March 29, 2009

Correlation or Causation?

So I just recently came across this webcomic called: xkcd. It's pretty cool. The comics are pretty good, plus they often include topics concerning science and math. I especially love the one above. It concerns correlation and causation, and what the difference is between the two. Unfortunately, very often people confuse correlation for causation. For instance, the eating of ice cream might have an association (be correlated) with hot weather. Perhaps the hotter it is outside, the more ice cream I eat. So, yes, we would say the eating of ice cream is correlated with hot weather. But it would be a mistake to conclude that ice cream causes hot weather, right?

Confusing correlation with causation is a problem that occurs all the time, especially in the media (for instance, I found one headline stating that "TV Raises Blood Pressure in Obese Kids," when only a strong association between hours of tv and hypertension was found). If you are interested, here's a website that keeps a long list of news articles that confuse correlation with causation, plus some resources related to the issue.

As well, if you are in psychology, the following two links may be of great interest, that is, if you're looking to increase your expertise in the application of statistics to the field:

Evaluation, Measurement, and Statistics - This is Division 5 of the American Psychological Association.

Summer Statistics Workshop - Dr. Alan Reifman has put together a list of resources for various summer statistics trainings meant for researchers in the soical sciences. These trainings are held at a variety of institutions. This looks like a very good resource.


On an unrelated note, I have a new blogging buddy. Another one of my fellow graduate students, Dave, has started a blog about Somalia, called Somalfocus. If you have an interest in what's going on in Somalia, or perhaps in internaltional relations in general, then you should check it out.

Lastly, I'm running a little late with my next "Self" post. It will probably be up in the next day or two.

March 18, 2009


Last week’s readings on the self covered the topic of self-regulation and motivation. Self-regulation is essentially the ability to deliberately control our own behavior. Self-regulation has an adaptive quality to it. For instance, it would seem beneficial for one to be able to control one’s impulses, and plan for the future. And indeed, as Mischel et al. (1989) has found, children who are better at self-regulation often have better outcomes later in life, such as in academics.

Even though self-regulation is very beneficial, it seems to come from a limited resource. It’s like a muscle, and as you use it, it tires. As Baumeister et al. (1998) has shown, self-regulatory acts deplete the “ego,” thereby making one less able to self-regulate in the future. Self-regulation seems to require energy (i.e., glucose) and/or a resting period. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, I think.

Interestingly, conscious thought isn’t exactly needed for the initiation of self-regulation. Through “implementation intentions”, one can automate self-regulation for various goal pursuits. For instance, if one desired to be less prejudiced against the elderly, then one could train him/herself to “tell” him/herself not to consider a person’s age every time an elderly person is encountered. One thought that came to mind, after reading about this, is whether automating self-regulation uses less ego resources than directed self-regulation. In particular, when thinking of the concept of the adaptive unconscious from the prior articles, it seems that the automatic unconscious is useful and adaptive for its ability to take in a lot of information without using up our resources. So automated self-regulation might just take up less energy than consciously directed self-control. Yet it still seems as though directed thought is needed in sustaining the self-regulatory behavior. Only the initiation of self-regulation seems to be automated, and after training oneself to automate this behavior. If implementation intentions use ego resources as much as that of deliberate self-regulation, then I would think that such cueing could be detrimental to the self-regulatory ability. For instance, if one created implementation intentions for multiple behaviors, and one encounters many cues throughout the day that activate these intentions, then one could become quickly and thoroughly depleted. At what level would these implementation intentions become detrimental? Or does the mere training that automates this behavior build up self-regulation? So, perhaps the automation does deplete self-regulatory resources, but the practice of automating self-control built up a larger inventory of self-regulatory resources to take from? Thoughts to explore further perhaps.

Citations for further reading:

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2008). Feedback processes in the simultaneous regulation of action and affect. In J. Y. Shah & W. L. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 208-224). New York: Guilford.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280-1300.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.

March 7, 2009

Culture and the Self

This week’s readings on the self were pretty interesting. They were about the “cultural self.” Essentially, the readings discussed the different self-construals that can be found cross-culturally. As one might imagine, people within more individualistic societies are more likely to have independent self-construals, characterized by a focus on autonomy, uniqueness and internal attributes and emotions. Those from more collectivistic nations are more likely to have interdependent construals of the self. The interdependent self-construal is characterized by belongingness, self-in-relation to other representations, and a connection of the self to specific social contexts. Of course, this does not mean that people can’t vary within a society according to how independent/interdependent they are.

Markus and Kitayama’s review paper on the independent versus the interdependent self-construal was particularly thought provoking for me. I had a strong desire to connect their ideas to those from our past readings. If you really think about the interdependent self-construal, it fits in well with the Social Cognitive Interface (SCI) framework of Rob Kurzban, and especially with Leary’s sociometer theory. (I know, I know . . . . I seem to refer to these two theories a lot. What can I say?) Firstly, having an interdependent self-construal means that you define yourself in relation to your group members and the social context. You are constantly aware of and focus on the needs and desires of others within your in-group. And your basis for self-esteem is “the ability to adjust, and restrain the self, and maintain harmony with the social context.” This sounds remarkably similar to sociometer theory, in which it is theorized that self-esteem is a gauge for social acceptance. And according to the SCI, the self is a set of cognitive mechanisms that help us function socially, because belongingness was/still is very important for our survival. The interdependent self-construal seems to be the ultimate example of this, if the SCI perspective is valid. On the other hand, according to SCI theory, along with other past readings, the self makes up a story for you that may not be valid but will ultimately help you in the social world. I’m not sure if that’s happening here. To me, it seems that the SCI is not hiding itself (or it’s intentions) in those who have the interdependent self-construal. They are defining themselves in relation to their group members, and they know it. The SCI is telling a story. Whereas, for more individualist societies, belongingness is very important but it seems to be more of an underlying or unconscious value. This is where the SCI would work for us. I questioned: Do those with interdependent self-construals have more accurate self-knowledge?

And then I read Balcetis et al., whose research seems to support the notion that, yes people who are more interdependent also have more accurate self-knowledge. Yet, I do have questions about their dependent variables. It seems that the more collectivist a person was, the more likely he/she would accurately predict his/her future behavior. But each of those behaviors were pro-social in nature, and people who are more collectivistic may be more accurate in estimating pro-social behavior because it is very important to their self-concepts, thereby being more salient. I’d like to know if collectivists have more accurate self-knowledge in domains that are not related to sociality.

Nonetheless, in the grand scheme of things, it seems most of the world (outside of Western Europe and America) are more collectivistic. As well, these people have more accurate self-knowledge. This leads me to the following question: Is the individualistic/independent self-construal a relatively recent phenomenon (whether evolutionarily or culturally)? And what is the benefit of having an independent self-construal if it contributes to our inaccuracy in self-knowledge? We talked in class about how we probably have modules or at least the general capacities for both independent and interdependent self-construal. And these modules are probably activated differentially depending on the social context. There are circumstances where an independent self-construal would be best and vice versa. I think viewing such cross-cultural differences from the SCI perspective would be interesting to explore further.

Citations for further reading:

Balcetis, E., Dunning, D., & Miller, R. L. (2008). Do collectivists know themselves better than individualists? Cross-cultural studies of the holier than thou phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1252-1267.

Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.

Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.

Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Toguchi, Y. (2003). Pancultural self-enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 60-79.

Heine, S.J. (2005). Where is the evidence for pancultural self-enhancement? A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 531-538.

March 1, 2009

the function of self-esteem

As you might notice, this past week’s readings were on the topic of “self-esteem.” Specifically the readings were focused on the function of self-esteem, the benefits of having high self-esteem, and whether we should focus policy on improving the self-esteem of children. A short review of the findings from the articles we read shows that self-esteem is often given a bit more credit than it may deserve. For example, high global self-esteem is not linked to improvements in performance (whether academic or not), although it is linked with persistence in the face of failure. As well, high self-esteem in the form of narcissism is linked with anti-social behavior. Those who have high self-esteem, but are also high in narcissism act more aggressive after an insult than those who are not high in both. Yet, this is not exactly an open and shut case. There are researchers on both sides of the issue that argue whether boosting people's self-esteem is good or not. Please see the Baumeister and Swann citations below for a good review on the debate.

At the moment I’m much more interested in the function of self-esteem than the effects of having high self-esteem, which brings me to the Greenberg article. Greenberg et al. (1992) proposed the “terror management” idea that self-esteem serves as an anxiety-buffer against things that threaten us, and specifically death. In three experiments, the authors showed that people with high self-esteem were less anxious than neutral others when threatened, and this effect was not due to positive or negative affect.

In their experiments, participants were essentially given false feedback on a personality or intelligence test. One group was given feedback meant to elicit feelings of high self-esteem, whereas another group was either given neutral or no feedback. Participants were then asked to watch either a graphic film clip (threat-group), or a neutral clip (no-threat) in one experiment, or, in the other two experiments, they were told that they would receive painful shocks (threat) or receive non-painful sensations from lightwaves (no-threat). The experimenters then measured how anxious the participants were, either by self-report or by physiological measures, such as sweating. They found that people who had high self-esteem were less anxious than low self-esteem individuals in the threat group. And the protection offered by self-esteem was not due to increased positive affect or decreased negative affect.

It’s pretty cool, but I’m still not totally convinced of the terror management interpretation of self-esteem. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the authors primed their participants in the threat condition by making them watch a graphic movie clip (depicting real deaths) or by telling them to expect painful shocks. The painful shock condition was employed as a way of testing the generality of the anxiety-buffer effect. But pain does not seem that far removed from feelings of mortality. Pain and death are often associated with each other, and both are strongly attached to our primal need for survival and safety. I’d like to know, instead, whether self-esteem can buffer against anxiety from weaker threats (e.g., a poor evaluation, a break-up). Additionally, this interpretation of self-esteem needs to be tested against other theories of self-esteem, such as Leary’s sociometer theory. As mentioned in an earlier post, sociometer theory posits that self-esteem acts as a gauge of social acceptance/rejection. When we are threatened with social rejection, our self-esteem should lower. This could then tell us that we need to adjust our behavior, so that we are accepted back into the group. Sociometer theory seems to work better within the evolutionary perspective of the Social Cognitive Interface (SCI).

If you remember, the SCI is a set of cognitive mechanisms that evolved with the purpose of helping us function socially. In essence, evolution has given us a sense of self so that we are better equipped for a social world. One in which staying connected with others is crucial for survival. Now, I am not saying that terror management theory (TMT) is resistant to evolutionary explanations for self-esteem. On the contrary, I think TMT works well within that approach. If self-esteem buffers against anxiety, then I think that would prove to be a very beneficial/adaptive function. But I do think that the sociometer interpretation works better within the SCI approach, than does terror management. Of course, this is assuming that self-esteem, and the self in general, only has one adaptive function and/or is not a by-product of some other cognitive mechanism. All in all, I think that terror management and sociometer theory can be reconciled with each other with-in an evolutionary framework. After all, isn’t death the ultimate form of social exclusion?


Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 392-414.

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1-44.

Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., Thomaes, S., Ryu, E., Begeer, S., & West, S. G. (in press). Looking again, and harder, for a link between low self-esteem and aggression. Journal of Personality.

Swann, W. B., Chang-Schneider, C., & McClarty, K. L. (2007). Do our self-views matter? Self-concept and self-esteem in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62, 84-94.

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., et al. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 913-922.

more blogging friends . . .

Well, I have some more blogging buddies out there.

I figured that I could link them here and add them to my blogroll, so that everyone who reads like a lake will have a chance to visit these new and exciting venues of the blogosphere.

First we have the blog, Ready, Set . . ., by some old buddies of mine, Joel and Nathan. It's mostly about their daily going-ons, comic inspiration, and progress on a cartoon/comic they are developing.

Next we have Intellectual Capital, by friend and fellow UK grad student Ryan. This blog concerns topics in social psychology and political/social commentary.

Lastly, we have Ridiculous Claims, by another grad student buddy, Tim. This one is for all you football nuts out there. And I mean American Football . . . not soccer . . . er, um, rest of the world football, haha.

Well that's it for today, so go check them out and enjoy!