Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wallflower power

A co-worker once told me that he was a "sticker." At parties, he stuck in one place and let people come to him (like a wallflower but with a more positive connotation). In other words, he was the opposite of a social butterfly, and he seemed totally fine with that. My immediate reaction was not entirely positive - his strategy seemed lazy (why did everyone else have to do the work?) and even rude. And yet, as I examined my own behavior, I realized that my natural inclination at big gatherings was often the same as his. The difference was that I felt it was important to be outgoing and so I made the extra effort. Although my shyness wasn't severe or debilitating, I saw it as something I needed to overcome - and most people feel this way. There are hundreds of self-help books focused on fighting shyness, and many consider shyness to be a form of social anxiety, a serious mental illness.

The downsides of shyness - even the mild forms - are widely known. Shy people tend to be lonelier and have fewer friends, and they are sometimes mistaken as cold and aloof. Avoiding social situations and failing to take risks can also limit employment opportunities: at work, shy people may be less likely to ask for a promotion or pursue a leadership role. In relationships, shyness can prevent people from approaching a romantic interest or disclosing their feelings. There is even some evidence that shyness can impair health. Shyness seems to be especially problematic when people are making the transition to college or to a new job, since the ability to reach out and establish new contacts is critical at these times. (For a more exhaustive review of the perils of shyness, see Philip Zimbardo's book or his Psychology Today article co-authored with Bernardo Carducci.)

Most of what you'll read about shyness is almost exclusively negative, and yet research suggests that at least 40% of Americans are chronically shy. A much higher number experience more temporary or situational shyness, making shyness "nearly universal", according to prominent psychologists. If shyness is so bad, why is it so common?  Recent research suggests that shyness may have benefits not only for individuals, but for groups and societies as well.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Does marriage matter? Testosterone says no

Last weekend I went back to my hometown for the wedding of my childhood best friend. June is the height of wedding season and there was definitely a frenzy in the air as people prepared for their big day. So during this time, it seems only right to ask… does marriage matter?

Our society certainly seems to think so. As young girls, my best friend and I used to dress up in her mom’s dresses and “play wedding.” In early elementary school we had imaginary husbands. In high school we looked at bridal magazines and talked about when we would meet our future husbands. In college we had conversations about how we would know when we'd met "the one." And its not just us… close relationships research historically focused on the marital relationship, the political world is in upheaval over the meaning of marriage, tabloids make their money by filling their magazines with celebrity weddings (and divorces), and Beyonce let all the guys know “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Fun: It's just a lamp

I watched this IKEA commercial in my intro social psych class, and five plus years later, it is still seared into my memory. Take the minute to turn on your volume and watch this commercial, and then after the jump I'll tell you how Spike Jonze used social psychology to render me near tears.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Boosting self-esteem - Putting the partner within reach

In my last post I described a manipulation that was successful in boosting low self-esteem. Denise Marigold and colleagues directed participants to think less about the details of a partner’s compliment and more about the significance of the partner’s words. This compliment reframing catalyzed both an improvement in relationship satisfaction for individuals with low self-esteem, and an increase in self-esteem itself. Today I’d like to continue this thread with another set of successful interventions targeting changes in self-esteem.

Sandra Murray, a professor at the State University of New York – Buffalo, argues that because individuals with low self-esteem see themselves in such a negative light, they often feel inferior to their relationship partners. Given the discrepancy between their self-views (sucky) and their views of their partner (awesome) they often have a hard time 1) understanding why their partner wants to be with them, and 2) believing that their partner is truly committed to them. Murray calls this a state of “felt insecurity,” and has found that it’s associated with self-protective behaviors that eventually undermine relationship functioning (Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006).

To change this process, Murray and colleagues (2005) conducted two interventions that tried to reduce feelings of inferiority by pointing to 1) strengths in the self, and 2) flaws in the partner. She believed that “putting the partner within reach” would alleviate rejection concerns, increase felt security, and by extension boost self-esteem. Here’s what she did…

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Status Paradox

Social hierarchies are quite complicated. In the animal world hierarchies are wildly different based on social contexts, species, and environmental factors. For some animals, such as bull elephant seals, hierarchies are unstable—individuals spend a relatively short times at the top of the food chain—and what these alpha males get in terms of mating preferences, they pay dearly for in terms of physical fighting, aggressive confrontation, and threats from other male rivals. In unstable hierarchies, it’s hard to be at the top.

Deciding who the boss is! (source)
Most hierarchies are much more stable than the example of the bull elephant seal. For instance, in human social life, social hierarchies are typically stable within a specific context. For example, you and your boss aren’t likely to switch roles halfway through the year. And there is good reason for that. If people were allowed to switch willy-nilly between high and low status roles, it would be hard to know who to turn to for advice or guidance, whose directions should be followed, and who should take responsibility for the group's failures. Those are jobs reserved for the leader of the group and not for a random group member.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday fun: Psychology songs

Like many people who study psychology, I can't help but see it everywhere - including songs that were clearly not intended to be Psych 101 textbook supplemental material (though they should be!). The following is a list of some of my favorite psych-relevant songs.

Altruism: Give a little love, Ziggy Marley

Attraction: What I like about you, The Romantics

Attributions: Blame it on the rain, Milli Vanilli

Attachment anxiety: Without you, Mariah Carey

Attachment avoidance: I'm like a bird, Nelly Furtado

Conformity: Another brick in the wall, Pink Floyd

Cognitive Dissonance: Not an addict, K's Choice

Delay of gratification (failure): Instant pleasure, Rufus Wainwright

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Four ways to buy happiness

As much as we like to romanticize poverty, there's no denying that money is important. Many of life's pleasures and necessities, like having free time to spend with loved ones and obtaining good quality health care, require sufficient finances. But research suggests that the relationship between money and happiness is much smaller than one might expect. In a recent review article, Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson argue that the main reason that money does not buy as much happiness as it should is because we don't spend it wisely. It's not that we're throwing it around thoughtlessly, but rather that we're not very good at predicting what will make us happy. That fancy new car might seem amazing in our fantasies, but in the end it's just a car, and we'll get used to it. The authors propose a number of strategies, backed by research, that can help people buy more happiness. Whether you have a lot of money or a little, these principles apply. Here are my four favorites.

Monday, June 13, 2011

It's good to give thanks: The benefits of gratitude

When someone does something nice for you, how does it make you feel? Do you experience gratitude in response to their act of kindness? Or does it leave you with a sense of indebtedness because now you owe them a kind act in return? Close relationships, and romantic relationships in particular, are characterized by the small acts of kindness we do for each other. Today you will be doing the dishes, paying for dinner, or taking out the trash, and tomorrow he will be taking you to the airport, putting gas in the car, or buying the groceries. Many of these small acts become so commonplace in relationships that they go unnoticed (how often do you thank your partner for taking out the trash, washing your dishes, or picking up the groceries, especially if it's become their "job"?). However, when you do notice those small acts, and feel grateful for your partner’s thoughtful behaviors, research shows that both you and your partner benefit.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Fun: My "Favorite" Comments From Anonymous Reviewers

This Friday I thought it might be nice to provide a window into the manuscript review process in psychology. In short, after a researcher (1) designs a handful of studies (typically without much success), (2) finally discovers a finding that is interesting (months to years later), and (3) survives what is (typically) a hyper-critical vetting from among his/her research peers within the home University, it is now time to take on the empirical review process!

The review process is pretty simple for most journals. An editor--usually an influential scholar in the field--reads the manuscript and assigns the manuscript to 3-4 researchers whom he/she thinks can provide an expert evaluation of the research. These anonymous reviewers are then asked to provide critical evaluations of the research in written comments. These comments are then returned to the author along with a written final decision from the editor. In this final decision, the editor typically takes the reviewer comments into consideration, and decides whether the paper is worthy of publication, should be revised, or rejected.

Dawson obviously crying over the comments of Reviewer #2  (source)

[A quick note about psychology reviews: I don't know anything about other fields, but a colleague at UC San Francisco once told me that unlike other science fields, psychologists are the harshest critics of new research, adding poignantly, "They eat their young."]

What I've done below is reproduce some of my "favorite" quotes from these reviews. When you are reading these, try to imagine me crying into a cup of english breakfast tea!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why we watch reality TV

If you happened to watch The Bachelorette on Monday, you probably resolved never to watch another episode. Although a lot of the emotions on this show are clearly scripted, the cruelty that Ashley faced that night - from her suitors and from the producers who staged the events - was very real, and very painful to watch. And yet this is not the first time that reality TV has shocked and appalled us, or the first time we have vowed never to watch it again. What is it about reality TV that keeps drawing us back in? 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Boosting Self-Esteem

Last week I presented research that evaluated the efficacy of positive self-statements (a form of affirmations) for changing self-esteem. Contrary to their reputation in pop-culture, Joanne Wood and colleagues found that positive self-statements backfire for participants low in self-esteem. When these participants repeated the statement “I am lovable” throughout a study session, they ended up being in a worse mood, and reporting even lower self-esteem than if they didn’t use the affirmation at all. While neither the role of motivation, nor the long-term impact of repeating positive self-statements were assessed (thanks readers for addressing these points in the comments last week), this study gave at least preliminary evidence that positive self-statements may not be an effective strategy for changing self-esteem. So what is?

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to present you with a variety of intervention studies that have been successful in boosting self-esteem. These studies use a range of approaches (some surprising), yet they all have one thing in common. They’re subtle. They don’t knock participants over the head with outrageous information. Telling someone that they’re lovable when they just don’t feel it, doesn’t seem to work. Here’s what does…

Study 1: Reframing Compliments

Denise Marigold, a professor at Renison University College, conducted an intervention study to change the way individuals with low self-esteem think about compliments from their romantic partners, and by extension boost self-esteem (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). According to Marigold, individuals with low self-esteem 1) play down the importance of their partner’s compliments in order to avoid the hurt and pain it will cause them if it turns out that their partner does not really love them after all, and 2) worry that these compliments reflect partner’s expectations, expectations that they might not be able to live up to, thereby increasing the chance of rejection when the truth about them comes out. This inability to accept compliments in a healthy way then serves as a perpetuating factor in their vulnerability in that none of the “good stuff” gets inside. Marigold believed that overcoming the tendency of low self-esteem individuals to distrust compliments from their partner would help them feel better about themselves and thus boost their self-esteem.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Channels of Emotion: Not (Just) in the Face!

"Emotions are the heart of social living." -- E. J. Horberg, 2011

As the above quote suggests, emotions serve important social functions in our everyday lives. Emotions communicate important information about the social context, emotions provide a window into others' (hidden) intentions, and emotions can be communicated quickly and accurately in brief displays of behavior. These are all truisms of emotion, and perhaps explain the explosion of emotion research over the last 25 years.

The iconic expressions from Ekman & Friesen's (1971) study (source)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Fun? See a clip of the classic Bobo Doll experiment

Introductory psychology courses almost always include a lecture or two on Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. This theory proposes that individuals learn social behavior by observing and imitating others. The theory has been applied most particularly to the learning of aggressive behavior.

In the classic “Bobo Doll” experiment child participants observed an adult interact aggressively with a plastic, blow-up doll. The adult hit the doll, kicked it, and even pummeled it with a mallet. Subsequently, each child was allowed to play with the doll. Children that observed the adult’s aggressive behavior toward the doll, behaved with similar forms of aggression. Children in a control condition, that did not view this aggressive modeling, did not play with the doll in an aggressive manner. This research suggests that children learn aggressive behavior, at least in part, by imitating parents, other adults, or peers behaving in this way.

Take a look at the following clip to see (somewhat disturbing) footage from the Bobo Doll experiment:

What do you think of this study? How else might aggressive behavior be learned?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Matters of life and death

In the midst of unexpected turbulence on a recent flight, an ominous announcement came over the intercom: "Attention passengers, there's something wrong with the system. We're not sure what's going on..."

A wave of panic swept over me as I braced myself for an emergency landing, or worse. A moment later a clarification was made: "The entertainment system, I mean. Sorry!" I could feel the collective sigh of relief. But I couldn't shake that feeling. As happens almost every time I fly - sometimes for no good reason - I found myself face to face with my mortality.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Positive Affirmations: Friend or Foe?

This morning I conducted a search for “positive affirmations” on These are positive statements individuals repeat to themselves in order to impress the message on their subconscious, convince themselves of the statement’s validity, and by extension bring about positive change. The website popped out 615 books relevant to positive affirmations. This tells me that 1) people are clearly writing about positive affirmations, and 2) if such an abundance of books on positive affirmations are getting published, clearly readers are out there buying the books and employing these affirmations in their everyday lives. 

While positive affirmations are used to bring change on many fronts, from money making, to weight loss, to public speaking, today I’m going to focus solely on positive self-statements, which are affirmations made about the self and are designed to boost positive self-feelings or self-esteem. For example, an individual with more negative self-views, or low self-esteem, might practice looking in a mirror and saying: “I am lovable” or “I am a good person worthy of love and affection.”  These positive self-statements, if repeated over time, are presumed to convince the individual that the statements are true and by extension boost the individual’s self-esteem.

Although positive self-statements are encouraged by self-help books across the globe, there has been limited scientific research evaluating their efficacy in actually producing the boosts in self-esteem they are designed to achieve. In 2009, however, Dr. Joanne Wood, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tackled this question in a series of two studies (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009).