Posts Tagged ‘Humor’

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?

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It’s been a long day, and you’ve stopped by the grocery store to buy some pick-me-up mint chocolate chip ice cream. You navigate efficiently through the store, find your target, and analyze the lines for the quickest exit. Picking the line with the fewest people, you patiently wait to check out. The line is moving slowly. You peruse the tabloids while you wait; there’s apparently been some sort of tussle between the cast members of The Jersey Shore. Your eyes begin to wander. You notice that there are now several types of Twix bars, one with, mmm, peanut butter. You look longingly at the ice cream, melting on the conveyor belt. How much time does the person in front of you need to buy 23 items? The lines around you are moving at a brisk pace, the customers leaving happily with their groceries. It isn’t fair; you’ve been waiting here for–oh. Four minutes.

To many people, waiting in line can seem interminable. Researchers have come up with some theories as to why waiting in lines is source of common frustration, including our inability to handle uncertainty and the need to occupy our time.

The uncertainty of how long we will be waiting begins the frustration of the grocery queue. One of the reasons waiting in line can seem longer than it should be is because it’s impossible to predict how much time you’ll be standing there; people are more patient if they are told a specific wait time than if they are left to guess how long a wait will take. Unfortunately, deciding how fast the line will move depends on a few unpredictable factors. There’s the number of people, sure, but you also need to calculate how many items are on the conveyor belt and how many items are hidden in carts, how fast the cashier is at scanning items, how many coupons the customer in front of you will want to use, and how much small talk the people in front of you will make before checking out. And that’s assuming all the prices are accurately marked.

Another reason waiting in line can feel like  a struggle is because people have a natural tendency to occupy their time. While you’re waiting in line, there is only a finite number of ways you can entertain yourself; reading the headlines on the tabloid magazines and finding a new recipe for cooking ribs will only occupy you for so long. Grocery stores take advantage of this phenomenon by putting impulse buys by the register; they know that you’ll be tempted to add new items to your cart if it feels like you’re doing something with your time.

Finally, the process of checking out at the grocery store often violates our perception of fairness. Grocery stores usually have multiple queues, with some moving faster than others. Since each line will operate at a different pace than the others, it almost feels that the lines moving faster than the one you chose are cheating. You know in your mind that the cashier had to call the manager to find out how to process an item, but a part of you still feels that the people who joined another line after you started in yours shouldn’t get to leave before your shopping is finished.

Maybe this means we should be more like the person laughing at the tabloid headphones while griping into their cellphone about how slow the line is moving; apparently, they’ve got it all figured out. Do you ever feel frustrated when you’re waiting in line?

Buying a nice, warm latte is part of many people’s morning routines. In the United States alone, there are over 11,000 Starbucks. Over half the people in the U.S. drink coffee every day. A tall latte costs $3.25, a number that doesn’t seem too threatening until you do the math. $3.25 per coffee means $22.75 per week. $22.75 per week means $91 per month. $91 per month means $1092 per year spent at Starbucks. And that’s without any syrup.

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I’ve probably given this woman the down payment on a car.

Why doesn’t 3.25 per cup seem like that much money when we’re standing in line in the morning? There are a few tricks managers can pull out of their green aprons to make that number seem like small change. Some stores, including Starbucks, drop the dollar sign from their list of costs. Customers tend to “follow the path of least resistance” when it comes to their purchasing choices; subtle changes like leaving the dollar sign out and marking the price in a smaller font encourage buyers to focus on the product and not the price. It also helps to have prices that end in “9” or “5,” because people usually read prices from left to right, processing a $3.95 order as $3 instead of $4.

But, let’s face it, spending too much money on coffee is not an obscure problem. Even if they’ve never done the exact calculations of the amount leaving their bank account, most people realize that their coffee habit is costing a significant amount of money over time, and still don’t change their ways. The reason can’t be convenience–it takes more time to wait in line at a coffee shop than it does to wait for a pot to brew at home.

It comes down to our ability to weigh immediate gratification against future reward. The choice between immediate and delayed gratification is a war between emotion and logic. The emotional part of the brain, the ventral striatum, thinks about how tasty a vanilla latte would be, while the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, remembers how much the electric bill is this month. Deciding to delay gratification and pay the electric bill comes from the ability to project ourselves into the future–a skill that comes more easily to some people than others.

In the famous “marshmallow experiment,” researchers at Stanford University offered children a single marshmallow, a good hour in any child’s life. However, if they waited for just a few minutes, the researchers told them that they would receive two marshmallows. They left the marshmallow on the table in front of the children while they left the room. After the experiment, they followed the children throughout their school years, and found that the children who were able to resist eating the first marshmallow had better academic success and were less likely to become addicted to drugs than those who chose the immediate reward.

Although that information may be discouraging to people who spend $5 on coffee every day, there is hope. Our ability to delay gratification isn’t set in stone; many of the kids who ate the first marshmallow had learned to focus on future rewards by the time they were adults. With some practice and willpower, we can break our coffee habits and save money for our future needs.

I won’t count the trip I took to Starbucks this morning in the battle to break the latte habit–that was for research. Do you have any immediate gratification habits that you want to break?

It’s 7:46, and you’re running late for work. You’re caffeine-deprived and working on six hours of sleep. Your hair is still damp from the shower, and you’re trying to balance a travel mug of coffee in your hands while changing the station on the radio. There’s a crisis at work, again, and it’s waiting for you to be solved when you get to your destination. You’re merging onto the highway, and suddenly, a car cuts you off on the left, coming from nowhere at 78 miles per hour. You, a mature, responsible person, respond the only way that seems appropriate, with a slur of curse words and a laying on of the horn.

Everyone has given in to road rage at some point in their driving careers. What is it about the cushion of the car that turns considerate people into passive-aggressors bent on revenge? It could be that the vehicle provides us with a sense of anonymity that allows us to feel safe expressing our frustration.

Drivers tend to view their vehicles as an extension of themselves. We choose the make and design we want, we decorate them according to our own personalities, we fill them with the miscellanea that make up our day to day lives. When someone cuts us off on the road, we feel that they are wronging us, not our cars. However, unlike when someone acts aggressively toward us in real life, we have an extra 4,000 pounds we can use to assert our dominance. That feeling of power can cause a sense of competition on the road, encouraging drivers to try to maintain control.

If driving a two-ton weapon on wheels wasn’t enough to make us act a little more aggressively than usual, there is also the added factor of anonymity. We feel camouflaged by our vehicles and tinted windows, making it seem as if there will not be personal consequences for our actions. If anyone has ever clicked on the comments thread of a news article, they will be able to tell you that anonymity doesn’t always lead to level-headed responses to anger.

So the next time you’re feeling angry on the road, try to remember that there’s a person in the other car, probably feeling the same way that you do. Unless they’re tailgating you in traffic, of course; then all rules are off.

Do you have any road rage stories that you’ve survived?

It was a bloody night. The masked serial killer, wielding his weed whacker like a saber, made short work of the teenagers who stumbled into the dilapidated and abandoned cabin. After the last survivor, whose fear for her life made her forget to wear anything but underwear and a torn shirt, ran screaming through the woods, the credits rolled to an eery, instrumental theme. And you left the theater as giddy as a kid who just found his favorite toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

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He may be a killer, but no one can judge his commitment to lawn care maintenance.

I think it’s safe to say that getting hacked to bits by a stranger we picked up on the side of the road is a fantasy few of us share. In fact, our sense of safety occupies the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, landing one step above our need for food and sleep. So why do so many people spend their spare cash on vicarious thrills? It may be because of a cross in the fear and pleasure controls in the brain.

When we watch a horror movie, the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure located in the temporal lobe, is activated as if the events on screen are really happening to us. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotion, including both fear and pleasure. One theory suggests that when scary scenes trigger the amygdala, it responds with the mixed signals of both fear and enjoyment because of its shared circuitry. As if that wiring weren’t complicated enough, fear is also processed through the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center of the brain, releasing hormones that make it possible for you to feel both terrified and exhilarated.

But that doesn’t mean that we feel pleasure when involved in a truly dangerous situation. Fortunately for the audience’s blood pressure, the stimuli on screen are also reaching our prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that evaluates danger. While the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are working to process the emotional content of the film, the prefrontal cortex is working to make sure you know that the danger isn’t real, and that the axe-wielding maniac is just a character in a movie.

So when you’re sitting in the movie theater, whispering, “Don’t go in the basement!” to the character on screen, just sit back and let your amygdala enjoy the ride. Your prefrontal cortex will make sure you can still sleep that night.

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.)

Like many optimistic people with a little too much faith in themselves, I make New Year’s Resolutions. This year, for instance, I promised myself I would go to the gym, write that novel I’ve been planning for two years, and learn to play the piano. And I’m definitely going to keep them. Sure, since January, I’ve only gone to the gym about eight times, written thirty pages, and learned the beginning of Fur Elise on the keyboard, but there’s still plenty of time left. It’s only…wait a minute…is it really almost July? That can’t be right. Where did the time go?

Does walking up stairs count as exercise? Because I can probably round the number of gym trips to nine.

Time is a tricky thing. Although we mark the passing of dates on the calendar and hours on the clock, our perception of how much time has passed depends on our memory of the events in our lives. Our minds treat the passage of time as a series of experiences. We all have life goals we set for ourselves–learning a new instrument, finding a fulfilling relationship, finishing a special project. If we haven’t made any progress toward our goals, then it feels as if no time has passed since we we set them. When we actively try for the goals we want to achieve, time strolls briskly along; when our list of resolutions remains untouched, the interval of time stretches, waiting for us to do something that would fill it.

It doesn’t help that time seems to pass more quickly as we age. To a child, a year seems like a lifetime. Each day is filled with novel events that differentiate it from the rest of the year. As we get older, we start to perceive time as a percentage of the whole, making  a day seem like an hour and a year feel like a month in the grand view of our lives. Our days lack the new experiences and overt challenges that make each day seem separate from the last.

Last Thursday, Friday, and Monday.

But don’t feel too bad if you haven’t made progress on what you thought you would accomplish this year. According to our minds, next year should spring up in a couple of months from now, anyway.