Author Archives: Sara Moeller

Texting and Scare Tactics

TextingA recent Welsh video that addresses the dangers of texting while driving has become an internet phenomenon with over 7 million views to date. The video, which will be shown in schools in this fall, features a teenager texting while driving, resulting in a graphic car crash that kills her passengers.

The creators of the ad argue that in order to capture the attention of teenagers, it is necessary for the video to be shocking and violent. However, some critics are skeptical about whether the ad will actually reduce the behavior, especially in the long-term. Health and social psychological research has looked extensively at the efficacy of fear arousing messages when it comes to changing behaviors.

In a recent article, Cameron and Chan (2008) discuss what persuasive elements may help in promoting health behaviors. It is commonly assumed that messages that evoke fear will prompt action; however, many studies have shown that highly evocative messages may actually lead to avoidance and fail to change behavior. In the health communication field, they find that fear arousing messages can be effective but only when coupled with other factors. For instance, when joined with an implementation plan, these messages have a better chance of changing behavior. Moreover, imagery may be effective in persuasive messages but only to the extent that it can directly relate the threat to the recommended plan of action.

While the commercial may be successful in garnering attention, ongoing research brings into question how effective it will be in terms of permanently changing behavior.

square-eye New York Times: Driven to Distraction

square-eye Cameron, L. D., & Chan, C. K. (2008). Designing Health Communications: Harnessing the Power of Affect, Imagery, and Self-Regulation.

A Time to Repay

800px-Credit-cards

In tough economic times, financial experts often recommend reducing debt as much as possible. For many people, this debt stems from credit cards. The credit card industry has been scrutinized in recent months due to a number of questionable practices, such as dramatic raises in interest rates and reductions in credit limits with little to no notice. To combat these issues, the U.S. government has passed a bill to better protect consumers from actions that they feel are unfair and burdensome. Many hope that these protective measures will better allow consumers to get out of debt.

However, a recent study in Psychological Science highlights how less overt factors may be at least partly to blame for the credit card debt that plagues many people. Classic work by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) has shown that people tend to anchor to arbitrary numbers when making decisions. Additionally, a recent study shows that anchoring is particularly problematic when it comes to credit card statements. In his work, Neil Stewart (2009) gave participants a mock credit card bill that featured a minimum repayment amount or an identical statement with no such repayment amount. He then asked them to state how much of the credit card balance they would pay off.

Stewart found that people anchored to the minimum repayment amount and stated that they would pay less of the credit card balance when compared to people who were not given a repayment amount. From this work, one might conclude that changes to billing practices, particularly the presentation of billing information, may go a long way in reducing mental biases and help consumers get out of debt.

square-eyeThe Real Problem With Creditholders: The Cardholders

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Stewart, N. (2009). The Cost of Anchoring on Credit-Card Minimum Repayments.

Feeling the Weight of our Decisions

ClipboardThe embodied cognition perspective has gained notable attention in the last few years by demonstrating the powerful relationships between the mind, body, and environment. At the center of this perspective is the idea that cognition is grounded in sensory processes, such that bodily sensations can affect cognitive processing. Evidence for this idea has been found in physical warmth affecting ratings of interpersonal liking (Williams & Bargh, 2008), as well as head movements influencing agreement with arguments about university issues (Wells & Petty, 1980).

Most recently, Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert (2009) found that the concept of importance can be understood in sensory experiences related to weight. Jostmann and colleagues predicted that individuals who had a physical experience that involved more weight would consequently judge issues as being more important. They found support for this idea across 4 studies. In particular, they found that people who held a heavier clipboard rated issues relating to money, justice, and policy as being more important when compared to individuals who made the ratings using a lighter clipboard. Moreover, in a study where participants made ratings about subway construction in the city, they found that people holding the heavier clipboard (and thus viewing the issues as more important) engaged in more cognitive elaboration and were more confident in their decision compared to those who held a lighter clipboard.

Work of this type gives us a deeper appreciation for the relationship between sensory experiences and cognition, and how easily our judgments might be influenced by our physical states.

square-eyeJostmann, N. B., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. W. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance.

$1.99 Balcetis, E., & Cole, S. (2009). Body in Mind: The Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.

Should we put our mind to it, go for it, get down and break a sweat?

treadmillA recent story in Time Magazine made a bold statement by proclaiming that while exercise and physical activity may improve physical and mental health, it may not help you lose weight. As the author acknowledges, there are a number of reasons this might occur. Physiologically, exercise can prompt the release of hormones that stimulate hunger, causing people to eat more. Additionally, as the article discusses, some dieters often reward themselves after workouts by consuming high-calorie foods that merely replace the calories burned during the workout.

Another possible explanation addressed in the article looks to social psychological research performed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues. In their pivotal studies about self-regulation, they found that when people are depleted of the energy to exercise self-control, they often engage in disinhibited behaviors, such as eating more. These studies have interesting implications for weight loss and exercise. For instance, people who are exercising frequently might also be dieting to lose weight. Dieters often employ substantial self-restraint throughout the day to resist tempting food. Thus, it might not be exercise that is leading to increased eating; rather, the frequent self-monitoring process of dieters may deplete them of the energy needed to resist fattening foods. On the other hand, exercise lowers blood sugar levels, including that of glucose, which has been intimately linked to self-regulatory abilities (Gailliot et al., 2007). Is it the case then that post-exercise hunger, which often leads to the consumption of high-sugar food, is simply the body’s way of returning to homeostasis?

It seems that social psychological research will have much more to say about this topic in the future, as it remains unclear whether it is dieting or exercise that is directly leading to the consumption of fattening foods. And if the booming weight-loss market tells us anything, it’s that people want to know the best way to get fit and look good.

square-eye Time Magazine: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.

square-eye Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The Strength Model of Self-Control.

$1.99 Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-Regulation, Ego Depletion, and Motivation.

Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

smileIt has long been assumed that positive affirmations are the key to happiness. In fact, there are countless books, websites, and resources dedicated to encouraging people to engage in positive thinking by repeating favorable statements about the self. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most iconic social figures in the United States, often encourages her viewers to engage in self-affirmation. However, recent work has found that these practices may actually undermine self-esteem for certain people.

Joanne Wood and colleagues found that when compared to high self-esteem individuals, people with low self-esteem who repeated positive affirmations (e.g., “I am a lovable person”) actually experienced a worse mood and expressed feeling less lovable. Moreover, when low self-esteem individuals were asked to focus on the ways in which positive affirmations were true of them (positive focus), they actually experienced worse mood, lower state self-esteem, and lower happiness than individuals who were instructed to think about how the affirmation may or may not be true of them (neutral focus).

These findings indicate that while positive thinking may be somewhat effective for people high in self-esteem, it is likely to be detrimental for low self-esteem individuals, the group these affirmations are supposed to help. One can hope that with further research, the next wave of self-help products will be beneficial for the ones who need it most.

square-eye The Oprah Winfrey Show: The Secret and Positive Affirmation

square-eye Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others.

Dating in the Dark: A Love Reaction?

727px-1805-courtship-caricatureA new reality series is trying to answer a question that has plagued social psychologists for decades: Do looks matter in love? Dating in the Dark, which puts a unique twist on dating that only a reality program could, features single men and women who are brought together in a dark room to date. At the end of the episode, the couples are finally allowed to see each other in the light of day and decide whether they wish to pursue a relationship.

From an empirical standpoint, both men and women report that physical attractiveness is important in a romantic partner, though men seem to value it more. However, recent research indicates that while sex differences may exist for perceived importance of physical attractiveness, people might actually overestimate its impact. Finkel and Eastwick (2008) have found that men and women are equal in the degree to which physical attractiveness influences romantic interest in speed-dating. Moreover, for both men and women, people who reported physical attractiveness as important were no more likely than others to pursue relationships with individuals they rated as attractive.

While Dating in the Dark falls well short of an empirical test for understanding the importance of physical attractiveness, it nonetheless provides an entertaining way for us to observe the extent to which it affects human behavior. The show airs Monday nights on ABC.

Dating in the Dark Dating in the Dark

Speed-Dating Speed-Dating (Finkel & Eastwick, 2008)