Which embodied cognition?

Andrew Gelman has a post up noting that the upcoming APS conference will feature a Presidential Symposium on embodied cognition (“Sense and Sensibility: How Our Bodies Do – and Don’t – Shape Our Minds”). He’s troubled by the inclusion of Amy Cuddy, whose work on “power posing” has not held up well to replication attempts, and whose co-author has questioned the findings and the methods used.

It’s worth noting, however, that research on what is called “embodied cognition” encompasses some very different approaches and assumptions.

One view, closely related to priming, focuses on the effects of bodily cues on thinking, often non-consciously and often via metaphors.  This kind of research suggests, for example, that people holding a heavy clipboard would find the information more important (e.g, conflating physical weight with the metaphor of “weighty information”).

Another view is based more on an association between mental states and bodily states, so that the things we do as a response to a mental state can then also independently cause that mental state.  The classic example here is the idea that inducing or preventing a smile-like facial expression can increase or reduce feelings of happiness.  Cuddy’s hypotheses fall within this framework.

A third view is based on the observation that we use our bodies when engaging in abstract reasoning. Behaviors like gesturing when speaking, doing mathematics using an abacus, or sign-language all involve physical hand movements in mental reasoning processes. The idea is that over time, those physical movements then become an important part of the reasoning process. Kids who learn math on the abacus, for example, will make abacus-like hand movements even when doing mental arithmetic, and some research suggests that encouraging the use of gesture helps children learn mental arithmetic.

The concerns about non-replication have been focused on findings in the first two areas, as far as I know (e.g., here and here).  That could be because findings in those areas were more dramatic and got a lot more press and replicator attention, or because the findings supporting the third view are actually more robust.

I will say that the third view accords with my own experience in a way that the first two don’t.  I have moderate right-left confusion. I often make mistakes when I need to say “right” or “left”, which is a problem when I’m a passenger giving directions.  I find that I’m a lot more accurate if I point physically, rather than try to say it verbally.  So, the physical movement actually seems to help with a conceptual task, at least in my case.

Getting back to the APS session, it’s worth noting that several of the speakers in the session study what I’ve called the third kind of embodied cognition (gestures and sign language). This area of research actually has a long history, predating the more attention-getting recent stuff. Sometimes when more speculative findings in an area don’t hold up, the reaction is to then throw out related findings, even those that make more sense. If this session is a step towards the field sorting through which theories have more or less empirical support, debating when bodily states do and don’t impact thinking, and mapping out a sensible way forward, that would be a good thing.

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Nudging isn’t easy…

Indranil Goswami and I have a new paper in the most recent issue of JMR on the effects of defaults (or suggested amounts) in fundraising.  There’s a nice writeup out today in the Wall Street Journal describing our findings.

We’re looking at situations in which people choose among a menu of options (such as smaller and larger donation amounts), and one of the options could be set as the default amount. We wanted to figure out what the optimal default level was. Would a charity raise more money if they started suggesting the typical donation amount, or something smaller, or something larger?

The answer is that it’s complicated — small defaults lead to more people donating but smaller donation amounts. Setting a large amount as the default leads to fewer people donating, but the average person giving more. The right strategy then depends on the charity’s goals and whether donation amounts or participation are “stickier” in the specific setting.  Our practical recommendation after a few years of studying this?  Run an experiment to find out what works in your own unique setting.  Not the most satisfying answer.

This got us thinking more broadly about how “nudges” are developed and disseminated. Typically, there’s an academic  research finding, often conducted in a lab setting to isolate just the effect of interest and designed to be either a precise (or dramatic) test of a psychological theory.  Then, there might be a debate about why the effect occurs, with further studies designed to distinguish between different explanations.

What emerges seems like a fully-developed theory, ready for implementation. After all, the initial paper on defaults has been cited over 3500 times already!  But the academic research process often neglects questions that are especially important for practical use. Because we typically focus on situations in which a single effect can be studied, the resulting incomplete theories may have little to say about the preconditions for the intervention to be successful, whether the intervention will have conflicting effects (e.g., on participation vs. amount, for example), and whether multiple interventions will complement each other or detract from each other.

To their credit, groups like the “nudge unit” in the UK and the SBST in the US have used the academic literature as a source of hypotheses to test in their own field experiments, rather than as a source of solutions to implement. But with the increasing public interest in “behavioral economics” (loosely defined), not everyone will be as humble about what the field knows and doesn’t know.  Beware of behavioral scientists bearing solutions! Even when the psychology of the intervention is right, the consequences in one context can be very different from the consequences in another context.