Not-So-Shocking Results About People Shocking Themselves

I’m bored is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored’”. – Louis CK

One of the most vivid – and strangely so – memories of my childhood involved stand-up comedy. I used to always have the TV on in the background of my room when I was younger, usually tuned to comedy central or cartoons. Young me would somewhat-passively absorb all that comedic material and then regurgitate it around people I knew without context; a strategy that made me seem a bit weirder than I already was as a child. The joke in particular that I remember so vividly came from Jim Gaffigan: in it, he expressed surprise that the male seahorses are the one’s who give birth, suggesting that they should just call the one that gives birth the female; he also postulates that the reason this wasn’t the case was that a stubborn scientist had made a mistake. One reason this joke stood out to me in particular was that, as my education progressed, it served as perhaps the best example of how people who don’t know much about the subject they’re discussing can be surprised at some ostensible quirks about it that actually make a great deal of sense to more knowledgeable individuals.

In fact, many things about the world are quite shocking to them.

In the case of seahorses, the mistake Jim was making is that biological sex in that species, as well as many others, can be defined by which sex produces the larger gametes (eggs vs. sperm). In seahorses, the females produce the eggs, but the males provide much of the parental investment, carrying the fertilized eggs in a pouch until they hatch. In such species where the burden of parental care is shouldered more heavily by the males, we also tend to see reversals of mating preferences, where the males tend to become more selective about sexual partners, relative to the females. So not only was the labeling of the sexes no mistake, but there are lots of neat insights to be drawn about psychology from that knowledge. Admittedly, this knowledge does also ruin the joke, but here at Popsych we take the utmost care to favor being a buzzkill over being inaccurate (because we have integrity and very few friends). In the interests of continuing that proud tradition, I would like to explain why the second part of the initial Louis CK joke – the part about us not being allowed to be bored because we ought to just be able to think ourselves to entertainment and pleasure – is, at best, misguided.

That part of the joke contains an intuition shared by more than Louis, of course. In the somewhat-recent past, an article was making its way around the popular psychological press about how surprising it was that people tended to find sitting with their own thoughts rather unpleasant. The paper, by Wilson et al (2014), contains 11 studies. Given that number, along with the general repetitiveness of the designs and lack of details presented in the paper itself, I’ll run through them in the briefest form possible before getting to meat of the discussion. The first six studies involved around 400 undergrads being brought into a “sparsely-furnished room” after having given up any forms of entertainment they were carrying, like their cell phones and writing implements. They were asked to sit in a chair and entertain themselves with only their thoughts for 6-15 minutes without falling asleep. Around half the participants rated the experience as negative, and a majority reported difficulty concentrating or their mind wandering.The next study repeated this design with 169 subjects asked to sit alone at home without any distractions and just think. The undergraduates found the experience about as thrilling at home as they did in the lab, the only major difference being that now around a third of the participants reported “cheating” by doing things like going online or listening to music. Similar results were obtained in a community sample of about 60 people, a full half of which reported cheating during the period.

Finally, we reach the part of the study that made the headlines. Fifty-five undergrads were again brought into the lab. Their task began by rating the pleasantness of various stimuli, one of which being a mild electric shock (designed to be unpleasant, but not too painful). After doing this, they were given the sit-alone-and-think task, but were told they could, if they wanted, shock themselves again during their thinking period via an ankle bracelet they were wearing. Despite participants knowing that the shock was unpleasant and that shocking themselves was entirely optional, around 70% of men and 25% of women opted to deliver at least one shock to themselves during the thinking period when prompted with the option. Even among the subjects who said they would pay $5 instead of being shocked again, 64% of the men and 15% of the women shocked themselves anyway. From this, Wilson et al (2014) concluded that thinking was so aversive that people would rather shock themselves than think if given the option, even if they didn’t like the shock.

“The increased risk of death sure beats thinking!”

The authors of the paper posited two reasons as to why people might dislike doing nothing but sitting around thinking, neither of which make much sense to me: their first explanation was that people might ruminate more about their own shortcomings when they don’t have anything else to do. Why people’s minds would be designed to do such a thing is a bit beyond me and, in any case, the results didn’t find that people defaulted to thinking they were failures. The second explanation was that people might find it unpleasant to be alone with their own thoughts because they had to be a “script writer” and an “experiencer” of them. Why that would be unpleasant is also a bit beyond me and, again, that wasn’t the case either: participants did not find having someone else prompting the focus of thoughts anymore pleasant.

Missing from this paper, like many papers in psychology, is an evolutionary-level, functional consideration of what’s going on here: not explored or mentioned is the idea that thinking itself doesn’t really do anything. By that, I mean evolution, as a process, cannot “see” (i.e. select for) what organisms think or feel directly. The only thing evolution can “see” is what an organism does; how it behaves. That is to say the following: if you had one organism that had a series of incredibly pleasant thoughts but never did anything because of them, and another that never had any thoughts whatsoever but actually behaved in reproductively-useful ways, the latter would win the evolutionary race every single time.

To further drive this point home, imagine for a moment an individual member of a species which could simply think itself into happiness; blissful happiness, in fact. What would be the likely result for the genes of that individual? In all probability, they would fair less well than their counterparts who were not so inclined since, as we just reviewed, feeling good per se does not do anything reproductively useful. If those positive feelings derived from just thinking happy thoughts motivated any kind of behavior (which they frequently do) and those feelings were not designed to be tied to some useful fitness outcomes (which they wouldn’t be, in this case), it is likely that the person thinking himself to bliss would end up doing fewer useful things along with many maladaptive ones. The logic here is that there many things they could do, but only a small subsection of those things are actually worth doing. So, if organisms selected what to do on the basis of their emotions, but these emotions were being generated for reasons unrelated to what they were doing, they would select poor behavioral options more than not. Importantly, we could make a similar argument for an individual that thought himself into despair frequently: to the extent that feeling motivate behaviors, and to the extent that those feelings are divorced from their fitness outcomes, we should expect bad fitness results.

Accordingly, we ought to also expect that thinking per se is not what people find aversive in this experiment. There’s no reason for the part of the brain doing the thinking (rather loosely conceived) here to be hooked up to the pleasure or pain centers of the brain. Rather, what the subjects likely found aversive here was the fact that they weren’t doing anything even potentially useful or fun. The participants in these studies were asked to do more than just think about something; the participants were also asked to forego doing other activities, like browsing the internet, reading, exercising, or really anything at all. So not only were the subjects asked to sit around and do absolutely nothing, they were also asked not do the other fun, useful things they might have otherwise spent their time on.

“We can’t figure out why he doesn’t like being in jail despite all that thinking time…”

Now, sure, it might seem a bit weird that people would shock themselves instead of just sit there and think at first glance. However, I think that strangeness can be largely evaporated by considering two factors: first, there are probably some pretty serious demand characteristics at work here. When people know they’re in a psychology experiment and you only prompt them to do one thing (“but don’t worry it’s totally optional. We’ll just be in the other room watching you…”), many of them might do it because they think that’s what the point of the experiment is (which, I might add, they would be completely correct about in this instance). There did not appear to be any control group to see how often people independently shocked themselves when not prompted to do so, or when it wasn’t their only option. I suspect few people would under that circumstance.

The second thing to consider is that most organisms would likely start behaving very strangely after a time if you locked them in an empty room; not just humans. This is because, I would imagine, the minds of organisms are not designed to function in environments where there is nothing to do. Our brains have evolved to solve a variety of environmentally-recurrent problems and, in this case, there seems to be no way to solve the problem of what to do with one’s time. The cognitive algorithms in their mind would be running through a series of “if-then” statements and not finding a suitable “then”. The result is that their mind could potentially start generating relatively-random outputs. In a strange situation, the mind defaults to strange behaviors. To make the point simply, computers stop working well if you’re using them in the shower, but, then again, they were never meant to go in the shower in the first place.

To return to Louis CK, I don’t think I get bored because I’m not thinking about anything, nor do I think that thinking about things is what people found aversive here. After all, we are all thinking about things – many things – constantly. Even when we are “distracted”, that doesn’t mean we are thinking about nothing; just that our attention is on something we might prefer it wasn’t. If thinking it what was aversive here, we should be feeling horrible pretty much all the time, which we don’t. Then again, maybe animals in captivity really do start behaving weird because they don’t want to be the “script writer” and “experiencer” of their own thoughts…

References: Wilson, T., Reinhard, D., Westgate, E., Gilbert, D., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C., & Shaked, A. (2014). Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345, 75-77.

Is There Any Good Evidence That Porn Is Harmful To Relationships?

In my last post, I noted briefly how technology has made it easier than ever to access a variety of pornographic images, whether produced personally or professionally. Much like concerns about how violent video games might make people who play them more violent, there have also been concerns raised about how pornography becoming more prevalent might also lead to certain, undesirable outcomes, such as rape as weakened relationships. As for the video game concern, there is some evidence that the aggression (or rather anger) caused by video games might have a lot less to do with violent content per se than it has to do with losing (full disclosure: I have been unable to locate the paper, so I can’t assess the claims made in it personally, but this explanation should be easily and intuitively understandable to anyone who has seriously engaged in competitive play. Gamers don’t rage quit over violent content; they rage quit because they lost). Similarly, there have been many concerns raised about pornography over the years, many of which hinge on the idea that pornography might lead to people (specifically men) to develop negative attitudes towards women and, accordingly, be more likely to rape them or to accept rape more generally.

Tissue companies vigorously denied that such a link existed

As pornography has become more widely available – thanks in no small part to the internet – rates of rape appear to have declining rather markedly over the same time period; in much the same way, violence has been declining despite violent video games being more common and accessible than ever. The world is a complex place and there are plenty of variables at play, so those correlations are just that. Nevertheless, the evidence that pornography causes any kind of sexual offending is “inconsistent at best” (Ferguson & Hartley, 2009) and, given the nature of the topic, one might reasonably suspect that at least some of that inconsistency has to do with researchers setting out to find certain conclusions. To be blunt about it, some researchers probably “have their answer”, so to speak, before they even begin the research, and might either game their projects to find that result, or interpret otherwise ambiguous results in a manner consistent with their favored hypothesis.

On that note, there was a recent post by Peg Streep concerning the negative effects that pornography might have on intimate relationships. In no uncertain terms, Peg suggests that (1) relationships with porn are less stable, (2) watching porn makes people less committed to their relationships, and (3) that it leads to people cheating on their partners. The certainty with which these points were made appears to stand in marked contrast to the methodological strength of studies she mentions, even from her own summaries of them (As an aside, in the comments section Peg also appears to insinuate that video games make people more violent as well; just a fun coincidence). Given that the studies are covered in less-than-adequate detail, I decided it track down the research she presented for myself and see if there was any good evidence that pornography use has a negative and causal relationship with commitment and intimate relationships.

The first study comes from Maddox et al (2011). This paper surveyed the pornography viewing habits of around 1,300 individuals (whether alone, with a partner, or not at all) and examined whether there was any relationship between viewing pornography and various relationship measures. Those who reported not viewing pornography tended to be more religious, tended to escalate fights less (d = 0.26), thought their relationship was going better (d = 0.22), and were more dedicated to their relationships (d = 0.25, approximately). Further, those who watched porn were less likely to report being satisfied sexually in their relationship (d = 0.21) and also appeared to be two- to three-times as likely to report infidelity. However, the authors explicitly acknowledge on more than one occasion that their data is correlational in nature and provided no evidence of causality. Such research might simply suggest those who like pornography are different than those who do not like it, or that “…individuals who are unhappy with their relationships seek out [pornography] on their own as an outlet for sexual energy”. The pornography itself might have very little to do with relationship strength.

It might have plenty to do with arm strength, though

The second paper Peg mentions at least contains an experiment, which should, in principle, be better for determining if there is any causal relationship here. Unfortunately, there exists a gap between principle and practice here. The paper, by Lambert et al (2012) is rather long, so I’m only going to focus on the actual experiment within it and ignore the other correlational work (as those issues would be largely a retread of the last paper). The experiment involved having current porn users to either (a) refrain from using porn or (b) eating their favorite food for three weeks. The participants (N = 20) also maintained a daily dairy of their porn use. Initially, the two groups reported similar porn usage (M = 3.73 and 4.07 viewings per month – I think – respectively) and relationship commitment (estimated 72% and 62% chance of being with their partner in the future, respectively). After the three week period, those who attempted to abstain from porn reported less viewing (M = 1.42) than those in the food-abstaining group (M = 3.88); the former group also reported greater relationship commitment (63% chance of staying together over time) relative to the food-abstainers (30% chance) at the end of the three weeks.

So was porn the culprit here? Well, I think it’s very doubtful. First of all, the sample size of 10 per group is pitifully small and I would not want to draw any major conclusions from that. Second, both groups were initially high on their relationship commitment despite both groups also watching porn. Third, and perhaps most importantly, what this study found was not an increase in commitment when people watched less porn, directly contradicting what Peg says about the results (that group saw a decrease as well, albeit only a 10% drop); it just found a large decrease in the group that continued to do what it had been doing this whole time. In other words, the authors are positing that a constant (porn usage) was responsible for a dramatic and sudden decline, whereas their manipulation (less porn usage) was responsible for things staying (sort of) constant. I find that very unlikely; more likely, I would say, is that one or two couples within the food-abstaining group happened to have hit a rough patch unrelated to the porn issue and, because the sample size was so small, that’s all it took to find the result.

The final paper Peg mentions comes from Gwinn et al (2013), and examined the relationship between porn and cheating. The authors report two studies: in the first, 74 students either wrote about a sexually explicit scene or an action scene from a movie or show they had seen in the last month; they were then asked to think about what options they had for alternative sexual partners. Those who wrote about the sexual scene rated their options as an average 3.3 out of 7, compared with the 2.6 for the action group (Of note: only half the subjects in the sex group wrote about porn; the other half wrote about non-porn sex scenes). Further, those in the sexual group did not report any difference in their current relationship satisfaction than those in the action group. In the second study, 291 students had their porn habits measured at time one and their cheating behavior (though this was not exclusively sexual behavior) measured at time two. They found a rather weak but positive correlation between the two: pornography use at time one could uniquely account for approximately 1% of the variance in cheating 12 weeks later. So, much like the first study, this one tells us nothing about causation and, even if it did, the effect was small enough to be almost zero.

But go ahead; blame porn. I’m sure you will anyway.

So, to summarize: the first study suggests that people who like porn might be different than those who do not, the second study found that watching less porn did not increase commitment (in direct contradiction to what Peg said about it), and the final study found that porn usage explains almost no unique variance in infidelity on its own, nor does it effect relationship satisfaction. So, when Peg suggests that “The following three studies reveal that it has a greater effect on relationships than those we usually discuss” and, ”Pornography is not as benign as you think, especially when it comes to romantic relationships“, and, “The fantasy alternative leads to real world cheating“, she doesn’t seem to have an empirical leg to stand on. Similarly, in the comments, when she writes “Who blamed cheating on porn? Neither the research nor I. The research indicates the watching porn elevates the odds of cheating for the reasons noted” (emphasis mine), she seems to either not be very careful about her words, or rather disingenuous about what point she seems to be making. I’m not saying there are absolutely no effects to porn, but the research she presents do not make a good case for any of them.

References: Ferguson, C. & Hartley, R. (2009). The pleasure is momentary…the expense damnable? The influence of pornography on rape and sexual assault. Aggression & Violent Behavior, 14, 323-329.

Gwinn, A., Lambert N., Fincham, F., Maner, J. (2013). Pornography, relationship alternatives, and intimate extradyadic behavior. Social Psychology & Personality Science, 4, 699-704.

Lambert, N., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S., & Fincham, F. (2012). A love that doesn’t last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one’s romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 410-438.

Maddox, M., Rhoades, G., & Markman, H. (2011). Viewing sexually-explicit materials alone or together: Associations with relationship quality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 441-448.

Some Free Consulting Advice For Improving Online Dating

I find many aspects of life today to be pretty neat, owing largely to the wide array of fun and functional gadgets we have at our disposal. While easy to lose sight of and take for granted, the radical improvements made to information technology over my lifetime have been astounding. For instance, I now carry around a powerful computer in my pocket that is user-friendly, capable of accessing more information than I could feasibly process in my entire lifetime, and it also allows me to communicate instantly with strangers and friends all over the globe; truly amazing stuff. Of course, being the particular species that we are, such technology was almost instantly recognized and adopted as an efficient way of sending and receiving naked pictures, as well as trying to initiate new sexual or dating relationships. While the former goal has been achieved with a rousing success, the latter appears to still pose a few more complications, as evidenced by plenty of people complaining about online dating, but not about the ease by which they can send or receive naked pictures. As I’ve been turning my eye towards the job market these days, I decided it would be fun to try and focus on a more “applied” problem: specifically, how might online dating sites – like Tinder and OkCupid – be improved for their users?

Since the insertable portion of the internet market has been covered, I’ll stick to the psychological one.

The first question to consider is the matter of what problems people face when it comes to online dating: knowing what problems people are facing is obviously important if you want to make forward progress. Given that we are species in which females tend to provide the brunt of the obligate parental investment, we can say that, in general, men and women will tend to face some different problems when it comes to online dating; problems which mirror those faced in non-internet dating. In general, men are the more sexually-eager sex: accordingly, men tend to face the problem of drawing and retaining female interest, while women face the problem of selecting mates from among their choices. In terms of the everyday realities of online dating, this translates into women receiving incredible amounts of undesirable male attention, while men waste similar amounts of time making passes that are unlikely to pan out.

To get a sense for the problems women face, all one has to do is make an online dating profile as a woman. There have been a number of such attempts that have been documented, and the results are often the same: before the profile has even been filled out, it attracts dozens of men within the first few minutes of its existence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the quality of messages that the profiles receive can also liberally be considered less-than optimal. While I have no data on the matter, almost every women who has talked with me about their online dating experiences tends to remark, at some point, that they are rather afraid of meeting up with anyone from the site owing to a fear of being murdered by them. Now it is possible that such dangers are, for whatever reason, being overestimated by women, but it also seems likely that women’s experiences with the men on the site might be driving some of that fear. After all, many of those same women also tell me that they start off replying to all or most of the messages they receive when they set up a profile, only to quickly stop doing that owing to their sheer volume or unappealing content. There are also reports of men becoming verbally aggressive when turned down by women, so it seems likely some of these fears about meeting someone from the site are not entirely without merit (to be clear, I think women are probably no more likely to be murdered by anyone they meet online relative to in person; it’s just that strangers online might be more likely to initiate contact than in person).

The problems that men face are a bit harder to appreciate for a number of reasons, one of which is likely owing to the fact that they take longer to appreciate. As I mentioned, women’s profiles attract attention within minutes of their creation; a rather dramatic effect. By contrast, were one to make a profile as a man, not much of anything would happen: you would be unlikely to receive messages or visitors for days, weeks, or months if you didn’t actively try to initiate such contact yourself. If you did try to initiate contact, you’d also find that most of it is not reciprocated and, of the replies you did receive, many would burn out before progressing into any real conversation. If men seen a bit overeager for contact and angry when it ceases, this might owe itself in part to the rarity with which such contact occurs. While being ignored might seem like a better problem to have than receiving a lot of unwanted attention (as the latter might involve aggression, whereas the former does not), one needs to bear in mind that without any attention there is no dating life. Women might be able to pull some desirable men from the pool of interested ones, even if most are undesirable; a man without an interested pool has no potential to draw from at all. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other; they’re just different.

Relationships: Can’t live with them; can’t live without them

That said, bickering about whose problems are worse doesn’t actually solve any of them, so I don’t want to get mired in that debate. Instead, we want to ask, how do we devise a possible resolution to both sets of problems at the same time? At first glance, these problems might see opposed to one another: men want more attention and women want less of it. How could we make both sides relatively better off than they were before? My suggestion for a potential remedy is to make messages substantially harder to send. There are two ways I envision this might enacted: on the one hand, the number of messages a user could send (that were not replies to existing messages) could be limited  to a certain number in a given time period (say, for instance, people could send 5 or 10 initiate messages per week). Alternatively, people could set up a series of multiple choice screening questions on their profile, and only those people who answered enough questions “correctly” (i.e. the answer the user specifies) would be allowed to send a message to the user. Since these aren’t mutually exclusive, both could be implemented; perhaps the former as a mandatory restriction and the latter as an optional one.

Now, at first glance, these solutions might seem geared towards improving women’s experiences with online dating at the expense of men, since men are the ones sending most of the messages. If men aren’t allowed to send enough messages, how could they possibly garner attention, given that so many messages ultimately fail to capture any? The answer to that question comes in two parts, but it largely involves considering why so many messages don’t get responses. First, as it stands now, messaging is largely a costless endeavor. It can take someone all of 5 to 60 seconds to craft an opening message and send it, depending on how specific the sender wants to get with it. With such a low cost and a potentially high payoff (dates and/or sex), men are incentivized to send a great many of these messages. The problem is that every man is similarly incentivized. While it might be good for any man to send more messages out, when too many of them do it, women get buried beneath an avalanche of them. Since these messages are costless to send, they don’t necessarily carry any honest information about the man’s interest, so women might just start ignoring them altogether. There are, after all, non-negligible search costs for women to dig through and respond to all these messages – as evidenced by the many reports from women of their of starting out replying to all of them but quickly abandoning that idea – so the high volume of messages might actually make women less likely to respond in general, rather than more.

Indeed, judging by their profiles, many women pick up on this, explicitly stating that they won’t reply to messages that are little more than a “hey” or “what’s up?”. If messaging was restricted in some rather costly way, it would require men to be more judicious about both who they send the message to and the content of those messages; if you only have a certain number of opportunities, it’s best to not blow them, and that involves messaging people you’re more likely to be successful with in and in a less superficial way. So women, broadly speaking, would benefit by receiving a smaller number of higher-quality messages from men who are proportionately more interested in them. Since the messages are not longer costless to send, that a man chose to send his to that particular woman has some signal value; if the message was more personalized, the signal value increases. By contrast, men would, again, broadly speaking, benefit by lowering the odds of their messages being buried beneath a tidal wave of other messages from other men, and would need to send proportionately fewer of them to receive responses. In other words, the relative level of competition for mates might remain constant, but the absolute level of competition might fall.

Or, phrased as a metaphor: no one is responding to all that mess, so it’s better to not make it in the first place

Now, it should go without saying that this change, however implemented, would be a far cry from fixing all the interactions on dating sites: some people are less attractive than others, have dismal personalities, demand too much, and so on. Some women would continue to receive too many unwanted messages and some men would continue to be all but nonexistent as far as women were concerned. There would also undoubtedly be some potential missed connections. However, it’s important to bear in mind that all that happens already, and this solution might actually reduce the incidence of it. By everyone being willing to suffer a small cost (or the site administrators implementing them), they could avoid proportionately larger ones. Further, if dating sites became more user-friendly, they could also begin to attract new users and retain existing ones, improving the overall dating pool available. If women are less afraid of being murdered on dates, they might be more likely to go on them; if women receive fewer messages, they might be more inclined to respond to them. As I see it, this is a relatively cheap idea to implement and seems to have a great deal of theoretical plausibility to it. The specifics of the plan would need to be fleshed out more extensively and it’s plausibility tested empirically, but I think it’s a good starting point.

Practice Makes Better, But Not Necessarily Much Better

“But I’m not good at anything!” Well, I have good news — throw enough hours of repetition at it and you can get sort of good at anything…It took 13 years for me to get good enough to make the New York Times best-seller list. It took me probably 20,000 hours of practice to sand the edges off my sucking.” -David Wong

That quote is from one of my favorite short pieces of writing entitled “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person”, which you can find linked above. The jist of the article is simple: the world (or, more precisely, the people in the world) only care about what valuable things you provide them, and what is on the inside, so to speak, only matters to the extent that it makes you do useful things for others. This captures nicely some of the logic of evolutionary theory – a piece that many people seem to not appreciate – namely that evolution cannot “see” what you feel; it can only “see” what organisms do (seeing, in this sense, referring to selecting for variants that do reproductively-useful things). No matter how happy you are in life, if you aren’t reproducing, whatever genes contributed to that happiness will not see the next generation. Given that your competence at performing a task is often directly related to the value it could potentially provide for others, the natural question many people begin to consider is, “how can I get better at doing things?”

  Step 1: Print fake diploma for the illusion of achievement

The typical answer to that question, as David mentions, is practice: by throwing enough hours of practice at something, people tend to get sort of good at it. The “sort of” in that last sentence is rather important, according to a recent meta-analysis. The paper – by Macnamara et al (2014) – examines the extent of that “sort of” across a variety of different studies tracking different domains of skill one might practice, as well as across a variety of different reporting styles concerning that practice. The results from the paper that will probably come as little surprise to anyone is that – as intuition might suggest – the amount of time one spends practicing does, on the whole, seem to show a positive correlation with performance; the ones that probably will come as a surprise is that the extent of that benefit explains a relatively-small percentage of the variance in eventual performance between people.

Before getting into the specific results of the paper, it’s worth noting that, as a theoretical matter, there are reasons we might expect practicing on a task to correlate with eventual performance even if the practicing itself has little effect: people might stop practicing things they don’t think they’re very good at doing. Let’s say I wanted to get myself as close to whatever the chess-equivalent of a rockstar happens to be. After playing the game for around a month, I find that, despite my best efforts, I seem to be losing; a lot. While it is true that more practice playing chess might indeed improve my performance to some degree, I might rightly conclude that investing the required time really won’t end up being worth the payoff. Spending 10,000 hours of practice to go from a 15% win rate to a 25% win rate won’t net me any chess groupies. If my time spent practicing chess is, all things considered, a bad investment, not investing anymore time in it than I already had would be a rather useful thing to do, even if it might lead to some gains. The idea that one ought to persist at the task despite the improbable nature of a positive outcome (“if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”) is as optimistic as it is wasteful. That’s not a call to give up on doing things altogether, of course; just a recognition that my time might be profitably invested in other domains with better payoffs. Then again, I majored in psychology instead of computer science or finance, so maybe I’m not the best person to be telling anyone else about profitable payoffs…

In any case, turning to the meat of the paper, the authors began by locating around 9,300 articles that might have been relevant to their analysis. As it turns out, only 88 of them possessed the relevant inclusion criteria: (1) an estimate of the numbers of hours spent practicing, (2) a measure of performance level, (3) and effect size of the relationship between those first two things, (4) written in English, and (5) conducted on humans. These 88 studies contained 111 samples, 157 effect sizes, and approximately 11,000 participants. Of those 157 correlations, 147 of them were positive: as performance increased, so too did hours of practice tend to increase in an overwhelming majority of the papers. The average correlation between hours of practice and performance was a 0.35. This means that, overall, deliberate practice explained around 12% of the variance in performance. Throw enough hours of repetition at something and you can get sort of better at it. Well, somewhat slightly better at it, anyway…sometimes…

At least it only took a few decades of practice to realize that mediocrity

The average correlation doesn’t give a full sense of the picture, as many averages tend to not. Macnamera et al (2014) first began to break the analysis down by domain, as practicing certain tasks might yield greater improve than others. The largest gains were seen in the realm of games, where hours of practice could explain around a forth of the variance in performance. From there, the percentages decreased to 21% in music, 18% in sports, 4% in education, and less than 1% in professions. Further, as one might also expect, practice showed the greatest effect when the tasks were classified as highly predictable (24% of the variance), followed by moderately (12%) and poorly predictable (4%). If you don’t know what to expect, it’s awfully difficult to know what or how to practice to achieve a good outcome. Then again, even if you do know what to expect, it still seems hard to achieve those outcomes.

Somewhat troubling, however, was that the type of reporting about practicing seemed to have a sizable effect as well: reports that relied on retrospective interviews (i.e. “how often would you say you have practiced over the last X weeks/months/years”) tended to show larger effects; around 20% of the variance explained. When the method was a retrospective questionnaire, rather than an interview, this dropped to 12%. For the studies that actually involved keeping daily logs of practice, this percentage dropped precipitously to a mere 5%. So it seems at least plausible that people might over-report how much time they spend practicing, especially in a face-to-face context. Further still, the extent of the relationship between practice and product depended heavily on the way performance was measured. For the studies simply using “group membership” as the measure of skill, around 26% of the variance was explained. This fell to 14% when laboratory studies alone were considered, and fell further when expert ratings (9%) or standardized measures of performance (8%) were used.

Not only might be people be overestimating how much time they spend practicing a skill, then, but the increase in ability possibly attributable to that practice appears to shrink the more fine-grained or specific an analysis gets. Now it’s worth mentioning that this analysis is not able to answer the question of how much improvement in performance is attributable to practice in some kind of absolute sense; it just deals with how much of the existing differences between people’s ability might be attributable to differences in practice. To make that point clear, imagine a population of people who were never allowed to practice basketball at all, but were asked to play the game anyway. Some people will likely be better than others owing to a variety of factors (like height, speed, fine motor control, etc), but none of that variance would be attributable to practice. It doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t get better if they were allowed to practice, of course; just that none of the current variation would be able to be chalked up to it.

And life has a habit of not being equitable

As per the initial quote, this paper suggests that deliberate practicing, at least past a certain point, might have more to do with sanding the harsh edges off one’s ability rather than actually carving it out. The extent of that sanding likely depends on a lot of things: interests, existing ability, working memory, general cognitive functioning, what kind of skill is in question, and so on. In short, it’s probably not simply a degree of practice that separates a non-musician from Mozart. What extensive practice can help with seems to be more pushing the good towards the great. As nice as it sounds to tell people that they can achieve anything they put their mind to, nice does not equal true. That said, if you have a passion for something and just wish to get better at it (and the task at hand lends itself to improvement via practice), the ability to improve performance by a few percentage points is perfectly respectable. Being slightly better at something can, on the margins, mean the difference between winning or losing (in whatever form that takes); it’s just that all the optimism and training montages in the world probably won’t take you from the middle to the top.

References: Macnamera, B., Hambrick, D., & Oswald, F. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797614535810

Keepin’ It Topical: The Big Facebook Study

I happen to have an iPhone because, as many of you know, I think differently (not to be confused with the oddly-phrased “Think Different”® slogan of the parent company, Apple), and nothing expresses those characteristics of intelligence and individuality about me better than my ownership of one of the most popular phones on the market. While the iPhone itself is a rather functional piece of technology, there is something about it (OK; related to it) that has consistently bothered me: the Facebook app I can download for it. The reason this app has been bugging me is that, at least as far as my recent memory allows, the app seems to have an unhealthy obsession with showing me the always-useless “top stories” news feed as my default, rather than the “most recent” feed I actually want to see. In fact, I recall that the last update to the app actually made it more of a hassle to get to the most recent feed, rather than make it easily accessible. I had always wondered why there didn’t seem to be a simple way to change my default, as this seems like a fairly basic design fix. Not to get too conspiratorial about the whole thing, but this past week, I think I might have found part of the answer.

Which brings us to the matter of the Illuminati…

It’s my suspicion that the “top stories” feed has uses beyond simply trying to figure out which content I might want to see; this would be a good thing, because if the function were to figure out what I want to see, it’s pretty bad at that task. The “top stories” feed might also be used for the sinister purposes of conducting research (then again, the “most recent” feed can probably do that as well; I just really enjoy complaining about the “top stories” one). Since this new story (or is it a “top story”?) about Facebook conducting research with its users has been making the rounds in the media lately, I figured I would add my two cents to the incredibly tall stack of pennies the internet has collectively made in honor of the matter. Don’t get it twisted, though: I’m certainly not doing this in the interest of click-bait to capitalize on a flavor-of-the-week topic. If I were, I would have titled this post “These three things about the Facebook study will blow your mind; the fourth will make you cry” and put it up on Buzzfeed. Such behavior is beneath me because, as I said initially, I think different(ly)…

Anyway, onto the paper itself. Kramer et al (2014) set out to study whether manipulating what kind of emotional content people are exposed to in  other’s Facebook status updates had an effect on that person’s later emotional content in their own status updates. The authors believe such an effect would obtain owing to “emotional contagion”, which is the idea that people can “…transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others”. As an initial semantic note, I think that such phrasing – the use of contagion as a metaphor – only serves to lead one to think incorrectly about what’s going on here. Emotions and moods are not the kind of things that can be contagious the way pathogens are: pathogens can be physically transferred from one host to another, while moods and emotions cannot. Instead, moods and emotions are things generated by our minds from particular sets of inputs.

To understand that distinction quickly, consider two examples: in the first case, you and I are friends. You are sad and I see you being sad. This, in turn, makes me feel sad. Have your emotions “infected” me? Probably not; consider what would happen if you and I were enemies instead: since I’m a bastard and I like to see people I don’t like fail, your sadness might make me feel happy instead. So it doesn’t seem to be your emotion per se that’s contagious; it might just be the case that I happen to generate similar emotions under certain circumstances. While this might seem to be a relatively minor issue, similar types of thinking about the topic of ideas – specifically, that ideas themselves can be contagious – has led to a lot of rather unproductive thinking and discussions about “memes”. By talking about ideas or moods independently of the minds that create them, we end up with a rather dim view of how our psychology works, I feel.

Which is just what the Illuminati want…

Moving past that issue, however, the study itself is rather simple: for a week in 2012, approximately 700,000 Facebook users had some of their news feed content hidden from them some of the time. Each time one of the subjects viewed their feed, depending on what condition they were in, each post containing certain negative or positive words had a certain probability (between 10-90% chance) of being omitted. Unfortunately, the way the paper is written, it’s a bit difficult to get a sense as to precisely how much content was, on average, omitted. However, as the authors note, this was done a per-viewing basis, so content that was hidden during one viewing might well have showed up were the page to be refreshed (and sitting there refreshing Facebook minute after minute is something many people might actually do). The content was also only hidden on the news feed: if the subject visited a friend’s page directly or sent or received any messages, all the content was available. So, for a week, some of the time, some of the content was omitted, but only on a per-view basis, and only in one particular form (the news feed); not exactly the strongest manipulation I could think of.

The effect of that manipulation was seen when examining what percentage of positive or negative words the subjects themselves used when posting their status updates during the experimental period. Those subjects who saw more positive words in their feed tended to post more positive words themselves, and vice versa for negative words. Sort of, anyway. OK; just barely. In the condition where subjects had access to fewer negative words, the average subject’s status was made up of about 5.3% positive words and 1.7% negative words; when the subjects had access to fewer positive words, these percentages plummeted/jumped to…5.15% and 1.75%, respectively. Compared to the control groups, then, these changes amount to increases or decreases of in between 0.02 and 0.0001 standard deviations of emotional word usage or, as we might say in precise statistical terms, effects so astonishingly small they might as well not be said to exist.

“Can’t you see it? The effect is right there; plain as day!”

What we have here, in sum, then, is an exceedingly weak and probabilistic manipulation that had about as close to no net effect as one could reasonably get, based on an at-least-partially (if only metaphorically) deficient view of how the mind works. The discussion about the ethical issues people perceived with the research appears to have vastly overshadowed the fact that research itself wasn’t really very strong or interesting. So for all of you people outraged over this study for fear that people were harmed: don’t worry. I would say the evidence is good that no appreciable harm came of it.

I would also say that other ethical criticisms of the study are a bit lacking. I’ve seen people raise concerns that Facebook had no business seeing if bad moods would be induced by showing people a disproportionate number of negative status updates; I’ve also seen concerns that the people posting these negative updates might not have received the support they needed if other people were blocked from seeing them. The first thing to note is that Facebook did not increase the absolute number of positive or negative posts; only (kind of) hid some of them from appearing (some of the time, to some people, in one particular forum); the second is that, given those two criticisms, it would seem that Facebook is in a no-win situation: reducing or failing to reduce the number of negative stories leads to them being criticized. Facebook is either failing to get people the help they need or bumming us out by disproportionately exposing us to people who need help. Finally, I would add that if anyone did miss a major life event of a friend – positive or negative – because Facebook might have probabilistically omitted a status update on a given visit, then you’re likely not very good friends with that person anyway, and probably don’t have a close enough relationship with them that would allow you to realistically lend help or take much pleasure from the incident.

References: Kramer, A., Guillory, J., & Hancock, J. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111