For better or worse, the man Sigmund Freud remains the image of psychology. Though over one hundred years have passed since Sigmund Freud started to unveil his ideas, YouTube’s insanely popular Crash Course YouTube series made Freud the near entire focus and image of their first psychology video to promote their new online psychology “crash course.”
Should modern psychologists be angry about this?
Well maybe. Many modern psychologists have complained, and rightly so, that some of Freud’s ideas (even some of the obviously bad ideas he took back or eased up on) have remained popular amongst many people, academic departments (e.g. many humanities departments), and even therapists. However, we want to take a moment and comment that a lot of the best modern psychology is still rooted in a lot of Freudian ideas. And so maybe Freud as a mascot isn’t the best, but not completely terrible either. Because regardless of the flaws and floweriness of much Freudian psychology, there are many basic ideas that he “invented” and/or popularized that positively shape the current exploration of the human mind.
Here are 4 positive ways Freud’s ideas live on in modern research.
Goals and Goal Conflict
Much of modern psychological research is about goals. In fact, in the eyes of many current psychological theorists a person can be best understood as a creature that pursues and manages goals.
Freud’s id-ego-superego theory was all about different goals and managing such goals. In Freudian theory, the id is our basic desires (food, sex, and video games), the super-ego is “anti-id” and focused on high desires (propriety, education, honor), and the ego is the man in the middle that is both separate from and part of the other parts. Current research on goal hierarchies, multiple goal pursuits, and the information signal model (the latter of which shows people more or less people lying to different parts of themselves) are very Freudian at their core.
Though it seems archaic to call the forces in the mind energies, it may not be far from the truth. Roy Baumeister and many other psychologists have discovered that one’s self-control is more or less a type of energy.
That is, one’s self-control can be depleted with too much use over too short of a period. It can be replenished (e.g. through relaxation, food, or positive moods). Furthermore, one’s self-control can expand. If one works at it, one’s self-control machine can gain, in a manner of speaking, a larger energy capacity. Roy Baumesiter even chose to call his theory of self-control depletion “ego-depletion” as a nod to Freud and the “energy” nature of it. One’s ego can get tired when it gets pulled in so many different ways (see title image).
Research finds people have multiple attitudes toward the same thing and this often happens at the same time. Additionally, people can often hold conscious attitudes that differ from their automatic non-conscious attitudes. For instance people can have explicitly positive feelings toward an out-group (e.g. African Americans) but can hold unconscious biases against them. It all is very id versus superego like. And it is very important to recognize how unconscious tendencies influence behavior, especially when a majority of psychology and economics examine the human as always engaged in rational and conscious processing.
Let’s be honest, Freud went in some exaggerated and frankly wrong directions with the unconscious—especially when it comes to repression and repressed memories. However, Freud presented us with an important concept: our behavior may be guided by factors outside of conscious thought. Time and time again research has found that we are motivated by unconscious “thoughts” and we even pursue goals and experience emotions without awareness. And simply on a temporal level, neuroscience research shows that actions and decisions often occur before our awareness. The unconscious might not do everything Freud said it did. It might not be as full of repressions and daddy-mother issues, but it is just as powerful and important. And if it weren’t for Freud it would have been much longer before we realized that.
The Center for Advanced Hindsight has a hydroponic vegetable garden. This has never been explained to me, other than the fact that our lab just tends to have strange things and, to be honest, it’s not necessarily out of place given our lab coats, hanging basket chairs, and the DVD collection of Nina Hartley’s Guide of instructional erotic videos that appeared one day on my desk.
When I joined the lab, I saw that the plants were overgrown, underfed, and hadn’t grown any flower buds, let alone vegetables. After some office space opened up and our desks were rearranged, I ended up at the desk closest to the tomatoes and peppers, and de facto put in charge of keeping them alive. From then on I spent 15 minutes here and there watering the plants, adding nutrients, and heavily pruning.
Earlier this week, the first cherry tomato—a yellow one—popped off the plant, and I tried it. We were all so excited that we filmed the occasion. (Watch it here!)
It was a fun little experience (and a decent tomato). Though it didn’t taste very special, given what we know about the IKEA effect, it almost definitely tasted better than it would have had I bought it from the store. Like I said in the video, “It tastes like gardening.”
Read more about the IKEA effect:
Norton, Michael I., Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely. “The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love.” Journal of Consumer Psychology 22, no. 3 (July 2012): 453–460.
The end of the year is a time to reflect and think—where have we been, who do we want to be, and what do we want to do differently next year? But what if all of the resolutions we’ve been making are missing an important detail? What if all these “New Year’s resolution” articles going viral online right now are all deeply flawed? Might this help explain why almost everyone fails to keep their New Year’s resolutions?
Let’s imagine two would-be-resolvers: Riss (“the resistor”) and Remmy (“the remover”). Like so many Americans, both of them are trying to eat healthier and exercise more, but they approach these goals differently.
Riss follows all the traditional New Year’s resolution strategies out there. He buys healthy foods and workout DVDs. To ramp up his confidence, he reads inspirational quotes, creates a New Year’s playlist, and vows to succeed. He has what health scientists call “high self-efficacy” and the magical “Law of Attraction” readers of The Secret always talk about.
Most importantly, Riss is defined by the passionate goal to resist temptation—he wont be lazy, eat that cookie, or stay at home instead of go to the gym. With resolve like that, it seems like Riss is bound to succeed.
But let’s look at Remmy: what does she do? She really doesn’t make any changes except for two small things: she removes the junk food from her house and the HBO subscription she loves.
Remmy is defined by her goal to remove, rather than resist, temptation. When she comes home, she won’t have any choice but to eat the healthy food in her cabinets. If she wants to see her favorite HBO shows, she won’t have any choice but to use the TV at her gym.
When Riss comes home, though, he’ll have his health food and workout DVDs, but also junk food and tempting Adam Sandler movies. His confidence and resolve will help him resist these temptations for a while, but over time, as research by NYU Professor Andrea Bonezzi and colleagues shows, that resolve will likely fade. It won’t be long till Riss finds himself covered in cookie crumbs watching The Waterboy and shedding a tear every time a character shouts “You can do it!”
Resisting temptation almost always fails, because people are bad at predicting how their future selves will act. We continually fail to realize that the tired, miserable, and aroused versions of ourselves might not make the same choices that our well-rested, happy, and focused selves would make. Over time and after many grueling workweeks, the hopeful people who made New Year’s resolutions after a winter vacation will be replaced by people who just want a few slices of cake. This is why we have to focus on controlling, rather than resisting, temptation.
If we’re smart about temptation, we can even use it to our advantage. In the Remmy example, she does this by making the gym the only place for her to watch her guilty HBO pleasures. Wharton Business School Professor Katy Milkman and colleagues found that stocking gyms with addictive guilty pleasures (like an audio copy of The Hunger Games on gym iPods) lead people to go to the gym more. These gym goers couldn’t resist the temptation to come again and again to consume their guilty media pleasures—all while exercising.
Keeping New Year’s resolutions is like playing chess with our future selves—we have to realistically anticipate what moves they will make come February.
Advice givers and columnists tend to choose to just fill readers with hope, the promise of new products, confidence, and a “you can do it” spirit. Of course it’s important to be confident in any goal pursuit and work to develop the self-control muscle, but resolve alone rarely leads to a successful resolution.
So rather than face a losing battle, we can remove temptation and create a battlefield where we can give ourselves a true fighting chance to keep our New Year’s resolutions.
Read Dan’s advice for New Year’s resolutions here.
With the holiday season upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on the things we have that we truly need and the rest that is just superfluous. How greedy are you?
In line with this thought, our very own Dan Ariely and Aline Grüneisen published an article in the November/December Scientific American Mind on the price of greed.
For a juicy excerpt, read on:
Ferocious competition may occasionally lead to optimal market outcomes, but it can also have harmful side effects. Think about competition in sports. At first glance, the drive to be the best appears to propel human achievements to new heights. World records are surpassed, and yesterday’s Olympic medalists pale in comparison with today’s champions. Yet extreme dedication has costs. Athletes may not spend enough time with their friends and families, or they may sacrifice their long-term health to perform better in the short term — by overexerting their body or taking performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.
The consequences of unchecked greed can also spill over into society. In his 2011 book The Darwin Economy, economist Robert H. Frank of Cornell University outlines some of the disastrous effects of allowing competition to run free. Take, for example, neighbors gunning for social status. Each tries to outdo the others, purchasing a slightly flashier car, bigger pool or more expensive grill. When Joe Jones down the block builds a home theater and Jane Smith across the street installs a 3-D amphitheater, you will no longer be satisfied with your meager widescreen television. We don’t simply try to keep up with the Joneses, we try to surpass them…
Let me set the scene: It’s midway through the annual Society for Judgment and Decision Making conference in Toronto. Inside a conference room, behavioral and health scientists passionately discuss how to help people make healthier decisions while the event staff set up a snack table with coffee and huge cookies outside.
The session ends and the scientists start to exit, and I wonder what will happen next—will these scientists who are so interested in promoting health eat the cookies?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Every cookie is gone within minutes (even the raisin ones).
How should we make sense of these scientists’ apparent hypocrisy? It may be hard to imagine, but scientists can have difficulty following their own goals, just like everyone else. Behavioral scientists don’t just study irrationality, but live with it, too. Despite our own efforts to live rational lives, we find ourselves choosing irrationally and failing like everyone else—and this can become a large inspiration for our research.
As researchers, we understand that we have troubles with email addiction, procrastination, and blind optimism. We look at our own lives and say, “What could have helped me be more rational or what could have helped me exert more self-control?” At others times we ask ourselves, “What could have helped me relax more?”
Behavioral scientists should arguably be the most motivated to make healthy and rational choices, because we know the consequences of our actions all too well and are aware of the mistakes we make in pursuing our goals. Yet, we still do things like reach for the cookies we know we shouldn’t eat and constantly check our email, even though we know that such cognitive switching can greatly impair our work performance.
If all this education is not enough, then we need more than just lessons. That’s why we need research to develop technologies that aid us in self-control such as choice architecture, decision aids, better public policies, and general environmental design that enables better decisions.
At the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we make efforts to create a healthy and productive environment that can protect ourselves from ourselves. We try to keep the cupboards full of easily accessible health foods to protect us from our junk food temptations. We make public social pacts to protect us from our lazy temptations. We make the lab fun and even have the peace and simplicity of the Thinking & Dreaming room to keep us protected from our inefficient overworking temptations.
Today, there are way too many cookies outside of conference rooms. We must eliminate and reduce these cookies from our environments. Rather than act as individuals and fight with our current environments, we must work to create environments that help us be great individuals together.
Relevant Topical Readings.
At our lab, we’re interested in what kinds of tools people can use to make better decisions and reach their goals. When we decided to take part in this year’s Color Run, we tried to use some of these tools on ourselves to help us get in shape and ready for the race.
Like many people, we want to exercise more and get in better shape. Everyday temptation often gets in the way, though. To fight these temptations, we turned to one of the most prevalent behavioral tools: the “commitment contract.”
A commitment contract is an agreement your current self makes with your future self—you decide how you’re going to behave before temptations cloud your judgment.
In our lab, we had everyone agree to do some type of training three times a week in the six weeks leading up to the race. In the spirit of what we know about motivation, the focus was on concrete actions (spend a certain amount of time training) rather than vague outcomes (run a fast race).
“Some type of training” is pretty open-ended, so we each defined on our contracts what actually counted as a training session for us—this way we could all train to our own level while maintaining concrete goals. This is important because we all vary in how fit we currently are and how fit we ideally want to be. Research shows personal goals can be more success that striving after a single public standard. The standard becomes too high or too low for many people and leads to demotivation.
Commitment contracts are effective, but we decided to take the commitment up another notch by including social incentives. We each kept track of our training goals on a chart we posted in a very visible high traffic area – right by the kitchen!
The chart helped us track progress from person to person and week to week. The chart made our commitment (or lack of commitment) very visible to each other and ourselves. It’s painful enough to fail privately, but it’s even worse when everyone else can see us coming short of our own standards.
So, how did it work?
For the most part it worked fantastically. However, you can see that a handful of people fell off the bandwagon and never got back on. This is what behavioral economists playfully call that the “what-the-hell” effect.
Importantly though, about one-third of the team succeeded in completing all training sessions, and others were motivated to exercise more or harder than they did before.
It’s important to note that on average, exercise in the lab shot up and as a whole we moved toward our goal. Perfection with any intervention is not expected, but, as a group, we definitely made strides forward.
To better understand what was going on, I talked with some of our lab members to get their assessment.
For some of us, this was an all or nothing endeavor:
“Just knowing that I needed three stickers each week and would be anything less than perfect if I didn’t get all three got me to put on my running shoes without fail.”
Some people used the contracts and the process of defining what “counted” as a training session to eliminate the possibility they would take too much wiggle room:
“For me I always work out but sometimes I don’t feel so good and I ‘call it early’ and stop before getting a full workout. With the pre-commitment this didn’t happen. The fixed time goal kept me from quitting early.”
Other people used the contracts to build in wiggle room, just in case.
“I made my commitment contract loose enough that I could justify yoga or sex as exercise activities, but I never took advantage of the ample wiggle room.”
In the end, the training probably didn’t radically transform anyone from couch potato to athlete or yield dramatic before and after photos (nor did it exactly have randomized and controlled trials), but it seems safe to say that everyone got a little extra boost—even those who didn’t train. As one visitor to the lab remarked “You can’t look at all those smiley faces and not smile back.”
Check out the photos we took from our run here, and for more research on how pre-commitment and social comparison affects goal pursuit check out these academic articles:
During my recent trip to New York City, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in taxis—taxis with ads that endlessly drill messages into your thoughts. I’ve never watched much TV, so my brain hasn’t evolved that uniquely American ability to tune out the mind-numbing commercials. As hard as I try, I just can’t look away when there’s a TV in sight.
As the commercials looped, one ad stood out to me and had me grinding my teeth each time it popped onto the screen. It wasn’t that it looked like an old-fashioned PSA, or because its protagonist donned a charmingly insincere Mr. Rogers smile. No—this ad grabbed me because of its heartbreaking ignorance of basic psychology. The goal of this ad was to get passengers to buckle up for safety, but its method was painfully misguided.
A number of strategies have been used over the years to get people to buckle their belts. For example, we have:
• Laws. This map shows the seatbelt laws in all US states, and according to the National Safety Council, seatbelt use is 13% higher in states with primary enforcement (meaning you can get stopped and ticketed just for not wearing a seatbelt) than those with secondary enforcement (88% versus 75%).
• Penalties. Although people are probably not thinking about the $69 fine they might have to pay or even the drivers license points they could rack up if they get caught, it is possible that some people may buckle up to avoid these consequences.
• Enforcement. Here, we’re talking about high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints where all cars are stopped to check for seatbelt usage.
• Incentive awards for police officers to give tickets (ranging from small model cars awarded to individual police officers to much larger grants for police agencies).
• “Click it or Ticket.” This campaign has been particularly effective because it serves as a reminder of the immediate stakes (getting a ticket), even though they are smaller than the larger consequences (such as sustaining an injury in an accident). Reward substitution works. Fun fact: the campaign began in North Carolina, home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and was adopted by other states because of its success (most likely due to its catchy name).
• Safety belt reminder systems. These excruciatingly loud alarms get my passengers to buckle up in record time.
• Safety belt ignition interlocks. Some cars will refuse to start until all belts are in, although you can imagine why the idea hasn’t gained much traction.
• Education. Teaching children about seatbelt safety in school, while not an official persuasion method that I can find in any academic paper, has turned diligent recycling enthusiasts who just say no to drugs into relentless seatbelt reminder machines. I imagine that if our kids were the enforcers of just about anything, we would all be better off.
Some of these strategies work better than others, but none of them are actually detrimental to seatbelt compliance. And yet this taxicab ad, which I was forced to watch over and over in agony, conspicuously ignored what we know to be a primary motivator of behavior: social validation.
The ad gave one pivotal piece of information, which you can see in the accompanying photo: “60% of taxi passengers do not buckle up.” This kind of scare tactic is ineffective because it simply sends the wrong message.
Robert Cialdini has shown over and over again that social proof is an intoxicating principle of persuasion. We look to others to decide what to do, and when we are told about how most people behave in a given situation, we are likely to follow their lead. (This is why “word of mouth” can be so powerful, and companies pay top dollar to try and influence what their customers tell their friends.)
So, what message does this ad convey to cab riders?
This statement gives an implicit recommendation, noting that most people do not wear seatbelts. As social creatures, we look to others to determine how to behave in all kinds of situations, and riding in a taxi is no different. Rather than encouraging seatbelt use, this statement lets seatbelt-wearers know that they are in the minority while giving non-seatbelt wearers the comfort of knowing that their behavior is normal. It doesn’t matter why the majority doesn’t wear seat belts—whether it is uncool, unsanitary, too much of a hassle, or even unsafe—now they know that most people don’t do it, and that’s a good enough reason to go along with the flow.
If you want to persuade people to wear seatbelts, you should tell them that 84% of people in the US do wear seatbelts. Or you can further tap into group identity by noting that 90% of New Yorkers wear seatbelts.
It’s a shame that a message as important as “wear a seatbelt” could be so badly butchered. If companies have figured out how to use the concept of social proof to get people to spend more money, why can’t our safety promoters figure out how to use it to get us to make better decisions?
For a quick review of all six of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion (reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority and scarcity), see this article.
P.S. Some friends have informed me that you can simply turn off the taxicab TV. Noted for next time.
A few friends, well aware of how completely obsessed I am with all things dog-related, have been sending me this recent New York Times op-ed about whether or not dogs are people. The answer that Emory neuroeconomist, Gregory Berns, gives is “yes.” At least the kind of limited personhood we might grant to small children. I was hoping to love this piece but instead felt frustrated that the findings seem to rely more on—to borrow a phrase—the seductive appeal of neuroscience, rather than any empirical basis.
Berns begins by noting limitations in understanding animal emotion, disparaging the “behaviorism” in animal research. He tries to get around these restraints by putting dogs in an fMRI machine. After some trial and error (that’s adorable to visualize), Berns explored activation in the caudate nucleus—a brain region associated with reward, memory, and learning—focusing specifically on the caudate’s role in anticipating things that we enjoy, as well as its functional and structural similarity across dogs and humans. He writes in the critical two paragraphs:
In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
First, it seems an empirical and philosophical stretch to consider “experiences positive emotions” as a coherent and plausible criterion for personhood. I’m also unconvinced that caudate activity is solid enough ground to infer sentience, since rats have a functioning caudate that responds to rewards.
Second, it’s not at all clear to me why neuroscience is required to make this conclusion. If we want to give personhood to animals that experience positive emotions, then why go through the trouble and expense of putting dogs in an fMRI machine? It’s pretty obvious to me when my dog is happy. He perks up, he wags his tail, he grins, he looks at me lovingly when I scratch his ears, he sighs contentedly when he chews on bones and other things, and so on. I don’t need to examine activation in his caudate to realize that he’s experiencing positive emotions.
It could be argued that we can’t actually observe the positive experiences in dogs—we can only make inferences from behavioral similarities. And in that case we’d want to look deeper into the subjective experience that dogs might have. Neuroscience is a tempting alternative, but it’s a shallow one—it only feels more scientific without providing much payoff.
What fMRI scans tell us is that certain regions of the brain receive more blood at certain times during a task. So if we see more blood flow to the caudate when dogs look at their owners or see a hand signal associated with food, we infer that the caudate is more active. But how is caudate activation enough to infer something about what dogs experience?
We still haven’t observed any emotion, but rather brain activation. You could appeal to structural or functional homology, as Bern’s does (i.e. “dogs and humans both have caudates that respond to similar things, so they must feel similarly, too”), but notice we’re no better off than where we started. We’ve simply replaced one assumption with another. If the first (“dogs and people both smile, so dogs feel like people do when they smile”) is unjustifiable, so must be the neural one. We’ve learned nothing new about what dogs experience, but rather that dogs show activity in reward regions when they see things they enjoy (which, like, duh?). We’ve only bought the sexy feeling that the science we’ve done is somehow more legitimate.
Which leads me to my last pet peeve (hah) about the OpEd—the constant suggestion that neuroscience has triumphed over the constraints of behaviorism, while ignoring that psychology has been looking beyond behavior just fine for a long time. Animal psychology has been no exception, here. I know of and have been involved in a lot of comparative cognition research with animals (the operative word being “cognition,” not “behavior”). I have good friends who work with Brian Hare at Duke, the co-director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke and author of The Genius of Dogs, and my undergraduate advisor is currently diving into dog cognition, herself. There is a lot of great research that explores how canines think, not just behave. All without the aid of fMRI’s.
fMRI is a great tool, no doubt. But it’s not the only way to learn about the mind, and it certainly has it’s limits. These limits do not go away, however, when looking at other animals. So even though I love my dog (a lot), he’s probably not a person (though I might treat him like one, sometimes). If he is, though, it’s going to take more evidence than this study to convince me.
This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog, which he encourages you to follow.
Today, Dan will talk to some lucky google+ers about the psychology of money.
To participate, join the Psychology Community on Google+ and post your thoughts about this topic. Dan will select the most insightful contributors to join him in a Hangout On Air on 9/26 at 2 PM ET.
UPDATE: Here is the conversation.
(All the rights of this illustration belong to our talented lab member M.R.Trower)
Before writing personal bonus checks to your employees this December, have a look at our paper — hot off the press! If you are hoping that a bonus would allow them to buy whatever they wish and as a result be happier at work and more productive, we have a better idea! Rather than giving your employees more personal bonuses, make a minor adjustment and offer them prosocial bonuses, a novel type of bonus to be spent on others.
Across three field experiments, we tested the efficacy of prosocial bonuses against the standard model of personal bonuses. We found that when companies gave their employees money to spend on charities or on their colleagues (as opposed to themselves), employees 1) reported increased job satisfaction and 2) performed notably better.
In one experiment, an Australian Bank gave some of their employees a charity voucher and encouraged them to spend it on a cause they personally cared about. Compared to their coworkers who didn’t receive a charity vouchers, bankers who redeemed the prosocial bonuses reported increased job satisfaction and were happier overall.
Next, we examined whether prosocial bonuses were still effective if they were spent on others people personally knew rather than on charities. We ran experiments in two very different settings – one with recreational dodge ball teams in Canada and another one with pharmaceutical sales teams in Belgium – where we encouraged spending on co-workers and teammates. In both cases, we gave cash to some members of each team to either spend on themselves (personal bonuses) or spend on their teammates (prosocial bonuses). We found that teams that received prosocial bonuses performed better than teams that received money to spend on themselves.
It is difficult to measure the return on investment of corporate social responsibility. With prosocial bonuses, however, we were able to measure the dollar impact on the bottom line. On sports teams, every $10 spent prosocially led to an 11% increase in winning percentage, whereas it led to a 2% decrease in winning when team members received personal bonuses. For the sales teams, every $10 spent prosocially earned an extra $52 for the firm.
Our results come at an important time. Job satisfaction is at a 20-year low in the U.S., and people are spending more and more time at work. If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten. So, we suggest that you try something new this year: Shift the focus of the bonuses from the self to others and create a more altruistic, satisfying and productive workplace!
P.S. If you are interested in testing prosocial bonuses, please feel free to send a gift to firstname.lastname@example.org