Posts tagged ‘Research’

January 10, 2013

Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part II

Earlier this week, I wrote about psychological essentialism, the idea that people tend to see certain categories as having an underlying essence that causes them to be what they are and to have the properties that they do. I gave the example of thinking that tigers are what they are because there is something inside them, DNA perhaps, which is responsible for their being tigers and having stripes and tails. Today, I want to discuss what all of this might have to do with racism.

It turns out that people think this way not just about natural kinds (like tigers and gold) but about social kinds as well. You can see this kind of thinking throughout history. For example, in the US the one-drop rule, the idea that any amount of African ancestry (that is, any amount of African blood—even one drop) makes one Black, was for some time a legally instituted definition of race. Although people may not have believed the blood metaphor literally, it is telling in its emphasis on an internal, undetectable, and biological determiner of social identity. We may no longer talk about drops of racial blood, but we still see this same kind of thinking today. Consider, for example, the attempt to analyze Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA for an explanation for his actions. We’re probably just as unlikely to find killer DNA as we are to find African blood, but the desire to explain differences between humans in terms of underlying, biological essences is strong.

But believing that people are different beneath the surface doesn’t itself explain prejudice and discrimination. So how do psychologists go from one to the other? As I mentioned at the end of my earlier post, psychological essentialism doesn’t stop at the idea that there is something deep inside that causes category membership. After all, the idea that a group of people has some deep, biological similarity implies lots of things about that group. People who have that belief are also likely to have a host of other kinds of beliefs about category memberships. They also tend to believe that category membership is unalterable, stable over growth, passed from parent to child, biologically based, and innate. Likewise, they may believe that category members share many features and that category membership is exclusive (for example, a person can belong to only one race), absolute (for example, a person either is or is not White; one cannot be a part member of a race), informative (tells you a lot about someone), and inherent (a real part of the world and not simply a social categorization). These beliefs have implications for how people think about and act towards people of different social categories.

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January 8, 2013

Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part I

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

There are a couple of posts that bring steady traffic to my blog, even though they written a long time ago and even though I have barely updated the blog since I wrote those posts. One of these is on the relationship between religion and racism. Racism is an important topic for psychologists, one with substantial application to our understanding of everyday social behavior. So there is a lot to say about it, and I would like to revisit it this week with a couple of posts on one of the psychological processes underlying racism: psychological essentialism. Today, I’ll explain what psychological essentialism is, and in the second post later this week, I will explain how it is linked to racism. 

What makes a tiger a tiger? Is something a tiger because it has black stripes, four legs, a tail, etc.? Or is there something deeper, something inside that makes it a tiger? If you are like most people, you probably believe that just having the features of a tiger (stripes, etc.) is not enough to be a tiger. After all, if I painted stripes on myself, crawled around on all fours, and taped a tail to my rear end, I wouldn’t be a tiger. No, there is something else, something invisible to the naked eye, something inside the tiger that makes it a tiger. If you agree, then you might be a psychological essentialist.

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January 3, 2013

Make the Most of Your Regrets

Regret feels bad. That fact is so obvious that it hardly needs explaining. When you think about how you could acted differently to make things better, that just feels bad. Perhaps because regret feels bad, you can find lots of people advocating living without regret. (A Google search for “live life without regrets” turns up millions of results.) After all, we’d all rather feel good than bad.

But ignoring or blocking your regrets might deprive you of their benefits. As you move into the new year, you might make better resolutions and be more able to keep them by reflecting on how your past behavior has prevented you from achieving your goals and thinking about how your future behavior might lead to new failures. In doing this, you will be taking advantage of two of regrets’ strongest benefits: improving on your past mistakes and avoiding new ones.

To understand the difference between these two effects, it’s useful to make a distinction between counterfactual thinking and prefactual thinking. When you recall the past and think about how it could have been different if only you’d made a different choice (for example, how you could have gone on vacation this year if only you hadn’t gone out to eat as much), you are engaging in counterfactual thinking. When you think about the regret you might feel about a choice you are about to make (for example, how you will resent the purse-tightening you will have to do if you rent a more expensive apartment), you are engaging in prefactual thinking. It turns out that both the regret felt during counterfactual thinking and the regret anticipated in prefactual thinking influence our behavior and decision-making in generally positive ways.

Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking arises spontaneously when we encounter a problem (Roese & Hur, 1997). For example, when I check my January bank account balance and realize that I might not be able to afford a vacation this year, I spontaneously begin to think about all of the frivolous things I spent money on in the past year—trips to Starbucks, clothes that I haven’t worn, expensive groceries—and regret them. What’s important about this process is that it implies a causal link between my regretted behavior (frivolous spending) and my problem (no vacation). Since I’ve identified a causal mechanism linking my behavior to my problem, I am now better equipped to correct both my behavior (spend more carefully) and, consequently, my problem (afford a vacation) by forming intentions that allow me to behave better in the future (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Although regret might feel bad in the short term, it equips us with the understanding needed to improve our behavior and our outcomes in the future.

Prefactual Thinking

Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of anticipated regret in reducing risky behaviors. For example, psychologists have found that thinking about how you will feel after unsafe sex is a better deterrent than simply thinking about your feelings about unsafe sex itself (Richard, van der Pligt, & de Vries, 1996). Thinking about the regret they will feel after unsafe sex not only made participants form intentions to have safer sex, it actually influenced their behavior, leading to safer sexual practices.

More recent work has demonstrated that the effects of anticipated regret on decision-making are due to more careful thinking during the decision. Participants in one study were asked to pick one of two investment options (Reb, 2008). Although several pieces of information were available for both investment choices, participants had to click on a link to access each piece of information, meaning that learning about the choices involved deliberate investment of time and effort. Before beginning, however, some of the participants were asked to think about how much they might regret choosing the worse option. Participants who were asked to anticipate their regret took 42% more time (almost a minute longer) to reach their decision and sought out about a third more information before deciding. Even more telling was that participants in the regret condition sought out more relevant information (e.g., past performance of the funds they were choosing between). So when participants were asked to think about the regret they might feel after their decisions, they became more careful and more informed about the decision.


Ignoring or attempting to eliminate your felt or anticipated regret is a bad strategy if your goal is self-improvement and well-being. Regret serves an important function in self-regulation. By making the consequences of our behaviors salient and painful, regret inspires us to think carefully about our decisions and improve our behaviors. By listening to your regrets now, you can avoid feeling even more regret in the future.


Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 168–192. doi:10.1177/1088868308316091

Reb, J. (2008). Regret aversion and decision process quality: Effects of regret salience on decision process carefulness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 169–182. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.08.006

Richard, R., van der Pligt, J., & de Vries, N. K. (1996). Anticipated regret and time perspective: Changing sexual risk-taking behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 9, 185–199.

Roese, N. J., & Hur, T. (1997). Affective determinants in counterfactual thinking. Social Cognition, 15, 274-290. doi: 10.1521/soco.1997.15.4.274

January 2, 2013

New Year; Old Regrets


Image by deeplifequotes on Flickr

The New Year can be as much a time of regret as of renewal. While you are setting new resolutions, you might reflect on failed resolutions from the past—that weight you were supposed to lose or that language you were supposed to learn. And as you are returning to your normal schedule after the holidays, you might reflect on how that schedule could be better—if you got up earlier every morning, you might have more time to make a healthy breakfast at home, or if you rode your bike to work every day, you might be more fit.

As you reflect on the past year and prepare for the new one, you might ask: Are the things I regret really unique, or do we all regret the same sorts of things (lost love, missed opportunities)?  Will reflecting on my regrets inspire me to do better or bog me down in the past and trap me in negativity? Psychologists have studied these questions extensively and have some interesting and inspiring answers. Over the next two posts, I will try to share some of what they have learned. Below, I focus on what regret is and what sorts of things people generally regret. Tomorrow, I will write about how regret may actually be helpful.

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June 8, 2011

Looking Over Your Shoulder from Beyond the Grave

Ghost Plushies by Katspurl on Flickr

Recently, a friend suggested I make up my own version of a WWJD sticker — one that said “What Would Jesse Think?” See, both of my academic advisors have been named Jesse, and, being an insecure person, I am constantly worried about what my advisor will think of my work. Fortunately, for me, these thoughts are productive: They drive me to do work that I hope would please my advisor, even when I know that I am alone and my advisor has no idea what I am doing!

Anxiety about being watched by invisible agents (an agent is anything that has intentions, desires, or goals) appears to be a powerful motivator for other people, too, and the agents who we think are watching us don’t need to be human or even real for the effect to work. This effect has been proposed as one of the bases of belief in the supernatural: If people think they’re being watched by God, a spirit, or a ghost, they will be less likely to behave badly. Jesse Bering, Katrina McLeod, and Todd Shackelford (2005) tested this idea in the laboratory through a clever experiment.

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June 6, 2011

Mutants, Apes, and Evolution — Oh, My!

I went to see the new X-Men movie this past weekend and saw this intriguing trailer:

I was excited — this looked like a good movie! — right up until I saw the word “evolution.” Since I was there to see a movie about human mutants with superpowers, I couldn’t justify getting too upset about abuses of evolution. But it was precisely seeing this trailer and that movie in the same night that made think about how media reflect popular misunderstandings of evolution.

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June 6, 2011

Foreign Ideas & Moral Indigestion

Welcome to anyone coming from Genealogy of Religion! I hope you enjoy what you find here. It’s not much, yet — I’ve just started! — but more is coming soon. Of course, if you don’t like what you see, feel free to let me know; it will only help me improve as a blogger!

For anyone who is coming to ATOM from anywhere else, Cris, the blogger behind Genealogy of Religion (an awesome religion science blog; you must check it out), came upon my blog a few days ago and was extraordinarily kind in offering to introduce me and have me do a guest post. I decided to write about some new research from my own lab on disgust at ideas. Here’s a teaser:

Imagine you are dining at a friend’s home. Your host is excited because she has prepared a special dish for you. When dinner is finally served, you are surprised to see a whole egg on your plate and when you open the egg, you are even more surprised to see this . . .

To find out what’s on your plate and what that might have to do with religion, you’ll need to read the whole post over at Genealogy of Religion!

June 3, 2011

Does Religion Cause Racism?

Birth of a Notion comic from Town Called Dobson

Birth of a Notion comic series from Town Called Dobson, about the history of racial prejudice in America

The title of this post is a pretty big question. Popular media accounts of links between religion and racism are not hard to find (for example, this recent story about a prison inmate suing to receive racist literature on the grounds that it is part of his faith). A recurring theme in discussions of racism and religion is the idea that religions are like “clans” and help us divide the world into people who are in our group and people who aren’t. This mode of thinking might spread from religion to other social categories, such as race. Thus, two things that at first don’t seem related (religion and race) are connected by our general tendency to think in an “us” versus “them” fashion. For sure, it’s not hard to think of examples of groups who promote both racial and religious hatred. The Ku Klux Klan is just one such group and also an example of when religion is associated with harm.

The question of whether religion causes racism is an important part of the public debate over whether religion is responsible for more harm or more good. It’s easy to come up with examples of both. Religion has been cited as a motivation for all kinds of harm, from the Crusades to the persecution of women. But it also is given credit for inspiring profound acts of charity and for leading to better health and longevity. The overall good and bad created by anything, of course, is enormously difficult to calculate, and it depends a lot on what you personally value (for example, is prejudice more or less important than longevity?). Smaller questions about individual goods and bad, however, are much easier to answer. So what does science have to tell us about religion and prejudice?

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