Psychology 101

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Overchoice (sometimes called the paradox of choice) refers to the difficulty we have making a decision when faced with many too many approximately equally good options, as well as the uncertainty, unease, or disappointment we often end up feeling as a result of our choice.

There are at least two reasons this happens. First, having too many options mentally exhausts us, because we try to weigh each one against all of the alternatives. Second, and perhaps more importantly, having too many options leads us ultimately to feel less satisfied with (and more likely to feel regretful of) what we do end up choosing, because we’re aware of all the other options we’ve forfeited.

Consequently, satisfaction as a function of the number of choices can be modeled as an inverted ‘U’ ― having no options results in very low satisfaction; having more options initially leads to higher satisfaction; as the number of options increases, satisfaction peaks; more options then leads to more pressure, confusion, and dissatisfaction. And so, counterintuitively, smaller choice sets sometimes lead to more satisfaction and less regret.” [1]

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Analysis paralysis is the state of over-analyzing or over-thinking a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the decision-maker.

  • This relates to Voltaire’s ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good.’ One might never complete a task or project if one has decided to keep working on it until it’s perfect; completing the task or project well is made impossible by striving to complete it perfectly.” [2]
  • “The best thing is to do the right thing. The next best is to do the wrong thing. The worst thing of all is to stand perfectly still.” [3]
  • “Better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late.” [4]

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Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s confidence in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal, either in a particular area or in general. Individuals who have high self-efficacy will exert sufficient effort, making them more likely to achieve a successful outcome. On the other hand, individuals who have low self-efficacy are more likely to cease effort early and fail.” [5]

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“A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when an expectation comes true simply because of the belief that it will and the behaviors resulting from that belief.

  • The classic example involves a bank run. If a significant number of people believe that a bank is going to file for bankruptcy, then this causes many people to go to the bank and withdraw all of their money at once. And because banks rarely have that amount of cash on hand, these actions indeed cause the bank to go bankrupt.
  • Interpersonal interactions in general have high potential for self-fulfilling prophecies. William James gives the basic example of how a suitor, convinced that a fair maiden must love him, will likely prove more effective in wooing her than he would have had he been a defeatist.” [6] There’s also the opposite kind of case, “where you assume someone doesn’t like you, and so you behave coldly toward them, and then that causes them to not like you.” [Pannenkoek]
  • “The placebo effect is the tendency for a treatment/intervention to exhibit positive effects simply because the recipient believes that it will. The opposite is the nocebo effect, the tendency for a treatment/intervention to exhibit negative effects simply because the recipient believes that it will (such as believing that someone has put a curse on you).” [7] There’s also the tendency for a treatment/intervention to exhibit no effect because the recipient believes that it will be ineffective.That should be called the ‘nocebo effect’, and what’s normally referred to as the ‘nocebo effect’ should be called the ‘anticebo effect’.” [Pannenkoek]
  • “The Pygmalion effect is the tendency for high expectations of someone to lead them to perform better in a given area, and for low expectations to lead to them to perform worse. The classic example involves teachers’ beliefs about the potentials of their students.” [8]
  • Stereotype threat occurs when people perform worse than they otherwise would have because of exposure to a negative stereotype about themselves (largely due to anxiety). Its opposite is stereotype boost, when people perform better than they otherwise would have because of exposure to a positive stereotype.” [9]

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t ― you’re right.” [10]

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Reactance occurs when we have the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants us to do, out of a need to resist what’s perceived as an attempt to constrain our freedom of choice.”i[11]

This relates to the concept of reverse psychology.

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“A ‘hipster’ can be defined as a person who deliberately uses unpopular, obsolete, or obscure styles and preferences in an attempt to be ‘cooler’ than the mainstream. But why would being deliberately uncool be cooler than being cool?

In certain situations, refusing to signal can be a sign of high status. The term ‘conspicuous consumption’ refers to the showy spending habits of the nouveau riche, who unlike the established money of his day took great pains to signal their wealth by buying fast cars, expensive clothes, and shiny jewelry. Why was such flashiness common among new money but not old? Because the old money was so secure in their position that it never even occurred to them that they might be confused with poor people, whereas new money, with their lack of aristocratic breeding, worried they might be mistaken for poor people if they didn’t make it blatantly obvious that they had expensive things.

The old money might have started off not buying flashy things for pragmatic reasons ― they didn’t need to, so why waste the money? But if F. Scott Fitzgerald is to be believed, the old money actively cultivated an air of superiority to the nouveau riche and their conspicuous consumption; not buying flashy objects becomes a matter of principle. This makes sense: the nouveau riche need to differentiate themselves from the poor, but the old money need to differentiate themselves from the nouveau riche.

This process is called countersignaling, and one can find its telltale patterns in many walks of life, including philosophy, politics, and romance. A common consequence of it is that people at the top of the pyramid end up displaying characteristics similar to those at the bottom.” [12]

When I first learned about this phenomenon, I thought, “I’m going to make sure not to countersignal anymore because I don’t want to be the kind of person who does stuff like that.” But then I realized that that’s still a form of countersignaling, just at a meta level. Countersignaling is inescapable.

Also, no tech-skill.

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“When someone we like or look up to makes a faux pas or reveals a weakness or quirk, we find them even more endearing. On the other hand, when someone we dislike or look down on does the same, we find them even more unpleasant.” [13]

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“In one study, participants were asked to perform several extremely boring tasks. When they were finished, the participants were instructed to tell the next participant that the tasks were really interesting. Half the participants were paid $20 for lying, while the other half were paid just $1. Later on, all the participants were asked how enjoyable they really found the tasks, and the well-paid participants said that the tasks were in fact boring. In contrast, the poorly-paid participants claimed that the tasks were fairly interesting. What produces this odd pattern?

According to one theory, the well-paid liars knew why they’d mouthed sentiments they didn’t endorse. The poorly-paid liars, however, had experienced cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort from feeling like a hypocrite), thanks to the fact that they’d misled other people without good reason for this misdeed. In other words, they received insufficient justification for their action, making it underjustifed behavior. Taken at face value, this made them look like casual and unprincipled liars, a view that conflicted with how they wanted to see themselves. How therefore could they reconcile their behavior with their self-image? One plausible solution was to reevaluate the boring task and convince themselves it was fun.

Closely related findings emerge in studies of people who make considerable sacrifices to achieve a goal. These people typically end up placing a very high value on the achievement and cognitive dissonance tells us why ― most of us would find it difficult to tolerate the idea that we worked hard for many years to achieve something trivial. To make our efforts seem sensible, therefore, our only choice is to value what we attained. Thus, goals will be valued more if they were harder won. This result helps to explain why many organizations have difficult or aversive entrance requirements. The hazing rituals prevalent in military units, sports teams, and fraternities/sororities often include demanding and/or humiliating tasks which lead the new member to increase the subjective value of the group.

What about overjustified behavior? For example, what if we received more in payment than our action merited? According to this theory, this situation should produce an attitude change in the opposite direction of the ones we’ve considered so far: ‘I’m getting paid $100 for telling this lie, so I guess it was really awful.’ In one study, children were allowed to play with felt-tip pens, which they happily did. Then, researchers introduced payment for playing with the pens. This payment wasn’t necessary at all, because earlier the children had played with the pens without the extra reward. As a result, the children’s play was now overjustified. What effect did this have? Later, when the children were once again allowed to play with the pens, those who’d been paid played with the pens less than those who hadn’t been paid. It’s as if the children had asked themselves, ‘Why did I play with pens before? Oh, I was paid, so I guess I was playing with them for the pay. And if they had to pay me, they couldn’t be much fun.’” [Gleitman, Reisberg, & Gross]

This has possible repercussions for when one turns a hobby into a career.

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“Closely related to underjustified and overjustified behavior are intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In an early study of these phenomena, nursery-school children were given an opportunity to draw pictures. The children seemed to enjoy this activity and produced drawings at a steady pace even though no reinforcers for this activity were in view. Apparently, they were drawing because the activity was fun or, put differently, because drawing was its own reward. The reward was intrinsic to the activity, not separate from it.

In this study, though, experimenters added an extrinsic reward. The children were now presented with an attractive ‘Good Player’ certificate for producing their pictures. Then, sometime later, the children were again given the opportunity to draw pictures but this time with no provision for ‘Good Player’ certificates. Remarkably, these children now showed considerably less interest in drawing than they had at the start, choosing instead to spend their time on other activities.

At the start of the study, the intrinsic reward involved in drawing was by itself sufficient to motivate the children. Later on, though, this same reward seemed puny when compared to the greater prize that consisted of the ‘Good Player’ certificate. As a consequence, this seemingly smaller award was now insufficient to motivate continued drawing.

These results suggest that there may actually be two different types of reward. One type is merely tacked onto a behavior and is under the control of the experimenter. The other is intrinsic to the behavior and is independent of the experimenter’s intentions. Moreover, one could argue that these forms of motivation can interfere with each other. Thus, in rough terms, for the children in the study just described, drawing pictures was initially a form of play (intrinsic), but once the external rewards enter the situation, the same activity became a form of work (extrinsic) ― something you do for a payoff rather than something you do for its own sake.” [Gleitman, Reisberg, & Gross]

This similarly has possible repercussions for when one turns a hobby into a career.

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[Pannenkoek] “I remember this one story about a man who always sat out on his porch, and every weekday a group of kids would always make fun of him as they passed him on their way to and from school. One day, he told them that he’d pay each of them $5 each day to make fun of him. The kids were surprised and confused, but they agreed. After a week or two, he told them that he couldn’t afford to pay them anymore and asked if they’d mind continuing to do it without pay. However, they told him that they refused to do it for free. And after that, they didn’t make fun of him anymore.”

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“There are a few important insights we can draw from the neuroscience of pleasure.

First, wanting and liking are different signals, though they sometimes share use of the same neurons, like phone and internet data traveling along the same wire. As a result, we usually want what we like and like what we want, but sometimes we don’t want what we like or don’t like what we want. Understanding why this happens may relieve the confusion that often results when it occurs (not to mention philosophical confusion).

Second, anticipation matters. Anticipating future pleasure is itself pleasant, and anticipating future pain is itself painful. Spend more time reliving happy memories and anticipating future pleasures, and spend less time reliving painful memories and anticipating future pains.” [14]

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“A study of people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than matched controls. Findings like these have led psychologists to wonder if each of us has our own personal set range for happiness, a fixed and largely inherited level to which we invariably return. The bad news is that, like a thermostat, this set range will eventually drag our happiness back down to its usual level when it gets too high. The good news, however, is that after misfortune strikes, the thermostat will strive to pull us out of our misery eventually. Even individuals who become paraplegic as a result of spinal cord accidents quickly begin to adapt to their new greatly limited capacities, and within eight weeks they report more net positive emotion than negative emotion. Within a few years, they wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who aren’t paralyzed.

Another similar phenomenon is what I’ll call the hedonic treadmill, which causes you to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness into the upper reaches of its range. But once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well, and so on. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of evidence for such a treadmill. If there were no treadmill, people who get more good things in life would in general be much happier than the less fortunate. But the less fortunate are, by and large, just as happy as the more fortunate.

This isn’t to imply that it’s impossible to become lastingly happier, just that it’s largely not a function of external factors like these.

There are limits on adaptation, however. Some bad events we never get used to, or adapt to only very slowly, such as the death of a child.”i[15]

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“Money has little to no effect on happiness, once you’re well-off enough to comfortably buy this book. How important money is to you, more than money itself, influences your happiness. Materialism seems to be counterproductive: at all levels of income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole.” [15]

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“Why does this very common feeling of being stuck in a time crunch arise? What does it really mean to say we have ‘no time’? Is an actual shortage of time really the source of this hectic feeling that torments so many people? My belief is that it’s not. The root of the problem isn’t a lack of time, nor is it having too quick a pace imposed by other people. Instead, it’s a combination of factors originating within ourselves: a lack of motivation, an inability to concentrate, and an overwhelming feeling of stress.” [16]

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“To get into space, astronauts had to break out of the tremendous gravitational pull of the earth. More energy was spent in the first few minutes of lift-off, in the first few miles of travel, than was used over the next several days during which they travelled half a million miles. Habits, too, have tremendous gravitational pull ― more than most people realize or would like to admit. The ‘lift-off’ phase of breaking deeply embedded, negative, habitual tendencies takes a tremendous effort ― but once we break out of the gravity’s pull, our freedom takes on a whole new dimension. And like any natural force, it can work with us or against us ― once adopted, new positive habits also can become deeply ingrained.” [17]

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Citations

  1. Wikipedia’s Overchoice article
  2. Wikipedia’s Analysis Paralysis article
  3. Theodore Roosevelt
  4. Harold Geneen
  5. Wikipedia’s Self-Efficacy article
  6. Wikipedia’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy article
  7. Wikipedia’s Placebo & Nocebo articles
  8. Wikipedia’s Pygmalion Effect article
  9. Wikipedia’s Stereotype Threat article
  10. Henry Ford
  11. Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases article
  12. Scott Alexander
  13. (source lost)
  14. Luke Muehlhauser
  15. Martin Seligman
  16. Stefan Klein
  17. Stephen Covey
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