Cerebral Hacks http://www.cerebralhacks.com Just another WordPress site Sun, 15 Jul 2012 07:28:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.1 Why We Buy Branded Goods http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/why-we-buy-branded-goods/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/why-we-buy-branded-goods/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 07:06:14 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=64 The question of why people buy branded items is a multifaceted question.  The first question that really needs to be answered is why do people by nonessential goods and items at all.  The second question addresses why people pay more money to purchase items with a particular name or label. Research on buying behavior is [...]

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The question of why people buy branded items is a multifaceted question.  The first question that really needs to be answered is why do people by nonessential goods and items at all.  The second question addresses why people pay more money to purchase items with a particular name or label.

Research on buying behavior is extensive.  Professionals in the fields of psychology, sociology, marketing, economics, and advertising all have interest in the purchasing behaviors within our society.  Two of the main themes running through research in all of these areas include the relationship of emotion and identity to buying behaviors.

Throughout the research on buying behavior, negative affect is implicated as an instigator for both impulsive and compulsive buying.  “impulse buying refers to making unplanned and sudden purchases” while “compulsive buying is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable, time consuming, in repetitive shopping for buying in response to negative events and/or feelings, resulting in harmful consequences such a social and financial difficulties.” Negative affect and poor self esteem are conditions that exacerbate these buying behaviors.

David Silvera, et al performed a study to examine the association between chronic impulse buying tendencies and subjective wellbeing, affect, susceptibility to interpersonal influence, and self esteem.  Silvera et al used the impulse buying tendency scale (IBTS) developed by Verplanken and Herabadi (2001) to measure cognitive and affective facets associated with impulse buying.  Cognitive facets relate to a lack of planning of purchasing decisions.  Affective facet relate to feelings of excitement and the inability to control urges to purchase.

Silvera’s study found that impulse buying is linked to negative psychological states.  There are higher associations between these negative psychological states and affective components then cognitive components.  Impulse buying is driven more by excitement and urge then it is by higher cognitive purchasing decisions.

Michael Kyrios, R.O. Frost, and G. Steketee conducted a 2004 study on compulsive buying in relation to depressed mood; compromised self perceptions and perfectionistic expectations; erroneous beliefs of about the nature of objects, potential purchases, and purchasing opportunities; erroneous beliefs about the psychological benefits of buying; and decision-making difficulties. Kyrios, Frost, and Steketee found:

  • Compulsive buying was associated with the belief that the acquisition of objects would compensate, reward, or neutralize negative feelings.
  • Potential purchases have a high level of salience for compulsive buyers; compulsive buyers rationalize purchases through a sense of security provided by purchased objects and the need to ease a sense of fear about losing an opportunity to purchase and objects.
  • The buyers show greater concerns about maintaining control over buying behavior in choices.

In essence, Kyrios, Frost, and Steketee suggest that consumers with compulsive buying behavior suffer from maladaptive attachments to objects, beliefs about the uniqueness of and responsibility for those objects, and fear that they may miss out on important opportunities if they pass up purchases.  Compulsive buyers place an undue emphasis on the buying of unessential items for their feelings of self worth and positive emotional state.  Not purchasing creates a sense of fear related to a failure.

While compulsive buying exemplifies the extreme related to purchasing and affective disturbance, it is logical to presume that potential purchases can elicit the same types of responses for normal buyers on a less dramatic scale.  The fact is, noone wants to pass up a good deal and most people can relate to the idea of the treasure hunt where a lost Picasso is discovered.  But what is it that motivates consumers to purchase a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps or a Mazarrati?

There is a correlation between socioeconomic position and proportion of income spent on status purchases.  People within lower socioeconomic groups spend of a proportionally larger amount of their income on status purchases than people who are comparatively well off.  Niro Sivanathan and Nathan Pettit  found in a series of studies, that this seemingly contradictory association is again related to alleviating psychological pain, particularly in relation to social comparisons.

Social comparison research indicates that people feel more positive about themselves when they make downward comparisons, or comparisons with people who are less well off than they are.  In lower socioeconomic communities, the value of possessions as indicators of success becomes exacerbated.  Brands become the symbols of identity that for higher socioeconomic groups may be represented by choice in university or career.

Helga Dittmar proposes a two-factor model for purchasing:  buying is centered around self-discrepancies and a materialistic value system.  She proposes that when the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self is high, consumers become motivated to purchase as a compensatory behavior aimed at reducing the gaps.  A strong materialistic value system defines a commitment to identity construction through material goods.  In other words, consumers purchase in order to feel closer to their ideal self; and they purchase those items/brands that they associate with that ideal persona.    When advertising and marketing strategists endorse the Air Jordan as the mark of athletic prowess, every young athlete identifying with Michael Jordan as the ideal can get one step closer through wearing the shoes.

So what can be done to avoid making poor purchasing decisions that either are unnecessary but may sooth an ailing psyche or appeal to an ideal, much too expensive self?  Consider these tips:

  • Understand the limitations of purchasing behaviors.
    • While an impulsive buy may lift the spirits for a moment, the ramifications of the purchase on long term financial goals, important people in one’s life, and the root of negative feelings are things to keep in mind.
    • Think about emotional state before shopping.  If depression is an issue, buying “stuff” will not be a long term fix.  Try not to shop when feeling “blue”.
    • Consider materialistic value.  Having the latest gaming station may increase feeling related to self value temporarily, but a new gaming station is sure to be released in a few months.  Self worth and intrinsic value are built on skills and accomplishments.
  • If prone to impulsive or compulsive buying, make a plan and set a budget.

Purchasing is unavoidable.  An understanding of the psychological and behavioral components to buying is important in order to not become prey to advertising and marketing.  Knowing as much about personal buying habits and quirks can be the first step in protecting oneself from the large companies that hope to part consumers from their hard earned money.  Don’t buy when bummed.  As far as identity is concercned, the first step to becoming “Just like Mike” is dedication and athletic development, not the shoes.

Image source: DeusXFlorida

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Why We Never Seem To Have Enough Time and What To Do About It http://www.cerebralhacks.com/interesting/why-we-never-seem-to-have-enough-time-and-what-to-do-about-it/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/interesting/why-we-never-seem-to-have-enough-time-and-what-to-do-about-it/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:57:08 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=57 Once upon a time, 30 or so years ago, the world didn’t have mobile phones, computers, nor the internet. Public transport was, at best, inefficient and cars were only for a select class of the population. So people at the time thought that if only they could have one of those things, how much more [...]

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Once upon a time, 30 or so years ago, the world didn’t have mobile phones, computers, nor the internet. Public transport was, at best, inefficient and cars were only for a select class of the population.

So people at the time thought that if only they could have one of those things, how much more free time they would have! Well, here we are, in 2012, the most productive era in human history bar none, yet still, we never seem to have enough time. Why?

To understand this, let’s look at Jevon’s Paradox. In theory, increased efficiency (like having a car) would lower consumption of a particular resource (time). But in reality, the opposite is true.

It was a phenomenon William Stanley Jevons observed in 1865, when a new technology made coal-use more efficient. Consumption SHOULD have gone down, but that led to lower price – and people at that time began to increase their consumption of coal, which ultimately led to higher consumption than ever.

It’s a phenomenon that applies to more than just economics. The same is true with our most precious resource: time. The more efficient we become, the more things we squeeze into our calendars. In fact, according to some estimates, the average number of hours we spend working, from 1950 to 2007, increased by a whopping 247%.

Meanwhile, happiness is going downhill and stress-related diseases are on the rise. If working more is making us miserable, why are we still doing it?

What To Do

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to finally have more time.

Here are five steps I like to use to balance my life between achievement and having time to just “be”.

  1. Step back and revise your goals. One of the greatest tips a mentor of mine once gave me was to compare my “to-do” list with my “to-be” list. Is what you’re doing leading you closer to the person you want to be? Or are you doing them simply for the sake of “achievement”?I like to take a short 2 – 3 days break just before I do this. That short break is like a reset button for me to refocus on what it is I want out of my life.

    Don’t be surprised if you find yourself cutting down more than 50% of what you intended to achieve at the end of this exercise. I like to use this quote by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery when going through my list, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
  1. To achieve step 1, you need to learn to say no. Gandhi once said, “There’s more to life than increasing its speed.” I believe what he meant is to focus your life around a few things you’d like to achieve then actually spend time to do them well.That means turning down opportunities that you could have otherwise pursued, which of course is easier said than done in a society that believes you can be everything you want to be.

    There’s something very unnerving about closing doors and the reason it’s that way, of course, is that we assume opportunities are rare.But another mentor of mine once mentioned something in passing that changed my whole concept. He said that opportunities are plenty. If you reject one today, an equally good one will appear tomorrow. Success, he said, is rarely about opportunities.

    It’s about persistence, and therefore largely depends on how well you can resist the temptation of extraneous opportunities.
  1. Once you get rid of all unnecessary goals, reserve a percentage of the freed up time for yourself. This one takes a bit of experimentation. Personally, I reserve just 20 minutes to myself every day for the whole week. Others prefer to block out a whole day once a week.

And if this article can be summarized into one sentence, here’s a great one from a “recovering overachiever”, as she calls herself, “We learned what would behoove many of today’s top students–and their parents–to embrace: that achievement does not lead to fulfilment; it turns out to be the other way around.”

This article was written by Open Colleges.

Image source: Aussiegall

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How To Boost Willpower http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/how-to-boost-willpower/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/how-to-boost-willpower/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:51:52 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=54 Willpower is an essential component to success in virtually all facets of life: career, lifestyle choices, even relationships.  We all have moments of weakness where we indulge in second helpings or take a vacation from exercise.  Current research shows us that these moments may be predictable, and therefore may be avoidable.  By recognizing signs of [...]

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Willpower is an essential component to success in virtually all facets of life: career, lifestyle choices, even relationships.  We all have moments of weakness where we indulge in second helpings or take a vacation from exercise.  Current research shows us that these moments may be predictable, and therefore may be avoidable.  By recognizing signs of fatigue in our willpower, we may be strengthen our resolve and stick to the goals that will make us happier in our lives.

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney have coauthored the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” compiling evidence that willpower does not fall strictly on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate.  The authors posit that willpower is in essence a mental muscle that can be strengthened much like any other muscle.  In fact, Baumeister’s research shows that like other muscles, willpower responds to both diet and exercise!

A strong willpower must be well nourished with plenty of…sugar.  Yes, Baumeister shows that when depleted of glucose, the mental muscle of willpower, much like the mental muscle of decision making, fatigues.  One study compares the ability of test subjects to persist at tasks after drinking lemonade.  Those subjects who were given lemonade sweetened with sugar showed a significantly higher level of willpower as operationalized through task persistence when compared to subjects receiving lemonade sweetened with artificial sugars.

As we use our willpower throughout the day, we have a gradual depletion of our willpower reserves.  If we do not feed our mental muscle what it needs to stay strong, we may succumb to the chocolate cake sitting on the counter.  Glucose reserves are best replenished with those foods that offer us longstanding glucose conversion, rather than the short spikes and severe drops offered by processed sugars.  It makes sense that the fuels that best serve our body muscles, best serve our mental muscles as well!

In addition to diet, mental fitness development through exercise can also strengthen willpower.  Baumeister was a contributing researcher on a study examining the longitudinal effects of strengthening self regulation (willpower).  Participants engaged in one of three self control tasks over the course of two weeks.  The participants either monitored and improved posture, regulated mood, or monitored and recorded eating.  “Compared with a no-exercise control group, the participants who performed the self-control exercises showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity as measured by quitting faster on a hand-grip exercise task following a thought-suppression exercise.”

Baumeister explains that participants working on the self regulation exercises had to focus on changing their own responses.  In order to do so, internal processes must be considered.  Cognitive processes, feelings, drives and behaviors that may otherwise go unnoticed must be brought into awareness and considered in light of a goal.  In other words, participants working on personal insight to change behavior must work towards increasing their Intrapersonal intelligence.

Marketing professor Kathleen Vohs discusses willpower in terms of time.  She states, “Time perceptions mediated the effect of initial self-regulation on subsequent self-regulated performance.”   When subjects were required to engage in introspective regulatory tasks (monitoring their own facial features and suppressing laugh responses), their ability to persist at subsequent tasks, the measure of self-regulation, was compromised.  While this does not come as a surprise in light of Baumeister’s fatigue theories, a secondary finding adds light to the picture.

Vohs’ subjects were asked to estimate the amount of time that they spent working on the persistence task.  Subjects who were “depleted” overestimated the time they spent working on the task.  This reinforces the memory studies of Daniel Kahneman relating to experiencing and remembering selves.  Time can become distorted when considered from a memory perspective.  While the experiencing and remembering selves may become distorted, reminders can serve as a boost for willpower.  Reminders of long term goals and the values they represent while under pressure to succumb to temptations can bolster willpower.

According to a collaboration between Vohs and Baumeister, one of the ways to give willpower a boost is through positive self talk.  Subjects who engage in positive self talk during persistence tasks are able to buffer against the depletion or fatigue factor.  Energy that is not taken up through the expression of emotions such as disappointment in performance or frustration can be diverted to sustain the energy for the mental muscle.

When we try to paint the big picture of self-regulation and willpower, there are several factors that tie together.  Monitoring and maintaining healthy energy levels will impact the ability to persist at tasks and avoid temptations.  Additionally, building stamina in relation to willpower can be helped by “exercise”, or taking on achievable self-monitoring goals to change behavior.  Self talk is important in multiple ways.  First, reminders of the goals and values represented by the behavior associated with willpower can fend off those impulses working against the goal.  Also, self-affirmations can help bolster persistence.

The critical factor with all of these inputs is the importance of introspective intelligence.  In order to succeed long term in building and sustaining willpower, an individual must develop the ability to perceive changes in physical, cognitive and emotional states that can interfere.  When your blood sugar is low, avoid the bakery.  When you are feeling emotionally vulnerable, recognize the weakness and self affirm in order to bolster willpower.  Knowing and understanding the self is critical in planning how to maximize your willpower and avoid the pitfalls that compromise our goals.

After all, research shows, the more we engage in working the mental muscle, the stronger it gets.  The stronger it gets, the easier it is to be successful and the better we will feel about our selves and our accomplishments.  The better we feel, the more positive self-talk we will use to help stay on track.  The more we stay on track, the stronger our mental muscles get.  So set that goal and step into the circle.  Build that muscle and feel better about yourself!

Image source: Nanagyei

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How Keeping Your Brain Rested Keeps You Thin http://www.cerebralhacks.com/nutrition/how-keeping-your-brain-healthy-keeps-you-thin/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/nutrition/how-keeping-your-brain-healthy-keeps-you-thin/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:38:30 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=50 That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep. Current research indicates that Mr. Huxley’s quote should read, “That we are not much sicker and much madder and much fatter than we are is due exclusively to that [...]

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That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.

Current research indicates that Mr. Huxley’s quote should read, “That we are not much sicker and much madder and much fatter than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep”.

Only the extremely ignorant or extremely sleep deprived would doubt the importance of sleep to our physical and psychological well beings.  The lack of sleep increases mistakes, decreases emotional regulation, and over time, compromises our health.  As if that isn’t enough, studies are now showing that the lack of sleep can also expand our waistline.  This weight gain linked to insufficient sleep hits us with a double punch: physical and cognitive-behavioral.

Findings presented at the 2006 American Thoracic Society International Conference quantified the relationship between weight gain over time and average nightly hours of sleep.  The studies were longitudinal, studying association between weight gain and amount of sleep over a 16 year period.  The results showed that women who slept five hours a night had a 32% higher likelihood of experiencing major weight gain (33 pound increase) than women who were sleeping seven hours a night.  Additionally, the 5 hour sleepers were 15% more likely to fall into obese categories than the 7 hour sleepers.

There are some logical connections that would come as no surprise relating to energy level and weight gain.  Obviously, when we are tired, we take necessary shortcuts in order to eliminate work.  We may choose to eat prepared foods, or worse, fast foods, in an attempt to cut down on our workload.  When we are tired, we may decide to forego that exercise routine, or even put off burning the daily calories by mowing the lawn or doing some housework.  These are obvious behaviors relating to calories expenditure that may fall by the wayside when we are tired.  But the link between sleep and weight gain goes deeper than that…

In fact, it goes deep into the brain, down to a hormonal level.  Dr. Michael Breus, PhD
has studied the effects of sleep on two specific hormones critical in weight loss.  As described by Endocrinologists MD Klok , S. Jakobsdottir, Madeleine Drent :

“Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that have been recognized to have a major influence on energy balance. Leptin is a mediator of long-term regulation of energy balance, suppressing food intake and thereby inducing weight loss. Ghrelin on the other hand is a fast-acting hormone, seemingly playing a role in meal initiation.”

Breus explains that leptin is the hormone that signals when we feel satisfied, while ghrelin is the hormone that tells us when it is time to try to fuel up.  When we undergo a loss of sleep our ghrelin increases and our leptin decreases.  In essence, our brains start to try to compensate for a loss of sleep by infusing our bodies with more energy through food.  Because our leptin is depleted, we do not have responsive hormonal signals that tell us we’ve had enough.

Doctors in a Chicago study manipulated the sleep patterns of 12 men in order to examine the effects on hormone levels and eating behaviors.  They found that when sleep deprived, the men’s ghrelin levels increased while leptin levels decreased and the men ate more.  The study also showed that the choices the subjects made for their food intake were altered when their hormone levels changed.  When sleep deprived, foods offering quick glucose spikes from processed sugars (candy) and carbohydrates (cookies) were chosen over nutritious alternatives.

So there is a significant connection between sleep and physical/hormonal brain functioning that can make us fat.  When these hormones are altered from sleep deprivation, our hunger centers are unable to function in a way that is conducive to staying trim.  But the story is more in depth than that.  Cognitive behavioral aspects of weight gain are also affected by sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation can be harmful to the higher level cognitive functioning that keeps us focused on goals and orienting our behavior accordingly.  When we are sleep deprived, our metabolism slows and our ability to process and use glucose, a key component in higher order thinking and decision making processes, becomes compromised.  This creates what can become a cycle of bad decision making when it comes to maintaining healthy lifestyle choices, including diet.

Roy Baumeister has theorized that we have limited “psychic” resources within higher order cognitive structures.  Self-regulation, decision making, and the ability to persist during difficult tasks (willpower) are areas which can suffer from “mental fatigue”.  While mental fatigue and sleep deprivation are not synonymous, a lack of sleep affects metabolism and the ability to process needed nutrients in order to stabilize and maximize the physical interactions in the brain.  Sleep deprivation contributes to faster mental fatigue.

Kathleen Vohs, expert on self-regulation reports:

Findings from a controlled experiment of sleep deprivation and risky choices (using gambles) suggested that sleep deprived people do not self-manage well (Roehrs, Greenwald, & Roth, 2004). Sleep-deprived participants won less money than alert participants because they failed to adjust their bets according to their current capacities. A recent review (Harrison & Horne, 2000) concluded that sleep deprivation impairs higher-order decision making. In particular, the decision making processes that are harmed by sleep deprivation mirror those harmed by self-regulatory resource depletion (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). People who are sleep deprived perseverate on one behavioral pattern when a shift in approaches is necessary, make risky decisions, and exhibit lackluster responses instead of innovation. Hence, the consequences of sleep deprivation and self-regulatory resource depletion effects seem to be consistent, suggesting some link between the two.

Clearly, if sleep deprivation compromises our ability to choose wisely, and we are going for the “quick sugar high”, and our ghrelin is saying eat! eat! eat! and our leptin is snoozing, we are in trouble.  The odds are stacked against us and we are going to reach for that cupcake, snarf it down, and Heaven forbid, unless our leptin miraculously comes to our rescue, we might just reach for another!

So as you open up the bag of chips while considering whether to watch that extra hour of TV tonight, remember, for us, it is not so much “To sleep, perchance to dream”, as it is “To sleep, perchance to squeeze into that adorable outfit that’s been sitting in our closet for the past year”!

Image source: Lululemon Athelica

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When Selflessness Becomes Harmful http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/when-selflessness-becomes-harmful/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/when-selflessness-becomes-harmful/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:26:08 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=46 “I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money.  I have only leaves and apples.  Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city.  Then you will have money and you will be happy…I have no house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy…” [...]

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I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money.  I have only leaves and apples.  Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city.  Then you will have money and you will be happy…I have no house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house. Then you will be happy…”

“Cut down my trunk to make a boat,” said the tree. “Then you can sail away and be happy.”  And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.  And the tree was happy…but not really.

”I am sorry,” sighed the tree. “I wish that I could give you something but I have nothing left.  I am just an old stump.  I am sorry…”  (The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein).

Altruism, by definition, is a positive construct.  From a developmental perspective, altruistic behavior is a sign of maturity and advanced socioemotional attainment.  Recent theorists, however, are saying that altruism, like fitness and other positive life choices, can be taken to an extreme.  When the altruism pendulum swings beyond the normal range, health can become compromised from emotional, behavioral, and environmental perspectives.

These theorists are examining the concepts of altruism and selflessness explored in a light that is no longer bright and cheery.  Rather, theorists and researchers are considering the prospect that being selfless can take on a negative meaning.  More than just the old identity of being a “doormat”, excessive selflessness is now being implicated in cognitive disturbances and pathology including hoarding, intrusive self righteousness, and codependency.

Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhaven, and David Sloan Wilson are the editors on a recently released book exposing the dark side of altruism.  “Pathological Altruism” opens with the definition:

Pathological altruism might be thought of as any behavior or personal tendency in which either the stated aim or the implied motivation is to promote the welfare of another.  But, instead of overall beneficial outcomes, the “altruism” instead has irrational (from the point of view of an outside observer) and substantial negative consequences to the other or even to the self.

In the extensive research discussed in “Pathological Altruism”, combined disciplines emerge to construct a continuum of prosocial behavior that can be considered.  pathological on both ends.  Significant research has been dedicated to studying those who exhibit a lack of prosocial behaviors (antisocial personality disorder, narcissism, autism).  But perhaps due to the inherent nature of the positive implications behind altruism, few have dedicated resources to the exposure of the negative aspects of selflessness.

Extreme selflessness has been shown to be a trait that is first evidenced in childhood.  Knafo quantified findings for pathologically altruistic children as those who rated in the top 20% in prosocial behaviors while simultaneously rating in the lowest 20% for self-actualizing behaviors such as exhibiting pleasure through successes.  The combination of these traits can be shown to create a hotbed of emotional disturbance including worries, unhappiness, fear, nervousness, and somatization.  These children have a high desire to please, without the commensurate feelings of success and self satisfaction brought on by performing the selfless acts.  Because there is no enduring feeling of actualization achieved through the selfless acts, the need to engage in new “giving” behaviors is continual.

This perpetual cycle can turn to victimization.  Oakley states, “Caring feelings can be manipulated and exploited by emotional bullies to more easily harm their victims.”  The altruist has a need to “do good” for a temporary feeling of self worth.  Exploiters take advantage of that altruistic drive by taking on the role of a person in need.  Just like the Giving Tree, the pathological altruist will give the shirt off their back during a snowstorm for someone they sense needs it more.

Codependent relationships, for example can foster repeated scenarios where a pathologically altruistic person gives of themselves to the point of poverty or abuse.  The altruist may not be able to separate the empathic feelings for the dependent loved one from self-defeating behaviors.  The need to self protect and sometimes even to protect others, including children, is second to the fulfillment of the empathic psyche seeking release through the expression of codependence.

So what is responsible for the over-expression of selflessness?  Dopaminergic influence is implicated in studies on prosocial behavior and compliance. Bachner-Melma, Gritsenko, Nemanoy, Zhoar, & Ebstein found relationships between young women’s self-reported selflessness and polymorphism on a Dopamine influencing gene.  The researchers have shown that this genetic influence is heritable. Oxytocin and Vasopressin receptor genes are also implicated in prosocial behaviors.  This suggests that there are biological, not just psychological, mechanisms that play a role in the need to be selfless.

Altruism and empathy are often given as the guiding principles for “caregiving” occupations.  If left unchecked, however, these constructs lead to burnout and an inability to relate to patients.  Nursing schools, for example, teach that a detachment during interactions with patients is necessary if a nurse wants to have longevity as a goal.

In extreme cases, the fulfillment of the altruistic need can warp the cognitive processes, leading to conditions such as animal hoarding.  The “savior complex” supersedes reality and distorts the ability of the altruist to recognize that they are no longer doing good.  The perception of the environment can even become distorted as evidenced by the inability to see or smell the sickness of diseased animals and decaying carcasses.  Even when confronted with the illness around them, these altruists insist that they are “saving animals”, dismissing the horrifying conditions of the animals they hoard.  Their brains are simply incapable of processing the reality of their own destruction.

Beth Seelig and Lisa Rosof define psychotic altruism as the “sometimes bizarre forms of caretaking behavior and associated self-denial seen in psychotic individuals, and often based on delusion.”   This type of self-denial is evidenced in anorexics, who typically show an extremely high level of interpersonal intuitiveness combined with a need to serve others while in a state of pathological self-denial.  Anorexics are notoriously “giving” people.  They are aware of the needs of others in their environment, while in blatant denial of the self-starvation they fight to continue.

While altruistic behavior is a clear sign of developmental maturity, it is not necessarily all good.  People can become extremists with altruistic behavior, putting themselves in victimized or unhealthy positions.  Perhaps as we emphasize the importance of empathy and service in our children, we should strive for balance through development of self-worth and control.  After all, the last thing we want is for our children to become “Giving Tree” stumps.

Image source: Jack Batchelor

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What Foetuses Learn Before They Are Born http://www.cerebralhacks.com/interesting/what-foetuses-learn-before-they-are-born/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/interesting/what-foetuses-learn-before-they-are-born/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:14:08 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=43 Nature vs. nurture, free will vs. determinism, little adults vs. blank slate…controversies that have led to debate throughout time and across disciplines.  What are the influences that create who we are and how we adapt to our environments?  Are these influences within our control?  At what points throughout our learning lifespan do environment and biology [...]

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Nature vs. nurture, free will vs. determinism, little adults vs. blank slate…controversies that have led to debate throughout time and across disciplines.  What are the influences that create who we are and how we adapt to our environments?  Are these influences within our control?  At what points throughout our learning lifespan do environment and biology influence us most?

Annie Murphy Paul explorers these issues through the accumulation of research in her book “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of our Lives”.  What becomes clear in this culmination of the scientific literature on prenatal influence is the idea that while in the womb, biology and environment become intertwined in such a way that the debate over nature versus nurture becomes moot.  Nature and nurture become indistinguishable in that the foetal environment is in essence a biological entity.

Before describing some of the more salient aspects of foetal research it is important to understand that the construct of learning discussed by Murphy Paul is significantly different from measurable intelligence later in life.  Murphy Paul discusses learning in terms of influence and recognition.  Modern day foetal enrichment activities such as playing classical music to increase IQ may be supported by anecdotal insistence, but has not been evidenced through scientific methods.  Murphy Paul discusses learning on a much more visceral and sensory level.

What is this learning that takes place so early in life?  According to Murphy Paul, it is adaptive.  This early learning serves as a means of incorporating critical information about the external environment into the biological makeup of the foetus impacting later behavior.  Sensory information relating to survival mechanisms are communicated to the developing baby through the mother.  Murphy Paul states that the mother acts as the “narrator” informing the foetus of the outside world.

Much of the information passes through the sensory inputs of hearing and taste.  From an evolutionary perspective these two senses are critical to survival behaviors after birth. Babies show a preference very early on for the voices of their mothers over voices of other females.  Researchers attribute this early recognition to the acoustical nature of the in utero maternal body.

While it has been shown that babies are able to hear the muffled sounds coming from outside of the mother’s body, the reverberations of the mother’s voice throughout the body increases the clarity of the auditory impact on the foetus.  Evolutionists state that this serves the function of early bonding because babies will orient to their mother’s voice more quickly than that of anyone else.

It is not only the vocal quality that babies distinguish.  Murphy Paul describes research relating to the earliest signs of tonal language development in infancy.  Across cultures, babies will cry in the intonation of the language they are exposed to while in utero.  European babies with French speaking mothers will end their cries with a high-pitched intonation while European babies from German speaking mothers will end their cries on a downward pitch.

A groundbreaking experiment by Anthony DeCasper exemplified the discriminatory ability of infants’ acoustic recognition.  DeCasper had mothers repeatedly recite Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat while pregnant.  After birth, babies were able to select recordings that they could listen to by altering the speed of their sucking response on a nonnutritive nipple.

After a relatively short learning curve, babies consistently showed a preference for their mothers reading The Cat in the Hat by changing their sucking speed to elicit the familiar story.  Prenatal exposure led to a sensory preference outside of the womb.

The sense of taste also has powerful impacts on foetal development.  Julie Mennellaconducted carrot juice exposure experiments on pregnant women.  She included three conditions for carrot juice exposure:

  • Women who drank carrot juice during pregnancy as a means of flavoring the amniotic fluid foetal taste receptors are exposed to.  These women switched to water after giving birth in order to ensure that their breast milk was not flavored by the juice.
  • Women who drank water during their pregnancy and switched to carrot juice after pregnancy as a means of exposing the infants through breast milk.
  • Women who did not drink carrot juice either while pregnant or thereafter.

Mennella found that infants exposed to carrot juice in utero exhibited less negative facial expressions at five months when introduced to carrot flavored cereal than babies in the control group.   Theorists site this prenatal sensory exposure learning as a sign of survivalist adaptability…flavors exposed to in utero teach an infant what is safe to consume both nutritionally and culturally after birth.

It is not strictly sensory exposure that offers learning potential for the foetus.  Rachel Yehuda discovered that the fallout from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks did not end with the pregnant mothers in New York City.  In fact, the attacks affected foetal development with an increase in the incidence of a genetic PTSD biological marker in the infants of those women in their third trimester of pregnancy during the attack.  This particular marker is expressed through a hyperawareness to environment and a quick trigger response behavioral typing later in life.

Murphy Paul describes this research as a learning experience based on the necessary adaptability of the foetus to the outside world.  She explains that while it is important to recognize this is not a platform for “blaming the mother”, the mother does act as the narrator of the environment.  When the narration is inaccurate, the foetus may develop traits that make him or her ill equipped to handle the environment he or she is born into.
Therefore, while the hyper vigilance expressed through the activation of the PTSD marker may be conducive to babies born into war zones, it may not serve those born after an aberrant single exposure to a threat.

What is clear, however, is that the biological environment of the foetal experience is not to be discounted.  While we consider the in utero experience to be one characterized by a predominantly protective biological system, maternal experiences have a widespread and enduring impact on the foetus.

Image source: Meagan

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On Comparing Yourself To Others http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/on-comparing-yourself-to-others/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/on-comparing-yourself-to-others/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 06:04:59 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=40 Comparing yourself to others has been proven to be a complex double edged sword. Since social comparison theory has come into vogue, researchers have studied the various affects of comparing oneself to others in terms of moods, behaviors and self-esteem.  What is clearly indicated is that social comparisons must be considered in light of Weber’s [...]

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Comparing yourself to others has been proven to be a complex double edged sword. Since social comparison theory has come into vogue, researchers have studied the various affects of comparing oneself to others in terms of moods, behaviors and self-esteem.  What is clearly indicated is that social comparisons must be considered in light of Weber’s law and differ based on whether they are upward or downward comparisons.

Weber’s law stipulates that perceptual differences must be considered in relation to starting points and proportions.  For example, a 3% raise on a salary of $1000 per month does not have the same implications as a 3% raise on a salary of $10,000 per month. The difference is considerable ($30 vs. $300) even though the percentage raise of 3% remains the same.  Similarly, receiving a $10.00 coupon for an item that costs $20.00 is perceptually different than a $10.00 coupon for a $1000 item. When considering the difference, $10.00 is $10.00.  However a 50% discount makes a different impact than a 1% discount.

This same principle applies within reason to social comparison. When comparing one’s self to others, closer comparisons increase one’s ability to identify with others than further comparisons.  As much as we may admire an individual like Warren Buffett, his success does not impact us the way our neighbor’s success impacts us.  Mr. Buffett simply is not in our league.  Therefore, when we make comparisons to Mr. Buffett, we don’t identify his success as something that is attainable.

Whether we are making upward or downward comparisons can also make a difference in our responses.  Upward comparisons are comparisons that we make with people whom we perceive to be in a better position than we are for a given attribute.  Downward comparisons are in relation to people who are perceived to be in a lesser position than we are for a given attribute.  Whether we are making an upward or downward comparison can affect how we feel, behave, and rate ourselves in terms of self-esteem.

Frederick Gibbon and Meg Gerard conducted a study on the impact of upward and downward social comparisons on mood states of both high and low self esteem people.  In this study the subjects were told that another person was facing either minor are major problems adjusting to college and was coping well or poorly.  If they were adjusting poorly, they were considered to be in the downward comparison condition.  If they were adjusting well they were considered to be in the upward comparison condition.

The mood states of the subjects in response to upward or downward comparisons differed for high self esteem and low self esteem people.  Those subjects experiencing low self esteem were uplifted or had improved mood from the downward comparison condition.  In other words if people had low self esteem in this study, they felt better hearing about how other people were struggling in college as well.  The high self esteem group did not show significant differences in mood states for the downward comparison condition.  They showed improved moods during the upward comparison condition.

The Gibbon and Gerard study is fairly typical in terms of social comparison research.  People have a tendency to show elevations in mood when comparing themselves to individuals in a downward comparison fashion.  People feel better when given evidence that they are not failing.  When compared to people in the upward comparison, the mood states do not elevate and sometimes decrease.  This is not necessarily bad news.  What do occur when we make upward social comparisons are changes in motivational levels and behaviors in order to improve.

Pieternal Dijkstra, Hans Kuyper, Greetje van der Werf, Abraham P. Buunk, and Yvonne G. van der Zee conducted a review of social comparison research within classrooms.  These researchers analyzed motives for social comparison, dimensions and direction of social comparison, and consequences of social comparisons among students.
“The overall picture is an emerging one in which pupils prefer to compare their performances upward-specifically, with pupils who perform better than themselves but who resemble themselves on related and unrelated attributes.  Although the magnitude of the effects of social comparison in the classroom is not examined, the review suggests that such upward comparisons not only lead pupils to perform better but evoke negative affect and lower academic self concept.”

By comparing themselves to students who perform better, subjects were motivated to work harder and aspire to better performance.  The motivation comes at a cost because the students felt poorly about current performance.  Keep in mind that these comparisons were made to those with whom the students could identify.

This identification process may be responsible for an important switch that occurs with aging. Nicolas Michinov conducted a study on how elderly women in senior centers responded to same-age persons in upward and downward comparisons.  Contrary to other findings which led Michinov to produce hypotheses that downward comparisons would elevate the mood states of these elderly subjects, Michinov’s subjects reacted with a more negative affect in downward comparisons.  It was the upward comparisons that led to elevated mood states.  This study contradicts findings for younger subjects, but it is not hard to imagine an explanation.  The fact is, as we age our health declines.  When comparisons are made to people doing poorly as they age, it is not hard to identify with the possibility that our health may suffer the same ill affects. It is not difficult to envision those potential health issues that can create a terrible decline.  By making upward comparisons, the elderly can hold onto the potential of health and the rejection of decline, which naturally will increase mood.

When it comes down to it, there is no one size fits all with social comparison.  For younger populations, if self esteem is high, making upward comparisons can serve as a motivator to keep striving for betterment.  When self esteem is low, upward comparisons serve as a reminder of failure feeding poor self esteem and lowering mood.  While downward comparisons do little for those with high self esteem, lower self esteem subjects can remind themselves they may be better off than they feel, allowing for some elevation to gloomy moods.  Whether we make upward or downward comparisons can serve us differently throughout our life span as we identify with those around us and push ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of those we impact.

Image source: Sethph88

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Why Self-Esteem Is Not Always a Good Thing http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/why-self-esteem-is-not-always-a-good-thing/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/why-self-esteem-is-not-always-a-good-thing/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 05:49:22 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=37 Confidence and self esteem have been touted as essential components for the well-being of our psyches.  American schools have initiatives in place to bolster self esteem and confidence in students.  Many youth sports programs subscribe to the philosophy that “everyone gets a medal” under the guise of increasing self esteem and confidence.  But is it [...]

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Confidence and self esteem have been touted as essential components for the well-being of our psyches.  American schools have initiatives in place to bolster self esteem and confidence in students.  Many youth sports programs subscribe to the philosophy that “everyone gets a medal” under the guise of increasing self esteem and confidence.  But is it possible to have too much confidence?  Can confidence over ride our perceptions and our common sense?  Will confidence push us to disregard personal limitations and overvalue our capacities?  Research says yes.

Confidence plays an important and often detrimental role in our continued propagation of false beliefs.  These false beliefs can be based on attentional capacity, knowledge, proficiency, even perceptual attributions.  Despite evidence to the contrary we remain confident in cognitive processes that are misleading and often fallible.

One false belief that exemplifies the detrimental affects of overconfidence is a continual overvaluation of the human attentional capacity.  In spite of the fact the multi-tasking reduces our ability to perform we continue to produce activities that demand divided attention in environments that compete for attentional resources.

Author Susan Cain describes the myth we hold relating to multi-tasking.  She states that in spite of the evidence that when engaging in multiple tasks our brains switch from one to the other rather than giving partial attention to both, we continue to believe that we are able to multitask with efficiency.  Research, in fact, shows that multi-tasking leads to 50% more errors in functioning.  Are we confident in our attentional abilities, regardless?  We are.  We’re not only overly confident on a personal level but we’re even overconfident on tan organizational level as well.

Policy makers, for example, have instituted “hands free” mandates relating to cell phones while driving.  There is no evidence to support the idea that increases in accidents are caused by using hands to control cell phones while controlling a car.  Evidence indicates that it is the processes of divided attention that leads to the increased risk for accidents.  Whether a person is talking on the cellular or through the car blue tooth, the increased risk remains the same.

Our brains simply do not have the ability to successfully process all the stimulating intricacies of driving while concentrating on catching the nuances of an important conference call.  Truth is, switching back and forth between tasks forces our brains to continually reorient each task, taking time to refocus and exhausting our energy.  If you can hear yourself constantly saying, “now where was I?”, it may be time to shut off the phone or close the door in order to actually accomplish the desired task.

Overconfidence can also be evidenced when it is considered within the framework of knowledge.  Noble prizewinner Daniel Kahneman describes how as a young serviceman in the Israeli army, one of his tasks was to screen candidates for officer training.  He was amazed to discover that statistics showed his candidate performance predictions as barely better than random guesses.  Kahneman was further amazed that regardless of knowledge of the statistics, each time he made predictions about a new batch of candidates, he was just as confident in his predictions.

Statistical knowledge of his own poor performance did little to affect Kahneman’s confidence regarding future performance.  Kahneman termed this cognitive fallacy the illusion of validity.  The confidence exhibited through examples of the illusion of validity can be seen in many different arenas.  We continue to buy classical music for unborn babies to make them smart, in spite of research that clearly shows there’s no relationship between IQ and pre birth music exposure.  We take medications or undergo surgical procedures which anyone with an ounce of common sense would refuse; do you want the injection derived from botulism to take care of wrinkles?  After all, it is approved by the same organization that previously approved heart disease causing Fen Phen, tumor causing DES, and stroke causing Vioxx.

We believe what we need to in order to reduce anxiety, remove fear, or eliminate cognitive dissonance.  The higher the confidence, the less the discomfort as we proceed through our daily routine.  Another example of overconfidence in the face of facts?  The percentage of Americans who believe they are smarter than average: 60%.  10% more than possible.

Christopher Chabri and Daniel Simons describe another arena in which over confidence can be detrimental: confidence in our perceptions as they relate to eye of witness testimony.  The reality is, eye witness testimony is highly fallible, and yet we hold it in the highest regard within our justice systems.  Studies have shown for example, that when a typical observer is in a traumatic situation involving a weapon, all attention is focused on the weapon…not on the person holding it.  Yet we faithfully and confidently offer details about the perpetrator when asked, and then point them out in the lineup based on those beliefs.  By the time we sit in front of the jury, we become so convinced that we could discern the perpetrator’s identity from staring at that barrel of a gun that we confidently act as if the barrel was engraved with the perpetrator’s name, Social Security number and next of kin.

So why is it that we can remain so confident in the face of such fallibility?  Some theorists rationalize overconfidence from a psychodynamic ego defense position.  Others describe over-confidence in terms of cognitive dissonance theories.  Evolutionists believe confidence in the face of illusion fallacy is a remnant of earlier brain functioning.  Whatever the rationale, one fact remains. Confidence in the face of contradictory information can lead economies to fail, militaries to fall, and individuals to their deaths.  So next time your cellular rings while you are driving, remind yourself that there is one thing every person who is now a cellular statistic had in common; they all died with confidence.

Image source: McGraths

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How To Make Good Decisions In a World of Endless Choices http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/how-to-make-good-decisions-in-a-world-of-endless-choices/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/psychology/how-to-make-good-decisions-in-a-world-of-endless-choices/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 05:39:40 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=34 Consider first… Barry Schwartz opens his book “The Paradox of Choice” with the visualization of a supermarket shelved with 85 different types and brands of crackers sitting next to 285 different types of cookies.  The magnitude of choices a consumer faces while walking down the aisle of a typical grocery store borders on the absurd. [...]

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Consider first… Barry Schwartz opens his book “The Paradox of Choice” with the visualization of a supermarket shelved with 85 different types and brands of crackers sitting next to 285 different types of cookies.  The magnitude of choices a consumer faces while walking down the aisle of a typical grocery store borders on the absurd.  Consumers are inundated with choices regarding ingredients, flavors, quantity, calories, characteristics that enhance a product, things removed from a product, colors, sizes, not to mention the packaging details.  Schwartz argues and that we are immobilized in our lives by the sheer number of choices that we face on a daily basis.

Consider next…Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has spent his career studying the effects of decision-making on individuals.  Baumeister has created a paradigm relating decision-making to psychological energy.  Stemming from Freudian theory, Baumeister describes a store of psychic energy that can be dedicated to the complex process of making decisions.  Each decision made depletes that energy store until the individual eventually suffers from what Baumeister coined “decision fatigue”.

Imagine for example, two shoppers faced with the decision of what type of cookie to buy.  Baumeister’s model suggests that the shopper facing the more complex decision making process in choosing the cookie will have a higher depletion of their energy allocated towards overall decision making.  If shopper one faces the 285 choices and must pick the best cookie without parameters that narrow the choice, he will become more depleted than shopper two whose choices are already narrowed to chocolate chip cookies in 100 calorie packs.  The experience for shopper one consists of creating a comparison of cookies based on features that are analyzed as they are discovered during the decision making process.  This takes a considerable amount of mental energy allocated to the task of analysis and decision.  Shopper two, on the other hand, is able to instantly narrow his focus from 285 potential cookies down to a handful of cookie candidates.  The decision is quick and does not take a considerable amount of mental energy that can remain within storage and allocated to a decision later.

Scientific evidence supporting the decision fatigue paradigm was found by Todd Heatherton, a colleague of Baumeister.  Heatherton evaluated the brain scans of 45 female dieters who were put through a series of exercises to drain mental energy.  This scans showed that after going through the ego depletion exercises, the reward center of the brain showed increased activity, while the impulse control center, the amygdala, showed decreased activity.  Heatherton further describes how the administration of glucose to the subjects reversed the effects of the ego depletion, restoring activity to the impulse control centers of the brain.  Basically, there is physical evidence that we succumb to immediate gratification when we become mentally fatigued, rather than continue to rely on our higher functioning cognitive centers.

The effects of decision fatigue can be detrimental to those experiencing it.  When fatigue sets in Baumeister claims that people may become reckless in order to speed through the decision-making process.  The goal becomes making any decision to move on rather than making the best decision for the circumstance.  The other potential danger is that ambivalence may set in and the no decision is made as a strategy to avoid expending any more mental energy.  This is a type of cognitive conservation is akin to energy hoarding.  Avoiding making the decision becomes the decision.
There are several strategies that a person can employ in order to ensure that the decisions they are making our sound.  The key features of good decision making based on Baumeister’s paradigm relate to schedules, setting of parameters, and understanding personal limitations.

Schedules are a key component to good decision making in two ways.  First, creating predictable schedules throughout your day can limit the number of decisions that one has to make.  If a person knows that exercise is included in his schedule had a specific time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there is no decision to be made that will deplete mental stores of energy.  If the person has to decide when would be the best time to exercise during the week, they must go through an evaluative process relating to scheduling options that can contribute to decision fatigue.  Eliminating the small decisions that crop up through the day and such as when, where and what to eat for lunch or when to exercise, can help preserve the energy stores for larger decisions.

Schedules are also important because there are optimal times throughout the day for decision-making.  These times are based on Heatherton’s studies of sugar levels in combination with Baumeister’s studies.  The best time to make complex or important decisions is when mental energy is at its highest and the brain is functioning physically and chemically at its maximum potential.  Scheduling decision-making meetings for early morning and ensuring nutritious and adequate breakfasts would be optimal for decision-making.  Post lunch meetings would be better than late afternoon or evening meetings when decision fatigue may be setting in.

Setting parameters for decision-making can also ease the process and ensure that decision fatigue is postponed as long as possible.  When setting parameters for the decision, it is important first to know exactly what the problem being solved or the decision being considered is about.  When there is ambiguity relating to the decision being made, it is difficult to sort through the variables impacting the process.  Knowing for example that the cookies will be taken to a party where there may be people with peanut allergies rather than used for personal consumption can help define the decision parameters and narrow the number of variables impacting the decision.  Ultimately, the more narrow the decision parameters, the less draining on the mental energy stores.

Having a clear understanding of personal limitations relating to decision-making is important to avoiding poor choices.  This can be seen in literature relating to consumer behavior.  Stanford Professor Jonathan Levav conducted a variety of experiments that showed how decision fatigue can leave a consumer vulnerable to marketers who have studied the art of up-selling.  By timing decisions relating to expensive add-ons after decision fatigue has set in, consumers will acquiesce to the opinions of the salesperson.  This corresponds to the process of risk taking and decision avoidance found by Baumeister.  As a consumer it is important to recognize the personal signs of decision fatigue and be willing to walk away from what can otherwise become expensive overbuying.  By recognizing personal imitations and adjusting decision-making processes accordingly, an individual can avoid buyer’s remorse and ensure that they are not falling prey to sales and marketing strategies.

To decide or not decide: that is the question.  When considering important decisions, it is important to recognize that there is science behind the process.  Maximizing good decisions can be achieved through scheduling, clearly defined questions and parameters, and knowing oneself well enough to recognize the signs of decision fatigue.  Research by Baumeister and his colleagues gives us much food for thought.  One thing is clearly advised: don’t sign any contracts or make any life changing decisions late in the day on an empty stomach!

Image source: Randy Le’Moine Photography

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How You Choose Who To Be Friends With http://www.cerebralhacks.com/social/how-you-choose-who-to-be-friends-with/ http://www.cerebralhacks.com/social/how-you-choose-who-to-be-friends-with/#comments Sun, 15 Jul 2012 05:27:26 +0000 andre http://www.cerebralhacks.com/?p=31 One of the greatest perks of living in the twentieth century is the expansion of the acceptance of social differences between groups and individuals.  Through the shrinking of the world via internet and the ability to connect to others in ways never previously experienced, society has become capable of exploring aspects of unfamiliar cultures and [...]

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One of the greatest perks of living in the twentieth century is the expansion of the acceptance of social differences between groups and individuals.  Through the shrinking of the world via internet and the ability to connect to others in ways never previously experienced, society has become capable of exploring aspects of unfamiliar cultures and ideologies as we strive to generate a more complete understanding of our world.

The question is, are we taking advantage of the opportunities for increasing diversity in our lives?  Are we forging friendships that expand our cultural awareness?  Do we extend ourselves beyond the familiar to develop relationships outside our cultural comfort zone?

Current research indicates that the answer is no.  In spite of all of the increased opportunities to broaden our social horizons, the original research on attraction theories conducted by early researchers still holds; we still choose to build relationships with others based on the principles of proximity, exposure, similarity, and physcial attractiveness.

Proximity is the construct of physical and functional distance.  One aspect of proximity that has been studied by psychologists is propinquity, or the reciprocal rewards gained through proximity to another.   Propinquity was described in the 1950’s by Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter and Kurt Back to describe the neighboring social ties observed through dorm friendships.  Basically, friendships develop based on the mutual ability to provide needed or wanted services to those around us.

In spite of social changes relating to “proximity” based on internet and virtual access to friends, the Festinger, et al study is still supported by current research.  For example, Elizabeth Stearns, Claudia Buchman, and Kara Bonneau  found that interracial friendships on college campuses were greatly influenced by whether roommate pairings were interracially mixed.  These researchers found that by increasing the proximity between interracial groups, the likelihood of friendship formation increased.  Their findings were highest for individuals who were paired for cohabitation with a roommate of a different race.

In addition to proximity, attraction theory considers the phenomenon that exposure levels increase the likelihood that we will choose others as friends.  Exposure theories date back to Robert Zajonc’s 1968 monograph on the “mere exposure theory” that described how the very act of repeatedly coming into contact with a stimulus can crate a greater affinity for that stimulus.

Warren Kubitshek and Maureer Hallinhan conducted a study on the effects of school program tracking on friendship development.  They found support for the process of both proximity and exposure on the furtherance of friendship development. Kubitshek and Hanninhan describe the interplay between proximity and the mere exposure effect in this way:

“Thus track placement increases propinquity by grouping students in classrooms…track placement increases the mutual exposure of students who are already interacting in other contexts.  This increased familiarity is likely to lead to increased interaction, with its possible rewards, and to increased interpersonal attraction.”

The third construct that defines our choices in friends is “similarity” and the reciprocity-of-liking effect.  Research shows that we are more likely to consider people positively when they share similar attitudes, beliefs, and values. For example, Reid Bates conducted a study on proficiency ratings within a United States government agency and found that there were significant interactions between attitudinal similarity and positive proficiency ratings.  In fact, having similar attitudes towards work was a better predictor of positive reviews from managers than technical proficiency!

The Bates study also showed that demographic similarity had an impact on positive proficiency ratings.  The more demographically similar two people were, the higher the likelihood that positive reviews would take place.  Although this seems to be a straight forward support of the similarity effect, Elizabeth Umphress, et al. have provided research that when demographics are concerned, the puzzle becomes more intricate.  They incorporate the concept of social-dominance theory into the theories relating to similarity effects on attraction.

Umphress and her fellow researchers discovered that there is a hierarchical nature to whether individuals are attracted to other members of their demographic category.

Specifically, when an individual is a member of a high-status demographic, there is a higher tendency towards attraction.  When an individual is a member of a low-status demographic, there is a less pronounced attraction, and sometimes even a revulsion to that demographic group.  Taken together, these studies indicate that attitudinal and value based similarities are strong motivators towards liking another individual.  When an individual is satisfied with their own demographic and social status, they find the similarity in others attractive.  However, when dissatisfied with their personal demographic, the similarity may breed contempt.

These issues relating to similarity are reflected in the reciprocity-of-liking effect.  The reciprocity effect states that when a person knows that they are liked by another, that knowledge influences them in a favorable manner towards the other person.  The knowledge serves as an important means of validation, and therefore, a “symbiotic” regard becomes established in order to continue that validative process.

Psychologists Matthew Montoya and Chester Insko have studied the parameters of the reciprocity-of-liking effect.  They have found support for the reciprocity-of-liking effect with some limitations.  Montoya and Insko discovered that when knowledge of liking was available, a second factor, intent, became critical to the reciprocity effect.  When the intent of behavior relating to the “liking” was ambiguous, individuals are not willing to jump to the reciprocal liking stage of the relationship.  When intent, behavior, and liking all coincided in a manner acceptable to the individual, reciprocal liking became apparent.  In other words, when someone expresses a “liking” for another person, that person needs to know motivations in order to become comfortable.

The last construct that impacts who we choose as friends is physical attractiveness.  With all other things being equal, people are drawn to physically attractive people.  As much as we would like to think that appearances do not matter, research consistently shows that we judge others based on how they look.  Whether it is due to evolutionary drive or attributions about another’s character, attractive people consistently score higher in levels of perceived popularity (Borch, Hyde, and Cillessen).

When it comes down to it, we are more likely to choose friends who are near to us, similar to us, attractive, and who indicate that they like us back.  Each of these constructs serves to validate who we are by reinforcing that we are part of the norm. With the opportunities that we have to expand beyond our neighborhood and our own social bubble, we still choose what we know.  Perhaps it is time for us all to don a virtual persona with purple skin and antlers, jump online, and develop a relationship with someone nothing like us.  Then again, for all we know, the green winged fish our avatar just befriended online could be our neighbor.

Image source: McGraths

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