Archive for category Planning

Trick to Avoid Procrastination

I haven’t re-posted anything from PsyBlog for quite a while, but I came across this article and thought it would be more than useful …

http://www.spring.org.uk/2015/05/avoid-procrastination-funky-tip-makes-you-start-4-times-sooner.php

Avoid Procrastination: Funky Tip Makes You Start 4 Times Sooner

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This trick makes you feel closer to your future self so that you start four times sooner.

Thinking about upcoming goals in terms of days rather than months or years motivates action, new research finds.

Even counting months rather than years has a beneficial effect, psychologists have revealed.

Professor Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California, who led the study, thinks the tip…

“…may be useful to anyone needing to save for retirement or their children’s college, to start working on a term paper or dissertation, pretty much anyone with long-term goals or wanting to support someone who has such goals.”

Over 1,000 participants took part in four different studies to examine the phenomenon.

People were encouraged to think about goals in terms of different time scales.

For example, they either thought about saving for a college fund in 18 years or in 6,570 days.

Or, they thought about saving for retirement either in 30 years or in 10,950 days.

Thinking in days made people feel more connected to their future selves, which in turn was a greater motivator to action.

People said they would start working towards their goal four times sooner when the time was expressed in days than when it was expressed in years.

The research was published in the journal Psychological Science (Lewis & Oyserman, 2015).

Procrastination image from Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Set Better Goals

More from PsyBlog – this time on setting goals (which is one of those totally critical elements of business, management and consulting): http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/08/how-to-set-better-goals-avoid-four-common-mistakes.php

 

Badly set goals can degrade performance, motivate unethical behaviour and damage organisations.

It’s no accident that goal-setting pervades so many areas of modern life.

There are hundreds of research studies going back decades showing that setting goals can increase people’s performance.

Most have heard the goal-setting mantra that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-targeted (S.M.A.R.T.); but few recognise the dangers of poor goal-setting and the unintended consequences that can follow.

Here’s how to avoid four common problems with goal-setting, which are highlighted by Ordonez et al. (2009) at the Harvard Business School.

1. Too specific

The problem with setting goals that are too specific is that they can bias people’s behaviour in unintended ways.  For example:

  • If you use goals to effectively tell a university professor that all that’s important is publishing articles, then what is going to happen to her teaching?
  • If you tell call-centre staff that the main thing is how quickly they answer the phone, what’s going to happen to how they deal with the call?

Very specific goals can degrade overall performance by warping the way people view their jobs.

Better goals: keep them somewhat vague. This gives people control and choice over how they do their jobs. When people are given vaguer goals they can take into account more factors: in short it makes them think for themselves. It’s no wonder that having control is strongly linked with job satisfaction.

2. Too many goals

Perhaps the answer, then, is to set loads of goals which cover all aspects of a person’s work? Not necessarily, as that introduces its own problems.

For one thing people tend to concentrate on the easiest goal to the exclusion of the others. For example, in one study participants were given both quality and quantity goals related to a task. When quantity goals were easier to achieve than quality, they focused mostly on quantity.

This study is showing how a well-meaning goal can warp people’s behaviour in unintended directions.

Better goals: limit the total number of goals. Apart from anything else, who can remember 10 or 20 goals they are supposed to be working towards?

3. Short-termism

Why is it so hard to get a cab on a rainy day?

The answer isn’t just that more people are hailing cabs; it’s also that the cab drivers go home earlier because they hit their targets earlier for the day. So Camerer et al., (1997) found in their study of New York cab drivers.

This is a prime example of short-termism: goals can make people believe that when they hit their target, they can take the rest of the day (or month!) off.

This works at an organisational level as well: if an organisation is continually working to meet short-term goals, it can neglect the long-term importance of innovation and evolution.

Better goals: Make sure short-term goals don’t interfere with the long-term vision, otherwise they can be corrosive for the organisation.

4. Too hard

When goals are too hard, they encourage people to do anything in order to meet them; that includes unethical behaviour.

One example of unethical behaviour prompted by poor goals was in the hard disk manufacturer, MiniScribe. Back in 1989, in order to meet financial targets, they began shipping bricks instead of hard drives. The bricks sat unopened for a few weeks in a Singapore warehouse, while Miniscribe successfully invoiced for them. The company soon went into bankruptcy.

Miniscribe’s story is also a brilliant example of short-term thinking. What did they think was going to happen when the bricks were discovered, as they surely would be?

Similarly, research has also shown that when people are set more difficult goals, they are more willing to take risks. In some circumstances this may be acceptable, but often it is not.

Not only that, but goals that are too hard are simply demotivating. How come almost reaching your target feels like failure, even when you’re 99% there?

Better goals: Set genuinely achievable goals rather than so-called ‘stretch’ goals. These will avoid encouraging people to behave unethically.

New rules of goal-setting

All of these problems are further exaggerated by larger the incentives. When there are huge amounts of money at stake, then badly set goals can distort human behaviour even more.

So, use these warnings as ways to set better goals, and be careful of unintended consequences.

Ordonez et al. (2009) conclude by saying:

“Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

With that warning in mind, here are some new rules of goal-setting

  • Goals should be somewhat abstract.
  • Goals should be set with an eye on the long-term.
  • Goals should be relatively limited in number.
  • Goals should not be too hard to achieve.

(Oh, and unless they’ve ordered them, never ship bricks.)

 

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Social Identity Theory — PsyBlog

http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/why-groups-and-prejudices-form-so.php

 

This classic social psychology experiment shows how little excuse people need to form into groups and start discriminating against others.

People’s behaviour in groups is fascinating and frequently disturbing. As soon as humans are bunched together in groups we start to do odd things: copy other members of our group, favour members of own group over others, look for a leader to worship and fight other groups. Just glance at Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment for proof of how easy it is to provoke war between groups.

But think about the types of groups you belong to, and you’ll realise they differ dramatically. Some groups are more like soldiers in the same unit or friends who have known each other from childhood. Long-standing, tight-knit, protecting each other. Perhaps it’s not surprising people in these groups radically change their behaviour, preferring members of their own group over others in many ways.

Other groups, though, are much looser. Supporters of a large sports club, for example, or work colleagues only together on a project for a few months or even a group of people in an art gallery appreciating a painting.

It seems impossible that people stood together for only 30 seconds to look at a painting can be said to form a group in any measurable way. Surely it’s too fleeting, too ephemeral? This is exactly the type of question social psychologist Henry Tajfel and colleagues set out to answer (Tajfel et al., 1971).

They believed it was possible for a group, along with its attendant prejudices, to form at the drop of a hat. In fact they thought a group could form even when there was no face-to-face contact between members, none of the people knew each other and their ‘group’ behaviour had no practical consequences. In other words they had absolutely nothing to gain (or lose) from this barely existent group.

Forming a ‘minimal group’

Tajfel and colleagues came up with a neat solution for testing their idea. Participants, who were 14 and 15 year-old boys, were brought into the lab and shown slides of paintings by Klee and Kandinsky. They were told their preferences for the paintings would determine which of two groups they would join.

Of course, this was a lie designed to set up the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in their minds. The experimenters wanted two groups of boys with not the faintest idea who was also in their own group or what the grouping meant or what they had to lose or gain.

After this setup, the boys were taken to a cubicle, one at a time. Each was then asked to distribute virtual money to the other members of both groups. The only information they had about who they were giving it to was a code number for each boy and that boy’s group membership.

There were a series of rules for the distribution of the money that were designed to tease out who the boys favoured: their own group or the other group. The rules were changed slightly in different trials so that it was possible to test a number of theories. Did the boys distribute the money:

  • Fairly?
  • To obtain maximum joint profit?
  • For maximum ingroup (own group) profit?
  • For maximum difference between groups?
  • Using favouritism? This involves a combination of maximum ingroup profit and maximum difference?

Startling findings

From the way the virtual money was distributed, the boys did indeed demonstrate the classic behavioural markers of group membership: they favoured their own group over the other. And this pattern developed consistently over many, many trials and has subsequently been replicated in other experiments in which groups were, if you can believe it, even more minimal.

When I first came across this experiment, my first reaction was to find it startling. Remember, the boys had no idea who was in their group ‘with them’ or who was in the other group. But, the most puzzling aspect of this experiment is that the boys had nothing whatsoever to gain from favouring their own group – there didn’t seem to be anything riding on their decisions.

Out in the real world there’s a good reason to favour your own group – normally it is also advantageous to yourself. You protect yourself by protecting others like you.

Social identity theory

What Tajfel argued, though, was that there was something riding on the decisions the boys made, but it was something very subtle, yet incredibly profound.

Tajfel argued that people build their own identities from their group memberships. For example, think of each of the groups you belong to: say at work, or within your family. Part of who you are is probably defined by these groups. Putting it the other way around: the nature of your group memberships define your identity.

As our group membership forms our identity, it is only natural for us to want to be part of groups that are both high status and have a positive image. Crucially though, high status groups only have that high status when compared to other groups. In other words: knowing your group is superior requires having a worse group to look down upon.

Seen in the light of social identity theory, then, the boys in the experiment do have a reason to be selfish about the allocation of the virtual cash. It is all about boosting their own identities through making their own group look better.

Criticisms

No experiment can, or should, be automatically taken at face value. Questions have to be asked about whether it is really telling us what the authors claim. There are two criticisms often levelled at this experiment and its interpretation:

  1. The participant’s behaviour can be explained by simple economic self-interest. But: in another experiment only symbols were used rather than ‘virtual’ money and the results were the same.
  2. The participants were responding to what they thought the experimenters wanted (psychologists call this ‘demand characteristics’). But: Tajfel argues it is unclear to the participants what the experimenters wanted. Recall that the rules for distributing money frequently changed. Also, the participants were encouraged to think that choosing whose paintings they liked (the ‘first’ experiment) was unrelated to the allocation of virtual money (the ‘second’ experiment).

Despite these criticisms, Tajfel and colleagues’ findings have stood the test of time. The experiment, or something like it, has been repeated many times with different variations producing much the same results.

Centrality of group membership

Social identity theory states that our identities are formed through the groups to which we belong. As a result we are motivated to improve the image and status of our own group in comparison with others.

Tajfel and colleagues’ experiment shows that group membership is so important to us that we join the most ephemeral of groups with only the slightest prompting. We will then go out of our way to make our own group look better compared to others.

The simple fact of how important group membership is to us, and how easily we join groups, often without realising it, is both a subtle and profound observation about human nature.

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Conformity — PsyBlog

http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/i-cant-believe-my-eyes-conforming-to.php

 

This study shows that many of us will deny our own senses just to conform with others.

We all know that humans are natural born conformers – we copy each other’s dress sense, ways of talking and attitudes, often without a second thought. But exactly how far does this conformity go? Do you think it is possible you would deny unambiguous information from your own senses just to conform with other people?

Have a look at the figure below. Compare the line on the left with the three lines on the right: A, B & C. Which of these three lines is the same length as the lonesome line on the left?

Asch Lines

It’s obviously C. And yet in a classic psychology experiment conducted in the 1950s, 76% of people denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B. What kind of strong-arm psychological pressure tactics made them do this?

The fascinating thing about this experiment was that its creator, renowned psychologist Solomon Asch, set out to prove the exact opposite. A previous experiment by Muzafer Sherif (see his well-known Robbers Cave experiment) had found that when people were faced with making a judgement on an ambiguous test, they used other people’s judgements as a reference point.

This makes perfect sense. If I’m not sure about something, I’ll check with someone else. But this is only when I’m not sure. The situation is quite different when I have unambiguous information, such as when I can clearly see the answer myself. Other people’s judgement should then have no effect – or at least that’s what Asch thought.

The experiment

To test his theory he brought male undergraduates, one at a time, into a room with eight other people who were passed off as fellow participants (Asch, 1951). They were then shown three lines with another for comparison, similar to the figure above. Participants were asked to call out which line – A, B or C – was the same length as the reference line. This procedure was repeated 12 times with participants viewing variations of the above figure.

What the participants didn’t realise was that all the other people sat around the table were in on the game. They were all confederates who had been told by the experimenter to give the wrong answer. On half of the trials they called out the line that was too short, and on the other half the line that was too long.

The real experimental participant, who knew nothing of this, was actually the sixth to call out their answer after five other confederates of the experimenter had given the wrong answer.

Surprising findings

The results were fascinating, and not at all what Asch had been expecting:

  • 50% of people gave the same wrong answer as the others on more than half of the trials.
  • Only 25% of participants refused to be swayed by the majority’s blatantly false judgement on all of the 12 trials.
  • 5% always conformed with the majority incorrect opinion (we all know people like that, right?!)
  • Over all the trials the average conformity rate was 33%.

Intrigued as to why participants had gone along with the majority, Asch interviewed them after the experiment. Their answers are probably very familiar to all of us:

  • All felt anxious, feared disapproval from others and became self-conscious.
  • Most explained they saw the lines differently to the group but then felt the group was correct.
  • Some said they went along with the group to avoid standing out, although they knew the group was wrong.
  • A small number of people actually said they saw the lines in the same way as the group.

The findings of this study were so startling they inspired many psychologists to investigate further. Here are a few of their findings:

  • Asch himself found that if the participant only had to write down their answer (while others called theirs out) conformity was reduced to 12.5%.
  • Deutsch and Gerard (1955) still found conformity rates of 23% even in conditions of high anonymity and high certainty about the answer.
  • Those who are ‘conformers’ typically have high levels of anxiety, low status, high need for approval and often authoritarian personalities.
  • Cultural differences are important in conformity. People from cultures which view conformity more favourably – typically Eastern societies – are more likely to conform.

A mixed blessing

The variations on the original theme go on and on, examining many possible experimental permutations, but the basic finding still remains solid. While there’s no surprise that we copy each other, it’s amazing that some people will conform despite the evidence from their own eyes. Imagine how much easier it is to encourage conformity when ambiguity levels are much higher, as they often are in everyday life.

Conformity itself is something of a mixed blessing. In many situations we need conformity. In fact, many aspects of our social lives would be much harder if we didn’t conform to a certain extent – whether it’s to legal rules or just to queuing in the post office.

The dangers of conformity are only too well-known, just take a look at the implications of Milgram’s obedience experiments for a glimpse at what humans will do in the name of conformity. Sometimes it really is better if we think for ourselves rather than relying on what others say and do.

How does conformity affect us all?

It certainly bears considering how our own lives would be different if, one day, we decided not to conform, or even to suddenly start conforming. Would things get better or worse for you? Many people find their inability to conform is a real problem in their lives while others find it more difficult to break away and do their own thing.

Image credit: Barabeke

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The Sobering Up Effect: Why People Get More Pessimistic As The Moment of Truth Gets Closer — PsyBlog

http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/07/the-sobering-up-effect-why-people-get-more-pessimistic-as-the-moment-of-truth-gets-closer.php

 

When the chips are about to fall, mentally we brace ourselves.
What do you feel right at the start of a long-term project that you’re involved with—whether at work, school or home?

Enthusiasm? Energy? Optimism?

Then as the deadline/big day/launch/test/whatever-it-is approaches, the shine starts to come off, doesn’t it?

Happy, open-hearted optimism about how it’ll turn out tends to give way to pessimism, cynicism and downright despair.

If you’ve experienced something like this then you’re not alone. This emotional slide or ‘sobering up effect’ has been documented in all kinds of areas (studies mentioned in Sweeny & Krizan, 2012):

Results of medical tests: people who took a medical test were more optimistic when the results were four weeks away than a few minutes away.
Performance in an exam: people think their exam marks will be higher when asked one month before the results compared with 50 minutes before getting their grades.
Driving test expectations: people are more pessimistic about their own driving skills when told they have to take a test to prove it right away.
Corporate earnings forecasts: when analysts predict how much money a company is going to make, they become less optimistic the closer the release of the actual results.
And it turns out that the more important the outcome is to us, the stronger the sobering up effect.

So, how come people dampen down their expectations and optimism about an outcome as the moment of truth approaches? According to Sweeny and Krizan, there are four main reasons:

Controlling the emotions: people manage how they will feel about an outcome by changing their expectations. It feels better if the outcome exceeds your expectations. An ‘A’ grade is more enjoyable if you expected a ‘C’ than if you knew it was going to be an ‘A’. The same is true of disappointing results.
It’s out of my hands: once the test is taken or project completed; control over the outcome is gone. Although people have no control over the outcome, they can still control their own expectations of the outcome. Managing personal expectations is another way of exerting control over the situation.
From abstract to concrete thinking: when outcomes are way off in the future, people tend to think more abstractly and, therefore, more optimistically about them. When they are closer, they see all the things that could go wrong, and then they get more pessimistic.
Now we’re accountable: as the outcome approaches, people worry that their predictions might be too optimistic. It seems better to be cautious to avoid looking foolish.
While many people are hardened optimists—indeed humans as a species show a bias towards being optimistic—as the moment of truth approaches, most of us become pessimists.

That’s because, as Thomas Hardy put it:

“Pessimism is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed. Having reckoned what to do in the worst possible circumstances, when better arise, as they may, life becomes child’s play.”

via The Sobering Up Effect: Why People Get More Pessimistic As The Moment of Truth Gets Closer — PsyBlog.

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Backup Plans, Motivation, Projects and Choices

Another PsyBlog , this time about Backup Plans, Motivation, Projects and Choices:


 

Why backup plans (sometimes) motivate, even if you never use them.

Before reading a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I never thought of a backup plan as something that might be motivating in itself.

Surely all the benefit of a backup plan accrues when the main plan goes wrong and there’s something to fall back on?

While coming up with a ‘plan b’ might be necessary, I always thought of it more as a chore. (Ho-hum now I’ve made my main plan, instead of getting started, I’ve got to spend more time thinking about an alternative plan).

But when you start to think about it, backup plans don’t just make sense as, well, backup plans, but also as a means of driving you forward at the precarious early stages of a project.

That’s because our motivation to succeed is heavily tied in with our expectations of success. No one drives to a shop that they are pretty sure is closed. What feeds our motivation is knowing that we have a good chance of achieving the goal.

It sounds obvious but it leads to a non-obvious conclusion. It means that a little more time spent thinking about a backup plan or alternative ways to get where you’re going will help you, even if you never have to actually use them.

Opportunity drives motivation

A new study demonstrates this nicely using a coffee shop customer loyalty programme (Huang & Zhang, 2013).

Participants were told they had to get a card stamped six times to get a free coffee. One group in the study, though, was manipulated into thinking that they had more ways of collecting stamps than the other group. So, some people thought there were more ways of reaching their goal than others.

Again: actually there weren’t more ways of getting stamps—the experimenters were trying to remove the better known advantage of a backup plan (that you might need to use it) and just look at the effects on motivation of thinking there are more ways to achieve your goal.

What they found was that those who thought there were more alternatives for collecting the loyalty stamps were almost twice as likely to join the programme.

They also checked this out in different contexts and got the same results again and again. When people thought there were more opportunities to donate blood, write reviews of movies, or memorise word lists, they demonstrated more motivation.

Backfiring backup plans

Backup plans, then, can sometimes have a motivating effect, but not always; there is a twist in the tail.

What about when you’re half-way through your project or towards that goal of yours? You’re starting to feel very confident that you will get there. What kind of effect do more alternatives for reaching your goal have then?

When Huang and Zhang looked at this, they found the effect reversed.

When people already had five stamps on their loyalty card, more ways to get the sixth and final one actually de-motivated them. Similarly when people thought the blood drive had almost reached its target, rather than being right at the beginning, fewer options lowered their motivation to donate.

This might seem a little strange, but it chimes with other research that has looked at the psychology of choices. Generally speaking, choices are more pleasurable at the beginning of a project. But once we’re on the road to success, options go from being a pleasure to a pain.

So backup plans, or alternative means of achieving our goals, start out reassuring, but end up as distractions.

This means that the use of options in motivation should be arranged like a funnel. At the start (the wide end), more options pump up initial motivation; but later on, when success is all but assured, options slow us down. Once the end is in sight (the narrow end), it’s far better to forget about backup plans and push on for victory.

Just the same is true when motivating others: give people options to get them interested at the start, but towards the end, they should be reduced to avoid distraction.

 

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How to do Brainstorming

PsyBlog strikes again, this time about brainstorming. As per usual, like this blog and here is what he has to say:


 

For many years brainstorming has been a very popular way for groups to generate new ideas, especially in business.

This is despite the fact that many studies have shown that groups actually produce fewer and less creative solutions than people working on their own. This was confusing: we are used to thinking that ‘many hands make light work’, and ‘two heads are better than one’.

The research showed, though, that many hands and heads made people nervous, lazy and blocked (for a more in-depth discussion see: Brainstorming Reloaded). In fact people perform better on their own at coming up with new ideas than in a brainstorming group.

This is highly perplexing. What we see from the creativity research is that great ideas often come from bolting together two so-so ideas. In other words: brainstorming should work.

Electronic Brainstorming

Now what’s emerging from the productivity research is that brainstorming is a good technique, but it needs a little tweaking.

Two candidates that provide a new twist on a promising formula are ‘Brainwriting’ and ‘Electronic Brainstorming’. Both use the basic brainstorming rules developed almost half a century ago by the advertising executive, Alex Faickney Osborn:

  1. Don’t criticize.
  2. Focus on quantity.
  3. Combine and improve ideas produced by others.
  4. Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how wild.

The pretty simple twist in Electronic Brainstorming is that it’s done online using any kind of internet chat method, like Microsoft Messenger. The only requirement is that all the participants can see the other ideas as they scroll down the screen.

Brainwriting, on the other hand, is a little more old-school and involves sitting together and writing down your ideas on Post-It notes. Participants initial their ideas and put them in the centre of the table for others to see. No talking is allowed.

A new study has compared both of these techniques and found that it is Electronic Brainstorming that produces the most non-redundant new ideas (Michinov, 2012).

The drawback of the Brainwriting method is that each person has to reach forward and pick up other ideas and people don’t do this as much as they should.

In contrast, Electronic Brainstorming allows (forces, even) every member to see what the other’s are saying with little or no effort. It means that the group is exposed to the flow of ideas with very little effort.

On top of this it solves some of the problems with face-to-face brainstorming. When it’s done online, each person doesn’t have to wait for the others to stop talking and is less worried about being evaluated (plus brainstomers don’t have to be in the same country!).

This probably helps to explain why people report finding Electronic Brainstorming to be a satisfying experience.

One final tip: Electronic Brainstorming research suggests the best results are gained in groups of 8 or more.

 

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