Monday, June 30, 2014

Why is Home More Stressful than the Workplace?

Why Is Home More Stressful Than the Workplace?
And who feels loved?
Published on June 23, 2014 by Ken Eisold, Ph.D. in Hidden Motives

It certainly goes against conventional wisdom, but according to a new study, reported in The Wall Street Journal, we experience more stress at home than we do at work, measured by cortisol levels in the blood.

There are several reasons for this, suggests the lead researcher on the study: “Paid work is more valued in society,” while on the other hand, “Household work is monotonous and not particularly rewarding.”

Then there is the fact that “We get better at our job with time (hopefully), and the increased competence means less stress and more rewards,” while “none of us…ever truly feels like an expert at parenting or even at marriage.

“We are more likely to feel appreciated at work,” she adds. “At home many of our efforts go unnoticed.”

Finally, “There is behavioral etiquette at work. No yelling, storming off or crying–at least, not if we want to keep our job and our colleagues’ respect.”

All these factors provide defenses against stress and anxiety.

But then there is the question of happiness. The Journal went on to say: “Both men and women showed less stress at work. But women were more likely to report feeling happier there. Men were more likely to feel happier at home.”

“The researchers say this may be because women still do more housework and child care and may feel they have less free time.” Yes, there is more work for women at home and, in many families, no time off. But I think the important reason for the difference is that men, by and large, are the major beneficiaries of that work. They are the ones whose laundry is done, whose beds are made, who are cooked and cared for. (See, Work Creates Less Stress Than Home, Penn State Researchers Find.”)

This is not to affirm the stereotypes of the sixties, the adoring wife of the sitcoms who greets her husband at the end of the day with a kiss and a martini, but just to observe that men can more easily experience the work women do to maintain the family as forms of attention and care. They can feel it as affection and love, even when that work is dutiful and routine. It may not be love in the full sense of the term, but it is calming and soothing. Built into the maternal role, often taken for granted it is powerful, even when unrecognized.

This dynamic is somewhat analogous to what I imagine animals feel who stick close to the caregivers who feed them, confident that their hunger is understood and will be responded to, grateful and secure, even if they cannot put those feeling into words.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Me, My Brain and I: Our Sense of Self

Me, My Brain, and I
New insights about the self—what it is and what it does—from neuroscience.

Published on June 18, 2014 by Dr. Elliot T. Berkman in The Motivated Brain

We all have a sense of “self,” a term that encompasses both who we think we are and our present moment experience. Philosophers and psychologists have pondered the nature of the self and our experience of it for centuries: What is it? What does it do? Does it even exist, or is it some kind of epiphenomenon? I’ll tell you straight off that we don't yet and perhaps never will have satisfying answers to these questions. But psychologists using tools from neuroscience such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the self have added some interesting wrinkles to the discussion. My colleagues Jennifer Beer, Georg Northoff, Markus Quirin, and I presented some recent insights from neuropsychology about the self at the meeting last month of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco.

Dr. Beer presented studies about the neural underpinnings of one of the most interesting and pervasive aspects of our self-views: that they tend to be unrealistically positive. Two alternative possibilities might explain this effect. One is that we are motivated to see ourselves positively to bolster our self-esteem; the other is that our biased self-perceptions are instead due to the fact that snap judgments about our attributes are generally positive because thoughts about ourselves being good come to mind more easily than thoughts about ourselves being bad. These possibilities are difficult to disentangle, but Dr. Beer has shown that the neural network underlying flattering self-evaluations motivated by self-protection is distinct from the one underlying flattering self-evaluations made in the absence of a self-esteem attack. The networks share only one region, the orbitofrontal cortex, which engages with entirely different regions depending on whether or not self-esteem is threatened. These results are informative to the broader discussion about self-perception because they establish that there are multiple routes to positive biases.

Neuro self examination
New insights about the self—what it is and what it does—from neuroscience
Dr. Northoff discussed research from his lab exploring the functions of the brain during “resting state,” in the absence of specific external stimuli or a task. The fact that the resting brain is actually quite active, and moreover has a characteristic pattern of activation, has been known for over a decade now. But the meaning of this activity and whether or how it affects cognition is not yet understood. Dr. Northoff has found at least one such function of this resting state activity: facilitating self-consciousness. He and his colleagues leveraged a clever study paradigm based on the fact that resting state activity is more likely during eyes-closed compared to eyes-open states. Participants in their study had a significantly greater neural response in auditory cortex to hearing names during eyes-open compared to eyes-closed (“resting”) states, regardless of whether those names were familiar or not. This is not surprising in light of previous work on the systematic differences between the two states. However, there was no difference in auditory cortex response between open and closed states when participants heard their own name, suggesting that participants were more prepared to hear their own name than non-self-related names during the eyes-closed (“resting”) state. He also presented data from patients with vegetative states. Despite their loss of consciousness, these patients' brains nevertheless processed stimuli related to the self such as their name or autobiographical events differently from non-self information. Dr. Northoff therefore raised the question whether there is an unconscious “self hidden” in our brain and its resting state activity that remains even when consciousness is lost. "The self is everywhere at any time" he concluded.

A line of research in Dr. Quirin’s lab answers a question related to both positive self-perceptions and self-consciousness: how do we maintain a clear distinction between our own, intrinsic goals and others’ extrinsic expectations of us, preventing what he calls “self-infiltration?” His studies (reported elsewhere; he was unable to attend the session) show that activity in the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) while thinking about self-chosen goals is related to a lower number of self-infiltrations and better self-esteem and emotion regulation. This area might thus play an important role in constituting a sense of self-determination, which requires (at least) both self-regulation and accurate introspection. Intriguingly, the right vmPFC is anatomically located between the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is critical for self-regulation, and the orbitofrontal cortex region that Dr. Beer implicates in adjusting for overly-positive self-perceptions, suggesting an interesting parallel between neural and psychological self-processing.

Together with my graduate students Jordan Livingston and Lauren Kahn, I’ve been trying to understand the point of intersection of two seemingly distinct parts of the self: knowledge of who we are and want to be (identity), and conscious experience of the present moment. After reviewing research literatures in social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, we formulated at least a partial answer. Identity influences our present moment experience by modulating the subjective value we place on immediate actions and decisions, which in turn has a powerful influence on how well we guide our behavior in a goal-directed manner. For example, a person who thinks of himself as a healthy person (i.e., healthfulness is part of his identity) will place higher present-moment value on health-relevant actions such as exercise, and, all else being equal, will have an easier time engaging in those behaviors compared to someone else who doesn’t identify with the concept of health. This theory is supported by threads of research in psychology about self-determination, self-regulation, and self-esteem, as well as by the meta-analytic finding that the neural systems involved in valuation and reward overlap considerably with those involved in self and identity. An intriguing idea that follows from this theory is that a core purpose of the identity aspect of the self may be to impart immediate, present-moment value to actions consistent with long-terms goals that would otherwise have very little immediate value.

As I warned you up front, we are still a long way from conclusive answers to big questions about the self, and I expect things will stay that way no matter how sophisticated our research methods get in psychology and neuroscience. Listening to my colleagues present these talks, I occasionally had the feeling that bringing neuroscience to bear on these questions might even be moving us in the wrong direction, toward more complexity, nuance, and interrelatedness. Each talk highlighted the interactions among multiple aspects of what we call “self” and, at times, blurred the hard lines that we draw between them. But, of course, that is exactly how we know when we’re making progress.

Note: This article is cross-posted at the SPSP blog, Character & Context.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

Self-Sabotage: The Enemy Within
We all get in our own way occasionally and some people do it repeatedly, whether it's procrastinating, drinking, or overeating. Self-sabotaging behavior results from a misguided attempt to rescue ourselves from our own negative feelings.
By Edward A. Selby, Timothy Pychyl, Hara Estroff Marano, Adi Jaffe, published on September 06, 2011 - last reviewed on June 05, 2014
Are you sabotaging yourself? Some people drink, some procrastinate, others are just way too modest. How do you get in your own way?

1: Dodging Emotions: The Help That Harms

We often get into trouble trying to escape intense negative feelings.

Everyone does it sometimes. Some do it regularly—shoot themselves in the foot or put obstacles in their own chosen path. Behavior is self-sabotaging when in attempting to solve or cope with a problem, it instigates new problems, interferes with long-term goals, and unsettles relationships.

Comfort eating is a common form of self-sabotage, especially when a person has weight concerns; self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is another common form, although procrastination may be the most common of all. Less common is self-injury/cutting to escape painful emotions, or going on shopping sprees when one can't afford the merchandise. Click here for more.

2: Procrastination: Oops, Where Did the Day Go?

We fool ourselves in the minute-by-minute choices we make.

When it comes to self-sabotage, procrastination is king. Why? Because procrastination is the gap between intention and action, and it is in this gap that the self operates. The undermining behavior lies in not closing the gap.

We make an intention to act, the time comes, but instead of acting we get lost in our own deliberation, making excuses to justify an unnecessary and potentially harmful delay. Who makes this decision? We do. The self, in fact, sabotages its own intention. Click here for more

3: Extreme Modesty: The Case of the Disappearing Self

There is a point at which ingratiation is corrosive, and women too often find it.

Self-sabotage can show up in the strangest places. Take the recent neuroscience lecture in New York, which was followed by the customary question and answer period. Eventually, the speaker announced there was time for only two more questions, and a female neuroscientist, probably in her late 30s, wound up with the last slot. But instead of asking her question straightaway, she fell into what might best be described as a self-effacing dance. "Oh my gosh," she said, curling around the microphone stand as if to disappear into it, "I'm the last questioner. I feel almost guilty." She declared her near-guilt again before posing her question. I forgot the question. But the prologue was memorable—it made the audience squirm. Click here for more.

4: Addiction: The Long Slide

"I Did All the Things I Wasn't Supposed to Do"

Self-sabotage is not an act, it's a process, a complex, tragic process that pits people against their own thoughts and impulses. Though we all make mistakes, a true self-saboteur continues to try to fix those mistakes by top-loading them with increasingly bad decisions.

Addicts, for example, present a parade of excuses and delusional thinking while avoiding the painful, decisive action necessary to set their lives right. All too often we hear stories of talented individuals who, despite much potential, allowed drugs and alcohol to drag them down. For some, this is fodder for celebrity gossip and tabloid junk. For me, it's the story of my life.

(to view the original article, click here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201406/are-you-your-own-worst-enemy?tr=HomeColTitle )

Monday, June 9, 2014

To Intervene or Not Intervene: How often do people step into the conflicts of others?

To Intervene, or Not to Intervene?
How often do people step into in the conflicts of others?
Published on June 4, 2014 by Jesse Marczyk in Pop Psych

For those of you unfamiliar with the literature in economics, there is a type of experimental paradigm called the dictator game. In this game, there are two players, one of which is given a sum of money and told they can do whatever they want with it. They could keep it all for themselves, or they could divide it however they want between themselves and the other player. In general, you often find that many dictators – the ones in charge of dividing the money – give at least some of the wealth to the other player, with many people sharing it evenly. Some people have taken that finding to suggest there is something intrinsically altruistic about human behavior towards others, even strangers. There are, however, some concerns regarding what those results actually tell us. For instance, when you take the game out of the lab and into a more naturalistic setting, dictators don’t really tend to give other people any money at all, suggesting that most, or perhaps all, of the giving we see in these experiments is being driven by the demand characteristics of the experiment, rather than altruism per se. This should ring true to anyone who has even had a wallet full of money and not given some of it away to a stranger for no reason. Real life, it would seem, is quite unlike dictator games in many respects.

Relatedly, around two years ago, Rob Kurzban wondered to what extent the role of ostensibly altruistic punishment had been overstated by laboratory experiments. Altruistic punishment refers to cases in which someone – the punisher – will incur costs themselves (typically by paying a sum of money in these experiments) to inflict costs on others (typically by deducting a sum of money from another person). What inspired this wondering was a video entitled “bike thief“, where a man tries to steal his own bike, using a crowbar, hacksaw, and power tool to cut the locks securing the bike to various objects. Though many people pass by the man as he tries to “steal” his bike, almost no one intervenes to try and determine what’s going on. This video appears to show the same pattern of results as a previous one also dealing with bike theft: in that video, third parties are more likely to intervene if the ostensible thief is black or a woman. In the former case, people are more likely to confront him or call the police; in the latter case, some people intervened to help the woman, not to condemn her.

I have long found these videos fascinating, in that I feel they raise a lot of questions worthy of further consideration. The first of these is how do people decide when to become involved in the affairs of others? The act itself (sawing through a bike lock) is inherently ambiguous: Is the person trying to steal the bike, or is the bike theirs but they have lost the key? Further, even if the person is stealing the bike, there are certain potential risks to confronting them about it that might be better avoided. The second question is, given someone has decided to become involved, what do they do? Do they help or hinder the thief? Indeed, when the “thief” suggests that they lost the key, the third parties passing by seem willing to help, even when the thief is black; similarly, even when the woman all but says she is stealing the bike, people (typically men) continue to help her out. When third parties opt instead to punish someone, do they do so themselves, or do they try to enlist others to do the punishing (like police and additional third parties)? These two questions get at the matter of how prevalent and important third-party punishment is outside of the lab, and under what circumstance might that importance be modified.

Though there is a lack of control one faces from moving outside of the lab into naturalistic field studies, the value of these studies for understanding punishment is hard to overstate. As we saw initially with the dictator games, it is possible that all the altruistic behavior we observe in the lab is due to experimental demand characteristics; the same might be true of third-party moral condemnation. Admittedly, naturalistic observations of third-party involvement in conflicts is rare, likely owing to how difficult it is to get good observations of immoral acts that people might prefer you didn’t see (i.e. real bike thieves likely go through some pains to not be seen so others might be unlikely to become involved, unlike the actors in the videos). One particularly useful context for gathering these observations, then, is one in which the immoral act is unlikely to be planned and people’s inhibitions are reduced: in this case, when people are drinking at bars. As almost anyone who has been out to a bar can tell you, when people are drinking tempers can flare, people overstep boundaries, and conflicts break out. When that happens, there often tends to be a number of uninvolved third parties who might intervene, making it a fairly ideal context for studying the matter.

A 2013 paper by Parks et al examined around 800 such incidents of what was deemed to be verbal or physical aggression to determine what kinds of conflicts arose, what types people tends to get involved in them, and how they became involved. As an initial note – and this will become relevant shortly – aggression was defined in a particular way that I find to be troublesome: specifically, there was physical aggression (like hitting or pushing), verbal aggression (like insults), and unwanted or persistent sexual overtures. The problem here is that though failed or crude attempts at flirting might be unwanted, they are by no means aggressive in the same sense that hitting someone is, so aggression might have been defined too broadly here. That said, the “aggressive” acts were coded for severity and intent, third-party intervention was coded as present or absent and, when present, whether it was an aggressive or non-aggressive intervention, and all interactions were coded for the sex of the parties and their level of intoxication.

The first question is, obviously, how often did third parties become involved in an aggressive encounter? The answer is around a third of the time, on average, so third-party involvement in disputes is by no means an infrequent occurrence. Around 80% of the third parties that intervened were also male. Further, when third parties did become involved, they were about twice as likely to become involved in an non-aggressive fashion, relative to an aggressive one (so they were more often trying to diffuse the situation, rather than escalating it). Perhaps unsurprising in the fact that most disputes tended to be initiated by people who appeared to be relatively more intoxicated, and the aggressive third parties tended to be drunker than the non-aggressive ones. So, as is well known, being drunk tends to lead to people being more aggressive, whether it comes to initiating conflicts or joining them. Third parties also tended to become more likely to get involved in disputes as the severity of the disputes rose: Minor insults might not lead to much involvement on the parts of others, while throwing a punch or pulling out a knife will. This also meant that mutually aggressive encounters – ones that are likely to escalate – tended to draw more third-party involvement that one-sided aggression.

Of note is that the degree of third party involvement did fluctuate markedly: The disputes that drew the most third-party involvement were the male-on-male, mutually aggressive encounters. In those cases, third parties got involved around 70% of the time; more than double the average involvement level. By contrast, male-on-female aggression drew the least amount of third-party intervention; only around 17% of the time. This is, at first, a very surprising finding, given that women tend to receive lighter sentences for similar crimes, and violence against women appears to be less condoned than violence against men. So why would women garner less support when men are aggressing against them? Well, likely because unwanted sexual attention falls under the umbrella term of aggression in this study. Because “aggressive” does not equate to “violent” in the paper, all of the mixed-sex instances of “aggression” need to be interpreted quite cautiously. The authors note as much, wondering if male-on-female aggression generated less third-party involvement because it was perceived as being less severe. I think that speculation is on the right track, but I would take it further: Most of the mixed-sex “aggression” might have not been aggressive at all. By contrast, when it was female-female mutual aggression (less likely to be sexual in nature, likely involving a fight or the threat of one), third parties intervened around 60% of the time. In other words, people were perfectly happy to intervene on behalf of either sex, so long as the situation was deemed to be dangerous.

Another important caveat to this research is that the relationship of the third parties that became involved to the initial aggressors was not known. That is, there was no differentiation between a friend or a stranger coming to someone’s aid when aggression broke out. If I had to venture a guess – and this is probably a safe one – I would assume that most of the third parties likely had some kind of a relationship to the people in the initial dispute. I would also guess that non-violent involvement (diffusing the situation) would be more common when the third parties had some relationship to both of the people involved in the initial dispute, relative to when it was their friend against a stranger. I happen to feel that the relationship between the parties who become involved in these disputes has some rather large implications for understanding morality more generally but, since that data isn’t available, I won’t speculate too much more about it here. What I will say is that the focus on how strangers behave towards one another in the lab – as is standard for most research on moral condemnation – is likely missing a large part of how morality works, just like how experimental demand characteristics seemed to make people look more altruistic than they are in naturalistic settings. Getting friends together for research poses all sorts of logistically issues, but it is a valuable source of information to start considering.

References: Parks, M., Osgood, D., Felson, R., Wells, S., & Graham, K., (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive Behavior, 39, 257-268.

Monday, June 2, 2014

What Your Clothes Are Telling You

What Your Clothes Are Telling You
Mind what you wear—it could change your life.
Published on May 27, 2014 by Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil., Oxon in Do Something Different

When a University professor asked students to put on Superman t-shirts, there was a scientific reason behind the request. Professor Karen Pine wanted to know whether the heroic clothing could really have an unconscious effect on the students’ thought processes. Her suspicions were confirmed. She found it boosted their impression of themselves and made them believe they were physically stronger than control groups. This, and other discoveries of how clothing can change our minds, is the topic of her new book called Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion.

When wearing a Superman t-shirt, Professor Pine’s students rated themselves as more like able and superior to other students. When asked to estimate how much they could physically lift, those in a Superman t-shirt thought they were stronger than students in a similar t-shirt without the Superman logo, or in their own clothing. Through the book Pine reveals how people’s mental processes and perceptions can be primed by clothing, as they internalize the symbolic meaning of their outer layers.

Clothes change how we think and feel

It is intuitive to think of clothing as mere covering, or the means by which we project our image to other people. In a previous blog I wrote about how small differences in clothing can influence others’ impressions of a person. But studies of enclothed cognition have shown that clothes can influence the wearer too, affecting their thought processes and influencing their mood. If you have ever been a hospital patient forced to wear a shapeless, pale, garment like a baby’s gown that gapes at the back, you may recall how it made you feel docile, trusting and helpless. Or perhaps you have experienced that sense of deindividuation, or anonymity, that comes from slipping into a uniform, or the power surge that accompanies the wearing of a sharp suit.

Research has now confirmed that the clothing is actually priming the brain to function and operate differently. In the 1990s Barbara Fredrickson found that women who were given a maths test performed worse when wearing a swimsuit than in a sweater, although men’s scores were unaffected by their clothing. The researchers attributed the women’s poorer maths performance in a swimsuit to the fact that self-objectification consumes mental resources. When her body is on display, a woman is concerned about others evaluating it, while the men in this study were less affected by this and could keep their minds on the sums.

In Mind What You Wear, Pine describes research by Adam Galinski, who first coined the term ‘enclothed cognition’ and who found that a person’s mental agility improved when wearing a white coat. The coat primed their brain to take on the sharper mental capacities they associated with being a doctor. Interestingly, participants’ performance was not significantly altered when they were told the coat was a painter’s coat, thus further demonstrating it is the symbolic association of the garment rather than mere material priming that is the mechanism for altered cognitions.

We become what we wear

Professor Pine gives many more fascinating insights into the cognitive, social and emotional consequences of clothing in Mind What You Wear. She describes the link between women’s moods and their clothing choices. Having found that women are more likely to wear jeans when feeling low or depressed, Pine explores how clothing can reinforce negative mood states. She also uncovers recent research into the link between mood and clothing, showing that when women are stressed their world narrows down and this results in them wearing less of their wardrobe, neglecting as much as 90 percent of it. As well as scientific research, the book also contains tips on how to feel happier and more confident with the right clothes, reminding us not only that we are what we wear, but that we become what we wear.

To view the original article, click here.