Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Sweat pours into your eyes and pools under your shirt as you struggle through the last few minutes of a gut-busters exercise class. The blonde instructor with tabletop abs is cheerfully chanting numbers at you, counting down the fifteen squats you have to complete before you can rest. The forehead of the friend that dragged you to this exercise in torture is moisture-free as she zips through the instructor’s commands. The instructor gives a shout of encouragement and tells you that there are only eight squats left. You think you’re going to make it! Five more, she calls. Three more. As you sink down to do that last squat, the perky sadist hits you with, “Okay, ten more! You guys are doing great!” You should have just stayed on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.


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The face of betrayal.

If you’re plotting a complicated act of revenge involving yoga mats and a bottle of mineral water against the friend who brought you here, you should consider thanking her instead. In addition to helping to improve sleep and cardiovascular health, exercise helps to protect your mind against depression and anxiety. Exercise can even produce changes in the brain that make it able to better cope with stressful situations. These benefits can even take effect after just one trip to the gym, temporarily making a positive contribution to the exerciser’s level of anxiety, depression, and mood.

And the best part of this information is the new research that suggests exercise produces these mental benefits regardless of whether it’s voluntary or forced.To test this theory, researchers at the University of Colorado conducted an experiment to see if rats that were forced to exercise achieved the same benefits as the rats that exercised out of choice. They divided the rats into two groups—one that ran whenever they wanted, and another that ran on a fixed schedule that mimicked the pace of the first group. They found that the rats that were forced to exercise were still protected against stress and anxiety.

I guess this means I need to bury my grudge against the instructor at the gym. Apparently, she was there to help all along.

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?

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?

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?