Posts tagged ‘social psychology’

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.

read more »

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.

Conclusion

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.

References

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

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.

read more »