Monday, November 28, 2011

An unending supply of willpower? All it takes is believing

Need willpower?
When you have to work hard on a task that requires a lot of concentration, do you find yourself losing concentration after a while? If you are studying for an exam, do you have a harder time resisting the delicious snacks sitting next to you on the table? All of these situations have one thing in common - they require willpower, also known as self control or self regulation in the psychology world.

For a long time, the commonly held belief among psychologists was that willpower is like a muscle - it gets fatigued after use, but over time it can become stronger. Also, the general consensus is that we have one common pool of willpower - so after spending a day studying instead of watching reality tv reruns, you just might find yourself unable to resist the temptation of that delicious chocolate cake. Operating under this assumption, scores of research studies showed that people get depleted after engaging in a task that requires willpower.

A quick digression: one famous task used in psychological research that examines interference and self control is called the Stroop Task. This task requires you to read a list of words out loud. In the classic version, the words are a list of colors, such as 'yellow,' 'red,' and 'blue' and you have to read them as quickly as you can. Sounds easy right? Not so fast. The words are all colored. Give it a quick try below:

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Gene for Empathy?

We hope you had a great Thanksgiving yesterday, I know I ate more than my share of pumpkin pie and apple pie! 

Today, we have another awesome guest post by a new guest blogger, Alex Kogan. Alex is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Toronto, Mississauga and he agreed to write a post about a recent article he had published that has received a lot of media attention (see here, here, here and here for just a few examples). 

A gene for empathy?
Last week, my colleagues and I reported a seemingly startling finding: People who had two copies of G version of the oxytocin receptor gene were seen as more trustworthy, compassionate, and kind by complete strangers on the basis of only 20 seconds than people who had at least one copy of the A version of the gene. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide—a chemical messenger of sorts—in our brains that has been linked to empathy, sacrifice, and trust. Oxytocin has also been linked more recently to darker aspects of human nature as well, such as jealousy and boasting, suggesting that the role of oxytocin is much more general than simply a “love” messenger. The way oxytocin operates is through the usage of a specific receptor in the brain—and the oxytocin receptor gene, as the name would suggest, codes for this receptor. Our study built on roughly a dozen studies that have shown a similar effect in terms of how people view themselves. Media reports on our study triumphantly reported that the “empathy gene”, “cuddle gene”, or the “jerk gene” had been found. Science had unlocked the genetics behind kindness.

Or had it?

Wednesday, November 23, 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?!

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Happiness Chronicles, Part II: Does Money Buy Happiness?

This is the second installment of an occasional series on Psych Your Mind examining the pursuit of happiness. Last time we considered the dark side of happiness. In this post, we consider an important question: Does money buy happiness?

Answering the question "Does money buy you happiness?" is not an easy task, and researchers have been trying to answer it for at least 25 years (philosophers, I imagine, have been considering this question for even longer). Over the years, psychology research has amassed a great deal of evidence suggesting that money in-and-of-itself does not make you happy. There are of course, some caveats to this answer and we'll consider them in today's post.

The probability of your existence: Basically zero

At some point after first learning about the birds and the bees as a child (possibly after watching the opening credits of Look Who's Talking or thinking too hard about the implications of Back to the Future), it occurred to me that I could have easily been someone else. Had my parents not happened to meet when they did, and happened to conceive at the moment they did, with a specific pair of egg and sperm, I wouldn't be here. Apart from being a minor existential crisis, this realization made me feel incredibly lucky. Out of an infinite number of possible people, I was one of those who got a chance at life.

I recently came across a lovely (if statistically questionable) visual demonstration of one person's attempt to approximate the odds that each of us came into the world and exist as we are today. It incorporates probabilities ranging from our parents' first encounter to our unbroken line of ancestors to the emergence of the first single celled organism, concluding with the following analogy: The probably that we as unique individuals came to be is equivalent to "the probability of 2 million people getting together each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided die. They each roll the dice, and they all come up with the exact same number - for example, 550, 343, 279, 001. The odds that you exist at all are basically zero."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Intelligence: It’s all in your head

How'd you earn your A+?
Which do you think is more predictive of success: innate ability or hard work? Do you think anyone can rise up to meet a challenge with enough effort, or are some people just more intelligent and able than others?

It seems like there should be a true answer to these questions, but according to Dr. Carol Dweck, the truth is all in your head. Dr. Dweck isn’t interested in what exactly intelligence is, she’s interested in what you think it is, and the long term impact of those beliefs.

Entity theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is an unchangeable, fixed trait. If you are an entity theorist, you think of intelligence as a “thing” that you can have a lot or a little of. Entity theorists would say that some people are just more intelligent than others. 

Incremental theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is a malleable quality that can developed. If you are more of an incremental theorist, you think of intelligence more as a muscle that can get stronger with effort.  Incremental theorists would say that anyone can achieve if they work hard at it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cutting up flags and kissing your sister – what is morality?

Today's post comes from another great guest blogger. Olga Antonenko Young is a graduate student in the social-personality psychology program at UC-Berkeley.

Is burning the American flag immoral?
A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong? Two adult siblings enjoy French kissing each other. Are they acting immorally? Your answers to these questions may depend on your definition of morality as well as unexpected factors including your culture, socio-economic status, and political orientation.

Most people agree that morality concerns itself with the welfare of others. The reason we deem an action immoral is that it, in some way, negatively impacts other individuals or society as a whole. However, exactly what kinds of actions fall into this category vary depending on the person you ask. Think about it for yourself. How do you define morality? What categories of actions count as immoral?

You most likely thought of actions that hurt other people or seem unjust. So, then, what’s wrong with French kissing your sister?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to get to the gym when you would rather sit on the couch.

This was originally posted back in May. We thought some of our newer readers might be interested in this topic! Enjoy!

For months now a good friend has been trying to convince me to run a half marathon with him. Each time the conversation comes up I casually change the subject, check my phone for new messages, or look him in the face and say “heck no.”  Why am I resistant to such a healthful, fun, and challenging event?

I have two reasons. First, I am by no means in shape. I get winded after five minutes at a light jog. The thought that my sorry body could take me 13 miles is unfathomable and probably unrealistic (at least at the moment). Second, and perhaps more importantly, I have no willpower when it comes to exercise. No matter how many times I begin a regular routine of pilates, or yoga, or tennis, within a few weeks I have fallen off the wagon. While I think a half marathon is a little much given my current fitness level, I have promised this friend that I will start going on regular runs with him as he trains for the event. This time, however, I am making the goal to stick with it. But the question is…HOW?

To get started, I can form a goal intention, which is simply labeling my goal, or putting it into words. In this case my goal intention is “I want to run regularly each week.” Every day I can remind myself of my goal intention with the hopes that those reminders will be enough to get me to the track. Will my goal intention help me? Will it overcome that issue I have with willpower and exercise? Unfortunately I don’t think so. Each day I can easily put off my goal and claim I'll do my running the next day, or the day after that.
Instead, I am going to use an implementation intention to achieve my goal of regular running. Implementation intentions are a strategy psychologists have developed for goal pursuit (e.g. Gollwitzer, 1993). They have been shown to deliver results! Implementation intentions specify the where, when, and in what way a person should implement their goal. They do this by linking a very specific cue or situation to a very specific response. For example, my implementation intention is “When the clock hits five on Mondays and Thursdays, I will change into my exercise gear and go for my run.”

How does the implementation intention work?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Go Tigers! The Southern Culture of Honor

This weekend college football fans were treated to one of the most highly anticipated football games in the recent history of the sport: #1 LSU vs. #2 Alabama in a battle of the unbeaten juggernauts of college football. As expected, the game was a physical, defense-first battle. A true representation of what has become a southern tradition.

A social psychologist by training, I tend to think about this new southern tradition in the context of some of my other stereotypes of the south. For instance, southern hospitality comes to mind. This makes me wonder:

How does such a hospitable place also earn a reputation for smash-mouth football?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Friday Fun: A Healthy Skepticism About Science?

"There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data, so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." -- Rick Perry, Governor of Texas

Last week a colleague of mine pointed out this wonderful little video from the Daily Show. In it, the Daily Show's "chief science correspondent" Aasif Mandvi asks some pretty hilarious and revealing questions about the scientific method. This piece is amazing and I definitely recommend taking the 6 minutes or so to watch it. At one point, Mandvi speaks to a Republican strategist, Noelle Nikpour, who seems to be skeptical of science (that is a bit of an understatement). In the interview, Ms. Nikpour says "Scientists are scamming the American people for their own financial gain." Hilarity aside, that one person, let alone hundreds or thousands, would believe this about science is a disturbing thought. Particularly since Ms. Nikpour's opinions are likely to influence more people than any single scientist's research ever would. Admittedly, recent events in social psychology have not been a good defense against this opinion (see here and here). Nonetheless, today I'd like to discuss why this opinion is inaccurate.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Can sweets make you sweeter?

This week, kids around the nation are scarfing down bucket loads of Halloween candy, and the rest of us are likely sneaking in some extra treats for ourselves as well. So how is all this sugar consumption affecting us? On the one hand, it may be poisoning us, but on the bright side, new research suggests that eating sweets can actually make you not only seem more sweet, but also lead you to behave in more caring ways.