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53 Posts authored by: Nathan DeWall

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”?


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.


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.


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.

1435690658120.jpeg                  Mamigibbs/Getty Images


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.

Originally posted on September 24, 2015.


This past weekend, I gave myself an odd birthday present. I entered an ultramarathon. If you’ve read my posts, you know I like to run. For my birthday, I wanted to run 100 miles as fast as I could. Luckily, I had a perfect opportunity. There was a 24 hour running race within driving distance of my house.

There was a bigger purpose in my run. I could determine whether a recent test of my speed and endurance would replicate. Two weeks ago, I ran 100 miles in 22 hours and 10 minutes.

Replication is important. It tells whether repeating the essence of an experiment will produce the same result. The more the same sequence of events produces a similar outcome, the more we can depend on it. 

Psychology is embroiled in a current debate about replicability. All psychologists agree that replication is important. That is a requirement before you get your card when you join the psychologist club. The debate centers on the meaning of non-replication. A recent report found that 64 percent of the tested psychological effects did not replicate. Some have declared a war on current scientific practices, hoping to inch the non-replication rate down to a less newsworthy percentage. Others, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett, argue that non-replication is a part of science. It tells us just as much about why things do happen as to why they don’t.

My birthday run had everything I needed to make a replication attempt. Nearly everything was identical to the last time I ran 100 miles. The course consisted of a flat, concrete loop that was nearly one mile long. I ate the same foods, drank the same amount of water, and got the same amount of sleep the night before. All signs pointed to an exact replication.

Then the race started. The first 50 miles breezed by. I was over an hour faster than my previous run, but I felt pretty good. By mile 65, I was mentally fatigued. By mile 70, my body was exhausted. By the time I hit mile 75, I was done. Less than 16 hours had passed, but I was mentally and physically checked out. No replication.

There are at least two ways I can deal with this non-replication. The first is to panic. Either the people who counted my laps at the previous race did something wrong, I reported something wrong, or something else is wrong. It is as if it never happened. The next time someone asks me my personal record, I can tell them. But I must tell them that I don’t trust it. “Probably just a one-off,” I might say. “Tried to replicate it two weeks later and came up short.”

A second approach is to try to understand what contributed to the non-replication. Most things were the same. But some things were different, among them the wear and tear that long running has on the body and mind. Maybe I wasn’t fully recovered from the previous race. Maybe I ran too fast too soon. Or maybe I’m just not that fast.

Either way, it tells us a different story about replication. Replication science is possible, but we will always have non-replications. And those non-replications aren’t badges of shame. They tell us as much about the complexity of human psychology as the truth about how certain situations make us think, feel, and act.

It would be great if psychology’s non-replication rate dwindled to less than 5 percent. I doubt that will ever happen. Humans are squirrely animals. No matter how much we want to do the same thing twice, sometimes it doesn’t happen.