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.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Happiness Chronicles, Part I: Happiness, is there a Dark Side?

This is the first part of an occasional series at Psych Your Mind that will delve into psychological experiences that contribute to (or detract from) happiness. In Part I of this series, we will discuss the potential dark side of happiness.

Over the last 20 years or so there has been an explosion of literature and accompanying research on the science of happiness. Most of this research has been devoted to understanding what makes people happy (or unhappy)? In general, the research on happiness up to this point has been singularly focused on maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative emotions. If you need an example of this focus, I encourage you to take a stroll through your nearest local bookstore, Borders, Barnes & Noble, examining the section marked "Psychology". What you'll find is a slew of books on becoming happier.

Clearly, there are benefits to experiencing positive emotion and costs to experiencing negative emotion and research bears this out. For one, experiences of chronic negative emotion are bad for your health. Other work suggests that increased positive emotion enhances your motivations to affiliate with and help others. Still other research suggests that having income levels that are above poverty, moderately contributes to one's happiness, though not as much as you might expect. In general, you get the picture: There is a lot of research out there suggesting positive good, negative bad.

However, recent psychological inquiry has begun to ask the question, is happiness always good? That is, are there potential costs to seeking out happiness?