Contagion or Superstition?

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Would you do perform better if you thought an expert had used the equipment beforehand?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute recruited a group of 41 golfers to putt on a short indoor artificial green.

Some of the golfers were told at random that the high-end putters they were given had been used by a PGA player. Before putting they were all asked to draw the size of the hole.

Those told that the putter had been used by the professional not only drew the hole 9% bigger but sank 32% more putts than the rest of the group.

The belief they were playing with a professionals putter seemingly gave them more confidence and so they performed better. Previous research had already shown that successful putters visualised the hole as bigger.

Sally Linkenauger and her colleagues saw this as evidence of positive contagion, the belief that people leave some essence of themselves on things they use – and the reason people who collect autographs value them so much.

And this unreasonable belief may allow people to offload pressure to perform onto an object that they believe has some positive impact on their performance. Sportsmen often have superstitious beliefs, for example, about the way they prepare their kit or the order in which they do things, or not washing their socks in the middle of a successful run in the belief it will break the spell if they do.

Experiments suggest that superstition works because it improves your confidence, which in turn improves your performance. Even “Bad Science” writer Ben Goldacre, the scourge of dodgy experimenters, admits that superstition works if you believe in it citing a number of experiments with “lucky golf balls” anagrams and other games , lucky charms and crossing your fingers.

The researchers also think there is a priming effect which is when exposure to a stimulus predisposes people to act in  certain way.

An example of this is when Asian-American women were given a maths test.With one group the researchers emphasised that they were women and with another group that they were Asian (to recall the stereotype the Asians are good at maths).

The group primed as women performed significantly worse than the Asian-primed group.

Can these ideas help you perform better at work? Well people often create their own work space, sometimes as an extension of their home, where they feel more relaxed. Of course they may enjoy more job satisfaction but doesn’t necessarily mean they are more productive. And I’ve not seen research comparing this with “hot-desking” which is the other extreme.

The trend towards “Bring Your Own Device” (BOYD) might also make people more comfortable with their tools and it ought to be more productive working on a familiar piece of equipment. On the other hand if you have lots of personal apps on it they might be a bit distracting.

Source: HBR July-August 2012


Moral judgements & decision-making under the influence

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You  might think your moral compass is pretty reliable – you know what is right and what is wrong and make decisions based on that and also judge other people accordingly.

So would you push someone under a train if it would save 5 other people? Probably not if you are on antidepressants according to research at Cambridge University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in New Scientist recently; “Take antidepressants and you’ll be a soft touch”.

An antidepressant citalopram, which raises your serotonin levels (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI), was administered to 24 healthy volunteers who were then given this moral dilemma. Compared to other volunteers given a placebo they were 10% less likely to inflict harm on someone. In another experiment the drugged volunteers were more likely to accept unfair treatment than punish the other person’s greed.

The researchers pointed out that antidepressants are the most widely prescribed class of drugs (in the USA) so it’s important to investigate their effects on users’ social behaviour and moral judgement.

But what if instead you asked people to clean themselves or think clean thoughts?

Research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that asking people to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or priming them to feel clean by reading passages about how clean they felt had the same effect ie they made harsher moral judgements on a range of social issues including pornography and littering than those who were primed to feel dirty or who didn’t follow the cleaning procedure.

The researchers concluded that: “Acts of cleanliness not only have the potential to shift our moral pendulum to a more virtuous self, but also license harsher moral judgement of others“.

And if you are a woman and you think you are too trusting, a drop of testosterone could increase your guardedness. Researchers in the Netherlands and South Africa placed a  drop of testosterone on women’s tongues and asked them to judge the trustworthiness of a series of male faces.

They also asked other women to whom they gave a placebo, then repeated the experiment but swapped the treatment. Women who had just been given testosterone were less trustful of the men than those given the placebo. And the effect was more pronounced amongst women who were normally more trustful. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol 107 No 22)

Makes you wonder about juries or other situations where people judge others – not just so-called talent shows but more mundane things like selection panels or performance reviews.

Updated 6 January 2011: Having sweat samples hung under your nose in teabags sounds like something only a psychologist would devise. But it showed that when people are anxious they release a chemical signal that is detectable at an unconscious level by those nearby.

Participants were exposed to sweat from both anxious and non-anxious participants without knowing which was which. When exposed to anxious sweat they took longer but made riskier decisions.

Haegler ‘s research in Neuropsychologia showed that the participants rated both kinds of sweat equally unpleasant and couldn’t consciously tell the difference. Earlier research had shown that sweat collected from an anxious person triggered extra activity in emotion-related brain areas.

Haegler wondered if the perception of emotional chemical signals might alert individuals to danger but said that the results certainly suggested that; anxiety in humans can be communicated through chemical senses unconsciously”.