Come see PsySociety at its new home!

As many of you have likely realized by now…we’ve moved!

PsySociety has officially transitioned over to the new Scientific American MIND blog network. Launched just last month, the MIND network now features all of the brain- and psych-related blogs from the original Scientific American network, plus six brand new blogs — Scott Barry Kaufman at Beautiful Minds, Julie Hecht at Dog Spies, Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde at Illusion Chasers, Adam Waytz and Jamil Zaki at The Moral Universe, Felicity Muth at Not Bad Science, and yours truly at the new PsySociety!

I hope you will update your RSS feeds and bookmarks so you can follow PsySociety at its new digs. In the meantime, I intend to use this site as a repository for links to posts at the new site (and anywhere else where my writing might appear), so people who would like to use the e-mail signup function on this page can still continue to do so!

Again, I do hope that you will continue to read, comment on, and enjoy PsySociety over at the new Scientific American MIND network:

See you there!

New APS replication initiative aims to open the file drawer, heralding a positive step for psychological science.

During the past couple of years, psychological science has been in the midst of a PR disaster. Academics have publicly announced that they failed to replicate some of the most classic findings in our field, bringing the original effects themselves — and often the integrity of the original researchers reporting them — into question. These pronouncements and subsequent push to estimate the true effect sizes of various findings led to the even more disturbing realization that it is far too difficult to publish these failed replications — or successful replications, for that matter — in the peer-reviewed, academic journals that serve as our bread and butter.

A new initiative, backed by the Association for Psychological Science and co-headed by Dr. Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney, is ripping the dirty laundry  that’s been airing in public for the past two years off of the clothesline and finally giving it the good, thorough cleaning that it has so desperately needed. This initiative aims to make rigorous replication a rewarding and beneficial aspect of a productive scientific career by establishing a special section dedicated to publishing replications in one of the top journals in our field, Perspectives on Psychological Science (one of the official journals of the Association for Psychological Science).

Psychologists have been calling for a widespread replication effort for years. However, there are several good reasons why this initiative is the first that truly has the gleaming possibility of revitalizing our field.

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Persuading the Unpersuadable: Pre-Session Post

I’m blogging today from ScienceOnline, the annual science bloggers’ conference in Raleigh, NC.

Today I will actually be co-moderating a session (streaming live at the ScienceOnlineLive website at 4:00 EST!) with HuffPost senior science correspondent Cara Santa Maria. Our session is titled “Persuading the Unpersuadable: Communicating Science to Deniers, Cynics, and Trolls.” I will be writing a longer post after the session with some more information about what is discussed, but I encourage everyone to follow along on Twitter using the ScienceOnline hashtag (#scio13) and the specific hashtag for our session (#TrollTalk).

Within the session, I will be mentioning some specific “Persuasion Tricks” (aka “Jedi Mind Tricks”) from the social psychology literature that can help us sneak our message into some skeptical minds. As Cara and I are really hoping to limit the amount of “lecturing” that we do and keep the focus on discussion/conversation, I will not be going into as much detail as I could during the session. Rather, I’m going to be directing folks to this page at the beginning of the session (hello, participants!) so this page can be used as a quick reference for what I will be talking about.

Here are the main points that I’d like to touch on:

1. The Sleeper Effect. If you hear a message coming from a source that you don’t trust, you’ll discount the message and you won’t take it seriously or believe it. However, if you don’t know what the source is when you first receive the message, and you only get the source information after, you will still think the message is bad when you receive it. But over time, the “message” will become dissociated from the “source,” and you will forget over time that the message came from the untrustworthy source. As a result, even if you reject the message at first, it will become more persuasive over time if you find out about the source after receiving the message. This can be used to your benefit if you know that you are dealing with a community that specifically distrusts scientists. As science communicators, we tend to think that attributing things to “science” or “researchers” makes them more credible, but this won’t be the case for science skeptics. If you opt instead to relay the information before citing the source, you might find the message sinking into this audience more over time.

See also:

Kumkale, G.T. & Albarracín, D. (2004). The Sleeper Effect in Persuasion: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, pp. 143–172.

2. Fear Appeals (or, be careful about your attack strategy). Generally, scare tactics actually do work – so if you are trying to get an impassioned message across, emphasizing things like how severe a threat is and how susceptible people are to it can work really well. However, research on fear appeals suggests that there are two crucial things that you absolutely must keep in mind. (1) Make sure you include an efficacy message – don’t just scare people, tell them what they can do about it to help them cope. (2) Fear tends to backfire when the thing you are “scaring” people about is really personally relevant to them. If something is really personal to somebody (e.g. it’s a core moral value or a deeply personal topic for them), don’t try to scare your message into them. It will engage defensive reactions, and it will likely backfire, either having no effect or possibly leading people to go even further to the opposite extreme.

See also:

Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27, 591–615.

3. The Foot-In-The-Door Effect. As any good salesman could tell you, if you’re trying to get someone to agree to something big, start small and gradually raise the stakes. Once you get someone to agree to a small, easy request, they’re more and more likely to continue agreeing to successively larger requests. If you know that you’re trying to convey a message that will be difficult to swallow, start small – don’t plop the big message right there in the lede. Start off with messages that you know any audience will support, and build from there. You’re more likely to “ease” your audience into agreeing with you.

See also:

Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S.C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

4. Social Proof (or Informational Social Influence). As anyone who has been to high school can tell you, people are incredibly susceptible to the power of social norms. We often look to others as a metric for what we should do, both informationally (what is correct) and normatively (what is accepted/valued). In fact, descriptive norms (what people do) are often more influential than prescriptive norms (what people SHOULD do). With this in mind, you can use the power of descriptive norms (e.g. simply stating what people typically do) in order to subtly communicate the value of your point. For example, saying that “most people indicate that they believe in climate change” should make people more likely to believe that statement, without you having to overtly state that they *should* believe it. We may also get into possible implications that this has for the tone of an article’s comments section.

See also:

Cialdini, R.B. & Goldstein, N.J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.

I will be back with a more detailed post on each of these four points after the session, with descriptions of relevant studies and more details about what was discussed in our session. Stay tuned to #scio13 and #TrollTalk in the meantime!

Being a “doer” vs. a “thinker,” and where you’ll go for New Orleans beignets.

When I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday to attend the annual SPSP conference, everyone told me that I must immediately go to Cafe du Monde to eat beignets and drink cafe au lait.

Once I did get to Cafe du Monde, imagine my surprise to discover two things. First of all, it was not the easy “walk in, order beignets, enjoy” process that I was delusionally expecting. Secondly, I soon discovered that cafe au lait and beignets were, in fact, the only things that they had on the menu.

There’s no doubt that Cafe du Monde is renowned for their beignets. But let’s imagine for a second that there were a Starbucks right down the street, and this Starbucks had managed to create incredible beignets as well. If you were coming to New Orleans and wanted to enjoy a midday pastry with some friends, where should your group decide to go?

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Just because it’s “moral” doesn’t mean it’s “right.”


“I don’t always think about morality…but when I do, I think Dick Cheney.”

Thus opened Peter Ditto’s talk at the SPSP Political Psychology pre-conference, greeted with a laugh from a largely-left-leaning audience. Yet as Ditto continued speaking, it became clear what he meant. When it comes to social issues, Dick Cheney is right-leaning on almost every single one…except gay marriage. This exception is seemingly entirely due to his emotional connection with his daughter, a happily-married lesbian. Ditto asserts that this political anecdote exemplifies an important empirical point: Our political beliefs are often swayed by our emotions.

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Should you tell Facebook about your resolutions?

Now that you’ve set your difficult, specific, and attainable resolutions for 2013, should you tell people about your plans?

Before you update your Facebook status proclaiming your intention to lose 15 pounds, run a marathon, or publish 20 papers, you should think about your reasons for broadcasting your plans to the world. If you’re thinking about this public commitment the wrong way, you might be setting yourself up for disaster.

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Set SMART resolutions in 2013!

Many people around the world woke up this morning with a renewed determination to tackle a long list of resolutions. But as we head into 2013, it’s worth noting that some of these resolutions will be better than others. Psychological research on goals can clue us in to which resolutions will be more likely to end in success, and which will probably end up flopping before the snow even melts.

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Why I Will Not Be Writing About Newtown

I’m not the type of person who shies away from sensitive topics. I like to think that I do a fairly good job of being appropriate when I know that I’m dealing with a particularly difficult or controversial issue. So when something like the Newtown massacre happens, a lot of people — including myself — think that this seems exactly like the sort of thing that I should be addressing in my blog. Finding ways to tie timely current events to psychological research is essentially the very mission statement of this blog, after all.

I’m writing this to explain why I’m not going to be writing about what happened in Newtown here. Or anywhere.

My Intro Social Psych students could tell you that I’m very fond of following up every discussion of a theory or experiment by quickly saying, “Well, it’s not actually that simple, really.” Most students hate this. Eager undergrads often sign up for Social Psychology hoping to get all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything over the course of just a few months – they want to understand why people are the way that they are, why people make the decisions that they make, why people do the things that they do. And, in a lot of ways, social psych theories — and the researchers who create them – do want to explain it all. Many of them are even quick to claim that their theories actually do just that.

But they can’t. Not really.

Every theory comes with caveats. With moderators. With individual differences. With contextual conditions that must be satisfied. With exceptions. And with nuance.

Just as people who come into my class wanting “explain-it-all theories” usually leave feeling disappointed, many people who have been searching for answers about the Newtown tragedy have found themselves coming up short as well. Why do people feel the way that they do about gun control or the right to bear arms? When faced with an insurmountable trauma or personal tragedy, how do we cope? How do we find resilience? How do we move on?

Why would someone walk into an elementary school and savagely murder dozens of innocent children? And how can we stop this from happening again?

These are the questions for which we desperately want to find the answers right now. What I often find myself doing on this blog is, in some way, providing those types of explanations that people so often crave. I know that many times, the things that I write are simplistic – of course, I can’t actually explain everything that happens in the world using academic theories and single-sample laboratory studies. It would be ridiculous to think that I could. But, in some small way, I like to think I’m providing an explanation for some things. Some part of things.

But this time, I can’t. I can’t sit here and honestly attempt to tell you that I have any sort of an answer or explanation for anything that has to do with Newtown. And I’ve tried. I’ve sat down so many times over the past few days and tried to write something about compassion. About empathy. About dealing with trauma. About mental illness. About resilience. About a search for meaning in a world that seems unpredictable and frightening. Yet no matter how much I tried to write about these things, the words never came. I could not think of any study or theory that would even come close to being an acceptable reference. My mind was blank. I couldn’t find a single thing that felt remotely helpful – or even appropriate – to say.

That’s not to say that other writers haven’t found meaningful, important things to say in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Take Emily Willingham’s wonderful piece on the dangers of conflating autism with violent tendencies, or Amanda Marcotte’s piece on the problem with our pro-gun culture. Other writers have had stunning, beautiful insights into small parts of this tragedy and, put together, these parts have come together to form a complex, nuanced, and multifaceted view of a horrific event. It’s just that this time, I won’t – I can’t – be one of those people.

Every scientist and every science writer is, first and foremost, also a human being. We feel scared and confused. We feel emotional. Even in a profession requiring the ability to consistently find the right words to say, they will still sometimes escape us — and we know that no matter how hard we look, we will never find them. They will simply never come.

Social psychology can be a truly amazing discipline. It helps us understand the world around us. It helps us understand why people do the things that they do. But it can’t give us the answer to everything, and it certainly can’t give us a black-and-white answer for this. For example, what could I really have written about how people deal with unimaginable trauma? Some will benefit by trying to imbue what has happened to them with a sense of meaning or greater purpose. Some people will feel offended and belittled by this approach. Some people will respond to this tragedy with compassion and care. Some will respond with aggression and anger. Some will appreciate insights based on logic and reason. Others will only appreciate a shoulder to cry on. I can’t tell you what psychology “says” about this tragedy, because there is no one, all-encompassing, singular thing that psychology says about this tragedy — to pretend otherwise would be presumptuous and irresponsible.

The only thing I know right now is that it’s complicated. The only thing I know is that nothing I can ever possibly say on this small, silly corner of the Internet will bring those babies and those selfless teachers back. Nothing I could ever say would ever come close to explaining why something this unconscionable has happened, and nothing I could ever say would give everyone who reads it a sense of peace, or even a sense of true understanding.

That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to try. Not this time.

Stocking Stuffers For The PsycHoliday Season


stockingsIf there are four things that people tend to have on their minds during the holiday season, it’s a) saving money, b) friends & family, c) the “holiday spirit,” and d) finding the perfect gift for everyone on their lists.

With this in mind, why not step out of the box when it comes to this year’s stocking stuffers? More specifically, why fill others’ stockings with material gifts when, instead, you can use your stockings to forge better, stronger relationships?

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Did you vote? Wear your sticker! Update your status! Send all the tweets!

Many polls are still open, meaning it’s not too late to encourage your friends and family to get out and rock the vote!
Yesterday I mentioned that using channel factors to make voting seem easy and convenient can increase voter turnout.
Know what else can? Norms! Especially when you use the right kinds of norms.
There are two types of norms – descriptive and prescriptive. Prescriptive norms are what society says you should do (like telling your friends that they should vote, or that voting is the “right thing” to do). Descriptive norms, on the other hand, simply describe what people actually do, like merely saying that the majority of people that you know have voted. 
As it turns out, people are remarkably sensitive to descriptive norms – sometimes even moreso than norms that try to provide moral or societal guidance. Simply telling people what other people actually do, even without explicitly saying that the target person should do that thing as well, can be a surprisingly strong motivator.
Take hotel rooms, for example. Have you been in a hotel room recently? Have you seen those little cards encouraging you to be green and re-use your towels? In one study looking at norms, Noah Goldstein and colleagues tried out different  towel-reuse-cards to see which one would work the best. Each guest at a certain hotel either saw a “Please Reuse Your Towel” card with no normative information, a card mentioning that the “majority of past guests at this hotel have reused their towels,” or an even more specific card mentioning that “the majority of past guests who stayed in this room have reused their towels.” The researchers found that the more specific the normative information, the more likely the guests were to reuse their towels themselves. Telling people that the majority of past guests who stayed in that room reused their towels had an especially strong effect on their likelihood of reusing the towels themselves.
That’s fine and all, but can they really work better than prescriptive norms?
Sure they can. In a different study, Robert Cialdini was trying to combat a big problem in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Many people would visit this park and then take the petrified wood from the forest with them after they visited, as a sort of souvenir…but this small action, multipled by thousands of visitors, had a dramatically negative effect on the local ecosystem. Cialdini had to find a way to get people to stop taking the wood with them.
So what did he do? He placed different norm-based signs in the forest. The sign either used prescriptive norms to tell people what they should do (e.g. “Please don’t take the wood from the forest”) or they used descriptive norms to tell people what others actually do, either telling the truth (“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”) or lying (“The vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, preserving the natural state of the Petrified Forest”). In this situation, prescriptive norms worked the best, but the next-best option was the descriptive norm telling people that most other visitors do not take the wood. When people saw the descriptive norm stating that most people take the wood, even though the point of this message was to show how damaging this is, they were significantly more likely to take the wood themselves — because everyone else was doing it. When they saw the descriptive norm saying that most people don’t take the wood, however, it discouraged from taking the wood because doing so would have made them different. 
The researchers conclude that when it comes to getting people not to do something (e.g. “Don’t take the wood!”), prescriptive norms work best. However, when you are trying to get people to act, it’s actually more effective to send out an “Everybody’s doing it!” descriptive norm, which will encourage people to fit themselves into the norm.
What does this tell us about voting? Since you are trying to get people to do something (not avoid doing something), set strong, positive descriptive norms! Wear your “I Voted” stickers, tweet that you voted, update your Facebook status, and encourage everyone to broadcast the simple fact that they voted to the world! Setting a strong descriptive norm by making it clear that the majority of people are voting is the most effective way to use norm-based compliance to get people out to the polls – it should be even more effective than prescriptive norms stating that it’s what they should be doing. It also helps if these descriptive norms are as specific as possible – knowing that most other people in your age group, sorority/fraternity, neighborhood, club, school, whatever have voted can make the norm more powerful, just like the hotel room norms with the towels. And whatever you do, do NOT accidentally set a descriptive norm saying that most members of someone’s group do not vote (e.g. by saying something like, “Most young people don’t vote! You should go be a leader and let your voice be heard!”) Even though it sounds inspiring, a descriptive norm like that can backfire — BIG time.
So slap on that sticker, be a loudmouth, and set some good, strong descriptive norms! You have a few hours left to let people know that everyone’s doin’ it!

Goldstein, N., Cialdini, R., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (3), 472-482 DOI: 10.1086/586910
Cialdini, R., Demaine, L., Sagarin, B., Barrett, D., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact Social Influence, 1 (1), 3-15 DOI: 10.1080/15534510500181459