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Jul. 15 2010 — 12:11 pm | 377 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Barroom genetics: Triggering heavy drinking

A group of Chinese men take part in a beer dri...

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Recovering alcoholics are generally counseled to stay away from “people, places and things”—anything, that is, that might be a cue for drinking. Bars are an especially potent trigger for the cravings that can lead to relapse.

Yet sober alcoholics vary greatly in their susceptibility to such social cues. Many appear to have no problem hanging around taverns and parties sipping club soda, and some even work as bartenders. But others—even alcoholics with years of sobriety—get a yearning every time they see even a stranger hoist a glass.

Why do some find these cues so vexing, while others appear free of temptation? Some new research points to genetics—but with a surprising twist. While it’s long been suspected that heredity plays some role in alcoholism, the new work suggests that there may be a specific genetic predisposition for being tempted by others’ drinking. If this finding holds up, it could have important implications for the prevention and treatment of alcohol addiction.

The work comes from the lab of behavioral geneticist Helle Larsen at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Larsen and her colleagues actually created a fake bar for their study, complete with actors playing teetotalers, light drinkers, and indulgent drinkers. They brought more than a hundred men and women into the bar, one by one, under the pretense that they were taking a half-hour break from a completely unrelated study. These men and women would—seemingly by chance—end up chatting at the bar with one of the actors, who would either drink soda, nurse one beer or glass of wine, or toss back three or four drinks in rapid succession.

There were no teetotalers among the subjects. They typically drank about 14 drinks a week. The idea in this study was to see whether their drinking on this particular occasion was influenced by the drinking they observed in the fake bar—and more to the point, whether their actions were associated with their genetic make-up. The scientists had taken saliva samples earlier, and examined each subject’s DNA for a genetic variation already considered suspect in heavy drinking.

The results were clear and provocative. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those with the suspect gene did indeed ape the drinking habits of the person on the next bar stool, but only if that person was drinking a lot. Under that condition, the genetic “carriers” drank twice as much as those lacking the genetic variation. In other words, the bar itself didn’t trigger heavy drinking, nor did the tinkling of glasses or even normal social drinking. The only thing that made those with the unfortunate genes drink too much was seeing someone else boozing.

Jun. 29 2010 — 2:39 pm | 320 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Goalkeeping with an ancient mind

Penalty Kick (2 of 2)

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Behavioral economist Ofer Azar did an intriguing study of premier soccer goalies a few years ago, worth dusting off for the World Cup. Azar, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, studied penalty kicks. A penalty kick is awarded after a foul, and is often used as a tie-breaker in championship games.  A designated player stands 36 feet from the goal, which measures 24 feet side to side. Only the opposing goalie stands between the kicker and the goal, so it’s a high probability shot. In fact, with the typical penalty kick flying at more than 60 miles per hour, the goalie has only a fraction of a second to respond.

Facing such a physical challenge, professional goalies must decide before the actual kick what they will do: go right, go left, or stay put. So Azar decided to study what they actually do—and what they should do to be successful. He collected data on more than 300 of the top keepers in the world in action, and found a clear pattern: Goalies had the best chance of stopping a penalty shot if they just stayed put, smack in the center of the net. If they did this—that is, moved neither left not right–they were able to stop the opponent’s shot 33.3 percent of the time. That’s not great, but it’s a lot better than the other odds: Goalies who made a guess and jumped left stopped only 14.2 percent of the shots, and goalies who dove right stopped a dismal 12.6 percent. That’s one in eight, which means seven of every eight penalty shots flew past for a score. That can’t feel good.

Indeed, it felt lousy. Azar interviewed the goalies about their decisions in the net, and he found that their emotions played a major role in goaltending strategy. Despite the clear statistical advantage of staying put in the center, only about 6 percent of goalies actually choose to do this. Why? Because they feel worse if they fail standing still—worse than they feel if they fail diving. In other words, taking any action—even an action doomed to failure—is better than inaction, because doing nothing and still failing is emotionally unacceptable. That’s the heuristic mind that makes movement an emotional choice, and it takes a lot of effort to alter the impulse.

Azar doesn’t care all that much about soccer. In fact, he published these results in the Journal of Economic Psychology, because his real interest is how and why people make irrational choices in business and personal finance. And it’s clear that most of us are just as irrationally biased toward action as these world-class goalies. As I describe in my forthcoming book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, we have a powerful urge to “do something” even when the “something” doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This almost certainly derives from an ancient and powerful habit of dealing with threats through action.

Jun. 17 2010 — 9:22 am | 665 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Does Botox impair empathy?

ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 05:  Recently laid off wo...

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Hollywood film directors were among the first to recognize the downside of Botox. Several years ago, Martin Scorsese, whose works include Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Departed, became an early and outspoken critic of the anti-aging treatment. The Academy Award-winning director complained that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find an actress who could use her face to express the range of human emotion, especially anger.

It may be worse than the famed director suspected. New evidence is now suggesting that Botox may harm not only the expression of emotion, but also its comprehension. The facial paralysis that does away with unwanted frown lines may cripple a crucial ability to process emotional language.

That’s the conclusion of David Havas, a psychological scientist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Havas and his colleagues did not set out to study the unintended consequences of the controversial cosmetic treatment. Their goal was to study the role of the nervous system in normal language processing, specifically the idea that people comprehend emotional language in part by involuntarily simulating emotions with their facial nerves and muscles. They used injections of the neurotoxin to disable certain facial nerves as a way of testing this theory.

The scientists studied first-time patients who were scheduled for Botox treatment to get rid of their frown lines—a treatment that works by paralyzing a particular set of facial muscles. Since frowns are an important element in anger and sadness, they wanted to see if disabling the frown muscles impaired comprehension of sad and happy sentences—but not happy ones. They had the patients read dozens of sentences of each kind, both before Botox treatment and two weeks later, timing them to see if there was any slowdown in reading speed as a result of the treatment.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the scientists not only verified their theory of language processing, they also showed that getting rid of frowns selectively impairs the ability to understand angry and sad sentences. In other words, it’s normal to frown—undetectably—when we try to process anger and sadness. If we can’t frown, our emotional understanding breaks down.

The popularity of Botox has of course spread far beyond Hollywood since Scorsese first sounded the alarm about those in the acting biz. The director might now be concerned about the emotional depth of his audience as well.

Jun. 16 2010 — 11:29 am | 358 views | 1 recommendations | 4 comments

Gulf psychology: My own private oil spill

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Soon after Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the press got whiff of a rumor that the 39th president was personally handing out court times for the White House tennis court. He soon got a reputation, earned or not, for being a micro-manager who failed to see the big picture. Dan Ackroyd of “Saturday Night Live” was merciless: He parodied the cardigan-wearing executive’s radio chats with the American people, in which he adroitly fielded questions on everything from knotty plumbing problems to bad acid trips.

Nobody wants their president to be a micro-manager. It’s not plausible that any leader of such a complex nation could have all the answers, with Xs and Os. On the other hand, in times of crisis people want a few Xs and Os—not ideals and morals and abstractions. Last night we learned from Obama that his energy chief has a Nobel Prize, and we heard some lofty rhetoric about the importance of alternative energy sources for the future. We heard about how irresponsible BP is, and how a new sheriff at MMS is going to make things right. What we didn’t hear is how a particular Navy submariner is going to dive down and stop the goop from spewing. That’s really all people care about right now.

New York Times columnist David Brooks picked up on this in his commentary after the speech. He compared Obama’s speech to wartime radio broadcasts of FDR, who urged citizens to get out their world maps as he walked them through concrete strategies he had planned for particular locations in the war effort. FDR was very capable of lofty rhetoric when that’s what he needed, but he also knew when to can the rhetoric and unfold the game plan.

Brooks is an intuitive cognitive psychologist. One of the most robust ideas to come out of psychology labs in recent years is what’s called “personal geography.” In broad paraphrase, this means that we see our world not literally but through the lens of our emotions, so that things at a distance are cool abstractions and vague generalities; things that are close have immediacy and power. That’s why a jet airplane crashing in our neighborhood is so much more upsetting than the same jet crashing on the other side of the country. Conversely, talking coolly and abstractly about an event makes it seem not urgent but theoretical and unthreatening.

Obama got elected in large part because of his brilliant rhetoric, his sweeping promises and broad vision. Nobody wants their candidate to talk realistically about the nitty-gritty and day-to-day details of actually enacting such a vision. Obama is no doubt right that we need to think about the Gulf oil spill through the perspective of our overall energy needs—but long-range perspective is not what Americans want from their president right now. This isn’t an energy problem to the shrimpers of Louisiana; it’s a survival problem. And Obama’s challenge is to make it a survival problem for all of us. Now is the time for war maps and concrete strategies and getting down in the muck—anything that makes this distant Gulf oil spill part of every citizen’s personal geography.

Jun. 9 2010 — 3:28 pm | 322 views | 1 recommendations | 3 comments

The perils of the ‘halfalogue’





“That’s what she said!”

“No, not that way”


“So you’ll”

“So you”

“So snacks and”

“All right”

“All right”

“And beer”

That’s a snippet of conversation I overheard on my morning bus ride today. A young woman was chatting on her cell phone, and even though she wasn’t especially loud or animated, I found it very distracting. All I wanted to do was read the sports pages, but the fractured dialogue made it very difficult to concentrate.

That’s not a literal transcript obviously, but you get the idea. You’ve no doubt heard similar bits of chatter recently, now that cell phones are ubiquitous in public places. Nobody expects quiet on a public bus, but for some reason I find such cell phone chatter even more of an intrusion than the usual hubbub of a daily commute.

New research suggests that I may be on to something, and hints at why these cell phone conversations may be especially annoying. Indeed, Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson has coined a new word—“halfalogue”—to capture the special nature of overheard cell-phone conversation. Her idea is that it’s not the actual spoken words that are most distracting, but rather the unheard half of the dialogue. The human mind can’t stand not knowing the whole story, and is compelled to fill it in, and that act of imagination depletes the attention needed for reading about last night’s ball game.

That’s the theory in any case, which Emberson and her colleagues* decided to test in the laboratory. They recorded actual conversations between college roommates, and then used this recorded speech to make tapes of both regular two-person chats and one-sided halfalogues. In addition, after the conversation, they had one of the roommates summarize the conversation out loud, creating a monologue. So they ended up with three recordings of different kinds of speech one might hear on a commuter bus.

Then they sat a group of volunteers at computer screens and had them do two difficult cognitive tasks. In one task, they had to track a moving dot with a cursor, as it moved randomly around the screen. In the second task, they had to remember four letters, and respond rapidly if one of those four letters appeared on-screen, ignoring any other letters. So both tasks required concentration, but one tapped more into agility and the other into short-term memory and self-control.

Some did these tasks while listening to a monologue, others while listening to a dialogue, and still others while hearing a halfalogue. The results? As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, merely listening to the halfalogue seriously undermined the volunteers’ performance on both cognitive tasks. By contrast, neither the monologue nor the dialogue had this deleterious effect—even though these types of conversation actually contained more potentially distracting sound. The scientists conclude that it is the unpredictability of the halfalogue—the missing half of the story—that makes it so irresistible that it interferes with thinking.

Forget my bus commute. Maybe I’m just being petty. But the researchers chose these two cognitive tasks for a reason—to simulate the real-life demands of driving. The visual task is meant to measure the kind of vigilance needed to stay in a traffic lane, for example, while the reaction-time task taps into the kind of attention required to observe and obey traffic signals. In other words, it’s possible that a driver’s concentration might be impaired by simply overhearing a cell-phone conversation. Maybe even a bus driver’s.

*Michael Goldstein of Cornell, Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania, and Michael Spivey of the University of California at Merced

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    About Me

    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    We’re Only Human

    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.