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Originally posted on February 19, 2015.

 

Soapbox alert: An earlier post expressed one of my pet peeves: the favoritism shown today’s senior citizens over more economically challenged Millennials and their children. A half century ago, I noted, it made good sense to give often-impoverished seniors discounts at restaurants, at movie theaters, and on trains. Today, the percent in poverty has flipped—with under-35 adults now experiencing twice the poverty of their over-65 parents.

Since 1967, seniors’ poverty rate, thanks to economic growth, social security, and retirement programs, has dropped by two-thirds. (Social security payments have been inflation-adjusted, while minimum wage, dependent tax exemptions, and family assistance payments have not.)

So, should it surprise us that new data from an APA national stress survey reveal that “Parents and younger generations are less likely than Americans overall to report being financially secure”?

And should we, therefore, consider instead giving discounts to those who, on average, 1) most need it (perhaps custodial parents), and b) are the most stressed by financial worries?

Originally posted on April 5, 2014.

 

Each year, the American government spends billions of dollars to help students who struggle to meet their potential. These students languish in traditional school programs. They struggle socially. And they ultimately have less impact on society than they might if they had received educational opportunities that maximized their abilities.

New research suggests that students who occupy this group are the ones we often worry about the least: super smart kids. The study followed several hundred students from age 13 to 38. At age 13, all of the students showed testing ability that placed them in the top 0.01 percent of students their age. Put another way, the study participants outscored students in the top 1 percent by a factor of ten. That’s pretty smart!

The super smart kids flourished. Their rate of earned doctorates dwarfed the average American rate: 44 percent compared to 2 percent. They held jobs that gave them influence over millions of dollars and, in some cases, millions of lives.

It’s easy to shut the book there. Super smart kids succeed. Big deal. But these super smart kids often experience challenges that also plague so-called “at-risk” students. They don’t have class material that pushes them intellectually. Before their first day of class, they know the course material. What happens next? What do they do for the next six to eight hours while their peers struggle to understand the material they’ve already mastered?

The super smart kids might also struggle to connect socially. If academics are such a breeze, might it be difficult to relate to your peers? Might you experience stress when your peers have to study at night while you look for other opportunities to pique your intellectual interests? Might you act less intelligent to fit in?

Originally posted on April 7, 2014.

 

How could a person resent making millions of dollars? Sam Polk suggests that some people develop wealth addiction. The more wealth they accumulate, the more money they need to achieve the same buzz. When they don’t get enough, they go into withdrawal and desire even greater wealth.

Signs of wealth addiction pop up often. Consider Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International and recently released prison inmate. He’s the guy who bought a $6,000 shower curtain and a $15,000 umbrella stand. If there was ever a model of wealth addiction, it’s this guy.

Or is he? Society teaches us that money has power. My three year-old nephew, Graham, has no money sense. He doesn’t care if I give him a $1, $5, or $20 bill. Regardless of the value, he’ll wad it up and throw it across the room. Eventually he’ll learn about money, how to use it, and what it can give him.

So, how do some people get so hooked on money? They may not be addicted to the money itself, but rather to the way money gains them entry into the broader social system. If my annual salary is $30,000, I feel accepted and included if my peers earn about the same. We can afford to eat at the same restaurants, pursue the same hobbies, and treat our romantic partners to similar gifts. But what if my annual salary stays the same and my peers begin to earn $300,000 annually? Now how can I relate to them?

While I live paycheck to paycheck, they take international vacations, develop fine culinary tastes, and enjoy hobbies that demand a hefty entrance fee. I feel left out and alienated. Who can afford to fly to Tanzania and hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? How many times can you use the word oaky to describe a wine’s taste? Who knew a triathlon bicycle could cost $13,500? If I want to join my high-earning friends, I need to earn more money.

Social acceptance is the most valuable asset a person can own. We evolved a need for close and lasting relationships. This need to belong informs many of our decisions, even if we don’t realize it. And for good reason. For our ancestors, social exclusion was a death sentence. Even today, psychologists argue that loneliness harms health as much as smoking and obesity.

How might money’s symbolic power influence how people approach their relationships? Consider the situation students faced in a group of clever studies conducted by Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen Vohs, and Roy Baumeister. Students believed they would complete a three-person, virtual ball-tossing game. Unbeknownst to the students, the virtual players’ behavior was preprogrammed to accept or reject them. The socially accepted students received the ball an equal number of times. The socially rejected students received a couple of tosses and never got the ball again. They watched as the two other players tossed the ball back and forth, back and forth, until the experimenter stopped the three-minute game.

Imagine what those three grueling minutes were like. You enter a study expecting to toss a virtual ball to a pair of strangers. Now you find yourself reliving a scene from a school dance. You watch the cool kids enjoy the fun while you wait for someone to notice you’re there.

Next, the students reported how much they desired money. Would social rejection, even by computer-animated strangers, influence how much people wanted money? It did. When students felt rejected, they wanted more money.

What would that money give them? Relief from the pain of rejection. Simply handling money, rather than regular paper, was enough to shield the students from heartbreak. They even developed a thicker skin, enabling them to withstand more physical pain. What might have happened if those same students surrounded themselves with reminders of money all day? Would their confidence have grown and insecurities have weakened?     

These findings paint a different portrait of so-called wealth addiction. Yes, some people develop an addiction to money. CEOs, real estate moguls, and their super-rich counterparts might shower themselves with yachts, private jets, and lavish estates. These money reminders might originate from an unquenchable thirst for money. When one yacht isn’t enough, buy a few more or build a bigger one.

But wealth addiction may represent the exception rather than the rule. Many wealthy people only buy what they need. Warren Buffett prefers french fries over foie gras. Carlos Slim lives in the same house he purchased 40 years ago. Ingvar Kamprad flies economy class and drives an old Volvo. 

What drives most people to become wealthy? People want the social acceptance they think wealth will give them. Greater wealth means access to more activities and relationship opportunities. What few people realize is that it’s often lonely at the top. Socially deprived people desire money to fill the void—and use reminders of money to stave off the pain of isolation. For the rest of us, it pays to surround ourselves with people who give our lives richness, complexity, and meaning.

Originally posted on April 9, 2014.

 

Most of us have dreamt of having a personal genie. We summon the genie, it grants our wishes, and our lives get better. But we forget that our genie is not bent on improving our lives. The same genie can make you a hero or a villain; grateful or green with envy; cooperative or antagonistic. It all depends on how you ask your question.

On the heels of research showing these positive and negative responses to the hormone oxytocin, we have a new genie in a bottle. Instead of rubbing a lamp to summon our genie, we sniff nasal spray. And with oxytocin nasal spray showing impressive benefits in offsetting deficits associated with certain mental conditions, it is time for researchers to get a grip on understanding when oxytocin will inspire us toward benevolence or malice.

Oxytocin motivates bonding. But personality traits and situations can bend oxytocin’s influence. For example, people use different strategies to maintain their relationships. Most people act nice, forgive, and adapt to their partner’s needs. Others dominate their relationship partners, pummeling them into submission. Oxytocin might affect these two groups of people differently. The nice guys and gals should continue their efforts to keep their relationship together by acting nice. The dominators, in contrast, might go on the offensive and try to dominate their partners.

To test this hypothesis, my colleagues and I randomly assigned college students to sniff either a placebo or oxytocin. The students waited patiently as the oxytocin took effect. While they waited, they completed some uncomfortable activities meant to provoke an aggressive response. They gave a stressful speech and also put an icy bandage on their foreheads. Next, participants reported their aggressive intentions toward a current or recent romantic partner. Some example items were “slap my partner” and “push or shove my partner.”

Could the love hormone lead to violence? It could. Oxytocin increased aggressive intentions, but the effect only occurred among those who were predisposed toward aggression. The implication is that aggressive people try to keep their romantic partners close by dominating them. When they get a boost of oxytocin, it triggers an aggressive response.

Oxytocin continues to inspire interest and confusion. We’re hard-wired to connect, and oxytocin can help make that happen. But this study shows that it isn’t enough to look at people’s oxytocin levels to know if they will act nice or aggressive. By understanding their personality traits, we can better predict whether the love hormone will promote benevolence or violence.

Originally posted on April 11, 2014.

 

While attending this year’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting, I chaired a data blitz session. The session fell on February 14. Valentine’s Day. Hundreds of people attended, all eager to hear exciting talks that lasted no more than 5 minutes. All of the talks delivered on expectations. One of them caused all heads to perk up and pay attention.

The talk, given by Amy Moors of the University of Michigan (and co-authored by Terri Conley, Robin Edelstein, and William Chopik), dealt with consensual non-monogamy. This is a psychological term researchers use to describe people who engage in more than one romantic relationships simultaneously, and whose relationship partners know and approve. The talk had two main points.

  • Consensual non-monogamy is more common than you might think. Moors reported she and her colleagues consistently find that approximately 4-5% of peoplereport being consensually non-monogamous. To put that in perspective, consider a university of 20,000 students. According to these estimates, roughly 800 to 1000 of these students identify as consensually non-monogamous.
  • Who are these students? The authors argue that people who engage in consensual non-monogamy might not feel comfortable getting emotionally close to others and may instead prefer to keep their sense of autonomy. As a result, they might keep others at a distance. People with this relationship style have what is called avoidant attachment.

The more people identified as avoidantly attached, the more positively they evaluated consensually non-monogamous relationships. Avoidantly attached people were also more likely to report being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

When I spoke to others about the talk, they were most surprised about the higher-than-expected rates of consensual non-monogamy. This reaction begs the question of why people assume what they do about romantic relationships. Just as Tom Gilovich has shown many ways that people think they “know what isn't so,” what we think we know about relationships doesn't always match reality.

Originally posted on April 15, 2014.

 

For those of us living in the American Midwest, it’s been an historic winter. The phrase “polar vortex,” once beholden to meteorologists, crept into daily conversation. Dozens of inches of snow, frozen pipes, and school cancellations can build stress, weariness, and even depression. To get rid of the blues, find the green space.

Green spaces refer to parks, forests, or other parcels of land meant to connect people to nature. Numerous studies have shown that green spaces relate to better mental health. But one recent study took things to an entirely new level. A group of University of Wisconsin researchers, led by Kirsten Beyer, surveyed a representative sample of Wisconsin residents for mental health issues. They also used satellite imagery to estimate the amount of local green space.

What did they find? The more green space people had close to them, the better their mental health. When people search for a new apartment, condo, or house, the only green they often consider is the money they need to spend. But these findings suggest that living near green spaces pays off by predicting better mental health.

Originally posted on April 17, 2014.

 

Ask many people what their signature says about them and they’ll give you a pat answer: “My name.” Does your signature say more than that? A cottage industry exists, in which “graphoanalysts” will tell us how our penmanship illustrates our ambitions, insecurities, and intuitive abilities. (See here, for an example). But if we don’t want to turn to a graphoanalyst, can psychological science offer a substitute?

It can—and the best place to start is how big you write your name. The bigger you write your name, the more likely you hold a powerful position. For example, tenured, compared to nontenured, American Professors have bigger signatures. Ask people to imagine being the U.S. president, compared to a lower status person, and the chances of their signature size increasing go up. These effects aren’t unique to Americans. They have been replicated in Irani samples, too.

A recent suite of studies caught my attention. They showed that subliminally linking positive words to a person’s identity increased the person’s signature size. In one study, Oxford University students viewed either positive words (happy, smart) or neutral words (bench, paper). To link the words to participant’s sense of identity, the researchers presented the word ‘I’ quickly before each word. Next, they had participants sign their names.

Imagine being part of the study. You sign your name at the beginning, complete a computer task, and then sign your name again. You don’t know it, but you may have had your self-esteem raised. And if you did, your signature size likely grew without you knowing it.

We sign our names often, which might help explain why we come to like the letters in our name more than other letters. The next time someone asks for your signature, take a good look at how much paper real estate it uses. It might say more about you than you think.  

Originally posted on April 21, 2014.

 

Aggressive urges crop up, even for the most saintly people. What helps keep our aggressive urges at bay? Self-control. We can override our aggressive urges and do something more constructive.

But what makes self-control possible? Most of us struggle with self-control failure when we’re hungry. We might get angrier than usual, a term called ‘hangry.’

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I argue that glucose helps people control their aggressive urges. Glucose fuels the brain, and it takes brainpower to quiet our anger. If people have less brain fuel, they should behave more aggressively.

To test the idea, we recruited married couples, asked them to prick their fingers every day to measure their blood sugar levels, and then gave them a chance to express their aggression. Each day, people could stab a voodoo doll that represented their spouse with between 0 and 51 pins. On the last day of the study, people also completed a competitive reaction-time game against their partner, in which they could blast their partner with intense and prolonged noise. (Don’t worry, the game was rigged so that people never actually blasted their spouses.)

Low blood glucose related to greater aggression. The lower amount of sugar floated in people’s blood, the more pins they stuck into the voodoo doll and the more their blasted their spouse.

To avoid what Popular Science Cartoonist Maki Naro now calls the Hanger Games (click for a sweet cartoon summarizing this research), I have one suggestion: Don’t argue on an empty stomach.

Originally posted on April 23, 2014.

 

When we select a romantic partner, we want to know the good and the bad. Is he nice? Will she make me laugh? Getting to know the good isn’t too difficult. A first date is when the good is on full display. People primp, prepare questions in advance, and pay more than they otherwise for dinner. But how can you know whether the person who’s getting ready to sweep you off of your feet might later break your heart?

Conflict is a part of all relationships. We squabble, argue, and may even insult our loved ones. You have to do more than that to break someone’s heart. To accomplish that feat, something often happens that causes you to question treasured parts of your relationship. This brings us to a common cause of broken hearts worldwide: Infidelity.

What might boost the likelihood of infidelity? Gender is a key factor. Men, compared to women, are between two and four times more likely to report engaging in infidelity. Here are two things you probably didn’t know:

1.     Avoidant people—those who keep others at arm’s length, prefer to depend on themselves instead of others, and feel uncomfortable getting emotionally close to their partners—are more likely to engage infidelity. In one set of studies, my colleagues and I recruited people in relationships, measured their level of avoidance, and showed:

  • Their eyes gravitate toward attractive alternatives to their romantic partner.
  • They report more positive attitudes toward infidelity
  • They report more intentions to engage infidelity
  • They report engaging in infidelity more often than others
  • This effect is true for both men and women.

2.     A lack of commitment explains why avoidant people engage in more infidelity. Avoidant people dislike getting close to others. Hence, they have a tough time feeling strong relationship commitment. Their lack of commitment might make avoidant people feel safe and secure. But it also weakens the commitment that often keeps urges to engage in infidelity at bay.

The irony is that avoidant people keep others at a distance to prevent social rejection. By having lower relationship commitment, they’re more likely to engage in infidelity—and cause their greatest fear of rejection to come true.

Originally posted on April 25, 2014.

 

We’ve all experienced it. You’re some place where screaming isn’t tolerated, some kids starts wailing, and the parents rush to quiet them down. What happens next is the twist: “They’re the best behaved kids we know,” the parents say, as their child continues to bellow. We nod our heads, feign a smile, and go back to what we’re doing.

Before you pounce on me for being impatient and inexperienced, I’m here to share some good news. The more positively we view our close relationship partners, the stronger relationship we have. The best part is that the positivity doesn’t have to exist. If you ask many people, they’ll tell you their close friends are above average on nearly every positive trait. They’re funnier, smarter, and kinder than their peers. We might have positive illusions, but that doesn’t hurt anything.

Or does it? Let’s return to how we see our kids. Seeing them as above average might have certain benefits. It might boost your parenting commitment and satisfaction. Who wants to devote the time and energy it takes to parent if you see your kid as a dud?

A recent study suggests a potential drawback: many parents perceive their children as healthier than they actually are. The study, which drew on several investigations involving over 15,000 children, found that half of parents who have overweight or obese children rate their child as slimmer than their weight suggests.

Just as people villainize parents of screaming children, it’s easy to attack parents who don’t know their children are overweight or obese. But let’s show parents some empathy. Parenting is hard. I don’t have kids, but I can’t tell you how much respect I have for people who do. Parents might not want to hurt their children’s feelings by calling them overweight or obese. They also might not know what it means to be overweight or obese. Is it simply if your son fits into his clothes? If your daughter comes home crying because a school bully called her fat?

But there’s a third possibility: when we love someone, we see them in the best possible light. Instead of seeing an obese child, we see our daughter who jumps down the stairs to welcome us home from work. We see our son who loves to get dirty in the mud.

When I read about the study, I tucked it away in my files. The next morning my wife and I took our two golden retrievers, Finnegan and Atticus, to the veterinarian. They’re both of our dogs, but Finnegan is mine and Atticus is my wife’s. They weighed Finnegan, who came in at a beefy 85 pounds. Then it was Atticus’s turn.

“He’s much skinnier than Finnegan,” my wife, Alice, said. “Just look at him.”

I looked and realized we weren’t seeing the same dog. “He looks the same to me. We feed him the same amount and give him the same amount of exercise.”

“Nah, I bet he’s 70 pounds,” she said.

They took Atticus away, weighed him, and returned with the results. He was exactly the same as Finnegan: 85 pounds.

So, this finding might apply to dog owners, too.

Originally posted on April 29, 2014.

 

Becoming a psychologist makes it hard to name drop. We rarely know celebrities. We read more than we schmooze. We seldom inform national or international politics. But we do drop the names of famous psychological studies. Few studies get more name dropping than Walter Mischel’s delay of gratification studies, the so-called marshmallow studies.  

Some think the marshmallow study recently took a slight beating. Much of the criticism has radiated from the findings of a cool new study. In the study, some children learned not to trust an adult experimenter, whereas others learned to trust the same adult experimenter. Next, they were brought through the classic delay of gratification study procedure. Kids were left alone in a room to stare at a treat with the promise of a larger reward if they resisted eating that treat. The result: Compared to those exposed to a non-trustworthy experimenter, children exposed to a trustworthy experimenter waited longer in order to receive a larger reward.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Michael Bourne argues that these results question the depth of Mischel’s classic delay of gratification findings. Yes, the new findings identify a crucial factor – whether or not you can trust an adult experimenter – that can change a child’s delay of gratification. But these findings do little to negate the meaning of the original findings. If anything, they strengthen them.

Let’s start by focusing on the kids who learned to trust the adult experimenter. About 64 percent of them delayed gratification as long as possible. That’s quite a few, but far from 100 percent. Some kids gave up, some tried a little, and some were stalwarts. It’s normal to find variation in behavior. But you can relate variation in delay of gratification to other factors that also differ between children, such as their school performance, drug history, and brain functioning. These factors affected the kids in the new study similar to the way they’d affected the kids in the original delay of gratification studies.

When kids learn not to trust an adult experimenter, they give up sooner. That finding, while interesting, says nothing about the importance of delay of gratification. It merely shows that kids are smart not to use their limited mental energy to delay gratification when they may not reap the rewards. Their behavior supports the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The marshmallow studies never sought to identify the Holy Grail of psychological strength. Delay of gratification is one of many factors that contribute to individual, relationship, and societal well-being. Rather than throwing the marshmallows out with the bath water, we should recognize that this new scientific finding has helped identify the nuances of delay of gratification and therefore may help us learn more about living happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

Originally posted on May 1, 2014.

 

Julian grew up an active child, but those days are long gone. Now he struggles to walk up the stairs. When he walks two city blocks, he takes a break, clenches a light post, and tries to catch his breath. As he looks at passersby, Julian knows what they’re thinking: Obese people are lazy.

But according to recent research, those onlookers have it backwards. In a recent UCLA study, researchers wanted to see which comes first, obesity or lack of motivation. They took 32 rats and separated them into two groups. The first group ate a diet designed to make them obese. It mimicked the standard Western diet. The second group ate food that maintained their weight. After six months, the rats completed a fun little motivation task.

What happened? A lack of motivation did not cause obesity. It wasn’t until the rats became overweight that their motivation started waning. These findings debunk the myth people become obese because they lack discipline and motivation. Low energy and motivation follow, but do not cause, obesity.

Originally posted on May 5, 2014.

 

From an early age, I wanted to be an astronaut. I memorized Mercury astronaut missions. I dreamt of using a manned maneurvering unit to glide through space. I cried when the Challenger exploded. I still dream of going to space, but I know it’s a long shot. Still, space exploration captivates me.

What will be the biggest obstacle to a successful Mars mission? It won’t be inadequate fuel, faulty aerodynamics, or clunky helmets. Social isolation is the greatest barrier to interplanetary travel.

Don’t believe me? Think about the past 520 days of your life (about a year and five months). That’s how long it takes to travel to Mars and return. How many people did you see during that time? How many conversations did you have? Did you attend a sporting event? A play? A worship service? Maybe a loved one was born or passed away. Now wipe those experiences away. Instead, imagine that during this period of your life you lived in cramped quarters with only five other people, no fresh air, and no sunlight.

This is not a mere thought experiment. The experiment happened, with funds from the Russian Academy of Sciences. What happened? Quite a bit. In research recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the six volunteer marsonauts completed lots of tasks to keep their minds fresh. They also slept like babies without the daily rigmarole of daily work commutes, grocery shopping, or other daily drivel. Then the guys started sleeping like polar bears in hibernation. Then they started doing less, becoming even more sedentary amidst almost endless boredom. Space is only cool for so long.

The good news? They all made it. There weren’t any major scuffles, and the guys probably formed lifelong friendships. They even showed signs of cognitive improvement. But the marsonaut volunteers each handled the prolonged social isolation differently. One of them shifted to a 25-hr sleep-wake schedule, which meant that he was alone (awake or asleep) 20% of the 520 day mock mission. As the researchers sift through their massive data set (to put it in perspective, they measured 4.396 million minutes of sleep!), I’m sure we’ll learn more about the psychological consequences of prolonged social isolation.

For now, we can still look into the night sky, find the Red Planet, and dream of people visiting sometime in our generation. We know they’ll sleep well—and a lot.

Originally posted on May 7, 2014.

 

The Iran and Afghanistan Wars introduced a new and troubling picture on the relationship between traumatic brain injury and mental health. Multiple deployments exposed soldiers to more frequent risks. New combat gear helped them survive blasts. Suicide, substance use, and strained relationships often followed.

But according to an Ontario study, we shouldn’t forget another vulnerable group: adolescents who have experienced at least one traumatic brain injury, defined as a head injury that caused either 5 minutes of unconsciousness or an overnight hospital stay. By comparison, the severity of the soldier injuries probably trumped those of the Toronto teens. Yet the two groups experienced similar consequences.

In a study of almost 5000 Canadian students Grades 7-12, those who experienced a traumatic brain injury, compared those who didn’t, were nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide. The brain injured adolescents were also more likely to engage in antisocial behavior and experience anxiety and depression.

Here is the most stunning statistic of all: roughly 20% of Ontario adolescents have a lifetime history of traumatic brain injury. Part of this makes sense. Think back to when you were a teenager. Perhaps you skateboarded, played soccer, hockey, football, or roughhoused with your siblings. Learning how to drive, you might have been injured in a car accident.

Our teenage years are often filled with risk because the teenage brain is hypersensitive to reward. (To watch some videos of a true genius on the topic of the teenage brain, click here). Yet the drive for reward can come at the greatest cost of all. By risking their bodies, adolescents risk their brains. And when that piece of equipment doesn’t run on all cylinders, life becomes more of a slog than a sweet dream.

The next time you think of brain injury, think of those who put themselves in harm’s way. For some of us, risk if part of our job. For others, it’s part of our development. For all of us, it’s time to reconsider who needs help.     

Originally posted on May 9, 2014.

 

The next time you’re facing potential social rejection, what should you do? New evidence suggests a puff of pot reduces the pain of rejection.

But before we get to the pot smoking, how did we hatch this idea? Like most ideas, it was formed over an informal conversation. Previously, we had shown that the physical painkiller acetaminophen numbs people to the pain of rejection. Now we wanted to see whether another drug that works through similar brain receptors would also reduce the pain of rejection. It just happened that marijuana fit the bill.

In four studies, participants reported how often they smoked marijuana. Next, we measured their feelings of social exclusion or manipulated how socially excluded they felt. Finally, we measured participants’ emotional distress.

The four studies yielded a similar pattern: marijuana reduced the pain of rejection.

What is the takeaway message? Rejection hurts, and drugs that reduce physical pain also lessen the pain of rejection. Don’t smoke up to prove a point. Just know that rejection is serious. When you’re feeling lonely, reach out to friends before you reach for a roach clip.

Originally posted May 13, 2014.

 

We might not realize it, but our names hold the key to how much people trust us. Our actual name might not matter. It is how easily you can pronounce a person’s name that counts.

Imagine the following scenario. You walk into an auto repair shop to get your car fixed. A smiling man greets you at the door, shakes your hand, and says, “How are you?” You look at his uniform, which has his name printed in an oval patch. It says, “Yvgeny.” Having spent no time in Russia, you struggle to pronounce his name.

Would your botched pronunciation affect how much you trusted your would-be mechanic? It would. In a recent investigation, people with easily pronounceable names, versus hard to pronounce names, were rated as less dangerous, more positive, and more trustworthy.

The next time you struggle to pronounce someone’s name, give that person a break. We don’t pick the names our parents give us. Should we also give more credit to those who have triumphed despite having hard to pronounce names? Did Quvenzhané Wallis need to do more to earn her Oscar nomination than Naomi Watts did? We’ll never know.

Until we do, think of the people you choose to include in your life. We have limited energy and only include a few people in our social networks. Of the ones you chose, did their easy to pronounce names give them an edge?

Originally posted on May 15, 2014.

 

Each day we face stressors. Our pets get sick, lightning strikes the office, or we miss loved ones. New research identified another stressor lurking in our midst: men.

This research, which was reported by the New York Times, showed that rats and mice get stressed out when they’re around men. Even catching a whiff of a men’s t-shirt was enough to raise their stress hormones. The scent of a woman didn’t increase stress.

Most men don’t consider themselves stressors. When I walk into a classroom, I tell my students my mission:

  • Motivate
  • Encourage
  • Advocate
  • Learn

But these findings suggest that no matter what I do, my maleness may spike their stress levels. The good news is that our bodies adjust. The first day of class might be stressful, especially when you have a male instructor. Over time that stress should wash away.

How far can we extrapolate these findings? Although exposure to a single male increases stress that eventually drops off, what if people were constantly bombarded with men? In societies where men outnumber women, would stress levels peak? My next post will answer that question.

Originally posted on May 16, 2014.

 

Being around men increases stress. Do countries with more man than women have higher stress levels?

In my last post, I promised to answer this question. But it’s a harder question than it seems. How do you measure a country’s level of stress? Some organizations, such as Gallup, do an excellent job surveying people around the world. I don’t work at Gallup, nor do I have access to their data. So I had to do the best I could.

First, I gathered country gender composition data from our friends at the World Bank. I separated countries according to whether they had a majority of male or female citizens. The average was 50.77% women (standard deviation 1.19; Minimum: 48.19%, Maximum: 54.30%). Of the 74 countries for which data were available, 19 were male-majority and 55 were female-majority.

Next, I searched for a good, comprehensive measure of country-level stress. Bloombergmade things easy. They computed a country’s stress score by combining seven factors:

  • Annual Homicide Rate per 100,000
  • Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita
  • Income inequality (Gini coefficient)
  • Corruption (as measured by Transparency International)
  • Unemployment rate
  • Urban air pollution (micrograms per cubic meter)
  • Life expectancy (years at birth)

Finally, I compared country-level stress between male-majority and female-majority countries. This would give me an initial answer to my question. What were the results?

Countries with more men than women, compared to their female-majority counterparts, had higher levels of stress.

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Three factors drove the effect: corruption, pollution, and life expectancy. In each case, more men than women equaled a more corrupt, polluted, and shorter lived society. A close fourth, which wasn’t quite statistically significant (p= .063), was Gross Domestic Product per capita. If a country had a male majority (vs. female majority), GDP was lower.

These findings offer a novel extension to the finding that being around men, versus women, increases rodent stress. But unlike those careful laboratory experiments, people weren’t randomly assigned to live in male- or female-majority countries. We can’t infer cause and effect. All we can conclude is that when men are present, stress seems to rise instead of fall.

Originally posted on May 20, 2014.

 

Three years ago, I gained a new appreciation of consciousness. My mom had an accident that caused her brain to bleed. It seemed to rip away her consciousness. As I slept next to her bed before she died, I wondered, “Is she conscious of what’s happening?”

New research suggests that the brain can give us a clue. Prior to this research, you had limited options to know if someone had consciousness. You could ask them. That’s easy. But what about those cases, like my mom’s, when a person hasn’t experienced brain death but is still unresponsive?

To find out, researchers scanned the brain of a woman who was in a vegetative state. They asked her to imagine playing tennis, along with several other activities. The results, published in Science, made a big splash. Although the woman couldn’t answer the questions, her brain did. When she imagined playing tennis, her brain reacted by increasing blood flow to the motor cortex. She was immobile, but her brain acted as if she was playing on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

To watch a wonderful video of the researcher leading this effort, click here. It might change the way you think about consciousness. I know it helped me.

Originally posted on May 22, 2014.

 

Runners pop up everywhere. They run alone, in pairs, and in mass hordes through major cities. Running can improve health. But what about extreme running? Is 100 miles too far?

I get this question a lot. I run ultramarathons. An ultramarathon is any foot race longer than a standard 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) marathon. In the past year, I’ve run nine ultramarathons. This includes two 50 kilometer (31 miles) races, one 60 kilometer race (a little over 37 miles), a six hour timed event where I officially ran 40 miles (I got lost and ran a couple “bonus” miles, too), three 50 mile races, and two 100 mile races.

When people learn about my running, they often ask two questions. The first is, “Why do you do that?” I like the challenge, they make me feel good physically and emotionally, and I love the camaraderie. The second question is almost always, “Is that good for you?”

Many people think running isn’t good for you. “It’s bad for your knees,” many people tell me. When it comes to extreme running, the possible harm only increases, right? “Didn’t you hear about the ultrarunner, Caballo Blanco, from the book Born to Run? He died while running. That proves it.”

Before we rush to judgment, let’s look at the data. When we do that, we’ll find two things. The first is that we don’t really know much. There aren’t many people who run ultramarathons. The sport is growing, but we’re a niche group. In late April, I ran a 100 mile race. 185 people started. Compare that to the most selective American marathon, the Boston Marathon, which in 2014 had 35,671 starters!

The second thing we’ll learn is that ultrarunners have pretty good health. In one recent study, ultrarunners, compared to the general population, had better physical health, mental health, and missed fewer days due to illness. They do tend to have more allergies and asthma, which is probably due to wheezing from the gorgeously pollinated trails they traverse. Other research shows that ultrarunners have longer telomeres – DNA strands at the end of chromosomes that often shrink with age. With longer telomeres, ultrarunners may be less vulnerable to disease.

So, we now have a better perspective on whether ultrarunning is good for you. You don’t have to run 100 miles to reap the benefits of running. Simply take one more step today than you did yesterday.

Originally posted on May 27, 2014.

 

Psychology is ripe with history. Unlike many sciences, psychology grips us because we are its main characters. People have more experience with quarrels than with quarks. But one of psychology’s most famous case studies continues to evolve. So, I ask, will the real Phineas Gage please step forward?

The name Phineas Gage might not perk up a person’s ears as easily as Freud, Bandura, or Skinner. But the story of Phineas Gage occupies precious real estate in most psychology textbooks. He showed the world that people can survive a major brain trauma. Yet understanding his post-accident life grows fuzzier over time.

In a recent article that foreshadows the upcoming book, “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” Sam Stein argues that what we think we know about the most famous name in neuroscience needs historical revision. Did Gage really become a psychopath? Why do people ignore Gage’s major life events, such as when he tried to make a new life in Chile?

We’ll never know the true Phineas Gage. The riddle will always be partly unsolved. That isn’t such a bad thing. Sifting through material will inspire new questions—with the hope that they will inform how we understand friends, loved ones, or the many others who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Originally posted on May 29, 2014.

 

How would you like to increase your brainpower? All you need is a 9-volt battery, some mad scientists, and a heaping portion of creativity.

So says a slew of recent studies using a noninvasive, neuroscientific technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Think of tDCS as the ultimate symphony conductor. It can pep up certain brain regions by exciting neuronal impulses. But it can also quiet a crowd of neurons by decreasing their firing rate. A 9-volt battery powers the electrodes that rest on people’s scalps, giving people a slight twinge as the equipment increases or decreases their brain activity.

In one study, Air Force pilots who received frequent tDCS stimulation, compared with those who didn’t, learned more information in less time. But tDCS isn’t merely a way to learn better. It can help people cope with upsetting situations. In a pair of papers, my colleagues and I showed that stimulating a brain region that aids emotion regulation reduced rejection-related distress and aggression.

To succeed, people need some combination of talent, grit, and luck. Should a personal brain zapping machine get added to the list?

Originally posted on June 2, 2014.

 

We receive help every day. I don’t grow the food I eat, knit the clothes I wear, or assemble the TV I try to avoid. I don’t even cut my own hair. Nope, I rely on others to help me. But how do I get help when it involves asking?

Amidst a recent report showing low levels of helpfulness among college professors (especially toward members of minority groups and women), I thought it would be good to help readers know how to increase helping.

Here are the top 5 ways to do it (adapted from Latané and Darley, 1970).

  1. Notice help is needed. This goes both ways. I need to be aware that other people might need my help. I also need to make sure other people know I need help by asking.
  2. Realize when help is needed. If it’s an emergency, let people know it.
  3. Take personal responsibility for helping. Ignore what other people do. If you see someone in need, don’t wait for someone else to do the job. To quote Mahatma Ghandhi, “We need not wait to see what others do.”
  4. Make a decision to help. Think of this as the step between you wanting to help and you actually helping.

Help! Now that you’ve made your decision, it’s time to put some feet on it. Take action and help.

Originally posted on June 10, 2014.

 

Many people run to enjoy better health, lower stress, and a slight endorphin buzz. But does running also zap our memories?

To find out, researchers traded in their lab coats for workout clothes and put some adult guinea pigs on a serious running schedule. Others guinea pigs were assigned to a couch potato condition. Next, they tested how well the pigs remembered situations that used to terrify them.

What happened? The runners forgot their fears. Faced with the prospect of painful electric shock, the runners fearlessly galloped. The couch potatoes cowered.

This study might change how you respond the next time you hear a runner say, “I run to clear my head.”

Originally posted on June 19, 2014.

 

We’ve all experienced the pleasure and subsequent pain of mindless eating. Just sit in front of the TV, open a bag of chips, and watch your favorite show. Now do the same thing with the TV off. In which situation did you eat more?

Mindless eating made Brian Wansink a household name. This guy’s research oozes coolness. Need proof? Just watch this video to see how he made people guzzle quarts (yes, quarts!) of soup by having them spoon it out of a bottomless bowl. It won him the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize.

If mindless eating makes us unhealthy, would mindful eating make us healthier? According to a recent study, Yes. People who practiced mindful eating, compared those who did not, ate healthier foods and had healthier weights.

At your next meal, don’t agonize over every bite. But also avoid putting your brain on cruise control. A healthy awareness and attention to the food we eat can motivate use to use the highest quality food to fuel our brains and bodies.

Originally posted on July 3, 2014.

 

Have you ever wondered why some people struggle to avoid certain foods, whereas others have little trouble passing on a delectable dish? Childhood eating habits, genetics, and willpower offer possible answers. But researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University identified another explanation: Thinking about eating makes food seem less exciting.

If you imagine eating 10 pieces of pizza, your mind has already simulated what it’s like to eat pizza. When you see a real pizza, your brain’s pleasure centers no longer perk up. You’ve been there, done that. As a result, you consume less pizza.  

In a series of experiments, people who repeatedly imagined eating a food many times ate less of that food compared with those who imagined taking a few bites. Instead of pizza, the researchers used M&M candies. People who imagined eating 30 M&M’s, compared with those who imagined eating only three, ate fewer M&M’s. By simulating eating lots of M&M’s, the thrill from eating the bite-sized candies was gone.

The next time you struggle to avoid a tempting food, remember that you can train your brain not to want it. Just imagine eating large quantities of the food. Your brain will think it’s already had more than enough to eat and you will desire the food less. 

Originally posted on July 10, 2014.

 

Why don’t people vote? This question puzzles pollsters, political candidates, and people who cherish the right to choose their elected officials. To predict voter turnout, all you might need is a test tube, a willing participant, and a little saliva.

So says a group of University of Nebraska-Omaha researchers, who tested the hypothesis that the stress hormone cortisol would predict voting behavior. Stress often leads people to avoid high pressure situations. If people have high cortisol levels, voting might only increase their stress. They might fear that their chosen candidate would lose the election, or that the candidate would underperform if elected. As a result, stressful souls might avoid the polls.

In the study, people spit in a tube to provide a measurement of their cortisol levels. Next, the researchers collected the study participants’ actual voting behavior in six U.S. national elections. Sure enough, the most stressed out people voted about half as often as their more relaxed counterparts.

To get people to vote, politicians might frame voting as a relaxing activity. “Take a break from work, relax, and make a difference in your community,” might help get even the most stressed out people to visit the polls.

Originally posted on July 17, 2014.

 

Lloyd Cosgrove was his town’s city manager, butcher, and Presbyterian minister. He had a shiny head, bushy eyebrows, and a whooping laugh. If you want Lloyd to remain unique, try not to think about him too much.

Why? Repetition breeds bland memories. Our brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, leaves different traces of information each time we call up something from our past. This is why our memories of the same past events shift. What gets left behind are the details.

You might forget that Lloyd was a butcher or blocked out his whooping laughter. Or you might invent new details about him. Was he a Presbyterian or Lutheran minister? A city manager or a city councilman? Memory is a funny thing.

In a recent study, people who rehearsed an event three times recalled fewer details compared with people who rehearsed the same event once. Repetition improved how well people recognized pieces of information, but it squeezed out the details.

We might romanticize details. Do I need to remember the outfit my wife wore on our first date? (I do.) Do I need to remember where I ate my first taco? (I don’t.) Or should I become content that the details that add color, meaning, and spice to my daily experiences will become gray, hallow, and bland the more my memory plays them back? Ask me tomorrow. I’ll have a different memory of the question than I do today.

Originally posted on July 22, 2014.

 

Social support can take many forms. A helpful tweet, the annual Facebook birthday barrage of well wishes, and long conversations with friends and family can put things in perspective and reduce our stress. But, according to recent research from Renison University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Waterloo, these acts of kindness backfire when interacting with people who have low self-esteem.

People with low self-esteem have social support preferences that often put them on a collision course with their friends and family. They desire information that validates their negative self-feelings. When their friends offer positive feedback, people with low self-esteem don’t accept it. This aversion to positivity causes low self-esteem spillover: Their friends begin to feel bad about themselves, too.

What is the moral of the story? Find someone who has a similar self-concept as you do. Birds of a feather should often flock together. Although it might be hard to imagine wanting information that validates our negative self-feelings, it is unwise to force people to enjoy something they dislike. Knowing yourself and what you like is the first step in building a successful relationship. The next step is finding someone who shares your preferences, no matter how sunny or gloomy they might be.

 

 

Originally posted on August 5, 2014.

 

We live in an era of mental fatigue. People sleep less, work more, and experience more stress now than any other time in recent history. How can we overcome mental fatigue?

People go to extreme lengths to pep themselves up. They guzzle energy drinks, smoke cigarettes, or drink coffee and tea. But a growing trend, especially among college students, is to use psychotropic medications to battle mental fatigue. Many students abuse the popular drug, methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin), because they think it will improve their concentration when fatigued.

Are the students right? To examine this question, researchers at the University of Michigan randomly assigned students to consume either Ritalin or a placebo pill. Next, the students completed a boring task. Crucially, half of the students completed a version of the task that was not only boring – it also made them mentally exhausted. The rest of the students were bored, but their mental faculties were left intact.

What happened? Taking Ritalin undid the effects of mental fatigue. So, in a way, these findings offer a clue about why students abuse Ritalin. Students might not want a cheap buzz; they may simply want to overcome their exhaustion.

In my next post, I’ll offer five healthier and safer options to deal with mental fatigue.

Originally posted on August 14, 2014.

 

In my last post, I reviewed research that showed that Ritalin, compared with a placebo, helped research volunteers overcome mental fatigue. Now I would like to give you five healthier and safer ways to conquer your mental fatigue.

Everyone experiences mental fatigue, whether it is the 3:00 pm “slump” or extreme sleep deprivation. Two weeks ago, I was awake for 40 consecutive hours as I helped a friend complete the Badwater 135 ultramarathon. Eighteen hours later, I was back in the office working. So, I know about fatigue and how to deal with it.

1.     Increase rest. This is the easiest, safest, and cheapest way to overcome mental fatigue. Increase your sleep until you reach at least seven to eight hours each night. If you’re sleep deprived, schedule extra time to catch up on your missed sleep. Once you’re caught up, your body will find a natural groove of how much sleep you need. Some people brag about how little sleep they need. Start bragging about how much sleep you get.  

2.     Play offense against your environment. Open your windows in the morning. When we see the morning sunlight, retinal proteins trigger signals to something called the suprachiasmic nucleus (SCN). The SCN, in turn, helps our bodies produce less of our body’s natural sleeping hormone melatonin. In the evening, turn off your lights. Don’t go to sleep in front of your iPad, iPhone, or other brightly lit decide. The darker your room, the faster you’ll fall asleep.

3.     Exercise. Yes, exercise excites us. But exercise also bathes our minds with neurotransmitters that settle us down and boost our happiness. Try to avoid early morning and late evening exercise. A late afternoon walk, jog, or swim works best.

4.     Work smarter, not harder. Most of us have fallen prey to the mistaken idea that working more hours means that we are doing higher quality work. Yet few among us keep track of our daily activities. For example, how many minutes per day you do write, read, and check email? I use various websites and programs to help me accomplish my daily goals. Online-stopwatch.com is one of my favorites. I set the clock for four hours. When time is up, that means I’m done writing. Period. I also bought the “Freedom” program. It locks me out of the Internet. Freedom helps me plan my writing sessions (Will I need that document? Do I need to copy and paste this email?) and avoid lingering distractions. You’ll work fewer hours, making you less fatigued.

5.     Take the mind out of the middle. When we’re tired, it’s tough to make decisions. Try something different: Make a contract with yourself ahead of time. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls these little contracts implementation intentions. For example, if you want to make sure you get your exercise, tell yourself, “When I get home from work, I will exercise for 20 minutes.” This way you’ve already made the decision. Instead of trying to rely on your groggy mind to make a good decision, refer to the mental contract you already drafted and signed.

So, how did I overcome the extreme mental exhaustion I experienced post-Badwater? I followed each step. I prioritized my sleep. I soaked up as much sunlight as possible. I exercised each day. I set specific work goals to accomplish. I made implementation intentions so that I knew my decisions were made ahead of time. Finally, I relaxed and took it easy.

Originally posted on August 28, 2014.

 

When your friend tells you about her terrific first date, you will eventually ask the question. You might stall by inquiring about the food she ate, the jokes he told, and the outfit she wore. Eventually, you’ll ask: Is he cute?

Recent research suggests that you’ll know how she arrived at her answer.  An in-depth analysis of 1,000 facial images identified three main ingredients of attractiveness:

  • Approachability, or how friendly a person seems. A large mouth, wide nose, and curvy bottom lip were some of the strongest predictors of approachability.
  • Youthful-attractiveness. Here, the eyes have it. To seem youthful, have large eyes. You should also avoid sporting a moustache or beard.
  • Dominance. Looking dominant relates to having angular cheeks, large eyebrows, and slightly dark skin.

These are some of the strongest predictors of each attractiveness ingredient. Of course, they don’t tell you much about people’s sense of humor, clothing style, or hobbies. For that, you’ll have to take the plunge and actually meet them. She might have large eyes and a curvy bottom lip, but would you want to date someone who never laughed at your jokes? I doubt it. Or what about an angular-cheeked, naturally tan man who always turns heads but also is profoundly dull and shallow? Maybe give him a fake phone number when he asks for yours.

Attractiveness matters, especially during the initial passionate stages of a relationship. But there are many ingredients that are far more important than attractiveness when selecting a mate. Trust is key. Think about it: Would you rather date an attractive compulsive liar, or a less attractive person who always tells the truth? Self-control also fosters relationship success. Highly self-controlled people, compared with their sluggardly counterparts, are more forgiving, generous, and less aggressive.

So, it’s natural to wonder whether your friend’s date is cute. You might not ask whether he has a large mouth, angular cheeks, or big eyes. But if she says, “Yes, he’s gorgeous,” you can be confident that he received an extra helping of some of these attractiveness ingredients.

Originally posted on September 2, 2014.

 

Graduation brings few guarantees. Jobs are scarce, job security is even more difficult to find, and many people earn less and receive fewer employee benefits than they anticipated. But graduation often brings at least two things: pomp and presents. When I finished graduate school, my parents bought me a dog. I knew he had basic emotions, such as happiness and fear. Now I know he also gets jealous.

Finnegan, an English golden retriever, is one of my best friends. Early in my professor job, I would bring him to the office with me. He slept while I wrote papers. He even participated in some of my research studies. [Not to worry, a graduate student ran the experimental sessions. When we discussed the studies in front of Finn, I covered his ears to keep him blind to condition. ] We would take walks around campus. Students would pop in and pet him. When I left the office to teach, he would yelp a little before settling down and falling asleep.

Then something happened. I got engaged. My fiancée Alice (now wife of more than six years) moved to Kentucky and started sleeping on Finnegan’s side of the bed. Suddenly, he wasn’t top dog anymore. I was happy. Finnegan wasn’t. 

But then another major event occurred. We purchased another dog, Finnegan’s half-brother, and named him Atticus. We wanted Finnegan to have a playmate. Things went well. Finnegan and Atticus played and wrestled and did all of the cute things that make YouTube videos go viral. Finnegan did show a curious new behavior, however. He seemed to get jealous when I petted Atticus.

Was Finnegan’s jealousy an illusion? It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that animals can do more than they can. For examples, dogs don’t know they are dogs. They don’t have that kind of self-awareness. Dogs also don’t have strong belief systems. Sure, they might like to eat my pizza, pretzels, and shoes. But it would never occur for one dog to ask another, “Do you avoid eating meat pizza for health or ethical reasons?” They just gobble and go.

According to a recent study, dog jealousy is real. The researchers tested 36 dogs. Just how might you evoke dog jealousy? Have a dog’s owner interact with a stuffed dog that barks, whines, and wags its tail. The owners also were instructed to ignore their own dogs while they played with the stuffed dog. To provide comparison conditions, owners also ignored their dogs to interact with a jack-o-lantern or a book.

Boy, the dogs got jealous when their owners ignored them! The dogs acted needy and tried to “shoo the rival [dog] away.” They fixed their gaze on the interloper. They even got a little nippy.

The dogs only got jealous when their owners paid attention to another dog. They didn’t mind their owners playing with the jack-o-lantern or a book. Just like my Finnegan, the dogs only started to show pangs of jealousy when they felt they were being replaced.

The moral of the story is that dogs experience complex emotions. Jealousy can sour relationships. Fortunately, humans and dogs can overcome their jealousy and learn to include others in their lives. Finnegan loves Alice, and Atticus is his best friend. Finn got over his jealousy. In that way, old dogs might be able to teach us some new tricks.

Originally posted on September 25, 2014.

 

Most of our daily lives hum along effortlessly. We automatically rise when we wake, speak when we wish to communicate, and eat when our empty bellies grumble. These behaviors helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. But we also need to size up situations and people that might threaten us. How well do we do this?

In one recent investigation, researchers from Australia and the United States argued that angry faces tell a specific story that takes little effort to understand. Rather than being a simple threat signal, angry faces gives us information about people’s physical strength, which is the crucial element in determining their fighting ability. Using some cool facial morphing software, the researchers showed participants faces and then manipulated the seven primary facial muscles involved in an angry facial expression. Some faces flexed all seven angry facial muscles; others flexed fewer than seven.

The more angry muscles the faces flexed, the more participants rated the person as being physically strong. The key is that participants did not need to take a course on the biology of human emotion to make their ratings. They didn’t need to know the seven facial muscles that comprise an angry facial expression. Participants automatically knew the strongest and angriest face when they saw it.

So, the next time you get a twinge of terror when you see an angry face, don’t sweat it. Your mind is automatically telling you something aimed at keeping you safe and sound.

Originally posted on October 2, 2014.

 

Everything psychological is biological. Stress wreaks havoc on our immune system, increasing our risk for many diseases. Psychological disorders can make us feel physically sick. We feel the sting of rejection as real pain. Might a healthier body help us have a stronger mind?

To find out, a group of Brazilian researchers recruited a group of women who underwent bariatric bypass surgery. Before and after their surgery, the women completed a measure of executive function — a test of how well people manage their mental processes.

Not surprisingly, the bariatric bypass surgery caused the women to lose weight. It also reduced their inflammation and boosted brain activity in regions associated with cognitive function. But the coolest finding was that the women’s executive functioning improved. A healthier body related to a stronger mind.

No matter how disconnected our mind and body might seem, they are close friends who rely on each other for everything. By improving our physical health, we can change not only the shape of our bodies but also strengthen our minds.

 

http://www.talkpsych.com/talk-psych-blog/2014/9/22/can-a-lean-waist-strengthen-your-mind#commenting

Originally posted on October 9, 2014.

 

Have you ever just met someone, learned his name, and immediately forgotten it? This happens all of the time. People try all sorts of tricks to remember names, driving routes, or the location of your favorite Hong Kong noodle house. But we might be looking in the wrong spot. All we need is a healthy dose of electricity.

In a brilliant study, a group of Northwestern University researchers recruited volunteers and had them undergo a stimulating treatment. Each day for five days, the volunteers had a part of their brain stimulated using a technique called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). The brain stimulation sessions lasted 20 minutes and targeted the hippocampus, which aids memory. To have a basis of comparison, the same volunteers also completed a week of sessions in which they did not receive brain stimulation. The trick was that the volunteers didn’t know when their brains had been zapped and when they hadn’t.

Did the brain zapping improve memory? It did. The brain stimulation also improved how well the hippocampus “talked” to other nearby brain regions, an effect called functional connectivity. My favorite finding was that the brain stimulation effects persisted 24 hours after the volunteers underwent the treatment. Stimulate now, remember better later. 

What does this mean? Should we forgo other memory strategies and instead buy a brain stimulation machine? I think not. These findings simply shed light on how the mind works and new ways we can improve how it functions.

Nathan DeWall

The Power of High a Five

Posted by Nathan DeWall Jul 20, 2016

Originally posted on October 16, 2014.

 

One of my earliest memories is my dad giving me a high five. He was training for a marathon and agreed to take me, his talkative four year-old, on a run. I ran an entire mile. When I finished, red-faced and smiling, he said, “Give me five, son.” It was my first high five.

According to a new study, high fives go a long way in motivating children. Five and six year-old children completed a task in which they imagined experiencing success. Next, the children received different types of praise. Some children received verbal praise that would highlight an individual trait (“You are a good drawer”), whereas other children received a high five.

What motivated the children more, clear praise for being good at something or a high five? The high five won handedly. When the children bumped into a setback, those who received a high five persisted more than the other kids did.

We might reconsider how we praise children’s behavior. If we tell children they’re geniuses, we’ve told them that they have a stable trait that isn’t under their control. If they fail a test, the responsibility can’t be theirs because they have a trait that should guarantee success on all intelligence test. Blame the teacher. Criticize the test. Give up and find something else to do. Don’t find a better way to study.

By giving a high five, children know they have done something well. They also know that their success is under their control. I have run many miles since my first high five, but that first one with my dad will always hold a special place in my heart. It motivated me, either consciously or unconsciously, to continue to push my limits. For that high five, I’m grateful.

Originally posted on October 23, 2014.

 

No matter how many babies I meet, I’m always left wondering what they want. Does a short squeak followed by a shrill squeal signal that the baby is hungry? That I left the dog outside by accident again? Or is the baby simply testing out her developing vocal chords? Driven by confusion and frustration, I might insert a pacifier into the baby’s mouth. The baby seems soothed, and I can take a breather.

But according to one recent study, pacifiers disrupt our ability to understand a baby’s emotional state. Adult participants viewed pictures of happy and distressed babies. Sometimes the babies wore pacifiers and others times they didn’t. When the baby wore a pacifier, adults showed less intense facial reactivity and also rated the baby’s emotions as less intense. It didn’t matter whether the babies were happy or sad. The pacifiers numbed adults to baby facial expressions.

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Why did this happen? The idea hinges on the belief that we automatically mimic others’ emotional expressions. When I see people smile, I naturally mimic them because it helps me understand them and show empathy. Mimicking others is a great way to make friends. It lets others know we’re on the same team. Those who feel starved of social connection are the most likely to mimic others.

Pacifiers are mimic roadblocks. With a gadget covering your face, I can’t make out what you’re feeling. As a result, I mimic you less, empathize with you less, and ultimately judge your experience as less intense than it really is.

I don’t have a strong opinion about pacifiers. My sisters used them with their children, my parents used them with me, and I might use them when I have my own children. Like any consumer of knowledge, I’ll use this science to inform the choices I make. One thing is certain: I’ll never look at a pacifier in the same way.

Originally posted on October 30, 2014.

 

Tis’ the season for professional recognition. The world is abuzz with announcements of who won this year’s Nobel Prizes. Psychology doesn’t have a Nobel Prize (though one of our own, Daniel Kahneman, won one in 2002). But psychologists like to make lists.

 

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Daniel Kahneman

 

Recently, three researchers compiled a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists in the modern era (post-World War II). Several patterns caught my attention:

  • Most psychologists did not achieve great eminence until at least age 50. This number is at odds with some reports that scientists often make their major breakthroughs between ages 35 and 40.
  • The eminent psychologists experienced what I call the Publishing Paradox. They published many articles, but their eminence was due to only one or two publications. Few of their publications had any impact on their perceived eminence.
  • Women and members of minority groups compromised a small percent of the list. This is a cause for concern as we embark on a time in the academy when diversity of experience, perspective, and background is most needed.

What can the list teach us? Eminence requires hard work that takes place over a long period of time. There are no short-cuts. People also must accept that most of their daily work will have no bearing on their perceived eminence. Fall in love with the process. Stay the course. Let others decide the outcome.

 

Originally posted on November 13, 2014.

 

Success is mystery. What is it? How do we achieve it? And why does it often fail to live up our expectations? Success puzzles us because we don’t appreciate failure.

In “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars,” University of Kentucky alum and multimillionaire Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan suggest that there are a million ways to succeed. If you want to earn more money, you can start a business or sell a business. To improve your mental health, you can get hired or resign. One person’s path to weight loss will be paved with fruit and no fat; another person’s caveman diet will encourage fat consumption to lose weight. The point is that there are at least as many ways to succeed as there are people on the planet.

This is good and bad news. The good news is that everyone can find a unique path to success. The bad news is that your unique path won’t teach you much about success. To learn how to succeed, you must learn why you fail and how to avoid it.

This topic is near and dear to my heart. Last weekend, I completed the Javelina Jundred 100 mile ultramarathon. It was my best race yet. I knocked well over an hour off of my personal record time. Throughout the race, I felt good and ran a steady pace. After the race, I was happy and calm. (For proof, see my finishing picture.)

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Failure was the key to my success. Two times earlier this year, I failed to finish 100 mile races. Both times I got sick and the medical team pulled me. Last weekend, I didn’t focus on how to run faster. Instead, I concentrated on how to avoid the things that caused me to lose out on finishing those earlier races. By learning from failure, I could achieve my definition of success. 

I don’t know why failure is great learning medicine. One reason is that bad is stronger than good. When we fail, it grabs our attention more than success. Others argue that there are only a few ways to fail. Either way, failure is a great teacher that we should embrace instead of fear.

Originally posted on November 20, 2014.

 

Have you ever seen a baby so cute you wanted to snuggle it and take a bite out of it at the same time? Ever said to a new niece or nephew, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up?”

Have you cried after a happy occasion, such as crossing the finish line of a race for which you’ve long prepared, or proposing to your girlfriend and getting a yes? Two weeks ago, I experienced these conflicting emotions when I shed several tears after finishing a 100 mile running race.

These conflicting concurrent emotions help us maintain emotional balance, according to research from Yale University.

An adult’s reaction to an adorable baby is to kiss them and coo at them. But an adult may also pinch, squeeze, and playfully nip at them. Knowing that most people don’t intend to actually harm babies, the researchers designed several experiments to find out why adults respond to them with aggressive behavior.

In one study, participants looked at and evaluated photos of different babies, some of whom appeared more infantile than others. The participants said they wanted to care for and protect the infantile babies, but they also reported higher expressions of aggression in response to the babies. Participants were also more likely to feel overwhelmed with very strong positive feelings in response to the more infantile babies.

What do these findings tell us? Being overwhelmed by positive emotion produce responses designed to bring us down to our emotional baseline. Ever in need of emotional equilibrium, people will engage in behaviors aimed at leveling off their extreme emotional reactions.

So the next time you cry during a happy scene in a movie, laugh nervously, or feel compelled to take a bite out of a cute baby, remember that it is just your body’s way of maintaining emotional balance.

Originally posted on December 4, 2014.

 

Walk down a sidewalk and someone will likely take notice. Just where do their eyes linger? You can tell a lot about whether they think you are Mr. Right—or Mr. Right Now—based on where their eyes gravitate.

So says recent research conducted at the University of Chicago. Students viewed photographs of people and reported whether they caused them to experience romantic love or sexual desire. The students also wore an eyetracker, which recorded which parts of each photograph captured their attention. The idea is that romantic love causes people to try to understand what another person is thinking. Sexual desire encourages people to pay attention to objects that reflect concrete sensations and feelings.

Romantic love drove people to fixate their attention on people’s faces. This makes sense. If I want to understand what someone is thinking, I should look at their face. Their facial expression might also give me a clue as to whether they return my interest. Sexual desire created a different picture. When people saw a photograph that caused them to experience sexual desire, their eyes stuck on people’s bodies.

This love versus lust response operates automatically. Participants didn’t think carefully about where to position their eyes. Their eyes simply gravitated toward bodily locations that were most relevant to romantic love or sexual desire. Just how big of a difference was there between how long participants spent looking at faces when they experienced love rather than lust? A little over 400 milliseconds. That’s a tad longer than an eyeblink.

But don’t let that slight difference take anything away from how cool these findings are. They show how efficiently our minds work to alert us to information that relates to our emotions and goals. By knowing this wrinkle about how the mind works, your walks may never be the same. 

Originally posted on December 11, 2014.

 

Even the most pleasant activities have low spots. I enjoy teaching as much as anything, but there are certain parts I like more than others. Course planning ranks as one of my least favorite parts of teaching. There are numerous questions that lack clear answers.

But as I built my online course shell today, I felt more confident than ever about how often I should test my students. Quite a bit.

In research conducted at the University of Texas-Austin, researchers gave students daily online quizzes that provided immediate, personalized feedback. At the end of the semester, the researchers compared the daily quizzed students’ grades with those who had previously taken a version of the course that did not include the daily quizzes. The result? Daily quizzes boosted class performance a half letter grade.

The daily quiz effect also spilled over into the students’ other classes. Even when the course material did not relate to their daily quizzes, students who were frequently tested continued to excel. That’s remarkable.

The most surprising part is how much students like frequent testing. Last year, I taught Introduction to Psychology while I was on sabbatical at Hope College. Knowing the benefits of frequent testing, I decided to give my students 22 quizzes throughout the semester. That’s about a quiz every class session.

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At the end of the semester, I asked students what parts of the course they would like to keep or discard. No student suggested getting rid of the quizzes. They said the quizzes kept them on track and gave them frequent feedback about how well they understood the material. Students also said that the frequent quizzes caused them to approach longer exams without much anxiety. S

So, as I spent today entering the many quizzes that my Introduction to Psychology students will take next semester, I know that frequent testing should help them earn the high grades they desire.

Originally posted on December 18, 2014.

 

Self-preservation is a core instinct, but sometimes people reach an emotional valley in their lives and the best way out seems to be self-harm. Unfortunately, a history of self-harm is one of the best predictors of future self-harm and death by suicide. Can psychotherapy weaken the cycle of self-harm and its relationship to death by suicide?

Yes, according to a recent study. The research examined a group of 22,712 Danish people who had engaged in deliberate self-harm. Some of them received psychotherapy, whereas others did not. Then the researchers determined whether people chose to hurt themselves again, died of any cause, and died by suicide one, five, 10, and 20 years later.

The results were striking. Psychotherapy reduced the risk of future self-harm, death by any cause, and death by suicide. The researchers estimated that “145 self-harm episodes and 153 deaths, including 30 deaths by suicide, were prevented.”

The findings offer hope to those at risk for self-harm and suicide. They also shed light on the power of psychological science to improve and potentially save lives. Some therapies work better than others. For some people, therapy might not work at all. But over all, this research suggests that therapy is worth a try.

Originally posted on January 22, 2015.

 

At the beginning of each year, millions of people reflect on the previous year and find things they could have done better. Exercised more, eaten healthier, watched less television, drank less alcohol. They vow—most knowing they won’t keep their promise—to make more of the new year, to become their best selves.

Ah, the New Year’s resolution. I’ve made many myself. Many of my resolutions have been health related; when I look back at the previous year, I see where I could have been much healthier. I compare myself to friends who ran more miles, enjoy a slightly leaner physique, and seem to never worry about whether their clothes getting snug. (Last year, for example, a close friend ran over 5,200 miles. That dwarfs my measly 2,525 miles.) Looking at their accomplishments makes me feel sluggish. So I vow to change, and the start of a new year seems like the perfect time to do so.

Unlike many resolution makers, I have had some success with New Year’s resolutions. Here’s why: I really wanted to change and was ready to do so. And that readiness to change is the key ingredient in committing to these self-improvement plans, according to Meg Baker, a wellness expert from the University of Alabama.

Many Americans make resolutions but don’t put a plan in place to successfully carry them out, she says. To increase your likelihood of success, Baker offers three suggestions:

  • Develop small, short-term, realistic goals that will fit into your schedule
  • Consider the benefits and reasons for the change
  • Share your plan with someone with whom you can be accountable

She also suggests that you consider modifying the plan as your needs change. For example, if your new exercise routine has gotten stale, mix it up. During the winter months, I sometimes get stuck running on the treadmill. To keep things interesting, I might spend a day cycling or trying to do a single pull-up. When you’re struggling to stick to it, Baker suggests reflecting on the reasons you made the resolution.

This year, I’m once again vowing to be healthier than I was last year. That means if I really want to see progress, I have to be willing to take the action to bring about change. To kick things off, I spent January 1st running the Hangover Classic 10 mile run in Louisville, KY and, a couple hours later, running the Resolution Run 5 mile run in Lexington, KY.

So here’s to a healthy, happy 2015. What’s your resolution?

Originally posted on February 5, 2015.

 

Even though the smartphone has only been around for the past seven or eight years, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what life was like before we had so much information at our fingertips. You could argue with a friend about what year “Back to the Future, Part 2” came out, or in what year the “future” was set. (It was released in 1989. The future, filled with flying cars and floating skateboards, was set in 2015.)

Back then, you couldn’t resolve discussions by swiping a screen and touching a button. Siri wasn’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. If you got lost, you had to consult a map or stop and ask for directions, and if you got bored while waiting in line, you couldn’t pass the time by playing Candy Crush or perusing Instagram.

Luddites argue that life was better before the smart phone, whereas others tout the benefits of instant communication and information. But one thing is certain: The smartphone has changed our lives. And our thumbs.

Yes, when we spend time on smartphones using a touchscreen, it changes the way our thumbs and brains work together, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Our obsession with smartphones presented the perfect opportunity to explore the everyday plasticity of our brains. With smartphones, we are using our fingertips—especially our thumbs—in a new way, and we do it a lot. And because our phones keep track of how we use them, they carry a wealth of information that can be studied.

In the study, the research team used electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain response to the touch of the thumb, index finger, and middle fingerprints of touchscreen phone users compared to people who still use flip phones or other old-school devices. They found that the electrical activity in the brains of smartphone users was enhanced when all three fingertips were touched. The amount of activity in the brain’s cortex associated with the thumb and index fingertips was directly proportional to the amount of phone use.

Repetitive movements over the touchscreen surface might reshape sensory processing from the hand. Cortical sensory processing in our brains is constantly shaped by personal digital technology. So, the next time you use your thumbs to tweet, answer email, or jot yourself a note, remember that you’re training your brain. Keep in mind, too, that excessive phone usage is linked with motor dysfunction and pain. Remember the so-called “BlackBerry thumb”?

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Originally posted on February 20, 2015.

 

This morning my wife, our one-month-old daughter, and I went to a local diner. It was a snow day, my University was closed, and we were enjoying a rare morning together. Before our food arrived, I took a sip of coffee, looked outside, and said, “I’m so happy.” The story should end there, with our tiny family devouring pancakes and running errands. But then I returned to my house, opened my email, and received some bad news. I was supposed to be miserable.

Or so suggested the latest Gallup Report, “The State of American Well-Being: 2014 State Well-Being Rankings.” For the sixth straight year, my state, Kentucky, ranked 49th of 50 U.S. States. Only West Virginians have lower well-being than my fellow Kentuckians do.

My first impulse was to try to make sense of all of this. Was I conning myself when I said I was happy? Can you ever really measure happiness? Let’s not fool ourselves. You can’t measure happiness the same way you can’t measure your weight in gold. But I agree with one of my favorite social psychologists, Dan Gilbert, who said, “maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining” (Stumbling on Happiness, p. 65). So, I accepted my happiness.

This is when I started to understand why I’m throwing off the statewide dish of depression. Here are the five elements of well-being (taken from the Gallup site):

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

This is when I started to understand, and my heart began to sink. I max out on each ingredient. I love my daily activities, both personal and professional. I have relationships that allow me to have the diner experience I mentioned. I’m neither the richest nor the poorest person in my state, but my wife and I manage our finances so that we can feel secure and have rewarding experiences. I love where I live, and enjoy showing people our great state. I take care of myself physically, at least enough so that I can make words move across the page. All of that is annoying to read and even harder to write. But it’s true.

Then why did my heart start to sink? I have a theory of mind and a concern for others. Unlike my dogs, a blowfish, or the horses I drive by on my way to work, I can simulate another person’s experience. And when I simulated how it felt to be deprived of purpose, meaningful relationships, financial security, community pride and safety, and physical health, I realized the seriousness of today’s Gallup results. We need chang e.

The good news is that each well-being ingredient can be mended. To have higher well-being, people don’t need to grow a third leg or become enthralled with the taste of cod liver oil. Those things are impossible. Psychological science provides clear answers about how to improve our well-being. The biggest challenge is that the scale of change needed to buck our spot in the well-being basement could take years. Kentucky will never be Hawaii, but we can improve. Is it worth a try? I think so.

Originally posted on February 12, 2015.

 

Did you watch all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” over a long weekend? Have you ever longed for the weekend so that you can watch episode after episode of your new favorite television show? Are you counting down until Netflix releases Season 3 of “House of Cards” later this month? You’re not alone.

Binge-watching seems harmless—I’ve been known to veg out occasionally after a long week, watching hours of “The Wire”—but is it really? New research says maybe not.

It turns out, loneliness and depression are linked to TV binge-watching. In a recent study, over 300 18-to-29-year-olds reported their loneliness, depression, self-regulation, and binge-watching behavior. The more depressed the survey participants were, the more they binge-watched. The depression-binge watching relationship was strongest among people who lacked self-control. Faced with the option of watching yet another episode, impulsive participants went along with the binge-watching program.

These findings complement other research showing relationships between depression, loneliness, and self-regulation problems and general binging behavior. To escape from a lonely or depressed mood, people often engage in addictive behaviors.

Most of us have fallen prey to the binge watching bug. It’s okay to enjoy an occasional marathon TV-watching session. But remember the science: If you’re feeling blue, try not to hide your sorrows in the “boob tube.” It’s not likely to help, and it just might make matters worse.

Originally posted on February 24, 2015.

 

Dog research always fascinates me. You could say I have a nose for it. As humans, we spend a lot of time with our canine friends: they share our homes and steal our hearts—and sometimes the food off our plates.

I’ve always loved dogs, and I couldn’t wait to get one of my own. Nearly eight years ago, I adopted Finnegan, a lovable yet slobbery Golden Retriever who regularly knocks over the trash can and cuddles with me and my wife. A year later we adopted his half-brother, Atticus, and doubled our fun. And our mischief.

From across the room, both dogs seem to suspect when we’re angry or happy. All they need is a peek at our body language and facial expressions. If you have a dog, you’ve likely noticed the same thing. But did you know that dogs also can tell the difference between happy and angry faces in photographs?

One study says so. A team of researchers trained dogs to discriminate between images of the same person making a happy or angry face. Twenty dogs were shown photos of faces side-by-side on a touchscreen. Half of the dogs were trained to touch images of happy faces; the other group was rewarded for choosing angry faces.

The dogs needed only a little training before they could choose the angry or happy face more often than would be expected by random chance. So, not only can dogs learn to interpret their owners’ facial expressions, but they can also perceive emotions in photographed strangers.

A cool wrinkle in the study was that the dogs were slow to associate an angry face with a reward. Perhaps they instinctually knew to stay away from angry people, making it hard for the dogs to think angry people were linked to anything positive?

I can’t wait to see how this line of research progresses. In the meantime, I’m going to go smile at my dogs.

Originally posted on April 9, 2015.

 

Many people call laughter the best medicine, but did you know that it can also help you make new friends?

It doesn’t surprise me at all. Some of my best friendships have had their roots in belly laughs.

Sharing a laugh makes people more likely to open up to each other, according to a recent study. Laughter increases our willingness to share something personal, without even realizing that’s why we’re doing it.

Allowing someone to truly know us—perhaps sharing our most embarrassing moment, or talking about a personal goal or fear—is crucial in building and growing relationships.

To test their theories about laughter and self-disclosure, researchers gathered 112 students who did not know each other. They split them into groups and then showed each group a 10-minute “mood induction” video, one of which featured a standup comedian. (The other two were a golf instruction video and an excerpt from a nature show.) Researchers measured how much the students laughed and their other emotional states. The students also wrote a message to another participant to help them get acquainted.

The results: Group members who laughed together while watching the comedian shared much more intimate information than those who did not watch the comedy routine. That’s probably because laughter triggers the release of endorphins, which play a role in forming social bonds.

Try it out next time you’re in a social situation with strangers or mere acquaintances. If they’re a bit aloof, get them laughing. You’ll be surprised at how a little laughter can defrost even the toughest audience.

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Kevin Kozcicki/Getty Images

 

 

 

Originally posted on April 16, 2015.

 

Our brains are amazing. I am endlessly fascinated by how the brain works. In nearly every interview I do, the reporter asks, “What part of the brain lights up when that happens?”

Now reread the previous sentences. As you came upon each word, how did you read them? Did you look at each letter and arrange it into a word? Have you ever thought how we read? How can we skim so quickly through a passage and absorb its contents?

Our brains don’t look at letters. So says a new study. Instead of seeing a group of letters, our brain sees the entire word as an image. Neurons in our brain’s visual word form area remember how the whole word looks, using what one researcher called a “visual dictionary.”

Researchers tested their theories by teaching 25 adult participants a set of 150 nonsense words and investigating (using fMRI) how the brain reacted to the words before and after learning them. The results: The participants’ visual word form area changed after they learned the nonsense words.

Pretty cool stuff. But, it’s also useful. Knowing how our brains process words could help us design interventions to help people with reading disabilities. People who have trouble learning words phonetically might have more success by learning the whole word as a visual object.

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Pavelen/E+/Getty Images

Originally posted on July 2, 2015.

 

Not long ago, I enjoyed one of my favorite summer pastimes. With a close friend, I attended a Major League Baseball game. My team got clobbered, it rained, and I forgot to bring home the free Johnny Bench bobble head doll that I drove 90 minutes to get. But the trip was worth it because I witnessed something that borders on magic: kids dancing without a care in the world.

Whether they dazzle 25,000 spectators on a giant screen or an impromptu dance party in the living room, kids know how to get down. They often lack skill, grace, and sensitivity. But none of that matters. Feelings are facts, and kids know the definition of dancing is fun.

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Why does dancing lose its appeal? According to recent research, a better question is when does dancing become a downer? The decline of dance starts when we develop what is called a theory of mind, that pesky ability to infer another person’s mental states. A theory of mind lets the trick-or-treater know that the person underneath the mask isn’t really a goblin and what might make a parent buy a desired toy. A theory of mind also helps us think of how others judge our dancing. And that, my friends, is when dancing stops being so fun.

The upside is that there’s never of shortage of young people who haven’t gotten wise to how goofy dancing makes them look. This weekend I’ll go back to watch my team play. The kids will dance, the adults will laugh, and we’ll all enjoy a relaxing evening.

At the 2016 Stanford Psych One Conference, Linda Woolf (Webster University) suggested that during the Intro Psych learning chapter we talk about Hero Rats. This is a very nice way to help students see an example of the contributions psychological science is making to promote human rights around the world.

 

After covering operant conditioning, show Bart Weetjens 12-minute 2010 TED talk, How I Taught Rats to Sniff Out Land Mines (below). (Why rats, other than they are easy and cheap to train? They are too light to set off the mines.) In the second half of his talk, Weetjens discusses his new work on training rats to detect tuberculosis.

 

 

Alternatively, show students this 11-minute 2007 Frontline segment on Hero Rats. Before you play it, inform students that there is an error in the video. Can they identify it? [In the video, the conditioning is called classical/Pavlovian, but it's actually operant. The rats are clicker-trained. The rats learn that when they hear a click, they can run to a location, such as back to their trainer, to get a tasty treat. The click is a discriminative stimulus - "that sound is my cue to go get a snack".]

 

This website provides a nice written explanation of the process used to train the rats.

 

Is your class, psych club, or honor society looking for a project? Consider raising funds to support Weetjeens organization, Apopo.

 

Besides, Gambian (aka African) pouched rats are pretty darn cute. Even if (or because) their bodies can be a foot and a half long with a tail that matches their body length.

(Photo source: Gambian pouched rat - Wikipedia)