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May. 18 2010 — 2:26 pm | 339 views | 2 recommendations | 1 comment

A new twist on child abuse

Charles Dickens (1812–1870), whose works forme...

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Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel Oliver Twist has been called a textbook case of child abuse. The young hero is beaten again and again, locked up in the dark, and starved—for both food and affection. His world is a world of cruelty and alcoholism and crime and domestic violence, and he shows many predictable consequences of such harshness: passivity, fragile self-esteem, depression, delinquency.

Dickens was ahead of his time in sounding the alarm about the mistreatment of children. Indeed, the word “Dickensian” is used today to describe the crushing poverty and social dysfunction that can damage the mental health of the young. But Oliver may have paid a toll even worse than the Victorian scribe imagined. His chaotic world most likely scarred him at the most basic molecular level, damaging him severely enough to trigger chronic disease and early death.

That’s the conclusion from two University of British Columbia psychological scientists, who have been studying how harsh childhood experiences get “under the skin”—with medical consequences coming sometimes decades later. Gregory Miller and Edith Chen suspected that abuse and neglect might actually compromise children’s immune systems in lasting ways. Specifically, they wondered if emotional stresses in early life might lead to exaggerated inflammatory response to germs. Inflammatory response is a normal and essential part of the immune response to microbial threat, but chronically elevated inflammation has been linked to disease. They tested their idea in the laboratory.

The scientists recruited 135 young women—between 15 and 19 years old—and explored their family histories up to age 14. Most came from well-educated families, but some had experienced significant violence, threats, insults and more; others had not experienced such harshness. The researchers wanted to compare the immune function of the more and less fortunate young women. So, on three separate occasions over the next 18 months, the psychologists took blood samples from the teenagers, which they tested for two known indicators of heightened inflammatory response.

When they crunched all the data together, the results were clear and disturbing. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the teenagers who had been reared in difficult circumstances showed not only a greater inflammatory reaction—but also one that increased over time. If sustained, the scientists say, this upward trend could put young people on an irreversible path toward chronic diseases of aging. Perhaps most alarming, even teenagers from moderately harsh families showed these danger signs. In other words, it doesn’t take a Dickensian childhood to trigger unhealthy molecular changes with lifelong consequences.

May. 7 2010 — 10:28 am | 257 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The oil spill, the mapmaker heuristic, and me

States that border the Gulf of Mexico are show...

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It’s easy right now to think that the world is coming undone. The BP oil company has singlehandedly devastated the Louisiana coast. Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to blacken our skies and ground our jets. Terrorists are planting bombs in Times Square. Lacrosse stars are killing other lacrosse stars. Who could blame us for asking: What’s the world coming to?

In times like these, I turn to the mapmaker heuristic. That’s just a clever name for the brain’s deep-wired sense of psychological distance. The way we see events in our world depends a lot on how near or far away they are—actually and emotionally. That’s why it’s much more upsetting to have a 747 crash in our own neighborhood—right around the corner on Rodman Street—than in, say, Liverpool, England. This is an example of the mapmaker heuristic distorting our thinking. It tricks us into feeling that 300 people perishing on Rodman Street is more important and sad than 300 people perishing in Liverpool.

We are capable of talking ourselves out of such misguided heuristic thinking, but it does take effort. We are also capable of using hard-wired heuristic habits to our advantage. Consider the BP oil spill, for example. TV has brought that ecological disaster right into our living rooms, 24-7 if we allow it. That gooey muck is close, and we feel for all those shrimpers and other watermen and Katrina survivors. But try to view the Gulf coast from a different perspective, a much more distant one—say from the Hubble Space Station. The oil spill doesn’t go away, but you see it from afar, as one event among thousands of events taking place on the planet. Some of the events are bad—some really really bad—but a lot of other events are benign, some even celebratory. Kids are graduating from college and patients are surviving cancer and families are living in warm, well-lighted homes. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have empathy for Gulf coasters; we should. But getting some distance and perspective on bad events helps us defuse their emotional power in a helpful way.

The mapmaker heuristic also entwines our emotions and our sense of time. Say you are reading a history book, a history of prehistoric America, and you read a passage about a dramatic climatic event that did severe damage to the Gulf coast. It won’t be more than a couple sentences, because it’s not all that important in the scheme of things—and you’re unlikely to shed a tear over it. Or here’s an exercise for your heuristic brain:  imagine writing a history of the southern U.S. a couple hundred years from now: How many sentences will you devote to the BP oil spill?

I’m anticipating some indignant reaction to this, and indeed there is risk in “de-biasing” our heuristic thinking in this way. Aren’t we just tricking our minds into Pollyanna-like optimism? Sticking our heuristic heads in the sand when we should be using our anger to inspire action? There is some truth to this, but it’s also true that we can be too close to events; and when we are too close—geographically, historically, emotionally—our judgments and decisions become pure emotion. Pure emotion does not make for reasoned judgment.  Each of us has a mapmaker heuristic at work in our mind. Why not channel its power to achieve a balance of emotion and deliberation when we contemplate our world?

For more insights into the heuristic mind, pre-order Wray Herbert’s new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, which will be published by Crown in September. 

Apr. 22 2010 — 2:34 pm | 355 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

The ignorant and the furious: video and catharsis

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had many original and enduring ideas, but he didn’t get everything right. One idea that’s been pretty much debunked by modern psychology is catharsis. Catharsis is the notion that we can purge our negative emotions by acting them out or witnessing them in our arts and entertainment—and that such purging is a healthy thing to do. Not true. Indeed there is evidence that indulging our anger and aggression can increase—not decrease—those destructive emotions.

Even so, a lot of people still believe in catharsis. They believe that pummeling punching bags and watching Fight Club and cursing at the universe is cleansing. Scientists wonder if this unshakeable belief—even if it’s misguided—might be shaping behavior in important ways. A team of psychological scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research decided recently to explore this idea in a very modern domain: the world of video games.

Brad Bushman and Jodi Whitaker wondered if distorted beliefs about catharsis might be playing a role in the popularity of violent video games. Specifically, they wanted to see if believing in catharsis might influence angry people to vent their anger by playing these unsavory games. To test this, they recruited a large group of college students and instructed them to read two different newspaper articles on the science behind catharsis. Both articles were bogus, but some volunteers read an article extolling the value of catharsis, while others read an article refuting the concept. The purpose was to spark either belief or disbelief about the idea of catharsis.

Then the scientists used a well-known lab technique to anger only some of the volunteers. After writing an essay about an incident in their lives that had made them angry, these students received a cruel and insulting handwritten comment from another student: “This is one of the worst essays I’ve read!” The other students received lavish praise for their essays.

So at this point, half the volunteers believed in catharsis and the other half did not. And half of each group—believers and nonbelievers—was steaming with resentment. The next step was to give all the volunteers a choice of fictional video games, some violent and some not. The students rated how much they wanted to play each game, and they also named the actual commercial video games they preferred to play at home.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the fuming volunteers were much more likely to opt for the violent video games—but only if they believed in catharsis as a valid tool for channeling rage. Interestingly, the angry volunteers who did not believe in catharsis were the least likely to pick the violent games—even less likely, that is, than the upbeat volunteers.

The psychologists reran this experiment, but instead of using the fake science articles to prime beliefs, they measure the volunteers’ natural tendencies to vent their angry feelings. They got identical results. It appears that belief in catharsis increased the appeal of violent games in angry people.

Do these findings help explain why people are attracted to violent entertainment in general—and violent video games in particular? It’s not entirely clear, but it’s at least possible that the interplay of anger and belief plays a part. A worthwhile public health strategy might disabuse people of the belief that these games are a healthy outlet for life’s inevitable frustrations. One volunteer’s statement, which the scientists include in their report, captures this dynamic in a telling and disturbing way: “How could I squelch the urge to set my manager on fire,” the student asked, “if I couldn’t set people on fire in video games?”

Apr. 20 2010 — 2:52 pm | 425 views | 1 recommendations | 5 comments

The ironic power of caricature

Brent Staples is an editorial writer for the New York Times and a University of Chicago-trained psychologist. He is also African-American, and back in the 70s, when he was doing his graduate studies, he discovered that he could threaten white people simply by walking down the streets of his Hyde Park neighborhood. When white couples saw him coming, especially at night, they would lock arms, stop all conversation, and stare straight ahead. Sometimes they would cross to the other side of the street.

The white Chicagoans were obviously being influenced by the stereotype of the dangerous young black man. But the more sinister effects of the stereotype were on Staples himself. At first he played with this new-found power, deliberately using it to “scatter the pigeons.” But he also felt guilty about discomfiting innocent strangers, and ultimately he figured out a way to defuse his own potent symbolism. He did this simply by whistling—whistling Vivaldi. Somehow, whistling the sweet refrains of the Venetian composer’s Four Seasons was enough to trump the stereotype and put the neighbors at ease.

But Staples wasn’t at ease. Whether he was exploiting the stereotype or resenting it or actively countering it, it was on his mind, distracting him from other matters. Social psychologist Claude Steele borrows from Staples’s experience for the title and central metaphor of his new book, Whistling Vivaldi (W.W. Norton), an illuminating summary of many years work on stereotypes and “stereotype threat.” Stereotypes are rampant in society, Steele argues, but his purpose here is not to whine about the unfairness of these caricatured views. Instead, he takes us inside his and others’ labs to show precisely how stereotypes commandeer the mind and do their psychological damage.

Steele, who is also African-American, is especially interested in performance—in school, sports and the workplace—and indeed his work began with his curiosity about the sub-par performance of even the best African-American university students. He had a theory, which basically goes like this: Even in the absence of overt racism, stereotypes about unintelligent African-Americans are always “in the air.” That is, African-American students are aware of these common caricatures, and this awareness makes them anxious—anxious about reinforcing the group stereotype, contributing to its legitimacy. This anxiety, through a variety of physiological pathways, actually depletes the students’ cognitive reserves—leading, ironically, to exactly the poor academic performance that the stereotype predicts.

Steele marshals study after study to demonstrate the power of such stereotype threat. In a typical experiment, for example, he had both white and African-American students take a rigorous test, but beforehand he told only some of the students that it was a test of intelligence; the others believed it was a test of no particular importance. The African-American students who thought their intelligence was being assessed, and compared to white intelligence, did much worse on the exam—worse than the whites and worse than the African-Americans who were under no stereotype threat.

And it’s not just African-Americans who suffer under stereotype threat. If women believe they are being compared to men in math, they indeed perform worse on math tests. If white men are told that their natural athletic ability is being measured, they choke in a golf contest, losing to African-American golfers; but if they’re told that their golf acumen is being tested, they outperform African-Americans. Indeed, fifteen years of such studies has demonstrated the effects of stereotype threat in Latinos, third-grade schoolgirls, Asian American students, U.S. soldiers, female business students, older Americans, German and French students, aspiring psychologists. The list goes on.

Steele’s unique contribution is taking us inside the mind of the stereotype victim, and it’s not a pretty sight. When we’re unnerved by an unsavory caricature, our minds race: We’re vigilant; we’re arguing internally against the stereotype; denying its relevance; disparaging anyone who would use such a stereotype; pitying ourselves; trying to be stoic. In short, we’re doing everything except high level thinking—the kind that leads to academic excellence. We’ve channeled our limited cognitive power into dealing with the threatening caricature.

Steele ends Whistling Vivaldi with prescriptions for countering the effects of stereotype threat—creating self-affirming narratives, for example, and mind-sets that emphasize growth and change rather than fixed abilities. These are proven strategies for creating “identity safety,” but they need to begin early in children’s lives. Ignoring the perils of stereotypes is just another way of whistling in the dark.

Apr. 13 2010 — 10:53 am | 7,144 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

Spinning class, the scarcity heuristic, and me

I go to a spinning class a couple mornings a week, and it’s hard. Sometimes my quads burn and I don’t feel like spinning anymore.  So over time I’ve developed some psychological tools that help me keep my head down and get the most out of my morning workouts.

One of these tools is based on the so-called “scarcity and value heuristic.” Heuristics are the mind’s automatic, hard-wired habits. They are ancient and powerful and, for the most part, unrecognized. The scarcity heuristic is the brain saying, if something is rare, it much be good. The value heuristic says, if I really desire something, it must be scarce. These closely entwined heuristics reinforce each other in a kind of cycle, shaping all sorts of judgments and life decisions.

Sometimes heuristics are irrational traps, and other times they are indispensable short-cuts. The trick is to recognize them and use them in the right way. So, for example, when I really feel like dogging it at spinning class, I engage in some self-talk that goes something like this: This is 45 minutes out of the entire day, and 45 minutes is all you get. In an hour you will be at your desk, where you’ll stay for most of your waking hours. You’ll be envious of the joggers outside in the middle of the day.  It’s very unlikely that you’ll get more gym time once this 45-minute opportunity has ended, so treat it like gold.

Or some variation on that. Gold is a good example of the scarcity heuristic, because we value it entirely based on its rarity. You can’t build a skyscraper with it, or stay healthy by inhaling it. We need to think of exercise in the same way: The “supply” of spinning time is severely limited by our busy schedules, so we should be hoarding the little we have and really enjoying it.

Notice that all I need to do to make the scarcity heuristic work to my advantage is talk to myself. Heuristics may be hard-wired into our neurons, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless in their sway. Self-talk about the scarcity heuristic makes it relevant—and gives it power in our everyday choices.

Sometimes we have to trump the power of our heuristic mind, or channel it. Consider the “default heuristic.” This heuristic basically says: It takes a lot more energy to make a decision than not to make one, so unless there is a compelling reason to change, punt. Stick with the status quo; don’t change horses. It’s a very powerful cognitive mechanism, but even so you can change your default position, with a little insight and effort.

 I use this heuristic in my wellness routine as well. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of the business of life is just showing up. So some years ago, after many failed attempts at fitness, I made a vow to go to the gym every day.  Just “show up”—nothing more. I found a reasonably convenient gym so that wasn’t an obstacle, then started putting on my sweats every morning and showing up. If I exercised, great, but if I didn’t, that was okay too. I would make an appearance.

And you know what? I never once showed up without doing something—even if it was just stepping on the Stairmaster for 20 minutes. And it was almost always more, just because I was there, and why not? I was already sweaty. What I had done, without even realizing it at the time, was to change my brain’s default position. Nowadays, choosing not to head to the gym is what takes the effort.

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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.