate clothing–something completely different.   They found that in conditions where participants were exposed to the camera price first, the estimate was not affected that much, but in the condition where the participants were exposed to clothing first, the price they suggested for the camera was affected. The rationale behind this is that a camera is a high end electronic with a very specific set of features, but when we look for clothing, we only look for good quality and style. Those qualities can be transferred to a camera, but you can’t transfer a camera’s zoom to clothing.

Experiments three and four looked at whether subliminally primed values could have an effect on price estimation. The researchers found that when unconsciously exposed to a high or low number, participants were willing to pay more or less for a given product, respectively. However, again, this effect was moderated by reflective thinking about the product.

So what does all this mean for the average consumer? In essence, it means that if we are not careful, we can end up with incorrect assumptions of how much products are actually worth, and we may end up paying more than we should. Especially interesting is the fact that even unrelated products can influence our perception of a different commodity. So next time you are out buying a new TV, make sure to keep your eyes on the prize, and not be distracted by other prices you may see, even if they are for something else!

Adaval, R., & Wyer, R. J. (2011). Conscious and nonconscious comparisons with price anchors: Effects on willingness to pay for related and unrelated products. Journal Of Marketing Research, 48(2), 355-365. doi:10.1509/jmkr.48.2.355

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To help or not to help? Supplementary evidence of the sunshine Samaritan

Genetic and environmental factors influence our behavior as human beings, but we all want to know the common internal and external elements that frequently make us experience either positive or negative emotions—joy or sadness, for example. Things such as music, the lighting in a room, pictures, videos, foods, drinks, and animals are just a list of several things that can instantly change a person’s mood, and therefore, their behavior towards others. Knowing that pleasant weather (i.e. sunshine) often elicits positive moods and social relations, Nicholas Guéguen and Lubomir Lamy investigated a question that still lingered in the area of social psychology: how does sunshine effect spontaneous behavior?

Even prior to the actual experiment, Guéguen and Lamy learned that sunshine affects human social interaction based off of the evidence that people were less reluctant to participate on days that were mostly sunny compared to days that were mostly cloudy. Why is this? There are a number of plausible answers, but considering that human behavior is clearly strongly associated with weather deviations—and behavior is strongly influenced by emotion—the most commonly supported answer is that good weather activates positive emotions, which motivates positive behavior and good social relations.

In their study, they conducted a field experiment using 221 men and 243 women (roughly between the ages of 20 and 50 years old) who were chosen at random while walking alone in the streets near the Atlantic Coast in France. Prior to actually collecting data, 20 men and 20 women between the same age range of participants in the experiment were asked to evaluate the weather on that particular day on a scale from 1 to 9 (1 being cloudy and 9 being sunny)—and the experiment was only executed on days where the assistants evaluated the day as being 1 to 3 (cloudy) or 7 to 9 (sunny) to ensure better control of weather conditions. Furthermore, in order to target the measurement of solely sunshine conditions rather than temperature conditions, the experiment was not done on days where the temperature elevated higher than 24 degrees Celsius or sunk lower than 20 degrees Celsius or when it was raining. On days when the experiment was carried out however, 8 male and female confederates (with an average age of 21 years old) individually approached random people on the street who fit the experiments criteria, walking approximately three meters ahead of them and intentionally dropping a glove from his or her handbag and making it appear as if they were completely unaware of his or her loss. If the subject warned the confederate about his or loss within 10 seconds after dropping the item, then two observers standing approximately 50 meters away from activity recorded the response. Otherwise, the confederate pretended as if he or she was in search for something in their handbag and turned around to pickup the glove without making eye contact with the participant.

Sunshine was the independent variable and the number of times help was offered was the dependent variable. On sunny days, 65.3 percent of participants spontaneously offered to help the confederate (156/239), while only 53.3 percent of participants spontaneously offered to help the confederate on cloudier days (120/225). These statistically significant results further support the previous discoveries made in a study by Michael Cunningham in 1979, though in his study, request for help was made verbally. The data from this study is evidence that suggests that the effect of sunshine on helping is likely mediated by a person’s mood—and a positive mood expands healthy relationships.

Guéguen, N., & Lamy, L. (2013). Weather and helping: Additional evidence of the effect of the sunshine Samaritan. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 153(2), 123-126. doi:10.1080/00224545.2012.720618

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So cute I could eat it up: Priming Effects of Cute Products on Indulgent Consumption


cute-baby-wallpapers-1Cuteness is generally defined as being attractive in an adorable or endearing way ( Babies are so c-u-t-e! They have a collection of features such as large eyes and rounded cheeks.These features make them seem vulnerable, and we automatically want to protect them, and direct all our attention to them. Babies are just irresistible! Playing with them, cuddling them, and blowing them kisses just makes us happy. And I’m sure the babies love this attention too. Does this cuteness affect consumption behavior? Of course it does!

When primed with baby schemas, people are more likely to be less indulgent. Because baby schemas such as their faces on products elicit carefulness, people are more aware of what they are consuming. Therefore, indulgence behavior decreases. This can be used in policies that promote healthy eating habits such as the “Let’s Move” campaign by Michelle Obama. Does this then extend to regular cute products? Research shows that it does, but produces the opposite effect.

Cuteness not related to babies increases indulgence consumption behavior. Nenkov, and Scott (2014), propose that products considered to be cute elicits humor and playfulness. So, when you buy that product, you think about the rewards the product will give you. For example, if you use an ice cream scoop that you view as cute, you are likely to eat more ice cream compared to a person who is using a normal scoop. Using the cute scoop puts you in a good mood (the getting high kind of feeling). It also makes you feel like you are a fun person. This represents a form of advertising in the marketplace.

To examine the effects of general cuteness on indulgent behavior, Nenkov, and Scott examined the relationship between baby cuteness and product cuteness, and their effects on indulgence in subsequent behavior. Participants were given a cookie with a smiley face or a neutral cookie. Also, the beary_cute_cookiesparticipants were either told that the cookie was from a children cookie store or a regular store. For example, they changed the brand name of the cookie; “The Kid’s Cookie Shop” vs “The Cookie Shop”. After viewing the cookie, participants got a hypothetical dinner situation where they had to carefully choose from two entree options because they were watching their weight. One entree option was rich and delicious but it was more fatty (you probably wouldn’t want to choose this option if you are on a diet). The other option was more healthy but not as tasty as the first one (you definitely want to choose this if you are watching your weight). The results found that participants who viewed the cute smiley cookie from The Cookie Shop preferred the rich tasty option even though they were watching their diet. Participants who viewed the cute cookie from The Kid’s Cookie Shop chose the healthy option. This suggests that viewing the brand name changed subsequent behavior. For example, the cookie from the kids’ store might have elicited careful behavior, compared to those who did not (the general store).

Overall, cute products induce indulgent consumption behavior. This behavior extends to other products too. Merely, being primed with a cute product leads to increases in binge shopping or eating. In the real world, this is true in forms of advertising used. Sometimes, people indulge as a form of reward. Imagine yourself after a stressful week of midterm papers and exams, and thinking about therapy shopping. In this case, you are rewarding yourself for being strong throughout your week by increasing your consumption behavior.


Nenkov, G. Y., & Scott, M. L. (2014). “So Cute I Could Eat It Up”: Priming Effects of Cute Products on Indulgent Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 41, 326-341.

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Using the Double-Foot-In-The-Door Technique to Evoke a Desired Outcome

At some point, if not many points in our lives, we’ve all wanted something from someone else. This “something” may be a favor quite small, such as switching your laundry for you, or it might be a heftier task, like getting your teacher to let you hand in your term paper a week late. No matter what the end game is, one has to strategize on how they are going to get what they want. Unless you are lucky enough to have a teacher who will immediately say yes to a request like that, then chances are they are going to deny your wish. But, what if you were able to get them to say yes? This would not be from the result of your luck, but rather strategy. This strategy that might work on your teacher (but not 100% guaranteed) would be the double-foot-in-the-door technique. In the article, “Double Foot-In-The-Door, Social Representations, and Environment: Application for Energy Savings” by Lionel Souchet and Fabien Girandola, the effectiveness of strategies like the foot-in-the-door and double foot-in-the-door are tested for their effectiveness.

Souchet and Girandola found that the most effective strategy for getting someone’s compliance to do a desired task is the double-foot-in-the-door technique. This particular experiment focused on the environment and energy savings. The target task that they wanted participants to willingly agree to do was implement maximum energy savings tactics in their homes for at least two weeks.

In this experiment, the control group was a group of 78 men and 62 women who were asked immediately to execute the target task. These people were given no prior requests and were not exposed to any of the “preparatory” acts. The first independent variable was a single preparatory task. The first preparatory act was simply to fill out a six question survey about energy savings. This was a simple task and was seen with a very low cost. A group of the same number of participants as the control group was asked to do this preparatory task, followed by being asked to carry out the target task. The second independent variable tested was the addition of a second preparatory task. This second task that was seen as more costly than the first task, but less costly than the target task. In this task, the people participating had to write out arguments that were in favor of energy savings. A different group of the same number of people as the first two groups was asked to fulfill these two preparatory tasks, and then asked to implement the target task.

Souchet and Girandola’s experiment found that people who completed the first two preparatory acts were more likely to also complete the target task (75%) than people who only completed the first preparatory act (60%) as well as people who did not complete any of the preparatory acts, the control group (30%).

What made the people who went through with the two preparatory tasks so much more likely to go through with the target task as well? The answer to this lies in the idea of consistency. With the control group, they had not agreed to do anything previously, which made them not feel obligated to keep on saying yes to something, because they had not said yes before. However, with the group that had performed the first two preparatory tasks, they were much more compelled to continue with the tasks asked of them, because they wanted to keep on being consistent with their compliance. The first task that was asked of the participants was at a low cost and little did the people saying yes know, this simple compliance made them more apt to say yes to future things asked of them. When they were asked to do the moderately costly task, the people who already did the first preparatory task were inclined to say yes because they wanted to continue being consistent. Leading into the target task, which was desired from the beginning, the people who had already fulfilled the first two preparatory tasks were the ones that were most likely to go through with the final task asked of them.

The experiment that Souchet and Girandola performed showed that the double-foot-in-the-door technique is the most effective way to have a participant follow through with a desired task. As opposed to the simple and more well-known foot-in-the-door technique, the double–foot technique uses the fact that the participant is accepting to gradually more costly tasks, rather than just having agreed to just one. This makes the leap from the beginning task to the end task not as great as with simple foot-in-the-door, in which there is only one preparatory task asked before asking for the larger favor. So before you go asking your teacher right off the bat for that week-long extension, you might consider asking first for a one day extension, and then for a three day extension.


Souchet, L., & Girandola, F. (2013). Double foot-in-the-door, social representations, and environment: Application for energy savings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(2), 306-315.

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Having trouble sleeping?

photo (5)College students are bogged down with academics, busy social lives and demanding schedules. This can cause not only sleep deprivation, but can also lead to bouts of insomnia; trouble falling and staying asleep. Fortunately, recent research may have found the answer to this problem!

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Snap Judgements on Sexual Orientation

Joshua A. Tabak and Vivian Zayas conducted a study on “The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation,” published on 16 May 2012. The two found that “People are able to judge men’s and women’s sexual orientation with above-chance accuracy” based on a photograph shown to the participant between forty and fifty milliseconds. The photograph was in greyscale and had all head hair on the subject in the picture removed. However, Tabak and Zayas wondered how these judgements formed.

The two hypothesized that either “Configural face processing contributes to accurate snap judgments of sexual orientation” or that “The process of reading sexual orientation from faces may differ as a function of whether the stimulus person (face) is male or female.” Hypothesis one suggests that configural face processing, which is a “more individuating type of face processing,” is a large part of accurately assessing the sexuality of an individual. This is because scientists have found sexual orientation to be phenotypically unclear or inexact. Hypothesis two proposes that men and women judge differently based on their gender and the gender of the subject in the photograph.

Two experiments were then conducted. The first experiment was conducted using twenty-four students from University of Washington. Nineteen of the participants were female, five male, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty two years of age. Four hundred and thirteen images were gathered from Facebook profiles. These pictures were from people who clearly identified as either gay, straight male, straight female, or lesbian. The people in the photographs were between eighteen and twenty-nine. None had facial scars, hair, makeup, tattoos, or piercings. The trained research assistants who fixed the pictures by removing ears and head hair were blind to the experiment. “Each trial consisted of: (a) a fixation cross for 1000 ms, (b) a target face stimulus for 50 ms, and (c) a backward mask for 100 ms, after which participants categorized the target face as either “gay” or “straight” “as quickly and accurately as possible” by depressing “A” or “L.” The intertrial interval was 1000 ms.” The results of the study showed that “participants read sexual orientation significantly better than chance from upright faces of” men and women. However, upside-down faces of men and women were not read as accurately. It was also found that women’s faces were judged more accurately then men’s faces were. Tabak and Zayas found this intriguing; in the media, the prominence of gay males vs gay females is unequal, and the two expected that because of this, males would be identified more accurately as gay or straight than females would.

Experiment two used ninety-two women and thirty-seven men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. The same set of faces used in experiment one was used in experiment two. However, in experiment one, the face color of the males in the pictures was darker than that of the women’s, so in experiment two, research assistants lightened the faces of the males so that they matched those of the females. Participants judged either upside-down faces or upright faces. Research found that “participants read sexual orientation significantly better than chance from upright faces of women… and upright faces of men.” The result from experiment two was yes; “configural face processing” does “boost accuracy of sexual orientation judgements above the accuracy observed when judgements are promarity limited to featural face processing.” In addition, the presentation of upside-down faces disrupted configural face processing but had “little or no detectable effect on featural face processing,” which showed that “accurate judgments of women’s and men’s sexual orientation were possible even when face processing was largely restricted to featural face information.” 

Tabak, Joshua A., and Vivian Zayas. “The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation.” PLOS ONE:. N.p., 16 May 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2015. <>.

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Double or Nothing: why we make risky choices

One of my favorite shows in high school to watch on the weekends was Cash Cab. The basic premise of the show is quite simple. Essentially, the show is like any other TV game show in which contestants win money for answering jeopardy questions correctly. The twist? This one takes place from within a taxicab in New York City. Participants answer questions of increasing difficulty, as the driver, who also happens to be the host, drives them to their chosen destination. Anyway, there is this moment at the end of the show when participants can go for double-or-nothing with one last final question. This moment is obviously quite suspenseful and stressful, but I’ve never really understood it. Why would anyone in his or her right mind ever risk the possibility of going home empty handed for the small chance that they could double their winnings? What motivates that type of risky decision-making? Even more so, if we were able to somehow identify what motivates someone to be more or less risk averse, is that something we could manipulate in a systematic way?

In a recent study, researchers Elliot Ludvig, Christopher Madan and Lucia Spetch explored this very idea. Specifically, they were interested to see how people’s behavior in situations in which risky choice decisions were made available, would be altered if before making their choice they were primed with memories of past outcomes. The idea of priming past outcomes comes from the knowledge that people often base decisions on past experiences. We rely on our memories quite a bit, and thus shouldn’t whatever is remembered “most” at the moment a decision is made influence the choice that is ultimately made?

The design of this study was fairly straightforward. In order to employ the use of a prime in the experiment, the researchers first needed to find a way to get the participants to associate some type of object with some sort of outcome. In this study, the object was fruit, and the outcome was a certain number of points. Let me explain. The experiment put participants through a computer simulated “risky-choice task” in which there were four different doors each linked with a fruit that was worth a certain number of points. Three of the doors led to fixed gains of 0, 40 or 80 points, and the fourth door, which was coined the “risky door,” led to a 50/50 chance of earning either 20 or 60 points. This might be hard to visualize, so here’s some help:

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 9.53.34 PM

(Ludvig et al., 2014)

In each trial, only two doors were pitted against each other for participants to choose between. I’ll spare all the details of every single door combination, and just say that participants completed quite a few trials so as to establish a relationship between the fruit and it’s reward. Next, participants completed twenty primed decision trials in which prior to the appearance of the two doors, an image of one of the fruits was displayed for .5 seconds. It looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 11.32.17 PM

(Ludvig et al., 2014)

Here’s where it gets interesting. Ludvig and his colleagues found that the prime of the fruit associated with the 60-point gain in the “risky door” condition (grapes) caused participants, as expected, to become substantially more risk seeking compared to the non-primed trials. So much so in fact, that they actually picked the risky option on average. The preferred option was the risky one! The prime of the 80-point fruit (watermelon) didn’t even cause as much of an increase in risk seeking as the grapes did! It is interesting, and somewhat unexpected however that the 20-point prime (strawberry) did not cause any kind of change in risk sensitivity—perhaps when making decisions people are inherently inclined to think first of potential losses, and so are essentially priming themselves in a way. With this reasoning, the strawberry prime would do nothing to alter their line of reasoning or their resulting decision.

It really just goes to show, the past is important. Where we’ve been and what we’ve done matters more than we may think. Whether we are aware of it or not, we hold in our memories the outcomes of our actions and our decisions and those memories can heavily influence our future endeavors. So, keep all of that in mind the next time you place that high stakes bet with one of your friends, feeling oh so confident because of that one time last year when you won that other bet. Save your money, please.

Ludvig, E. A., Madan, C. R., & Spetch, M. L. (2015). Priming memories of past wins induces risk seeking. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General144(1), 24-29. doi:10.1037/xge0000046

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Create to Compare or Compare to Create?


When we hear the word “creativity”, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us is our childhood, filled with colored pencils, paintbrushes, glue, and scissors. But, creativity comes in all shapes and sizes, and is manifested in all things from world changing policy and innovative technology to magnificent tasting food and DIY projects.

In today’s day and age, organizations of all types have increasingly placed more emphasis on creativity than ever before. Why you may ask? It is because creativity is needed to grow, survive, and meet the demanding expectations within competitive environments. As a result, people within these organizations are constantly being challenged to try what has never been done before, whether it’s reinventing corporate culture, teaching in a way that is contradictory to common belief, or creating an architectural masterpiece that has always been regarded as impossible. Whatever the case may be, creative solutions within these organizations typically do not come about through individual effort alone, but emerge as people work together.

Collaboration amongst a group of people allows for a greater number of creative ideas to surface. What’s more, activities such as brainstorming promote coming up with unusual solutions and allowing members to combine and build on the ideas of others. With higher demand for innovation, those in a leadership position must precisely determine how to maximize the creative output within groups or teams in their organization. Consequently, it is important for leaders to have an acute understanding of how individual differences, group dynamics, and cognitive processes affect the creativity of his or her workforce.

To provide some insight into this issue, Michinov et al. (2015) conducted an experiment that examined how social comparison and individual differences in creativity influence creative performance and the attention paid to ideas generated by a partner during a brainstorming session. To test their hypotheses, undergraduate participants were first given a test measuring creativity. Following the assessment, participants began a ten minute brainstorming session, thinking of as many different ways to use a cardboard shoe box as possible. The participant’s responses were assessed by two coders based on quality and quantity. During this session, participants communicated via computer with a confederate who was in the adjacent room while an eye tracker measured their attention. When the partner and confederate introduced themselves to each other electronically, the confederate indicated that they were an Arts (upward comparison) or Science (downward comparison) student. Upward comparison is when an individual compares themselves to someone they perceive as superior and downward comparison is when an individual compares themselves to someone they perceive as inferior. During the brainstorming session, the confederate used 30 prearranged ideas of what the shoe box could be used for (21 common ideas and 9 original ideas). After the brainstorming session, participants were given a post-experimental questionnaire that evaluated if the participant knew their partner’s major (Arts or Science) and if they felt they were more or less creative than their partner.

What the results of this study showed were that high creative participants had higher quality (but not quantity) ideas and increased attention to the ideas of their partner when they perceived their partner to be more creative than themselves (upward comparison). These results were not found to be true when there was downward comparison. For low creative participants, originality of ideas and attention paid to partner ideas were not significantly influenced by the upward or downward conditions.

Indeed, the results of this study may be difficult to generalize to the larger population because the laboratory situation did not truly represent the nature of a real organization. For instance, most organizations brainstorm in groups larger than two and typically do not collaborate solely using a computer in remote locations. It would be beneficial to social psychology to see this work replicated with in-person brainstorming using larger groups. It is also important to note that another limitation that may have altered the interpretation of the results was the absence of a control group.

However, what the findings of this study seem to suggest is that creativity within an organization may be controllable. That is, creative output may be largely dependent upon the organizational leaders’ ability to consciously create upward comparison when hiring individuals and assembling teams. Under these circumstances, creative individuals would be inspired by more creative co-workers and as a result look more lengthily at their co-workers ideas while improving the quality of their own. Therefore, if you are responsible in your organization for coming up with the next big thing, don’t forget about upward comparison, because it may help you and your organization create the unimaginable, just like you did when you were a kid with only your colored pencils, paintbrushes, glue, and scissors.

Michinov, Nicolas, Eric Jarnet, Natacha Métayer, and Benjamin Le Hénaff. “The Eyes of Creativity: Impact of Social Comparison and Individual Creativity on Performance and Attention to Others’ Ideas during Electronic Brainstorming.” Computers in Human Behavior 42 (2015): 57-67. PsycINFO. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.


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Cell Phones: An Obstacle to Learning


It is very well known that electronics can be distracting. Whether it’s a computer in a classroom or a cell phone while driving, when electronics are involved people have a difficult time focusing all of their attentional capacity on the task at hand. It is no wonder that cell phones are supposed to be turned off in classrooms and even in some workplaces. Teachers and bosses want to make sure that everyone can work to their highest ability. But what about just the presence of a cell phone? Even if it is turned off, when it is sitting at your desk staring at you, could that be distracting too?

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Keeping with Gender Roles, Image still Dictates Interest in Women’s Sports

“She’d rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments and complain she’s not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands…. [S]eriously, how else can Serena fill out her size-16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?” said by Jason Whitlock in a 2009 column for fox sports about Serena Williams, the number one ranked women’s singles tennis player in the world. Serena Williams is a world-class athlete and one of the most famous female athletes in the world. You would think her fame comes from the numerous wins she has had, but when you look at the articles written about her, more often than not she is criticized about her weight, her butt, her muscles, and her race. Serena Williams is a perfect example of the paradox that female athletes face, performing at a high level and looking beautiful while doing it.

When women receive attention in the media, their appearance is oftentimes addressed instead of their athletic ability because women’s sports “aren’t as interesting as men’s sports.” The problem is, women face a dichotomy when they play sports, since sports have always been “for men,” getting sweaty, aggressive, and competitive show a masculine side, which people don’t always like to see. Airtime for women is close to nonexistent compared to men’s athletics. Researchers, Amy Jones and Jennifer Greer explored this difference in interest in female sports in a recent paper. They looked at whether the feminine appearance of a female athlete increases audience interest in a news story or the sport they are playing. Jones and Greer tested participants by giving them a short news story about a star athlete (who played volleyball or basketball) and accompanied the news story with a photograph. The photograph was either a feminine or masculine female athlete. The feminine athlete was thin, had sexualized clothing, was in a sexualized pose with a feminine face, and was lightly muscularly toned. The masculine athlete was average to larger in size, looked powerful, wore athletic clothing, had a masculine face, and a high degree of muscular tone. So each participant read a story and saw a photograph about a feminine volleyball player, a masculine volleyball player, a feminine basketball player, or a masculine basketball player. They were then given a questionnaire measuring the interest in the article, the interest in the sport, and the sex typing of the sport.

Jones and Greer found that for either sport those who saw a feminine female athlete had a greater interest in the sport than when viewing a masculine female athlete. Results indicate that for men, feminine appearance in female athletes is linked to greater interest in a story when the female was participating in a stereotypical female sport (a feminine volleyball player). Men reacted negatively when masculine looking athletes participated in feminine sports (a masculine volleyball player). Therefore men prefer for female athletes to maintain a feminine image. Women on the other hand were different; they were less interested in both the article and the sport when feminine athletes played a feminine sport (a feminine volleyball player) and were more interested in the story and sport when feminine athletes were playing basketball.

These results indicate that gender biases are still prevalent in our society and largely dictate how much airtime and interest are given to female sports. This study does have some limitations; there was no baseline for researchers to measure against, so they were only able to compare interest between masculine and feminine conditions. A baseline could have given a better idea of whether people are less interested in watching a masculine athlete play compared to a female athlete who is more neutral looking. This study also is not very generalizable, since the participants were white, largely female, and college aged. It would be intriguing to see if interest would increase or decrease when a wider variety of people were tested.

Despite these limitations, the study still gives us valuable information; women are still fighting against stereotypes, and their sexualized image is still important to their abilities as an athlete. But the fight is long from over; women’s empowerment has become a hot topic. Recent campaigns for example, He for She by Emma Watson, as well as Fast and Female, an organization working to empower young girls to be athletes have both added to the dialogue surrounding women’s empowerment. The fight may be continuing, but hopefully someday we can appreciate women as equals for the qualities, skills, and athletic abilities they possess instead of their image.


Jones, A., & Greer, J. (2011). You Don’t Look Like An Athlete: The Effects Of Feminine Appearance On Audience Perceptions Of Female Athletes And Women’s Sports. Journal Of Sport Behavior, 34, 358-377.

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Do you cheat or are you a cheater? There’s a difference!

How would you feel if someone called you a cheater? What if instead, they told you that you were cheating? Do you think the small alteration in the way they framed the word “cheat” would cause your behavior to change? A recent study suggests that, in fact, it does!

Three psychologists, Christopher Bryan, Gabrielle Adams, and Benoît Monin, recently published a study where they conducted three experiments in order to examine the subtle changes that language can have on our behavior. They suggest that small changes in wording can actually influence behavior by intertwining it with our identity. We all have an innate desire to be looked upon favorably. So, we want the decisions that we make to be positive if they are going to be a reflection of who we truly are. Framing words either as self-relevant or not can influence behavior in a given situation by associating that behavior with the self. Self-relevant nouns are any that refer directly to you or any label you might give yourself, such as winner, teacher, driver, etc. The researchers in this study suggest that assigning the label of a self-relevant noun can actually make you more likely to engage in behavior related to that noun. However, they wanted to see whether attributing negative self-relevant nouns to the self would cause individuals to be less likely to engage in behavior related to the noun.

In the first experiment, participants were told that they were going to engage in a task where they could win $5. Before the task, they were told to read a short set of instructions explaining that the game would be aimed at understanding cheating on college campuses. However, there were two possible sets of instructions that a participant could receive; the first used the word cheat as a verb (i.e. “we’re interested in how common cheating is”) and the second used the word as a self-relevant noun (i.e. “we’re interested in how common cheaters are”). Then, the participants were told to think of a number between 1 and 10. Once they said that they had a number in mind, they were told they would receive $5 if their number was even and nothing if it was odd. The researchers then compared the number of students who said they did indeed think of a even number in these conditions, to the number of students who said they thought of an even number when their was no monetary gain (this was used a baseline to see how often people actually think of an even number). And it did! People who were asked to think of a number between 1 and 10 with no monetary gain did so 19.2% of the time. Similarly, participants who read instructions with the noun “cheater” stated that they thought of an even number 20.8% of the time. This suggests that those in the self-relevant condition were honest. On the other hand, people who received instructions with the verb “cheating” reported thinking of an even number 50.0% of the time. This is over double what those in the “cheater” condition reported! People who were presented with the self-relevant noun were less likely to cheat because they didn’t want the word “cheater” to be associated with their identity.

The researchers conducted two follow up experiments, and found similar results. Participants took an online survey that asked them to flip a coin 10 times and report their results. They were also told that every time they flipped heads, they would win $1. Like the previous study, they were either given instructions with “cheat” as a verb or a self-relevant noun. Additionally, there was one condition where the instructions made no mention of cheating whatsoever. The results from these two experiments found that participants who were presented with instructions using “cheat” as a verb and those who were given instructions with no mention of cheating reported flipping heads significantly more than those in the self-relevant noun condition. These results suggest that even when you tell people not to cheat, they still will just as much as if you hadn’t told them; however, this only occurs if you present cheating as a verb with no relevance to the self. On the other hand, if you relate cheating to the self by using it as a noun, people actually will cheat less – they don’t want their identity of the self to be associated with cheating!

This study illuminates the immense potential that subtle language changes can have on behavior. Public service announcements can be rephrased in ways that may be more effective than they are now. The phrase “Don’t use drugs” can be slightly modified to, “Don’t be a drug user”, and according to this research, that should actually make people use drugs less. So, next time you want to influence someone’s behavior, try a little language manipulation!

Bryan, C. J., Adams, G. S., Monin, B. (2013). When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1001-1005. doi: 10.1037/a0030655

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College Students Give New Meaning to Judging a Book by its Cover

Weren’t these girls ever taught not to judge a book by its cover? Apparently not, according to what sorority members base their choice on who to accept into their house. A study conducted by Krendel et al. of Tufts University suggested that appearance plays a major role in whether girls are offered bids or not (2011). Specifically, Krendel et al. compared the attractiveness of girls with the status of the sorority houses they were accepted into.

It stands true that first impressions are not often swayed, even if this interaction is extremely brief. Previous studies have shown that these initial judgments can actually be quite accurate in predicting the success or competency based solely on appearance (Todorov et al., 2000). This theory speaks to the seemingly superficial ways in which sorority recruitment is conducted.

Membership in a group of high-social status is highly sought due to its exclusivity and ability to increase one’s self-esteem just by belonging to the group. Because past studies have shown us that attractive people are better liked and more socially desirable and perceived to be more intelligent, Krendel et al. expected to find that attractiveness plays a large role in acceptance into high-status sororities.

To conduct their study, the researchers sent e-mails out to all sophomore women in the summer asking if they planned on participating in sorority recruitment and how badly they wanted to be in each of the school’s six sorority houses. Those who replied and gave their consent were then entered into the study. Their pictures were then shown to current members of the six sororities who rated the girls based on how likely they would receive a bid from their sorority and how much they would like the girl (on a scale of 1-4). The current members were then given a questionnaire in which they rated each of the sororities on three items: how much they would personally like to be in that sorority, how much others would like to be in that sorority, and how desirable the men on campus found women of that sorority to be. That fall, the women arrived on campus and rushed the sororities. The PanHellenic Council provided the researchers with data on who received invitations to which sororities after each night of the three nights rushing.

The data was analyzed by assigning the “top three” houses with a “high status ranking” and the “bottom three” houses with a “low status” ranking. The study found that the prospective members that were rated as attractive were more likely to be rated as friendly and as likely to be given a bid for the rater’s sorority in the first round of the study for those in high-status houses. Interestingly, those in low-status houses gave high-expectancy ratings to women who were given low expectancy ratings by those in high-status sororities. This suggests that sorority members in low-status houses may specifically target the girls who they expect will not be given a bid to the high-status houses. Overall, those girls selected by the high-status houses were rated as more attractive than those offered a bid in the low-status houses, suggesting sorority recruitment is highly based on appearance.

Krendel, A.C., Magoon, N.S., Hull, J.G., & Heatherton, T.F. (2011). Judging a book by its cover: the differential impact of attractiveness on predicting one’s acceptance to high- or low-status social groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 41, 2538-2550.

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Can immoral actions lead to healthy eating?

What factors influence healthy eating habits? Do we eat healthy foods just to maintain a well-balanced diet, or is there more to it? I’ll be honest. Although I consider myself a fairly healthy eater (I try to get in as many fruits and veggies a day that I can), when faced with two choices—one healthy like an apple or one unhealthy like a brownie—I do not always run straight for the apple. Maybe it’s because I have a massive sweet tooth. Maybe it’s because I am not as healthy as I think I am. Or maybe something more is going on.

In the world of social psychology, my sweet tooth would not be to blame for choosing the brownie. In a recent study, social psychologists Christian Weibel, Claude Messner, and Adrian Brügger investigated the relationship between morality and food choices. Before reading this article, I was totally unaware that a possible relationship existed between these two things. In the study, the researchers considered the theory of self-licensing—the tendency to compensate for previous moral or immoral actions—and its effect on healthy food choices. This theory explains how a completed moral action tends to heighten one’s “moral self-concept” and therefore, lower ones feeling or need to act morally. In contrast, one tends to compensate for having completed an immoral action by acting more morally in the future. Previous studies have shown how judgments can be made based upon what and how much people eat. These judgments can extend to morality. For example, one study suggested that people rate those who eat non-fattening foods as more moral than those who eat fattening foods. Weibel et al. explored if self-licensing could be applied to choosing healthy food.

In comparison with the self-licensing theory comes the goal theory. The goal theory focuses on intended actions and ultimately suggests that people will tend to act consistently in the future in terms of prior actions. The self-licensing theory, on the other hand, infers that people would be acting inconsistently between actions (i.e. acting immoral and then subsequently eating an apple to compensate for previous behavior). Here we have two conflicting theories! Weibel et al. set out to test both of these theories in their study.

Overall, the researchers conducted two experiments. The first experiment investigated the self-licensing theory and had two groups of participants. One group would recall an altruistic action, while one group would recall an egoistic action. After the recall, the participants would ultimately choose between healthy and unhealthy food choices. In the second study, there was a similar setup, only this time, the researchers examined which food choice participants would make after forming either an altruistic or egoistic behavioral intention for the future. This second study is more goal theory oriented, as the researchers tested whether participants would have consistent behavior with their moral intentions.

Time for results! Overall, Weibel et al. found that recalling one’s past moral or immoral action or stating behavioral intentions of acting morally or immorally can have an impact on how people decide what to consume. For example, in experiment one, the study found that participants who recalled an immoral action more often chose a healthy food option than those recalling a moral action (and vice versa). Additionally, the study suggests in experiment two that participants intending a future immoral action decreased the preference for healthy food options (and vice versa for moral actions). The study ultimately provides evidence for the self-licensing theory only when people have completed moral or immoral actions, but suggests the opposite effect when people state moral or immoral intentions for the future (consistent with the goal theory).

So what does all of this mean? The next time you reach for that brownie, you should try to recall a recently completed immoral action that you have done in hopes you will change your mind and choose the apple. Just kidding. This research does have some implication for food advertisers. For example, advertisers trying to promote the sale of unhealthy foods could improve sales if these foods were linked with some completed moral action. On a slightly different note, future research could investigate how moral primes (for example, pictures of people volunteering) could be used to promote healthy food choices, likewise to the effects of intended moral actions.

Weibel, C., Messner, C., & Brügger, A. (2014). Completed egoism and intended altruism boost healthy food choices. Appetite, 77, 38-45.


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Anchors Have Fear, Knowledge is Here: a report of how knowledge reduces the effects of anchors

We have known for a while now that different anchors, even if completely irrelevant, can influence people’s responses, especially for numeric based ideas. This is in part because once people have a number in their mind, when coming up with a response to a question or problem, they start at that anchor and then adjust from there. However, in situations where they are estimating the answer, there is often a large range of plausible answers. When adjusting, people tend to stop once they reach a plausible answer, meaning that they’ll stop at the lower end of the range if adjusting from below and a higher end if adjusting from above.

Since this anchoring and adjusting effect is so dependent on the range of plausible answers, it seems to make sense that if one had greater knowledge of the topic in question that they would be able to narrow down the possible answers; thus, they would be considering a smaller range, which should result in the anchor having a reduced effect on their response.

However, studies in the past don’t seem to confirm this idea; while there are some that provide evidence for this claim, there are others that refute it as well, and these are the ones that provide the idea that seems to be more universally accepted: knowledge level doesn’t moderate anchoring effects.

The logic behind why it seems like knowledge should influence the effects of anchoring is strong enough though that some people were unhappy with the current conclusions. That is why Andrew Smith, Paul Windschitl, and Kathryn Bruchmann decided to do some farther research into the matter. They conducted three causational or quasi-experimental studies along with one experimental study to explore the relationship between knowledge and anchoring affects. Their results led them to the conclusion they suspected, which contradicts the past-accepted idea that these two variables are unrelated. They found that knowledge level does in fact moderate the extent of the anchoring effects.

In the first three studies, the knowledge level of each participant was not modified; each participant came with their own level of knowledge on the topics being discussed. However, different measures were taken to account for this. For example, in their second study, Smith, Windschitl, and Bruchmann obtained participants from both the US and India, and then asked questions relating to either the US or India. This ensured that each participant answered questions about a topic that they were more knowledgeable about as well as for a topic that they were less familiar with. The results showed that there was a correlation between knowledge level and anchoring effects: the US participants were less affected by the anchors for the questions involving US topics, and the Indian participants were less affected by the anchors for the questions involving the Indian topics.

Since the past evidence contradicts these results, Smith, Windschitl, and Bruchmann also performed an experiment where they manipulated the independent variable (the knowledge level of the participants). This gives them a little bit more control over the situation so that they can try to confirm whether or not there is actually a causal relationship between these two variables. In this experiment, participants were given instructions and information before they took a survey asking them questions about prices for new midsized sedans (these questions contained either high or low anchors). The participants were randomly divided into three groups, and the only difference between each of the groups was the information and instructions provided at the beginning. The first group was given information that was not related to prices of midsized sedans, and simply instructed to look over this information. The second group received information about prices of midsized sedans, but again was only instructed to look over the information. The third group received the same information as the second group, but was asked to study the information, as it would be helpful later on. The important thing to note here is that neither group 1 or group 2 really gain any knowledge on the subject matter; even though group 2 is provided with important information; simply looking over information does not increase their knowledge about it. Therefore group three is the only group with advanced knowledge on the matter. This is important, as the results showed that they were the only group that was somewhat resistant to the anchors provided.

The series of studies performed by Smith, Windschitl, and Bruchmann puts some minds at ease because it provides evidence for what logically made sense: knowledge does in fact decrease the effect of anchors. The results in this series are also capable of explaining how past experiments came to the opposing conclusion, even though it no longer seems to be true.

Smith, A. R., Windschit, P. D., & Bruchmann, K. (2013). Knowledge matters: Anchoring effects are moderated by knowledge level. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43(1), 97-108

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It’s NOT All in Your Head – Here’s How Humans Physically Respond to Suffering

Many of us are familiar with the physical reaction our bodies have when we observe suffering in others. It almost seems as if time stands still – everything slows down including our breathing and heartbeat – when we witness heartache and distress in our fellow humans, even if they are not our close friends or family. It turns out that compassion is not all in the head. Recent studies show that our bodies do have a measurable series of physiological responses to compassion.

The authors of a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored how our bodies react when we are experiencing the emotion compassion. Over the course of four studies, Jennifer E. Stellar, Adam Cohen, Christopher Oveis, and Dacher Keltner induced compassion by having participants watch videos or view slides of others suffering, for example a video of a student discussing her grandfathers death. At the same time they used physiological sensors to measure the participants’ physical responses – including heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA – a measure of vagal activity). The authors found that their participants exhibited higher RSA during compassion induction compared to: (a) a neutral control where no emotion was induced (Study 1), (b) other positive emotions such as pride (Study 2) and (c) other pro-social emotiosn not linked to suffering like inspiration (Study 3). In all of these three studies, the participant’s exhibited increased RSA in the compassion condition of any of the others. The elevated level of RSA was often accompanied by a lower heart rate and respiration but no change in skin conductance. In Study 4, the social psychologists found that a participant’s increase in RSA during compassion positively predicted: (i) continuous self-reports of compassion, (ii) non-verbal displays of compassion and (iii) use of an established composite of compassion-related words.

While many of us may often feel at a loss when witnessing the suffering of others, it turns out that our bodies seem to have a preprogrammed physical reaction that accompanies the onset of compassion. These four recent studies demonstrate that during compassion induction the human body also activates the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system through the vagus nerve. The studies also disprove a previously held social psychology belief that resting RSA could predict emotional reports or physiological responses to compassion. So the natural and very human feeling of compassion (sorrow or concern for the suffering of another person coupled with the desire to alleviate that suffering) contains both a physiological as well as a psychological element. Not only does this important pro-social behavior benefit other people and society as a whole, it seems to also use a negative emotion (suffering) to trigger a positive one (compassion). Suffering is a large part of the human social experience. Many people do not know how to manage the suffering of others. So it is very important to understand out body’s natural reaction. Compassion is very important in a world where suffering is such a large part of the human experience and is perhaps critical to the survival of the human race.

Stellar, J., Cohen, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2015). Affective and Physiological Responses to the Suffering of Others: Compassion and Vagal Activity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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Incest, Theft, and Fraud, Or: How to Kill Your Appetite

It’s a Thursday night and you’re about to flop down on the couch for some much-needed TV time. Before settling in, you grab a quick bowl of ice cream. After enjoying the show for a little while, you realize that your once-frozen dessert has become a melted mixture. We’ve all been there: after watching a disturbing scene on television, suddenly that bowl of ice cream isn’t quite calling our name anymore. Was it seeing a romantic relationship bloom between father and daughter that grossed you out? How about witnessing a couple steal an innocent person’s life savings? Or was it watching a CEO get away with fraudulent practices that caused this visceral feeling of disgust?

Social Psychology scholars Cindy Chan, Leaf Van Boven, Eduardo B. Andrade, and Dan Ariely would say that all of the above scenarios might cause you to put your spoon down. In their report, “Moral violations reduce oral consumption,” the researchers explored this very connection between moral disgust and withdrawal from oral consumption behaviors. More specifically, in three different – but related – experiments they studied behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional responses to exposure of moral violations.

Chan, Van Boven, Andrade, and Ariely’s first study required participants in both the experimental and control conditions to watch a brief clip of an affectionate interaction between an older woman and a younger man. Given that the clip was in a foreign language, participants were either led to believe the relationship to be an incestuous one between mother and son (experimental condition) or a romantic one between an unrelated older woman and younger man (control condition). The researchers gave all participants chocolate milk to drink while watching the clip. Their second study focused on the moral violations of theft and cheating. Participants were separated into four conditions, two of which required them to write a brief story about a taboo activity (either cheating on an exam or stealing a car) and two of which were the control conditions (either writing with a pen on an exam and taking a road trip). Participants were given water to drink while writing their stories. The third and final study dealt with a different kind of moral transgression: fraudulent activities. In the experimental condition, participants listened to a radio story about a bank scandal in which interest rates were manipulated. Participants in the two control conditions either listened to classical music or a radio story about the same bank whose actions were presented as unintentional. All participants were given chocolate milk to drink while listening.

Ultimately, the researchers found evidence in support of their hypothesis that oral consumption is noticeably lower when exposed to a moral transgression. The trio of experiments showed strikingly similar results, demonstrating that the decrease in oral consumption was unconditional on the type of moral violation. Thus, regardless of the violation being incest, theft, or fraud, participants were less likely to indulge in their beverage compared to their control-condition counterparts. And, in case you were wondering, the difference between drinking chocolate milk or drinking water did not seem to influence results.

The fact that mere exposure to a moral violation has been shown to cause a change in behavior – a primal behavior at that – speaks to the sanctity of our social norms. In fact, previous studies confirm that feelings of disgust and feelings of gustatory discomfort often go hand-in-hand (Chan, 382). While I can accept this as a logical connection, I do have one wrinkle to add. While Chan, Van Boven, Andrade, and Ariely’s work is compelling, they kept the participants at bay through a third-person perspective. I wonder if the psychological distance was lessened to, perhaps, a first-person perspective that the degree of withdrawal from oral consumption may be different. After all, human behavior is often irrational and sometimes immoral. And while there may be exceptions, I would have a hard time believing that that mother-son couple hasn’t enjoyed a nice bowl of ice cream on date night.


Chan, C., Van Boven, L., Andrade, E. B., & Ariely, D. (2014). Moral violations reduce oral consumption. Journal Of Consumer Psychology. 24(3), 381-386. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.003

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Visualizing Yourself: How to Make Difficult Decisions

Picture yourself driving your car. You are in the grocery store parking lot and in a bit of a hurry. You are backing out of the parking spot and suddenly you hit the car parked behind you. Looking around, you notice that no one is in the car and no one witnessed you hitting the car. What do you do? No one saw, it’s just a little scratch, and you are in a hurry so driving away and leaving would not be the worse thing ever. However, it also would not take much time to get out, write a quick note, and deal with the details later.

In this experiment, J. Agerström et. al look at situations like these, where one must make a morally complicated situation. They examine whether visualizing a situation in the first-person versus the third-person will help one make a morally just decision.

People tend to view events that directly affect them in the first-person; however, when picturing past events, one will usually visualize it in the third-person. One might do this in order to construe that specific event with more abstract terms. By viewing a situation in broader terms, it should render a person to construe actions that lead to more ideal self. Now, go back to the example above about hitting another car. It would be easy to think in the moment that no one saw you, so it is not a big deal to just drive away. However, if you imagined yourself conducting this action, you should express a higher moral concern. In J. Agerström et. al experiment, they observe how the visual perspective using first and third person affects one’s moral judgment of a situation.

In J. Agerström et. al first experiment, the participants imagined a scenario in which they had to chose to either hire a friend or competent candidate. They were randomly assigned to either visualize this event in the first-person or the third-person. Once they had visualized this activity, they were asked to then judge how “wrong they thought it was to hire their friend instead of the more qualified candidate.” The scale was from one to six– one being not wrong at all and six being very wrong. Afterwards, they rated how well they were able to visualize the scenario on a scale from one to nine – one being poorly and nine being extremely well.

In the results, the experimenters found that if the participant visualized the event in the third-person, they would have harsher moral judgments. Thus, suggesting that using a third-person perspective better allows the participant to see the wrong in moral decisions.

In experiment two, instead of looking at the effect of visual perspective on moral judgments, the observers looked at how the visual perspective influenced the participants. The participants were asked to envision themselves, in either the first or third person, dumping trash instead of recycling it because the weather was bad. The participants were then asked whether they thought ‘throwing away trash in a sloppy matter’ better represented the action or if ‘lacking respect for the environment’ was better. The first action, a low-level description, refers to how the action is done and the second action, a high-level description, refers to why. After choosing one of these rates, the participants then rated the severity of their action on a scale of one to nine– one being not severe and nine being extremely severe.

The results of experiment 2 were similar to the first in that those who imagined themselves in the third-person construed the event in high-level terms rather than low-level as well as judged the event (not recycling) as more severe.

Therefore, if you were to back into someone’s car, or found yourself in any morally challenging situation, picture yourself actually committing that action. Based on the conclusions of this study, if you did this, then you have a higher chance of harshly judging yourself, and therefore would be more likely to make the better decision.


Agerström, J., Björklund, F., & Carlsson, R. (2013). Look at yourself! Visual perspective influences moral judgment by level of mental construal. Social Psychology, 44(1), 42-46. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000100

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Leave it up to fate? A study of moral actions and why we lie about being good.

Who do we do good for, huh? Can sense the “right thing to do” on an existential, foundationally human level? Does it just feel good knowing the “right” thing was done? Are we doing it for ourselves, proving we are good moral people? Are we being “moral” because society has deemed certain behaviours moral and desirable, and that sounds like it has a lot of perks? What is it that motivates ethical actions? Better yet, what motivates us to be unethical in spite of it all?

In 1997, Batson and colleagues started on a journey, a series of studies designed to try and determine why we behave morally. Are we doing it for our own moral integrity, or are we showing off? The results brought up an interesting question: How aware are people of their own hypocrisy? When we perform immoral actions, are we sinisterly aware of our deeds or are we tricking ourselves into thinking it’s justified?

Ever seen a mirror placed behind the counter at a bar? Well there’s a reason for it other than letting you fix your hair, it’s actually to prevent people from stealing drinks. Could you do it? Could you look your reflection in the eye, asking yourself if you can go through with what you’re about to do, and pour yourself a drink when the bartender is looking the other way? Batson and colleagues had done this with their subjects, and they found that forcing people to see what they were doing gave enough pause that they bailed out on it. So, this must prove that moral hypocrisy happens because we aren’t thinking about what we’re doing; this must prove that we deceive ourselves into a state of ignorance, right?

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On bad apples, bunches, and trickle-down morality

I’ve never been a huge fan of the old cliché that one bad apple spoils the entire bunch. Going by the actual phenomenon on which the saying is based (the ethylene gas apples release as they ripen stimulates ripening in nearby apples, thus hastening their eventual decay), the metaphor seems inapt when applied to human behavior. The implication is that one person’s flawed moral character irrevocably contaminates the character of those nearby. My quibble isn’t with its treatment of the power of social influence—the history of research in Social Psychology is nothing if not riddled with examples of corrupting social influences—but rather with the insinuation that these new moral flaws are permanent, that the same principle couldn’t work in reverse to improve moral character.

Then again, perhaps the saying is not meant to reflect the belief that moral violators corrupt those around them, but rather the inference that anyone who associates with a moral violator must also possess the same fundamental moral flaws. Indeed, recent work has shown that we treat those with a genetic relationship with a moral transgressor no differently than the person who actually committed the crime.

This raises an interesting, and perhaps terrifying, question: could even a loose association with someone who committed a crime, such as a co-worker, contaminate me in the eyes of others?
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