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53 Posts authored by: Nathan DeWall

Originally posted on Quartz on July 2, 2017.


I'm often asked how I was able to go from inactive academic to participating in invitation-only ultramarathons. 

While it's no small feat, the three components of self-control--standards, monitoring, and strength--fortified my self-discipline. With those factors, and the additional and necessary support from my close relationships, practicing self-control ensured my success and gave me the opportunity to grow. 


Read more about my running journey the factors of self control here

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.