Thursday, July 2, 2009

Causation... seriously-er

In my last post, I discussed why we should care about causation, and I used the example of some advice given by Derek Sivers entitled, "Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them." Sivers based his advice on a recent paper in the psychology literature that can be found here.

The article gives the results of four studies: two "surveys" and two "experiments." The "surveys" use data provided by the participants; the "experiments" use observations made by experimenters on the participants' behavior. These are not technical definitions for surveys and experiments, but for the points I want to make, they provide a useful line for me to draw. In this post, I offer a critique of the "surveys." On Monday, I do the same for the "experiments."

What do these "surveys" do? As the academic article is densely written, it's worth summarizing what's in the surveys.

Study 1. Psychology students filled out a questionaire, which asked them about their motivation to become psychologists. On a separate page, the questionaire asked students to make specific intentions for studying in the coming week.

For some students, the experimenter read over the intentions ("presumably to ensure that the student understood the instructions."). For the rest, the experimenter told the students that the page was mistakenly put into the questionaire. At the end of the week, all of the students were asked to follow up on their intended study plans, even the students who were told it wouldn't matter.

In the study data, the students who were told the page was a mistake reported studying more.

Study 4. Law students filled out a questionaire, which asked them about their motivation to become jurists (kind of like lawyers). On a separate page, they were asked to write the three most important things they can do to become a good jurist. In one group, the students were asked to share their intentions with the entire group. In the other group, the students were asked to rate attractiveness of pictures.

After sharing with the group about intentions or pictures (depending on the group), the students were asked, "how much do you feel like a jurist right now?" Instead of reporting a number (say on a scale of 1-10), the participants were asked to mark which picture size reflected how much they felt like a jurist. The group that shared their intentions reported feeling "more like a jurist" on average.

What should we make of this evidence?
According to the authors, Study 4 demonstrates how merely stating one's intentions makes people think that they've done something to attain the goal they seek (even if they haven't done anything constructive to achieve this goal). To me, Study 4 is so strange that I am not sure what it demonstrates -- aside from demonstrating a fondness of psychologists to show participants pictures of different sizes.

The authors say that Study 1 provides evidence that students are less likely to act on intentions if their intentions are noticed by an experimenter. After all, the group who thought their intentions weren't read reported studying more than the group who had their intentions read back to them. What the authors claim is one possibility, but is there another? Let's try one out.

Reading someone's intentions aloud makes the impression that those intentions are an important part of the study. Therefore, whenever the participant acts on those intentions in the following week, those times really stick out. When you make note of something as it happens, it's easier to recall later.

In contrast, people whose intentions were cast aside might have thought the intentions were an extraneous part of the study. They weren't impressed upon that they should remember if they followed through on those intentions because those intentions were never supposed to be read. Therefore, when these participants are asked to recall the precise times they study, their recollection might be less than perfect. It makes sense that these people would overstate the amount of time, or even the number of times, they studied a particular subject.

Maybe I am biased, but isn't forgetfulness a more natural interpretation of the available evidence?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to share your ideas about this post in the open forum. Be mindful that comments in this blog are moderated. Please keep your comments respectful and on point.