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Gratitude Is the New Willpower

Harvard Business Review:

A fascinating study that shows another benefit to being grateful for one’s good fortune: restraint and willpower.

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to building capital. But as with most virtues, it’s not always easy to muster, since it usually requires resisting temptations for gratification on the sooner side. Should you put the extra $1,000 earned this month in your retirement savings or use it to buy a new suit? Should you approve money from the firm’s “rainy-day” fund to cover travel for senior executives (yourself included) to a lavish conference this summer or let it continue to accrue as a buffer for future challenges? Such decisions – a type referred to by economists as intertemporal choices – are characterized by options that offer different rewards as time unfolds. That is, they contrast smaller pleasures or gains now with larger pleasures or gains later.

Almost everyone – from individual investors to CFOs of large corporations – would probably agree that the best way to choose between…

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Map: All the Love in the World

It goes without saying that love is complicated no matter you go. But the degree to which it is difficult to find or feel love varies from country to country, as the following map from The Atlantic shows:

The map represents one of the most comprehensive assessments on love ever compiled thus far. Here’s more on it:

In 2006 and 2007, Gallup asked people in 136 countries whether they had experienced love the previous day. The researchers found that on a typical day, roughly 70 percent of the world’s population reports feeling love. The world leader in love turned out to be the Philippines, where more than 90 percent said they had experienced love, and the world’s laggard Armenia, where only 29 percent of respondents did. In the United States, 81 percent replied in the affirmative. 

Love appears to be flourishing in the Americas, achieving mixed results in Africa, and languishing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But [economist Justin] Wolfers cautions against reading too much into the data. “[D]ifferences between countries may be due to how cultures define ‘love’ and not in actual day-to-day experiences,” he writes. “For example, in some countries, the idea of ‘love’ is restricted to a romantic partner, while in others it extends to one’s family members and friends.”

Yes, so let’s not jump the gun and assume that the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa are dour and curmudgeon places: they might just have a more narrow or specific understanding of love (indeed, this is the issue with any global index that tries to measure complex attitudes and concepts across a range of different linguistic and cultural groups). 

Here are some other interesting conclusion pulled from this study:

Wolfers and his wife, the economist Betsey Stevenson, crunched the global data and arrived at some fascinating conclusions, including that feeling loved peaks when people are in their mid-30s or mid-40s, and that unmarried couples who live together report getting more love than married spouses. But perhaps their most interesting findings involved the complex relationship between money and love:

“What’s perhaps more striking is how little money matters on a global level. True, the populations of richer countries are, on average, slightly more likely to feel loved than those of poorer countries. But love is still abundant in the poorer countries: People in Rwanda and the Philippines enjoyed the highest love ratios, with more than nine in ten people providing positive responses. Armenia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, with economic output per person in the middle of the range, all had love ratios of less than four in ten.

Pretty interesting stuff. What do you think?

Men Increasingly Struggling With Body-Image Issues

It’s been long documented, even accepted, that women suffer from pervasive body-image problems. It says a lot about our society that we take it as a given that women are inherently concerned about their weight and appearance. While that sadly hasn’t changed, despite coming increasingly under scrutiny, the problem seems to have caught up with men as well, as reported in The Atlantic:

new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.

The trend toward weight obsession among boys is cause for worry, says Dr. Alison Field, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study. “You want people to be concerned enough about their weight to make healthy decisions,” she says, “but not so concerned that they’re willing to take whatever means it takes—healthy or unhealthy—to achieve their desired physique.”

Of the boys who were highly concerned with their weight, about half were worried only about gaining more muscle, and approximately a third were concerned with both thinness and muscularity simultaneously. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent were concerned only with thinness. Those statistics reflect a major difference between boys and girls when it comes to weight concerns: whereas girls typically want to be thinner, boys are as likely to feel pressure to gain weight as to lose it.

“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”

The culprit, as with women is media, particularly entertainment media:

If boys are increasingly concerned about weight, changing representations of the male form in the media over the last decade or two are at least partly to blame. “We used to really discriminate—and we still do—against women” in terms of media portrayals, says Dr. Raymond Lemberg, a Prescott, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders. “If you look at the Miss America pageant winners or the Playboy centerfolds or the runway models over the years, there’s been more and more focus on thinness.”

But while the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”

Even toys contribute to the distorted messages youngsters receive about the ideal male form. Take action figures, for example, which Lemberg suggests are the male equivalent of Barbie dolls in terms of the unrealistic body images they set up for young boys. In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”

I’m not sure if there’s any solid research linking idealized toys with warped views of body image, but the overall point remains: we’re surrounded by increasingly idealized and unrealistic standards of beauty that are being amplified by modern media and exploited (if not further amplified) by special interests seeking to profit on people’s desire to do whatever they can to meet these images. The problem is made worse by the widespread mentality that “real men” aren’t supposed to have body image issues — it’s a girl’s thing. Even if it’s recognized, there’s a misconception of how differently males suffer from the problem.

Although awareness of the risk of weight disorders among males is growing, there is still a problem with under-recognition, Field says, primarily because of the assumption that the disorders look the same in males as they do in females. Current assessments for eating disorders focus on the classical presentation typical of females, but since young men are often more concerned with gaining muscle than becoming thin, they typically don’t present as underweight, as girls often do. They’re also not as likely to starve themselves, use laxatives or induce vomiting; instead, they’re much more likely to engage in excessive amounts of exercise and steroid abuse. “Instead of wanting to do something unhealthy to get smaller, they’re using unhealthy means to become larger,” Field says.

But though the presentation might be different, excessive worries about weight, especially in combination with high-risk behaviors, are no less concerning in males than in females. According to Field, it’s time to sit up and take note of the boys. “Pediatricians and adolescent medicine docs and parents [need] to become aware that they should be listening as much to their sons’ conversations about weight as their daughters’.”

Having grown up obese, and now struggling with feeling too thin and out of shape, I can certainly relate with the low self-esteem and sense of personal failure that comes with not looking a certain way. Indeed, I imagine just about everyone shares this sentiment to some degree or another. While idealized standards of beauty have always existed, today’s world makes it far harder to avoid the pressure, especially when we’re equally bombarded with commercial solutions that supposedly help us.

Perhaps this development ties in with the increasing incidence of anxiety that is starting to characterize modern society, especially among younger people. Thoughts?

Inside the Mind of a Heroin Addict

Given the intense stigma of drug addiction, which is often met vicious condemnation and even disregard, the perspectives and mentalities of addicts themselves are rarely ever heard, much less sympathized with. This is arguably most true of heroin addicts, who are considered especially heinous given the intensity of that drug. Too many people see substance abusers as deserving of whatever horrible fate befalls them — after all, they put themselves in that situation, right?

Whatever motivations or triggers lead an individual to first try heroin — and more often than not, the habit is precipitated by an intersection of very complex psychological, social, and economic factors — the point is, they’re suffering immensely and don’t want to be where they are. The mind of an addict is a scary and hopeless place, as these series of accounts gathered by The Guardian attest. I urge everyone to read through them and try to get a little perspective on this neglected and misunderstood world of drug addiction.

As always, please feel free to weigh in.

 

 

Recent Research Finds Humans Have Only Four Emotions

From The Atlantic

Conventional scientific wisdom recognizes six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But the [University of Glasgow] scientists studied people’s facial expressions, and the emotions they signal, by showing people computer-generated facial animations. They asked the observers to characterize the faces based on those six basic emotions, and found that anger and disgust looked very similar to the observers in the early stages, as did fear and surprise. For example, both anger and disgust share a wrinkled nose, and both surprise and fear share raised eyebrows.

The thing was, as time went on, the face showed the distinction between the two, but when the emotion first hit, the face signals are very similar, suggesting, the researchers say, that the distinction between anger and disgust and between surprise and fear, is socially, not biologically based.

This leaves us with four “basic” emotions, according to this study: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.  These, the researchers say, are our biologically based facial signals—though distinctions exist between surprise and fear and between anger and disgust, the experiment suggests that these differences developed later, more for social reasons than survival ones.

“These results show that dynamic facial expression models transmit an evolving hierarchy of signals over time, characterized by simpler, biologically rooted signals early in the signaling dynamics followed by more complex socially specific signals that finely discriminate the six facial expressions of emotion,” the study reads.

The researchers posit that the wide-open eyes that come with fear/surprise are a response to “fast-approaching” danger, and that we widen our eyes to get more visual information. The wrinkled nose that comes with anger/disgust, they say, is a response to “stationary danger,” such as pathogens—by wrinkling your nose, you may be less likely to breathe in something harmful.

“Our data reflect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to subserve developing social interaction needs,” the authors wrote. By that they mean these four emotions are the basic building blocks from which we develop our modern, complex, emotional stews.

It’s remarkable how so many seemingly mundane characteristics of our species have vital evolutionary origins for our survival.

You Are What You Read

According to an article in Medical Dailya study conducted last year found that readers will unknowingly be influenced by, or even adopt, certain characteristics of the fictional characters they’re reading about.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

Experience-taking differs from perspective-taking in that you immerse yourself in the character you’re reading about, rather than simply try to comprehend what the character is experiencing.

For example, people who had strongly identified with a fictional character that overcame obstacles to vote were also significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days than participants who read a different story. But it gets more interesting:

Psychologists also found that it was critical for the story to reveal characteristics shared by the reader earlier rather than later for ‘experience-taking’ to take effect.

“The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character’s shoes,” researchers wrote in the report.

In an experiment consisting of 70 heterosexual males, who were asked to read a story about a homosexual undergraduate student revealed extraordinarily different results depending on when in the narrative the character’s sexuality was exposed.

Participants who had found out about the protagonist being gay later in the narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than participants who read that the protagonist was gay early on or read that the protagonist was heterosexual.

“Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story,” researchers wrote.

Notably, there were similar results with white students who read about a black student who was either identified as black early or late in the story.

So in essence, these stories prime our ability to empathize, which coincides with similar research I discussed months ago that found literature to have a positive effect on one’s level of compassion. Yet another post had explored the important role that fiction in particular plays in shaping our growth and development as a species.

Of course, this isn’t a surefire effect, as certain parameters are required:

The environment also played a major role in determining whether participants will engage in ‘experience-taking,’ according to the researcher.

In an experiment which required participants to read in front of a mirror, researchers reported that fewer readers were able to undergo ‘experience-taking’ because they were constantly reminded of their own self-concept and self-identity.

Researchers said that ‘experience-taking’ can only happen when readers are able to in a way forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity when reading.

“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said in a news release. “You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”

Notably, this effect only seems to occur with reading — film and television narratives, by contrast, delegate viewers to the role of spectator, which limits their ability to put themselves in the shoes of fictional characters.

“Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process,” Libby said, adding that the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, effects. 

“If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Libby told the Edmonton Journal.

Fascinating stuff. What do you guys think? Can anyone relate with this experience?

Does Thinking About Money Make You a Bad Person?

Most people would agree that time and money are very important things in life, second to or on part with love, healthy, and family. But can dwelling too much on one or the other influence your overall ethical character? According to a study reported in The Atlanticthe mere thought of trying to acquire more money — even by honest means — can make you a bad person.

“The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the “upper-class” was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It’s not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing.

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition.

The pernicious influence of greed, consumerism, and materialism is nothing new or controversial. But the idea that merely thinking about these things primes negative behaviors and ideas is an interesting one — and probably something most people would find contentious. After all, we’ve all thought about wanting to make more money at some point in our lives, so does that mean we’re periodically tempted to be dishonest or exploitative?

Well, why not? It’s not too difficult a conclusion for me to swallow, personally. Few human beings are ever consistent in their moral or ethical character, and most of us find ourselves frequently faced with temptations to do bad things (and justify them) for our own gain. So the idea that we can get carried away with our own desires, even if we don’t mean to be, isn’t terribly surprising.

And what about the influence of time?

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. “Even good people can and often do bad things,” Gino said in an email conversation. “People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral.”

In other words, if you make a habit of thinking about the bigger picture — what little time we have left to accomplish our goals or spend time with our loved ones, for example — you’re more likely to realize the error of your poor, short-term judgements.

It gets more interesting:

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. (“Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry”; “I’m not stealing from this national bank, I’m adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution”; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

Many people associate criminality and immorality with poverty and ignorance; but more often than not, the intelligent and otherwise well-off person has every reason to be a bad person — literally, they’re smart enough to figure out reasons to justify their malevolent actions. To me, this drives home the often neglected point that there is a difference between intelligence in terms of cognitive ability — retaining, learning, analyzing, and so on — and knowing about ethics, morality, empathy, and other things that underpin benevolent behavior.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. “In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay,” she said.

Introspection is key. Take more time to think about things and weigh the consequences and long-term implications. It’s not easy, but the potential rewards — for you, your loved ones, and the wider society — are vast. But in a world dominated by money, materialism, and cutthroat competition, this is even more challenging. It’s easy to justify dishonest behavior when you’re struggling in an increasingly inequitable and cynical world.

The Awesome Power of Our Divided Brain

The following video from RSA explains how the hemispheric nature of our brains — which is poorly understood by most people — has profoundly affected human behavior, culture, and society. It’s part of a lecture given by renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist, whose full talk can be seen here. I hope you enjoy.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and feedback.

Reading Literature Makes You More Empathetic

So not only does reading the classics enrich you culturally, but it may very well better your capacity to understand people.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the journal Science that gave tests of social perception to people who were randomly assigned to read excerpts from literary fiction, popular fiction or nonfiction.

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steel.

For example, folks who were assigned to read highbrow literary works did better on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which required them to look at black-and-white photographs of actors’ eyes and decide what emotion the actors were expressing.

This is the first time scientists have demonstrated the short-term effects of reading on people’s social abilities, says Raymond Mar, a psychology researcher at York University in Toronto. He has investigated the effects of reading in the past but did not work on this study.

“I think it’s a really interesting paper,” says Mar. “It seems to be largely consistent with this growing body of work showing that what we read and our exposure to narrative has a very interesting impact on our social abilities and our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling.”

Pretty interesting stuff. But where exactly do we draw the line between literary fiction and everything else? Well, the answer to that question explains why there seems to be a correlation between reading literature and being more attuned to other people.

Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. “You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.”

Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling.

“This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life,” says Castano.

This reminds me of my previous post about the evolutionary importance of art and literature. Not only do they serve as venues for sharing ideas, values, and even practical advice, but they apparently help build up the sort of empathy that is vital to human survival (since empathy in turn furthers cooperation and psychological well-being, which are vital to any high-functioning social species).

Castano says he doesn’t want people to think this study is a criticism of popular fiction, because there are lots of good reasons to read that, too. “But it’s unlikely that it’s going to train you to read other people’s minds.”

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

And there’s the upshot: even if the evidence thus far is scant, it’s vital that we take into account the importance of art to societal well-being. Culture exists for a reason: to transmit ideas, prevent boredom, comfort us, and — ultimately — to make us human.