Social Science Bites

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the poet Robert Browning once opined, “or what’s a heaven for?” That’s not a very satisfying maxim for someone trying to lose weight, learn a language, or improve themselves in general on this earthly plane. But there are ways to maximize one’s grasping ability, and that’s an area where psychologist Ayelet Fishbach can help.

Fishbach, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, studies goals and motivations. It's work that saw her serve as president of the Society for the Science of Motivation and the International Social Cognition Network and to pen the 2022 book, Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, she tells interviewer David Edmonds that one tip for setting goals is to make them concrete. So, for example, resolving to ‘being a good husband’ works, but ‘being happy’ does not. ‘Being happy’ is just too abstract. “You need to get to the level of abstractness that is motivating … but not too abstract that it is no longer connected to an action,” Fishbach explains, adding that there must be “a clear connection between the goal and the means.”

However, she continues, research suggests that people -- while focused on the ends -- tend to scrimp on the means. Fishbach notes research on MBA students found they were willing to pay $23 for a particular book – but only willing to pay $11 for a tote bag that they knew also contained the book. The value of the bag, which was negligible but still extra step to getting the book, was therefore negative. “Which makes no sense,” she acknowledges, “but it illustrates the point.”

Goals, she says, should be things we can “do,” what we can achieve, as opposed to prohibitions on actions, those “do nots” that describe what we should avoid. “Do” prompts, she continues, “are more intrinsically motivating. You are more excited about them. It feels good and right.” Plus, focusing on what we’re avoiding puts that thing in front of mind – which makes it harder to ignore.

Fishbach calls for measuring your “do” activities, setting targets. She cites a study that saw marathon running times in the United States were not being evenly distributed, but clumped around just-before milestone times like three-and-a-half or four hours, suggesting runners pushed themselves to hit their personal targets.

And where there are targets, there can be rewards. “Rewards work better than punishments,” she says, “but they don’t always work in the way they were intended to work.” If we incentivize the wrong things, behavior bends toward the incentive rather than the underlying goal.

Oddly enough, “uncertain incentives seem to work better than known ones." Fishbach was part of a research team that saw people would work harder for a $1 or $2 prize, with the amount determined by a coin flip, than they were for a $2 guaranteed prize. “The excitement of resolving uncertainty is always better than the reward you are getting.”

Other topics Fishbach addresses in this episode include internal motivations (immediate returns trumped longer-term rewards), how to sustain motivation, and whether we truly learn more from failure than success.

Direct download: Fishbach_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PDT

In this Social Science Bites podcast, interviewer David Edmonds asks psychologist Kathryn Paige Harden what she could divine about his educational achievements if all she knew about him was his complete genome. “Based just on your genetic information,” she starts, “I would be able to guess about as well as I would be able to guess if I knew how much money your parents had made per year when you were growing up.”

Based on current knowledge drawn from recent samples in the United States, Harden estimates an “educational attainment polygenetic score” accounts for 15 to 17 percent of the variance in educational attainment, which is defined by years of formal education. The strength of the relationship is similar to environmental factors such as that for family wealth and educational attainment, or between educational attainment and wages.

Harden’s “guess” is as about as educated as someone in the realm could make – she directs the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and co-directs the Texas Twin Project at the University of Texas. Her first book was 2021’s The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality.

One thing she stresses is that genetic influence on human behavior is not the single-factor ideal youngsters learn about in their first brush with Gregor Mendel and his pea plants.

“Almost nothing we study as psychologists is monogenetic, influenced by one gene. It’s all polygenetic, meaning that there are thousands of genetic variants, each of which has a tiny probabilistic effect. If you add up all of that information, all of that genetic difference, it ends up making a difference for people’s likelihood of developing schizophrenia or doing better on intelligence test scores or having an autism spectrum disorder – but none of these things are influenced by just one gene.”

Plus, that “polygenetic score” varies based on environmental factors, such as whether you were raised in an authoritarian state. “If I had my exact DNA that I have now,” she details, “but I was raised in 1850s France compared to 1980s America, my educational output would be different, obviously, because my gender would have been interacting with those opportunity structures in a different way.”

As those structures evolve into ladders instead of roadblocks, the more utility we can derive from knowing the role of genetics.

“The more we ‘level the playing field,’ the more that people have environments that are rich and conducive to their individual flourishing, the more we should expect to see, and the more in empirical practice we do see, the role of genetic differences in people.”

In the shadow of eugenics and other genetics-based pseudo-sciences legacy, is harnessing that genetic influence for policy use good or bad? As Harden has experienced since her book published, “you can’t really talk about genes and education without fairly quickly running into some contested issues about fairness and equality.”

In fact, she argues that much of her on heritability doesn’t so much answer social science questions as much as it “poses a problem for the social sciences.”

In the podcast Harden discusses the Genome-wide Association Study, which she describes with a laugh as “a giant fishing expedition” in which researchers measure the DNA – genotype – from thousands or even millions of individuals and then measure that across the genome, for what comes down to “ a giant correlational exercise. Which genes are more common in people who are high on a trait versus low on a trait, or who have a disease versus don’t have a disease?”

Harden also addresses the reasons she studies identical twins in her research, the cooption of genetic tropes to advance toxic worldviews, and how race – which she rejects as a proxy for genetic differences — plays out in the real world as opposed to the lab.

Direct download: Harden_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:40am PDT

In the most innocent interpretation, suggesting someone should ‘do their own research’ is a reasonable bit of advice. But in the superheated world of social media discourse, #DoYourOwnResearch is a spicy rejoinder that essentially challenges someone to Google the subject since they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. But Googling, social psychologist David Dunning pointedly notes, is not research. “The beauty and the terror of the internet,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that there’s a lot of terrific information, but there’s also a lot of misinformation and sometimes outright fraud.

“People often don’t have the wherewithal to distinguish.”

This distinguishing is an area where Dunning, a professor at the University of Michigan, does his own research.

While doing your own internet sleuthing isn’t toxic on its face, Dunning suggests that often “you don’t know when you’re researching your way into a false conclusion, and … you don’t know when to stop. The real hard problem with DYOR is when do you know when to stop: you go and you look at a couple of web pages, and ‘Well, you’ve learned something! Terrific!’ But you don’t know how much there is behind it that you still need to learn.”

One driver of DYOR, Dunning adds, is the idea that gaining (and deploying) knowledge is one’s own responsibility, which pretty much runs counter to science, which sees gaining knowledge as a collective enterprise.

One piece of collective effort in which Dunning has made a very public mark is in describing what’s come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for Dunning and fellow social psychologist Justin Kruger of New York University, after work they originally described two decades ago in “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The popular definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect, Dunning explains, is that “people who are incompetent or unskilled or not expert in a field lack expertise to recognize that they lack expertise. So they come to conclusions, decisions, opinions that they think are just fine when they’re, well, wrong.”

Dunning and Kruger’s initial research was based on simple tests – of grammar, logical thinking, classical psychology quizzes, even sense of humor – asking subjects how well they think they’re doing relative to everyone else. They found that the bottom 25 percent of participants tended to think they were doing above average. “But no.”

“To know what you don’t know,” he offers, “you need to know what you need to know to realize that your thinking diverges from that.”

It’s not true in every endeavor, he adds. “I’m a terrible golfer,” Dunning says. “And I’m fully aware that I‘m a terrible golfer!” The effect tends to show up when the skill of assessing outcomes is roughly similar to the skill of achieving outcomes. So when your golf ball flies into the nearby body of water, you don’t need special skills to know that’s bad.

Becoming an expert in everything is out of the question; the real skill will be in identifying who is a legitimate expert and drawing on their insights. (And the right expert, Dunning notes “is the right experts. With an S on the end.”)

For the record, the pair – who just received the 2023 Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for their Dunning-Kruger effect work - did not name the concept after themselves, although, as Dunning says, they’re “tickled pink that our names will forever be associated with the nincompoops, incompetent ignorant cranks, if you will.”

Direct download: Dunning_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PDT