Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Blame Game

Representative Eric J. Massa of New York is lashing out at the Democratic Party. Last week Massa announced his retirement citing the return of cancer as the reason for the departure, but also leaves amidst a sexual harassment charge from a male aide. In a later radio interview Massa claimed Democratic Party leaders drove him out of office because he did not support health care legislation although the party has dismissed Massa’s assertions.

Given the changing reasons for his retirement blaming his Party could just be an excuse or an attempt to mask the scandal surrounding him. New work on blame and excuse making adds a formerly unstudied dimension to the study of interpersonal relations: locus of control. Wang and Anderson (2006) studied internals and externals asking them to judge excuses and assign blame. They found that externals tended to use excuses more and assigned less blame for cases of cheating and lying relative to internals. Externals also assigned more blame to others and less to themselves and were more sensitive to being blamed.  Making excuses then may be less a calculated effort to shift blame and more a result of one’s general outlook on the social world.

Excuse-making and blaming as a function of internal – external locus of control

House Democrat Says Party Drove Him From Office

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The month of March is upon us, and chances are you’ve already fallen victim to false-hope syndrome – yet again.

According to Human Kinetics, the premier publisher for sports and fitness, almost 50% of people who made New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get into shape stopped going to the gym by March 1st. MSNBC quotes an even higher statistic: Whereas health clubs are packed in January, they say, more than 75% of newbies will have called it quits by the end of March.

And yet every year, we typically make the very same resolution: to go the gym, lose weight, tone up, get healthy, and then some – even though most of us repeatedly fail by March (and that’s if we’re relatively persistent). Psychologists Polivy and Herman (2000) have coined the term “false-hope syndrome” to refer to this phenomenon best manifested by attempted and broken New Year’s resolutions. They say that individuals persist in attempting to change themselves despite repeated failure due to an overconfidence that includes feelings of control and optimism (e.g., the twin beliefs that losing weight is easy and fast), and expectations for an unrealistically high payoff from triumphant self-change (e.g., the assumption that changes in weight loss will catalyze major rewards in other, unrelated areas of life). Inevitably, when such unrealistic expectations are not met, individuals often experience disappointment, discouragement, and the perception of oneself as a failure. As these negative emotions build, a sort of Catch-22 results, such that the self-control required for eventual success falters and behavior spirals out of control.

Researchers therefore advise that, in order to create real hope (instead of false hope), we must be accurate in our initial assessments of the difficulty of self-change, commit to realistic goals and expectations, and hone a set of coping skills that build resiliency in the face of normal setbacks. So, with regards to the gym, for starters – get back in there! Understand that weight loss and getting healthy will not happen overnight and instead of shooting for a giant amount of pounds lost, set smaller, more attainable goals (i.e., eating a salad at lunch, running one mile tonight), and strive to attain a few each week. Moreover, if you miss a goal or fall short of an expectation – a minor failure should not set you completely off-track. Give yourself a little pep talk and tell yourself you won’t become a March 1st fitness statistic.

Don’t become a March 1st fitness statistic

Flipping the switch is only the first step

The False-Hope Syndrome: Unfulfilled expectations of self-change

The Tories and persuasion

The recent Conservative pre-election poster campaign ‘I’ve never voted Tory before…’ provides an interesting example of the three variables that interact in the persuasion process. That is, the communicator (source), the communication (message) and the audience (receiver) (Duck, Hogg & Terry, 2000).

Showing Ian the mechanic from Congleton in the poster immediately tells us that the target audience is men who are manual workers. The slogan is ‘I’ve never voted Tory before…’ also tells us that this cohort does not typically vote Tory. So how are the Tories attempting to persuade this group of non-traditional Tory voters?

Social psychologists have found that people are more likely to be influenced by communicators who are attractive (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969) good communicators (Miller et al., 1976) and by peers and others who are similar (Triandis, 1971). Arguably Ian is attractive, similar to the target audience and by the written words, he communicates well. These variables on their own however, are unlikely to be persuasive enough to change the attitude of the target audience without a strong message.

Allyn & Festinger, (1961) suggest that simple messages are more effective than complex ones. The message being communicated by the poster can be read as – The Tories are the party to sort out the economy and therefore provide work. What is also interesting is how fear can be used to as a tool to persuade (Leventhal et al., 1965). Implied also in the message here is that not voting Tory risks leaving the economy in a mess and threatening jobs. The effectiveness of such subtle forms of persuasion however, will be measured in the ballot box.

Ian from Congleton’s story

Conservative Party billboards hit again by online spoofers


Persuasive arguments theory

Misery: The Cause of the Economic Recession?

A 2009 New York Times article described how before the economic recession people would not hesitate to enjoy a “momentary pleasure–$4 lattes…lip gloss, [or] mints”, for example. Presently people have to go without those pleasures due to economic factors. A rather simple traditional explanation for the economic recession is that people were perhaps having too much fun buying, borrowing, selling etc. When describing the pre-economic recession behavior the emphasis is usually on the emotion of enjoyment that drives the behavior. Now, during the recession people are described as fearful and will spend less, which is expected since there is a degree of uncertainty, the reporter writes.

An alternative explanation is that a collective sense of misery or sadness and being self-focused caused individuals to spend more leading to the present economic recession. In fact, in a laboratory experiment individuals who were primed with sadness and self-focus tended to sell items at a lower price and buy at a higher price (Cryder et al., 2008; Lerner et al., 2004).  Researchers argued that participants, feeling down, wanted to enhance the way they felt and as a result gave a higher value to the object purchased. For the opposite effect, Lerner et al., (2004) primed participants with disgust that resulted in the willingness to pay less for the item and lowering the selling price. The results were explained as participants wanting to rid themselves of “anything new”, which may explain the present economic recession. Of course, the findings have limited ecological validity and the generalization may be slightly simplistic.  However it is not farfetched to conclude, as newspaper articles do, that specific emotions motivate us to act.

Read more: The reluctance to spend more may be legacy of recession.

Lerner, J.S., Small, D.A., & Loewenstein, G. (2004). Heart strings and purse strings: Carryover effect of emotion on economic decisions.

Cryder, C. E., Lerner, J.S., Gross, J.J., & Dahl, R.E. (2008). Misery is not miserly: Sad and self-focused individuals spend more.

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Internet Avengers

By Erica Zaiser

In China, the Internet has provided a new kind of medium for vigilantes to work together to dole out punishments to perceived offenders. This “human-flesh search engine”, as an article in the New York Times calls it, doesn’t work like a conventional Internet search. Instead, it is a vast network of online users who work together to reveal the location and personal details of people who the users feel have violated a norm. In one example, Internet users from all over China worked together to collect the personal data of a woman who posted a video on the internet of her stomping a kitten to death under her spiked heels.  After discovering her location, the vast network of users encouraged everyone who came in contact to her to assist in driving her out-of-town, ruining her business, and destroying her life. The article describes a number of examples of offenders (accused of committing a wide variety of perceived “crimes”) all being punished severely through this network and often being unable to return to work, their homes, or normal life after the “search engine” finds “justice”.

Although this type of mass justice seeking behaviour is relatively unstudied, it has interesting implications for a number of research areas like social identity, bullying behavior, collective action, social rejection, and anger and aggression. When people witness behavior that violates norms and invokes moral outrage, they often desire justice. According to social psychologists, there are different types of justice people can seek when they witness a crime, they include retributive justice (punishment for the offender) and compensatory justice (compensation – money and apology etc. for the victim). Interestingly, in this Chinese human network, the justice form doled out by online avengers is always a harsh punishment for the offender. Nobody in the network is encouraging others to seek compensation for the victims.

In line with this, one set of studies found that when people “observe” a crime, but are not close to the victim, they prefer a retributive type of justice to a compensatory type. The less close the bystander is to the victim, the more they prefer punishment to compensation. When you are dealing with an online network of avengers who likely don’t even know each other, much less the victim, its easy to see how this punishment response could escalate as the networks extends to more distant users. Furthermore, given that it’s all online, there is an added sense of anonymity for the justice seekers. All of these aspects make the “human search engine” an interesting phenomenon for social psychologists to unravel.

Read More: Retributive versus compensatory justice: Observers’ preference for punishing in response to criminal offenses

Can we be too happy?

Happiness is the ultimate goal of life for many people. Just take a look at the hundreds of self-help books, motivational speakers, and life coaches whose primary goal is to improve subjective well-being and happiness. Even people who are already satisfied with their lives aspire to be happier. Early psychological research on happiness focused on identifying the factors that would allow people to achieve high subjective well-being. More recently, psychologists have begun to acknowledge that happiness is not just an end state that results when things go well. Instead, happiness may also be functional. For example, researchers have found that happy people did better on average than did unhappy people in the domains of work, love and health.

In light of these attempts to boost happiness, it is interesting to question whether being happier is always better. Oishi, Diener and Lucas’s (2007) study investigated the differences between moderately happy and very happy people to address questions about the optimal level of happiness. Their findings showed that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. They interpreted that the optimal level of happiness is likely to vary across individuals, depending on their value priorities. For those whose primary values center on achievement, moderately high levels of happiness may be optimal; for those individuals whose values give priority to close relationships and volunteer work, it is the highest level of happiness that appears to be optimal. In sum, their findings suggested that extremely high levels of happiness might not be a desirable goal. However, the critical question to answer is, “How much happiness is enough?”

Shigehiro Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2007). The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346 – 360.

Are You Happy?