Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Fun: Take a (real) personality questionnaire!!

This post originally appeared back when PYM was just getting started. Thought our newer readers would be interested in this as well. Enjoy!
Many psychologists are interested in understanding personality – characteristics that can describe and explain how individuals think, feel, and behave across situations. Early work in the field of personality psychology sought to uncover the core dimensions on which people differ. To answer this question researchers looked to language as they believed that all of the important dimensions of personality must be described within a culture’s lexicon.

Researchers, like Gordon Allport, spent painstaking years going through the dictionary to identify traits words (those that describe personality) in the English language. Many of the words they identified were synonyms, however. For example, we can describe someone as gregarious or extraverted. Effectively these mean the same thing.

To deal with this overlap issue, researchers had participants rate themselves on all of the different trait words identified. Then they submitted participants’ responses to a fancy statistical procedure called factor analysis. This method identifies groups of words that hang together. For example, someone who scored high on extraversion would likely score high on gregariousness as well. Using this technique, researchers learned that there are five basic dimensions that underlie personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Supporters of this Big-Five Theory of Personality have since created personality questionnaires to measure where people fall on each of these dimensions. Now for the fun part. Want to know more about your own personality? Click here to take a Big-Five Personality questionnaire.

Happy Friday!

Be good to yourself

Imagine you just made a big mistake on a project at work, creating an added burden for yourself and your co-workers, or that you accidentally said something dumb at an important meeting or on a first date. How would you react?

Many of us react to situations like these by chastising ourselves for our mistakes. We figuratively (and sometimes literally) beat ourselves up. In small doses, self-criticism can be helpful - it encourages us to take responsibility for our actions and motivates us to improve ourselves - but excessive self-criticism can be debilitating and self-defeating.

So what's the solution? Researchers have begun to examine the importance of self-compassion, which means treating yourself with kindness and understanding when you make a mistake or go through a difficult experience, just as you would treat another person you care about. Self-compassion is similar to self-esteem in some respects, but unlike self-esteem it's not about how you judge yourself but how you treat yourself. In other words, whether you think you're a great person or a not-so-great person in a given moment, you can still have compassion for yourself. For example, you might say to yourself, "You made a mistake, but it's okay - nobody's perfect. You'll try harder next time." 

Research suggests that this attitude is associated with many positive outcomes, such as increased resilience to stressful events (see this post for more details), greater psychological well-being, and a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although self-compassion might seem a bit too self-focused, research suggests that self-compassionate people are also more compassionate towards others, and an fMRI experiment showed that self-compassion activated similar brain regions to those involved in empathy towards others.

That's great, you might be thinking, but easier said than done. It's hard to change our chronic ways of relating to ourselves, just as it's hard to break patterns in dysfunctional relationships with other people. It's definitely not something that happens overnight. I first became interested in self-compassion when I learned about it in a meditation class in college, and since then it's been one of my primary research interests. Over the years I've come across many different approaches to building self-compassion - some based in empirical research, others more anecdotal. Here are some of my favorites.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One cookie or two?

In early life we fixate on the here and now. We're driven solely by pleasure (e.g. food, social contact), and have no sense of the future consequences of our behavior. With age, however, we realize that some of those pleasures have costs. Sitting on the couch watching Jersey Shore sounds awesome, but it isn't going to help us score high on the SAT's. A tub of ice cream tastes phenomenal but it certainly isn't good for our health or our waist-line. With age we learn to think beyond immediate pleasure. We consider more important future outcomes or payoffs when determining how to behave.

Young children and adults differ in many ways. The latter descriptions illustrate one important difference, however - the ability to delay gratification. One of the longest running, most famous, and to me, most interesting lines of research in the field of psychology has been conducted on delay of gratification. Today I will define this construct and explain how we quantify this ability in childhood. In future posts I’ll tell you about why delay of gratification matters and I’ll describe what helps or hurts us when we try to delay.

What is delay of gratification exactly?
This is the ability to forgo an immediate, but less desirable reward (e.g. Jersey Shore), in order to obtain a delayed, but more desirable reward later (e.g. getting into college). As I mentioned at the outset, with age we all get better at delay of gratification. Nevertheless, if we look within an age group, people differ in how well they can delay. I'm sure you can think of some friends who find it nearly impossible to study for a midterm, and others who spend their lives at the library in order to get into med school. Interestingly, individual differences in delay ability emerge in early childhood, and as I intimated, these differences in childhood predict important outcomes in later life.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Smile like you mean it: Emotion regulation and its consequences

Our emotional experiences weave the tale of our lives – we remember moments when we felt joy, gratitude, anger, sadness and fear, not that time when we felt oh-so-neutral. However, there are times when we try to hold back our emotions so that they don’t get the best of us, such as when we face an angry boss, an upset friend, an important doctor’s appointment, or a big exam. Research on emotion regulation, suggests that people engage in different regulation strategies when they try to deal with their emotions, and these different strategies impact their feelings, well-being and even their close relationships.

How do we regulate our emotions? James Gross suggests that different types of regulation occur at different points in the emotional experience and his research focuses on two main types of emotion regulation: reappraisal and suppression.
For example, take Jerry who is being yelled at by his boss. As Jerry sits and listens to his boss yell at him, he may start to feel anger well up inside of him. When he first realizes he is experiencing anger, he can change his emotional experience by reappraising how he views the situation. Perhaps instead of thinking about how his boss is mad at him, Jerry can focus on the interaction with his boss as an opportunity to better learn what his boss expects from him. By reappraising the situation, it no longer makes sense for him to feel anger. If, however, Jerry lets his anger get the best of him, he may find himself seething mad at his boss but unable to express himself since yelling at his boss would be very inappropriate. In this situation, Jerry must suppress any expression of anger towards his boss, despite how mad he is inside. James Gross and Oliver John (2003) found that people who tend to reappraise have better outcomes than people who tend to reappraise less. They have also found that people who tend to suppress their emotions more have worse outcomes than people who tend to suppress their emotions less.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Freud was right about us... (in one way at least)

Attractive woman or unconscious genetic similarity? (source)
Sigmund Freud is among the prominent names in psychology, and yet, most researchers would agree that his theories—though grand and fascinating—tend to be on the non-scientific end of the spectrum. That is, they were difficult to test empirically, and eventually lost favor in the field as a result. One aspect of Freud’s work was absolutely true though, and I’d like to focus on that today.

Freud’s psychodynamic approach to therapy involved (and I’m paraphrasing) getting the patient to re-experience the problems s/he had as a child, with the therapist. This process, known as transference—because the feelings and wishes the patient has about his or her parents are transferred onto the therapist—was what allowed the patient to make psychological progress toward greater well-being. In essence, going through the things that made you very unhappy as a child, as a fully-functioning adult that solves problems regularly, should help you feel better. 

Freud’s transference is absolutely real and recent research bears this out.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Fun: A quick poll

True to our nature as researchers, we're collecting data. Specifically, we want to know what psychology topics you want to learn more about. Take the poll below, and if we've left something out or you want to elaborate on your choices, let us know in the comments section!

What topics would you like to know more about?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rolling with the punches: The psychology of resilience

A year ago Ryan Westmoreland was a top Red Sox prospect just out of high school and on the verge of a major league career (scouts were comparing him to Mickey Mantle), when out of nowhere he started experiencing troubling symptoms. He soon learned that he had a sizable cavernous malformation in his brainstem, a condition that without surgery would likely kill him. The surgery, however, carried with it multiple risks of its own, including death, coma, and paralysis. His dreams of playing professional baseball unravelling before him, he knew that he would be lucky just to make it through the surgery alive.

Ryan did survive the surgery, and since then has undergone grueling rehabilitation, relearning everything from walking to tying his shoes. The road back to some semblance of normalcy has been challenging, but he has forged ahead with determination, making remarkable progress. He attended Spring Training this season, putting in countless hours of batting practice in addition to a full schedule of physical therapy. Although he still struggles with fine motor skills, his hitting ability seems to be coming back, and he has not given up on his dream to one day play for the Red Sox.

It's hard not to be in awe of Ryan. He's lived through a nightmare no nineteen year old should ever have to face, and yet he doesn't wallow in self-pity or bitterness. He works excruciatingly hard every day even though there is no guarantee that his efforts will be successful. We have a lot to learn from Ryan and people like him who face adversity with resilience and courage.

What does psychological research tell us about how we can become more resilient?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why you might not like when others like you

Take a moment to think carefully about the answers to these questions:

Do you prefer when others dislike you?
Do you feel bad when you get positive feedback?
Do successes make you anxious?
Do you choose romantic partners that think poorly of you?

For many of you, these questions seem absurd, the answer a resounding no to all of them. Others, however, may be less sure. Why? Although common wisdom tells us that as humans we want, strive, and desperately need positive feedback from the social world, an intriguing psychological theory, backed by convincing experimental research, says that this is not always the case.

Self-verification theory, the brainchild of Bill Swann at the University of Texas, Austin, posits that despite the desire for social approval and praise people also have a deep-seated need to be seen in ways consistent with their self-views (see Swann, 1997 for review). This works well for individuals with positive self-views such as those with high self-esteem. These individuals like themselves, think that they are lovable, competent, and worthy and want others to see them favorably as well. Not surprising, right?

The theory gets more interesting, however, when considering individuals with negative self-views, such as those with low self-esteem or depressive symptoms. These individuals don't like themselves very much, and may consider themselves unlovable, incompetent or unworthy. Although you may be thinking that a person with such a negative self-image should be the most motivated to seek out positive feedback, self-verification theory argues to the contrary. It says that these individuals prefer that others see them just as unfavorably as they see themselves. What the heck?!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It could have been me: Why a near miss feels so good

On February 12th, 2009 a plane bound for Buffalo, New York crashed into a house killing all 49 people aboard the plane, as well as one person on the ground. In the days following the crash, pictures of the wreckage and stories of the people who had died filled the airwaves. Among these stories of tragedy was a story of reflection and appreciation –bad weather and a missed connection prevented David Becony from boarding that Buffalo-bound plane and when news of the crash aired, he broke down, unable to believe how lucky he was. His wife of seventeen years told reporters that she couldn’t imagine life without him; but, for a few minutes, she had been forced to imagine the unimaginable. He and his family, while sad for the loss of others, felt happiness, relief and a greater appreciation for each other.   

Why did this near miss make Becony and his loved ones feel so good?
Reflecting on a loss or a near miss helps us appreciate what we have in our lives. In the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey had to see a world without him in it in order to appreciate all the wonders in his life. Although most of us haven’t missed a flight that ended up crashing, or had an angel help us see our wonderful lives, we have passed a car crash on the road and realized how easily it could have been us or heard about someone who was diagnosed with cancer and had a moment of thanks that we were healthy. Even something as trivial as thinking we’ve forgotten our keys, only to find them in a different pocket of our bag, can elicit a sense of relief and appreciation. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why we should care about inequality (PART II)

This is the second of two posts dealing with economic inequality in the United States. In the first post, I detailed why it is important to reduce inequality in the US, and I reviewed evidence suggesting that Americans seem to want to reduce inequality. In this post, I discuss why inequality continues to increase, despite people's desire to reduce it.

"the duty of the man of wealth is to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds... becoming the mere trustee and agent of his poorer brethren." --Andrew Carnegie

In my previous post I discussed how people with less in America (less wealth, income) tend to have poorer health outcomes than their wealthier counterparts. More specifically, the have-nots don't live as long as the haves, and have a greater risk for mortality due to injury/illness. I also discussed how countries with reduced economic inequality have better health outcomes for their poorer citizens, and how Americans--somewhat surprisingly-- actually prefer a society that is more equal in its distribution of wealth.

Why then, does inequality continue to increase in America? Research implicates two reasons:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The power of scent: Memory, emotion, and attraction

Once in awhile I'll smell something that transports me back in time. Memories I haven't thought about for years come flooding back, along with emotions that feel as vivid as they were then. The smell of pine trees brings me back to summer camp, certain old buildings conjure up my elementary school days, and if anyone is ever wearing Peach Bath & Body Works lotion I'm back in seventh grade. This winter as I was cleaning out boxes from my childhood closet I discovered some old chapsticks and perfumes - gross and dusty as they were, I hesitated to throw them away, since they contained so many memories.

But of course, as David Owens describes in his moving New Yorker essay, The dime store floor: What did childhood smell like? after repeated exposure, these time-travel-inducing smells lose their ability to transport us. Owens describes the discovery of his late father's deoderant brand (Old Spice), and his dilemma over whether to wear the same brand himself or save it for special occasions in order to preserve the memory it holds. This story made me think that maybe we should all keep time capsules of the smells that are important to us. The problem is, we don't always know what they are. It's usually the incidental smells we don't think much about - the hand soaps, the foliage, the mildew - that later evoke the most powerful emotions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No dessert until you eat your vegetables!

As a child I had a love of sweets. Well maybe not just sweets, but junk food more generally. In fact one year I begged Santa for a bottle of ketchup at Christmas. Needless to say I didn’t get. Thanks Santa=( Like many parents, my Mom and Dad struggled to get me to eat full, balanced, healthy meals. I poked, prodded, and scattered the brown rice, fresh fish, and local veggies. I made many valiant attempts to trick my parents into believing I had consumed enough of the healthy stuff so that I could finally get to the good stuff, dessert.

So what do parents, like mine, do when they are faced with a ding dong craving, pringles loving, child like me?  If we look to classic psychology theory for an answer, the results are mixed. Research on behaviorism  has shown that positive reinforcement – when a behavior is followed by the presence of rewards – makes the behavior happen more often. Applied to the green veggie quandary - when children eat the healthy parts of a meal, parents provide rewards (e.g. smiles, stickers, or simply cold hard cash). If the theory is correct this will increase the likelihood the child will eat more healthy foods in the future.

This idea has been challenged by another line of research, however. Self-determination theory suggests that providing extrinsic rewards actually undermines, or diminishes intrinsic motivation. Again, applied to the green veggie quandary, if parents reward children for eating the healthy parts of a meal, children will actually come to like those healthy parts less, and will only be motivated to eat them, in order to obtain the reward. Take away the reward, and the green veggies will stay on your child’s plate. So who is right?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Approaching Happiness: The Importance of Social Goals

The last time you went on a date or hung out with a new friend, what thoughts were going through your mind as you got ready? Were you thinking things like “I hope I have a great time tonight!” and “I hope we have a really good connection,” or were your thoughts more along the lines of “I hope I don’t make a fool out of myself” and “I hope we aren’t bored with each other”? 

These different types of thoughts represent your social goals—that is, what you hope to get out of your relationships. Thoughts such as hoping to have a great time focus on maximizing the positive outcomes in your relationships and are called approach social goals. In contrast, thoughts such as hoping not to make a fool of yourself focus on minimizing the negative outcomes in your relationships and are called avoidance social goals. We have social goals when we enter into new relationships, but we also have social goals for our current relationships. If you think about spending time with your close friends over the next few weeks, you could think about growing closer to your friends and having new, fun, experiences together or you could think about steering clear of fights and avoiding being rejected by your friends. Social goals also come into play in specific moments. When you and your partner discuss divvying up chores, you could be focused on how to guide the conversation so that both of you end up satisfied with the result, or you could be focused on figuring out a way to divvy them up so that neither of you is completely dissatisfied with the outcome.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why we should care about inequality (PART I)

This is the first of two blog posts on economic inequality in the United States.

Is this the America you know? (source)

I’m from a relatively privileged background. My parents are well-educated (they met and married during college), and I grew up in a house where one or both of them had a steady job. I went to public school in San Diego County in a mostly white suburb in a little town called Poway (the town is affectionately referred to as “the city in the country,” and we have horse trails and strip malls).  Throughout my life I have had friends that are mostly well-educated like myself, that come from similar backgrounds like me, and have similar families. Coming from this type of background, it's easy for me—and I imagine, for people like me—to believe that with few exceptions (e.g., bad apples or unlucky breaks), most people have the same family background as I do, face similar daily challenges, and are similarly happy with their lives.

The truth about life in America is that it is much more unequal than we realize. In what follows, I detail the evidence:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Too many choices? The limits of free will

Think back to the last big decision you made. How much was that choice influenced by factors outside of your control - external circumstances, other people, maybe even your genes - and how much of it was truly your own? 

For centuries scientists and philosophers have debated the existence of free will. Some argue that it's an illusion, while others contend that it exists but in a limited form: we feel like we're making choices, but in many ways these choices are constrained. 

Though science might suggest otherwise, introspection tells us that we have free will. Otherwise, why would we bother making New Years resolutions year after year? In addition to giving us a sense of control over our outcomes, research suggests that the belief in free will makes us behave more ethically.  In a recent study, when participants were led to believe that free will did not exist, they were more likely to cheat on a test, presumably because they felt less personally accountable for their immoral behavior. Similarly, in the classic Milgram experiment, participants were more likely to deliver strong electric shocks to an innocent victim when the experimenter told them they wouldn't be responsible for their actions. And the sense of anonymity and inhibition that comes from being "lost" in a crowd or mob can also lead to destructive behavior (see above - you can get away with it when you're three). Clearly we need to have some sense of personal accountability for society to function. But assuming free will is always operating can have drawbacks... 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Hey You, in the Green Shirt!" How to Get Help When you Need it

If you were to have your bag stolen while you were picnicking at the park, would you rather be in an area that was full of families having picnics, or somewhere more desolate where there were only one or two other people around? The intuitive answer is an area full of families – someone is more likely to have seen something, right? Counter-intuitively, psychological research suggests you would be better off in a desolate area with only one or two other people around. Researchers have found time and time again that as the number of people in a crowd increases, people are less likely to help because they experience diffusion of responsibility, creating what social psychologists call the "bystander effect." That is, people's sense of responsibility to help decreases as the size of the crowd increases, so the more people there are around, the less likely it is that any one person will lend a helping hand. No one helps because they assume someone else will. People also tend to look to others for information, so if we look around and see that no one is helping, we assume that means that no help is needed. So how do we get help when we need it?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cheaters Never Apologize: Moral Disengagment During Immoral Acts

picture source
In 2009, Alex Rodriguez (since nicknamed "A-Roid") admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during the 2003 baseball season. This revelation followed on the heels of a federal investigation of steroid use in baseball, a tell-all book by Jose Canseco, in which he named several players he allegedly knew used steroids, and the federal bust of a laboratory in the Bay Area (BALCO) that supplied steroids to athletes.

In case you were wondering if cheating through taking banned substances is confined to baseball, it happens in many other sports. Professional cycling has had a long list of it's highest caliber cyclists banned or suspended from racing due to testing positive for performance enhancing drugs (the face of US cycling, Lance Armstrong continues to face international scrutiny for alleged performance enhancing drug use). Professional fighting has had a history of black eyes (pun definitely intended) from championship fights being tainted by steroid use. Most recently, in August of 2010 a mixed martial arts organization--the UFC-- held a middleweight championship fight that was tainted when contender Chael Sonnen tested positive for steroid use following his fight with champion Anderson Silva.

Perhaps you think cheating is the domain of professional athletes--whose youth and wealth mean poor decision-making? Well, you'd be wrong.