Opinion Research and Motivation

As referenced in a few of my previous posts, I work with consumer opinions for a living. Lately, many colleagues wanted to investigate people’s motivation to participate in programs and what factors “caused” behaviors. As you can imagine, it’s going to get messy!

We study consumer motivation to answer questions like, “what brought this product to your attention, why did you purchase this product over another, did you use a coupon with this purchase,” and so on. Our clients want to know which communication channels work best for the customers, if their discounts/rebates change behavior, and if their marketing efforts could be altered to reach an even broader demographic. Survey research answers these questions and more, but only if you maintain a valid design.

Research questions, like those above, come from research goals. As part of my job, I help project managers craft research questions to inform those research goals. Let’s look at a few research goals and if common the applied methods adequately fulfilled these goals.


The program

Gym weights

Imagine a fitness club offers an online tool for its customers that allows users to track their weight, get health tips, and make fitness commitments. The client suspects that making health commitments leads to more frequent use of the gym (which might lead to higher satisfaction with the gym). In order to motivate people to use the online tool, the gym gave users discounted membership fees if they used the tool at least five days out of the month.


Goal #1 – What marketing channels do my customers use?

Research question: How did you hear about our program? options – online, TV, radio, newspaper, friend/relative, staff member, or other

With this questions, we can determine which form of advertisement reaches your customers. Further, we can detect demographic trends. One would assume younger populations would be using internet channels more frequently than elderly populations. The client may take that information and make online advertisements to target younger crowds, and radio/newspaper advertisements to target older crowds. If you’ve read a copy of Reader’s Digest lately, you know it targets a 50+ crowd based soley on the advertisements you’ll find.

Goal #2 – Did the experience with the program increase satisfaction?

Research question: Did your opinion of the gym change by using this program? (Likert scale decrease to increase)

If 50% of respondents reported that their satisfaction with the gym increased as a result of using the program… that’s good news right? Well, imagine other reports show that 80% of all customers state that they are very satisfied with gym already. How could their satisfactions increase so dramatically if most people report high satisfaction?

This design attempts to drawn causation, but directionality mucks it up! For the uninitiated, directionality refers to factors influencing each other but researchers fail to determine which causes which (more specifically – multicollinearity). How can one survey question assess how the program influences you? You have two fairly simple options  – use a control group and only ask general satisfaction, or measure before and after the program is used. Asking the question alone will not show causation!

Goal #3 – Did the money spent on offering incentives (discounts) lead to behavioral change?

spare change

Research question: How influential was the membership discount in your decision to use the tool? (Likert scale, very influential to not at all influential)

Unfortunately, standard surveys fail to adequately measure something as sensitive as behavioral attribution in a single question. Even with a question battery designed to assess attribution, it may still fall short. As some of my colleagues have stated, “some folks think we can measure anything with a magic survey.” Indeed, surveys cannot conquer all of our problems! For example, if you want to measure someone’s weight, you use a scale. You don’t ask them for their opinion on their weight!

Moreover, people tend to take ownership of their behaviors, especially when it’s important to their self-image (see my post on justification). The more effort something took, the more likely I’m going to believe I engaged in the behavior because it was the right thing to do. If the behavior in question took less effort, I’m more likely to attribute my behavior to external factors, like a reward or discount. Imagine a new refrigerator was $200 off, but it still cost you $800 dollars. Did you buy it because it was discounted, or because you felt the item would meet your needs. If you felt that $800 was a large investment on your part, you are more likely to take personal ownership of that decision regardless of the what really occurred. Our justification system serves to reduce cognitive dissonance, not lead us to logical conclusions (and spending a lot of money does cause dissonance)!

Simply put… people’s attributions of their behavior are very inaccurate. It’s tough to draw meaningful business conclusions when you’re seeking invalid data! In order to consider other methods, we need to briefly discuss how memory influences decision making.

Memory Systems

In a related post (see my “building a better survey” post for more info), I referenced validity in design as being a major hurdle for survey designers. In my work, survey designers try to assess motivations explicitly through a survey, but can well-meaning respondents actual provide accurate information about their motivation? To really dig into this discussion, we should recall dual-process memory briefly. We posses two memory processes that function concurrently, each one influencing our decisions.

Explicit Memory


When you hear “explicit memory” or “episodic memory” think of recalling events like you’re watching a movie. When we detect stimuli and analyze it with our working memory (consciousness), we have a chance to store this information in our long term memory system facilitated by the hippocampus. These memories can be recalled and reviewed, but they are quite malleable. Justification to reduce dissonance can change our ideas of how events actually occurred. Also explicit memory is SLOW compared to implicit memory. Experiences pass from perception to working memory and then to long term memory. As you’ll soon see, implicit memory completely bypasses consciousness which makes it pretty quick!

Implicit Memory


When you hear”implicit memory” think of “muscle memory”- When we detect stimuli with our senses, the experiences are automatically stored without using the working memory. Since this memory system never access the working memory, it is never stored as explicit memory. Thus, we cannot recall and review memory stored in this way. However, these memories affect our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and reactions. When learning a new sport, for example, you spend all of your cognitive effort telling yourself where to place your feet, how to use your hips, where to aim, how to position your shoulders… it’s overwhelming to juggle all that information! After enough repetition, your implicit memory system is able assist you, and you focus your efforts on aiming instead of all those other things. Also, behaviorism (reinforcement and punishment) relies on implicit memory. Reinforced behaviors become unconscious reaction after enough time.

How does implicit memory change or influence our behavior? When I go to the store to purchase something simple like paper towels, which one will I chose? I’m not an expert on how to pick out “the best” paper towels, so I go down the aisle and find one that I’m the most comfortable purchasing. Wait. How could I be more comfortable buying one product over another? Simply put, exposure through advertising and dissonance reduction (see my post on dissonance for more information).

Even though I avoid advertisements at all costs, the more exposure I’ve had with the product through advertising, the more comfortable I’ll feel when making the purchase. This isn’t something that passes through my working memory, it by-passes consciousness and creates a “gut feeling” for a product. So if I’ve just seen the ad in the newspaper for a few years, but never read it, that’s still enough exposure. I’m unaware of how many exposures I’ve had, I just know when making that decision to purchase paper towels… one options felt MORE correct than the others.

Companies just LOVE it when you go with your gut. That means you’ll follow your brand loyalty or whichever product had the most advertising dollars behind it. This is because experiencing a stimulus multiple times changes our attitudes as we become more comfortable with the product. Perhaps due to explicit experience, or implicit ones. It can be hard to tease them apart!


What sort of research designs are appropriate for assessing explicit or implicit information?

  • Explicit methods
    • Surveys
    • Interviews
    • Focus groups
  • Implicit methods
    • Behavioral tracking (number of times visiting the gym for example, but TRACKED not ASKED!)
    • Implicit attitude testing (reaction latency – see the glass slipper effect for an interesting example)
  • Hybrid – using structured opinion to determine preference
    • Maxdiff (see below)
    • Conjoint (see below)

When you see explicit measures, you are directly asking about someone’s experience. Explicit basically means “opinion” to me and implicit means “data” to me. If our database shows that people in the program visited the gym 20% more frequently than non-participants, that’s great implicit data. Asking someone if they think they visited more often is still an opinion, and not very interesting explicit data. It gets even trickier when we ask people to say why they engaged in a behavior -“Did some silly website make me go to the gym more often, or did I chose to make healthy decisions on my own?” – my self serving biases will push me to believe I did it on my own, and I might be wrong. A few methods require a bit of opinion, but you can tease out some indication of implicit preference with a bit of creativity.

Maxxdiff Analysis


Imagine you want to know which feature of your gym is most important. In an initial attempt, you make a select-multiple question (multiple response/check all that apply style) and see which items were selected the most. The top three items were top-of-the-line equipment, spinning classes, and enough space in the locker room. The other 30 gym features were largely ignored, but how should the gym budget its renovations? Should you spend all your money on those three items alone? What about other needs or activities? The client knows the swimming pool and climbing wall always have a line of people around it, so clearly some people must like it. We can use Maxdiff analysis to help.

Allow your respondents to become the judge! Just ask, “which of the following items do you want at your gym the most, and which one do you want the least” then show some of the features (towel service, clean bathrooms, yoga classes, basketball courts, spinning classes). Since the gym has about 20-30 different features, you never show them all in one giant list. People won’t engage that way! You ask the question a few dozen times (showing a different assortment of the features each time) and always ask for two responses: most and least preferred or thumbs up/thumbs down. On the analytics side, you are able to determine which items received the best ratio (most frequent positive and least frequent negative), and you can rank your features in order. This is more informative than a simple check box since it forces people to compare features they might have not thought too much about. Maxxdiff gives us a more robust view of the actual preference of people instead of a simplistic opinion.

Conjoint Analysis


The other hybrid method is conjoint analysis, but don’t let the name scare you — It’s a pretty simple idea! With conjoint analysis, you have a product with multiple features, and each of these features has multiple levels. Unlike Maxdiff where we just compare the presence of a feature, in conjoint we’re measuring the level of the feature. The most common example we find is with cell phones. Cell phones have features that can vary wildly from brand to brand and version to version. We have screen size, camera resolution, case color, and battery life for this example. In addition to that, we need price. All we ask if whether or not someone would purchase a theoretical product with various levels of the variables. The following examples will make it a bit clearer:

  • Large screen, high resolution camera, red color, short battery life – $400
  • Medium screen, high resolution camera, blue color, medium battery life – $250
  • Small screen, low resolution camera, black color, long battery life – $300
  • Large screen, medium resolution camera, red color, medium battery life – $350

Respondents simply state yes or no, “Yes, I would buy this product at this price,” or “No, I would not buy it at this price.” Using these data, you can determine which feature level is most highly related to a yes vote (using logit regression). For example, we might observe that people are more willing to spend $50 more for any type of phone with a red case with a long battery life. Interestingly, if we asked people if color mattered to them in their decisions, they’d likely say “no.”

Additionally, a designer can see which price points will require which features in the market place. Granted, this is still technically in opinion territory, but the customer is not just saying, “I’m willing to spend $400 on a phone with a black case and long battery life.” Frankly, many users don’t understand what they actually want. Given the proper tools, you can learn things from respondents which they didn’t even know! Teasing out implicit memory can lead to great conclusions.

With all this in mind, can a survey accurately measure motivators of behavior? Without using more technical methods like conjoint or maxdiff style surveys, probably not. Much of the decision making process takes place in the implicit memory and questionnaires are just not sensitive enough to detect it. That doesn’t means surveys are useless. Surveys still provide valuable data to us, and sometimes the behavioral data is impossible to obtain. Still, it’s never acceptable to use invalid designs just because other methods are more expensive!


All images are royalty free and accessed from morguefile.com



Stories of Ms. MacGuffin (women as objects in Film)

Let’s start with a familiar tale:


The knight in shining armor storms the castle, laying waste to all who would challenge him. One foe stand between him and his prize. The great dragon snarls at the knight menacingly as he readies his blade. The dragon begins to inhale deeply, but being a well trained knight, the knight knows this is his chance. Instead of running and hiding, the knight charges on his steed straight for the beast. His blade punctures through the dragon’s protective scales as the dragon sprays fire into the air, unable to aim at the knight while in such pain. The dragon screeches as it takes flight to retreat. The knight, triumphantly goes to claim his princess locked away in the tower. He breaks down the door and the beautiful maiden rushes towards him saying, “my hero!”


The story certainly has a cliche’ theme. Some folks might find this to be absurdly offensive to treat a woman like an object. Still, others might think the people who are offended are being overly sensitive. Can’t we just enjoy a story without analyzing it? In fact, I’d argue ignoring such analysis might cause trouble!


The Problem? This female character could be replaced by a random object and the change would not influence the story. She has no effect on the story other than something for the hero to gain. What if the knight was searching for a new magical sword, a holy relic, or a new shiny pair of pants? Also, my use of the phrase, “claim his princess” might feel sexist as well. As Jasmine famously stated in the Disney’s Aladdin, “I am not a prize to be won.” Luckily for us, Disney eventually replaced the traditional damsel in distress with more empowered women. Just compare Cinderella or Sleeping beauty to someone like Disney’s Mulan. Female characters with depth and the ability to change their world beyond getting man to change it for them.


We need to accept that stories and entertainment can serve to change how we think and feel. We know that exposing people to stories will shape expectations. These expectations can alter their developmental trajectory! My article review of “The Glass Slipper Effect” goes into greater detail about the dangers of exposing ourselves to these types of stories.


What are some popular stories where the female lead is nothing more than an object to be obtained by the protagonist? Such a character would not go through any character development, or have major influence on the plot. I want to take a peek at some films to see if their female lead is well-rounded or just a plot device. Let’s make a game out of it. I’ll describe movies by replacing the female lead with a random object. First you can try to guess the movie, and then see if the story still holds up. If the story still make sense when the female lead is replaced by the object, I’d consider it a poor version of a female character. Additionally, I chose three family films due to the dangers of sexism discussed in “Glass Slipper Effect.”

Movie #1


The MacGuffin Version – the female lead shall be replace by A Pleasant Looking Couch



The male lead lives in a fictional world of vikings where dragons constantly attack his people and their little bit of land, but the male lead is not most folks’ idea of a viking. He’s tiny, scrawny, fairly frail, but creative. He eventually begins dragon-combat training and sees A Pleasant Looking Couch. The Pleasant Looking Couch is a capable warrior and thinks the male lead is a loser. The male lead  eventually finds and befriends a dragon he wounded with a machine he created, and learns how to tame dragons. The male lead then uses his newly found skills during training. In the end, we see the male lead  and his fellow trainees riding on dragons to save the day against an evil dragon overlord which had been forcing the dragons to attack the vikings all along. In the end, the male lead  saves the people, changes what the vikings believe about dragons, and A Pleasant Looking Couch finally sees him for the capable man he really is.


This plot comes from “How to Train your Dragon.” how to train your dragon
The female lead, Astrid, may be objectified, but at least she was a capable and contributing member to her society without the help of the main male protagonist. Her influence over the story was inconsequential beyond the male protagonist’s feelings towards her. It’s not the worst offender, that’s for sure! Let’s move on!

Movie #2


The MacGuffin Version – the female lead shall be replace by An Out of Tune Accordion



The male lead, a handsome rogue with a heart of gold, runs into a beautiful young Out of Tune Accordion who gets itself in trouble. The male lead falls in love with this Out of Tune Accordion at first sight. Eventually, the guards come to capture the male lead for stealing and that’s when he find’s out the Out of Tune Accordion is royalty. The male lead is allowed to escape his sentence by helping the wicked man retrieve a magic lamp. The male lead is tricked and almost killed by the wicked man, which results in the male lead  keeping the magic lamp. It turns out there is a wish-granting Genie in the lamp! He uses his wishes to become a man worthy of royalty (he becomes a prince). He tries to win the Out of Tune Accordion’s  heart, but it is offended by be treated as an object. He spends time with the Out of Tune Accordion showing it interesting views on his magic carpet, while keeping his true past a secret. Eventually, the wicked man steals the lamp. The male lead struggles to fight the wicked man, but  the male lead eventually tricks him into becoming a genie. The male lead saves the kingdom, and of course, he wins the heart of the Out of Tune Accordion . Thus, they live happily ever after.


The plot comes from “Aladdin.” aladdin
Jasmine, the female lead, serves little purpose in this story and fails to progress as a character during the story. She exists as an object for the two men to fight over. She could have been replaced by a giant mop, a bowl of spaghetti, or a ball of rusty barbed wire as she failed to really change the story. She had minimal influence on her father, was powerless against the antagonist, and she was still objectified in the end. Aladdin’s simplistic relationship with Jasmine revolved around her appearance alone. In this way, I do feel it’s a fairly sexist version of the character. I’m not saying this is a bad film, I love this musical a lot. It is simply unfortunate that it has a weak female lead. She is actually much more fleshed out and influential in the cartoon series.

Movie #3


The MacGuffin Version – the female lead shall be replace by A Plate of Pickles



A Plate of Pickles is moving to a new home with its parents. Its parents get lost and stop in a strange place, and decide to eat some food. Its parents get cursed and turned into animals, and now the Plate of Pickles must find a way to change them back. While trying to find out what to do, the Plate of Pickles finds a magical world with strange people. A witch rules over this small area and will not allow trespassers to leave, so the Plate of Pickles  is put to work as part of the  staff. The Plate of Pickles finds the manual labor difficult, but the Plate of Pickles works hard. The Plate of Pickles meets people who can help find its parents, and the Plate of Pickles learns about responsibility, overcomes its fears, and  is eventually able to confront the witch. In the end, the Plate of Pickles restores its parents back to normal and they leave the magical place safely.


This plot comes from “Spirited Away.”spirited away
In this film, Chihiro’s parents are cursed and she is stuck working at a bath house. She works hard, tackles her fears, explores this new world, and makes new friends. She overcomes the witch with the help of a few friends and her quick wits. That said, you cannot replace this female lead with a plate of pickles, or any other MacGuffin for that matter. She explores the world, grows as a character, and makes changes in the world. Sure, she gets help from a dragon-boy name Haku throughout the the movie, but his character is actually more of a MacGuffin. The story doesn’t revolve around him, but he’s certainly part of the supporting cast. That said, at least one of the movies on the list has a positive female depiction!

Finally, the Bechdel Test offers another interesting ways to look at women in movies. Allison Bechdel authored a comic strip running from 1985-2008 entitled “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and in one of the comics, she detailed a list of rules for one of her characters to watch a film. The rules became what is now known as the Bechdel Test.
  1. The film must contain at least two women
  2. These two women must speak with each other
  3. Their conversation must be about something other than a man

Now let’s apply our test to the three films above:

  • How to Train your Dragon – Pass. Two of the female characters speak to each other, mostly about fighting dragons.
  • Aladdin – Fail. Jasmine is the only female character in the story, so how could it pass?
  • Spirited Away – Pass. Tons of female characters and they typically talk about lots of things.

Certainly, the Bechdel Test alone cannot determine if a film is sexist or not, but it provides a quick idea. If it cannot pass this test, the film might struggle to depict a well-rounded female character.


In conclusion, latent sexism in film really isn’t news. I simply wanted to provide folks with a few ways to think about films, and the characters within them. To me, good character depictions (male or female) involve a character’s growth. What challenges did the character face, and how did the character overcome the challenges? What did the character learn as a result of their experience? How did the character’s failures shape their future behavior? I think these are healthy questions to ask. I know film is entertainment, but that does not mean it cannot change how we think and feel. As discussed in so many post on this blog, our experiences shape us! When choosing entertainment for yourself and your family, at least think about what lessons will be taught. I believe the topics warrants discussion, but I cannot deny I still love some of these bad films. Aladdin Sing-Along anyone?

Building a better survey

Like many social scientists, much of my work revolves around surveys and questionnaires. Sometimes, senior management prepares and executes these investigations very well, yet other times folks seem to not know the first things about survey design. I believe the problem lies within the simplicity of a survey. We just put a few questions on paper and distribute it right? Isn’t recruitment much harder than design?

If only surveys were as simple as my sample image below:

survey image


Today, I describe the most common survey issues that pop-up in my work. We’ll start with the most simplistic problems and work our way to the tough ones!

I want to share one piece of general advice prior to discussing the most common issues. When you design a survey, always ensure each survey question is mapped back to a research topic for the survey. If your survey question fails to gather information about your research topic, remove it immediately!

Non-exclusive categories

Non-exclusive categories tend to appear in the demographic sections of survey (typically near the end of a survey). Resolving this problem is simple, so let’s review the example.

Original question: “Which of the following best describes your age?”

  1. 18-25
  2. 25-35
  3. 35-45
  4. 45-55
  5. 55+

Issue: If you’re 25 years old, how can you answer this question? The categories overlap! The categories should ALWAYS be mutually exclusive.

Proposed fix: “Which of the following best describes your age?”

  1. 18-24
  2. 25-34
  3. 35-44
  4. 45-54
  5. 55 or older

Now it’s easy to tell which group you should choose!

Biased or leading questions

Biasing occurs when the question wording makes certain responses more or less likely, or influences how one answers questions further along in the survey.

Original question: “Do you waste energy by turning your air conditioner on during summer peak hours?”

Issue:  If my research question is “do you use your air conditioner during peak hours (5-8pm in the summer),” why add the biased language? If the intent is to inform people that using energy at this time is wasteful, then it should be completely independent of the question, and not presented with the question at all!

Proposed fix: “Do you use your air conditioner between the hours of 5-8pm during the summer?” Now my research question aligns with the survey question!

Double Barreled Questions

Double-barreled questions can sneak into our surveys when we fail to pay close attention. In some cases, a change in wording can resolve then, but not in all cases. If we ask a question with multiple subjects, avoid asking how you feel about BOTH of the subjects at once.

Original question: “Do you agree or disagree: My mechanic was knowledgeable and professional.” scale used: Agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, disagree

Issues: What if the mechanic was extremely knowledgeable about your car issues, but they were completely unprofessional? If someone answers the question with anything other than “agree,” can we understand why? Did they answer “somewhat agree” because they were not polite and timely enough, or did they answer that way because the mechanic couldn’t answer all the questions? We cannot take action with this question, so let’s  break our question out into two!

Proposed fix: “Do you agree or disagree: My mechanic was knowledgeable,” question two “My mechanic was professional.” This way, it’s simple to tell the items apart!

Hypothetical Questions

One must avoid hypothetical questions if possible. Sometimes, hypothetical questions are critical to your research, but one needs to be able to identify when to use them. To be clear, a hypothetical question is like a “what if” question. For example, “If you wanted to upgrade your phone, what features are most important to you?” Hypotheticals are acceptable if a research question can only be asked in a hypothetical way. Product testing tends to be full of hypothetical questions because the product doesn’t exist yet, and the researchers are trying to see what features are more desirable. Otherwise, avoid hypotheticals if possible.

Original question: “If you were going to go to a family restaurant tonight, where would you go?”

Issues: My question when reviewing surveys is “what research question is this answering?” In this case, we are trying to find out what someone’s favorite family restaurant is. Why ask this in a hypothetical manner at all? We can just ask directly!

Proposed fix: “What is your favorite family restaurant in your area?” – done and done.


Investigations must always create valid results. For my work, a valid tool simply means, “this tool is measuring what we are intending to measure.” It sounds quite simple, I know, but sometimes things get lost in translation. For example, let’s look at a recent question I reviewed which asked about experience with a financing program.

Original question:  “If you had to create a budget to buy a car within the next month, how much would be be ready to spend?”

Issues: In this case, researchers try to ask participants to guess how much money they would be comfortable spending in the future. In one of my older posts, the (not so) rational man model, I discussed why people fail to make rational choices between future decisions versus current decisions.

Proposed fix: A different research approach is needed in order to evaluate purchasing behavior. In most cases, researchers can review sales that actually occurred (point of sale data) to see how much the typical consumer is spending, and split the respondents into categories based on demographics later. It’s actually measuring what you’re intending to measure – consumers of each category tend to spend X amount of dollars. Some folks think you can measure anything with a survey, and sometimes we need to acknowledge its limitations and pursue other methods.

Additional issue: I put myself and my client at risk when I gather invalid data. If I fail to catch the error prior to making my grand conclusion, the client may go out and make business decisions based on invalid information. That might result in major losses on their part, and a very upset customer that I will probably never see again. Invalidity is very costly, and very dangerous!

When it comes to surveying, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest issues that come across my desk come from folks outside of the social sciences. In a previous experience, an engineer co-worker put a survey together with the expectation that the entire survey could be ready to send to the respondents the same day. After reviewing the tool, we needed to go back and clean up most of the questions. Afterwords, we programmed the survey in our web tool, and then elicited feedback for the changes from the client. The process of taking a survey from paper to final web-tool (if web surveys are your final product) can take between 8-24 work hours and even more for complex designs. This is because the quality assurance reviews and skip pattern creation that must occur. Honestly though, most errors occur because people underestimate the time and precision needed to use a survey in the appropriate way.

That’s all for survey design for now! If you have any questions about surveys, or experiences to share, please leave leave a comment!

I will focus my next post back on research more so than research practices. Until then, thanks for reading!

The Dangers of Chivalry – Benevolent Sexim

Last week, we discussed ambivalent sexism, and I described the difference between Hostile Sexism and Benevolent Sexism. This week, we discuss how benevolent sexism serves to undermine gender equality.

Becker and Wright (2011) argue that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism have distinctly different outcomes. Most folks know hostile sexism when they see it, and it typically insights anger and action from people. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, enforces the same beliefs, but reduces the likelihood for action or activism to occur.

To be more precise, Becker and Wright (2011) are referring to collective action, not just anger. When we are motivated to resolve something for our individual benefit, we might be referring to individual mobility. Collective action takes place when one fights for the sake of their entire group – not just themselves! Imagine this scenario – a man and woman are discussing the World Cup.

Man – “I enjoyed the world cup so far this year.”

Woman – “Me too. I’m not like most women because I’m a sports nut!”

In this scenario, the female character is distancing herself from her gender-based group. This remark is for the sake of individual mobility, not collective action. Now imagine a second woman joins the conversation –

Woman #2 – “Woman don’t like sports? Since when? Everyone likes sports.”

The second woman is attempting to improve equality across the board, not just raise herself above her own group. The individual mobility of the first woman can seem quite subversive as it reinforces the a stereotype while attempting to improve one’s own standing.

According to Becker and Wright (2011), benevolent sexism accomplishes three things to lead to a decrease in collective action – gender-specific system justification, perceived advantages of being a woman, and positive affect. In the figure below, note how the increase in factors leads to collective action. Compare this to hostile sexism, where the negative affect serves to moderate the collective action (increasing its likelihood in this case). To be more clear, while the gender-specific system justification and perceived advantages of being a woman still reduce likelihood of collective action with hostile sexism, but the negative affect moderates the outcome by changing the magnitude and direction of the effect (changing a decrease into a large increase of collective action)!




Becker and Wright put their idea to the test in a series of four experiments.

Study #1

The first study tasked participants to read a series of short passages that had one of four types of statements. These statements either contained (1) benevolent sexism, (2) hostile sexism,  (3) non-sexist statements supportive of women, or (4) statements that had no remarks regarding gender. The authors included the third variation to see if supportive comments also led to a reduction in collective action, as their model suggests positive affect was a major moderating force. After reading the passages, the participants answered questions relating to gender-specific system justification, advantages of being a woman, positive or negative affect, and likelihood to take collective action.


First, the authors did not see a significant difference between the non-sexist positive statements and the non-gender comments. As these groups were statistically identical, the results were pooled and treated as the control group. As shown in figure 3, the benevolent sexism group had the lowest likelihood to engage in collective action after reviewing their short passages. Becker and Wright (2011) go on to say this is the first evidence showing that the type of sexism moderates likelihood of collective action. Compared to the control group, the hostile sexism group has increased likelihood of action, and the benevolent sexism group has a decreased likelihood of action.



Study #2

The authors wanted to replicate their findings, but they also wanted to provide a bit more face validity. The experimenters used the same four sets of statements from the last experiment, but overall the design was much different.

  1. Participants came to the experiment site (a room at a university), and each participants did the study separately.
  2. Participants received an envelope containing 6 statements, just like in the first study. Experimenters were blind to which students received which items.
  3. The participants we taken to a second testing room for a “memory test” on the 6 statements they had read, but had to wait outside for 5 minutes.
  4. During the 5 minute wait, participants were offered the chance to sign a petition for two campaigns – women equality and increasing student autonomy
  5. Participants could sign the petitions and take any number of fliers to support each cause. The fliers would be delivered to the student at a later date, so participants wouldn’t need to worry about carrying them at this time. Experimenters assumed more fliers and rate of signing a petition would be moderated by the statements the participants read.


Participants in the hostile sexism group requested more flyers on average than any other condition, and the benevolent sexism group requested fewer fliers than both the control, and hostile condition. As we saw in study 1, we certainly see how requesting fewer fliers would be expected as those exposed to benevolent sexism are less likely to take steps towards collective action. We see the same relationship in frequency of petition signing. More participants exposed to hostile sexism were likely to sign the gender-related petition than other groups, and the benevolent sexism group was least likely to sign the gender-related petition. For the last student autonomy petition, we see no statistically significant difference between the groups. According to Becker and Wright (2011),  the participants were not expected to show a difference in the student autonomy petition as they were all equally part of the same in-group. That is to say, the participants were not comparing men versus women any more, or even students versus faculty. However, the students are still endorsing collective action for students, but the benevolent sexism group only commit to collective action for students. This distinction is vital because the authors were able to show that you can decrease collective action in specific contexts but leave it untouched for others. We might even assume the student autonomy question shows the participants baseline for collective action, but that might be too strong of an assumption.

flier condition


Study 3

Study three tasked participants with an online survey. Participants were shown one of two version of the same paragraph, and they were either in the high or low gender-specific justification group.  The paragraph stated most students felt the distribution of societal resources between men and women was fair (high justification), or that most people felt it was unfair (low justification). See the excerpt from Becker and Wright’s (2011) selected passage in the figure below. The values in parenthesis show the difference between the high and low justification groups.  After reading the statements, respondents rated their agreement to a gender-specific system justification statements, and collective action statements. Respondents who were exposed to higher levels of gender-specific justification in their paragraphs were more likely to endorse gender-specific justification statements. Additionally, the high justification group had lower intentions of collective action than the low justification group.

Passage example

Study 4

Becker and Wright (2011) went on to replicate study three with one minor change. Instead of using a passage about gender-specific justification, the passage described different levels of perceived advantages of being a woman. Once again, one group was exposed to high levels of perceived advantage, while the other group was exposed to low levels of perceived advantage. The study’s conclusion was identical to study 3 – exposure to benevolent sexism led to a reduction in collective action. To be more precise, those exposed to high levels of perceived advantages of being a woman were the least likely to show intent of collective action, while the low perceived advantage group was more likely to show intent of collective action.



Becker and Wright’s (2011) research showed us how damaging benevolent sexism can be. While it serves to enforce social norms and stereotypes just as hostile sexism, it also leads to a decrease in collective action. Further, their research shows both perceived advantages of being a woman, and gender-specific justification by themselves are enough to reduce collective action. The study did not include research on paternalism, however I believe the behavior would produce the same output.

What does that mean for us?

I know we dove into the research pretty deep that time! I think it’s clear what happens when we engage in benevolent sexist actions. Just like last week, I think we need to be mindful of the sources of our behavior. Am I acting a certain way because of someone’s gender, or am I acting a particular way to be as supportive as I can regardless of gender? If we continue to enforce gender-specific roles, act paternally to those we claim to respect as equals, and place people on pedestals, we will essentially be disarming those whom we claim to care about the most.

In conclusion, take responsibility for your attitudes and actions, but I know slip-ups still happen. Just be sure what you say and do is what you believe, not what you were simply trained to think!


Becker, J. C., & Wright, S. C. (2011, February 28). Yet Another Dark Side of Chivalry: Benevolent Sexism Undermines and Hostile Sexism Motivates Collective Action for Social Change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Ambivalent Sexism

Is sexism still an issue worth worrying about, even in the West? Absolutely. Some of us may not realize that our actions, while benevolent in nature, may actually serve to enforce gender roles. What makes benevolent sexism even worse is that it leads to the victim’s inaction. Before we get into defining sexism as either hostile or benevolent, let’s reaffirm that sexism is still an issue in the West

First, most men still earn higher incomes than women for the same job (outlined in “Can an angry woman get ahead?“). Additionally, men’s trajectories lead them to careers with higher salary, status, and prestige (see “the glass slipper effect“). Regarding how pervasive these stereotypes are, just look at the following list and imagine someone you know who fills this role.

  • Stay-at-home dad
  • A bossy young boy
  • A female engineer
  • A female pilot
  • A male nurse
  • A woman, on one knee, proposing to a man

male nurse

Male nurse clip art is not easy to find!

I do not know any stay-at-home dads in my personal life, though I know they are out there. Next, the term “bossy” is rarely used to define a boys behavior. Bossy has been brought to the public’s attention recently as being a very offensive, sexist term reserved for young women. Also, I do work with at least one female engineer at my job (though she is in a different office). I’ve never seen a female pilot, and I haven’t met a male nurse. Finally, I’ve never seen a woman propose to a man while on one knee, but honestly I haven’t seen anyone propose to anyone else in person. I suppose the last example isn’t fair, but let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s hard for us to imagine these people because it’s outside the social norm. Social norms are powerful things, and when we deviate from it, we run into the problems outlined in “Can an angry woman get ahead?” However, we should be cautious to ensure our trajectory is the one we wish to follow, not the one created on our behalf by our predecessors. Simply acting due to tradition is an awful excuse for sexism!

Before we dive into Ambivalent Sexism's explanation - feel free to spend a few minutes taking this quick test! The ambivalent sexism inventory. Just answer honestly - everything is anonymous so no one will really know your answers other than yourself.

Ambivalent Sexism

Glick and Fiske (1996) created the first Ambivalent Sexism inventory, and much of the theories theoretical framework. Within their theory, two types of sexism exist – Hostile and Benevolent and three domains exist – paternalism, gender differentiation, and heterosexuality. Most of us can easily identify hostile sexism. Hostile sexism encompasses beliefs that one sex should try to control another, one sex is superior than another, and one sex is a sexual object for the other. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, embodies ideas like one sex needs to be protected by the “stronger” sex, one sex is more capable for tasks than another due to sex based traits alone, and one sex’s intimacy is necessary to complete the other’s life. I understand that imagining benevolent sexism in this way is a bit abstract, so let’s break out these ideas into examples. In these examples, I will refer to the discriminated party as a female and the sexist party as male. Sexism absolutely goes in both directions, but sexism research is typically male’s attitudes being forced on females.

Keep in mind, the effects of hostile sexism are obvious – subjugation, dominance, loss of power and agency. For benevolent sexism, we see similar outcomes, except the benevolent form of sexism leads to lower likelihood of action! Which means, benevolent sexism leads to the same loss of power in women, but it is also less likely to cause women to act to make empowering changes.

  • Paternalism
    • Hostile, believing a man needs to control a woman – If a man tells a woman, “I know what’s best for us,” or “I know what’s best for your.” In more subversive cases you may see a man controlling who a woman’s friends can be, “It makes me uncomfortable to you spending time with Bill. I trust you, but not him!” Frankly, this man doesn’t trust the woman’s judgement, even though he claims to do so.
    • Benevolent, believing a woman needs to be protected – Recently I was walking downtown with a friend of mine who was with his girlfriend. She said that she was cold, and he offered her his coat. I jokingly remarked, “you know some people might call that sexist!” I think the act of offering a coat is perfectly fine, however the justification that followed bothered me. I asked, “Hey, what if you were cold and she offered you her coat. Would you take it?” He said, “no, it’s my own fault for not being prepared.” His justification sounds as if his girlfriend can be expected to make these mistakes while he would not. Almost the same way we might treat a child, right? I pointed out this issue, but he never saw it my way. Regardless, let’s hope he doesn’t get to mad seeing this pop up on my blog!
  • Gender Differentiation
    • Hostile, believing men are superior to women – When a man gets paid more for doing the same work as a women, we could classify it as hostile gender differentiation. Even if a man expects less out of a woman, it could fall into this category. For example, what if a father has a daughter and son, but treated their achievements differently. When the son failed to make varsity men’s soccer team, the father was upset that the son did not work harder. When the daughter did not make varsity women’s soccer team, he suggested another hobby. When the father views one idea (a man engaging in sports) as serious, and another (a women engaging in sports) as mere recreation, we have hostile sexism.
    • Benevolent, believing sex-based traits lead to sex-based skill superiority – This type of sexism is fairly common, at least in my personal experiences. Have you ever heard something like…?

“Wow she good at (any skill set) for a girl”

“My wife is so much better with the kids than me. What can you expect from a regular ol’ guy like me?”

“Women are just so much better at understanding emotions and communicating!”

    • If we expect different skills and abilities out of someone based on sex-based traits, we might be justifying a sexist belief. There are real differences between males and females related to brain function and hormone influences, but people focus too much on our differences. Males and females have far more similarities than differences. Since we are so similar, the differences seem to stick out much more!
  • Heterosexuality
    • Hostile, viewing a woman as a sexual object – this is fairly clear. If a man is only able to describe his perfect female partner based solely upon their physical attributes, without a mention of personality, we might see some hostile sexist tendencies. This version of sexism is hard to shake since it is prevalent in media. Have you seen a show or film where a female lead character had no attributes beyond their youth and beauty, and the story revolved around a man “winning” her? In a summation from the Lindsay Ellis, “the Nostalgia Chick” (a media reviewer of YouTube fame) in the worst films you can replace a female lead with a physical object with no significant change to the story. Disney’s Aladdin falls into this category. Jasmine’s interaction with the story only revolved around who she would marry and who would ultimately win her. When a women is simply an achievement for the man, it’s a hollow, probably sexist story.
    • Benevolent, believing that romantic intimacy with a woman is required for the man to be complete. With this idea, some men might feel that a women is the barrier keeping the man from fulfillment and completeness. A woman is not the answer for a man. If two consenting adults wish to have a relationship and work to make it fulfilling, great! It is not the woman’s obligation, however, to make the man feel fulfilled. (Again, this could just as easily be a women feeling that they need a man to be complete, or a man needing a man, women needing a women… etc)
      • A real need? – We all feel the natural impulses for closeness and intimacy, but to treat these needs the same way we treat the needs for hunger and thirst is a bit far fetched. That does not mean relationships should be avoided, but they should not be seen as the answer to your life’s fulfillment.
      • An object? – At some level, is this treating someone as an object. Take this statement from the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory
        • ” Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores,” or “Men are incomplete without women.”

I think the ideas outlined by Glick and Fiske show how our seemingly positive and supportive behaviors can unwittingly be sexist! To review, paternalism is the act of treating women the same way one might treat children (assuming they lack responsibility and need constant protection). Gender differentiation is expecting different behaviors/aptitudes based solely on sex linked traits. Finally, heterosexual intimacy is the idea that a man can only be complete when he has a woman.

The question I want people to keep in mind is, “am I treating a woman this way because this is how a woman should be treated, or am I treating a woman this way because this is how people should be treated?”

It’s almost an offensive question, isn’t it? It’s almost like I’m having to point out that “women are people.” By all means, feel free to be offended! We must admit that the beliefs instilled in us by our culture can still lead us astray. Take ownership of your behavior!

My next post will review the outcomes of Benevolent Sexism which I eluded to in the introduction. Hostile sexism leads to conflict, while benevolent sexism leads to inaction. We will review research that puts this theory to the test!

The Top 5 Psychological Sins!

For returning readers of this blog, you might have noticed a theme with a few of my posts. Psychology finds itself at odds with common folks’ ideas from time to time, and with the misinformation coming from popular media. Today, I cover my personal top 5! Keep in mind – this list only reflects my personal opinion!

5. The “Person-Who” statistic

Imagine sharing a bit of research with someone, but they disregard it due to second-hand experiences. For example, if I shared research on emergent epigenesis (which shows that genetics set thresholds for the amount of fostering needed for a phenotype to fully express itself, instead of genes dictating your potential), but a listener disagrees with their own experience or reason. Their reason? “My friend Billy is a genius, but his kid is a dumb as a brick even though they give him everything to get him on track!”

The problem? A single outlier does not prove or disprove a relationship. Peer-reviewed, published materials contain statistical validation (in most cases). Scientific results should be valid (measuring what it claims to measure), reliable (able to replicate results) and sound (follows logical structure and conclusion). Personal experiences comprise a single data point, while published research typically encompass multiple data points across many years of research. What if I shared information from a single case study and used it to describe human behavior in aggregate? It would be grossly inappropriate! I typically respond with this, “that’s an interesting experience, but I’m referring human behaviors on average, not trying to explain all possible outcomes.”

4. So you’re a psychologist? You’re not going to psychoanalyze me are you?!

This comment wears you out after a while. First, I’m not a trained counselor, and I’m not a clinical psychologist. I focus on personality and social psychology. I do understand how to look for maladapative reasoning and looking for motivations of behavior, but any observant person can read into behaviors. Every psych student will hear this “joke” at some point.

The problem? Psychology has 56 divisions (http://www.apa.org/about/division/index.aspx). Personality and Social Psychology make up one division, but what other divisions exist? School psychology, developmental psychology, GLBT studies, psychology of substance abuse, evaluation and measurement, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, educational psychology… you get the idea. A large portion of psychology students tend to go into the clinical and counseling fields, but psychology goes far beyond therapy. If  an action involves thinking, a psychological specialization probably exists!

3. Psychology? Oh, so you can prescribe me the good pills right?

I understand people get psychiatry and psychology mixed up sometimes. Even my own family makes this mistake, and I don’t really hold it against someone who switches them around.

The problem? Psychiatry is an M.D. track, which requires medical training. A psychiatrist is not always trained in “talking therapy” but they can diagnose and treat disorder with medication. As much as we like to think our willpower can overcome all disorder, sometimes it cannot. When chemical imbalances occur, medication can help. As for a counselor, he or she is more likely to engage in therapy to resolve maladaptive behaviors and schema. For non-counselors like myself, my recent work tasks me with drafting research methods and how to produce valid and actionable results from survey data.

2. Oh, so why is it I always “insert behavioral quirk” I’m SOOOO OCD!

When folks hear I come from psychology, they share strange stories about themselves with me. Someone shared this story recently, “I always check to make sure I didn’t lock my keys in the car, like, 4 times before I lock and shut the door. My OCD drives me insane.” A lot of folks label their normal human behaviors as disorder, and I suppose it might be because they think the behavior in question is highly abnormal when it is mundane.

The problem? That’s not OCD. In my clinical days, I worked with patients suffering from OCD. They did things like continually wash their hands until they bled. They opened and closed their doors 47 times before they could go to bed otherwise they did not feel safe. They fixated on completing their tasks and failure to do so caused them incredible distress. Checking to make sure your keys are in your pocket a few times is normal human behavior. When people call their normal behaviors disorder, it does get under my skin, and it minimizes those who suffer from the disorder. In most cases, they do not realize what it is like for those who truly suffer from the illness. The biggest offenders claim to have ADD, OCD, and bi-polar disorder. It amuses me that some folks confuse bi-polar disorder and disassociative identity disorder (DID). DID is characterized by multiple personalities that may or may not have access to the memories stored by other personalities, resulting in memory black-outs between “alters”. Bi-polar disorder, on the other hand, is swinging from states of high energy -mania to low-energy depression. The shifts from highs to lows with bi-polar disorder are not necessarily rapid either. Some folks tend to stay in one stay for a prolonged period, then shift into the other for an equally long period.

1. You know how we only use 10% of our brain?

Each time I hear this phrase I roll my eyes and groan. Honestly, this myth bothers me quite a lot more than it should. Let’s apply this same reasoning to CARS instead of BRAINS! What if someone told you “only 1% of my car’s mass creates propulsion to move it forward, if I use 100% of that mass, I could go so fast!!!”

The problem? If 100% of the vehicle’s mass were dedicated to combustion, you wouldn’t be able to sit in it, steer it, have any safety measures, or capacity to carry anything. It would no longer be a car, but simply a bomb. Each part of the car has a function, and damage, or removal, of these parts causes the overall functionality to be impaired, or the machine may cease to work all together.

Let’s take a look at popular culture’s idea of the brain:



Now let’s see a relatively simple diagram about neuroanatomy:



Every single part of the brain isn’t even labeled in the second image, but it should be abundantly clear what’s happening. The brain is not just a big box where thinking happens, it’s where almost EVERYTHING happens. Conscious thought, and self-awareness as we know it only really occur in the prefrontal cortex. Memory and storage occur closer to the mid-brain, near the Olfactory cortex (specifically the basal ganglia and hippocampus).

If you remove a part of the brain, you end up with a very different person. Henery Molaison, (typically noted as H.M in research text) had his hippocampus removed to attempt to stop severe seizures. He stopped having seizures, but he also lost the ability to store any long term memories. Phineas Gage had a terrible construction accident which removed a large portion of his prefrontal cortex. Some authors claim he lost the ability to manage himself, he became impulsive, quick to anger, and unable to organize anything. In North American Football, some head injuries resulted in damage to the fusiform gyrus. Damage to the fusiform region (home of the “fusiform face area”) leads to face blindness, or prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia is the inability to remember of distinguish faces. Just imagining picking up your child from school, or day care, and needing someone else to tell you which one of the children is yours.

 Every part of the brain is important!

The problem? Popular media likes to use the 10% myth as the basis for their works of fiction. Here’s a listing of a few who commit this psychological sin provided by TV.tropes!

  • Flight of the Navigator
  • Iron Man Extremis (short film)
  • Powder
  • The Last Mimzy
  • Phenomenon
  • Defending your Life
  • The sorcerer’s apprentice
  • My favorite Martian
  • Inception
  • Scott Pilgrim vs The World
  • My Stepmother is an Alien
  • Race to Witch Mountain
  • Limitless
  • The Shadow
  • Lucy (to be released in 2014)


This concludes my personal list of the “Top 5 Psychological Sins.” Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments!

Zeigarnik Effect – Using your brain against you!

The Zeigarnik Effect is a simple quirk that can exploit our brain’s resources. Marketing gurus use this effect against us, with powerful results. However, some people use the Zeigarnik effect to improve their short-term memory without even thinking about it. How?

Let’s start with a little fable.

Long ago, three knights sought a position as a member of the king’s royal guard. The lord of the region was tasked with choosing the best knight for the king’s guard, but could not determine which of the three knights would be suitable . The lord had heard equally good things of all the knights. As the lord preferred to avoid relying on humors, the lord decided a test was in order to see which knight was truly the most honorable of them all. A small tournament could be held, but how could it be fair with three individuals? Clearly, one might injure themselves during the first round and be less capable in the second. That’s when he stumbled upon his idea. He knew of the perfect way to decide which man was most honorable of all. All he had to do was instruct the knights to —


More on that story later.

The Zeigarnik Effect seems annoying to most of us. If you were at all interested in the little story I shared, it is probably nagging you. “What was the plan?! What was the simple trick the lord was going to use?”

The Zeigarnik Effect works when we leave an issue unresolved, and our cognitive resources are stuck trying to reduce the dissonance by figuring out the conclusion.

Okay, clearly it can be distracting right? How exactly does this produce powerful results in marketing?

When we’re mentally distracted by the Zeigarnik effect, we have less cognitive resources to evaluate information that we’re receiving. In marketing, if I set up a nonsense story and slip my product in while you are trying to “resolve the narrative” you are less likely to question the information I provide about my product. With enough exposure, I try to make folks form a particular association about my product. With good use of the Zeigarnik effect, you might not question how I’m portraying my product – even if you question the narrative around it!

What about improving short-term memory?

The story I heard back in my college days was about soviet psychologist, Bulma Zeigarnik. Ms. Zeigarnik studied under Kurt Lewin who noticed something strange at a restaurant. Lewin observed their waiter never writing anything down, but the waiter never got an order wrong. At first, Lewin thought this was telling of a good memory, but the waiter was unable to recall the contents of the order after the bill had been paid.

How was the waiter able to recall all of the orders without error to the cook, but fail to remember them after the bill was paid? Zeigarnik began to study this effect afterwards and she came to the following conclusion —


More on that later.

The lord found the perfect way to decide which man was most honorable of all, without the need for any combat. He gathered the three men to his chambers and asked for a volunteer. “The people demand combat, to the death, to see which of you is worthy of the royal guard. Following tradition, we will only allow two combatants to fight at a time. Before going further, you must realize this means one of you will only fight a single time, and the others will fight twice. So tell me which one of you will only fight a single time?”

The first knight said, “Sire, I’ve fought in many battles, and am not as young as the other two men. It would be doing the people a disservice to have them watch me fight more than one battle.”

The second knight said, “I’ve taken too many lives in my time. If I must fight to the death, I’d prefer to only take the life of one man,” said the second knight.

The third knight stepped forward and said, “Sire, in honor of your lordship, and the king we all serve, I will gladly volunteer to go first.”

No tournament was held, no blood was shed. The third knight made it clear he would serve faithfully, and was chosen to be in the royal guard.


Perhaps you feel a bit of relief knowing how the story ends. However, I accidentally produced a Zeigarnik effect while trying to explain the Zeigarnik effect. Let’s get on with it!

Zeigarnik was able to show that having this unresolved tension improves recall of the content in question – thus the waiter could recall orders when he needed to pass on the information to the cook. Once this bit of tension is resolved, recall for that information drops dramatically.

As an interesting aside, some claim that if you are studying information, then interrupt yourself with other unrelated tasks, it can help improve your recall. However, once the tension is resolved, recall can drop. Perhaps this is another reason why “cramming” for a test is largely ineffective for long-term learning. Once the test is taken, the tension is resolved and the information is discarded.

In closing, the Zeigarnik effect is a powerful tool for memory that can be exploited by advertising. While we can’t really control how the Ziegarnik effect influences us, we can strive to be more aware of when it might be occurring.

Can perspective fix all our problems?

Imagine this all to common scenario – Billy and his friend Ricky are talking one evening over dinner. Both of these men are adults, have jobs, most of the needs are met, but Billy still feels depressed.


“Look Billy, you only feel how you want to feel, you just have to change your perspective!” says Ricky.

“Easy for you to say. I try to stay positive, but no matter what, I just wake up feeling like the world is against me. I’ve been so sluggish that I’ve even called in sick a few times just because the stress was too overwhelming,” says Billy.

“What do you mean? Work bogging you down with some crazy projects? You shouldn’t get so worked up!” asked Ricky.

“No, just the idea that I would have to be at work. Stuck in the office, working in a system where I don’t really matter, feeling the judgement from co-workers, and getting nit-picked by managers…” Billy trails off.

“Just think about this. You have a job, you have a place to stay, you have a car, a degree, and everything you could ever need. The only person making you feel bad is you! You need to start looking on the brighter side and you’ll see! You only feel as bad as you CHOOSE to feel!” exclaims Ricky.


I know I have heard this conversation and have even been a part of it. I’ve had people tell me that perspective is the one and only thing that matters. Perspective can help in some cases, such as someone having a warped or maladaptive view of the world. How did they begin to have this view? Was their warped perspective a result of maladative thinking, or were they unable to thrive in their environment? Perspective is certainly important, but our Western ideology puts too much emphasis on the person and not enough on the situation.

If we look at our imaginary friend Billy, we can clearly see a problem with his environment that creates his emotional response. Even if he should feel fortunate to have a job, it sounds like he’s being forced to use a large number of free-traits. As Brian Little’s theory suggests, usage of free-traits comes at a price. Just to review, a free-trait is used when we adopt a personality that differs from our own in order to meet the demands of our environment. The greater the difference between the adopted personality and our natural one, the greater the stress. So it is fair to say that in our example, Billy’s excessive sick days, and stress, are a result of a miss-match of personality and environment.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a poor fit for his job, but he may not fit in with his co-workers. He may not feel a trusting relationship between himself and teammates, or himself and management. Feelings of isolation are not created out of thin air. We feel isolated as a result of being avoided and disregarded in social contexts.

What if emotional states were a reaction to physiological response to a situation or demand? Emotion is the justification of our physiological response. We’ll apply this idea to the following example:

  • A man pulls out a knife and threatens to attack me
    • My adrenaline kicks in. I turn around, and run away. I ran, thus I am fearful
    • My adrenaline kicks in. I rush towards him, and kick him in the head. I fought, thus I am angry.

The physiological response is identical, but the actions that are created define the emotion. I am angry because I attacked or I am fearful because I ran away. Either way, my adrenaline was released. Our perspectives define the behavior after it occurs, so how could my perspective possibly change my reflex? We’re talking about reflexes that bypass the working memory. Recall the dual-process of memory results in a majority of information being processed without conscious thought . Clearly, your mood at the time of the event could alter your physiological state, which could be the result of a perspective. However, at the reflex and response level, physiology reacts prior to executive-level cognition (choices and decision making). Thus I had a physiological response first, then I analyzed my situation afterwards.

William James 1842-1910

William James originally authored this model of emotions (James-Lange theory of emotions). Our descriptions of our physiological states are what define an emotion. Every emotion we have is a chemical mixture. Fear goes hand-in-hand with adrenaline, while happiness is expressed through dopamine and serotonin. These states are almost always the result of our interaction with external stimuli (not in all cases).

What does this mean for someone like Billy? Perhaps instead of using his perspective to change his mood, he should change his actions to alter his mood. After his actions have altered his mood, he could lift himself out of his slump and feel more positive. Some may argue that the choice to be proactive is then the changing of perspective.  Instead of argue over the proverbial chicken and egg, we will label this argument for what it is. Emotion focused coping versus problem focused coping.

To simply change your outlook to improve your mood is actually unhealthy in many cases. If we ignore our stressors and do not act to change them, we will be forced to adopt Free-Traits. If we act to change the parts of our lives that we can control (problem focused coping) then our emotional state will improve. To improve emotions, you simply act. You do not act on the emotions, however, you act towards the ones you desire. 

If we follow the James-Lange model of emotion, you can allow yourself to create behaviors related to the emotions you wish to feel.

This theory is not perfect or without limit. Here are a few examples of when the James-Lange model doesn’t work:

  • I’m reading a book: There’s a twist ending that I did not see coming and I’m excited!
  • I’m reading a different book: There’s a twist ending that I did not see coming and I’m scared!

In both of these cases, the events are being interpreted in my working memory as they occur. I’m not using a reflex to act, I’m reading and visualizing the events. I would argue that your emotional state is completely fabricated by the cognitive experience. Fabricated or not, you have a real emotional experience as a result.

Here’s another example

  • I read a research paper. I think about it all day and I eventually get a great idea! I’m excited!

Once again the emotional state was not created by the physiological response – it was created by my working memory. I didn’t suddenly feel a rush of adrenaline and then come to a grand discovery, I made the discovery and that caused the emotional response. Once again, this did not use a reflex. My imaginary discovery was a thoughtful process.

What should our imaginary friend Billy do given the James-Lange theory of emotions? I think he has a few options:

  • Engage in activities that support the mood he desires
    • Sports
    • Creative activities
    • Social activities
  • Change his environments to support his behavior
    • If he wants to be more social, he should begin making plans
    • If he wants to be more active, he should begin scheduling it
  • A new career (environment)
    • If his work environment elicits a negative emotional response because the job requires behaviors linked to those emotions… he should change his career, or at least place of work

I know there may still be some doubters, but this TED talk by Amy Cuddy might change your mind. Her talk is entitled “Your body language shapes who you are.” That wording itself is very important. If you do not care to watch all 20 minutes, skip to about 10:30 into the talk and you can see her experiment. I’ll summarize it below as well!

Participants were instructed to be in either a high power, or low power pose. An example of a high power pose is standing up straight with your arms on your hips and legs shoulder width apart. A low power pose is one where you sit or stand keeping your body smaller (crossing your arms, touching your neck or face, etc). Participants held these poses for two minutes. Their resting levels of testosterone and cortisol (stress hormone) were measured before the getting in their pose. Those in the high power poses had a 20% increase in testosterone while those in the low power poses had a 10% reduction in their testosterone. For cortisol, those in high power poses reduced their baseline amount by 25% and lower power poses increased cortisol by 15%.

Something as simple as a different pose can dramatically change how stressed we are or how confident we feel. Seemingly simple behaviors can be quite powerful.

In conclusion, I try to avoid “one size fits all” remedies like “just change your perspective!!!!” Just changing your perspective won’t solve any problems. If one only focuses on behavior, one will come up short as well. I do believe, however, that far too many people disregard the power of behavior and instead focus on introspection. As discussed, introspection used for emotion focus coping is actually quite toxic. Thinking through your problems is important, but never more important than actually solving them.

Memory and competitiveness

After a year of posting I feel like I’ve put off talking about my own research for far too long. My thesis project was part of a set of studies that had been ongoing for a few years before I joined my master’s program in 2009. I was unsure about joining the research lab because my focus was on social psychology while they were investigating eyewitness memory (cognitive psychology). Since the lab used cognitive-behavioral research methods, I could use the experience gained here with just about any other lab. Even if their research was not my main focus, it was still a good opportunity for me to learn about methodology.

I worked with another graduate student who wanted to create a simple intervention to help people improve their eyewitness memory. Basically, participants sat in front of a computer screen where they were shown faces. Each face would appear for three to five seconds (the timing was altered in a few version of our set of studies) and was in the center of the screen. They also see geometric shapes with different fill patterns, and nonsense word pairs. Examples of our stimuli can be seen below.

So far so good right? The participant simply looked at the face, pattern, or word presented and tried to remember it for the test. A simple memory test would mix in items they had never seen with items that were on their study list and their task would be to determine if the item was old (one they studied earlier) or new (one they had never seen). Our test was a bit more complicated.

During the memory-testing phase, the participants were faced with old items , new items, and recombined images (morphed images combining two old items). Here are examples of each stimulus type:


The top two items of each set are images you may see during the study portion of the test. The item below the pair is a recombination of the old items creating a new item. For faces, the outer features (hair, ears, chin) are combined with the inner features (eyes, nose, mouth). For shapes, outside shape is combined with inside fill color. For words, the first word part is combined with the second word part. The resulting image is a recombination (also known as conjunction image).

The participants were tasked with identifying items on the study list as old and all others as new (completely new items and the morphed items). Even though the recombined morphed images were made up of old parts, they were still required to identify them as entirely new items. Different colored fill patterns would be used with different shapes. For words, old prefixes would be added to old suffixes.

There are a few key terms with this kind of test. First, when someone correctly identifies that an image is old or new, we call it a hit. If they call an old item new, this is called a miss. If they call a new item old, however, we call this a false alarm for our study. As you may imagine, misidentification for an eyewitness is a dangerous problem. Thus, we always try to find ways to reduce the rate of false alarms without making people overly skeptical of themselves.

Why else might we use recombined images? Theorists have shown that human visual processing is not a simple matter of remembering a distinct feature about someone’s face (such as having a large nose). Experts have shown that it is the unique way the parts combine together which makes up an experience. Below is the famous Ponzo illusion which you have probably seen. It’s not just for fun; this illusion actually has a practical application that I’m about to explain.



Even when you know the top line is the same length as the bottom one, we still perceive it as being a different length. I cannot stress this enough – your brain will automatically interpret stimuli from the perceptual level, and when that message gets to your working memory, you can finally begin to process the items individually. Your brain is telling you the lines are different before you have the chance to begin thinking otherwise.

This example supports the theory that human visual processing is configural – we perceive items based on their relationships to other items! While we may remember the distinctive features of some faces, such as a person with a large nose, we still only remember it based on context. Perhaps that nose looks too large compared to the other features on the face, but if it were placed on a different person’s face, it may appear to be too small. We remember details based on their context!

A quick note about the patterns and the words – if human visual processing is completely part-based, we should have a good memory with random shapes and words too. However, we know with a high amount of confidence that the brain uses different parts to process faces and other objects. Most objects are processed by a part called the “parahippocampal place area” (brain part near the hippocampus) while faces are processed in the fusiform face area. Some other theorists suggest items that we are exposed to frequently (item expertise) are processed in the fusiform area – it’s not just for faces. It only appears that way because faces are something that most humans are exposed to more than almost any other objects. There is still a bit of debate, but I wanted to show why we used faces, patterns, and words in the study – to help determine if visual processing was configural or part-based.

Now back to the experiment!

As you may have guessed, when a participant saw these recombined morphed images, they had a higher rate of false alarms (they reported the morphed faces as one they had seen). It’s a fairly hard test, so that should be expected. As I mentioned, we did have an intervention in mind.

For the control group, we gave the tests as I had mentioned above, but for the experimental group, we added feedback on their accuracy. After each judgment (was the item old or new), we added a feedback screen that simply stated, “Your last judgment was (correct or incorrect).” The feedback would state your overall accuracy as a percentage and state the type of error (if you made an error). For example, if I saw a recombined image and said it was an OLD item, the feedback screen would say, “Your last judgment was incorrect. Your current accuracy is (whatever % I had) – the last item was a recombined image.”

By using these morphed faces and recombined items we are actually trying to increase the rate of false alarms. Ideally, if we can show that our method reduces the rate of false alarms without reducing the rate of hits, then we have a good intervention

Using this method we gathered our data over three instances of this study. What did we find? Unfortunately, we failed to observe any effect for feedback. This was a bit upsetting, but that’s the scientific process for you. A lot of theories suggest that eyewitness memory is not something you can improve after the memory creation.

At this point, I wanted to add something new to the study. The focus of my master’s program was personality and social psychology. While administering this test, I noticed that some participants seemed more invested in their performance than others. When the feedback told them they made a mistake, they appeared to sigh. When the feedback said they were correct they would sometimes nod or crack a small smile. On the other hand, other participants seemed completely unmoved by the feedback. With my exposure to personality psychology, I theorized that personality factors might make someone more invested in their performance, even on a simple test like this one.

I pitched the idea to the head of the lab, but he thought a broad personality test lacked precision. If we wanted to measure something, it needed to be directly related to what we observed. After a bit of back and forth, we settled on measuring competitiveness. This seemed appropriate as the subjects sat in the same room together, though not in direct competition with one another, and were aware of other people taking the test with them. Furthermore, it seems reasonable that someone with a high level of competitiveness would want to achieve the highest accuracy rating possible.

I searched around for a good way to measure competitiveness and settled on a test devised by Smithers and Houston (1992) as it was shown to be a good predictor in a meta-analysis of measures of competitiveness in 2002 (Houston, McIntire, Kinnie, & Terry). The questionnaire measures competitiveness in a fairly straightforward way while asking questions like “I often try to out perform others” (rate your agreement on a 1-5 scale, 1 being strongly disagree, 5 being strongly agree – see below for more examples). A total of 17 questions measured competitiveness and we decided to place them at the end of the memory test. In most cases you want to randomize the presentation of materials, but in this case we felt that alterations to the testing method for the eyewitness portion of the study should be avoided.

Houston 2002

Items marked with an asterisk are reverse coded (agreeing to reversed items means you are less competitive). There are a few more questions that this in the actual tool, but as you can see, the questions are fairly simple. 

Over the course of the summer of 2010, I gathered the data for this study. After a bit of digging, we found some interesting results.

We discovered no effect for feedback on pattern or word memory at all. One could conclude that our method had no effect on part-based memory.  We observed a small difference between groups for rate of error with recombined (morphed) faces. Participants in the control group appeared to miss them slightly more frequently. Interestingly, the control group’s miss rate was highly correlated with competitiveness. When a highly competitive individual responded, they were more likely to mistakenly identify a morphed face as a face they learned on the study list. In the feedback group, however, the competitive and non-competitive people responded with the same accuracy!

thesis pic1

As shown above, we can see a large interaction effect here. The group receiving feedback (the blue line) does not show a relationship between accuracy and competitiveness (hence a flat line showing no correlation), while the control group (the black line) does show a strong relationship (the steep line showing nearly a .70 correlation). So if you are competitive, and you do not get feedback, you have a higher false alarm rate to those recombined faces! Since this was not a test-retest method, I cannot really say that the feedback condition caused a change in behavior, but it seems to be very probable. It would appear that the effects for competitiveness can be completely mediated by our intervention, but more testing would need to occur for us to come to this conclusion.

This was a great grad school experience. Getting to work hands-on with real research was interesting, and getting the chance to test my own hypothesis was quite meaningful. On top of that, the experiment turned out to show a really strong effect. I wish the resources would have been available to replicate the experiment while I was still in school. I would love to see the material published, but my lab did was not focused on personality or social effects. Support came from my lab-mates and professor, but they did not have the same background as me, so continuing the studies after I graduated proved difficult.

Overall, I found the experimental process to be very rewarding. Any time you can show the power of personality psychology in action is a success to me!

Can video games alter our behavior?

Our behaviors are shaped on a daily basis through our interactions with our environment, and even something as seemingly innocuous as a child’s video game could alter our behavior. However, the effect of gaming is not as straight forward as the media has led us to believe. If we expose ourselves to an environment, it could influence our attitudes, but it rarely dictates our behavior.

Let’s begin by looking at a few examples of psychology studies involving video games. First, we’ll see how video games can be bad for us, then how they can be good for us, and then discuss the interesting difference we observe between new and veteran gamers.

Pane and Ballard (2002) authored an interesting study using Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear: Solid®.” A group of male college students played the game with two different sets of instructions. The game had a few training missions, and the player could complete the missions by either using stealth, or aggression (shooting the enemy or using close combat). Each group had to complete a tutorial mission, but the group had different instructions. The first group was told to kill all the guards in order to proceed to the next stage, while the second group was not given any special instruction other than to reach the exit of the level (if they chose to, they could attack the guards, or sneak by). Afterwards, the participants played through five more training missions. 

metal gear solid

As expected, the players who were told to dispatch all of the guards in the first phase were more likely to use aggression to complete the remaining levels. We cannot say that made a player more ‘aggressive’ in the real world, though. Perhaps forcing them to kill the guards made that response more practiced, and easier. What about a real world change? 

The authors measured hostility levels after the participants finished playing the training mission and the additional five levels using the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI). The authors found that the participants who made the highest number of aggressive actions in game had the highest levels of hostility according to the BAI.

Before anyone gets too bent out of shape, we’re not saying that this game forced someone to be hostile towards their fellow man. Hostility does not mean they are going to go on a rampage, but they may end up starting to have a few anti-social behaviors when they are primed by these environments. 

So games hurt us? Not so fast! 

Greitmeyer and Osswald (2010) authored a study using two of gaming’s finest classic titles – Lemmings®, and Tetris®. The authors wanted to show a few different things. First, not all games are doomed to cause bad behavior, and second, priming is only functional when someone has the chance to act!


In the game Lemmings®, the player is trying to help get all the lemmings to safety. The player is only able to advance to the next stages if they save most of the lemmings in the level. Since the goal of the game is achieved by saving and helping, no real violence involved at all (unless you kill the poor guys on purpose!!!); it’s considered a pro-social game. Anti-social, on the other hand, would be things that promote hostility and violence.

In this study, there were two groups. The first group played Tetris®, while the second group played Lemmings®. The Tetris® group was considered the ‘control’ group as Tetris® could not really be classified as pro or anti-social. Both groups would play the game assigned to them for a short period of time; then the real test began.

In the first version of the study, the groups would play their game and then a research assistant would ask the participant to fill out a survey. The research assistant would simply drop a cup of pencils all over the table near the participant. The researchers found that the Lemmings® group was significantly more likely to help pick up the pencils compared to the Tetris® group. 

In the second version of the study, the participants would finish playing the games then begin filling out the survey (with no pencils being ‘accidentally’ dropped). This time, a female research assistant would be sitting in the room with the participant while a male actor would enter the room. The male actor would begin to ask the female research assistant to come with him but she would ask him to leave. He would continue to get more and more aggressive (verbal aggression only). The researchers found that the Lemmings® group would ask the man to quit harassing the research assistant significantly faster than the Tetris® group.

Now you might be asking why they didn’t choose to compare a pro-social game to an anti-social game. They did, in fact, in the preliminary studies. They found that the difference in behavior was so vast, that it did not need to be reinvestigated each time. The authors wanted the reader to focus more on the potential positives of games instead of overly focusing on the negatives. So yes, anti-social games led folks to be less likely to act (even less likely than the Tetris® folks). 

The real key thing to stress here is that a behavior was primed and it was given a chance to be expressed almost immediately. Just like with subliminal priming, one should aim to “strike while the iron is hot.” When something is freshly primed, it should be more likely to change behavior. This study was not intended to test the duration of the effect, just the presence of the effect. Regardless, I feel that priming a behavior, then allowing it to occur in such a staged manner is actually even stronger than any priming effect alone. By expressing these behaviors, we would form contingencies of self worth around them, and begin to defend our actions. We would probably decide that the reason we were helpful was not because a game planted the idea in our head, but because we feel good when we help others. I’d love to investigate this idea of “priming leading to further priming” but that’s for another day!

So we can see how gaming can be good or bad. Some games like Valve’s hit “Left for Dead®” have a mixture of these behaviors.


In this game, four human survivors are battling through hordes of zombies to find supplies and safety. Some enemies completely disable you and unless your teammates come to save you, you cannot possibly escape. This game really emphasizes cooperation above all other factors. Failure to cooperate means your team will definitely fail. I believe that a game that rewards cooperation, more so than being accurate with a gun, would end up having a more pro-social effect than more neutral or hostile games. If I was given the chance, I’d love to investigate it! However, this is my speculation. The only way to survive is with teamwork! This example was to simply show that not all games are easy to classify as pro or anti-social.

Finally, I mentioned something about new versus veteran gamers. Glock and Kneer (2009) did a bit of research on the difference the games have on these players using the game “Unreal Tournament®.”



This game is quite violent. While the image does not display it, body parts are often flying across the screen, heads are being blasted off, and mayhem is everywhere. New players to these games are often caught up in the aesthetics instead of the goals.  This is a very important difference – the presence or absence of goal oriented behaviors!

Participants in this study who had never played the game were asked to play it for a period of time. Afterwards, participants were tested and the researchers found that new players had an activated aggression construct. This may sound strange, but it’s just like the Glass Slipper Effect discussion – word pairing were displayed, and when pairing words related to aggression, you will respond faster when the aggressive construct is primed as it causes the least dissonance. 

What about the veteran gamers? In this study, these gamers didn’t necessarily play Unreal Tournament®, they just played games in general. The authors found that there was no effect for the veteran group. Playing this extremely violent video game did not cause their ‘aggression’ construct to become primed at all. How should we interpret this?

In my opinion, it looks like veteran gamers are focused more on goal oriented behaviors than anything else. For example, a veteran player may think, “for me to maximize my score, I need to get into this position, place my mouse curser here, and ensure I control the resources (ammo/health).” A novice player may simply think, “Oh man, head shot!! Blood everywhere!” 

The difference here is that the veteran player cannot afford to be distracted with the visuals, they are focused on where they need to be, where they should aim, which spots pose a threat, and how they should respond to it. It’s not just about blood and gore, it’s about strategy once a player has enough experience to conceptualize it. Until that time, however, the aesthetics will probably change their behavior.

In conclusion, games can influence your behavior! Pro-social behavior, anti-social behavior, any behavior really. We must be careful what sort of environments we allow ourselves to experience. That said, once we have enough experience, the effects of that environment are completely mediated as we begin to use more goal oriented behaviors. 

So is gaming good or bad? Neither, of course!  I’d say it’s a bad idea for parents to let their 8 year old kid play a mature rated game. Those things have ratings for a reason – pay attention! Gaming should be done responsibly, just like any other form of media. It’s not evil, it’s not bad, it doesn’t force us to do anything, but we should be aware that it has the potential to change our attitudes! Please folks – game responsibly!

As for me, I’m off to play some Team Fortress 2!



Greitemeyer, T, & Osswald, S. (2010). Effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology98(2), 211-221.

Panee, C, & Ballard, M. (2002). High versus low aggressive priming during video-game training: effects on violent action during game play, hostility, heart rate, and blood pressure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology32(12), 2458-2474.

Glock, S, & Kneer, J, (2009). Game over? The impact of knowledge about violent digital games on the activation of aggression-related concepts. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(4), 151-160.