Archive for the ‘Other’ Category

Every woman knows how hard it is to get ready in the morning. Between the shaving, the plucking, the moisturizing, the fluffing, and the polishing, making yourself beautiful is a big commitment to make before you’ve even had your first sip of coffee. Once you start calculating the amount of time you’ve spent straightening your hair and putting on makeup, you start to wonder if all the effort is really worth it. After all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Right?

Of course, but that doesn’t mean we always know it. It’s a stereotype that pervades movies, television sitcoms, and stand-up routines–pretty people are treated differently than their average-looking peers. Unfortunately, this cultural belief has some truth to it. People tend to ascribe positive attributes to the people they view as attractive, rating them as more sociable, happy, and successful than their less attractive peers, a phenomenon known as the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. This short-cut in thinking can lead to real-world consequences; the effect has been observed with teachers’ perceptions of students, voter preferences for candidates, and even in simulated juries.

Good-looking people are often seen as more intelligent than other people, which can help explain why the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype applies to evaluations of job applicants. The more attractive a job candidate, the greater the likelihood that they will be hired. Though this effect has been shown for both men and women, there are some catches for female candidates. When applying for traditionally feminine positions, pretty women are rated more highly than less attractive women, even when participants are told that their qualifications are the same. However, when applying for positions that are typically viewed as masculine, attractive women are seen as less capable than less attractive candidates.

I guess this means all the fluffing is worth it. Until you get your dream job, at least.

At the beginning of a busy day, you’re called to the boss’s office. As you walk down the corridor to reach the corner office, you feel like a high school student being summoned to visit the principal. The manager is sitting at his desk in the strangely dark room, waiting for you to explain why you were late this week. As you stumble through your response, it occurs to you that the man across from you has control over your position in the company, your career, and by association, a significant portion of your life. Fueled by indignation, thoughts about the injustice of the workplace well up inside of you. You’ve read the Psychopath Test; you know that people that lack compassion reach the upper echelons of society. This fat cat probably cheated his way into his position, propelled up the ladder by cutthroat blindsides and merciless takedowns of anyone who got in his way. That’s how you get to the top, right?

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His plans for improving the fourth quarter include eliminating lunch breaks and non-work-related conversations.

Well, not exactly. Joanthan Lehrer with the Wall Street Journal points to research that suggests that unlike the stereotype of the unfeeling misanthrope that rules the office with an iron first, most of the time leadership is given to people who behave nicely. Leaders in social hierarchies tend to rate highly on scales measuring extraversion and agreeableness–the traits that you would want in a friend. In fact, psychologists have found that the members who spread gossip and engage in other negative behaviors are isolated from the group before they can inflict more damage, not given more power to wield.

So why do we think of people in power as compassionless dictators who no longer care about the little guy?

Although the stereotype of the dictator drunk on authority may go to the extreme, the concept of a leader losing touch with his employees isn’t without merit. As the old saying goes, success changes people. People in positions of authority become less sympathetic to the needs of others, often relying on stereotypes and generalizations to get them through the day. One researcher compared people in power to patients suffering from brain damage to the orbito-frontal lobe, the portion of the brain vital to empathy. Consistently, power makes it easier for us to avoid viewing the world through the eyes of others.

In one experiment Lehrer mentions, researchers at Northwestern University asked participants to focus on a time that they felt powerless or a time that they felt powerful. They then asked them to draw the letter “E” on their foreheads. The participants who were asked to describe a time that they felt powerful were more likely to draw the letter backward from the perspective of the person looking at them, suggesting that just focusing on a time of power encouraged some participants to stop considering the viewpoint of others.

Have you ever noticed yourself becoming less sympathetic when you were placed in charge of something?

Choosing a good wine for a dinner party can be a complicated decision. There are the simple questions, the color (red, white, or blush) that your guests will enjoy and the type of wine (a nice Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) they would prefer. Then there’s information about the vintage and origin of each particular bottle that you consider. Then you need to know if you should chill it beforehand, and exactly how long you should let it breathe before serving it. Or, if that all sounds like too much work, you can always scratch the search and concentrate on your background music.

Our perception is influenced by multiple senses. In the matter of wine, one study has suggested that our perception of flavor can be influenced by the music we listen to as we drink. Researchers asked participants to sample wine while listening to different styles of music, including Tchaikovsky, Orff, and Nouvelle Vague. The songs they played had already been rated on their characteristics by a separate group of participants, who judged the music on scales of “powerful and heavy,” “subtle and refined,” and “zingy and refreshing.” Those who sampled the wine while listening to Tchaikovsky were more likely to judge the wine they were drinking as “subtle and refined,” while those who were listening to Orff and Nouvelle Vague were likely to judge their samples of wine as “powerful and heavy” and “zingy and refreshing.”

After reading about studies like this one, you have to ask the obvious question–what would wine taste like when paired with The Chemical Brothers?

It’s Great Aunt Mimi’s birthday party, and the family is together for the first time in months. Your cousin Susan is a little tipsy, and your straight-laced Uncle Todd has already given his new business cards out to everyone in the room. A couple hours in, everybody is caught up on how everybody is doing, who’s been having health problems, and who got promoted at work. Stalled for topics, your father brings up the coming election to the inward groans of half the room, and the outward groans of the second half. Opinions are stated, laughingly at first, then seriously, then angrily and derisively, and suddenly, it’s Thanksgiving dinner all over again.

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What do you mean, you support healthcare reform? And WHO ATE ALL THE MASHED POTATOES?!

During a political debate, people usually think they’re arguing for the obvious side. That’s because when a topic is ambiguous, people tend to perceive only the information that confirms the opinions they already hold. This filtering of opposing viewpoints isn’t intentional; we think we’re judging the conversation accurately. When evaluating new information, our minds under-emphasize the examples that would make our preconceived notions seem faulty and put greater value on the examples that make our conclusions seem infallible. In fact, when presented with contradictory opinions, the part of our brains that deals with reasoning, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is suspiciously quiet, while the areas of the brain that are used in the processing of emotion (the orbital frontal cortex), conflict resolution (the anterior cingulate), and moral accountability (the posterior cingulate) become more active.

If that weren’t enough to make talking politics a ripe cause for a family rift, there’s also research to suggest that attitudes polarize in groups (such as political parties). Decisions formed in groups are more extreme than when made by individuals, making the middle ground seem like a dangerous concession to our belief system. On your own, you may be moderate in your opinions on fiscal policy, but as a member of a party, your beliefs jump two miles down the line.

Ironically, this information on confirmation bias could make it easier to dismiss the opinions of the people with whom we’re debating. We’ll think we’re making sound arguments against their extreme opinions, and their minds are just dismissing the information we’re presenting because it doesn’t fit with what they already believe.

Come to think of it, this blog really won’t make political debates any easier. Sorry about that.

Let’s say that you’ve been learning Spanish for two years now. You’re a dedicated student, and to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ve spent several months living in Madrid. Upon returning home, you happily try to talk to your friends and family about your excursions in a foreign country. While trying to communicate your recent experiences, such as your flight back, you find yourself inserting Spanish phrases in sentences that you know you meant to say in English and trying desperately to remember the word for “plane.”

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“You know, WHOOSH”

If you’re worried that this word mix-up is a symptom of a brain disorder, you can stop panicking. The deterioration of language skills is called language attrition, and it’s a common phenomenon that comes from immersion in a second language. Second language acquisition can interfere with your first language in several ways, including word substitution (“I never drink leche in the afternoon”), syntactic interference (“If he were at the store yesterday, he would have been buying milk”), and forgotten vocabulary (“He went to the store to buy . . . something”).

Because immersion in a second language can result in partial loss of the first language over time, much of the research on language attrition has focused on the erosion of primary languages in immigrants once they have integrated into new cultures. Though this information may sound bleak, keep in mind that it showcases the mind’s inherent ability to adapt to change. If you are living in a new country, you need to exercise your second language more than you need to recall the details of your first. The brain’s ability to learn this new style of communicating allows people to thrive in different parts of the world.

See? Language attrition is good news, after all.

Imagine sitting in the cool office of a polite yet impassive human resources manager. Your suit is heavy, your throat feels as if you’ve been singing soprano all morning, and your smile is beginning to falter under the weight of its constant enthusiasm. The manager looks up from studying your resume—the twelfth he’s seen that day. You subtly wipe your palms against your pant leg and steel your nerve. You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re ready for anything he can throw at you. The manager tosses you a lowball—“Tell me about yourself.”

And your mind goes completely blank.

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Well, I’m an excellent baker.

If you’re feeling hard on yourself for cracking during a job interview, keep in mind that it may be a sign you have a high working memory capacity. Working memory, which gives you the ability to hold and retrieve information during a long task, is operating on overdrive during an interview. You need to remember information about the company and the person interviewing you, to retrieve the tiny details of your work history, and to juggle the information in a way that paints the best picture of you as a potential employee.

In short, stressful events can overwhelm the working memory. During a high pressure situation, anxiety begins to use up energy that otherwise would be used to recall information. Those invading thoughts about how you are performing take up a portion of your working memory capacity, causing people with high capacities to perform worse than they would under easier circumstances. The pressure doesn’t make people with low working memory capacities perform any worse than they normally would, because they never had the capacity to use in the first place.

From here on out, you can wear your embarrassing interview stories as a badge of pride. You’re not bad at job interviews; you just have a high working memory capacity! You should bring that up to the hiring manager the next time you flub an interview question.

(To learn more about working memory, click on this previous post.)

I’ll admit it, I’ve never understood the appeal of Greek Life. Brotherhood is nice, but after being forced to serve as a footstool for a week after spending your afternoons cleaning the floors with your own toothbrush, how much brotherly affection can you still hold for your new-found siblings? It turns out that the harsh process of pledging is one of the factors that create satisfaction with membership in a Greek family.

To be fair, I get my information on fraternities from 90s sitcoms.

It comes down to the need to justify our actions to ourselves. Human beings like to believe that we are rational creatures. We want to think that we perceive our situations realistically, but often, our realities are distorted by our need to believe that we have acted in an intelligent manner. And because we want to see ourselves as models of logical behavior, we can alter our impression of a situation after the fact to make it suit the level of effort we undertook to achieve it. The more work we put into something, the higher we perceive the value we gain from it.

This man probably loves his job.

This increased perception of value holds true for group membership. In a series of laboratory experiments, researchers simulated a chance for participants to join a discussion group. They received entrance into the group after going through an embarrassing or painful process, similar to hazing. The severity of the entrance process was manipulated so that some participants received a more unpleasant selection process than others. In the groups with the harsher entrance procedures, the appeal of the group was greater than with the participants who experienced the less embarrassing process, even though researchers made sure that the promised discussion was as boring as possible. The participants who rated their membership in the group as worthwhile were the participants who had put the most effort into attaining it.

I guess this means hard work really is its own reward. Your father was right all along.