Is Love a Numbers Game?


A number of recent studies have looked at what happens to humans when faced with extensive choice — too many kinds of chocolate or too many detergents to choose from at the grocery store. Under such circumstances, consumer psychologists believe that the brain can be “overwhelmed,” leading to poorer quality choice or choice deferral. Psychological scientist Alison Lenton, University of Edinburgh, and economist Marco Francesconi, University of Essex, wanted to know if the same was true of mate choice, given that humans have been practicing this particular choice for millennia. In a study published in Psychological Science, Lenton and Francesconi analyzed data from 84 speed dating events. At speed dating events with 24 or more dates, both male and female choosers were more likely to decide based on attributes that could be judged quickly, such as height and weight. At smaller events, choosers were more likely to make decisions based on attributes that take longer to identify and evaluate, like level of education, their job, and whether or not the person smokes. “One of the points we’re trying to make in this article is it’s the same brain we’re carrying around. There are constraints on what our brains can do — they’re quite powerful, but they can’t pay attention to everything at once,” says Lenton. And if the brain is faced with abundant choice, even about who to go out with, it may make decisions based on what it can evaluate most quickly. This previously invisible aspect of the choice environment has the potential to determine one’s romantic fate.

Lenton, A.P. and Francesconi, M. “How Humans Cognitively Manage an Abundance of Mate Options.” Psychological Science, April 2010, 528533.

Motivation by Anticipation

According to new findings in Psychological Science, how quickly we expect to receive our grades may influence how we perform in school. Psychological scientists Keri L. Kettle and Gerald Häubl of the University of Alberta in Canada recruited students enrolled in a class that required each student to give a 4-minute oral presentation. The presentations were rated by classmates on a scale from 0 (poor) to 10 (excellent) and the average of these ratings formed the presenter’s grade for that part of the course. Students received an e-mail 1 day, 8 days, or 15 days before their presentation and were invited to participate in this research study. Students agreeing to volunteer in the study were informed when they would receive feedback on their presentation and asked to predict their grades. Students who were told they would receive feedback quickly on their performance earned higher grades than students who expected feedback at a later time. Furthermore, when students expected to receive their grades quickly, they predicted that their performance would be worse than students who were to receive feedback later. This pattern suggests that anticipating rapid feedback may improve performance because the threat of disappointment is more prominent.

Kettle, K.L. and Häubl, G. “Motivation by Anticipation: Expecting Rapid Feedback Enhances Performance.” Psychological Science, April 2010, 545-547.

Measuring the Suicidal Mind

People who are contemplating suicide tend to conceal their behavior or deny they are having suicidal thoughts, so it can be difficult to identify warning signs. Psychological scientist Matthew Nock of Harvard University, along with colleagues from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, adapted the Implicit Association Test to measure associations with life and death/suicide and examined if it could be effective in predicting suicide risk. The results, reported in Psychological Science, revealed that participants presenting to the emergency room after a suicide attempt had a stronger implicit association between death/suicide and self than did participants presenting with other psychiatric emergencies. In addition, participants with strong associations between death/suicide and self were significantly more likely to make a suicide attempt within the next six months than were those who had stronger associations between life and self. As Nock explains, “these results are really exciting because they address a long-standing scientific and clinical dilemma by identifying a method of measuring how people are thinking about death and suicide that does not rely on their self-report.” Mahzarin Banaji, also of Harvard University and a co-author of this study, adds that this work presents a strong argument for the importance of funding basic behavioral research.  “These results are an example of basic research helping to solving a troubling and devastating problem in every society. The method we used was designed to understand the mind, but it turned into a technique that can predict disorders of a variety of sorts,” Banaji explains.

Knock, M.K., Park, J.M., Finn, C.T., Deliberto, T.L., Dour, H.J, and Banaji, M.R. “Measuring the Suicidal Mind: Implicit Cognition Predicts Suicidal Behavior.” Psychological Science, April 2010, 511-517.

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