Not many of us enjoy an awkward social situation. Someone saying or doing the wrong thing when events are supposed to be going smoothly can throw everything out of frame. But whether it's the wedding service that stumbles, the graduation ceremony that gets stupid or the Halloween party that is frighteningly uncomfortable, moments of public embarrassment can actually deeply affect the way we think.
According to a team of researchers based at the University of Southern California (USC) people are more likely to think and behave thoughtlessly when they are immersed in a cultural situation or environment that meets their expectations. In familiar situations where actions and outcomes can be predicted — what the researchers refer to as moments of "cultural fluency" — people are more likely to buy things, eat more and perform poorly on cognitive reasoning tests.
The opposite is true, they say, for people who experience "cultural disfluency" — a "good-bye-and-good-riddance" obituary, perhaps, or a major faux pas at a formal event. In these situations, people perform better on cognitive reasoning tests and are less likely to succumb to impulse purchases or unnecessary consumption.
"Culture sets up a general blueprint for the way things should work, so that if things unfold as we expect, we don't have to think," says study author Daphna Oyserman of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society. This situation, however, can have negative as well as positive results. "It's good because it frees up our cognitive capacity to do other things," says Oyserman, "but it also has a downside because it means we're not processing details. What we showed in these studies is that this lack of attention carries over to unrelated tasks."
The researchers saw their opportunity to test their theories at their own family gatherings. They ran a series of experiments using holidays, weddings and funerals. The first two took place at the home of lead author James Mourey's mother during her annual Fourth of July and Labor Day picnics.
For the July Fourth party, Mourey randomly mixed some plain white plates into the stack decorated with stars and stripes; for Labor Day, some Halloween-themed plates with pictures of bats and pumpkins were randomly mixed into the stack of patriotic plates. The food was served buffet-style to the 19 guests on the Fourth of July and 26 guests on Labor Day weekend and Mourey managed to surreptitiously weigh the food selected by each guest.
"At the end of the row of the array of foods was chatty Jim who grabs your hand and says, 'It's so great to see you,'" Oyserman said. "He eases the plate out of your hand to put it on a thin scale sitting underneath a tablecloth so you wouldn't notice. Neither his mother nor the guests knew what was going on." The results were clear: Halloween plates at the Labor Day picnic were loaded with less food than the patriotic plates and these Halloween plates had even less food than the white plates that guests drew at the July Fourth picnic.
In another experiment, Americans were asked to rate their preference for photographs taken at actual weddings. Half the participants were shown pictures of a traditional or "culturally fluent" wedding — the groom in a black tuxedo, the bride in a white dress and the usual tiered cake. The other half were shown photos of a non-traditional or "culturally disfluent" event — the bride in a green dress, the groom in a purple tux and their cake decorated with gears.
After seeing the photographs, one group of participants was asked to take a cognitive reasoning test. It was discovered that those who had seen images of the traditional wedding made more reasoning errors. In two other groups, researchers asked the subjects to rate their interest in purchasing products. Although the products seemed unrelated to weddings — one, for example, was a snow shovel — the people who had seen the traditional wedding photos were more interested in purchasing the items. Oyseman says this supports the prediction that cultural fluency increases mindless consumption.
Similarly, 76 undergraduate students in Hong Kong and 73 in the U.S. were split into groups and given cognitive reasoning tests either on Valentine's Day or on February 21. Each was asked to read and complete a number of questions on a computer screen that had either a black, white or pink border. The results were extraordinary. "It turns out pink makes you stupid but only on Valentine's Day," Oyserman says. "A week later, pink is just a color."
The results of the study — published in the journal Social Cognition — show that when the unforeseen occurs, it acts like a wakeup call to the brain. Oyserman says people shift from low-level, associative thought processes — acting on what they "know" will come next — to higher-level, systematic thinking when they encounter a situation in which something unexpected happens. This shift, the team says, is the difference between coasting downhill on a bike and pedaling uphill — the difference in intensity can raise people's stress levels.
What might appear at first like trivial findings then can reveal profound truths about human societies — they demonstrate what can happen when things are even a bit off track, Oyserman says. Previous cultural studies have shown how psychology differs between groups but Oyserman says this study sought to explore how culture affects personal reasoning. "Cultural disfluency," the researchers warn, "can facilitate a shift to systematic mindset and set up feelings of distrust and suspicion with potentially problematic consequences depending on the context."