Research Lead: Humans—the Rationalizing Animal, Situational Selfishness, Assessing “Nudgeability”, L’eggo My Ego-Depletion, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Retracted: Dishonest paper about dishonesty

Last month’s Research Lead began with the news that a team of researchers discovered fraudulent data in a 2012 study about dishonesty. That original 2012 paper has now been retracted. [Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences]

“Generous with individuals and selfish to the masses”

A new paper explores a seeming contradiction in observations about human behavior—that someone might behave prosocially in small group settings, but selfishly in larger ones. Imagine a corporate leader who fleeces his shareholders or sets policies that maximize profits at the expense of low-level employees, but is generous with his money and time at his children’s school. Carlos Alós-Ferrer and his coauthors point out that one might have assumed that there’s something particular about these individuals that causes this duality of behavior. But when it comes to fleecing the masses but helping the individual, the situation matters as well. 

In Alós-Ferrer’s experiment, participants (college students) who had the option to steal from a large group of other participants did so at a much higher level than is observed in economics games with smaller groups (ultimatum, dictator, and trust games). Fifty-six percent of participants with this option chose to take the maximum amount they could from the group (50 percent of the group’s earnings), while only 2 percent chose to not steal anything.

“The same individuals can behave selfishly when interacting with a large group of other people while, at the same time, displaying standard levels of prosocial behaviour in commonly used laboratory tasks where only one other individual is involved,” they write. Nevertheless, one can’t look to the situation completely for an explanation. In the small group games, participants who stole most from the large group, though they did behave prosocially, did so at lower levels than those who stole less. [Nature Human Behaviour]

Humans, the rationalizing, not rational, animal

“[We] propose that discussions of human psychology may benefit from viewing ourselves not so much as rational animals but rather as the rationalizing animal. The current article provides evidence that rationalization is unique to humans and argues that rationalization processes (e.g., cognitive dissonance reduction, post hoc justification of choices, confabulation of reasons for moral positions) are aimed at creating the fictions we prefer to believe and maintaining the impression that we are psychologically coherent and rational. Coherence appears to be prioritized at the expense of veridicality, suggesting that distorted perceptions and appraisals can be adaptive for humans—under certain circumstances, we are better off understanding ourselves and reality not so accurately. Rationalization also underlies the various shared beliefs, religions, norms, and ideologies that have enabled humans to organize and coordinate their actions on a grand scale, for better or worse.” [American Psychologist; open access]

The impact of remote work on collaboration and communication for 60,000 Microsoft employees

How did the shift to remote work affect collaboration and communication? To investigate this question, a research team analyzed data from over 60,000 Microsoft employees—including emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls, and work hours. “Our results suggest that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed,” they write, “with fewer ties that cut across formal business units or bridge structural holes in Microsoft’s informal collaboration network—and that those silos became more densely connected.” The authors emphasize the need for researchers and companies to take rigorous, data-driven approaches to understanding how remote work impacts things like collaboration, communication, and innovation. [Nature Human Behaviour]

Understanding “nudgeability”—the factors that make someone responsive to a nudge or not

“Our review reveals that people are equally responsive to nudges regardless of whether their presence, purpose, or working mechanisms are disclosed—suggesting that transparency does not compromise nudge effects. Our analysis also shows that preexisting preferences matter insofar as nudges prove generally ineffective when not concordant with goals and intentions. Rather, nudges appear to have the greatest impact on choice when people have less developed preferences because they are ambivalent or in doubt about their choice. We further showed that nudges are not specifically effective when people are in a System 1 state of mind, which would, according to the prevailing assumption, make them more susceptible to nudge influence. It is uncertain, however, to what extent explicit encouragement to reflect on choices may attenuate nudge effects, although potentially weaker effects after a consideration of options may also be due to more articulated preferences.” [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Special issue on behavioral climate policy

A new special issue of Behavioural Public Policy explores the behavioral side of climate change policy and action. The collection of articles cover topics like what’s needed to integrate behavioral approaches in climate policy, decision-making among the numerous stakeholders affected by climate change, and the consumer and political psychology at play. [Behavioural Public Policy; introduction to the issue, table of contents]

It’s time to “l’eggo my ego”-depletion, according to new replication effort

Is self-control a limited resource? One popular theory that emerged in the late ’90s, known as ego-depletion, holds that it is. That “self-control operates like a limited resource” and a person can use it up. Recently, many researchers have cast doubt on ego depletion as a robust explanation for how self control actually functions. A new replication effort—consisting of 36 independent labs and over 3,500 participants—found little evidence for the ego depletion theory. The authors conclude, “Depletion is not as reliable or robust as previously assumed.” [Psychological Science; open access

Science is messy. Time to “tell it like it is”
Science is complex, messy, and nuanced. But you wouldn’t always know that from reading scientific articles, where the process and findings are often presented as clear-cut and conclusive. In a new paper, Rink Hoekstra and Simine Vazire make the case that one way to correct the mismatch between how science actually happens and how it’s reported is to boost the role of intellectual humility, an important scientific virtue, in the writing, reviewing, and publishing process. They also break down the sections of an academic paper and offer ideas for how scientists can explain their work with intellectual humility at each step. [PsyArXiv; in press at Nature Human Behaviour]