The Thoughtful Animal

PsychBytes is an experiment: three recent findings in psychology, each explained in three paragraphs or less. Generally, these are papers that I wouldn’t have otherwise covered in this blog. Please share your thoughts on this model in the comments. What works, and what doesn’t? Would you like more PsychBytes in the future?

What’s In A Name?
People who settle down and build a life in the frontier tend to be more individualistic, even if they started out with more interdependent values. Some features of the frontier life that would be attractive to an independent person are low population density, fewer social connections, and fewer social institutions. Indeed, people living in more recently settled regions in the United States more frequently behave in ways consistent with individualistic values, compared with people living in older parts of the country. This includes things like living alone after age 65 rather than moving into a retirement home, self-employment, and the getting divorced. It’s possible, however, that the relationship between these individualistic behaviors and frontier life is simply a statistical accident. For example, the rate of divorce could be related to religiosity, which is in turn related to individualism. It would appear as if there was a relationship between divorce and individualistic behaviors, but it would only be due to the shared relationship with religious beliefs.

In order to address this question, Michael Varnum and Shinobu Kitayama of the University of Michigan wondered if uncommon names were more common among children born on a frontier. The way that parents choose names for their children is a well-established indicator of independent values. Varnum and Kitayama note that “naming practices embody important cultural values, and are linked to a host of psychological, social, and economic outcomes.” They found that a greater percentage of babies who were born in older parts of the United States, such as New England, were given popular names (for the year the child was born), compared with babies born in newer regions, such as the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. In fact, the year in which a state was admitted to the United States was negatively correlated with the percentage of infants who were given the most popular boys’ and girls’ names.

i-12af818ccade603efabf7835f10b5dc6-babynames-thumb-300x443-61686.jpg

Correlation between a state’s inclusion in the US and the giving of top 10 names. Boys above, girls below. Click to enlarge.

And this relationship wasn’t unique to the United States. A similar dataset was generated using baby names given in seven provinces in Canada: three eastern provinces which were settled earlier (Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec), and four western provinces which were more recently settled (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan). As expected, popular names were more common in the older provinces than in the newer provinces. A third dataset using global data further replicated these results: popular names were more common in European countries (Austria, Denmark, England, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Spain, and Sweden) compared with “frontier countries,” founded by European immigrants (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States). Baby naming is quite a significant decision for parents. It makes sense, then, that the practice would reflect cultural values.

Varnum ME, & Kitayama S (2011). What’s in a Name?: Popular Names Are Less Common on Frontiers. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (2), 176-83 PMID: 21196534

Vegetables for Fun and Profit
How often do you hear parents promising their children dessert upon completion of their vegetables? While this sort of external motivation is very powerful, there is a potential downside: it could undermine intrinsic motivation. In other words, children might simply eat the vegetables to get the reward, and therefore never grow to like the vegetables themselves. This could result in poor eating choices later in childhood and adolescence, when the child is free to make his or her own decisions. The scientific literature on the use of incentives for children’s vegetable consumption shows mixed conclusions: some studies show that vegetable intake increases when paired with a reward, and that those i-c35a958e7eacc6ff4b7e870f5a24eea9-kid with vegetables.jpgincreases are maintained when the reward is withdrawn. Other studies find that as soon as the rewards are removed, vegetable intake returns to baseline. Lucy J. Cooke and colleagues from University College London and the University of Sussex attempted to clarify this confusing picture.

Over the course of twelve days, children age 4-6 were exposed to a vegetable they didn’t like. The children were divided into three intervention conditions and one control condition. In the first intervention condition, vegetables were paired with non-edible rewards such as stickers. The second intervention condition paired social rewards (praise) with vegetables. The third intervention condition included no external reward; could exposure alone could increase liking for a previously disliked vegetable? Finally, the children in the control condition received no vegetables and no rewards.

The kids in all three intervention conditions reported increased liking for their disliked vegetable after twelve days, with no significant differences between the three conditions. The liking was maintained for three months for the two reward conditions, but not for the exposure-only/no-reward condition. Taken together, this experiment suggests that rewarding children for eating their vegetables is not only extremely effective, but lasts a considerable amount of time following withdrawal of the reward. In fact, exposure alone without a reward is actually less effective. Parents: keep that dessert coming!

Cooke LJ, Chambers LC, AƱez EV, Croker HA, Boniface D, Yeomans MR, & Wardle J (2011). Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children’s Enjoyment of Vegetables. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (2), 190-6 PMID: 21191095
Photo: Flickr/woodleywonderworks

How Do We Set Personal Goals?
Why are students who score 89% on an exam more likely to study harder before the subsequent exam, compared with students who score 82%? In both cases, the scores are just one percentage-point below the next grade level: 90% would be an A-, while 83% would be a solid B. And the amount of extra effort necessary to achieve a higher grade for either student is roughly equivalent. Devin Pope and Uri Simonsohn from the schools of business at the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, respectively, think that round numbers serve as “cognitive reference points,” which people use when judging their own outcomes. In other words, individuals whose performance is just short of a round number (such as our B+ student) would be more likely to work at improving their performance, compared with people whose performance is just above a round number (such as our B- student). To test this prediction, Pope and Simonsohn collected data from professional baseball players and high school students taking the SAT exam.

The data matched with their predictions. Professional batters were four times more likely to end a season with a .300 batting average than with a .299 average. High school juniors were 10-20% more likely to re-take the SAT in an effort to boost their scores if their initial score ended in “90″ (as in 1190 or 1290) than if their initial score was just ten points higher (1200 or 1300). Real life implications of this research are clear; round number reference points often matter for real-life decisions. If you’ve lost 29 pounds, you might be motivated to make it an even 30. If you’ve run 18 laps, you might complete two more, even if you’re tired. If you’ve written 8 pages of your term paper, you might keep working until you’ve written 10.

Pope D, & Simonsohn U (2011). Round numbers as goals: evidence from baseball, SAT takers, and the lab. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (1), 71-9 PMID: 21148460