Monday, July 6, 2009

Causation... seriously-est

In my last two posts on the topic, I analyzed the logic and some of the evidence that led Derek Sivers (and others) to conclude, "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, but as I pointed out in my last post, we have good reason to doubt the "survey" evidence in the article. What about the experimental evidence? That's the topic of this post.

What do the article's experiments do? As I did with the surveys, I provide a layman's translation for the methods used in the experiments in the article.

Study 2. Highly-motivated law students answered the question "I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law." The experimenter asked some of the participants if they meant to circle their chosen response. The rest just anonymously put their response in a drop box.

In the second stage of the experiment, the students were enlisted to help with legal research for 45 minutes, but they could opt out of some time or work late if they wished. Their time spent working was recorded and taken to be an indicator of "making best possible use of educational opportunities in law." That is, working longer in the lab is better.

The group who dropped the survey in the drop box worked four minutes longer on average.

Study 3. This study is somewhat complicated, but the part that relates to Sivers advice uses 32 clinical psychology students who claimed to be highly motivated to watch videotapes of therapy sessions. For some of these students, the experimenter studied the sheet where the student said his/her intention was to watch videotapes of therapy sessions. For others, the experimenter did not glance at that page, giving some excuse about missing data.

In the second stage, students were asked to closely study a video of a therapy session. In particular, they were asked to note instances of eye contact and to rate the quality of each minute of conversation.

The students whose intention pages were studied by the experimenter spent almost five minutes less time watching the video.

How do we relate this to real life? Based on the above results, the experiments provide evidence that if an experimenter observes a participant's intentions, the participant is less likely to act on those intentions. I have two important criticisms of this conclusion:

First, the participants in Study 2 reported long-term goals (i.e., making the best possible use of educational opportunities), but the study measures "educational opportunities" by how much time the student spent on assigned casework in the lab. I take issue with this strategy. The time in the lab could be seen by these participants as an obligation, rather than an educational opportunity. Their homework waiting at home might be the real educational opportunity.

Therefore, it isn't clear that spending more time helping to conduct case study research is "making the best possible use of educational opportunities." If less time is better use of educational opportunities (which it very well might be), Study 2 contradicts the remaining studies.

Second, in both studies, a participant's intentions are made known to an experimenter. I imagine that this is a fairly anonymous interaction. Maybe they look each other in the eye, but this could be the only time these two people meet. That's very different from when we make our intentions known in the real world.

In the real world, we tell friends and family, or trusted social networks about our goals, hopes and dreams. We do so because we trust these people to give us support. I doubt the participant feels that way about the experimenter. Study 3 effectively strips away other interpretations of the five minute difference between the two groups, but in the process, it also strips away context that may significantly shape our real world interactions.

Revealing your intentions to a confidant is very different than an experimenter quizzing you to see if you really meant to select the answer you selected. The first is personal and (possibly) confidence-boosting. The second feels like you're being quizzed by Regis Philbin on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

People turn to support groups for reinforcement, and there's nothing in these studies that resembles the reinforcement of support groups. If anything, being quizzed about the validity of your answer could shake your confidence. If this is true, these studies compare rattled participants to unfazed participants. Is it surprising that an unfazed participant is more likely to follow through on a goal?

My advice. If you're seeking advice on how to lose weight (or achieve any other goal), tell your family you're on a diet if you wish, or don't tell them: do whatever you feel is best for you. Just recognize that losing weight is a difficult thing to do. You might benefit from support or you might have enough silent willpower to do it on your own.

Regardless of how you get yourself to do it, you know yourself better than anyone else. You know what gets you motivated and you know what distracts you. If you have a goal you want to achieve, eliminate the distractions and make choices that keep you motivated. Telling my friends about my goals doesn't motivate me, but that's just me. If telling your friends and family that you have goals gives you motivation, more power to you!

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