Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SWAG: Do the ends justify the means?

Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week's seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

Are you familiar with Watchmen? The popular graphic novel turned semi-popular summer blockbuster describes a deeply dystopian future in which Richard Nixon has been declared supreme ruler, constant threats of nuclear attack are on everyone's mind, and the practice of playing a vigilante super hero has been outlawed. The characters of Watchmen walk a fine line of human morality: Would the most good come from always doing the right thing? That is, is it always the best course of action to prevent others from entering into harm's way? Or, would the most good come from doing a little bit (or a lot) of bad? The characters of Watchmen walk through murky moral waters throughout the novel, sometimes making decisions to stick to their principles. Other times, characters justify doing a great amount of terrible to promote ultimate good. On this point, one of the central characters, Adrian Veidt, famously quips, "My new world demands less obvious heroism."

Watchmen poses some very interesting questions about our moral lives. Specifically, when is doing bad sometimes a good thing?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Have Your Cake and Eat It Too! Practical Reform in Social Psychology

The cake we can (1) have, and (2) eat!
If you have been following recent headlines in the social sciences then you are aware that the field of social psychology has been in some rough water over the past three years. In this time period, we've had our flagship journal publish a series of studies providing evidence that ESP exists (and then refuse to publish non-replications of these studies). We've suffered through at least three instances of scientific fraud perpetrated by high profile researchers who engaged in egregious scientific misconduct. We've had an entire popular area of research come under attack because researchers have failed to replicate its effects. And several respected members of the science community have had some harsh words to say about the discipline and its methods.

Listing all of these events in succession makes me feel a bit ashamed to call myself a social psychologist. Clearly our field has been lacking both oversight and leadership if all of this could happen in such a brief period. Now, I'm not one to tuck my tail between my legs. Instead, I've decided to look ahead. I think there are relatively simple changes that social psychologists (even ones without tenure) can make in their research that can shore up our science going forward.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

SWAG: Thoughts as Physical Objects

Ideas as Objects (Source)
Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week's seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

We typically think of thoughts as mental constructs without physical properties. And yet, it is remarkably common to use physical metaphors when dealing with these mental constructs. For instance, to say that you "cooked up" an idea is to suggest that ideas may have physical properties. With this logic, it is possible that engaging in physical acts with our thoughts might actually change their influence on our attitudes. A recent article that we read in SWAG tested this prediction.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Do it for Future You

It's only a month and a half into the New Year, and most of us have already abandoned our New Year's resolutions. We had the best of intentions, but our intentions only got us so far, and eventually we fell back into our old habits--eating and drinking too much, exercising and sleeping too little. Why are we so bad at this?

There are a number of reasons for our difficulty with New Year's Resolutions and other efforts to make positive changes in our lives. For example, our goals are often unrealistic or vague, we give up too easily when we have setbacks, and we have a tendency to "bask in projected glory"--research suggests that when we announce lofty goals and envision ourselves accomplishing them, we become less motivated to pursue these goals in reality because we feel, in some sense, that we're already there.

In addition to these obstacles, we may also be hindered by an inability to see our future selves--the ones who will suffer the consequences of the poor decisions we make today--as us. Rather, we tend to see them as different people altogether, people whose happiness is less important than the happiness of our present selves. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

4 Ways to Boost Gratitude on Valentine's Day

Today's post is the second in a two-part series on Gratitude. Yesterday I discussed research I've done on how gratitude helps us hold onto our relationships. Today I give you a few science-based tips for how to boost gratitude on Valentine's Day.

Whether February 14th is your first Valentine’s Day together or your 35th, it is a great excuse to show gratitude for the one you love. This Valentine’s Day, try these science-based tips to make sure you get the most out of your acts of kindness.

1   Focus on Your Partner. It is easy to think about all the ways we hope that our partners will treat us well on Valentine’s Day. But to make the most of the day, focus on your partner and think of February 14th as a day to show your partner how much you care. Giving to others makes us happier than spending time and money on ourselves (Dunn, Aknin,& Norton, 2008). Giving as a way to express gratitude to your partner is likely to help your partner see how great you are and want to do something nice to express gratitude in return (Gordon et al., 2012). By focusing on giving and being grateful instead of on getting, you may find that both of you get more in the end.

Monday, February 11, 2013

To Have and To Thank: Gratitude Helps us Hold onto our Relationships

In honor of St. Valentine, today's post is the first in a two-part series on why gratitude may be a key ingredient in successful relationships. Today I talk about some of my own research on gratitude. Then on Wednesday I'll be back with a few tips for how to make sure you and your partner get the most out of your gratitude on Valentine's Day.

I had one goal when I started graduate school five years ago – to understand why some romantic relationships thrive while others fail. I also had one primary hypothesis – relationships fail when partners begin to take each other for granted. And I thought: if taking each other for granted is the poison, maybe gratitude is the antidote.

Back when I started, few people were talking about gratitude. Today it is everywhere, and for good reason. A decade of burgeoning research has highlighted the myriad benefits of gratitude for physical and mental well-being. And we've found that gratitude is good in large part because it helps us create and hold onto our close relationships.

In research by Sara Algoe and colleagues, grateful couples were more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other  (see this post for the details of their findings). And in our research, we found that the more grateful participants were, the more likely they were to still be in their relationships nine months later.

What do I mean by gratitude? When I examine the role of gratitude in relationships, I’m not just looking at what happens when people say “thanks” after their partner takes out the trash. My definition of gratitude includes appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person. You’re not just thankful that your partner took out the trash—you’re thankful that you have a partner who is thoughtful enough to know you hate taking out the trash. Gratitude means thinking about all of your partner’s best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place.

But how does gratitude help couples? 

Friday, February 8, 2013

SWAG: I'm good enough, I'm smart enough... and I give up!
Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week's seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

This week we read a recent collection of studies written by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues (2013) about goal disengagement and self-affirmation. Usually self-affirmations are a good thing for us because they remind us that we are, as Stuart Smalley put it, "Good enough, smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like (us)!" Sometimes these affirmations can lead one to actually disengage from goals.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Living Abroad and Thinking Outside of the Box

Two weeks ago, I had the exciting opportunity to visit my sister in London where she is studying for the year. As she showed me her new lifestyle and daily routine, we reflected on some of the benefits she has gained from her time abroad thus far, such as greater knowledge about European history and new friends from different countries. We also talked about some less tangible advantages, like changing the way she thinks about the world, learning to interpret behaviors from a new perspective, and improving her ability to solve problems. In other words, we came to the conclusion that living abroad has helped foster her creativity.

The notion that living abroad enhances creativity may be quite familiar to you. There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this idea and a long tradition of the “expatriate artist.” For example, while visiting Westminster Abbey, my sister and I saw memorials to George Händel and Henry James – two artists who were not born in England but who produced some of their most famous works while living there. It’s easy to conjure up glamorous ideas of artists living and working abroad, their creativity sparked by new environments and lifestyles, as in the movie Midnight in Paris. But can the rest of us improve our creativity by living abroad? Were my sister and I right to think that her experience abroad has fostered her creativity? In this post, I’ll present some evidence that such a connection does exist and that it occurs not just for artists, but also within the general population.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Mom's the boss at home - but is it good for her?

I often say that becoming a mom has made me a stronger feminist than any class, book, or essay I took or read at my small liberal arts college. More and more, I have been noticing the explicit and implicit ways that all women, but especially those with children, get excluded from positions of power in organizations. Meanwhile, I have seen many strong, intelligent, and admirable female friends change or leave their careers to accommodate families. All this makes me wonder, if the battle is so hard and the rewards at home are so great,  would running a house be as satisfying as running a lab? There are plenty of differences between the life of a "career woman" and a "stay at home mom" and I firmly believe that unless and until a woman has tried both, she should not judge or surmise what those differences are - however she can wonder. I, myself, wonder about the sense of empowerment that comes with each choice.