Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who Attains Status (And How Do They Attain It)?

Machiavelli had his opinions about status (source)
"Of Mankind we may say in general they are fickle, and greedy of gain."  --Machiavelli (1532)

In several of the posts on this blog, we have written about the various forms and functions of social hierarchies in society. For instance, we have written about the perils of economic inequality here and here, we have written (here) about how power can corrupt people--unless they are prosocially oriented (read: nice), we have written (here) about our paradoxical need for status hierarchies despite some of their negative qualities, and finally, we have written about various aspects of obedience to authority figures (here and here). Extending our tour of social hierarchy, today I'd like to discuss who attains status, and precisely how they attain it.

As we have discussed in a previous post, having high status is good for your social life, your health, and your well-being. We also know that people pursue high status in their daily lives-- although not all people do so with the same success or the same vigor. Here I will outline some of the keys to status attainment in face-to-face groups.

Friday, July 29, 2011

You’re a psychologist, right? What do you mean you don’t see clients?!

Perhaps you, our most interested and involved reader, have taken a look at the “About the Bloggers/Researchers” section of Psych Your Mind (PYM). Here you learned that we’re either doctoral candidates (Amie, Juli, and I) or post doctoral scholars (Michael) in psychology. Like many of my friends and family, you might be confused about what that actually means. For example, when I tell people that I’m a psychologist, they naturally assume that I’m a therapist and see clients. Then, when I try to clarify, and explain that I’m actually a social-personality psychologist, not a clinical psychologist, I’m regularly greeted with a puzzled expression, and the question – “What the heck is that?”

Given that it’s Friday Fun, and you might be looking for a break from our (very) interesting, yet dense, research reviews, I thought I’d take a moment to step back and tell our readers a little more about us at Psych Your Mind.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Understanding Mean Girls

Regina from Mean Girls
"She's fabulous, but she's evil," social outcast Damian famously says about queen bee Regina George in the 2004 film Mean Girls. This line seems to perfectly capture our culture's love/hate relationship with so-called mean girls.

On the one hand, we're obsessed with them. Another Mean Girls sequel, Mean Moms, is forthcoming, and reality TV is replete with real-life mean girls of all kinds (for example, see these clips from The Real Housewives of New York, The Jersey Shore, and The Hills). Even after high school, we look to cultural alphas, such as high-profile celebrities, for advice on how to dress, what to eat (even if it's just lemon juice and cayenne pepper), and even how to surgically alter ourselves (see I want a famous face). There are apparently even elderly mean girls.

On the other hand, we resent their power and love to bring them down, which is probably why so many mean girl-centered movies (Heathers, Saved!, Sixteen Candles, etc) feature the demise of the queen bee and the triumph of the downtrodden, and why powerful female politicians are often torn apart by the media. See, for example, Carly Fiorina's infamous "mean girl moment" or Maureen Dowd's column on mean girl politicians. (Dowd herself was later accused of being "the ultimate mean girl").

Monday, July 25, 2011

The power of the police uniform: An instinct to obey authority

I am still processing the horrific events that happened as part of the horrific terrorist attacks in Norway last Friday. Reading over the news reports, I can only try to fathom the terror felt by the youth on the island of Utoya as they ran, pleaded, and swam for their lives. How did this happen? How did the shooter manage to talk his way onto an island that is accessible only by boat? Fairly easily it seems, since he was dressed up like a policeman.

"We greeted him as we got off the ferry," said a student who was leaving Utøya just as Anders Behring Breivik, dressed as a police officer, was boarding the boat for the island. "We thought it was great how quickly the police had come to reassure us of our safety because we had heard of the bombing in Oslo."

The youth on the island gathered easily around the man in a police uniform wearing two guns. After all, people in police uniforms are seen as more competent, reliable, intelligent, helpful, honest, valuable, and possessing better judgment (Mauro, 1984; Singer & Singer, 1985). And Breivik is not alone in his manipulation of the police uniform. There are reports all over the web of fake policemen, many of whom receive instinctive obedience, including this particularly disturbing report of a boss who sexually harassed an employee at the behest of a phone call from “Officer Scott.”  Evidence from psychological research, such as Milgram’s study, shows that we have an instinct to obey authority, especially when we have little time to think through our choices, and it appears that the police uniform is a particularly potent symbol of authority.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday fun: Food and mood

We all know that coffee is energizing, oysters are an aphrodisiac (maybe), and turkey makes us sleepy, especially when combined with gravy and stuffing. But there are many other important - and less obvious - links between food and mood. Here are a few of them:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Flexing the Muscle that is Self-Control

College was a busy time for me and by extension a trying period for my roommate Vanessa. Unlike the average 19 year old, Vanessa had assumed such adult-like habits as washing dishes directly after eating a meal, making regular trips to take out the trash, and refusing to live with scum and filth in general (God forbid). These healthy habits were by no means my own. I was just learning how to balance the demands of my two priorities: a heavy workload at NYU and a debaucherous social life. When I came home from a long day at the library I was overwhelmed and exhausted. The last thing I had time or energy for was cleaning up after myself. Instead I wanted to simply unwind and relax in preparation for a night out in New York. I drove poor Vanessa mad!

You might assume from this introduction, that Vanessa and I have long since parted ways; that my dirty habits so turned her off from a friendship with me, that when our first year together was over, she quickly moved on to greener and cleaner pastures. Surprisingly, that’s not the case at all. Vanessa and I continued to live together for the better part of college, and to this day remain extremely close friends. While much of that is due to our particular “chemistry,” some of it should be attributed to the evolution of my cleaning habits. As college wore on Vanessa taught me how to be a good roommate, and with repeated practice I became much more able to follow a day studying with a night cleaning. How was I able to build these roommate duties into a routine that was just as work heavy and party heavy as before? The answer is quite nicely explained by Roy Baumeister’s “strength model of self-control.” For a great summary check out Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007. Let me outline the basic components of this theory…

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Our Little Stories: Telling More Than We Know

Autobiography at its finest (source)
Last week I wrote a blog post about one of the most famous psychological experiments EVER: The Milgram Obedience Experiment. That got me thinking, wouldn't it be neat to write posts about some of my favorite classic experiments. Which brings us all here.

Let's try something for a second: Why don't you think back on the story of your life. While you are thinking back, try to remember why you got to the job you did, the city you now live in, the neighborhood, the relationships, etc... Most likely you--and most people for that matter-- took a long winding road to where you are now. It's also likely that you can pinpoint a few critical decisions you made in the past that have really shaped who you are today, and what you did to get here. We often construct these life narratives and you can buy any number of them in bookstores near you (hint: they are in the "autobiography" section).

But how true are these narratives really? Do we really know the two or three critical points in our lives that changed everything and made us the people we are today? Psychological science says no, and here is why:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Fun: In which Hogwarts House do you belong?

The Sorting Hat on Harry Potter
The Sorting Hat perfectly divines people's personalities, something us mere muggle psychologists can only dream about doing. Yet we continue to try. So in honor of the final Harry Potter movie premiere tonight, I scoured the internet to find some psychology-based quizzes that will tell you, with science-backed certainty, in which Hogwarts House you belong.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The after-hours mutants

Every night owl you meet will tell you the same thing: there is something magical about those late night hours when the rest of the world is sleeping. It's your time, unscheduled and undisturbed, to spend as you wish. To some, this perspective may seem lazy and immature, a luxury afforded only to those who don't have real adult responsibilities. And this may be partially true - many would-be night owls have few opportunities to enjoy the later evening hours because of work, kids, and other demands. But new research suggests that even these non-practicing night owls may be hard-wired to want to stay up late. Though sleep preferences are due in part to non-biological factors like culture, and family environment, at least 50% of the variance seems to be driven by genes, specifically something called the "after-hours mutant" which appears to prolong the circadian rhythm. As a result, evening people may find the traditional work schedule a constant battle with the snooze button, regardless of how much sleep they get.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You’re the Judge: Are You Making Bad Attributions?

Your romantic partner surprises you with flowers. What are the first thoughts that cross your mind? Do you think “how sweet and thoughtful!” or do your thoughts tend toward the dark side, such as “That’s a look of guilt… what did he do this time?” How we interpret the behaviors of those closest to us says a lot about our relationships. If your friend is late for lunch, do you think she can’t manage her time well, or do you assume she got stuck in traffic? People who tend to interpret their partner’s behaviors in a more positive light have happier, more trusting relationships. So what exactly does it mean to interpret someone’s behavior in a “more positive light”?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Fun: A Look Back At The Milgram Experiment

In 1963, Stanley Milgram published perhaps the single most important piece of research in the history of social psychology. His Behavioral Study of Obedience experiment is among the most influential studies of all time, and is still being taught today in psychology classes everywhere. 

The experiment was designed to take place in laboratory room where the goal was to study learning and memory as part of a Yale psychology experiment. There were 40 total participants between the ages of 20 and 50 from the surrounding New Haven community. All different types of occupational grades and education levels were represented among these participants, though they were all men. Once at the experiment, participants were instructed that they would be teaching another man--their partner-- some word associations. If the partner got any of the answers wrong, participants would deliver a slight shock. As the partner continued to get answers wrong, the shock could potentially increase to painful levels. The final shock intensity was 450 volts, and was labeled with an XXX.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reflection without Rumination

After we go through a painful experience – a conflict with a friend, a break-up, a loss, we face a conundrum. On the one hand, reflection on the experience is essential. It allows us to gain insight, to understand the experience in new and important ways, to get over it. Yet, what once was healthy reflection can often turn into rumination – a toxic preoccupation with the experience that fosters negative emotion. In fact, rumination is believed to contribute to depressive episodes (e.g. Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). The question thus remains - how can we reflect on negative memories from the past, without ruminating about them?

My (awesome) advisor at UC Berkeley, Ozlem Ayduk, tackled this question with Ethan Kross, her collaborator at the University of Michigan. In their research Ayduk and Kross contrast thinking about painful memories of this nature, from either a first- or a third-person perspective. When we think about the event from a first-person perspective, we put ourselves right back in our own shoes, and relive the event as if it was happening to us all over again. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-immersed” perspective increases negative emotion and the likelihood of ruminating. Alternatively, when we think about an event from a third-person perspective, we see everything unfold from afar; as if we are a fly on the wall or a distant observer of what’s happening. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-distanced” perspective, allows an individual to gain insight or meaning without reliving the negative emotions they experienced when the event first occurred. Thinking about the meaning of the event rather than rehashing the details of what they experienced or felt at the time allows for reflection without rumination.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Power of Touch

Little touches mean so much (source)
Touch is arguably the most important sense we have. Some non-human primates spend upwards of 20% of the time grooming, a behavior primates rely upon for its social functions and ability to solve conflicts. In humans, touch may be even more important. Touch is the most highly developed sense at birth, and as you might guess, far preceded language as a means of communication in human evolution.

It's a wonder then, that such a small amount of research has been conducted on touch, whereas a relatively high proportion of research has gone to vision or nutrition studies as two examples (I mean, can you imagine a university with a touchology department?). I'm not saying we shouldn't study nutrition. Instead, I'm arguing that what we need is more researchers interested in the study of tactile communication. Why you ask? Because this area of research is ripe for new discoveries. Read on!

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Anatomy of "The Look"

The four of us (Amie, Anna, Juli, and Michael) are blessed to be surrounded by brilliant researchers, enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with the greater public. Therefore, today we would like to present you with the first of a series of guest bloggers who will be joining Psych Your Mind. Our first guest blogger is Jenny, a fellow graduate student at UC Berkeley. Take it away Jenny!

"The Look"
Clockwise from top left, Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, former Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York, former Representative Eric J. Massa of New York, President Bill Clinton and former Senator John Ensign of Nevada.

I’m sure most of you will recognize these pictures, and many of you may even remember the exact moments when they were taken. Certain words immediately come to mind: disgrace, fall, scandal, regret. These eerily similar expressions all occurred during the variety of infidelity scandals that have rocked the political scene. This picture, now being called “the look,” has been floating around the internet for the last few weeks.  It provides a great opportunity for social psychologists to rally around the importance of non-verbal expressions in communication and how power can affect our emotional experience. 

The expressions of these disgraced politicians may be a bit confusing. It’s clear they express negative feelings, but which exactly? Take a second and look at them, do you feel a sense of sympathy, perhaps anger, or even suspicion? Their expressions are complicated and they say a lot. In some ways they communicate exactly what they are meant to, “I’m sorry, I’m ashamed, I’m disappointed in myself.”  But some other feelings also may be coming through, “I’m mad I got caught and I resent having to be here.” Facial expressions although they can be controlled can often be an honest communicator of our feelings, even when we don’t want them to be. To understand these expressions, let’s start at the beginning and break it down piece by piece.