Archive for May, 2012

72% of people in the U.S. think that people look better with a tan. Why shouldn’t they? A tanned complexion is a sign of summer fun, a sporty lifestyle, and a healthy dose of Vitamin D. Unfortunately, it’s also a catalyst for the development of skin cancer. But why do we continue to mark tanning as a characteristic of beauty when its dangerous potential is so well known? The answer may lie in how the brain responds to ultraviolet radiation.

Tanning feels good. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation releases endorphins, the molecules associated with the natural high that comes from running. Like other pleasurable activities, tanning activates the reward center of the brain, the same system that plays a role in the abuse of substances like cocaine. The high that sunbathing releases triggers the brain’s pleasure center and encourages the tanner to seek it out again. (To learn more about the brain’s reward center, check out this previous post about altruism.)

Researchers believe that the pleasure received from sunbathing is similar to the feeling of using opiates. Tanning addiction is correlated with other addictive behaviors, such as alcohol dependence and marijuana use. Some studies have suggested that frequent tanners can go through feelings of withdrawal, including sweating, nausea, and anxiety, when they don’t receive their ultraviolet fix. This impulse to be exposed to ultraviolet radiation helps to explain why the use of tanning salons is on the rise, even as we become aware of the disturbing consequences, such as that young women today are eight times more likely to develop skin cancer than in previous generations.

I hope this information about the dark side of sunbathing doesn’t put a damper on anyone’s beach plans this holiday weekend. Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Welcome to blockbuster season, where we finally get to see the films we’ve heard about all year! The Avengers exploded on the scene with a 207.4 million opening weekend, and has stayed at the top of the box office for the past three weeks. Apparently like many other movie-goers, I have been anxiously looking forward to its arrival since I first heard of its release last year. And since I first caught a hint of its coming at the end of Iron Man II. And since I first saw its trailer, waiting for another movie to play back in January. Come to think of it, I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released for a very long time.

Pictured here: Anxious anticipation.

The Mere Exposure Effect describes the process where introduction to something makes us like it more than if we had never seen it before. It can be true for products, food, and even other people. The more often we are exposed to something, the more we like it and anticipate seeing it again. It’s why songs we were initially ambivalent about grow on us after repeated radio play, and it may also be why movie trailers are such an effective method of advertising.

Movie trailers introduce us to the plot lines and characters before we even commit to seeing the film, giving the audience plenty of chances to decide they like what they see. Just as in the case for The Avengers, we’ve seen the posters, talked about the actors, and discussed the trailer months before the movie is released in theaters. It may even help that so many movies feature characters of a similar archetype (the good cop, the tough career woman, the drunken hero). We’ve been exposed to these characters over and over again, just in different formats. Perhaps studios realize that certain characters are going to sell a film, because we’ve already grown to like them in a different movie every couple of years.

This beautiful career woman is too busy for a relationship, but will the unconventional stranger she meets convince her to make time for love?

There is a catch that filmmakers need to be careful of, though—this effect only works with limited exposure. If we are exposed to a product too many times, then the effect is reversed; our interest turns to irritation. That song that we were singing along to one month starts to sound like saccharine noise after three. If the characters seem too much like the protagonists from last summer’s blockbuster, and the blockbuster before that, and the blockbuster from five years ago, we’ve seen enough for our appreciation for the roles to turn into derision about their lack of novelty.

I’m sure skilled writing and good acting don’t hurt a movie’s chance of success, either.

Why We Overtip

Posted: May 14, 2012 in Daily Life
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The old saying goes that it is better to give than to receive, and no one needs that statement to be true more than waiters. Although the average tip falls somewhere between 15% and 20%, it certainly helps to have customers who want to spend those extra few dollars resting in their pockets. For years, studies have provided a variety of methods that servers can use to increase their tips, such as giving their customers candy, drawing pictures or smiley faces on the check, and even predicting good weather.

Today’s specials include chicken piccata and psychological warfare.

Though these tricks of the trade haven proven effective, many customers know how much they’re going to tip before they even enter a restaurant. So why do some people habitually tip 25% percent or more whenever they go to a restaurant, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the service?

It could be that they are enjoying the physiological benefits of tipping as an act of altruism. The pleasure center, whose routine customers include orgasm and fatty foods, also has another frequent guest—generosity. When someone engages in an act of altruism, the reward center, located in the nucleus accumbens in the limbic system of the brain, becomes activated. The truly altruistic gesture releases endorphins and dopamine, letting our minds know that we participated in an act worth pursuing again.

The feeling that is derived from generosity reinforces the behavior so that the person will want to continue to experience that pleasure. And, if altruism follows the same guidelines as the other, less positive frequenters of the reward center, such as alcohol and sugar, then customers would need to give more as time goes on to trigger the same level of pleasure that was released during the first act.

That’s good news for anyone who makes their money from tips.

Lauren Volpone

Mankind has accomplished great things. In the last century alone, we have progressed from communicating by mail, to the telephone, to the cell phone, to email, to texting. We have built cars to take us to work and planes to take us to foreign places we’ve already explored online. We are connected 24-hours a day to a tool that instantly gives us access to the latest updates on global politics, scientific discoveries, and archeological finds, tailored to our particular interests and level of understanding. Yet, when I log on to check my email or flip on the television, the first headline that hits me usually reads, “Young female singer/actor/reality star caught behaving inappropriately at club/on set/in court.”

Gossip is idle talk, slander, and exaggeration. It’s also a pastime, a bond, and a way to gather important information. Long before it was used to laugh at celebrity faux pas, it may have evolved as a way to strengthen the social bonds between members of a group. Our ancestors may have been huddling by the fire, sharing who was hurt during the latest mastodon hunt, who had found their newest mate, and who had fathered offspring with the woman two caves over. Exchanging information is vital in forming alliances among peers—an advantage in a world where the group with the most members survived.

65% of conversation is devoted to gossip, regardless of gender. Our instinct to gossip about celebrities is the same as when society was just forming. Engaging someone about topics that interest them helps to promote friendship; juicy tidbits about shared acquaintances imply trust and intimacy.  Anecdotes about the celebrities neither of you will ever meet still comes from the instinct to trade information about members of the group. After seeing these people on our televisions and laptop screens every day, our minds are convinced that their actions are relevant to our social lives.

Parasocial interaction describes a one-sided relationship that forms when one person knows a lot of information about someone who knows little, or nothing, about them. These types of relationships often form with celebrities, whose intimate moments and life stories are posted online for anyone to learn. After a few months of listening to interviews, reading their Twitter feeds, and visiting their websites, our favorite celebrities start to seem less like strangers we admire, and more like our neighbors from down the street.

My friend, Kim.

Gossip, whether about our friends, coworkers, or relative strangers, has a benefit in addition to social bonding. It also serves up models with whom we can compare our social worth. The Social Comparison Process suggests that we use both upward and downward comparison to determine how we stack up with others. If this theory is accurate, then gossip about celebrities helps us two-fold—its downward comparisons let us know that even if we hadn’t achieved fame and fortune before we reached 25, at least we haven’t been arrested, and its upward comparisons allow us to shoot for that day when we can become as successful and charming as that woman on our television screens.

So gossip magazines and television shows aren’t just entertaining us by illustrating the foibles of the down-on-their-luck celebrities; they are providing the source material we need to become the better versions of ourselves. Thanks, TMZ.

Lauren Volpone