decisions


Tomorrow, March 27, 2010, hundreds of millions of people on all seven continents will use no electricity between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, their time. “Earth Hour,”  is an annual “action against global warming” event that started in Australia, four years ago.

At first I thought it was silly–a drop in the bucket–but I’ve decided I’m going to do it. This is why:

1) I think it will be nice to turn everything off for an hour. I always love it when the power goes out. It’s relaxing.

2) I like that it is a global event. I like things that encourage people to think globally. Yes, this event could be a bit of an ego-stoker or guilt-assuager, but overall I imagine it stands to reduce ego-centrism in participants, a little less focused on ourselves, a little more focused on everything else.

3) There is good evidence in social psychology that token acts like this can be a gateway to real political action. People who participate may come to think of themselves as someone who takes action about global warming, like voting or spending money differently.

4) I think that global climate change may well be the biggest challenge humans face in the next several generations. The people I know who think the most about it are divided into two camps. One group prioritizes amelioration: If we act quickly and dramatically, we can keep things from getting out of control. The second prioritizes adaptation. These folks say that we’re just now experiencing the effects of the beginning of the industrial revolution, over a hundred years ago, and anything we do now may help our ancestors, should they come to exist, but not us. They say it’s time to start figuring out how at least some of us can survive the coming incredibly harsh conditions. There is a third group, of course, who are ideologically immune to the idea of catastrophic climate change. If they are right, hooray! I’ve yet to come across one who seemed knowledgeable about complex-system behavior, though. (Can anyone point me to one?)

While I’m on the topic of climate change, my favorite lectures on the subject are two of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking: John Baez’ “Zooming Out In Time” and Saul Griffith’s “Climate Change Recalculated.” They are worth checking out.

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Here’s part 5 of the stuff I learned in my undergrad in psychology that I thought should have been headlines. If you missed them, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4. As always, if you are interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll give you my sources.

If You Punish Your Kids, Use the Mildest Effective Punishment: Do the mildest thing you can that stops the behavior you don’t want. The reason is that a punishment that is harsher than necessary takes the child’s initiative for stopping the behavior out of the picture. If you say “Hey, don’t do that,” and the child responds, they come to think that they didn’t really want to do that thing anyway, since such a mild rebuke got them to stop. Psychologists call these principles “insufficient punishment” and “self-persuasion.” These are research findings, not just speculation. If you sit on and beat your child to get them to stop doing something (as suggested by Mike & Debi Pearl), they will believe something more like “That activity was so great that I’ve only stopped because of that horrible punishment.” In other words, the form of the punishment affects the identity of the child–do they behave well because they think of themselves as well-behaved, or do they behave well only because they fear punishment?

You May Want Your Kids To Be Less Blindly Obedient Than Most People: One of the most famous psychological experiments of all time found that most people risked killing someone they barely knew, given an institutional setting and an authority telling them to do it. The Nazis were mostly not evil, just obedient, like most of us.

Humans Can Be Conformist to the Point of Doubting Their Own Senses:

Each Ethical Decision You Make Affects Your Future Ethical Decisions and Your Identity: If you, say, decide to cheat on a test, you will be more likely to cheat on tests in the future, think of yourself as someone who cheats on tests, and form permissive attitudes about cheating. The opposite is true if you decide not to cheat on a test.

Complement Your Kids For the How Hard They Work, Not How Smart They Are: Getting attention for being smart tends to make kids want to appear smart, which makes them choose easier challenges and lighter competition; it’s the success that matters. Getting attention for hard work does the opposite. This means that these kids will end up smarter than the kids who got attention for being smart.

Teach Your Kids to Think About Intelligence as a Fluid Property: That is, teach them that they can become more intelligent by trying. The more they believe it, the more it will be true for them.

If Your Kids Read, Don’t Reward Them For Reading: They will be more likely to stop, if you do, because they will start to think of reading as something they do to be rewarded, not because they like it. If they don’t read, reward them for reading. This goes for other activities, too.

Here’s part 2. (And if you missed it, here’s part 1.) Again, if you are either interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll point you to the evidence.

Statistically, Divorce is Not a Good Strategy for Getting a Better Marriage: 50 to 67% of first marriages end in divorce. 60 to 77% of second marriages end in divorce.

Your Brain Has Trouble Giving Information About Probabilities Due Weight, So Pay Attention to Base Rates: We have trouble taking the actual prevalence of events into account when making decisions. For example, people tend to be more afraid of dying in a plane crash (lifetime chance: 1 in 20,000) than dying in a car wreck (lifetime chance: 1 in 100) or even of a heart attack (lifetime chance: 1 in 5). One reason for this is that we confuse the ease with which we can think of an example to be an indication of how likely something is. Try this: What do you think is more common, words beginning with “r” or words with “r” as the third letter?

If You Test Positive For a Very Rare Disease, You Still Probably Do Not Have That Disease: This is a headline that should come from medicine, not psychology, but psychologists are better at probability than doctors, who are no better than laypeople, at least when it comes to thinking about this: Even with a very accurate test, if a disease is very rare, a positive result is still much more likely to be a false positive than an accurate positive. I’m going to explain this, but if you don’t get it, don’t worry. Just remember the headline. It’s true.

The table below shows a hypothetical situation with super-round numbers to make it easier to get. You have gotten positive results on a test that is 99% accurate for a disease that occurs only once in 10,000 people. Most people figure they are 99% likely to have the disease. They are wrong:

Test Results
Disease Present? Test Results Positive Test Results Negative Row Totals
Disease Present 99 1 100
Disease Not Present 9,999 989,901 999,900
Column Totals 10,098 989,902 1,000,000

Since your test results are positive, you are somewhere in the left-hand column. You are either one of the 99 who both have the disease and whose test results are positive, called “hits,” or one of the 9,999 who do not have the disease but whose test results are positive, called “false positives.” As you may see, even though your test results are positive, you still are 99% likely to be a false positive and not a hit, simply because the disease is so rare.

Yes, this is counter-intuitive. That’s why it’s important. And that’s why statistics are important. Again, if you don’t understand, don’t worry. If you don’t believe it, though, come up with a specific question, leave it as a comment, and I’ll answer it.

If You Need Help, Ask Someone Specific for Something Specific: Bystanders generally do not help people who are in trouble. The bigger the crowd, the less likely someone will help. It’s not because they are bad or lazy. It’s a specific kind of well-documented confusion. Kind of like in the clip below. What you need to know is, if you need help, even if it seems like it should be completely obvious to anyone around, like you’re having a heart attack, falling to the ground, gasping, whatever, point to a specific person and give them specific instructions: “You, in the red shirt. I’m having a heart attack. Call an ambulance.” Do not assume anything will happen that you did not specifically ask for. A corollary of this headline is, if you think someone might be in trouble, don’t assume they would ask you for help, and don’t assume someone else is helping them. Help them yourself. It could mean the difference between them living or dying.

Get Help For Your Marriage When the Trouble Starts (Or Before): On average, couples wait 6 years after their marriage is in trouble to get help. The average marriages last 7 years. That means that most people who come to couples counseling are deeply entrenched in problems that would have been relatively easy to resolve earlier. It is not uncommon for a couple to come in to counseling with a covert agenda to use the counselor to make their inevitable divorce easier. We can do this, but believe me we’d much rather meet you earlier and help you stay together! Also, I’m not joking about “or before.” Couples counselors are well-trained to give “tune-ups” to couples who are doing well. It’s a good idea.

Anger Is Not Destructive of Relationships, Contempt and Defensiveness Are: Everybody argues. Everybody screws up their communications. It’s the ability to repair things that is the key, and contempt and defensiveness get in the way of that.

Going though my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was often surprised about information that was well known by the field that should have hit the headlines but never made a dent. In the end it was one of my reasons for going into therapy instead of experimental psychology. At one point I asked my social psychology teacher for an example of basic social psych research that had had a real impact on mainstream society. He could not give me one. I know that basic research is done to find stuff out, not to directly help people, and I support that. I also know that psychology is a baby science, and tackling a very complex set of phenomena, and doing a pretty good job. Still, I was disappointed. It is too bad, because a lot of useful and sometimes very important stuff has been discovered by experimental psychologists, and it is mostly just ignored.

Here are a few things I came across in my classes and reading that I thought should have been mainstream headlines. If you are interested in references, leave a comment and I will get them to you.

It Is Important to Talk to Your Baby, Even in the Womb: Your baby can hear and recognize your voice in your womb, is already learning your language, and wants to hear your voice.

It Is Important to Sleep With Your Baby: Babies are not born fully self-regulating. One way this shows up is that babies do not breath out enough carbon dioxide–sleeping with parents provides them with a pool of carbon dioxide that keeps the baby breathing deeply enough. Another benefit is that their 90 minute hunger cycle (waking and nursing each 90 minutes) helps establish their 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which they are not born with, and also keeps them from getting into deep, delta wave sleep, which is dangerous for babies because they can stop breathing.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Decisions: Your brain has mechanisms to ensure that you will think you made the right decision, regardless of what you decide. This can be undermined, however, by thinking of reasons for your decision before you make it. In many cases, your coming-up-with-reasons ability can get in the way of your decision-making ability. As long as you get all the relevant information, you may have a better chance making a good decision without deliberation.

It Works to Ask People to Watch Your Stuff: People who you do not specifically ask to watch your stuff will do nothing while your stuff is stolen. People who you do ask, will go to great lengths to keep your stuff from being stolen.

The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane: The methods of this study were not well laid out, so I do not know how strong this evidence is, but it was quite clever. Normal people got admitted into mental hospitals by saying they had heard a voice say the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Other than that they behaved as usual. None were discovered to be sane by the staff, no matter how long they stayed hospitalized.

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