Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Your Friends are Ruining Your Life

For fairly obvious reasons medicine and health has received its fair share of scientific study. Our hunger for anything vaguely related to health is underlined by the media’s constant coverage of advances in the study of cancer and obesity. Something would seem amiss if we were to flick through a newspaper and not read about new obesity rate projections, cancer population statistics or the scourge of passive smoking. We know more than we ever have about what types of behaviours are bad for us and exactly how bad they are (normally presented in a convenient percentage to maximise both ease of understanding and anxiety for readers). Yet, the scientific community has also started to uncover reasons why these risky behaviours persist and one of them is sensationalist and headline making, to say the least.

Your choice of friends can put you at serious risk of obesity, cancer and an early grave. Although a shocking and dramatic concept, much research has amassed in support of this. Evolving in groups and reliant on each other for protection we find ourselves as naturally social creatures. We care about our position in the group and because of this we can be swayed by the group. Classic psychology experiments by the likes of Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch confirmed this notion over 40 years ago. Based on ingenious experimental studies Asch showed that in the laboratory we would follow the group and change our opinions and beliefs to fall into line with the crowd. But 40 years on we now know that these findings were not to be confined to the laboratory as recent research highlights the impact those around us have on personal health and well being in the real world.

A 2007 study led by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler published in The New England Journal of Medicine was one of the first hallmark papers in this area. The authors reported findings indicating that your likelihood of gaining weight and becoming obese drastically increased if a friend, family member or spouse has recently gained weight. In the case of a close friend, their recent weight gain increased a person’s chance of becoming obese by over 50% in this study. Similar findings have been reported for cancer screening and self examination – keeping company that aren’t of a health conscious nature significantly reduces ones likelihood of making adequate and regular checks.

So what explains these findings? There is thought that it is due to the operation of social norms. Generally speaking we look to what the norm is amongst those around us and then behave accordingly. One problem here of course is that large parts of society are overweight or unhealthy, which makes for norms we really could do without. A second problem is that research indicates people aren’t aware that social norms have such a strong influence on their behaviour. An interesting study headed by Lenny Vartanian showed that if participants believed their peers were eating a lot they followed suit and ended up overeating, but even more importantly they were adamant that social norms were not influencing their behaviour.

One obvious answer would appear to be to raise awareness about the influence unhealthy norms can have on our behaviour. But a more cunning and controversial approach would be to harness the power of social norms to help solve some of societies major health problems. Work from our laboratory this year has shown that informing people that a lot of people are actually trying to eat more healthily than might be expected has impressive effects on choice of healthier foods. In line with this idea a recent study in notable journal Psychological Science indicates that a similar approach could be adopted to nudge society in the right direction with regards to cancer screening. This kind of nudge approach has also been tested in the US to try and reduce high and irresponsible alcohol consumption and in doing so try and prevent burden on health, the economy and society.

Although possessing scientific backing, this strategy raises ethical dilemmas. Should we be using what is effectively propaganda to make society a healthier place to live? Is it justifiable to coerce, providing we have science on our side and are fairly sure it will work out for the best? Or should we forget fighting fire with fire and look elsewhere for the answer to society’s health problems? The alarming effect those around us can have makes for a great news story, but working out how we can tackle worrying levels of unhealthy behaviours   that are now becoming the norm yields an even greater challenge.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Unlucky in Love

Why is it some of us are terrible when it comes to meeting people? Dating, attraction and relationships are tricky, this, a lot of us will know for sure. But some people always seem to be getting it wrong. They exchange numbers, dating follows, but then the phone stops ringing and the texts dry up. Not having met the right one yet or being unlucky in love will be banded around as excuses by considerate friends and mothers, but the more often this happens, the less plausible these excuses seem. In every friendship circle there seems to be someone that falls into this unfortunate category. So what are they (or you, heaven forbid) doing wrong?

As soul destroying at it sounds, when trying to meet a partner we aren’t too different to properties on the housing market. There is lots of competition and everybody wants a good one for themselves. Much in the same way that sellers straighten skirting boards and adjust off centre cupboards, we all adjust our behaviour and sell ourselves a little when meeting new people – especially if we particularly like them. First impressions are obviously important. One ‘feature’ we might not think too much about censoring or adjusting is how we express our feelings of liking towards who we are courting. Yet, how we go about expressing liking is rather important, as for want of a more romantic phrase, it massively affects our market value.

You like someone a lot – should you be forthcoming with these feelings or should you be far more coy? This is a question agony aunt columnists have been toiling over for years. The answer is maybe neither, or at least this is what recent research suggests. Psychologist Erin Whitchurch and her colleagues wanted to examine this question and took advantage of Facebook to do so. Participants from the University of Virginia were led to believe they would be taking part in a study evaluating first impressions made through Facebook profiles. As a participant in the study you find yourself perusing several profiles of members of the opposite of sex. Conveniently these profiles are other students’ profiles from a different university and they have previously been doing the same with yours. Now, you are either told that based on your profile, they thought; a) you were very attractive and they would like to be romantically involved with you or, b) you weren’t particularly attractive and they weren’t too fussed. Later on after a bit more snooping you are asked similar questions about them.

So what do you think? Do we find what we can’t have most appealing? The answer is no. Knowing someone is interested in you makes them more appealing than knowing the opposite. So, to some extent we should be favouring expressing our liking when meeting new mates. However, in another condition of the experiment rather than being told they really liked you or didn’t like you, you get told neither. You instead are told that because of the way the experiment has been set up, there is a 50% chance they really are into you and a 50% chance they really aren’t. So what was the result?This uncertainty brings about the most attraction, as this information increased attractiveness ratings of potential mates well above the effect that the other two types of information had. Not quite knowing their feelings makes that person far more interesting, you are thinking and wondering. It is also rather exciting. The result is you are intrigued by them and want more. This of course is what we would like to be feeling when first meeting people and what we expect from ‘the one’ (horrendous turn of phrase).

Practically speaking we definitely shouldn’t express disinterest as this and other studies show liking tends to be a reciprocal process. If you like me, I like you. But based on this study, although a little ethically questionable, maybe we should be trying to be a little more coy when first meeting new people. If one can do this in a way that doesn’t constitute game playing and is more a case of tactically holding back to avoid coming on too strong, then it seems like a good idea.

From what we know so far, moderation seems most sensible. Expressing liking is fine, but too much too soon isn’t probably the best strategy. But shouldn’t we just be able to shout our love from the roof tops and not have to worry about reserve and restraint? In an ideal world maybe, but in this world it is a bad idea, especially if your desired partner is somewhat of a cynic. Although liking is reciprocal, expressing too much liking too early one is dangerous because it can raise doubts over how often this might have happened before. You meet a guy, 2 dates in and he adores you and sings your praises a little too much. The problem here is that it can make one wonder whether you could be any other girl off the street. Coming on too strong too soon might have some slight advantage to start with, but then it may just come across as weird. You are in danger of looking unselective. This is bad territory to be in.

A 1970’s study by Walster and colleagues underlines this well. Making use of a dating agency rather than Facebook, researchers again found that playing it too cool is a bad idea. But they also showed that the way you express liking is very important. It turns out that if a potential partner gets the impression that they aren’t the only one you find appealing, they are really put off. Coming across as lacking selectivity in who you find appealing/desirable is massively unattractive. It isn’t entirely clear why, but feelings that our relationship being special or unique (something we hope our relationship should be) is likely to be called into question. Moreover, one can’t help but start to wonder – if anyone can have him/her is he/she worth having or are they just desperate? Most of us probably old an implicit belief that our relationships and partners should be something special and central to this concept is selectivity, so to commit to a partner most of us will need to feel that it is for something special.

Is all of this just common sense that we already know? To some extent this might be true and if you are happily paired up you might be even more inclined to agree. But my guess is that your over keen and very single friend might be getting things very confused. Keenly expressing liking early on might seem like a good idea on a few different levels. In your mind this may be a way of laying your cards on the table and ensuring you know you won’t be wasting your time on a lost cause. Showing you like someone in a more adult way might also seem like a good idea, as you might hope you will get them hooked and wanting more. The problem with both of these approaches is that they may be turning your desired partner off rather than on. It seems as though too much too soon can be a problem because it questions two things we crave from partners – 1) Feelings of excitement and intrigue & 2) That they want us - and only us.


Don’t play too hard to get.
If you put it about, keep quiet about it.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Being A Terrible Boyfriend in the Name of Love

Norms and convention guide us. In many contexts we internalise what other people are doing, what seems ‘normal’ and then behave accordingly. Forever changing fashion trends highlight this seemingly inherent part of our nature. Just as quickly as a look or style can become popular, as soon as others denounce it as being ‘so last year’ we move onto something else. It soon becomes forgotten and rarely seen. Although a good example of how we behave in line with norms and conventions, fashion trends probably aren’t too much of a serious issue. Yet, an issue arises when norms and convention cause us problems or stop us from living as well as we might do. Often following convention works out for us pretty well – sleep about 8 hours a day, look after your children, avoid going out on a school night and so forth. But it is an error of reasoning to take from this that convention and norms will always ‘work for us’. Relationships are no exception. I suggest that in some instances, following how convention tells us to behave in relationships isn’t a very good idea.

If you are in a relationship, generally speaking, you want it to work well. The benefits are obvious. But how should I behave in a relationship? What should I be doing? How should we be living? These are probably the kind of questions we should be asking ourselves if we care about our relationships. Our primary source of information is to look at what everyone else in a relationship tends to do. If we dig further, we might peruse women’s magazines and agony aunt columns. The problem with what is ‘normal’ and the contents of women’s magazines is that they aren’t necessarily right. Convention isn’t always worth following. When we think about accomplished chefs and scientists – they ask questions of convention and achieve excellence through defiance. Through trial and error they learn what conventions can be broken and dispensed with. So how does this relate to relationships? It suggests that there are likely to be some long established conventions we should drop and in doing so, improve our relationships. Backed by psychology I think I have found some. We shouldn’t be afraid of defying convention if such defiance can work for us. In contrast to what is expected of us in relationships, dependent on your disposition the good/bad news is that we should:

Avoid sharing our passions with partners
Avoid spending time with our partners all together
Watch our partners like hawks
Stop sleeping with our partners

Why shouldn’t we include our partners in our own passions? We shouldn’t because they might end up ruining them. Based entirely on gender stereotypes, it is likely that boyfriends accept getting dragged shopping and girlfriends put up with getting dragged to the football. But they shouldn’t be putting up with this at all. It is bad for everyone involved. We are all different: arty films, Chinese food and karaoke bring about diverse reactions, negative and positive. Having to do something you don’t enjoy (even if it is with your partner) is the first problem. I am all for trying new things, but if you are sure you don’t like something, you should avoid doing it. The other problem is that merely being there has the potential to ruin it for your partner also. Research by Raghunathan and Corfman (2006) has examined how sharing experiences can have a down side. Across a series of studies, in conditions of their experiments the researchers examined how enjoyment, of a film for example, can be influenced by how much your viewing partner likes or dislikes the experience. The good news is that engaging in an experience with a person who likes it as much as you do makes it more enjoyable than watching it alone. The bad news is that the presence of another person liking it less than you do drags your enjoyment down. Why does this occur? Seeing our partner having a more negative experience can do two things –1) make you question how similar and close you are - 2) cause you to question our your own views and integrate your partners negatives evaluations into our own. What about in the unlikely event that you partner is extremely considerate/a push over and suffers in silence? It may still be a problem because of mood contagion, whereby without knowing; the moods of our partners bring ours down too. Ramanathan & McGill have shown that our partner’s unconscious facial reactions have a rippling effect and influence us unconsciously too. The outcome being that our enjoyment is shaped by others enjoyment.

Thus, although shared joys seem like a good idea, sharing experiences that one partner doesn’t enjoy doesn’t work well for either party. This is also good news as putting an end to this will enable you to spend less time with your partner. After 10 years of marriage boredom can kick in (which works well for friendsreunited.com). People habituate to things and get bored of them over time. Food is a good example, the first bite of a meal is great but the last isn’t as good. Our reaction to a newly released song is the same. Listening to it for a while can bring about euphoria, but after having downloaded it and played it to death on repeat, we get bored of it a day or two later. What does this mean for relationships? In order to enjoy our partners more we should think about how often and when we see them. Studying habituation, Epstein and colleagues (2011) show that if we are exposed to something repeatedly we enjoy it less. However, if we partition and have a day off for example, habituation ‘resets’ and enjoyment is back where it started. Of course we shouldn’t stop seeing our partners (they’d get quite annoyed), but maybe we should be planning our time to help prevent monotony, pursuing activities and passions that can be enjoyed separately. A slightly more romantic spin on what is effectively systematic avoidance is that such planning would also allow us some time to enjoy looking forward to seeing our partner. Perhaps this could even help us appreciate them more (it has of course been suggested that absence can make the heart grow fonder).

Checking up on your partner’s whereabouts, reading text messages and questioning all of their plans isn’t a good idea. In this sense watching partners like a hawk is not advised. But we should be more hawkish in terms of paying more attention to how our partners behave, in order to work out who they are and what they do and don’t like. Research by Luo & Sneider (2009) suggests that investing time in properly getting to know our significant others is likely to be good for all. Examining different predictors of relationship satisfaction the researchers had sets of partners rate aspects of their personality and temperament, as well as rating what they believed about their partner’s personality traits. The extent to which couples were accurate and knew their partners well was important. It significantly predicted relationship satisfaction. Partners that knew each other well were happier with their relationships. How? I don’t know as the study didn’t examine this, but there is probably lots of interesting stuff going on. Knowing what others are like, what they do and don’t like and how they will react to different situations can make us more considerate and caring for their needs. In addition, if your partner can’t think what you would want for a birthdays or consistently gets you wrong, this would breed discontent in even the fairest. Paying attention to and asking questions about our partner’s wishes, aspirations and behaviour seems like something we should be doing anyway, but this research is suggestive that it may have tangible benefits too.

Perhaps the most common relationship norm of all is the sharing of a bed. Sleep is more important than you’d think. If an individual has a lack of it, or consistent prolonged poor quality sleep, they are more likely to suffer from adverse health consequences and research suggests perhaps even an earlier death. Does sleeping with a partner improve your sleep? No, definitely not. Does it make it worse? Yes, quite possibly, especially if you are a light sleeper. Cognitive ability and concentration is also hampered by lack of sleep, which can make for an unpleasant and unproductive day at work. If you aren’t a light sleeper and are extremely selfish you might be wondering why any of this applies to you. Well, lack of sleep also increases risk of weight gain, so if you prefer a slimmer build on your partners you might be out of luck too. Could tiredness and exhaustion also contribute to arguments and bickering? I would guess so. Should we be moving convention away from sleeping together and towards sleeping alone? This I am not sure of, but at the very least it underlines how most norms and conventions need to be poked and probed to assess their credentials.

What to do?

Avoid loved ones from time to time.

Tell your boyfriend to get bent next time he tries to make you watch football with him.

Pay more attention to your partner, they might do something interesting.

Give your girlfriend a blanket and show her where the couch is.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

I am Afraid of Death

CS, 2008
sometimes i am really afraid of death and wonder if i will get to fullfill all my dreams in life… i know you will probably say this is normal but can anybody here make me feel better about it?
Response from Just a Woman that wants answers, 2008
Wow Im the same way, and when something really good happens, or I receive something I really like I think "well it wont last forever because i'll die at some point"

Hannah g, 2007
I am afraid that once you die .. where do you go? What if their isnt heaven? I think about the feeling day by day when you die you never come back to this earth ever ever ever. I just cant help it ... I dont know if Im crazy or not. Help me.
Response from Elias, 2007
There is no death. Pray to ask God for some answers, He loves you and will listen to you.
Few things in life are a given or a sure bet. Death is. It looms around the corner and waits for us all. The thought of dying, ceasing to exist and fading into nothingness isn’t particularly pleasant. Indeed, in terms of our overarching need for survival, being afraid of the prospect of death make sense. We avoid and fear threats in order to go forth and multiply. Death is quite the threat. Suggesting we are all gripped by this intense fear would be bordering on sensationalism, but as the above online pleas for help suggest; some of us worry and struggle to live with the thought of death. Hannah g seems to worry about what will happen when she dies and Just a woman that wants answers concerns lay with all her actions becoming forgotten and meaningless in time. Elias suggests that there is no such thing as death and God will sort this all out, so there is little to worry about. Although Elias’s beliefs may be widespread, if Hannah g doesn’t buy into religion or a higher transcendence they mean very little to her. So how else can we think about or deal with death? And why are worries about death a problem?
Fearing death is very much a problem in itself. Anything that worries me, results in sleepless nights, or provokes anxiety, is problematic enough for it to raise some concern. In reviewing research examining the fear of death, psychologist Robert Neimeyer and colleagues (2005) cite numerous studies that show fear of death is associated with anxiety like symptoms. Cause and effect is difficult to entangle, but assuming that worrying about death can make one feel anxious and upset in the long term isn’t too difficult to infer. Similarly, Neimeyer and colleagues also cite evidence linking elevated fear of death with lower life satisfaction. Fearing death is far from ideal. Furthermore, there may also be some other intriguing consequences too.
Organ donation. Organ donors save lives and generally, although many people say they like the idea of donating their organs once they’ve gone, we are short on donors in the UK. Waiting lists for transplant surgery are testament to this. Why don’t people donate? One factor may be underlying fears and discomfort concerning death. In an interesting study by Lester (2005), the author reports data from 144 students showing that positive attitudes towards organ donation are significantly reduced by death fears. Whereby the more that one fears death, the less likely one is to get on board with the idea of organ donation. Organ donation makes us think about the inevitable, so perhaps those that fear the inevitable shy away from anything that promotes such thoughts; the thought of being stripped open and having our internal organs removed is a pretty good example. A final concern is also whether in some cases a fear of death might stop us from living the way we should. It might keep us inside or away from what constitutes living. Furthermore, time spent fretting about something we have zero control over seems like time wasted. Death will eventually stop us from living, but trying to ensure this only happens when ones heart stops and body shuts down, seems sensible.
So what can help quell fear of death? One potential answer is Cryogenics. Some US organisations (it would have to be) can offer me eternal life by freezing my body shortly after the time of death, with the plan to resurrect me when medical science has worked out a safe way to do so. Fool proof. One problem is that there isn’t any evidence of this working, not even on a dog or a monkey, never mind a human. The second problem is that even on the standard service package provided by a run of the mill cryogenics institute, it is going to put me back $45,000. The final problem is that this whole idea is plain ridiculous. Another way of answering the question of what can help to quell death concerns is to look at what psychological strategies or ideas seem as though they might work. For this we first turn to religion.
Does religious belief buffer against the fear of death? The answer appears to be yes, providing you are quite into it. Amongst other studies, Wink and Scott (2005) have examined the relationship between religion and the fear of death in a large sample of US citizens across their life. Starting in the 1920’s and finishing at the turn of the century, the researchers tracked fear of death and religious practices from early adulthood through to old age. As is the case with other studies in the literature, the researchers found an interesting pattern. Highly religious individuals, who have firm beliefs and regularly practice, have a reduced fear of death compared to their non believing counterparts. Believing that there is a bigger picture and that there will be an afterlife (potentially involving sitting on a cloud with the “Big Man”, whilst listening to harps being played by small chubby children), looks as though it may ease fears of dying. In line with these ideas, research by Meyersburg and McNally (2011) also shows that individuals reporting memories of a ‘past life’ also have a reduced fear of death. As well as presumably being borderline insane, because of their beliefs in multiple lives these individuals probably also believe that death isn’t the end of it all.
What is also interesting from the Wink and Scott study is that individuals with only mild religious belief and practices were actually more afraid of death than non believers. Wink and Scott suggest two possible explanation. Whether this is caused by the ambiguity of whether there will be an afterlife or concerns of burning in the fiery pits of hell, alongside Satan and people who boxercise or shop on the Sabbath, mildly religious seem to fear death more than their non believing and ultra believing counterparts. Regardless of the exact causes, it would seem that it is all or nothing on the religious front when it comes to thinking about death.
One exceptionally one dimensional and not particularly practical solution to the problem of death and existential woes would simply be to really get into religion. Really go for it. But what about those who just don’t buy religion and the afterlife– what use is this to me? The big bang, fossils, Jurassic park, evolutionary theory and the abundance of bizarre and inaccurate religious claims have completely removed my glimmer of hope of an afterlife. Even if several religions came close to hitting the nail on the head, which one should I choose? If I end up with the wrong one I will make the right one jealous and although it is often the case that unavailable guys/girls are somehow more attractive, I don’t think Allah, God, Jesus, John the Baptist or Dumbledore will understand. I keep seeing people dying and subsequently rotting in the ground. Furthermore, I don’t believe I was the Earl of Sussex in a previous life. I don’t think religion is for me and don’t think much goes on when my body stops working.
So if religion isn’t for me, what else might help? Psychology might be able to. When asking friends and colleagues about their thoughts on coping with death, simple thought experiments seemed to pop up a lot. ‘You didn’t exist prior to birth and that wasn’t a problem for you’ or ‘You won’t exist so it won’t hurt or be anything to worry about’. Nice enough, but they seem to miss the mark a little and focus on the end product and ignore the feelings and concerns we have as we live. The concept of ‘Rippling’ might be more relevant. Although having appeared in many forms and names from other psychologists and philosophers, psychotherapist Irvin Yalom of Stanford University has written about its merits in some detail. An expert in death anxiety and having worked closely with both young healthy patients and end of life cancer sufferers, Yalom suggests the idea of ‘Rippling’; that every action and choice we make has the potential to positively affect those around us and their futures. This in turn can provide individuals with a sense of immortality and importance in how they live their lives, alleviating concerns of death and feelings of meaningless in life.
As the masses of psychology studies show, every action we take and the way we behave can have profound effects on others. Every action has a reaction, so to speak. Similar thoughts have been shared elsewhere. Legendary psychoanalyist Carl Jung talks in detail about man’s need for immortality and suggested several ways in which this need can be achieved. Here we will turn to two types. Biological immortality can refer to the immortality we feel as a result of parenting a child, who in turn will probably parent a further child and so on. Creative immortality is different in the sense that instead of passing our genes or ‘biology’ on, the actions we take can have profound effects elsewhere: how we shape the way that a student or colleague thinks about the world, actions we can take to improve the lives of others and the environment we live in.
Similarly, father of the study of behavioural psychology, B.F Skinner, suggested that as it is only society and the collective that continues after our death, the collectivist who has attempted to positively ‘ripple’ for the good of others and the environment surrounding them, has far less to worry about than the individual. The collectivist can take solace from the thought that others will outlive him, the contribution he has tried to make and resulting ripples. This stance on life might be a useful way to think for Just a woman to alleviate her worries and fears that everything will fade into nothingness. Our lives will eventually end, but how we exist can serve to influence how others will exist and the world we leave behind.
A final approach would be to examine why highly religious persons have a lesser fear of death. Research is still touching on this, but one interesting idea is the role of death acceptance. When reviewing the literature, Neiymeyer and colleagues suggest that accepting that death is an inevitable and important part of life should result in us being be able to view death with more meaning. Religious beliefs about the afterlife and a higher calling in life would seem to fit this criterion well, in the sense that they may reduce death anxiety by providing an overarching context for it and acceptance of its occurrence.
So perhaps adopting a similar stance on life and trying to view and accept death as a key part to living is an approach that should be taken. In support of this general idea, studies show a correlation between degree of acceptance and fear of death; whereby the extent to which death and dying are accepted is associated with fewer worries and less death fear. By definition things have to come to an end. So often in life this is the case and we learn to view them in an accepting away without too much fuss; films, holidays, days and nights. A holiday wouldn’t have context or any meaning if it were to be infinite. When viewed from this slightly different angle, death is crucial to life having any meaning at all. Death provides us with limited time and therefore provides meaning and importance to how we use this time. Of course we can’t just decide that we accept death over night, but how we view death as being part of a bigger picture may at least help a little. Maybe.
If all else fails and you are still struck with dread, you may be happier to know that time appears to be somewhat of a healer. Research by psychologists Thorson and Powell in the late eighties (and several other studies) suggests that as we approach old age the anxiety around death starts to ease. So although with age you are several steps closer to exactly what you’ve been dreading, you probably won’t care quite so much anyway – hoorah!
If this, rippling, or changing the way we think about the meaning that we attach to our lives and the dying process, does not soften the blow of your impending death then I am out of ideas.

Find meaning in life and dying. Ripple
Hannah g - please spend less time worrying about death and more time punctuating.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Keeping up Appearances

Impression management is something we all do and in simplified terms, it is how we portray and present ourselves to those around us. The way we style our hair, the clothes one chooses and many lifestyle choices we make, can all be influenced by the impression or image that we want people to infer. Fashion trends are testament to this. Students are a good example; flip flops/ug boots, sweat pants, gillets, beanie hat. In themselves, none of these are essential or help a student study harder, but wearing them portrays an image that clearly says 'I'm a student'. To me it also says I'm quite annoying and used to play rugby/ride horses, but this is off topic. We see something that is 'cool', we want others to see us as 'cool', we therefore project ourselves to others in a way that is similar to this 'cool' prototype. Impression management isn't exclusive to clothes and hairstyles, it is all around us, in the choices we make and the way we act.
Leary & Kowalski (1990) have reviewed research on impression management and suggest that both social reward and self esteem concerns are causes of the use of impression management tactics. To a large extent this makes sense. When in a job interview it is critical we manage the impression we give off. If we are good enough we will be rewarded (getting the job). In addition, being liked by others is good for our self esteem. If we are able to manage our impressions to increase liking and so on, then it is beneficial. For the sake of this blog we will group these two causes of impression management together as 'social acceptance needs'. The idea we project ourselves to others to fulfil this type of need is supported by research that shows impression management tactics tend to increase when we feel we have failed or are embarrassed ('my self esteem is in need of a boost') and when competition for a job is implied to be tough.
Is impression management a good idea? In an ideal world where honesty and abstract fuzzy concepts like 'being who you are' matter, one would say it doesn't really matter. Yet, in the real world it probably does. If we take something as simple as eating and food, research shows we are judged by others to a worrying extent. For example, Vartanian (2000) presented participants with a video of a young female eating a meal. Participants either saw the female eating a small or relatively large amount. Seeing a young women eat more resulted in participants judging her to be more manly. Presumably this is a stereotype some women would want to avoid, so if you wish to avoid such judgements, some might argue that impression management is a good idea in some instances.
Similarly, Harris et al. (1984) gave participants written descriptions of fictional students and under the pretence that these were real people; participants rated perceived characteristics such as intelligence, successfulness, athleticism and conscientiousness. When participants were led to believe the characters were overweight perceptions changed dramatically. They were less intelligent, less successful, less athletic and less conscientious. When one thinks about how such findings are likely to be driven in part by our societies portrayal of thin = good, and how this might relate to disordered eating, then impression management starts to feel as though it may have bigger ramifications than just clothes and hair.As the impression management hypothesis would dictate – in some instances people change their behaviour to avoid these negative appraisals. In line with negative overeating stereotypes, in a 1987 study, Chaiken and colleagues showed that in a study that involved a 'get acquainted session', being paired with an attractive male resulted in young female participants eating far less snack food during the session. The authors suggest that the women ate less in order to portray themselves positively to the guy she was eating with.
Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, we all make snap judgements about people and we all form stereotypes about certain behaviours and appearances. The studies just covered underline this. Indeed, if you knew that others would judge you as less feminine/more manly, less intelligent and so on, it would be difficult not to impression manage. Some of the time others judgements matter, so impression management rears its head. How do people feel about impression management? In job interviews and similar scenarios I would guess that most think it is OK. Bending the truth or portraying oneself in a certain way to get a job seems alright as everybody else will be doing it. It almost seems the norm.
But what about in everyday life? Should we walk around and behave in a certain way to impress those around us? I suggest this shouldn't be a major concern in life. Consciously controlling how we present ourselves feels as though it has connotations with vanity and generally society seems to value; a) the truth and, b) interpersonal independence. We like to know who/what we are dealing with and like the idea of making choices and decisions for ourselves – doing what is best for you. Over zealous impression management challenges both of these things. It potentially results in a person defining themselves by what others deem important. As what others deem important won't always be best for us, we have a problem on our hands.
As well as living for the benefit of others (which is surely bad in itself), impression management can be dangerous to your health. Tanning and smoking/drug use are all strongly driven by impression management and these aren't very good for us. A good tan = a good look. On the downside a good tan can also = skin cancer. Indeed, work by Leary and Jones (1993) indicated that the extent to which one is concerned with others impressions of themselves strongly predicts the likelihood that they will adopt risky behaviours that will increase the likelihood of skin cancer (no sun cream, long hours, sun beds etc.).
Disappointingly a fair amount of people also see smoking = 'cool'. Yet, smoking also = lung cancer. When a smoker tried there first cigarette it is done with others and rarely alone. In part, it is caused by social pressures. Substance abusers tend to score higher on measures of self presentation concerns (Lindquist et al. 1979). Social smoking is perhaps one of the best examples of impression management at its worse. For the first time smoker – it is a nasty experience. Furthermore, social smokers tend to be fair weather smokers, and they smoke only in public, only when the eyes of others are on them. These are but a few examples of where impression management goes wrong, but it doesn't just stop at health – impression management concerns could influence who we do and don't hang around with, the money we spend and careers we choose.
Whether we should worry about what others think isn't an easy question to answer. One cannot impression mange all the time, sooner or later the mask slips. Perhaps this is no coincidence that a lot of relationships fail a week or two in. One thing for sure is that we can't avoid the fact that others around us make judgements and these can matter. An obvious question is whether those we manage impressions for matter? Often we interact with people that really don't impact on our lives. Bad service in a restaurant, but worried what staff would think of you if you don't tip. Why tip? You won't be seeing them any time soon.
Finally, if we can see that we are behaving to portray, then evaluating the cost-weight of such behaviour would seem a sensible place to start. In the case of job interviews, we probably should continue to impression manage. Maybe even celebrities should they might be out of a career otherwise. Yet, exercise – is an increased risk of heart disease less important than the occasional feeling of self consciousness in the gym? Tanning: is skin cancer less of a worry than not getting complimentary comments about how your skin is glowing? You would hope the answers to both these questions should be 'no'.

On a boring night out but don't want to come across as a goon and be the first to leave? Forget looking good, look like a goon and go home to your warm bed.
Couples that take photos together with a raised camera looking down when holidaying abroad: the impression you are producing here is not that you are close and in love, it is that you have little idea what to take photos of whilst on holiday.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Hanging on or Giving up

'Little dival' from sofeminine.co.uk Discussion Boards 01/07
I've been with my boyfriend nearly two years. Everything was perfect for the first year, he treated me like a princess, we didn't argue and he was so considerate of me. I thought I'd found someone I would spend the rest of my life with. Until last July. I came back off a holiday with my friends and he told me he wasn't sure if he wanted to be with me anymore.... He treats me like dirt, overnight he completely changed. He now makes plans with me and drops me at the very last minute. I cry about it everyday but I love him so much I just can't let go.
'Frances' from answers.yahoo.com 07/011
I love modelling but lately its been getting harder and harder to go for it ... I have a lil girl .. just need advise .. should I give up??”
Answerer 1: “NEVER EVER GIVE UP! It's something you want, why not try to achieve it! If you can dream it, you CAN do it and girl, all you need is determination and hard work.”
Answerer 2: Nope. Never. If you do, you’re just letting yourself down and you will regret for the rest of your life.”
The above extracts from online help forums are good examples of when a situation arises that makes us question whether we should drop something, give it up and cut our losses. Of course, whether this would be a good idea in either or both of these examples is unanswerable, as we only have a snippet of information. Although these extracts can't answer that specific question, what they do tell us is that it seems apparent that a lot of the time we are averse to letting go of something and giving up on it. We seem too often to be very protective and avoidant of losing something and moving on; relationships, career aspirations, financial investments. 'Little dival' can't seem to accept her relationship is a lost cause and neither 'answerer ' 1 or 2 seem willing to tell 'Frances' she should accept defeat and move on. This blog discusses our tendency to 'hang on' and not accept a loss when it is staring us in the face.
A major reason for this tendency to opt to stick in things is that we are naturally loss averse. We really don't like the idea of losing. Whether this has arisen from an inherited behavioural trait that has somehow proven to be adaptive in the past, or a learnt norm from those around us, a loss is something we are biased to avoid. The simplest way to test whether we avoid losses is to offer individuals monetary gambles. In these types of experiments participants are given a small sum of money and then asked to decide if they are happy to gamble on an offer/ bet (e.g. if you accept this bet you will have a 50% chance of doubling your money, but also a 50% chance of losing). Rationally speaking, if we weren't biased towards avoiding loss, we should be fairly happy to take the above offer. The odds are equal and the probability of a loss is exactly the same as a gain – it is a level playing field.
But data collected by Gachter et al. 2010, from 360 members of the public using similar tasks, shows we aren't happy to. Even if you swing it in the favour of the participant (60% chance of doubling your money and 40% chance of losing), loss aversion kicks in and a lot of participants won't accept the offer. It appears as though we possess a systematic bias to be wary of losses and when even the whiff of a potential loss starts to loom we avoid it like the plague. We daren't risk loss even when the odds are in our favour.
A classic study that underlines the power of loss aversion is reported by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues. Also known for showing what has been termed 'the endowment effect', these studies show that once we feel as though we own something, we value it highly and parting with it becomes a lot more difficult. As part of the study half of participants were given a coffee mug as a gift by the researcher (the mug condition) and half were not (no mug condition). Handing mugs out allowed the researchers to examine whether having owned a pretty crappy mug for just even a few moments would result in participants wanting to avoid losing it. After receiving the mug participants in the mug condition were asked what was the absolute minimum amount of money they would accept to part with the mug. In the no mug condition participants were instead shown that very same mug and asked how much they thought it was worth.
The studies show a big difference between the two groups’ valuations of the mug. The mug condition now valued the mug at over $7, as opposed to the no mug conditions value of $2.80. These findings are explained through a loss aversion account, whereby the thought of losing something as simple as a mug causes participants to pump up it's value. Once we have something the thought of losing it is powerful and we don't like it. These experiments show that losses and gains, even when exactly the same in terms of what is on offer (a mug), have different weighting in our judgements. The value and importance of a loss looms much larger than a similar gain.
The effect has also been replicated with all sorts of other objects and belongings. Furthermore, other studies by Saqib et al. (2010) have suggested that the more committed we are to something, the greater the loss aversion we display. Similarly, risk aversion also appears to vary with time, whereby the longer we have owned something, the stronger the risk aversion we express towards losing it. Having dedicated many hours to a failing project can make pulling the plug on it very difficult.
We have all experienced this kind of thing. I recently spent a fair few hours working on writing up an experiment. During this it became apparent there were weaknesses with the experiment and that the write up was a bad idea. Yet, it was tough to accept I had lost those hours and I then spent even longer considering whether I should go back to the drawing board. Perhaps if the weaknesses had become apparent earlier on the decision would have been easier. This is where the problem with psychological investment and loss aversion lies; whether I spotted the weaknesses before or after many hours of writing, they exist and are just as damaging to the experiment. But because of how invested I felt in the project, cutting loose and accepting a loss was probably that bit harder.
Aside from my fairly dull example and queries typed up onto internet help forums, loss aversion can explain numerous examples of bad and irrational decision making. Loss looms large and the deeper we get in, the less likely we are to accept that cutting our losses and throwing the towel in might be a good thing. Gamblers who continue to try and win back their losses in casinos, so they don't have to leave on a loss. Poor investments that are falling in value. Staying far too long in a war that can't be won. Continuing to believe in a project that although you have invested much time in, just isn't working. All of these are examples in which accepting a loss in the present is far better for the future. Yet, we often don't, as we try and avoid having to call in a loss in the near future. Ironically, by doing this we are often delaying the inevitable and in some cases setting ourselves up for a much bigger loss further along the line.
An interesting question is how this bias can take a hold of us. Quite often we see this irrational behaviour in others, but we seem blind to it in ourselves. Two lines of research provide some explanation. Research suggests that when imagining how bad one will feel after a loss, we have a tendency to overestimate. In a 2006 study, Kermer et al. had participants take part in a gambling task and controlled whether participants won or lost $5 from money that they had been given at the start of the session. Prior to gambling some participants were asked how they would feel if they lost and then after losing the majority of their money (naughty experimenters) they rated how they felt.
Participants’ predictions were significantly worse than how they actually felt. The authors suggest this can happen because we underestimate how resilient we really are and how easily we can get over losses and move on. If we can start to realise that a loss is unlikely to be the end of the world, maybe we would be more willing to pull the plug when needed.
A final study underlines how becoming invested in something can skew the way we think about it and encourage us not to change plans. Knox and Inkster (1968) report a clever experiment in which they approached gamblers at a horse racing event. They showed that having made a bet on a horse altered perceptions of how likely the horse would be to win. Compared to patrons that were about to bet on a horse, those that had recently invested in their horse were far more confident of it bringing home the money.
What does this mean outside of horses and gambling? It appears to suggest that the more we psychologically or financially invest in something, the more we believe it will turn out alright. It looks as though we can end up ignoring damming evidence. That being said, removing oneself from psychological investment in something and trying to objectively assess whether we are being biased and unnecessarily loss averse may be a lot easier said than done. Although, awareness of these factors might at least help us check we are thinking things through sensibly and making decisions as rationally as possible. Who knows? You've got to hope reading this blog was of some benefit; otherwise you've just lost 15 minutes of your life reading this and will never get it back.

Think rationally.
Rats deserting sinking ships are clever.
Make loss aversion work for you. Sign up to internet sites that fine you money if you fail to achieve a goal or aim you have set yourself. The thought of a loss might be enough to help you make something of your life.
Not enjoying a film or date? Cut your losses and bail on it half way through. It is for the best.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Not Doing Very Much

knittedbreast Mon 06-Jun-11 12:13:18
"I can’t be the only one who has a list the length of my arm for things I really need to do but just haven’t done.... am I the only one?What’s on your list?"

Taken from one of the many internet discussion boards, the above extract probably sounds quite familiar (aside from the name perhaps). Most of us have a set of goals and aims in life that we at least say we want to achieve and themajority of the time I would guess we really do mean what we say. Weight loss, revision, exercise, healthier eating, charity work, redecorating. Rationally speaking we can and should be able to achieve the majority of the goals we set ourselves. Examples of others doing much more than losing a few pounds, exercising or redecorating the second bathroom are in abundance. An inspection of some of the bizarre and endurance based records that have been set in the Guinness Book of World Records underlines this. Furthermore, we all personally know people who have lost a few pounds, exercise regularly or have a well decorated second bathroom.
Why is it then that we sometimes find we don't we ever get round to achieving these important goals? Very occasionally the goals or challenges we set ourselves are ridiculous and we fail epically because they are past our means (http://failblog.org/2008/12/08/coconut-breaking-fail/), but looking over the usual candidates on New Year’s resolution lists, most seem more than do-able. Yet, most turn out to be beyond us. Is there something that can be done? Can psychological research help us?
I believe so. One reason we don't achieve what we desire is that we can fall into a tendency of believing that merely wanting to do something and having some vague idea about when ('sometime next week') and how ('I will look it up beforehand') things will happen is enough to facilitate change. We devise very basic and open ended plans (or don't plan at all) and although we might have intentions to keep to them, this doesn't seem to be enough. If one doesn't have concrete plans set out, with specifics such as what, where, when and how, it is very easy to put things off or find yourself not doing it. A body of research underlines this in psychology; 'Implementation Intentions' (we will call them II's).
An unnecessarily long winded and unclear name, II's basically mean the practise of ensuring one creates extremely specific plans. At the start of the week, if you have set aside a specific day, time and have planned a location and activity that is in fitting with your goal, this makes doing this a whole lot easier. There are lots of convincing sounding reasons as to why this should work; the process should make sure you remember to do it, ensures you have set aside the appropriate resources (time) and thought about the practicalities. In addition, having spent some time planning and having these hand written plans on your wall or desk, reminds you of how much you want the goal and probably makes ducking out just a little more embarrassing to oneself.
A study by Luszczynska and colleagues (2007) shows the power of the II. Here researchers visited a Weight Watchers group and assigned half of the group to receive a very short amount of training and guidance from a researcher about how to use II's and were given some nice looking sheets on which to make their II's for the next 8 weeks. For weight loss, one II might be something along the lines of (Aerobic exercise – body pump class, 7pm – 8pm, Monday night, Munroe Sports Centre, getting there by car, leaving at 6.45, meeting friend Lucy at 6.55 outside, have done this class before, is challenging but I can do an hour). The other half carried on with their weight loss programme as usual without receiving any training about II's. At 2 months the control group had lost 2.1kg (just short of 5 pounds). A truimph for Weight Watchers.
But it is of course the II group we are more interested in. They had lost 2 times the amount the control group lost (4.2 kg). This is quite a finding, as the participants in the control condition were actively trying to lose weight also. They just lacked the power of foresight and strategic planning through II's. Furthermore, the more participants had taken to the programme and made II's frequently the more weight was lost. The power of planning ahead through some careful consideration at the start of a week is impressive.
A further reason why we might have the best intentions at new years but have little to show come March time is because of a tendency to view our future selves in an overly optimistically light. Often you will hear friends saying that they will start next week, do it in a fortnight or next month 'will the big one'. A series of studies have shown how time can change our perceptions of our abilities. When an exam is several weeks in the future people tend to be overly optimistic about their performance and are probably not too worried. However, move the time point when you ask them about how hard they think the test will be and how well they will do, to a day or two before the exam and you get different results.
What this might suggest is that when things are far off in the future it is very easy to think about them abstractly and with rose tinted glasses. Hence, when people are putting plans off till next week or next month, there is likely to be a genuine belief they will do them. But they are more often than not kidding themselves. They don't know their future selves very well. If you haven't done any exercise this week, what is going to happen next month that makes your future self so keen to hit the gym? Of course, you might find excuses for why you didn't do it this week or attribute your failings elsewhere (we like doing this a lot – http://psychologyshared.blogspot.com/2010/11/im-great-fact.html), but as creatures of habit, the best predictor of what you'll be doing next week is what you’re doing this week. To stop looking hopefully into the future and make plans in the present would seem to be a sensible idea.
A final consideration as to why we often don't achieve what we hope to is our fear of hard work. Sometimes we believe what we have to do (i.e. exercise, eat healthily) won't be particularly enjoyable. However, a lot of studies have shown that we aren't particularly great at knowing what we will and won't enjoy. A recent study by Ruby et al. (2011) examined how this might influence intentions to exercise. Using all sorts of different exercise classes (Pilates to Yoga to Weight training) and all sorts of work out difficulty levels, the researchers asked members of these classes to estimate how enjoyable these activities would be, as well as measuring how enjoyable they actually were when they were partaken in.
Participants tended to significantly under-estimate how enjoyable the exercise would be. This is especially interesting as the participants they sampled were often regular exercisers, so if they don't know how good it is, what chance do those without such experience stand?The authors also argued that this misprediction occurs because people naturally focus on the early difficult stages of an exercise session which can often be uncomfortable, but once you’re over this hill, the rest of a work out is often enjoyable. Furthermore, the feel good factor of having exercised is likely to stretch for hours after the session. Indeed, the researchers also showed that reducing this bias of focusing on the negative parts increases individuals intentions to do more exercise.
Similarly, in a number of studies my research group have recently published, we showed that getting participants to recall a pleasant memory of eating a healthy food not only increases their expected enjoyment of eating that food, but also results in them eating a lot more of it when later making food choices (Robinson et al. 2011). More often than not what we have to do in life isn't all that bad, but we might not necessarily realise this. There are enjoyable parts to most things. Trying to take a more optimistic and rounded view of the good as well as the bad should help us make that exercise class, revision session or opt for the salad rather than burger. Knowing you need to do something is one thing, but knowing it will have pretty enjoyable aspects of it might be the difference.
It is worrying how many short cuts and biases we possess that enable us to slack off, but awareness and harnessing alternative strategies should be helpful. Here are some useful and useless thoughts:
Start looking at the facts and making honest appraisals of how many hours you've put in and whether you really should be excusing yourself.