Today’s research summary focuses on a very early article by Angela Duckworth, that first catapulted her to fame. Co-authored with Martin Seligmen, the article focuses on how non-cognitive factors like self-control are a better predictor of scholastic achievement than say cognitive factors like IQ.
- Authors use the awkward term self-discipline in the paper, but all they really meant was self-control, defining which, and around which, a rich literature already existed. Angela clarifies as much in her new MOOC on Coursera, so don’t start wondering what this new concept means in psychological literature.
- Self-control (which the authors surprisingly didn’t define), as per VIA, is the ability to be disciplined and to regulate what one feels and does; it involves both feelings and actions; it is the ability to delay present gratification for future benefits, and it also about not getting distracted by temptations and able to focus on the task at hand. It is the opposite of being impulsive.
- The present studies (two of them) focused on class VIII students and were partly driven by Angela’s observation as a math teacher that hard working students who could control their impulses, sometimes fared better than those who could grasp concepts easily. That drove part of the hypothesis.
- Earlier works has shown that Self-control, as measured by Marshmallow test, in 4 year olds, can predict positive life outcomes decades later; similarly, in college students out of 32 measured personality traits (like extraversion, energy levels etc), only self-control predicted later CGPA more robustly than earlier SAT scores. Thus, it was reasonable to hypothesize that self-control in eighth graders will predict academic achievement better than IQ.
- Self-control is a difficult thing to measure accurately. Thus, they used self-reports, teacher reports, parent reports as well as a test that gave students hypothetical choices between a small reward now or a big reward later. Angela actually wanted to do an age appropriate test similar to marshmallow test with the eighth graders, but Marty was skeptical; in the second study they did include a behavioral measure of delay of gratification task, whereby they actually handed out 1$ envelope to students with a choice of keeping that or returning it now to get 2$ next week.
- Academic achievement was measured by grades achieved at end term, attendance, selection into a high school program, and achievement test scores.
- IQ was measured using a standard IQ test; keep in mind that IQ is a very narrow assessment for a part of broader cognitive factors/ intelligence.
- What they found was that self-control not only predicted academic achievement and who would improve school grades over the class term, but that it was twice an effective predictor than IQ (explained twice as much variance).
- This is an important paper as it makes the case for enhancing and working on the self-control of students, for better academic performance. Self-control, by all means, and like any other character strength, is malleable and can be increased by proper interventions.
- This paper is personally relevant to me, as last year I worked with IXth class students on their character strengths and this year I am working with VIII class students focusing on their character strengths. Although the results, I believe, will be applicable and generalize to other age groups, its heartening to note that at least for VIII class, barring cross-cultural effects, there is proven research showing that increasing strengths like self-control pays big dividends.
if the above has you wanting to read more, go to the source- the original article can be found here.
Review articles are themselves supposed to be a summary of a field of inquiry, so it appeared queer summarizing a review article; but here I go. This post summarizes a 2005 review article appearing in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. As it is more than a decade since the publication of this article by Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Tracy Steen, I think it is appropriate to see how far the field has come since then and what still remains to be done.
- Positive psychology (PP), in this article, is seen through the triple lens of focusing on subjective well-being or pleasure; flow, engagement, and strengths; and meaning in life. This is as contrasted with the traditional deficit focus of clinical psychology whereby one looks at diathesis (genetic vulnerability for disorders) and stress (environment acute events like death of a loved one and chronic conditions like poverty) to figure out causes of diseases and suffering. While not denying the importance of ‘fix-what’s-wrong’ , positive psychology takes a ‘build-what’s-strong’ approach.
- Antecedents of positive psychology can be seen in most earlier movements within psychology. For e.g., if one were to focus on Psychoanalysis, Freud’s pleasure principle, Adler’s ‘healthy’ strivings motivated by social interest and Fromm’s productive orientation, all relate to some aspects of the new positive psychology paradigm. However, Humanistic psychologists, like Rollo May are more closely and directly related to the positive psychology movement, with conditions for self-actualization (Maslow) or fully functioning person (Carl Roegrs) laying the groundwork for PP.
- Its usually insinuated that humanistic psychology was not empirical or evidence based, however research showing that people grow most when they live an authentic life aligned with their values; or the co-opting of Jahoda’s six processes that lead to mental health by Carol Ryff et al in their wells-substantiated measure of Psychological well-being suggests that humanistic psychology had enough teeth.
- PP tenet no. 1: positive states and emotions and factors are not merely the lack of or inverse of negative states or emotions or factors. Thus, mental health and mental illness are two separate though correlated entities. Reducing your anger will not make you automatically more loving and caring; getting out of depression will not necessarily make you flourishing and happy.
- The authors try to fit their new framework of the Pleasant life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful life into the earlier conceptualization of PP as consisting of a focus on positive states, traits and institutions. Please note that this framework has been subsequently extended to include the Accomplished life and the Connected (relationships) life in the newest PERMA model.
- In therapy, its important to note the buffers and resources a person has and measures of well-being can indicate the actual or potential positive functioning. They can also elucidate differential predictors. For e.g. positive satisfaction with life predicts less acting out in youth when stressed.
- Self-report measures like Satisfaction with Life scale, need to be conjunct with informant reports, experience sampling methods (ESM) etc to get a more cohesive picture. VIA survey can be used for identifying character strengths that can be useful in therapeutic context by providing therapists an insight into what strengths can be used for planning and executing interventions.
- Flow or engagement states can be identified using ESM and semi-structured interviews etc. However measuring the degree of flow is challenging to this day, I believe. However identifying the activities that lead to flow experiences may aid in therapy by making the client move towards more of such experiences.
- To discern how meaningful or purposeful one finds life, one can use narrative techniques like asking the client to treat his or her life as a book and give chapter titles, main characters and future possible plots to that life-as-book. Existential traditions do focus on meaning as a way to diagnose and treat and their marriage with PP leading to PP2.0 is the newest thing in town.
- PP makes sense in therapy as positive emotions or events undo the effects of negative emotions or events. No mention is made of the (in)famous 3:1 ratio (3 positive for each negative event or interaction) required for the same! Resilient people also typically experience more positive emotions, hence PP in clinical practice makes sense.
- Many therapists are already using PP stuff like instilling hope, courage, authenticity in clients and these are perhaps the non-specific factors that ensure that any therapy works better than placebo.
- Active PP interventions can also help in therapy. Some of the interventions reviewed were the early Fordyce’s ‘Act like happy people’ intervention, the ‘3 good things’ or gratitude journal based interventions (which have proven to be one of the most effective interventions), writing about intense positive experiences (which nobody talks about nowadays) , the random acts of kindness interventions, Gratitude visits, At your best write-ups, bibliotherapy and using strengths in a new way everyday. Results show that while most interventions lead to short term gains in happiness, (even placebo do), for long term gains, interventions that can become habits like counting 3 good things daily or deploying strengths in a new way daily, work better.
The promise of positive psychotherapy is still to be fulfilled, though progress is being made in that direction. If you are a therapist planning to include PP approaches in therapy or a mental health service user or caregiver, you probably should read a bit about this new filed. For others too, if the paper seemed exciting check it out here.
Research Summaries:Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing0
Trick or Treat? Which would you choose? Perhaps, most of you, who celebrate Halloween, would prefer giving treats to the children. And we feel happy about that too! Intuitively we know that treating/ helping others, makes us even more happier than it makes the helped person.
Today’s research summary is from the journal emotion, and based on this paper by Lyubomirsky et al.
- There is a rich literature out there that shows that helping others makes us feel happier. However, another rich literature suggests that self-focused things like savoring also make us happy. There is paucity of research contrasting the self-focused way towards happiness with more other-directed routes. The only exception is contrasting self-focused spending with other-directed spending, about which the literature suggests that other-directed spending is more powerful.
- It is well-established that happiness, or psychological flourishing, is multi-dimensional. It consists of emotional well being (life satisfaction and greater positive emotions than negative emotions), psychological well being ( things like self-acceptance, personal growth, environmental mastery, autonomy etc) and social functioning ( social acceptance, social contribution etc). Mental health continuum – short form, was used to measure psychological flourishing in this study.
- Pro-social behaviors, as per the authors’ conceptualization, not only include everyday acts of kindness like helping an old person cross the street, but also include larger efforts to make the world a better place by say volunteering at a local old age home. It was hypothesized that both sorts of acts would lead to happiness.
- Pro-social behaviors were activated in the study participants using random acts of kindness paradigm. The experimental subjects were instructed to perform 3 acts of kindness that were either acts of kindness towards others or towards world/ humanity at large. This was contrasted with a neutral condition as well as a self-focused condition in which the acts of kindness were to be performed for oneself. The study ran for 6 weeks.
- The results indicated that pro-social behaviors led to significantly greater happiness than self-focused behaviors. The effect was mediated by increases in positive emotions over the course of the study for those who performed pro-social random acts of kindness.
- A surprising result was that performing acts of kindness for oneself did not lead to long term benefits in happiness.
The authors conclude the paper with the following recommendation:
People who are striving to improve their own happiness may be tempted to treat themselves to a spa day, a shopping trip, or a sumptuous dessert. The results of the current study suggest, however, that when happiness seekers are tempted to treat themselves, they might be more successful if they opt to treat someone else instead.
If you are intrigued by the study and would like to know more, the full text can be found here [pdf].
Research Summaries: A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels
- Cialdini is famous for his book Influence and his work focuses around how to influence other people. One way to get people to do what you want, is to refer to social norms and thus use the power of peer pressure. For example, a toothpaste manufacturer may advertise that most people do use toothpaste and that too of their brand. Thus, a social norm is highlighted and this influences subsequent behavior of the consumer.
- Another way to influence is by referencing to some standards. Like the toothpaste manufacturer may advertise that it has salt in it, or is made organically, something that has to do with the merits of the product per se and not so much whether the majority use it in this way or the other.
- One of the problems hotel owners face is reuse of towels by the guests. They would like to encourage reuse of towels (rather than washing them daily) if the guest is staying for a long duration (more than one night), for both economic as well as environmental reasons. They typically use environmental themed messages to encourage reuse of towels.
- Caildini et al placed signs for reuse that used the usual environmental pitch (control condition) and also signs for reuse that referenced a social norm (viz. that 75 % or majority of guests do indeed reuse their towels, this was the experimental condition) in different rooms in a hotel and observed the reuse pattern over several days and several guests. What they found was that the message that referred to social norms (most people reuse towels) was much more persuasive than the environmental harm message.
- In addition to this, they also performed another experiment, in which they contrasted among other conditions the usual social norm message (most guests in this hotel reuse towels) with the situational social norm message ( most guests in this particular hotel room #xxx reuse towels). What they found was that making it more situation-specific boosted the rate of towel reuse even further.
- Thus, if we want to influence someone we should try using social norms and these social norms should be as specific to the situation of the target audience as possible. I will give an example. Last week, while taking a positive education session with a class of students, the class seemed a bit less participating in the beginning. We could have asked them to participate as it will make them more confident (referring to a desired standard) or we could have told them that usually children of their age group are curious and participating. What we did instead was told them that the students of the other section, whose session we had just completed, were very active and participating, thus using the situational social norm (although we were not doing it consciously at that time).
- Overall, using social norms , that too situation specific , is one more tool in your arsenal to influence others (for the good hopefully)
If this summary got you interested, do check out the original article here.
- In the last research summary we looked at the notion of extraordinary experiences, or experiences that are rare and infrequent, and found that young people prefer them to build their experiential CV. The authors of this article refine this concept to come up with a concept of collectible experiences: experiences that are rare and infrequent, as well as novel and extreme. An example may help clarify; while staying in an Ice hotel may always remain an extraordinary experience, it ceases to be a collectible experience if you have stayed in an ice hotel once.
- Extraordinary, as well as collectible experiences are targeted towards building an experiential CV. However, while the last research summary authors focused on the ability of extraordinary experiences to lead to happiness, the authors of this article focus on how collectible experiences are driven by a need to use time effectively by being productive and accomplishing things.
- They introduce the notion of Productivity orientation as the chronic need to use time efficiently, viewing time as a scarce resource, and being obsessed with making progress and being productive. This busy, and active, sort of life is epitomized nowadays in contrast to more laid back life. Even when on vacations or when indulging in leisure activities, those driven by a productivity orientation would choose different activities inline with their need for productivity. One form of activities, that are inline with productivity orientation are collectible experiences, that help collect diverse experiences, about which one can talk about or reflect as proud and memorable accomplishments.
- An example may help clarify. A person who has set for himself/ herself a goal of visiting all 50 states in US has an experiential checklist that he wants to tick off and the experiences he wants in each state would be something memorable and not just a layover. They are also more likely to take photos with landmarks in each state and collect postcards to preserve their memories. At least that is what a qualitative study the authors performed found. The experiences of visiting each state at least once would be a collectible experience for the first time the journey to the state is undertaken.
- When given a choice between a pleasurable alternative like watching favorite DVDs on the airport while in layover, or exploring the city in extreme snowing weather, some people will often choose the memorable experience over the merely pleasurable one. This is because the not-so-pleasureful event is a collectible experience and will help build the experiential CV. This preference is heightened in the case of people who have chronic productivity orientation or are primed to feel as if time should be utilized properly.
- Now you may be wondering how did the authors measure productivity orientation? besides self-reports on a few select behaviors, they used observational studies , like whether someone is checking smartphone or reading while waiting for the train to come. They also used the fact as to whether a person has set his watch faster that the actual time to determine productivity orientation. They also primed productivity orientation by making subjects read and think about benefits of productivity.
- How do you ensure that when an ice hotel in Quebec is compared to a Florida vacation, other factors like locational preferences do not contaminate your observations? For this they used framing the same alternative as pleasurable or memorable/collectible and contrasting with a control alternative. An example may help clarify. Subjects were given choice between a regular chocolate truffle (control variable ) and a chocolate truffle with spices (experimental variable) and the chocolate truffle with spices was described as ‘delicious and tasty’ in pleasure condition and ‘unique and exotic’ in the collectible condition. Thus the choice between the differently framed alternatives will validly distinguish preference for collectible or pleasurable experiences.
- In all they conducted eight or so studies and reliably showed that those with a chronic productivity orientation or those rimed with a concern with productivity chose collectible experiences over pleasurable ones. in the last research summary we saw that young people derived more happiness from extraordinary events than ordinary events. It would be interesting to see if young people, given the society’s expectations for them to be productive, also choose more collectible experiences over older people, and older people are more happy in part because they are no longer required to be obsessed by productivity and can focus more of their energies on getting happiness from and preferring more pleasurable activities. Maybe retiring from work has spill over effect on productivity orientation.
- In terms of marketing, this has important implications. For those selling time share vacation etc at malls, railway stations etc, it would help if they have two differently framed brochures that they can hand to consumers- one describing the vacation plan/ any other product as exotic/ once in a life time sort of thing and the other describing the same thing as pleasurable, relaxing etc, and target these differently based on whether someone is constantly using his smartphone etc to make full use of his time or is more laid back.
- For the rest of us, it would be good if we could assess our own productivity orientation and make more conscious decisions of how we use our leisure time and vacation time in the future.
If this has piqued your interest sufficient check out the original paper here.