Posts byPsych Your Mind

(Sample) Size Matters

On this blog and others, on twitter (@mwkraus), at conferences, and in the halls of the psychology building at the University of Illinois, I have engaged in a wealth of important discussions about improving research methods in social-personality psychology. Many prominent psychologists have offered several helpful suggestions in this regard.

I’m Using the New Statistics

Do you remember your elementary school science project? Mine was about ant poison. I mixed borax with sugar and put that mixture outside our house during the summer in a carefully crafted/aesthetically pleasing “ant motel.” My prediction, I think, was that we would kill ants just like in the conventional ant killing brands, but we’d

Why Do We Blame Victims?

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Juli. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on January 3, 2014. Two months ago Jonathan Martin, a football player on the Miami Dolphins, left the team due to mistreatment from teammates, which included receiving threatening phone messages from another player. The incident raised concerns about hazing within the NFL,

Pro Tip: Treat Graduate School Like a Job

I really enjoyed graduate school. I attended UC Berkeley’s social-personality psychology PhD program from 2004-2010 and the whole time I felt like a kid in a candy store. Sometimes my typical day included reading a book while lounging outside in the sun on Berkeley’s memorial glade. Other days I would spend several hours in a local coffee shop (the ORIGINAL PEET’S!!!!) writing a manuscript describing a study providing knowledge that no-one before me had produced. On still other days I would play pick-up basketball with a hilarious combination of former college basketball players and current Berkeley psychology professors. It’s a time in my life that I will always look back on fondly.

Of course I did also get a little bit of work done while I was in graduate school. I collected data obsessively, I wrote for 20-30 hours each week, I coded nonverbal behavior four hours a day for two
straight months during the summer of my second year (the first 60s of a getting acquainted interaction goes roughly the same for EVERY SINGLE college student), and I’ve read more textbooks on statistical analyses and hierarchical linear modeling than I care to admit, even to my colleagues.

I Went Open Access: The Story So Far

This past week, one of my graduate students and I published a paper at PLoS ONE, a leading open access journal (if you are interested in politics and economic inequality, I suggest you head over and check it out here). I’m not the first researcher (or psychologist) to use PLoS ONE as an outlet for my work, but it’s still a relatively new place for social/personality psychologists to publish their findings. Because of the “newness” of this whole venture, I thought it might be nice to tell you a bit about my experience, so far.
(1) Was the paper reviewed? Were the reviews fair?The paper was handled by an editor (whose name appears on the publication) and one expert reviewer. The paper itself went through two rounds of revision before it was accepted for publication. I thought the reviewer comments were fair and reasonable in all respects–we were primarily asked to situate our findings more completely in the existing literature. This meant adding a few more citations, mostly of classic research.
The reviewer also asked us to conduct a few more statistical analyses, some of which ended up in the final paper, while the rest ended up in the supplementary materials. All in all, I was left feeling quite positively about the whole process.

The psychology within the biggest news of 2013

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Kate Reilly Thorson. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on Jan 7, 2014.

2581640-new-year-2013As we ring in the new year, every major news outlet is publishing their “top” lists of 2013: the top movies, the top tweets, the top sports moments, the top medical breakthroughs, the top business blunders – the lists go on and on. To add a bit of psychology to this “top” list trend, in this post, I take the three top news stories of 2013 as chosen by’s readers and highlight what psychological research can contribute to each of them.

Look Everyone: A Social Priming Finding with Direct Replications!

Facebook_like_thumbIf you visit this blog occasionally (or follow me on twitter, because of course!) then you know that social psychology has come under criticism recently for its lack of integrity in research methods and the complete absence of exact replication. The criticism has been strongest with respect to a subfield in social psychology known as social priming. Social priming refers to a now classic psychological phenomenon where the activation of one social concept in memory can elicit changes in behavior, physiology, or self-reports of a related social concept without conscious awareness. Social priming has been used to explain why reading words related to elderly concepts (e.g., Florida, retire) can lead you to walk slower (although, this particular social priming finding does not replicate across different laboratories).

The criticism about social priming stems from (a) a growing number of high profile replication attempts of classic findings that failed, (b)the steady stream of fanciful/unbelievable social priming effects that appear in glamour psychology journals (e.g., messyrooms make people more creative), and (c) the inappropriate reactions of prominent social priming researchers to this scrutiny (e.g., criticizing the scientific integrity of replication attempts and the journals that publish those attempts). It’s been like watching a car wreck in super slow motion!

I have taken the criticism directed at social psychology, and social priming specifically, very personally over the last couple of years. This is because I consider myself (and still do) a social priming researcher. One of my graduate advisers is Serena Chen. She was trained at New York University, and one of her advisers there was John Bargh—the poster child of social priming. Bargh is basically an academic grandparent of mine. So, to see him attacked and then react to criticisms and failed replications so inappropriately is a little disconcerting for me and the field more broadly.

What Your Resistance to Halloween Candy Predicts About Your Life

halloweencandyThanks to , both kids and adults have a few more sweet treats on hand than normal. With a big bowl of candy sitting at home on the kitchen table or stashed in a desk drawer, many of us now face the annual challenge of eating our Halloween candy in moderation. Some of us will succeed; others won’t. We face situations like this constantly in life, where we are tasked with resisting temptations and overriding our impulses.  What might our responses to these situations reveal about the rest of our lives? Are we happy? Are we satisfied? To approach this question, let’s imagine a couple of eight-year olds and their new stashes of Halloween candy.

The Art of Constructive Self-Criticism

When we fail at something important to us, whether in relationships, at school, or at work, it can be very painful. These experiences can threaten the very core of who we think we are and who we want to be.

To cope with failure, we often turn to self-protective strategies. We rationalize what happened so that it places us in a more positive light, we blame other people, and we discount the importance of the event. These strategies may make us feel better about ourselves in the short term, but they are less likely to help us improve or avoid repeating our mistakes in the future. Research shows that people who have an overly inflated view of their performance on an academic task show decrements in subsequent motivation and performance, compared to people who view themselves more realistically. It makes sense: if you already think you’re great, it may feel like there’s no need to put the effort into improving yourself.

Taking an honest look at ourselves is, of course, easier said than done. Confronting our inner demons can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Determined to take responsibility, we may get carried away, blaming ourselves for far more than our share and beating ourselves up emotionally. Although many people believe that being hard on themselves will make them better people, research does not support this belief: self-criticism has been shown to increase procrastination and rumination, and impede goal progress. If you already feel worthless and incompetent, you may feel like there’s no point in even trying to do better next time.

Whether your M.O. is to build yourself up or put yourself down, it’s all about self-judgment. The focus is on, am I good person or a bad person? It’s easy to lose sight of questions that are more likely to get us somewhere, like how did this happen, and how can I avoid letting it happen again? What does it take to get out of the trap of self-judgment? Research from the field of social psychology offers some useful perspectives.

A Single Factor Model for Success in Graduate School

sleeping-studentIf you’ve come to the internet more than once, then you know that blogs often discuss the difficulties of coming out of graduate school with a tenure track faculty appointment in psychology or other fields (here and here). For those of you out there considering a research career at a major university–keep in mind that it’s not for everyone. PYM has also tried its hand at one or two lists of traits needed to succeed in graduate school. These lists have been inspired by others. Together, success lists make it seem like graduate success is a product of a number of personality factors and situational variables that people have very little control over.

But, what if I told you that success in graduate school is much simpler than considering all these complex person X situation interactions? What if whether you sink or swim is really just about one key ingredient? Today I present a single factor model for success in graduate school!

As you can see if you dig in to the links listed above, most lists of graduate school success have personality requirements (is conscientious), aptitude requirements (not dumb), and contextual wildcards (adviser not crazy?). I think that these features can all be very important for making someone a good researcher and academic. But I also think that there is something that supersedes all these: INTEREST.

That’s right, just plain old doughy-eyed interest: In my view, finding enjoyment, fascination, and joy in doing all the activities of research and its related components is the key to success in graduate school. Being interested can help a graduate student read through a whole stack of research articles, can keep a student focused and precise even in the face of tedious repetitive tasks (e.g., scoring of physiological data), and can allow a student to write, write, and revise a manuscript that they have been working on for days/weeks/months/years.

External Validity and Believability in Experiments

monkey1Imagine for a moment that you are an experiment participant in a dystopian future university thirty years from now. At birth, you were taken from your natural parents and assigned to two robotic parental unit alternatives. The first unit is cold and metal, it has a big frowny face, and all it’s good for is dispensing the occasional hot meal through its midriff. The second unit provides no food, but this unit is fashioned with a luxurious coat of fine fur that feels warm to the touch.

Months pass as you are raised by these two robotic parental units. As you descend further and further into madness, every move you make is video recorded by a pair of enterprising future psychologists who are seeking an answer to one question: Will you spend more time with the cold, metal, food-dispensing robot or the furry one? Surprisingly, though the metal robot fulfills your metabolic needs, the researchers are fascinated to find that you spend most of your time with the furry mother surrogate.

What do results from an experiment such as this (famously conducted by Harry Harlow on monkey’s in the 1950’s) tells us about the nature of social relationships, love, and survival? Do they tell us anything about the human/monkey experience? Or are the conditions of the experiment so artificial in nature, that they obscure our ability to draw insights about basic psychology? I consider these questions in today’s post.

I. The importance of external validity

If the above hypothetical study had been covered by a blog or news outlet, you can pretty easily predict the comments following the summary of the research (which, by the way, you shouldn’t read). They would involve critiques of the study that include things like: “This study is nonsense, I can’t believe they used taxpayer money to fund this research?” or how about “Another flawed psychology study using university students.” or even “Since when do people get raised by robots. Useless!”

Why “Never Give Up” is a Bad Motto


“Never give up” has become one of the most popular pieces of advice in Western culture. It’s not popular with me, though. I do agree that persistence in the face of obstacles is necessary, important, and admirable. Many worthwhile goals require serious commitment and perseverance in order to achieve them. The problem with this advice is that at some point in our lives, we all have goals that are unattainable, and this is where “never give up” falls short. When faced with an unattainable goal, giving up and trying something else might be a better course of action than continuing to try again and again. We have a precious, limited amount of time, energy, and other resources, and there may be times when these are better directed at a new goal.

In psychology, we refer to “giving up” as disengagement and to “trying something else” as reengagement. When a goal is unattainable, some of us have stronger tendencies than others to disengage and then reengage. It’s easy to think of people who have a tendency to give up as being weak or depressed. However, research shows that is not the case! When goals are unattainable, the tendencies to disengage and then reengage are actually associated with higher subjective well-being. Let’s take a look.

The Psychology of the “Psychology Isn’t a Science” Argument

Tom knows a pseudoscience when he sees one! (

Every so often the internet is set ablaze with opinion pieces on a familiar question: Are “soft” sciences, like psychology, actually science? Most of the time the argument against psychology as a science comes from people from the so-called harder sciences (you know, people who don’t know ish about psychology). Of course, every once in a while we throw ourselves under the bus by declaring that for our softer sciences to be taken seriously, we must be more like the real sciences. You’re still reading this so most likely you are interested in my opinion on this topic. With a quick nod to others who have covered this topic hereherehere, and here, let’s review some of the arguments for and against psychology as a science in what follows . . .

When The Green-Eyed Monster Strikes: The Best Antidotes to Envy


Life is full of reminders of what we lack, usually in the form of other people. There is always someone who is more successful, more talented, more attractive, or more advanced in meeting important “milestones” than we are. We encounter these people every day–in fact, they are often our friends, family members, and colleagues. Sometimes these encounterscan leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths, or a green glow in our eyes, that familiar sting of envy. Defined as a state of desiring something that someone else possesses, envy is a vicious emotion that can crush self-esteem, inspire efforts to undermine others’ successes, or even cause people to lash out violently. It also just feels horrible. So what can we do to disarm the green-eyed monster when it strikes?

Ampelmann: A traffic sign turned cult figure

During the past month, I have been living in Germany and conducting research at the University of Hamburg. It has been an amazing opportunity! I visited Berlin last weekend and came across a pretty unique phenomenon: a city-wide obsession with a traffic sign! It seemed like everywhere I went, I saw stores dedicated to selling merchandise featuring the “Ampelmann” (translated as “traffic light man” in German) and restaurants selling food in the shape of the Ampelmann. Berliners love him, and even celebrities like Dennis Quaid have been spotted rocking Ampelmann t-shirts. How do you get a traffic signal to become a cult figure? You ask a psychologist to design it, of course! Though the Ampelmann wasn’t intended to be such a beloved and popular symbol of Berlin, its story is a fun look at how psychology is behind even the simplest and most mundane aspects of life.

In East Berlin in 1961, Karl Peglau, a traffic psychologist was hired to design a new traffic symbol. As a traffic psychologist, he had been researching the prevention of traffic accidents. At the time in East Berlin, road accidents were becoming more common, and the East German government was looking for an easy way to make travel safer. Peglau’s research had led him to conclude that different modes of transport – driving a car, riding a bike, walking – should be directed separately. Peglau suggested that a new system of traffic signs should be created, including a separate light that would only direct pedestrians. The government liked his suggestion, and he began to design the now-famous Ampelmann.

The Trouble with Destiny: Relationships Take Work

couple_heartIf I could give one piece of advice as a relationships researcher, it would be this: Relationships take work. Sure we’d all like to believe in destiny, thinking there is someone out there who is mean for us. Then when we find our soul mate, we will slip into an easy and comfortable companionship that provides us with decades of endless laughter and joy, and not a single fight or tense moment. But that is the stuff of dreams, people. Of course there will be times of joy greater than you imagined and laughter that brings you to tears, and those moments should far outweigh the fights and tension. But to believe that you are destined to be with one person and when you find the right relationship for you, it will be one that doesn’t take work, well that belief may be detrimental for your relationship.

In a great test of what happens when people believe they are “meant to be”, close relationships researcher C. Raymond Knee looked at the extent to which people held  or Growth Beliefs, and the consequences of these beliefs for their relationships.

Four (Wrong) Ways To Interpret Links Between Genes and Education

DNA Science published a neat little paper examining links between specific human DNA sequences and educational attainment. The paper, which is a bit shorter than the list of authors who worked on the project, examined a total sample of more than 120,000 participants who had their entire genome sequenced for a number of small clusters of repeating nucleotides (single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs). They then examined all the SNPs and their associations with the level of educational attainment of each of the participants in the sample. After controlling for bias, in that a genome wide study performs thousands of significance tests, three SNPs emerged as significant predictors of educational attainment.

I find this study very interesting because there are a number of provocative ways to interpret the results of this study, and most of those would be incorrect! In what follows, I highlight four (wrong) ways to interpret the results of this study.

Psychology At the Movies: Essentialist Musings in Man of Steel

mosYesterday, my spouse and I dropped our newborn daughter off with Grandma and then popped over to the local theater to see this summer’s much anticipated comic-book blockbuster Man of Steel. By any standard, Man of Steel is exceptionally light when it comes to philosophical musings: The plot is predictably linear–good guys fight bad guys who are trying to kill them. At first glance, it may seem like a stretch to write an entire blog entry (for a psychology blog) about the film, given this simple plot design. But, in between the explosions–and there were MANY explosions–the bad guys turned out to be motivated by some very simple psychological principles. Spoilers Ahead!

This is NOT advice for first year faculty


Hello again, PYM readers. It is now June and I just finished my first full academic year as a faculty member at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Chambana). Having just passed through the rabbit hole, I have returned mostly unscathed to blog a bit about my experience. As this is just my first year, I don’t have any advice that will help others who are transitioning to professor-hood, rather, this post reflects some of the things that I think people (like me) deal with during their transition to a new faculty job. Onward!

Searching for happiness: What makes life meaningful?

Recently I’ve been contemplating giving up on the modern world and moving to a cabin in the woods. I mean – what is with all of this technology, the 50+ hour work week, and guilt over the simple pleasures like spending time with friends and family on the weekends? Maybe I would be able to feel happier and more fulfilled if I turned my back on the world of today and instead started living a simple life. After all, despite the fact that technology has made our lives easier over the past century, people do not report being happier than they were before smart phones, computers, and the internet.

Picture it – a cabin in the woods next to a gurgling river, a garden out back with beautiful flowers and delicious produce, a feeling of being close to nature, like my ancestors. More time for important social interactions, which are really at the heart of a meaningful life. No more random interneting or hours spent ignoring my husband in favor of my smart phone. Instead I’ll spend my days doing meaningful things, going to bed with the setting sun and sleeping as much as I need. Really, imagine it. Don’t you all want to come and join me in the woods?

Group gender composition: Does it matter?


When I was younger, I can remember being split into teams in gym class and different tables in art class and having one question: how many girls and how many boys are in my group? Depending on the activity, it seemed important to know this so you could assess your chances for success. More boys on your team, and you might be more likely to win dodgeball. More girls at your art table, and you might paint a better mural.

An adult might have told me that was silly – how many boys vs. girls were in my group didn’t matter. However, recent research suggests that the gender composition of a group does matter. Though it doesn’t matter in terms of impacting actual performance, it can influence how group members think about one another and about their group as a whole. Because I love research that examines people in their natural (or somewhat natural) environments when they are interacting with other people, let’s take a look at how the researchers demonstrated this.

SWAG: Racial bias in pain perception

Tom Brady is no stranger to pain (source)

Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week’s seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

This week in SWAG we read an article about racial biases in perceptions of others’ pain. The American medical field has a long history of racial bias (Note: I think if you switched the words “medical field” with almost any other field, the sentence would be factually accurate. For example, “mathematics field” or “psychology field” but not “magnetic field”). American blacks tend to be diagnosed less accurately by medical staff than whites, to receive less optimal health care, and to be cared for less intimately. The authors, led by Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia, wondered about the source of this racial bias. They reasoned that it might arise in part from a belief that low status groups experience less pain than other groups in society. Blacks and other traditionally low status groups in America are perceived as having overcome greater hardships throughout their lives. As a result of contending with, and overcoming these hardships, low status groups are perceived to experience less pain than their more advantaged counterparts—their tough circumstances have made them tougher. This racial bias in pain perception is theorized to underlie the black-white treatment gap in medicine.

The daddy chronicles: what happened to my testosterone?

Zoë at two weeks

I’m not sure how many of you know this, but on March 19th of this year I became a new daddy. It’s hard to describe the meaning of this event and its impact on my life, but here is a useful comparison that might put things into perspective: My dissertation was accepted for publication on the same day that my daughter was born and despite the near month passing, I still haven’t filed the publication forms for the paper. Fatherhood changes the way I see the world in radical ways!

And yet, despite knowing the changes that fatherhood has brought on in my own life, I was still shocked to read about this little finding published in 2011 by Gettler and colleagues–fatherhood reduces testosterone… a lot.

The logic for decreases in testosterone following parenthood in males is fairly straightforward. Testosterone, as we have discussed on this blog, is related to a number of behaviors that can be considered aggressive and dominant. Some of these behaviors increase the likelihood that men will fight for scarce resources and contest status disputes between individuals. Physiologically, testosterone also contributes to musculature and libido, two characteristics that play a role in either the likelihood that males will seek out mating opportunities or be chosen as desirable mates by others.

SWAG: Video games and violence


Every Wednesday afternoon, Michael Kraus gathers with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week’s seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG). This week, SWAG was led by Jesse Preston, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Her summary of the SWAG discussion follows below:

Can playing violent video games cause violent behavior? After the massacre at Columbine, it was revealed that the shooters spent much of their free time playing Doom, and James Holmes, who shot 71 people in a theatre in Aurora Colorado, was also an avid gamer. High profile cases like these seem to confirm the belief many people already hold – that the simulated violence enacted in these games is projected into the real world, with real life and death consequences. Many studies in social psychology (see work by Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman) also support the conclusion that violent video games beget violent behavior. But in a 2011 case (Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was not convinced. This week in SWAG, we read an article by Christopher J. Ferguson in American Psychologist, describing the SCOTUS decision and the role of social psychology research in making the case against video games.

When telling others about your goals compromises them


As you think ahead about what you want to accomplish in the next few months and years, you probably have several goals that involve you “becoming” something – like a good athlete or a good doctor. These are called “identity goals” because they are goals to achieve a certain identity, and they can be attained by engaging in identity-relevant activities, like training for a marathon or going to medical school. In order to enact these behaviors, we might tell others about them – “Hey, I’m going to run a marathon this year!” or “Yay! I’m headed to med school in the fall!” Maybe we have the sense that telling others about our intended actions will help us complete them, and subsequently, help us get closer to reaching our eventual identity goals. However, in this post, I am going to describe evidence showing that this is not the case: telling others about our plans for identity-relevant activities can hinder our accomplishment of them.

5 ways gratitude can backfire

Gratitude is good. Good for your health and well-being. Good for your relationships. In fact, I’ve written about the benefits of gratitudehereherehere, andhere. But is gratitudealways good? No. Although a focus on appreciating what you have instead of lamenting what you have-not is generally good advice, gratitude is not a panacea. Here are a few ways in which gratitude may be the wrong prescription:

1.       Overdosing on gratitude. 

When it comes to keeping track of your gratitude, the adage “more is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. If you set too high of a goal for your gratitude, you may find yourself falling short, which paradoxically could leave you feeling less grateful and happy than if you hadn’t tracked your gratitude at all. In a study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who wrote tracked their gratitude three times per week were not. If you find yourself hesitating when putting pen to paper, you may begin to think your life isn’t that good or you don’t have that much to be grateful for. If that is the case, take a step back and focus on quality over quantity.

How to end a bad relationship for good

Sometimes we find ourselves in relationships that make us miserable more than they make us happy, relationships that we know in our hearts are not right, yet still have a hold on us. If this sounds like you, or someone you care about, here are some research-based strategies you may not have considered before for ending it for good and getting on with your life.

1. Don’t mistake addiction for love. This is tricky because, neurochemically speaking, the two are very similar–studies have shown that when romantic partners who are intensely in love are exposed to photographs of their beloved, the brain regions that become activated are the same regions that are activated in cocaine addicts when they are craving cocaine. But even if love has some addiction-like qualities, healthy love is likely to involve other qualities as well, such as respect, trust, and commitment, qualities that keep a relationship strong even on those days when excitement and passion are not at the forefront. Addictive love, by contrast, tends to be more singularly focused on attaining those “highs,” whatever the cost. Partners whose behavior is unpredictable (e.g., they don’t call when they say they will), are, unfortunately, especially likely to keep you hooked, since their inconsistent affection keeps you on your toes and wanting more. If you are trying to break free from a relationship that feels more like an addiction than a loving bond,  one strategy is to reframe your thoughts and emotions about that person as if they are cold, clinical biological processes in order to gain a healthy distance from them. For example, after a week of not calling Mr. or Ms. Wrong, you feel a wave of longing in your chest and think, “But I really do love him/her… I should call him/her right now…” Instead, you could notice that sensation and tell yourself, “Interesting, there goes my caudate nucleus releasing dopamine and producing a sensation of longing. Okay, back to work.”

PYM enters the terrible twos!

Two years ago today, this blog was born. Thanks to you, PYM readers, this once tiny blog venture has been an overwhelming success–both in terms of outreach, and I think, in terms of fun (at least for the bloggers)! Let’s check out some of the PYM blog stats after the jump.

As  I said, the outreach on the blog has increased considerably since our initial post (507 total views). Today the grand total of visitors to the blog has exceeded 664,000–more than 400,000 of which occurred this year. Our most popular post (Amie’s piece on nutrition viewed 44,422 times) has received a sizable share of these views. The most popular blog entry this year was Kate’s piece on evacuating before storms (already viewed4,721 times). The growth of the blog has been largely due to our more than 300 twitter followers and 650 blog subscribers!

SWAG: the American choice fixation

Yes. I Exist! (source)

Every Wednesday afternoon, I gather with a bunch of faculty and graduate students at the University of Illinois to discuss a journal article about social psychology, and to eat a snack. This blog post reflects the discussion we had during this week’s seminar affectionately called Social Wednesdays and Grub (SWAG).

Right before our SWAG meeting this week, I attended a laboratory meeting of a colleague here at the University of Illinois. One of the graduate students at the meeting was drinking a caffeine free, diet Mountain Dew (they exist). The faculty member questioned this student, asking what many of us were probably thinking, “What is the point of drinking diet, caffeine free Mountain Dew?” In this case, the student was expected to deliver (and delivered) a reasoned response for why he had made that particular dietary choice. The student’s choice in this example was thought of, by the rest of us, as a defining feature of his unique social self (i.e., drinking diet, caffeine free Mountain Dew tells us a bit about what kind of person the student is).

Psych Your Mind at the Oscars


If you follow all the goings-on in Hollywood, you almost certainly watched the 85th Academy Awards last Sunday. If you didn’t, I would be surprised if you have paid attention to the news this week without seeing at least one mention of the best and worst dressed, Jennifer Lawrence’s fall, or Seth MacFarlane’s performance as host. While the gowns and all the famous people in one room may have caught your attention the most, if we move beyond all of the glamour and drama surrounding the Academy Awards, this event is actually a great display of a number of psychological phenomena. In today’s post, I’ll take a look at four of them.



Of course we observe lots of gratitude in action at awards shows. Some people just give one giant thank you to the world, while others seem to rattle off as many names as they can during their short time onstage. Thanking others is definitely the socially acceptable route to follow during one’s acceptance speech, but hopefully much of the gratitude expressed is also genuinely experienced. As at least one of Amie’s posts has addressed, feeling grateful for others is associated with greater relationship satisfaction on the part of both the thanker and the receiver. It’s also associated with advantages outside of relationships, like greater happiness and optimism and fewer physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. Perhaps we should all have awards shows at our jobs to prompt us to experience gratitude and subsequently reap its benefits!

Have your cake and eat it, too! Practical reform in social psychology

The cake we can (1) have, and (2) eat!

If you have been following recent headlines in the social sciences then you are aware that the field of social psychology has been in some rough water over the past three years. In this time period, we’ve had our flagship journal publish a series of studies providing evidence that ESP exists (and then refuse to publish non-replications of these studies). We’ve suffered through at least three instances of scientific fraud perpetrated by high profile researchers who engaged in egregious scientific misconduct. We’ve had an entire popular area of research come under attack because researchers have failed to replicate its effects. And several respected members of the science community have had some harsh words to say about the discipline and its methods.

Listing all of these events in succession makes me feel a bit ashamed to call myself a social psychologist. Clearly our field has been lacking both oversight and leadership if all of this could happen in such a brief period. Now, I’m not one to tuck my tail between my legs. Instead, I’ve decided to look ahead. I think there are relatively simple changes that social psychologists (even ones without tenure) can make in their research that can shore up our science going forward.

Do it for future you


It’s only a month and a half into the New Year, and most of us have already abandoned our New Year’s resolutions. We had the best of intentions, but our intentions only got us so far, and eventually we fell back into our old habits–eating and drinking too much, exercising and sleeping too little. Why are we so bad at this?

There are a number of reasons for our difficulty with New Year’s Resolutions and other efforts to make positive changes in our lives. For example, our goals are often unrealistic or vague, we give up too easily when we have setbacks, and we have a tendency to “bask in projected glory”–research suggests that when we announce lofty goals and envision ourselves accomplishing them, we become less motivated to pursue these goals in reality because we feel, in some sense, that we’re already there.

In addition to these obstacles, we may also be hindered by an inability to see our future selves–the ones who will suffer the consequences of the poor decisions we make today–as us. Rather, we tend to see them as different people altogether, people whose happiness is less important than the happiness of our present selves.

To have and to thank: gratitude helps us hold onto our relationships

I had one goal when I started graduate school five years ago – to understand why some romantic relationships thrive while others fail. I also had one primary hypothesis – relationships fail when partners begin to take each other for granted. And I thought: if taking each other for granted is the poison, maybe gratitude is the antidote.

Back when I started, few people were talking about gratitude. Today it is everywhere, and for good reason. A decade of burgeoning research has highlighted the myriad benefits of gratitude for physical and mental well-being. And we’ve found that gratitude is good in large part because it helps us create and hold onto our close relationships.

In research by Sara Algoe and colleagues, grateful couples were more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other  (see this post for the details of their findings). And in our research, we found that the more grateful participants were, the more likely they were to still be in their relationships nine months later.

Mom’s the boss at home – but is it good for her?


I often say that becoming a mom has made me a stronger feminist than any class, book, or essay I took or read at my small liberal arts college. More and more, I have been noticing the explicit and implicit ways that all women, but especially those with children, get excluded from positions of power in organizations. Meanwhile, I have seen many strong, intelligent, and admirable female friends change or leave their careers to accommodate families. All this makes me wonder, if the battle is so hard and the rewards at home are so great,  would running a house be as satisfying as running a lab? There are plenty of differences between the life of a “career woman” and a “stay at home mom” and I firmly believe that unless and until a woman has tried both, she should not judge or surmise what those differences are – however she can wonder. I, myself, wonder about the sense of empowerment that comes with each choice.

New Year’s resolutions: Are you suffering from decision and willpower fatigue?

Why is it that at the beginning of January, we’re able to keep our New Year’s Resolutions—hitting the gym regularly, drinking less alcohol, wasting fewer hours on Facebook, following a budget or a diet—but our willpower wears off as the month wears on? Similarly, how come at 9am, 10am, and 1pm, we easily walk by a tantalizing plate of brownies someone left in the lunchroom at work—but at 4pm, we give in and eat six?
Psychology researchers who study willpower have discovered the phenomenon of ego depletion, a condition of low mental energy that can lead to poor self-control and poor choices. Rather than thinking through decisions and making smart choices, the ego-depleted brain resorts to one of two strategies: a) recklessly obeying impulses, or b) avoiding decisions by sticking to the status quo.

It’s not hard to see that ego depletion isn’t helpful when it comes to keeping our New Year’s resolutions–but what causes it?

Sour in the Sun? Three unexpected ways the weather may affect your mood

Warm Weather = Happy Amie

Last weekend I returned from the tropics to find myself outside the San Francisco airport basically barefoot in sub-40 degree weather. As I stood there shivering in disbelief, the shock to my system made me wonder about the effect of the  weather on my mood and well-being. Like Kate, I often find myself a little more blue as winter progresses and the sun sets early in the day. But in what other ways might the weather be affecting how we feel from one day to the next? Some of what I found surprised me. Below I detail three unexpected (at least to me!) ways in which the weather may be influencing your mood…

Summer can sour your mood. Just because there is a lot of sunshine in the summer doesn’t mean it is the time when people are the happiest. In one study, rates of depression and sadness among the general population of the Netherlands were highest in the summer and fall. In a separate line of research, although participants’ moods tended to become more positive as the weather became more pleasant in the springtime, in the summer, hotter weather was associated with being in a more negative mood. Heat is also associated with increased aggression. So when you find yourself feeling sad, grouchy, or wanting to punch someone in the middle of summer, try taking a weekend trip to somewhere cool.

The secret to flourishing? Science says it’s in the numbers

Flourishing is in the numbers

When it comes to human flourishing, science is getting pretty specific. Over the course of our daily lives, we have a variety of positive and negative experiences. And I think most of us would agree that we are likely to be happiest when we maximize the positive and minimize the negative. But researchers suggest that it is not just about having more positive and less negative in our lives – it is the ratio of positive to negative that matters.

So what is that magical ratio? At or above 3:1. Researchers Fredrickson and Losada tracked people’s daily experiences over the course of a month and found that people who are flourishing (as opposed to languishing) report experiencing at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions in their daily lives.

What is Charisma?

Did charisma win the 2012 election?

In some of PYM’s election coverage, Amie cited an example of the incredible influence television has over voters’ conceptions of political figures: the famous debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. In this debate, Kennedy was the clear victor; not only was he calm and collected, but he also was said to have displayed “charisma,” an attribute that people widely believe makes politicians into effective leaders.

What is charisma?

Charisma is hard to define as a personality trait, but despite this difficulty, scholars have attempted to define charisma for centuries. The first definition might have been offered by Max Weber, a 19th century German sociologist, who claimed charisma as “a certain quality of an individual’s personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities” (Merolla, Ramos & Zechmeister, 2007). In Weber’s terms, charisma seems to be the type of personality that increases others’ tendency to view the self as “larger than life.”

Can mindfulness make you happier?

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are hot trends in clinical psychology right now. What’s all the buzz about?

Mindfulness refers to a state of mind characterized by awareness and attention in the present moment, and by an accepting, curious, and non-judgmental attitude. A Buddhist concept now integrated into secular psychology and medicine, mindfulness is being cultivated by everyone from chronic pain patients to stressed out executives, often through courses in mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction.

The idea behind modern mindfulness training is that we can decrease stress and increase well-being by changing our relationship to our experience. Mindfulness means being present no matter what we’re doing, and being aware and curious about what’s going on inside and around us–without judgement. It means accepting experience, even when we don’t like it, and it means knowing that, often, everything is truly okay—right this minute—and doesn’t need to change. The application of these concepts in everyday life helps limit some of our most ubiquitous mental health scourges, including sleep-walking through our days without really connecting with anyone or anything; the rote pursuit of questionable habits or routines; distracting categorization of every situation or experience as good or bad; and focusing on the past or the future at the expense of the present.

Your Thanksgiving Table – The Political Metaphor


This week, I’d like to follow up on Michael’spost about the ways that our parents’ attitudes shaped our political ideals.

A recent study (Fraley, Griffin, Belsky & Roisman, 2012) has found that parents who tend to believe in authoritarian parenting raise kids more likely to be conserve. Those that have egalitarian parenting attitudes tend to have kids who are liberal.

As you fly home and think about your parents’ strict or relaxed styles, I’d like to ask how it is that parents help shape our core values.

Is there a feminine side to dominance?

Is there a female dominance hormone? (source)

When it comes to research on the hormonal correlates of dominance behaviors, what becomes clear is that males have garnered considerable attention within this sphere. As Michael mentioned in a previous post, testosterone (an androgen which is produced in the testes in men and the adrenal gland in both men and women), is linked to dominance in men.

What about women?

Research that has examined potential links between testosterone and dominance in women has been inconclusive. Most of this work has examined gender differences in risk-taking behavior associated with testosterone. Increased risk taking is associated with dominance behavior—given that risk-taking behavior tends to attract the attention of others, thereby enhancing an individual’s perceived status. In research by Paola Sapienza’s (2009), of Northwestern University, men and women with similar levels of testosterone, showed no differences in risk-taking behavior—such as choosing a high-risk financial career like investment banking.

Despite this single result, most of the research on the correlation between testosterone and dominance in women is inconsistent (Stanton & Schultheiss, 2007). Researchers reason that this inconsistency is due, in part, to the fact that women simply do not produce as much testosterone as men do. Thus, studies like Sapienza’s on risk-taking behavior may show similar testosterone findings in women with similar levels of testosterone as males. Recent research has moved towards an examination of other biological factors besides testosterone that may play a role in dominance motivation in women…perhaps even a“testosterone equivalent.”

Gender Bias in Academics Continued: An Experimental Test in the Hard Sciences

Why are women underrepresented in the STEM fields?

A recent advisory council to the President concluded that at the current rate of training scientists and engineers, we will have a deficit of 1,000,000 workers over the next decade. The council suggests that one way to close this gap is to increase training and retention of women. Women are drastically underrepresented in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Some people have suggested that this underrepresentation is due to women opting out of these jobs in order to stay home with their families. However, a new study provides compelling evidence that these differences could be due to the pervasive cultural stereotype that women are less competent in these fields than men.

At the end of my last post on gender bias in letters of recommendation, I wondered what other incidences of gender bias I had been missing throughout the years. Well, not long after, I came across this new study highlighting another incident of gender bias in academics. In this study, women were rated as less worthy of hiring for a lab manager position in the hard sciences than men. Unlike the study on letters of recommendation, this study actually uses an experimental manipulation. Participants saw the exact same job application; the only difference was whether the applicant was named “John” or “Jennifer.”

In short, this group of professors asked faculty members at six research-intense universities to help undergraduates by providing feedback on their applications. The 127 faculty members who participated in the study were from the fields of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. The researchers concentrated on these fields for two main reasons. First, because women are underrepresented in these fields, and decades of research have shown that people hold stereotypes that women are not as good at the hard sciences as men. Second, faculty members in these fields are trained to be objective, suggesting that they may be less likely to rely on stereotypes when making these decisions.

Writing your way to better health


Try to recall the last time you were angry, depressed, or anxious. What did you want to do with those feelings? There is a good chance you had an urge to text your best friend, post a Facebook status update, or write in your journal. We often want to get things off our chest and prevent them from festering inside of us. If we pick the right outlet, disclosing our emotions can help us feel better in the moment. Furthermore, there’s evidence that emotional disclosure through writing can improve mental and physical health outcomes months and even years later.

Psychologist James Pennebaker is well-known for his work on expressive writing and has conducted an impressive program of research outlining the benefits that emotional disclosure can have. They include lower self-reported distress and depression, improved immune functioning, fewer doctor’s office visits, and even increases in GPAs. Perhaps most relevant to today’s economic situation, in a study of recently-unemployed individuals, people who wrote about their emotions regarding their job loss got new jobs faster than those who wrote about non-emotional events or did not write at all!

For the Love of Humanity: The Psychology of Thinking Globally


When was the last time you thought about the fact that you are a member of the human species? For most of us, this aspect of our identity is not front and center. More relevant are things like gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political party, sports team affiliations, and all of our other group memberships, large and small. Not only do we stake our identity and often also our sense of self-worth in these groups, but we tend to be more helpful towards those who belong to them, often at the expense of those who do not. A significant minority of people, however, seem less concerned with group distinctions. For example, while many turned a blind eye, some individuals risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. In interviews conducted by Kristen Renwick Monroe for her book, The Heart of Altruism, many of these individuals described a sense of common humanity, or “belonging to one human family.” By contrast, those who did not offer help were less likely to possess this feeling of expanded kinship.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Sam McFarland, Matthew Webb, and Derek Brown developed a new scale for measuring individual differences in this attribute, the Identification With All Humanity scale (IWAH). The scale involves a series of questions assessing the degree to which someone identifies with “all humans everywhere” (“identifying” includes things like feeling love toward, feeling similar to, and believing in), independent of how much they identify with people in their own community and country. They then examined how scores on this measure relate to various personality traits and behaviors. Here are some highlights from the findings.READ MORE ARTICLES

Science Utopia (Continued): Methods Integrity Workshop

“Winter is coming.” –Ned Stark/Greg Francis

On Friday afternoon I attended a seminar in methods integrity in research (here). The speakers were Hal Pashler of UC San Diego and Greg Francis of Purdue University. In the seminar, the speakers raised a number of interesting points that I think add to last week’s post on PYM about questionable research practices (here). I’ll summarize the main points that I took from the seminar:

Hal Pashler was the first speaker. He discussed the important distinction between direct replication and conceptual replication. For those who aren’t familiar with the distinction, while a direct replication tries to recreate an experiment exactly as it was conducted, a conceptual replication tries to recreate an original researcher’s effect after changing a bunch of the conditions of the research.

Pashler argues that the incentives in place to reward replication research strongly favor the publication of conceptual replication and the total neglect of direct replication. The logic of this argument is elegant: If a researcher runs a direct replication experiment and it doesn’t yield a significant finding, then the researcher feels some combination of negative emotions, and perhaps grumbles to his/her colleagues about the lack of replication. If however, a research runs a direct replication and it works, the researcher feels good about the phenomenon, but there is no real place to publish that replication because most journals tend to favor novelty (although you could publish at Pashler’s Psychfiledrawer website).

For a conceptual replication, the conditions are different. Running a conceptual replication that does not work is not all that disconcerting. After, the researchers changed a bunch of things in their new design, so any one of those unsystematic changes could have caused the non-replication. These changes leave faith in the original research unchallenged. In addition, if a researcher runs a successful conceptual replication, well, that research can be published in the best journals of our field. The result of these conditions is our field undervaluing direct replication work and overvaluing conceptual replication.