Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

Today's post continues our recent tradition of excellent guest blogging: James Telesford (the author of this particular guest post) is an advanced graduate student in the social-personality psychology program at UC-Berkeley. This is James' first post on the blog. Enjoy!

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."
                                                                        -Kurt Vonnegut


Potentially life altering events such as the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, moving to a new city (or just across town, for that matter), or any other such experiences are major causes of stress. Recent research in social and personality psychology has demonstrated that we can adopt several strategies to help us decrease the negative emotions surrounding these events (Gross and Thompson, 2007). Among the most adaptive responses to stressors is cognitive reappraisal. In other words, one way to decrease the stress of a negative event is to think about it in a different way, in order to consciously change the event’s meaning, and thereby, lesson its emotional impact.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I’ll be watching you: Religion and kindness

Today we have another great guest post from guest blogger Olga Antonenko Young!

Does religion make us better people?  Social science says, “Maybe!”

One of the more controversial topics that social psychology takes up is that of religion. While no social scientists would venture to address whether any religious belief is true or not, they do examine the effects that these beliefs have on attitudes and behavior. Decades of researchers (and before them, centuries of philosophers) have wondered whether religion makes people better, kinder, and more generous.  On one side of the argument lie people who point out that religion is inherently about morals.  All of the world’s leading religions emphasize a core set of values, outline moral codes, and teach virtues such as charity, forgiveness, and compassion.  On the other side of the argument lie people who point to the negative effects of inter-faith strife over the history of time.

So, which is it?  Does religion make us better or worse?  The answer is complicated.  Psychological research lends credence to both sides of the argument.  However, I wish to highlight just one fascinating aspect of this research suggesting that religion may make us better people and why.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Fun: Holiday Edition

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Happy Holidays Everyone!

As many of us head home for the Christmas weekend, we can look forward to relaxation, time with family, good food and good presents. But many of us may also be anxiously anticipating terrible traffic, long travels, time with family, guilt-inducing meals, and awkward gift exchanges. I thought for this holiday edition of Friday Fun I'd compile a few tips from previous posts to help make your holidays a little brighter.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Modern Day Freudian Slips

George H. W. Bush once made the following classic Freudian slip in a public speech: "For seven and a half years I've worked alongside President Reagan, and I'm proud to have been his partner. We've had triumphs. We've made some mistakes. We've had some sex -- setbacks." When the audience erupts in laughter, you can't help but feel a little bad for the guy, who appears to have a minor heart-attack if you watch his chest closely (see the video here).

Rather than revealing that Bush unconsciously wished to have intimate relations with Reagan, as a Freudian interpretation might suggest, this slip was more likely an example of a speech error called a deletion, which involves omitting a word or part of a word. In this case, "ba" was inadvertently omitted from "setbacks." Speech errors like this are common (though generally less embarrassing), and they are especially likely to occur when people are tired, nervous, or otherwise not at their peak level of cognitive functioning. Linguists argue that speech errors reflect the complex way that language is organized and produced, and are unlikely to reflect repressed desires or conflicts. But that doesn't mean that speech errors are always psychologically meaningless.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Power to be Me

The Power to be Me
We certainly have a wealth of anecdotes about what having power does to people: Power has led political figures like Herman Cain (allegedly) and John Edwards to engage in adultery, facilitated unethical financial practices on Wall Street, and contributed to some of the most overconfident moments in our nation's history. On the one hand, we could conclude from these examples that power leads people to immoral, unethical, and deviant behavior, and some research is suggestive of this possibility.

Of course, power can't always be bad for us, like it was for the American economy or Edwards' political career. Certainly, sometimes power can have a positive effect on our well-being, by allowing us the freedom to be ourselves. 

Friday Fun: Are you a good "mind-reader"? Take the test!

Can you read my mind?
Do you think this guy is:
(a) playful
(b) comforting
(c) irritated
(d) bored

Being able to "mind-read" is a unique and important human trait. Being high in emotional intelligence and empathy helps us smoothly navigate our social world and communicate effectively with other people. Not everyone, however, is an emotion-decoding master.

One of the tests that psychologists use to assess people's level of emotional recognition (also called empathy, emotion decoding, theory of mind, or "mind reading") is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" task.  During this task, you do exactly what I had you do above - you look at 36 different pairs of eyes and for each you pick one emotion out of four possible choices (though they aren't all actually emotions, unless someone added "joking," "flirtatious," and "decisive" to the emotion dictionary). I thought I'd share this task with you today for a few reasons.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm sorry: Sometimes not enough, sometimes too much

"I'm sorry" is infamous for its inadequacy. It often seems flippant, insincere, or incomplete, as in "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "I'm sorry, but...". Wayward public figures are notorious for inadequate apologies, especially those that involve a failure to own up to wrongdoingSome argue that a full apology requires many elements, such as acceptance of responsibility, an expression of genuine remorse, an offer to make amends, and an excuse-free explanation. Heartfelt apologies can go a long way in dissolving hostility, encouraging forgiveness, and mending damaged relationships. But they are not always easy to come by.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Stuck in a rut: Is boredom the silent relationship killer?

Stuck in a rut?
What does it mean for your relationship when you find yourself stuck in a rut? A group of researchers decided to answer this question by examining how being bored now affects relationship satisfaction down the road.

Tsapelas and colleagues (2009) asked 123 married couples who had been married for seven years how often during the past month they had felt that their relationship was (or was getting into) a rut. They also asked them how satisfied they were with their relationships. Nine years later they came back and asked them again how satisfied they were. What do you think they found? 

Results: Spouses who felt bored at year 7 were less satisfied at year 16. What is important is that boredom predicted being less satisfied down the road even when taking into account how satisfied people were at year 7. In other words, its not just that people who were bored were less satisfied to begin with, boredom actually led to further declines in satisfaction over the nine years. Okay, so boredom is bad. These findings aren’t gonna knock your socks off. But there were a few extra analyses they did that I thought were interesting.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Fun: At the Movies With A Psychologist (Twilight Edition)

This past weekend I was among the fortunate viewers of Twilight: Breaking Dawn (part I). Now, you might be asking yourself, "Michael, you aren't a teenage girl, why are you watching Twilight?" My answer: It's my duty to report on psychological phenomena that I see at the movies-- and this duty applies to movies featuring forbidden love between human and vampire teenagers! I do it all for you, readers of Psych Your Mind!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mind over meat: How we justify eating animals

Most people like animals and have no desire to hurt them. An estimated 63% of American households own at least one pet, and many love their pets like children, doing everything possible to ensure their health and well-being. At the same time, however, at least 80% of Americans eat animals as a regular part of their diet. In recent research, Brock Bastian and colleagues refer to this as the "meat paradox," and they propose that people attempt to reconcile this paradox (and reduce the cognitive dissonance associated with it) by reassuring themselves that the animals they consume (unlike their pets) do not really have minds - that is, they cannot think, feel, and understand their fates, and therefore they do not really suffer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Psi Your Mind?

Earlier this year, Daryl Bem, a Professor at Cornel University, published a paper on Psi phenomena (also known as psychic phenomena). Bem's Paper was published in the premier journal of social-personality psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). In the paper, Bem presents results from eight experiments where he finds evidence for precognition (conscious cognitive awareness of future events) and premonition (affective apprehension about future negative events). The results have shocked our field!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time, Space, and Synesthesia

When we talk about time, we often use metaphors related to space. For example, "I'm looking forward to this weekend." Some people experience this connection more literally, feeling as though units of time have an almost physical reality, one with a definitive size, location, and sometimes even color. This tendency has been termed time-space synesthesia. In a 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo, participants were asked to draw their unique representations of the months of the year, pictured above.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What do Halloween and Social Psychology have in common? Deindividuation, of course

Cute trick-or-treaters or mahem-makers?
As the children take to the streets tonight in search of a trick-or-treat, you might be wondering the best way to protect your house from some heavy candy-looting. In 1976, Ed Diener and his colleagues asked a similar question, though they were more interested in the conditions that prompted trick-or-treaters to overindulge and take more than they should. Halloween is a holiday which encourages people to dress up in costumes and roam the streets in large groups - the perfect recipe for deindividuation. Deindividuation occurs when people’s own sense of individuality is diminished and can result in antisocial behaviors. Diener used Halloween as an opportunity to research how anonymity, group size, and feelings of responsibility influence people’s willingness to steal extra candy and money. 

The scene: Imagine that you come up to a house with a table, on one side is a bowl full of individually wrapped bite-sized candy bars, about 2 feet away on the other side is a bowl full of pennies and nickels. Nearby is a decorative backdrop with a peep hole that camouflages an unobtrusive observer. When you arrive at the door, a woman you have never met greets you.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Improving memory - (retrieval) practice makes perfect

Today we would like to present you with the another (terrific) guest blogger. Joseph Williams is a graduate student in the cognitive psychology program at UC-Berkeley. Enjoy!

You’re about to read a 200-word science passage on sea otters so that you can successfully answer questions about it in a week’s time. What strategies would you use to study it? Which of these options would you choose? (a) reading it four times, (b) drawing out a concept map of all the key ideas, or (c) reading it, trying to recall it, reading it one more time, and trying to recall it one more time.

If you smugly chose the alluring quadruple study option or took a gamble on the newfangled concept map, it’s likely that a week from now your memory would be letting you down. A recent paper in Science by Karpicke & Blunt at Purdue University reports an experiment along these lines. Testing oneself or engaging in retrieval practice had the greatest benefit for being able to remember facts from the passage and for drawing inferences that required putting these facts together. But it seems so counterintuitive that testing yourself on information could be better than thoroughly studying material or building elaborate diagrams. Surely students would all be on the honor roll if only they put in that much effort!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The power of red


Like most teenagers in suburbia I took a driver’s education class shortly after I earned my learner’s permit. Though I picked up critical driving tips, and got plenty of practice in the driver’s seat, one of the most interesting facts I learned concerned car insurance and the color red. According to my teacher, drivers with red cars had to pay higher insurance rates. Apparently this was due to the fact that people in red cars were more likely to speed. I’ve since learned that the relationship between red and speeding is actually a pervasive urban legend. Nevertheless, it piqued my interest in the association between color and behavior. Though red might not be associated with speeding, it has been found to relate to a variety of psychological processes and outcomes in both humans and non-human primates including dominance, competitive sports outcomes, achievement, and sexual attraction.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Three Myths About Power

Does Power Corrupt? source
The reign of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi came to an end last week at the hands of a combination of rebel and UN forces. Qaddafi-- at least according to the American news media and some of his own people--was widely considered a tyrannical ruler who stifled free expression and democracy during his 40 years of rule. Whenever I think of men like Qaddafi, the social psychologist in me can't help but think that the situation has created the tyrant we now know-- that there is something about power that changes people, and transforms them into ruthless and oppressive individuals.

This explanation fits our narrative about power nicely, but it actually doesn't hold up well to empirical investigation. In today's blog I discuss three myths about power. We come to believe these myths based on anecdotal evidence, even though they don't seem to hold up to empirical investigation.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Friday Fun: The three most important questions to ask on a first date

If you could ask only three questions to gauge your compatibility with a potential dating partner, what would they be? Would you ask about their religious beliefs? political orientation? career goals?

According to research conducted by OkCupid, a popular online dating service that collects data from its users and allows users to submit their own questions for others to answer, the three questions that best predict compatibility (measured as the likelihood of forming a committed relationship with another OkCupid user) are not exactly what you might expect. Users who agreed on their responses to the following three questions were more likely to form a relationship:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

There's nothing wrong with turning red: The social functions of embarrassment

Embarrassment is embarrassing. The act of blushing, for example, can itself be more traumatic than whatever triggered it, prompting some to resort to blush-reducing surgery. Even if you're not a blusher, embarrassment is often hard to hide - it makes itself known in nervous laughter, sweaty palms, averted eyes, and other involuntary responses. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid this awkward experience. But research suggests that showing embarrassment is nothing to be ashamed of, and in certain ways it might even serve us well.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good food, bad food: The psychology of nutrition

Imagine you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick what food you think would be best for your health (never mind what food you would like).

Alfalfa sprouts
Hot dogs
Milk chocolate

Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asked people this same question and found that 42% of people chose bananas, 27% spinach, 12% corn, 7% alfalfa sprouts, 5% peaches, 4% hot dogs, and 3% milk chocolate. Only seven percent of people chose a food that could actually offer them enough calories and all the nutrients they needed for long term survival. No, not alfalfa sprouts (not nearly enough calories): hot dogs and milk chocolate. These two animal products (the milk in milk chocolate) provide protein and fat, two necessary nutrients that would be deficient in the other foods. Overall, hot dogs would provide all necessary nutrients, sufficient protein, and a more optimal amino acid balance, suggesting they would be best suited to help you survive for a year.

So why is this psychology professor asking people what type of food they’d want to have if they were stranded on a desert island? Rozin found that people’s beliefs about what makes up a healthy diet is heavily influenced by psychology. In this particular paper (Rozin, Ashmore, & Markwith, 1996), he and his colleagues researched whether people’s views about a healthy diet were biased by something termed “dose insensitivity.” Before I describe what that is, let’s try out a few more of the questions that he asked people.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Fun: Our first readership poll

Everyone loves a Friday Fun Poll!
What can we say, we like collecting data. So take a break from whatever you're doing and fill out the polls below to tell us a little bit about yourselves!

Poll results...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Want to become a wizard? Just read Harry Potter

I will never forget when the final installment of the Harry Potter series came out. Myself and a few of my closest friends from college, all big HP fans, were spending the weekend at my Mom’s house. Although I hadn’t seen these friends in 6 months, although there were a ton of activities to do in that region of upstate NY, although we were twenty five years old - we could not wait to see how J.K. Rowling was going to wrap up the series. The second we picked up the Deathly Hallows, we literally did not stop.  We lounged around all day, moving from the sun chairs outside, to the porch, to our beds, and back. We ate, we drank, we read. We barely talked. Parmita and I, the most determined, read straight through the night – 759 pages in total. It was a marathon, and let me tell you, it was well worth it.

Though the power of a good book is undeniable even to the lightest of readers, researchers have discovered some unexpected benefits from an engaging narrative. For example, people tend to feel less lonely after reading a familiar narrative, and even seek out comforting books after experiences of social rejection (Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009). Narratives have been found to help develop social skills – they teach us rules that govern social interactions and help us to cultivate empathy (e.g. Mar & Oatley, 2008). In an interesting study published recently in Psychological Science, Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young even found that we actually feel like, or become, the characters of the book, and that this assumption of the characters’ identities makes us feel happier and more satisfied with our own lives. Here's the study...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Class Warfare

"I think it's dangerous, this class warfare." -- Mitt Romney (2012 presidential candidate)

In the last week or so, everyday Americans have taken to the street, Wall Street to be exact, to express their discontent with the current economic climate. In short, the bottom 99% of Americans are upset about economic inequality, and rightly so. After all, American economic inequality is worse than every other developed country (we've discussed this inequality here and here). In particular, there seems to be striking inequality in salary between average workers and corporate CEOs  (262:1 and rising).

Of course, not everyone is supportive of movements like these, which seek to diminish the pay disparities between the wealthy and the less-so. For instance, Herman Cain, the godfather of pizza (now current republican presidential candidate) said this about the protestors:  "Don't blame Wall Street, and don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and are not rich, blame yourself." Apparently, a portion of people out there believe that people have personal responsibility for the amount of money they make and that wealth is gained through hard work, ability, and talent. But who exactly are these people?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday Fun: Breaking News! Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Man and IPhone pictured in loving embrace (source)
Right now I am teaching a personality psychology class and we are talking about research methods. Invariably, anytime I teach psychological methods I always end up talking about correlations--specifically, that a correlation is an association between two variables and nothing more. The important point is that correlations--even those that come from fancy associations between behavior and brain images--do not mean causation. Students are typically quite receptive to this information.

It's too bad that some journalists (and to be fair, even some scientists) forget this lesson. 

Just for fun, I gave out extra credit this week to any student who could find a news article claiming causation from correlation. I gave my students a 6 hour time window to complete this assignment. Not surprisingly, half my class of 60 students came back with a unique example (for those keeping score at home, that's 30 news articles that inappropriately infer cause from correlations)! Below, I summarize my three favorites:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Would you eat the worm?

Imagine finding yourself in the following situation. You arrive at a psychology laboratory to participate in an experiment. The experimenter tells you that the purpose of the experiment is to understand the effects of "certain tasks" on physiological responses. On one side of a table, you see a series of covered cups, and on the other side you see a dead worm on a plate, a cup of water, a napkin, and a fork. The experimenter reminds you of your rights as a participant, saying that your participation is voluntary and you are free to terminate the study at any time.

Next, after doing a neutral task where you assess the weights of the covered cups, the experimenter tells you that you have been randomly assigned to an experimental condition where you will be asked to eat the worm. You then wait for ten minutes while the experimenter goes to do something in another room, during which time you are left to anticipate your upcoming worm-eating experience. When the experimenter returns, he or she says, "Oh, an error has been made. You weren't exactly assigned to the right condition. You actually are supposed to choose which task you will perform, between eating the worm or discriminating the weights."

What do you decide? Do you eat the worm even though you no longer have to? 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Experiential versus material purchases: Science says that buying new shoes won’t make me happier

Material purchasing at its finest
Last weekend I went to the mall in search of a new pair of tennis shoes since I’ve run the life out of my current pair, and while I was there, I continued my never-ending quest to find the perfect pair of boots (just ask my husband – I’ve been on this quest for years). When I arrived at the mall, the parking lot was so full that I had to circle around before I could find a spot. The stores were equally crowded inside. Apparently none of these shoppers had read Leaf Van Boven’s 2005 review article highlighting the benefits of spending money on experiences over material goods. Juli first mentioned this finding in her post on the four ways to buy happiness, and I wanted to spend some more time on the topic since I still have a bit of trouble accepting the findings, particularly when I’m on a quest for a material good that I’m sure will change my life (spoiler alert - I did buy a pair of boots, though I’m not sure they’re “the ones”).

When surveying various cultures to determine what makes people happy, researchers kept stumbling upon the finding that having more didn’t equate to being happier. And people who aspire to have more are, in fact, less satisfied. For example, the more that people endorse the statement “Buying things gives me pleasure” the less satisfied they are with their lives. But, it seems, this is only true if you are spending your money to buy “things” rather than “memories.” Whether people are asked to directly compare experiential versus material purchases or to simply write about or reflect on a specific recent purchase, they report that the experiential purchase made them happier, contributed more to their overall happiness, and was “money better spent.” In the moment, Recalling their most recent vacation seems to put people in a better mood than recalling their last shoe purchase.

Friday, September 30, 2011

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

This post originally appeared back when PYM was just getting started. We 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!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Women better at judging men’s sexual orientation near to ovulation


Living in the San Francisco Bay Area provides many benefits: good food, great activities, incredible landscape. For me, however, the Bay Area is SOO special, because it caters to a fabulously diverse array of residents. For example, each year San Franciscans can take to the streets to herald in spring during the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown, celebrate the beauty of leather during Folsom Street Fair, or stomp their feet and slap their thighs to the music at the completely free – Hardly, Strictly, Bluegrass. The variety of interests, cultures, traditions, and values in the Bay Area is a beautiful thing.

One interesting result of this diversity is that single, female San Franciscans are not often surprised when a man they’ve been eyeing all night, leaves the bar, with his boyfriend, not his girlfriend. San Francisco is, after all, home to The Castro - one of America’s first and arguably the best known, gay neighborhoods. Perhaps over the years women in San Franscisco have become especially adept at judging who is straight from who is gay (or who falls somewhere along the continuum). Interestingly, however, recent research has shown that women’s accuracy in judging male sexual orientation does fluctuate. Not by city (though someone should do that study) but instead by fertility (ability to conceive) across the menstrual cycle. Here’s the study…

Monday, September 26, 2011

Emotions: The Great Captains of Our Lives

Van Gogh (source)
"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it." -- Vincent Van Gogh

Humans are understandably enthralled with emotion. We see emotions as a core aspect of our daily lives and  relationships with others. Our emotions can shift our behavior, lead us to reinterpret our social environment, and sometimes cause us physical discomfort. Specific emotional states--like happiness, for instance--have even become lifetime goals. Emotions, as Van Gogh suggests, are indeed the "great captains of our lives."

Given that emotions hold such a profound influence on us, one would think that (a) there would be a ton of psychological research devoted to the study of emotions, and (b) emotion research would already have generated the clear truth about the nature of emotion experience. Actually, while (a) is quite true [there is even a journal called "Emotion"], (b) is surprisingly false. The reason: Emotion researchers disagree about what an emotion is, and where emotion research should go in the future.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday fun: You're such an animal!

As humans, we like to think of ourselves as highly civilized, intelligent beings, clearly distinct from our animal relatives. And we are. But in some ways we are also quite similar, especially when it comes to our social behaviors.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why do we hurt ourselves?

Evolutionary theory - and common sense - suggests that we are motivated to preserve our lives and well-being and avoid causing ourselves harm. And yet, self-destructive behaviors of all kinds are surprisingly common even among those considered to be mentally healthy. For example, chronic binge drinking, which can lead to serious health problems and even death, is rampant on American college campuses, as are disordered eating behaviors. We hurt ourselves in less overt ways as well, like sabotaging our chances of success for fear of failure, refusing to give up on a task, relationship, or investment even when it's clear that our efforts are in vain, or neglecting to seek medical attention when it is direly needed. Psychologists have argued that these behaviors are not motivated by a self-destructive impulse, as Freud suggested, but rather are a by-product of other motives and processes. These processes, reviewed by Baumeister & Scher (1988), are outlined below.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Steer clear of the sleep deprived: The effects of sleep on mood

First I asked you how well you were sleeping here, then I described what is really going on when you sleep here, and today I consider how loss of sleep affect your mood.

Up late watching tv? Watch out world!
Last night you stayed up late (studying for a big exam, preparing for a presentation, watching marathon episodes of Battlestar Galactica), and today, when you’re already running low on sleep, it seems as if the whole world is out to get you. Why is everyone so irritating? Why is the traffic so bad? Who are these awful drivers? Or wait… could it just be you? A plethora of research has shown that sleep deprivation affects your mood. A very basic equation: sleep deprivation = increases in negative mood and decreases in positive mood. But let’s break that down a bit more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Increase working memory, decrease alcohol consumption in problem drinkers

There are many theories about why individuals engage in heavy alcohol consumption. One general theory psychologists refer to is called the Dual Process Model. It holds that people have two different systems for processing information. The impulsive system automatically (quickly) evaluates stimuli in the environment in terms of emotion, and motivation, and (again quickly) pushes the individual to move toward or away from the stimuli. Alternatively, the reflective system focuses on long-term goals and personal standards but it is slower acting and requires more effort or energy. These two systems constantly battle for supremacy. In the case of drinking, if the impulsive system wins out an individual will likely consume cocktail after cocktail because the drink tastes good, or makes the person feel good. If the reflective system wins out, the individual will likely consume less, or not at all, knowing that in the long-run they will be healthier and happier if they avoid such excess.

The ability of the reflective system to win out, or override automatic impulses and maintain goal-directed action, is accomplished by, what psychologists call, executive functioning. Executive functioning includes a host of different cognitive functions such as planning, attention control, working memory (the ability to maintain and manipulate information), and response inhibition (the ability to override impulsive responses). Unfortunately, research has shown that these executive functions are often impaired in chronic drinkers. First, individuals who start out with poorer executive functioning are more prone to become chronic drinkers if they associate alcohol with feeling good. Even more, excessive drinking has been shown to further impair executive functions. This means that the more one drinks the harder it will be for them to stop drinking.

Though this sounds pretty dire, there have been a host of recent studies showing that executive functions like working memory and response inhibition can be trained. That means with practice people can become better at tipping the scale in favor of their long-term goals (the reflective system), rather than their automatic temptations (the impulsive system). Researcher Katrijn Houben and colleagues at Maastricht University and the University of Amsterdam, tested whether training executive functions, specifically working memory, could boost the supremacy of the reflective system, and thus help heavy drinkers to consume less alcohol.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Sleep Cycle: What's really going on while you're catching your zzz's

Today I continue on my new quest to understand sleep and its role in our lives by attempting to answer a very basic question: what happens when our heads hit the pillow at night?

The 90 minute Sleep Cycle

The sleep cycle: A sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes and during that time we move through five stages of sleep. The first four stages make up our non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fifth stage is when rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Fun: Are you getting enough sleep?

Do you feel like this guy?
Sleep is one of those basic needs we can't escape. But that doesn't mean we're planning our days to make sure we get our requisite hours of sleep each night. We live in a society where we're expected to burn the candle at both ends, and even our best attempts at sleeping well can fail with early morning meetings, last minute projects, late night social gatherings, children who need night time attention, sleep problems, a snoring roommate, or those trains blowing their horns throughout the night. What happens when we find ourselves suffering from too little or too light of sleep? Given that I seem to be unable to function on less than 9 hours a night, this question has always been of particular interest to me. This month, I'm actually starting to plan some research studies examining the effects of sleep on relationships, and given that all this planning is depriving me of my much-needed sleep (oh the irony), I thought it was a good time to write a series of posts on sleep: what it is, how it works, and how bad sleep affects how we think, feel and act in our daily lives. To kick us off, I'm devoting this Friday Fun to a few sleep scales so we can all figure out just how we're doing on the sleep-o-meter.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dear Science, Stop Cheating Already

Last night I was eating dinner at Rubio's (side note: "Baja Fresh," Rubio's slogan is a little confusing considering that their fish tacos are made with Alaskan pollock, just an observation) while surfing the web using my smartphone. What I found was shocking: an article released by Science Magazine, states that dutch social psychologist Diedrik Stapel has "admitted to using faked data" and "will not be asked to return" to Tilburg University where he is a faculty member.

I was, and still am, totally and completely shocked by this news. Stapel is by all accounts "one of Europe's best social psychologists" and I was personally witness to his receipt of a career trajectory award (this award is given to researchers who seem to have a promising upward trajectory in their career) at the Society of Experimental Social Psychology's annual meeting a few years ago. There his colleagues and collaborators gushed about Stapel's prolific writing abilities and provocative findings. At the time I was a young-ish graduate student, and I looked at Stapel with great admiration, as an inspiration to my own academic work. Obviously, I should now re-think my role models.

I could go on and on wondering what made Stapel "fake" his data (according to the report, the data came with a ficticious person who collected and analyzed it). Instead, what I'd like to focus on is the whole issue of data fabrication. Specifically, why faking data is (1) short-sighted and (2) anti-scientific.