7/30/10

Are Satin Underpants the Secret to Success?

When you are deciding who to hire for a job, or who to go out on date with, what kinds of information influence your decision?  Do you consider his or her education and background?  Sure I do.  What about friendliness and social skill?  Of course.  And physical appearance?  You bet.

What about the kind of chair you happen to be sitting in while making your decision?  Or perhaps the kind of object you happen to be holding in your hand?   My chair? No – nothing like that could possibly be affecting my judgments, right?

Wrong.  Your sense of touch is influencing you a lot more than you realize.

Most of us have grown accustomed to the idea that our mood, and even our judgments, can be influenced by unrelated experiences of sight and sound – we feel happier on sunny days, more relaxed when listening to certain kinds of music, and more likely to lose our tempers when it’s hot and humid.  But very few of us have even considered the possibility that our tactile experience – the sensations associated with the things we touch, might have this same power.

New research shows that the weight, texture, and hardness of the things we touch are, in fact, unconsciously factored into our decisions about things that have nothing to do with what we are touching.   Potentially, every decision we make.

Let’s start with weight.  Heaviness is something that we usually associate with seriousness and importance.  Consider expressions like the “gravity of the situation,” the trouble “weighs heavily upon him,” or she is  “carefree and light-hearted.”  So what happens when we make a decision while we are holding something heavy?

In one study, people who held a clipboard that was nearly 10 times heavier than their peers rated a job candidate they were reviewing as much better overall, and as having displayed more serious interest in the position.  In a second study, heavy clipboard holders recommended allocating significantly more government funding to serious social issues (like pollution) than lighter clipboard holders.  So when we are holding something heavy, we see seriousness and importance in people and issues that we might not otherwise.

(Tip:  Perhaps if you want to make the best impression at an interview, you should start by asking your potential employer to please hang on to your set of encyclopedias, that you just happen to bring along, while you use the restroom.)

Next, the researchers examined the effects of texture.  We associate smoothness and roughness with ease and difficulty, respectively, as in expressions like “smooth sailing,” and “rough road ahead.”   Once again, the studies show that people unconsciously transfer their tactile experience of roughness to their interpersonal decisions.  For instance, people who completed a puzzle with pieces that had been covered in sandpaper later described an interaction between two other individuals as more difficult and awkward than those whose puzzles had been smooth.  In another study, feeling roughness led participants to negotiate poorly, offering their opponent a better deal than the smoothness-feelers offered, because they saw the bargaining task as more difficult.

(Tip:  Never try to buy a car or negotiate a raise while wearing a wool sweater.  Consider satin underpants instead.  Everything seems easy in satin underpants.)

Lastly, the researchers studied the effects of experiences of hardness and softness.  We often associate hardness with qualities like stability, rigidness, and strictness, and softness with flexibility and yielding.  Consider expressions like “an iron will” and she “melted like butter.”

As with weight and texture, hardness exerts an influence on our perceptions and behavior.  People who had earlier examined a hard piece of wood judged an employee interacting with his boss as more rigid and strict than did people who had examined a soft blanket instead.

The tactile experience doesn’t always have to come through your hands, either.  In a second study, the researchers found that sitting in a hard wooden chair (instead of a soft cushioned one) made participants adopt more rigid, less cooperative negotiation strategies.  Each person was told to make an initial offer for a new car (worth $16,000).  After their first offer was rejected, they were told to make a another.  Hard chair sitters’ second offer was, on average, $350 closer to their first offer than soft chair sitters – in other words, the hard chair sitters didn’t want to budge from what they had originally said the car was worth.  They had a feeling they should stick to their guns, completely unaware that this feeling was coming from their backside.  (Perhaps this is the origin of the expression “hardass”?)

(Tip:  When you want someone to grant your request, start out by making sure they are seated on something soft.  Or, perhaps, stroking a cat.)

In all seriousness, we are more strongly influenced by all of our senses in ways most of us fail to realize.  It’s worth taking the time to think not only about the sights and sounds and smells, but also the things you touch most frequently – the furniture in your home and workspace, your clothing, your bedding.   Would work seem easier with a lighter laptop?  Would your coworkers get along better with plush seats in the conference room?  You can make whatever you’re touching work to your best advantage.   Trust me, folks – this is hard science.

7/27/10

Get Busy and Get Happy



In defense of busywork

Busywork has a bad rep.   Keeping yourself (or someone else) busy doing meaningless or unnecessary tasks, simply for the sake of avoiding idleness, seems like a pointless waste of energy.  Only it turns out there is a point to it – recent research shows that keeping busy doing anything makes you a whole lot happier than you would have been doing nothing.   Just sitting around, bored and inert, is a recipe for misery.

But if that’s true, why then do we so often choose idleness?  Why do we do nothing, when we could almost always be doing something?  The study of human behavior is full of such paradoxes:  People are happier when they do X.  If you ask them, they’ll even tell you they prefer to do X.  Unfortunately, people often don’t actually do X – they do The Opposite of X.  And they have no idea why.

In this case, the answer seems to lie in our ability (or inability) to justify our actions.   We really do prefer to be busy than to just sit around doing nothing, and being busy does in fact make us much happier, but we just can’t bring ourselves to choose busyness over idleness without some sort of reason for the busyness.

Take for example a recent study, in which students were given the option of turning in a survey to get their candy reward in one of two places.  They could turn it in right next door, though they would have to wait outside the door for 15 minutes before turning it in, or they could turn it in at another location that involved a 15 minute round-trip walk.   The majority of students chose to sit and wait next door, rather than take an unnecessary walk.  They chose idleness over busywork (i.e., walking), despite the fact that the few who chose busywork reported being much happier when the 15 minutes were up.

But when the researchers introduced a justification for taking the long walk – that a different (though not actually better) candy would be offered as a reward for the walkers - the majority of students chose the busy option.  “I really prefer the candy you get after the walk,” they told themselves.  But really, what they preferred was doing something over doing nothing, and all they needed was a reason.   Any reason.

Two forces are usually at work whenever we do choose idleness.  First, we have an aversion to needlessly expending energy.   This aversion is probably built in to each of us as a part of our evolutionary inheritance.  Animals who waste the energy they need to find food and ward off predators are less likely to survive, so animals who spend their energy wisely have the survival advantage.

Second, human beings vastly prefer their actions to be meaningful.  We like the things we do to have reasons – so much so that often when we don’t really have a good reason for what we’ve done, we try to make one up.  We are loathe to undertake any action when we know there is no justification for it.

The good news is, now that you know that busyness is better for you and will make you happier than just sitting around, you will always have a reason to choose busyness. Get up and do something.  Anything.  Even if there really is no point to what you are doing, you will feel better for it.

Incidentally, thinking deeply or engaging in self-reflection counts as keeping busy, too.  You don’t need to be running around, - you just need to be engaged, either physically or mentally.    As Victor Hugo once wrote, “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought.  There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.”  Keep those mental wheels turning if you don’t want to keep your feet moving.

7/20/10

Can you be too good-looking for your own good? Yes.



When attractiveness can actually undermine your chances for success.

I remember one year, when I was still in graduate school, a particularly beautiful young woman applied to our program.   She was extremely well-qualified, and had a strong background in neuroscience from a top university, but she looked like she had just stepped out of an issue of Marie Claire.   Frankly, she was the kind of girl I was loathe to stand next to, for fear of not faring well by comparison.  I’ll admit that I wasn’t totally thrilled at the prospect of having her around, competing for the attention of the few male graduate students who actually remembered to bathe, shave, and wash their clothes regularly.

But pretty or not, she was a top candidate, and I was certain she’d be accepted to the program.  So I was stunned when a senior professor in our department told me, quite causally in the hallway, that she had decided not to offer this young woman a position.  “I don’t think we want her here, do you?  I think she’d make the rest of us feel like we aren’t pretty enough.”

Her statement, coming from a respected and well-known psychologist nearly twice my age, seemed to me so ludicrous and appalling that I waited for her to start laughing or winking, but she never did.  And the pretty girl never did get the offer.  I doubt very much that when she later tried to figure out what went wrong, she ever considered the possibility that her good looks had been held against her.

Most of us assume that the beautiful people have it made – that being attractive gives you advantages across the board.  Much of the time, we are right.  Decades of psychological research has shown that when someone is attractive, we often unconsciously assume that they have lots of other good qualities too.  We perceive them to be warmer, kinder, smarter, funnier, and more honest, simply because they are easier on the eyes.

But recent research has shown how the advantages of being beautiful don’t always translate into greater successes. In fact, being good-looking can cost you opportunities – jobs, scholarships, promotions – depending on the gender and attractiveness of your evaluator.

Psychologist Maria Agthe found that attractive applicants for a graduate scholarship received more favorable ratings from opposite-sex raters, but not from same-sex raters.  Men were unimpressed by a male applicant’s handsomeness, and women actually penalized female applicants for beauty.

In a second study, Agthe found that the effect of an applicant’s attractiveness on their ratings also depended on the beauty of the beholder.  Good-looking raters didn’t seem to care one way or the other how handsome or beautiful an applicant was, but average-looking raters did – they penalized better-looking same-sex applicants.

In the end, we tend to think about the attractiveness of the person we are evaluating in terms of opportunities and threats.  Attractive members of the opposite sex (obviously, assuming you are heterosexual) are generally good to have around.  Their presence is an opportunity – if not for an actual relationship, then at least for some innocent flirting and wishful thinking.    Attractive members of our own sex, on the other hand, are The Competition.  Their presence is a threat – they “make the rest of us feel like we aren’t pretty enough.”   So, given the choice between a candidate with average looks, and one who is gorgeous, why choose the latter and end up feeling inadequate?  Ugly Betty wins every time.

We’d all like to think that decisions like these are objective and that the best man or woman wins, but bias is real and everywhere, and there’s no use pretending otherwise. So, what to do?

First, just to be practical, you might want think carefully about your appearance when you interview for a position, depending on who is doing the interviewing.  When your potential boss is a member of your own sex, consider a more conservative, professional look.  You want your interviewer focused on your credentials, not your good looks.

More importantly, I think each of us needs to try to be aware of our own biases when we are in the position to hire, promote, or bestow an award on someone.  Research suggests that probing your thoughts for potential bias can remove its influence.  Stop and ask yourself – is my decision being influenced by the candidate’s looks?  Am I being fair?  Would I want to be judged this way?

You can make better, bias-free decisions if you take the time to examine and question your reasoning.  If the best-looking same-sex candidate is truly the best-qualified and most deserving, hire them.  You can always avoid standing next to them at the office Christmas party.

7/1/10

No Thanks



Does your kindness leave your partner feeling grateful or indebted?

For reasons that, until very recently, I’d never really understood, my husband is rarely made happy by my spontaneous gifts or generous gestures.   When I bring home a favorite dessert from the supermarket to surprise him, or when I offer to get up early with the kids Saturday and Sunday so that he can sleep in after a hard work week, the response is usually lukewarm.  He says “thank you” (something he’s learned the hard way to do to keep from hurting my feelings), but I can tell that he’s a little uncomfortable, too.

This has been hard for me to wrap my head around, because I love it when he does those sorts of things for me.  It’s not the pampering so much as the thought behind it that brings me joy.  Knowing that he’s thinking about how he can bring a little happiness to my day, or ease my burden just a little, makes me feel terrific – and makes me love him just a little more.  Why in the world doesn’t he feel the same way?

The answer may lie in how our reactions to acts of kindness differ.  When someone goes out of their way to help you, you typically feel either gratitude or indebtedness (and sometimes a bit of both).

Gratitude is a great feeling.   It’s a pleasant, warm state – a sensation of being cared for and valued.  In a nutshell, experiencing gratitude makes you happy.  Research shows that we tend to feel grateful to our benefactors as a function of things like how costly the gift or gesture was to give, and how thoughtful it was (the extent to which is was tailored to our particular needs.) When we feel grateful to someone, we feel as if they have grown closer to us, we view them more positively, and as a result we genuinely want to be nice to them in return.

Indebtedness, on the other hand, is more of a focus on repayment.  It’s a sense of obligation – he gave me this, so I need to give him something in return to even things out.  Indebtedness has been shown in some studies to actually reduce gratitude, and to even be associated with negative feelings toward the benefactor, like guilt and resentment.  Feeling indebted does not make you happy.

In a recent study, couples who responded to their partner’s simple, every day acts of caring with gratitude reported feeling more connected to their partner, and more satisfied with their relationship.  But that’s not where the benefits of gratitude end – on days where one person felt gratitude toward their partner, the partner reported feeling significantly more connected and satisfied too!   Reacting to kindness with gratitude brings happiness to everyone involved.

Indebtedness, on the other hand, did nothing to improve anyone’s happiness or bring people closer together.    Receivers’ sense of obligation interferes with their ability to focus on feeling cared for and cherished, and givers get no joy out of watching their kind and loving gestures fall flat.

Interestingly, the study also found that women tended to experience more gratitude in response to gestures from their romantic partners.  For men, gratitude and indebtedness are more likely to co-occur – their happiness in response to an act of kindness is often tinged with a sense of debt, and in some instances is overwhelmed by it.

So, what can you do if you suspect that your partner feels more indebted than grateful when you do something nice? (Or, if you yourself are the one struggling with feelings of obligation?)   Really, the best approach is honest conversation.  Do you (or does your partner) feel indebted because you believe that is what expected of you?  Are you making your partner feel indebted in the way you talk about your kind gestures?  Do you make them feel guilty when they don’t respond in kind?  Only by talking together about your feelings and expectations can you clear the air, and get to a place in your relationship where thoughtful, loving support can be seen for what it is, and where it can give you both the happiness you deserve.