Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Narcissists know they're narcissists

While positive self-views are generally considered healthy, adaptive, and attractive, OVERLY positive self-views often have social costs. For example, when I asked my friend’s boyfriend if his classes this semester were challenging, he responded as follows: “I’ve done better than EVERY OTHER student in EVERY SINGLE grad class that I’ve taken. I certainly don’t except my classes this semester to be a problem.” If you’re like me, this statement made you shudder. The sense of superiority and the overt “bragginess” screams creep. Again, if you’re like me, you aren’t surprised that I was less interested in a friendship with him the second he uttered the statement, and that when this statement was followed by similar statements later on, my friend quickly ended the relationship. Although I’m certainly not qualified to diagnose my friend’s boyfriend with any disorder, or to label him as a particular type of person, this attitude of superiority is consistent with narcissism, colloquially defined as an inflated sense of self-importance, egotism, vanity, and selfishness.

As this example demonstrates, there is often a large disconnect between narcissists’ self-perceptions (e.g. how positively he sees himself) and others’ perceptions of him (how positively his friends, coworkers, classmates, and acquaintances sees him). Interestingly, narcissists often create positive first impressions - they are initially rated as charming, likable, extraverted, and physically attractive (e.g. Back, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2010). However, overtime these impressions sour, with others progressively seeing them as disagreeable, emotionally unstable, and poorly adjusted (like my example above). Despite the deterioration of their reputation, narcissists often continue to see themselves in overly positive ways. This begs the question – are narcissists self aware? More precisely: do narcissists know that others don’t see them in such a positive light? Are they aware of their own negative characteristics? DO THEY KNOW THEY’RE NARCISSISTS?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Can the important people in your life help you transcend group differences?

Our significant others (even our X's) influence our new relationships (source)
When I first started graduate school I was enthralled by the idea that much of how we relate to other people in our social lives is driven by our past relationships with important/close others. This theory, which my graduate advisor Serena Chen called the relational self suggests that who we are and how we think about the self is fundamentally shaped by our relationships with others. These influential relationships (they must be influential, stable, long-term relationships, though not necessarily positive/well-adjusted ones) create working models-- like scripts in a play that actors follow-- for how to interact with other people. Thus, whenever you are in a context that reminds you of a significant other you should apply these working models.

This can happen pretty much anywhere. Let's say you meet someone who looks like your ex-girlfriend (big X from now on). Your interaction with this person will be based--at least in a small part-- on how you'd expect an interaction with your X to go. So for example, if you expect your X to freak out about you being five minutes late to pick her up at the airport, you'd expect a person who resembles the X to do the same. In addition, if you tend to feel down or blue around your X, again, you should feel a slight dip in your own mood when around this new person.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Plastic Brain

Today we would like to present you with the second of our series of guest bloggers. Allyson Mackey is a graduate student in the neuroscience program at UC-Berkeley. Enjoy!

I was recently challenged by a colleague to come up with an example of a neuroscience finding that changed the way I live my life. I immediately thought of the now quite vast literature on neuroplasticity: the ability of our brains to change and adapt to new experiences. In this post, I’d like to propose that what we’ve learned about neuroplasticity so far can help us lead better lives, and that neuroplasticity research in the future will be poised to influence public policy issues ranging from health to education.  

I want to start by summarizing some exciting results from research on the structure and connectivity of brain cells, called neurons. Scientists have shown that experience can drive changes in the connections between neurons in as little as thirty seconds. Substantial changes in brain inputs, like the loss of a sense like vision or touch in a limb, can lead to remarkable compensatory re-organization in cortex. However, even subtle environmental changes can change brain structure. For example, giving rats interesting toys to play with, or allowing them to run more frequently on an exercise wheel, can lead to more connections between neurons in brain regions that are critical for learning, like the hippocampus. What is even more exciting is that cognitive enrichment and exercise can lead to neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, in the hippocampus. The formation of new neurons was long thought to be impossible since, unlike other cells in your body, most neurons can’t divide to make more neurons after birth.

Unfortunately, neuroplasticity is often called a double-edged sword. While positive environmental changes can lead to beneficial neural changes, the brain is also susceptible to negative environmental factors. One particularly relevant example is stress.  Chronic stress can prevent the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus, strengthen fear and anxiety circuits, and even effectively turn off brain regions responsible for attention and self-control. In summary, results from animal studies of neural plasticity suggest that our brains have the intrinsic ability to change in response to environmental demands both in adaptive ways, in response to cognitive stimulation and exercise, but also in maladaptive ways, in response to stress.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What you expect is what you get: The "Pygmalion Effect"

"Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right."
-Henry Ford

A couple of Fridays ago I posted a video about teacher who took her third grade class through an activity designed to help them learn about prejudice. When the students were told by their teacher that people with a certain eye color were smarter and better all around, they came to believe it and act in accordance. In the comments to this post, a reader noted that this video reminded him of the famous study by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966) testing something they'd termed the “Pygmalion effect,” and so I thought I'd share that study with you today.

The Pygmalion effect? If you are not a fan of Eliza Doolittle and My Fair Lady, you might think this effect sounds like a medical condition that occurs after too much sun exposure (or is that just me?), but it’s not. What we’re talking about here is a simple case of self self-fulfilling prophecies (which Juli first wrote about here). Rosenthal and Jacobson were interested in the role of teacher expectancies in learning. What exactly does this mean? Imagine that a third grade teacher starts in the fall with a new class of students, a few of which had older sibling who passed through her class in previous years. She knows that those siblings were star students, and expects the younger siblings will also perform well. She might also talk with some of the second grade teachers who had had some of her students the previous year, and get all kinds of insider information about which students were top performers, and which straggled behind. Now let’s fast forward to the end of the year. Not surprisingly, the students whom the teacher had expected to do well met her expectations, and the stragglers continued to straggle behind. Did those star students perform well because they were smarter than the rest, as indicated by their siblings’ success and the reports of their second grade teachers? Or could it have been a much more sinister story - that they did so well simply because their teachers expected them to do well? This is exactly what Rosenthal and Jacobson wanted to find out.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What does "good" feel like?

Which activity sounds better to you?
a) canoeing on a peaceful lake       b) white-water rafting

What is your new favorite song?
a) Calgary, by Bon Iver           b) Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), by Katy Perry

If you were to use an illegal drug, which would you choose?
a) heroine (a calming narcotic)      b) cocaine (an energizing stimulant)


What do your responses to these questions say about you?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Psychological blind spots

Just as we have visual blind spots when looking at the road through our car mirrors, we also have psychological blind spots - aspects of our personalities that are hidden from our view. These might be annoying habits like interrupting or bragging, or they might be deeper fears or desires that are too threatening to acknowledge. Although it's generally not pleasant to confront these aspects of ourselves, doing so can be very useful when it comes to personal growth, and when it comes to improving our relationships with others - there is undoubtedly something we do that, unbeknownst to us, drives our significant others, roommates, or coworkers a little crazy. So how do you know what your blind spots are?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Are the Rich Really Rude? What Science Actually Says

In a previous post I wrote about how cool it can be for one's research to be picked up by the national media. Last week I was lucky enough to have this happen here, here, and here. The article described in the news is based on a program of research that Professor Dacher Keltner and I started about 7-8 years ago. The goal of our research was to study social class-- that is, the collection of social and material conditions of life that rank us in American society relative to others. More specifically, we wanted to understand how a person's position in society-- based on their income, their educational attainment, or their occupation status-- could shape their behavior in social interactions, their perceptions of others, and their emotions. According to the media, our research concludes that the rich are rude/selfish/and lack empathy. But is this really the case? Let's summarize the evidence!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Power of Prejudice: A Class Divided

Do you remember your first brush with prejudice as a child? These students certainly do. A classic in intro social psychology classes, the video I've linked to below details the experiences of a group of students in Riceville, Iowa in 1970 after MLK Jr was shot. The video tells the tale of their teacher pushing them to understand the experience of prejudice, possibly for the first time. I won't give too many details because the video tells the whole story. This video will certainly stick with you, and not just because of their awesome '70s attire.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My favorite unromantic theories of love

Why are we drawn to certain people and not others? What makes us fall in love - and stay in love? Poets delve into the mystery of love with beautiful sonnets, musicians seek to capture its subtle essence in song, and many others feel that their love is divinely inspired. Social and personality psychologists, on the other hand, break love down into simple shapes, colors, and equations, the most popular of which are described below. These theories may seem to reduce love to something more mundane and unexciting, but they also have a certain elegance of their own. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Spotlight Effect or You're the Only One Who Knows You're Having a Bad Hair Day

Part of the human experience seems to be finding ourselves in highly embarrassing situations. At some time most of us have tripped on the stairs in a crowded area, spilled our drink on a stranger, put our foot in our mouth during an important conversation, or simply had to face the world on a really bad hair day. When I find myself in one of these situations, such as when I tripped over my own feet in the middle of campus last week, I instantly blush and put my head down, hoping to avoid the pity and humor that I’m sure is on the faces of all those who witnessed my moment of embarrassment. But, according to social psychology research, I shouldn’t be so quick to blush and look away. It turns out that the number of people who noticed my mishap are likely to be much fewer than I’d imagined, as we tend to overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others, something social psychologists call the “spotlight effect." 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Friday Fun: At the Movies (with a Psychologist)

Because Juli's psychology songs post was so much fun, I thought I'd try something new this Friday. In what follows, I will provide a very brief summary of the plot, or a specific scene, from a movie. After this description, I will then discuss a key psychological construct that the movie's theme relates to.

It's a simple game, so let's get started. There are spoilers, so read on with caution.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Adversity: A path to vulnerability or resiliency? Depends on how much.

Throughout my life I’ve been lucky to be friends with a diverse array of people, who have had quite varied past experiences. There are those few friends with "charmed" lives. Healthy family, happy home, found "the one" with little difficulty. There are others who have experienced major past adversity. The loss of a parent, a debilitating rejection, chronic poverty. This variability has often made me wonder about the relationship between past experiences and whether one responds to current life adversity with with vulnerability or resiliency. If faced with a new crisis, who will display the resilient response – 1) my friend who has never experienced any adversity or 2) my friend who has experienced too much adversity. There are convincing arguments to be made for either case. My friend who never experienced adversity might have a strong social support network and a positive outlook on life, but might lack necessary skills and toughness needed to get through a traumatic event. My friend who experienced too much adversity might be stressed and depleted from their past experiences, but might have developed that toughness and those skills that my “charmed” friend lacks. So what’s the answer?

In 2010 Mark Seery, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, along with colleagues Alison Holman and Roxane Cohen Silver tackled this question. Specifically they assessed whether past adversity is associated with 1) worse mental health and well-being outcomes overtime, and 2) how one responds to a recent adverse event.