Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is it love or just a rollercoaster ride?

Can you imagine getting off a roller coaster ride and falling in love with the first attractive person you see as you leave the ride? Likely not. But in fact,  classic social psychology experiments have shown that sometimes people do misattribute feelings of fear and anxiety to sexual attraction. More generally, researchers have found that when people feel physiologically aroused (think racing heart, sweaty palms), they use environmental cues to help them determine why they are feeling that way (Schacter & Singer, 1962).

Step 1. Notice I have sweaty palms and a racing heart.
Step 2. Determine what is going on around me: Is there a big bear behind me? I must be afraid. Did I just get an award? I must be excited. And in the case of sexual attraction - am I on a date with someone I like? I must be really attracted to them.

Most of the time, this two step process should lead people to correctly figure out why they are feeling the way they do. How likely is it that you are being chased by a big bear but your heart is racing because you are nervous about a big talk you have to give next week? However, as I mentioned above, there may be times when this process leads people to misattribute their physiological arousal to the wrong environmental cue, such as assuming you are really attracted to your date after you ride a roller coaster together.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Fun: Are you a fantasizer?

With all of the season finales happening on tv the past few weeks, I've been in a bit of a funk. I feel like some of my good friends have just taken off for a three month vacation, and I miss them already. During the Glee finale I felt like I was in New York with the New Directions, and had goosebumps when they performed at Nationals. When it was over, I kept replaying the highlights of the episode in my head. The worst is when the finales leave you with a cliffhanger - will Beckett be okay, and will Castle and Beckett ever get together on Castle? Can Leslie and Ben keep their love a secret from Chris on Parks and Recreation? Is Jack Donaghy really going to be a single dad on 30 Rock? Sometimes these cliffhangers leave me so concerned with the future of the characters that I find myself searching online for spoilers, just so I can move on with my life. And its not just TV, books do the same thing - once I start reading a book I can't put it down because I just have to know how it ends. But when I get to the end, I get a mild case of the blues and feel like I just moved towns and had to say goodbye to all my friends. I'm the girl who cries easily when she's watching sad or happy movies, grips your arm when its scary, covers her eyes when its suspenseful, and yells at the characters when they are mean or stupid.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Can casseroles cure loneliness?

After a painful break-up or a bad fight, many people turn to the comfort of food to fill the void and soothe their emotional pain. Whether it's the infamous pint of Ben & Jerry's or a deep-dish pizza with extra cheese, everyone has their go-to comfort foods. New research conducted by Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel suggests that certain foods are comforting not only because they taste good and distract us from our pain, but more importantly because they remind us of close relationships, helping us feel less alone. In other words, because we tend to eat certain foods in the company of loved ones, over time we develop a cognitive association between the foods and the feeling of being loved and cared for (e.g., chicken soup when we're sick, cake at birthday parties). When we're feeling hurt or lonely, these foods bring back those feelings of acceptance, just as other types of "social surrogates" - like TV characters or our favorite reality show contestants - serve to make us feel more connected to others even when others are absent.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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

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?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

But that’s not all! The art (and science) of persuasion

When I was in elementary school, there was a brief period where I was a member of the Campfire Kids (imagine a knockoff Girls Scouts where boys were allowed to join too). And of course, like the Girl Scouts, every year we had our candy drive. What candy I couldn’t unload on my dad’s coworkers, I’d try to sell door to door. As part of my pitch, I got to let them know that if they bought a box of candy, they’d also be getting a coupon to the local pizza place! Little did I know that I was practicing an age-old persuasion technique called “That’s-Not-All.” 

For today’s post, I am going to let you in on some of the most commonly used persuasion techniques that people employ to get what they want. In fact you may have been using these techniques for years without even realizing it. Hopefully this will help you put a name to the technique, and prevent you from falling prey the next time a salesperson (even that cute little girl trying to sell you candy) tries to use one on you. Or, in a more evil moment, you may find yourself employing one of these techniques to ensure that you get what you want.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Power Corrupts? Research Says, "Not Always..."

Did power lead to Arnold's infidelity? source
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton (1887)

We have many ideas about leaders in our society-- those individuals who have the capacity to influence the rewards and punishments of the rest of us. One of the more prominent opinions is expressed in the above quote. That is, powerful people are arrogant, selfish, greedy, immoral, and deceitful. Some research tends to support this perspective:

For instance, people placed in powerful roles are notoriously bad at taking others' perspectives. In one study, powerful individuals--when asked to draw an "E" on their forhead, drew the "E" to read for themselves rather than to read for another participant. As another example, powerful individuals are also seen as more self-interested than their low-power counterparts. More specifically, powerful individuals focus more intently on their own goals and motives, while resisting situational influences on their actions and intentions.

The powerful response is on the left. source
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that power corrupts. Recently, California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger has been embroiled in personal scandal, and recent memory suggests that this type of immoral action is nothing new among the powerful (see here).

If all this research is correct, and power does indeed corrupt, that means our leaders are doomed to be a-holes (for lack of a better word). But is that really the case? Can we expect all of our leaders to engage in immoral, selfish, and deceitful action? Recent research suggests no.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Fun: What's your attachment style?

Is Edward being too clingy?
In romantic relationships, we all have our MOs. Some people tend to be more clingy and needy of affection, whereas others seem to be wearing an armor of steel, afraid to let anyone get too close. In psychology, these tendencies are referred to as adult attachment styles, and they are presumably based on interactions with caregivers in early childhood, and to some extent on later relationships. Decades of research on adult attachment styles have revealed that they have powerful effects on romantic relationships and mental health. So what is your attachment style?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Initial leanings: When names become destiny

Have you ever noticed that a person's name resembles their profession, their significant other's name, or some other important aspect of their life? For example, Amelia Earhart (pronounced air-heart) was a famous aviatrix, Mark Shuttleworth was the second space tourist, and Anna Smashnova was a tennis pro (see this wikipedia page for more examples). If you are an academic, you may also have noticed this phenomenon in the topics that researchers choose to study. You may even see it happen in your own life, but you will most likely write it off as a meaningless coincidence. No one wants to think that their most important decisions are guided by something as arbitrary as the letters or phonetics of their name. But research suggests that our names may indeed lead us to choose particular paths, or at least nudge us in one direction over another, without our awareness.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Making the most of it when your partner shares good news

A job offer. A great haircut. A promotion. A good visit with an old friend. An award recognizing your effort. A great comeback to a mean coworker. Good things happen to us, and when we share them with others, those good things can feel even better. But recent research suggests that how much better we feel depends on how people respond to our good news. Last week I focused on what not to do when things go wrong in our relationships, and this week I want to talk about what to do when things go right for the people closest to us. 

People’s responses to another person’s good news can be divided into four categories along two dimensions (active-passive and constructive-destructive). For example, imagine that William comes home to tell Kate he got a promotion in the Royal Air Force. An active-constructive response from Kate would be enthusiastic support, something like “Wow, honey, that is so great! I knew you could do it, you’ve been working so hard and this just shows you can do anything!” A passive-constructive response from her would be understated support, such as a warm smile with a simple “That’s good news.” An active-destructive response from Kate would be some sort of statement that demeaned the event such as “Does this mean you are going to be gone working even longer hours now? Are you sure you can handle it? Do you think they just gave this to you because of who you are?” And finally, a passive-destructive response from Kate would ignore William’s good news, such as “Oh really? Well you won’t believe what happened to me today while I was out shopping!” So why do these responses to good events matter?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Video Games and Violence: The Debate Rages On

We're combining science and video games! (source)
I think people who play video games are well aware of the public debate over the link between violent video-game playing and actual violent behavior, and if you're not, you can easily catch up with the more than decade-long discourse here, here, and here. What I think most people are not aware of, is that this same debate goes on within the walls of the ivory tower of academia!

I think the debate centers around two key issues: The first is, are violent video-games causing violent behavior? The second is, is the link between violent video-game playing and actual violence strong enough to warrant law and policy changes regulating video-game violence? Let's get right to the evidence after the jump break!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Unfaithful: Who is most likely to cheat?

Another celebrity love child scandal
As a culture, we are fascinated with infidelity - philandering politicians and celebrities always make headlines, and everyone has an opinion on the matter. We are desperate to understand who cheats and why, and for good reason: infidelity can destroy relationships, break up families, and impair mental health

So what does psychology research have to say? Are men more likely to cheat? Does power increase infidelity? Is there a cheating gene? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One cookie or Two: Part 3

Today I will wrap up this mini-series on delay of gratification. What have you learned from parts 1 and 2? Delay of gratification is the ability to forgo an immediate, but less desirable reward, in order to receive a more desirable reward later. This ability is measured in childhood using the classic paradigm developed by Walter Mischel: Kids try to wait for two treats instead of having one immediately. Finally, you learned that performance during the delay task in childhood relates to important developmental outcomes in later life, such as social competence, well-being, drug use, and SAT scores.

I’d like to conclude with some evidence on what helps or hurts a child’s chances of successfully waiting during the task. Remember, how long kids wait in childhood predicts important future functioning. If we want to help kids develop or cultivate delay of gratification ability in early life we can’t just say “wait for two cookies!” We need to give them tangible strategies to work with.

To identify which strategies help, researchers conducted experiments in which they modified tiny parts of the delay task and measured how these modifications impacted the amount of time children could wait. For a great review of these studies check out Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriguez (1989).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What not to do in your relationships: Gottman's "four horsemen of the apocalypse"

The last time you got into a fight with someone close to you, what emotions did you feel? How did you act? Did you criticize the other person, call them names, or roll your eyes as you sat in stony silence? Did you get defensive when they tried to explain what was wrong? Or maybe you were able to joke around and lighten the mood. Although everyone fights, people differ in how they deal with conflict. And it turns out that how we deal with conflict says a lot about the future of our relationships.

By watching couples fight, researcher John Gottman figured out what not to do if you want to make your relationship last. Last week I started a series of posts examining how to hold onto happiness in your relationships, and this week I want to talk about some of the seminal research in this area that looks at what behaviors to avoid if you want a happy ending. Specifically, Gottman discovered that there are four behaviors that are particularly detrimental to relationships. These behaviors are so detrimental that Gottman termed the “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” So who are these four horsemen?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reflections on National Pride, Group Cohesion, and the Death of Osama Bin Laden

"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."  -- biblical proverb 

"(Pride) is the crown of the virtues." -- Aristotle 

Admittedly, this post is a bit outside of our comfort zone as psychology researchers, in that it moves into socio/political issues that we have little expertise in (e.g., we're qualified to talk about individual psychological experiences and not how global political events effect National Security). Nevertheless, the death of Osama Bin Laden is a significant event in the United States, and this blog is as much a utility for its bloggers as it is for its readers: Just like you, we're trying to figure out how all of this fits into our daily lives.

In case you haven't heard, on May 1st, 2011, USA Special Forces ended the life of Osama Bin Laden--a man involved in the planning and execution of the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001--after chasing him for a decade. Clearly, the death of Osama Bin Laden has many social and political implications, for example it highlights the sacrifices that military families make daily for our continued safety, raises questions about the increased safety (or not) of American citizens; closes a long chapter in US military operations; and has important political implications for the 2012 presidential campaign, just to name a few. As psychologists, we're not really qualified to talk about these issues in an informed way. Instead, we'll try to understand how the death of Osama Bin Laden factors into our social identities as Americans, and the emotions we feel in our daily lives. In particular, we will focus on the experience of one emotion: pride.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Fun: When Your Research Goes Rogue

Technically, we were on the cover!
In my very brief academic career it has been fun and gratifying to receive attention from the mainstream media on topics covered in my research. There are a number of benefits to this. For example, my parents--for perhaps the first time-- could actually get a sense of what exactly I do all day, and could even tell their friends about it! In some cases it gave me a chance to connect with interesting people--not directly, but indirectly through my research. For example, some players from the local professional basketball team, the golden state warriors, gave quotes about some of our research in the local newspaper. It also allowed me to live a childhood dream: as a kid I was quite the basketball player--dreaming of one day being written about in Sports Illustrated. Research allowed this to happen (though admitedly it wasn't quite the way I had imagined it as a kid). Still, when the media storm hits, you can't help but feel like your work is taking on a life of its own, and that you have little control over the outcome. Here I'd like to give some fun examples for when... Your Research Goes Rogue!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Science and The Secret: Can beliefs create reality?

A few years ago a book and film called The Secret took the country by storm, partly thanks to Oprah's glowing endorsement. Its central principle, and that of the 2010 sequel The Power, is the law of attraction, the idea that "like attracts like"- negative thoughts attract negative events, and positive thoughts attract positive events. The Secret takes the power of positive thinking to an extreme. If you want a particular job, it's not enough to just be optimistic about your chances of success - you have to believe that you already have the job and act as if it's already yours. Go buy new work clothes, restructure your schedule around the job, and prepare yourself mentally for your new life.

Although The Secret purports to be rooted in science, many of its claims are controversial - not only because they reinforce a blame-the-victim mentality, but because they rely heavily on pseudo-science, such as the idea that quantum physics is the operating mechanism behind the law of attraction. 

Still, certain elements of The Secret do have some scientific credibility, though not necessarily the kind the authors had in mind...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One cookie or two: Part 2

Last week I introduced you to work on delay of gratification – the ability to forgo an immediate, but less desirable reward, in order to obtain a more desirable reward later on. I described the way psychologists assess delay of gratification in childhood – with the famous delay (a.k.a. “marshmallow”) task.

If you didn’t read the prior post, or can’t remember the task, take a look back before reading on. A quick reminder…a child waits A LONG TIME, ALONE, with NOTHING TO DO, in order to receive two treats rather than have just one treat immediately. The amount of time the child can wait serves as the measure of delay of gratification ability.

As I already mentioned, this task seems pretty ridiculous (albeit awesome to watch). Yet, I promised to describe “…all the cool and important outcomes behavior during this task predicts.” I will get to those outcomes today. 

First let me provide a little historical context:
There are few psychology majors, and almost no psychology graduate students or professors who haven’t heard of Walter Mischel. In addition to his groundbreaking work on personality, Mischel created the delay of gratification task that I’ve described. Mischel’s original work on delay of gratification focused on understanding the features of the task that helped or hurt a child’s chances of waiting. For example, can children wait longer when the treats are sitting right in front of them or when they are covered? (What did he find? I’ll get to that in my next post)

In addition to this experimental research, Mischel was curious about whether individual differences in performance on the delay task relates to functioning in later life. Is this task capturing something about a child that is important and long-lasting? To answer this question, Mischel followed a group of participants overtime. These committed participants (and their parents) have completed various follow up assessments between the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (when they first completed the task) through to the present. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Will the Prince and Princess get their happily ever after? Only research can tell

Last Friday the world watched with excitement and anticipation as Prince William and Kate Middleton became husband and wife. Now we are left reading glowing reviews of Kate’s wedding dress, looking at pictures of the best and worst hats (or is that just me?), and gradually moving on, finding other news to grip our attention. William and Kate must also move past the frenzy that surrounded their wedding and begin adjusting to life as a married couple. Their courtship and wedding have been a Disney fairy tale, but are they ready for what it takes to make a marriage work? What does it take to make a marriage work?

Ted Huston attempted to answer just this question with a thirteen year study of 168 couples. For the first few years of their marriages, the couples in his study answered questions regarding their feelings about their relationship and their partner. Then Huston tracked them down again thirteen years later to find out whether they were married or divorced, and if they were still married, how happy they currently were with their marriage. So what did he find?

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Kurt Lewin Can Teach Us About Our Genes

Do you know this man? (source)
Most people don't know Kurt Lewin, and I think that is a travesty of epic proportions. In the ivory tower of the academy (where most researchers live), he is considered to be the father of modern social psychology. His theories inspired the classic research of the last century, and his principles of social psychology still govern the way researchers design experiments today.